(n.b.: this story has been posted in three parts due to its length)

cake

by Martha

soulcake@bellsouth.net

 

"Today has just been the icing on a very bad cake."
Fred Angelone to Jim Ellison, Private Eyes

 

1: casade, washington (tuesday afternoon)

OK, so maybe it was a crazy way to try and stay sane, but you know something? You go with whatever works. He'd known that all his life, really, and the last couple of years had simply driven the point home. Whatever you've gotta do, man. Whatever it takes.

Blair shifted his armload of books to the other side. He was trying to figure out why Jim hadn't liked dinner last night, because right now, that worked. As long as he kept thinking about Jim's dinner as though it were the only thing that mattered in the entire universe, he had a fighting chance of getting through this.

Oh, he realized suddenly. The rosemary.

That was it. Had to be. Everything else had been exactly the same, as close as he could make it, anyway. The same kind of onions, the same kind of olive oil, walnut pieces from the same bag in the cabinet, the rest of the package of linguine Blair had used the first time.

But it had been a week, maybe a week and a half since the first time he made that recipe, and all that time, the few leftover sprigs of rosemary had been sitting in a ziplock baggie in the bottom of the fridge. The rosemary had seemed fresh enough when Blair rubbed one of the leaves between his thumb and forefinger to release the fragrance -- sure, it had seemed fresh enough, but surprise, surprise, you're not the sentinel around here, are you?

Poor Jim. The man had known something wasn't quite right the minute he walked in the door. Blair had seen the look of puzzlement on his face. Jim was smiling, but he seemed ever so slightly confused. No doubt, Blair thought in retrospect, because he'd been trying to figure out why something that ought to smell delicious ... didn't.

"You making that walnut spaghetti stuff again, Chief?"

"Well, yeah. Is that all right?" Blair had asked, wiping a drop of olive oil off his laptop. He probably shouldn't try to work while he was cooking, but he'd really intended to get his syllabus written before dinner. "You seemed to like it OK when I made it last time, so I just thought --"

"Great," Jim said, relaxing into a full smile. "No, you're right, it was good. Just lemme take a load off for five minutes, and I'll set the table." And he hadn't said another word about it. Ate maybe half of the serving Blair had heaped on his plate, then apologized, saying he'd had two burgers plus chili fries for lunch, and was still a little full.

Right, Jim. Like I've ever seen you turn down food before.

Blair groaned, brought back to the present by the weight in his arms. These damn textbooks were about to give him permanent curvature of the spine, and it looked as though the line at the cash register hadn't moved five feet in the past half hour. Grumbling, he knelt awkwardly and deposited the stack of books on the floor in front of him. It had been a couple of years since he'd needed to buy books for a class, and nothing had changed, looked like. The lines at the beginning of the quarter were murderous, and it wasn't safe to wait and buy books after the crowds had dispersed later in the week. The student bookstore was notorious for running out of texts that it would take them six weeks to reorder.

Screw that. He should have stayed with Jim today anyway. So what if the bookstore ran out of his books? Not like it was the end of the world. But Jim had known this was the first day of the quarter, and he'd been insistent Blair get to campus. He managed to stay with Jim most of the morning anyway, but he could tell Jim was on the verge of deciding this case was just too much for an anthro grad student to handle, and finally Blair had started to worry that if he pushed too hard, refused too vehemently to go to campus when there was no denying he really did have a lot to do, Jim might shut him out of this case for good. Just looking for an excuse to do it anyway, Blair was pretty certain.

So here he was, but dammit, he wanted to be with Jim. OK, so this one was bad, this one was just about the worst, come to think of it, but that was all the more reason for him to be at Jim's side every step of the way.

And as suddenly as a switch being thrown, all of Blair's carefully constructed barricades were down again.

He moaned under his breath, seeing it all. The upstairs hallway of that expensive suburban home. Walls painted bone white above the dado, pinstriped wallpaper below. White carpet. The patrolman who had found the bodies watching Blair with frank curiosity. Blair had been looking at that wallpaper. Had it been here the last time? He couldn't remember. He honestly couldn't remember.

(Don't go there. Just leave it the hell alone.)

Blair squeezed his eyes shut. The rosemary. That's what it had been, all right. Mystery solved. Who'd have thought a guy who could happily eat Wonderburgers for lunch five days a week would be put off by week-old rosemary in his linguine?

When he opened his eyes again he saw the line had inched forward a few steps. Blair shoved the stack of books a little further with the side of his foot. The topmost one was J. Herrell's Oral Tradition and Ecological Consiousness in Chinchaysuyu. Herrell was teaching a seminar at Rainier this quarter, and getting him was a real coup for the department. Blair would have been crazy not to jump at the chance to take a class from the man, but he had to admit, he was having trouble working up a whole lot of enthusiasm for it. He wanted to be at Jim's side, not standing in line at the bookstore, not even sitting in a seminar with Professor J. Herrell himself. He belonged with Jim, even when things got bad.

Blair felt a wave of heat wash through him, thinking about just how bad it really was.

Jim had told him he didn't have to go to the scene, but of course Blair couldn't have let him face this all alone. And then when they parked outside the house, Jim had suggested again that Blair might want to wait in the truck. Blair hadn't done that either. He had stopped just outside Gwen's bedroom door, though. There were some places he couldn't go.

Well, actually, he hoped that wasn't true. He wanted to think that if Jim had truly needed him there, physically at his side, he would have been able to take those next few steps no matter what. But the upstairs hallway had been close enough last night. Jim had squeezed Blair's shoulder briefly, smiled that sad, kind smile of his, and then walked in alone.

(Dammit, Sandburg, not now. You want to fall apart in the middle of the bookstore?)

Blair looked up at the big clock mounted over the Rainier University logo on the front wall. Four-fifteen already. Where had the day gone? Not where he'd wanted it to, that was for sure. He still needed to stop by the department office and run off copies of his syllabus for the intro class he was teaching again this quarter. And he really should stop by the library too and make sure the reserve desk had pulled his books.

And he just didn't think he could handle it. His control was slipping too fast.

He remembered the wicker bookshelf full of stuffed animals. A dirty smudge on the carpet, near the door where Blair could see it, even though he desperately didn't want to. The way Jim had looked when he finally came out of Gwen Angelone's bedroom. His face was an expressionless mask, but Blair knew those eyes. Shuttered as they were, as blank as Jim tried to make them, Blair could read right through them.

Inside, Jim was screaming too.

Goddamn you, Charlie Spring, Blair thought. Tears came to his eyes, but he didn't give a damn anymore, even if he was in the middle of the bookstore. God damn you. If you'd had even one psychic bone in your worthless body, surely you would have seen this coming.

 

2: riverside, california (ten years ago)

"Eventually, the anthropologist comes to feel at home nowhere, and remains psychologically maimed."
Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques

Blair was taking it all in. Organ music, sunlight streaming through the rose windows, water lapping against the fiberglass sides of the pool. Interesting things happened where the water and sunlight met through the sheet of plexiglas bordering the fourth side. Light bounced on the surface of the water and skimmed the plexiglas, turning it opaque in sparks and flashes.

The man waiting for him in the pool smiled reassuringly and gestured for Blair to come forward. Six molded fiberglass steps led down into the water. Blair sucked in a deep breath and thought, Curitiba, here I come.

He took the first tentative step down. The water was a little cool, but not uncomfortable. He took another step. The hem of his robe was in the water now. He felt the extra weight on his shoulders. The rest of the steps he took more quickly, the water mounting up to his thighs. The man in the water took Blair's arm to steady him as soon as he was close enough and asked him quietly, "Ready, son?"

"Hey, now or never, man." Blair didn't realize how his voice had carried until he heard the ripple of nervous laughter traveling up the aisle. "Sorry!" he whispered.

Reverend Cleary didn't take offense. "The Lord's ready for this one now!" he exclaimed, and this time open laughter spilled back from the congregation. Cleary put his arm around Blair's shoulders and his other hand on his forehead, palm flat. "Just bend your knees a little when I push," he explained.

Blair nodded and closed his eyes. "Buried in the likeness of His death." Cleary said. "Raised up in the likeness of His resurrection."

Blair felt the pressure on his forehead and let Cleary push him backward and down into the pool. Water crept up his back under the robe. Cleary tightened his firm grip around Blair's shoulders and moved his other hand from Blair's forehead to hold his nose. Blair felt the cool, spreading buoyancy against the back of his head. The water covered his ears, and all at once the sounds of the building and the people in it were richer, slower, more rare. Another moment, and the water was over his face. Only then did it occur to Blair how utterly vulnerable he was in this position. He opened his eyes calmly, looking up. From underneath, the surface of the water was only a shimmering silver mirror.

The moment seemed to last forever, and he was dimly surprised to discover that he didn't need to breathe anymore. The mirror overhead washed red and then cleared, and he found himself gazing calmly up into a jungle canopy so dense not a ray of sunlight got through. He heard a roar like rushing waters, and behind it, a low, hollow note that went prickling down his spine like an icy finger.

Then Blair was pulled upright again. Water poured off his head, and the robe dragged his arms down with its sodden weight. Cleary steadied Blair until he found his feet, then hugged him hard. Water splashed against the sides of the pool, waves crossing and recrossing, and Blair was so shaken and stunned he hugged the reverend back.

Cleary had to guide him to the molded stairs on the other side of the pool. Two deacons were waiting to help Blair up and drape a towel around his shoulders. Blair realized then that he was crying, but no one else seemed to see anything unusual about that. He looked back at the baptismal pool once, just long enough to see the water was clear as it had ever been, and the only jungle overhead was the one in his mind. Then he stumbled away, wondering for the first time just what the heck he thought he was doing here.

 

3: cascade, washington (tuesday afternoon, late)

"Towards the back," the guy behind the counter said. His grizzled hair was pulled back in a ponytail, a red bandana knotted around his brow. "You want to go through the first house where we've got the rhododendron, and straight back to the next house with the bedding plants. The herbs are in the very back, and I'm pretty certain we've still got some nice rosemary."

"Thanks, man. I appreciate it."

"Just watch that first step. Fatima likes to sleep there sometimes."

Blair had already pushed open the door to the first greenhouse, but he paused. "Fatima?" He looked down. Sunlight filtered through the slatted blinds over the west side of the greenhouses. Curled in a puddle of dappled light was a small-boned white cat. She blinked up at him, yawned and stretched one paw out luxuriously, then curled over on her other side and promptly went back to sleep.

"Fatima," Blair said. "Got it." He stepped over her carefully on the way down.

Rows of shrubbery stretched the length of the greenhouse. Massed above the dark green leaves were flowers in shades of pink and purple and red and white, thick as a fresh snowfall. Blair took a deep breath, smiling at the sight of them, but all he could smell was dirt and standing water and a faint, chemical sweetness he supposed was fertilizer or insecticide. The flowers themselves had no scent, and the bite of disappointment he felt at that was absurdly sharp. Oh man, he was in bad shape. Everything was way too intense right now. No wonder Jim had trouble with his senses when he was grieving or guilt-stricken. The entire world was painfully sharp-edged even to Blair's thoroughly ordinary senses this afternoon. The crunch of gravel underfoot made him want to walk on tiptoe. He could feel the tag in his shirt rubbing against vertebrae at the base of his neck, and there was a draft coming from somewhere, stirring hairs on the top of his head. He raised his eyes and saw the tremendous fans slowly rotating in the eaves.

Then he caught it. The faintest whisper, just a gauzy, iridescent ribbon of fragrance. It stopped him dead in his tracks. What in the world? He remained frozen, afraid to take a step for fear of losing it, and carefully sniffed the humid air again. Ah, man, there it was. He took a deep breath. The smell was so pure, so rich and full Blair felt himself beginning to grin despite everything. What was that?

On both sides of him crowded three-foot high shrubs. The promised rhododendron, Blair assumed, their leaves thick and shiny and the undersides a fuzzy, coppery brown. On one side the plants were in full bloom with flowers so darkly red they were almost black. Pretty, in a slightly macabre way. Blair crouched down so he could bury his nose in one of the clusters of blossoms. From this distance he could detect a faint, earthy smell, but that wasn't the scent he was looking for.

The blossoms on the other side of the narrow gravel path weren't open yet. Blair sniffed at the tightly curled purple buds anyway. Nothing. He wished Jim were here to help him out with this, although maybe it was a good thing he wasn't. That scent was so intoxicating Jim might zone on it permanently.

Blair's smile faltered. And how could he blame Jim if he did? Stop and smell the roses for good, man. Blair could find no very good reason not to, and the way Jim had sounded on the phone this afternoon, Blair didn't think he would either.

* * *

"Ellison."

"Jim, hey man, glad I caught you. I'm through at school here, and I thought I'd come on down to the station."

"Get all your books all right?"

Blair glanced at the stack of shiny new texts teetering on his desk. "Got 'em. Jim, how did -- how did it go this afternoon? Any progress?"

"I've had better days." The pause went on too long. "We all have," he said at last. "Sandburg, don't bother to come in."

"No man, I want to. I told you I'm OK with this."

"Nobody's OK with this, but that's not what I meant. I'll be home in an hour or two. There's no need for you to come in."

"Are you sure?" Blair realized he was drumming his fingers on his desktop slightly frantically, and forced himself to stop. "No," he said, talking to himself as much as Jim. "No, I think I'll come on in anyway. I think that would be a better idea."

"You're not listening to me, Chief. I'm practically on my way home now. Finish whatever you need to do on campus and I'll see you back at the loft. I thought I'd stop at that barbecue place on the way home and pick up some ribs. That be OK with you?"

"Sure, whatever, sounds great, but why don't I just --"

"See you at seven, seven-thirty or eight at the latest," Jim said, and hung up phone.

"Damn you, Jim," Blair said, not meaning it at all, and put down the receiver too hard. He should be there. He should have been there all day. The emotional strain of this case might start to play havoc with Jim's senses, and Jim needed to be in control, absolutely one hundred percent. They had to find this monster and put him away right now. And Jim needed Blair so he could maintain his control and do that. Blair thought they had gotten that straightened out a long time ago, but sometimes Jim seemed to forget. Or chose to forget. Stubborn, stiff-necked sonuvabitch, Blair thought with an affection so profound it actually seemed to make his chest hurt.

He wrapped his arms around himself. It wasn't a one way street here, either. He needed Jim too. He'd spent all that time at the bookstore puzzling out what had gone wrong with last night's dinner so he wouldn't think about the blood splashed across the walls and floors and beds at 106 South Trace, but it wasn't working for him anymore. You know what was really bugging him now? Seeing how life was going on just like always. People standing in lines in the bookstore, at the registrar's office, at the bursar's, filling out forms, writing checks, trying to work out their schedules, acting for all the world like such things mattered in the grand, cruel scheme of things. And meanwhile, Dan Wolf was autopsying an eleven year old girl and her mother to determine -- god knew what. If either one had known what was coming? Could Dan tell that? Was there some secret forensic pathologist's test that could tell him whether Gwen had opened her eyes in time to see the stranger looming in her bedroom door? Whether she seen what he was holding in his hands? If she had felt the first blow?

Aw, Christ, there it went. Blair laid both arms on the desk in front of himself, his hands clenched into fists. He watched the veins pop out and felt his nails digging into his palms. His face was burning with heat, but there were no tears, just that appalling warmth. It felt like his brain was on fire.

Jim, I know you think you're protecting me by keeping me at arm's length, but believe me, it doesn't work that way. I need you, man, because I'm having a real rough time keeping my head above water all alone.

But Jim was on the other side of town, so Blair was just going to have to deal with things by himself. A couple of hours more, that was all. Play it Jim's way for a little while longer, and then that was it. From here on out, Jim wouldn't be able to pry Blair from his side with a crowbar, Blair was going to make certain of it.

He slowly relaxed his clenched fists. Then he took a long, deep breath, held it for a moment, and let it out slowly, exhaling just as deeply, as though he could expel all the darkness with it. And again. And again. He felt his tensed muscles slowly letting go.

OK. He was better now. He took another long, deep breath. Two hours. Plenty of time to take care of business. The anthro department office was already closed, but he could stop at Kwick Kopy and pay to run off his syllabus. He still had forty bucks left over from the month's teaching stipend after buying his books, so that was no problem. And the library was open. He could go make sure his reserve books were on the shelves.

Good plan. He inhaled again, concentrating on the way it felt as his lungs expanded and his chest rose. He closed his eyes, willing there to be nothing else in the world but that comfortable fullness. Life at its simplest and most essential. Nothing else could touch him.

Except for his treacherous memory.

"One cup of detective-strength hot chocolate."

Jim had stayed so close to Gwen that whole afternoon, watching her with the pleased, almost proprietary air Blair knew so well. Blair, in turn, had been watching Jim. It felt good to share Jim's joy and relief, so good to see Jim smiling hard like that. Rescuing Gwen from Tom Gruenditch and his goons had struck one of those too-rare blows for goodness and decency. The guys in the white hats had carried the day for once.

But how short a day it had been.

Blair opened his eyes fast and made a thoughtless, violent gesture with his hands, sweeping those stupid, over-priced textbooks straight off his desk and spilling a mostly-full bottle of Evian in the process. Breathing hard, he sat and just watched the water pooling on his desk, soaking all his papers and files. Then he grabbed up his backpack and fled. Hadn't stopped at the library. Sure hadn't stopped at Kwick Kopy. His master copy of the syllabus was floating in a puddle of water in the middle of his desk anyway. He wanted to go the station, but he'd said he would give Jim his space, and he would, for another couple of hours at least.

So instead he was using the time to make sure Jim never had to contend with rotten rosemary in his linguine again. The deck got plenty of sunlight, and herbs were supposed to be tough and easy to grow, right? Right.

Whatever you've gotta do, man. Whatever it takes.

He couldn't smell that sweet scent anymore. He didn't realize why until the first tear ran down his cheek and bounced on one of the shiny green leaves.

Aw, man. He was already bent over, but he knelt the rest of the way slowly, until he was crouched on the gravel path, trying to curl up into himself tight enough to shut out the rest of the universe. It didn't work. He wiped his nose with his sleeve and tried to smear away his tears with the palms of his hands. They just ran more freely than ever. C'mon, Jim, he thought despairingly. Now look what you've gone and made me do.

He was startled by a soft little sound, and he looked up fast, wondering how he was going to explain squatting here and bawling his eyes out among the rhododendron. It was only Fatima strolling slowly down the path. The gravel turned under her soft white paws, and her blue eyes fixed on him, though when Blair looked up, she quickly turned aside and rubbed against a row of nursery pots.

Blair smiled a little, and gave up trying to wipe away the tears. "Sorry, Fatima," he whispered. "Guess I'm intruding on your turf here, aren't I?"

Her ears twitched at the sound of his voice, but she didn't look at him. Typical cat, Blair thought, and then he spotted the dappling of white back through the jungle of dark green leaves. He stood up and reached over as best he could. The plants had been misted recently and his blue jeans got soaked in the process, but at last he managed to snag the edge of the black plastic pot and lift it free.

It wasn't much to look at. The leaves were blue green and sparse on a spindly two-foot-tall trunk. The cluster of tiny white flowers Blair had spotted from the path were only blooming on one of the lower branches. He brought it up to his nose and sniffed as best he could. At this range, even with his running nose he could smell it. The fragrance filled his head and his mind, and though he wondered why he suddenly cared so much about something as unimportant as a good-smelling flower, he didn't try to argue himself out of it. Must be a stress reaction. One of those useful but slightly bizarre mechanisms for processing grief. He turned the pot in his hands, looking for the label. There it was. "Viburnum. Korean Spice."

Never heard of it. He wondered if it would grow all right in a pot on the balcony and clutched the pot to his chest, heedless of the dirt and moisture. He would ask Jerry Garcia up there by the cash register about it before he bought it.

Oh. Would the scent be too strong for Jim? He inhaled again, the sweetness making him feel dizzy with pleasure. No. Jim would love it, Blair was certain.

He felt a brush against his legs, and looked down to see Fatima curling her compact little white body around his ankles, rumbling possessively as she pressed her face against his jeans.

 

4: riverside, california (ten years ago)

"He asked me bluntly: 'Do you still want to study anthropology?' - 'Most certainly.' - 'Then apply for a post as a teacher of sociology at the University of Sao Paulo. The suburbs are full of Indians, whom you can study at the weekends.'"
Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques

"Curitiba?" Naomi asked thoughtfully. "Sweetie, where is Curitiba?"

Blair shifted the phone to his other ear. "It's the capital of Parana."

"Parana, Brazil?"

"Right."

Naomi sounded very, very patient. Always a bad sign. "I've never been there. Rio a few times, and Sao Paulo during the student demonstrations in '74. How old would you have been then, six?" She laughed. "You were impossible after we came back to the states and I couldn't find sugarcane for you anymore."

"Oh man, that was Rio? Somehow I'd thought that was in Trinidad. So I guess I've been to Brazil before after all."

Naomi stopped laughing. "You know I support whatever you want to do," she said seriously.

Blair groaned to himself. "Mom --"

"But I thought you were going to spend the summer in Seattle working for that law firm."

"Come on, you hated the idea of me working for that firm, I know you did."

"Honey, that's simply not true. Before you went any further with this plan of yours to study environmental law, I thought it was very important that you spend a little time seeing what actually goes on in a law firm."

"Oh, I get it. You thought I would hate it so much I would drop the whole idea?"

"I think I'm hearing some issues here."

"No issues, Mom. Just letting you know my summer plans have changed, that's all."

One of Blair's roommates stopped by the open bedroom door and stuck his head in. Joey was a year older than Blair and a foot taller, with short-cropped blonde hair and an aggressive suntan. He was wearing a black T-shirt with a cross and fish over his chest and a legend on the back that warned, "He who dies with the most toys wins NOTHING." He stage-whispered to Blair, "Everything OK? You tell her yet?"

"Not yet," Blair said. "Just getting to it."

"Just getting to what?" Naomi asked.

"You take it easy. It'll be OK," Joey said. He crossed to the bed where Blair was sitting and caught him in an awkward hug, smashing Blair's face against a chest like a brick wall. He released him and thumped him on the back. "I'll be praying for you."

"Thanks, man," Blair said. "Have a good time at the movies."

"Sure you don't wanna go? We could wait for you if you wanted to come with us."

"No, it's OK. You go ahead."

"Hey, another time," Joey said, and gave Blair a thumbs up on his way out the door.

"Sorry about that," Blair told Naomi. "Joey was just leaving."

"Well, I know you'll have a lovely time this summer," Naomi said. "I love Brazil. I am wondering a little bit about school in the fall. I'm glad to help you out, you know that, but we were thinking you would be able to earn enough to help pay your living expenses. If you're going to be sight-seeing in Brazil all summer --"

"Well, a couple of things, Mom. I don't think I'm going to be starting school in the fall after all."

There was a long, long pause. Blair was determined not to give in, but he never could hold his tongue. "Mom," he finally said, "You were right about environmental law. That's totally not for me. So there's not really any point in me starting at UC Irvine in the fall like I'd been thinking, is there?"

"Have you thought this through?" Naomi said, very quietly.

"Oh, come on, Mom. You were the one who kept telling me to take a year off after high school, to be sure what I really wanted to do."

"And what you want to do is go to Brazil? It's just so unexpected! You never said a word about wanting to travel before. Honey, you always fussed at me when we moved."

"Well, it's a little different now that I'm not in high school anymore," Blair said patiently. No point getting into that argument again. "You remember, Mom, tenth and eleventh grade? While we were still living in Cascade and I got to take those classes at Rainier? My advisor was this guy in the anthro department, Dr. Buckner. I made such a nuisance of myself he finally gave in and let me sit in on a couple of his upper level anthro classes. His field of specialization was the Ge language group people of the Amazon."

"I'm not sure I'm following this, honey. Are you going to Brazil with Dr. Buckner?"

"Not with Buckner. But my roommate Joey goes to this big evangelical church in Fullerton, and they've got a mission in a Tibagy village a few miles out of Curitiba. Every summer they send some teenagers from the church down there, like to do manual labor and stuff. I think we'll be building a new wing on the clinic. Anyway, Joey's going, and I've been listening to him talk about it for a while, and it hit me that this would be the perfect opportunity to see what Buckner's been talking about first hand. Sounds great, doesn't it?"

Another long pause. When Naomi finally spoke, her tone was very cautious. "So, sweetie, you're going to Brazil with a group of missionaries?"

"They're even paying my way! Cool, isn't it?"

"If you're happy, I'm happy, you know that."

Blair heard that tone in Naomi's voice. "Mom, what's the matter?"

"Nothing's the matter! Honestly! I am wondering though --"

"What? What are you wondering about?"

"I don't mean to sound prejudiced, but they ARE missionaries, sweet. I would have thought for missionaries in the field they would want people to -- well, you know -- spread the faith."

"No, you're right. I had to join the church. I even got baptized today. Pretty wild, huh?"

Dead silence. This time Blair was determined not to be the one to break it. Naomi's letting this go, he thought to himself. Fine. Let it go first, then we can talk.

But in the silence, he remembered those endless moments underwater during his baptism, the sudden, sickening fear that he was screwing around with things he didn't begin to understand, and the faint, faint possibility there might be something to consider in this world other than Blair Sandburg's future plans.

"Look," he burst out all at once, arguing with Naomi as well as himself. "There's nothing to be upset about. This works out great for everybody. I get to go to Brazil and live in a Tigaby village this summer, and Joey and the whole congregation think they've saved a poor little Jewish kid's immortal soul. And oh, man, they loved my stories about those years you were on the lecture circuit with Tom Hayden. You don't know how tough it was for me not to throw in something about pillars of salt."

"Blair, baby, you sound so cynical! It's breaking my heart."

"Cynical? No, that's not it at all. See, this is what an anthropologist does. He fits in with the group he's there to study. He gets along."

"He lies?" Naomi interrupted.

"Mom, it's not lying exactly."

"Maybe you should reconsider law school," Naomi said. "You sound like an attorney already."

 

5: cascade, washington (tuesday afternoon, late)

Afterward, Blair would remember his hold on the ordinary world had really begun to slip the night before, in the upstairs hallway of the abattoir that had once been Gwen Angelone's home. But at the time, crunching along the gravel path to the second greenhouse to find a rosemary plant for Jim, the viburnum clutched in his arms and Fatima walking before him with the tip of her skinny white tail held straight as a flagpole, he simply hadn't known the descent had already begun.

* * *

The master bedroom was at the other end of the hall from Gwen's room, and the nightmare had come creeping over Blair as he walked the length of the hall with Jim. At first Blair thought it was only shock, nothing but the predictable physiological response to horror. His heartbeat was a little fast. He could hear the roaring in his ears and felt like he had a brick in his stomach. He was flushed and breathing too hard and probably on the verge of hyperventilating too, so it was no wonder things seemed a little strange. The best thing to do was just try to calm down so his own reactions didn't distract Jim.

He tried. With every step, he tried.

The problem was, there were just too many damn steps. The hallway should not have been that long. And there certainly shouldn't have been anything behind them, but there was. Something moving steadily closer, stalking them, and taking no particular care to be quiet about it either. Blair heard their pursuer howling in the furthest reaches of his own mind, and he wanted to grab Jim's arm and RUN, but his limbs refused to obey him. He did nothing but continue plodding along steady and slow, while the dark thing baying on their trail drew closer with every step. "Jim!" he knew he should be screaming, "Jim, we've got to go. We've got to go now. "

But he didn't say a word. They walked on and on down the hall with the pinstriped wallpaper and the pristine white paint, toward a bedroom door that never got any closer, and after a very, very long time, Jim touched his back and asked quietly, "Do you want to wait downstairs?"

How could he answer that? "Jim, it's going to catch us if we don't start running NOW"?

Instead, Blair heard himself saying, just as quietly, "No, man, I want to stay with you." And that was all right, because that was true. Even lost in nightmare as he was, the warmth of Jim's palm at the small of his back centered and calmed him.

Then Simon came to the bedroom door. "Jim," he said. As though the sound of his voice had broken the spell, the endless hallway contracted like a stretched spring snapping back. Suddenly Blair was standing right at the bedroom door, close enough for Simon to reach out and pat him clumsily on the shoulder. "You doing OK there, Sandburg?"

Blair cleared his throat. "Yeah." He risked a glance back over his shoulder. There was absolutely no one there but the patrolman standing at the head of the stairs, looking carefully into nothingness, and the upstairs hallway itself was just an ordinary upstairs hall in an ostentatious suburban home. Blair turned back.

Simon was as shaken and dull-eyed as every other officer on the scene. He was chewing on an unlit cigar, his shirt untucked and the buttons not lined up. An extra button hole gaped empty at his throat. "Right," he said, and that was a non sequitur if ever Blair had heard one, because obviously nothing was all right. He stepped aside so Jim could enter the master bedroom, and this time, Blair went with him.

Trish Angelone lay on her back in the middle of the bed, wearing white cotton pajamas with pink satin piping. One arm was flung out, her hand palm up. The corner of the bedspread had been pulled up to cover her face.

Jim turned angrily to Simon. "Who was first on the scene?"

"Yolen," Simon said. He called down the hall. "Officer! Can you come up here a moment?"

Blair looked at the scene in the master bedroom far longer than he wanted to. Penance for not being able to go into Gwen's room, and then for nearly losing it in the hall just now anyway. There was a dirty red spray across the pillows, the shams, the duvet, the headboard, the night table, the carpeted floor, and the rose pink walls. The top dresser drawer had been pulled out, and a froth of silk and lace spilled over the top. A salmon-colored slip was crumpled on the floor. The garden fork and the spade had been left at the foot of the bed. Both tools had a shiny Martha Stewart look to them, as though they had been bought to complement a new garden bench, not with any expectation of use. Probably never had been used, Blair thought.

Well, except for this one time.

He must have made a sound, or maybe Jim simply felt him flinch. At any rate, Jim's hand rested on his shoulder for a moment then, steadying him.

Officer Yolen had come to the bedroom door. "Detective?" he said, and Blair turned to see him as well, noticing how white the young patrolman was under his freckles, and the way he kept his eyes fixed in the near distance, carefully not looking toward the body on the bed.

"I understand you found the victims?" Jim asked.

"Yessir." His gaze remained fixed.

"You'd gotten a call?"

"The next door neighbors called the dispatcher, that's right. When I arrived on the scene I saw the back patio doors standing wide open, and I came in to investigate. That's when I found them." He swallowed.

Jim nodded. "Your first multiple homicide, officer?"

A quick, miserable smile. "Well, no sir. But I've never seen anything like this."

"And God willing, none of us will ever see anything like it again," Simon put in.

"Do you know why the neighbors called the police?" Jim pressed.

"My understanding is that the husband -- Mr. Angelone -- he left this afternoon on a business trip, tried to call home in the early evening, and got concerned when nobody answered the phone. So he called the next door neighbors and asked them to investigate. The neighbors called the police. I haven't spoken to them personally, sir, so I don't know what spooked them. Maybe they saw the open patio doors like I did, but I just don't know."

"I spoke to them briefly when I arrived," Simon said. "The name is Ottinger. They understand you'll want to talk to them as well, Jim."

"Oh my god," Blair heard himself blurting out. "You mean Fred -- Mr. Angelone -- you mean he doesn't even know what's happened yet?"

"We're trying to contact him now." Simon's voice was gentle.

And tell him what? Blair thought, a little hysterically. "Hello, Mr. Angelone. Your friends at the Cascade PD here, calling to let you know your wife and daughter were sloppily murdered with garden tools while you were away on a business trip. Bad luck really seems to follow your family around, doesn't it? Not that you've got a family to worry about anymore."

Jim's voice was stern, but Blair didn't have to look at him to know he was regarding Officer Yolen with compassion. "How long were you in the bedroom before you called for backup?"

"Here? Not even a minute, detective. I don't think it was even that long. I'd already found the little girl and --" He broke off. "Anyway, all I had to do was shine my flashlight in here to see that it was the same thing."

"You didn't cover the victim's face?"

"No sir! I didn't touch anything. Absolutely not."

"All right. Thank you, officer."

So her murderer had covered Trish's face, Blair thought. Hacked the life from her, then pulled the covers over her dead eyes before rifling through her underwear drawer.

Blair wrapped his arms around his own shoulders as he started to shake. He knew it was only his imagination acting up again, but it seemed, just then, as though an icy cold wind had come whistling in from the hallway.

* * *

There was a cold breeze in the second greenhouse. Weird, Blair thought dimly, though he was trying hard not to concentrate on anything but the achingly sweet scent of the viburnum. You'd think they would keep a greenhouse a little warmer.

The colors were brighter here than in the rhododendron house. Dozens upon dozens of gaudy geraniums, rows and rows of caladiums and coleus. Blair ignored them and headed for the island of dark green at the very back, Fatima proceeding him the entire way.

There was only half a table of herbs, tiny cuttings rooted in two-inch black plastic pots. Tarragon, globe, cinnamon and lemon basils, pineapple sage, chocolate mint and curly-leaf parsley, all jumbled together and identified with pencil-written labels scrawled on little plastic stakes. No sign of rosemary, though.

Blair put the viburnum down on the gravel path so he could look more carefully. They had to have rosemary. They had to. He sorted through the little pots one by one, reading each label even though he was fairly confident of his ability to recognize rosemary when he saw it. Mingled scents rose as his hands brushed the fragrant leaves. For a moment the cold wind in the greenhouse took the scent of the viburnum away from him, and he looked down quickly, as though the little shrub might have disappeared. But no, of course it was right there at his feet. Fatima sat beside the nursery pot, carefully licking the curled toes on her left front paw and then cleaning the back of her ear.

But no rosemary, dammit. What kind of a half-assed operation was this anyway, they didn't even have rosemary? For an absurd moment, Blair felt tears of disappointment stinging his eyes. Oh for heaven's sake, Sandburg. Buck up, would you? You'd think this was the only nursery in Cascade. He took a sniffling breath and wiped his eyes. It was time to get back to the loft. Tonight of all nights he wanted to be sure he was home for Jim. And it was OK. He'd try somewhere else when he had time. After all, it wasn't like having a rosemary plant right now, tonight, would really do anyone any good. Not like a stupid rosemary plant could bring Gwen to life again, or give Jim back whatever hope for decency and goodness the investigation of this crime had stolen from him.

Blair picked up the viburnum and found its scent even sweeter after the sharp, culinary smell of the herbs. He turned, having to take an awkward half-step to avoid tripping over Fatima, and spotted the rosemary at last.

Oh, damn. This was almost worse than not finding any at all.

There were half a dozen rosemary plants in tall white clay pots on the table across the aisle. The plants themselves had been pruned into miniature topiary, foot-tall trees with their fragile trunks supported by tiny bamboo stakes. Graceful and formal and very expensive, Blair had no doubt. He shifted the viburnum to one arm and looked at the tag on one anyway just to confirm his guess. $32.50. Aw, man, wouldn't you know it? Wouldn't you just know it? Every other herb back here was selling for a buck and a half.

That reminded him he hadn't bothered to look at the price on his viburnum either. He had been so set on simply having it no matter what, he'd snatched it up without a thought.

With a miserable sense that he knew exactly how this was going to end, he set the viburnum down beside the rosemary and began hunting for some indication of price. There it was, written on the back of the horticulture tag. $39.99 for this scraggly little shrub with one branch of flowers blooming low down on the trunk and corrugated leaves already beginning to show brown edges. He didn't even know if he could grow it in a pot on the balcony anyway. Didn't know, for that matter, if Jim would even be able to tolerate such a powerful smell, no matter how wonderful Blair thought it was.

Blair crossed his arms over his chest and turned his back on the entire table of plants. Actually, you know, Jim would probably like the little rosemary tree. He could see where the formality and discipline of its culture would appeal to the man's sense of order. And it would look great on the balcony. Very Mediterranean. Besides, he'd come here for Jim in the first place, hadn't he? So it really wasn't a difficult decision at all.

Blair took a deep breath, filling his head for the last time with that intoxicating fragrance, and closed his eyes to shut out as much of the rest of the world as he could. Then he let his breath out just as slowly, and when he opened his eyes, he saw Jim standing behind the slatted wooden table on the other side of the aisle.

"Jim?" It didn't even occur to him to wonder how Jim had found him here. "What's up? Is something wrong?"

Jim didn't answer.

"Is it the case? Has something happened? Talk to me, man." Trying to take a step toward him, Blair tripped over the cat at his feet. Fatima yowled and bounded away as Blair crashed into the flats on the other side of the aisle, skinning his hands on the wooden slats and knocking over dozens of the lightweight herb pots. He pushed himself away from the table with a groan. "Geez, Jim, if it's not --"

He broke off with a groan, feeling as though the breath had been crushed from his lungs.

Jim was nowhere to be seen. Blair was alone in the greenhouse.

 

6: sao jeronymo reserve, parana, brazil (ten years ago)

"Journeys, those magic caskets full of dreamlike promises, will never again yield up their treasures untarnished."
Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques

Blair awoke in a corncrib from a night of languorous dreams.

He took a deep breath, then twisted and stretched with a happy groan. The dry cobs shifted and slipped around him, smelling as sweet as mown hay.

He was cold, he realized a moment later, and the blanket he lay under was wet with dew. The tip of his tongue and the roof of his mouth were painfully tender where he had scalded himself over and over again last night. None of it damped his spirits in the least. He raised his eyes and looked past twin bamboo posts and a low, palm-thatched roof to the field where cattle stood dreaming in the shadow of the encroaching forest.

He was here, he thought to himself. He was actually here. Not six weeks ago he'd been just another kid right out of high school, no prospects brighter than a summer job and college in the fall, and man oh man, look at him now.

He reached one hand out from under his blanket, groping for his backpack. When he finally snagged it, he pulled it over so he could retrieve last night's treasure. He had to dig around for a minute, but he finally found the little bundle tucked carefully into a side pocket and wrapped up in a bandanna. He folded back the cloth slowly, making himself wait, at last revealing the tiny wax figure of a crouching man, decorated with black and white beads and a twist of wool. As he turned the little totem in his hand, a few happy tears began to trickle down his cheeks. He wiped them away irritably, but it didn't change the way he felt.

You know what it was like? It was almost like he'd never been really alive before. He'd watched life with interest, but never felt truly involved before. Not like Naomi was. He had admired his mother's fervor for as long as he could remember, long before he had been able to understand what her commitment and ideals really meant. The belief and involvement, all her work and sacrifice, marches and demonstrations, fund-raisers, lobbying efforts, all the planning and all the paperwork, the sheer amount of time. He admired her so much, he really did. But deep down, he couldn't help but wonder sometimes if he would ever find something that mattered as much to him.

And now he had.

He dropped a kiss on the misshapen head of the little figure, then laughed at himself for being childish, even as he hugged his treasure to his chest.

Then he caught a shadow of movement from the corner of his eye, and looked up just in time to see a cloaked, cowled figure emerge from the forest road. Blair closed his eyes for a moment, shaking his head, then looked again. A mist was rising, shot through with the thin light of early dawn. The hooded man came across the field so silently not even the cattle marked his passing, and for a giddy moment it seemed to Blair his own journey across continents might have taken him through the centuries as well. Dressed in the robes of one of the traditional orders, the man could have been one of the Catholic missionaries who had walked this countryside half a millennia ago.

Blair sat up, shivering a little, and pushed the blanket aside. For the first time he caught the smell of food drifting from the dwelling on the other side of the lean-to. Fried corn, smoked meat, coffee. Blair got to his feet, and when the stranger was close enough to speak without raising his voice, he pushed back his hood to reveal his face. "Well," he said in English, "You must be Mr. Sandburg."

"Uh, that's right. Blair." His voice was scratchy from sleep and bewilderment. "You know me?"

"Only by reputation. When I left the village this morning, one of those earnest young men from the Baptist mission told me if I saw you, I was to tell you to get your butt back to town before they called the police on you."

He smiled, and Blair could see his face was badly bruised. There were dark blue smears around his nose and under his eyes, as though from recent surgery. Plastic surgery? A monk? Yeah, right, Sandburg. Maybe he'd been in a car accident or something. "I told him that in this part of Parana," the stranger went on, "He had better think twice about calling the police. Young Americans are not very popular here these days."

"You mean because of the land reform movement? I know things are really tricky where the indigenous peoples are starting to organize. I bet the military police don't draw much distinction between missionaries and land reform advocates."

"You're better informed than the rest of your young friends. Their main concern seems to be whether you'll get back in time to teach the bible study this morning."

Blair made a dismissive gesture, pushing the idea away from him. "I'm here to help build a new wing on the clinic, but no way am I going to tell bible stories to Tigaby kids. They should be learning about their own culture, not having an alien one forced on them."

The other's smile broadened. "That's certainly a curious attitude for a missionary. Besides, young man, your brand of evangelical Protestantism may be a recent development, but Christianity has been in this part of the world for five hundred years now. It's hardly 'alien.'"

"Oh, hey, yeah, I know that," Blair said quickly. "I didn't mean any disrespect."

"That's all right. I forgive you." He grinned at Blair, waiting a beat, then said "Of course, I have to."

Blair rolled his eyes and laughed. "Right."

"So, what are you doing sleeping in my friend Orinoco's corncrib?"

"I met him at the clinic yesterday. He invited me to walk out and meet the rest of his family." Blair shrugged. "OK, so maybe I invited myself, sort of. He said he'd teach me how to drink maté."

"And did you learn?"

"Well, by the time I started to get the hang of it, my mouth was too burned to taste it anymore."

The man laughed, and Blair grinned. Suddenly he wanted to share the joy of his discovery with someone --anyone -- and right now this laughing monk seemed as good a candidate as any. He opened his palm and held up the little figure. "But this was the best part. I bargained with Orinoco's granddaughter for it. It took most of the afternoon, and a good part of the evening, but she finally let me have it."

"Ah, let me see," the monk said, taking the figure and examining it carefully. "And what did you give her for this prize?"

"She drove a hard bargain," Blair admitted. "Basically, she got my camera, my watch, my 'Stop Making Sense' T-shirt, and twenty-five dollars in American money. It was all I had."

The monk put his head back and roared. "That little girl can't be more than seven years old! And to think I was about to accuse you of stealing toys from babies."

Blair shrugged, grinning.

"My dear boy," he said at last, wiping tears of laugher from his eyes. "Her mother will make her another one in half an hour. What on earth possessed you to give so much for this?"

I recognized it," Blair said, taking back the figure. "It's a religious statue. This is 'The Little Old Man' from Ge mythology -- a god who came down from heaven and walked on earth, but mankind blew it. They didn't realize who he was until it was too late."

"Always the way, isn't it?"

Blair grinned. "Yeah, I guess. Anyway, I could tell who he was because of the way he's all crouched over, you see? And the way his head's too large, and the beads here around his neck and stomach. The Ge peoples have been telling this story for at least five hundred years that we know of --"

"And we know about it because the first Catholic missionaries collected and wrote the story down, is that right?"

Blair just nodded, too excited to stop and grant the monk his point. "Anyway, who knows how much older the story is than that? A thousand years? Five thousand? Oh man!" Blair's hand tightened around his prize. "When I saw that little girl playing with this proof of a culture's survival through so many thousands of years -- I don't know man, I'm not telling this right. But it was mind bending. The whole world kind of shifting a little. if you know what I mean. I guess it was sort of a religious experience."

The monk smiled gently. "Yes, that I do understand."

Blair broke off, faintly embarrassed. "Yeah, I guess you would."

"But doesn't it strike you as sad?" the monk said, taking the figure back from Blair and examining it again. "A santo of such ancient and profound importance -- now nothing but a child's plaything. Their culture may have survived in some form, but it's surely dying now, if it's come to this."

"No," Blair said eagerly. "No, I don't think so. See, here's what I think it is. God is right here for them, always, so there's no need to compartmentalize him and shut religious observances off from ordinary life. No reason a religious totem can't be a child's toy too. So it doesn't mean the culture's dying --I think it means it's totally alive."

"Quite the anthropologist, aren't you?"

"No," Blair said honestly. "Maybe some day, though."

The monk handed Blair back the figure. "Pack up your treasure and come have breakfast. Then you're going back to the village where you belong. I was serious. It's not safe for young Americans to be wandering around alone these days."

"You are," Blair pointed out.

The monk opened his hands, shrugging. "I am not a young man. Besides, I'm only here to help repair the rose window in the Holy Virgin Chapel in Curitiba. Then I'm going home. My traveling days will soon be over for good."

"Where's home?"

"Inquisitive about everything, aren't you?"

"Kind of, I guess. Sorry. Don't mean to be rude."

"No, I'm the one who's forgotten my manners. Unforgivable, especially when it's been such a pleasure to make your acquaintance." He took Blair's hand and shook it firmly. "Marcus of St. Sebastian's, at your service."

 

7: cascade, washington (10:45 tuesday evening)

Jim should have been tired. He'd been awake since three this morning, pushing himself hard the whole way, but he didn't feel tired. What he felt instead was an angry, energetic buzz, relentless and enraged, like a hornet's nest thrumming low in his belly. As long as it buzzed, he didn't need rest, or food, or sleep. He didn't need anything but anger, and god knows, he had that in spades tonight.

He let himself in the front door, registering Blair's presence without having to look toward the sofa. Everything was different when Sandburg was in the loft, and it wasn't just the didgeridoo moaning on the CD player like a high tension wire in a windstorm or the hot, penetrating scent of herbal tea steeping in a teapot on the kitchen counter.

Carolyn's teapot, come to think of it. Jim had always meant to give it back to her, but in the three years since Blair had moved in, the lid had gotten lost and the spout chipped in two places, so there was no way to pour a cup without dribbling tea all over everything. If Carolyn ever asked for it back, Jim supposed he would just have to buy her a new one.

Blair's backpack was on the floor under the coat rack, and his shoes lay a short distance away, along with one balled up sock. The heat was on even though it was sixty degrees outside. Jim didn't need any of that to know Blair was home. It was something softer than the beating of his heart, more subtle than his scent. His mere presence affected everything around him as indefinably and unmistakably as a change in air pressure, the entire world shifting just enough to accommodate the proximity of one Blair Sandburg.

Maybe not the whole world. Maybe just Jim's world.

Because the angry buzz in his gut began to quiet even before Blair lifted his head from the book he was reading and quietly said, "Hey, Jim."

"Chief," Jim said. He backpedaled and turned, heading for the kitchen even though he wasn't hungry or thirsty, but just because he wanted to hold on to that energetic anger.

Blair wouldn't let him, of course. He heard Sandburg's soft footsteps, bare feet on the wooden floor. Blair turned off the stereo, turned down the thermostat, and then followed Jim into the kitchen. "You're pretty late," he observed mildly. "Something happen on the case?"

"No progress," Jim said shortly. He opened the fridge, didn't see anything he wanted, shut it again and turned to face Blair. "You get everything done at school you needed to?"

Blair smiled, but the expression was a little distant and sad. "Pretty much," he said. "Yeah."

"Good," Jim said, and made an effort to push past him out of the kitchen. He was losing already, his anger shifting into grief, the attendant energy dissipating into the air.

"You've had a really long day," Blair observed, not moving out of his way, trapping Jim in the kitchen. "Did you get any dinner?"

No, he hadn't had dinner. The hornet's nest had filled his belly and left no desire for food. But it wasn't there anymore. He could remember the way it had felt, but he wasn't feeling it now, was he? Especially once Blair hit his shoulder affectionately, trying to get his attention. "I said, you hungry? Did you eat?"

God, he was starving, and so miserably tired. He sagged against the kitchen counter. "I didn't get a chance to even think about dinner. A tip came in right after I talked to you this afternoon -- an inmate in the county lockup claiming he had information about the killing."

"Oh man," Blair said softly. "So it was Gruenditch's people after all, wasn't it? Did you get anything?"

Jim dug the heels of his hands into his eyes. "No. He tried to finger Gruenditch's old organization, but he didn't have anything. Turns out he's due to be transferred to the state pen. He'd heard the news through the grapevine and was just looking for a way out. Waste of everybody's time."

"Especially yours, looks like." Blair took Jim's arm and tugged. "C'mon. Come sit down, take a load off. I'll see if I can find us something for dinner."

Jim allowed himself to be pulled into the living room. "'Us?' Why haven't you eaten yet?"

Blair pushed him down on the sofa, grinning at him. "Because I was waiting for those ribs you promised to bring home for dinner, you jerk."

Jim shut his eyes. "Damn, I'm sorry. It slipped my mind." He tried to get up. "I'll drive back out there. Can you wait that long?"

"Knock it off." Bending over Jim, Blair put a hand on his shoulder again to keep him from standing. "The barbecue place must have closed hours ago. I'll make some grilled cheese sandwiches or something."

"OK," Jim agreed quietly, too tired to fight. "Ribs another night."

"I'll hold you to that," Blair told him, still smiling, his hand still firm on Jim's shoulder. "I think we've got some sundried tomato paste and feta cheese for sandwiches. How does that sound?"

Jim thought about saying now he really was sorry he had forgotten to stop for barbecue, but he just didn't have the heart for it tonight. He only nodded. "Thank you."

"No problem, man. Gourmet cheese sandwiches coming right up."

An entire world suddenly brushed by as Blair straightened up and lifted his hand from Jim's shoulder. It was so complete and overwhelming it took Jim a moment to realize the sensation had been triggered by a scent clinging to Blair's hands. No, not one scent, dozens. Like a soapbubble they coalesced for an instant, dazzling and complete, and then Blair's hand dropped, and the fragile sphere shattered.

"Jim?"

Jim grabbed Blair's hand back and brought it up to his face, sniffing the back of his hand, then turning it over to inhale deeply from his palm as well. Blair laughed softly. "Uh, Jim?"

"Where the hell have you been? Smells like --" He wasn't sure what it smelled like. There were traces of familiarity, but the scents clinging to Blair and mingling with each other confused him and he couldn't separate them. He was reminded distantly of cooking, but the smells were more raw than that, and there was a sweet undercurrent he couldn't identify at all.

"Wow," Blair was still laughing. "Sorry about that. I stopped at a nursery after work. You must be smelling the herbs and flowers and stuff."

"Oh." That would explain it. "What were you doing at a nursery? I thought you had all sorts of work to do at school."

Blair scowled. "I got my books, OK, Dad? Then I stopped on the way home and got this so we'd always have fresh rosemary around." Blair walked out to the balcony and returned with a neatly pruned plant in a tall pot that he set on the coffee table in front of Jim. Jim leaned forward and brushed it with his fingertips as Blair was saying, "It likes sunlight, so I think it ought to do OK on the balcony. Kind of pretty, isn't it?"

"Dinner last night," Jim said as the fragrance rose, blotting out the subtler scents on Blair's hands. "So you noticed."

"Yeah, I noticed. Sorry about that. You should have just told me it was putrid instead of trying to eat it."

"I wouldn't have called it putrid." He caught Blair's eye. "All right," he admitted. "It was pretty bad."

Blair was still grinning, but the longer Jim watched him, the more clearly he could see what was beneath the smile. Dammit, he thought, not for the first time. He shouldn't have let Blair come along this time. The case was bad enough for seasoned cops. Even Simon had been stone faced and shaky all day, and Jim knew why he had gone to pick up Darryl after school himself this afternoon, even with the mayor and the chief calling the office every half hour demanding the break that hadn't come yet.

A case like this made you want to reach out and hold on to your family, the people you loved. Hold on hard and not let go.

***

Fred Angelone had gotten home at five fifteen in the morning, just as the stars were beginning to disappear. Blair had stuck close all night, and he was near Jim now, hanging back a little to be out of the way. The patrolman had been showing Jim the open patio doors in back. The garden shed was nearby, and it was no mystery where the murder weapons had come from. The shed doors were standing open as well, exposing the shiny garden tools hanging neatly from a pegboard. There were two empty hooks. The garden tools left behind all had the same thick waxed ash handles as the spade and fork lying upstairs on Trish Angelone's bed.

Jim stopped, then, hearing the engine. "Car's coming."

"Oh man," Blair said, almost to himself. "Is it Mr. Angelone? "

Jim started moving again, long strides to the narrow walk along the garage back to the front of the house. The part of his mind that took in everything in moments like this saw the boxwood hedges, the spiraling topiary conifers, thick cedarwood mulch, neatly piled and very fresh. Those shiny garden tools hadn't been used to do any of this landscaping. Blue and red lights still flashed on the street in front of the house. Neighbors all along the cul-de-sac were standing in their driveways, watching. Simon was on the front porch next door, talking to the neighbors who had called the police in the first place. The Ottingers. A gray Mercedes was pulling slowly up the street, its headlights illuminating all the pale, eager, frightened faces in turn.

"Jim," Simon called. He said something briefly to the neighbor, then hurried back, his strides as long as Jim's, up the neighboring drive, along the street, meeting Jim in the Angelone's driveway. The Mercedes had slowed to a crawl. "Jim," Simon said again. "That's him. Do you want to --?"

Jim was watching the car. The headlights blinded him and he couldn't see the driver's face. "I'll do it. He knows Sandburg and me."

And there was Blair, so close that if Jim were to turn unexpectedly he'd probably trip over him. He reached out, grasped Sandburg's upper arm for a moment, looked into those wide open eyes. Almost blank with shock and sorrow. What the hell was he doing here? Jim thought furiously.

(Her face shattered like china, one blue-green eye gazing calmly out of the wreckage.)

"If you're not gonna be able to handle this, I need to know right now, Chief," he said, the words low and fast. Blair's face turned away from Jim's just for an instant, tracking the car. There wasn't room for Mr. Angelone to park in his own driveway, so he pulled to the curb. The headlights went out.

Blair met Jim's eyes again. "I can handle it." His voice was very steady.

"He's a suspect," Jim snapped. "You understand that?"

"I know," Blair said, telling Jim what he must have known Jim wanted to hear. "Because he's immediate family. Jim, I understand." The assurance meant nothing to Jim. Blair would have said anything, done anything, just to be sure he stayed at Jim's side.

He released Blair and turned back as the car door opened and Fred Angelone got out. Jim catalogued the dress slacks, the wrinkled white shirt. "I live here," he said, in a lost voice. He already knew what it was like, Jim thought distantly. First the tragedy, then the humiliation of losing your home to strangers.

"Mr. Angelone," Jim said, and brushed his hand over the hood of the car as he approached the man to see how hot the engine was. "Jim Ellison. We've met before."

"I know. I remember. Nice to --" The automatic response only got him so far. He looked at the house, then back to Jim. "What's going on?"

"I'm sorry," Jim told him. "Gwen and Trish are dead."

He staggered. Blair was at his side instantly, taking his arm. "Easy," Blair said. "Do you need to sit down? If you feel like you're gonna faint --"

Fred didn't even seem to notice he was there. "Dead? I don't understand." He shook his head slowly. "Was it the gas?" A sound that was horribly like a giggle escaped him. "Never did trust those gas logs Trish wanted."

"They were murdered," Jim told him.

"You mean Gwen too? Is Gwen dead too?"

"Your wife and daughter are both dead." Jim couldn't look at Blair even though he was so close, supporting Fred's weight as the man swayed on his feet. If he did, everything would rush in on him at once, and he couldn't allow it. Not now, not this instant, when everything depended on watching the expressions that crossed Fred Angelone's face.

He was a cop right now, not a Sentinel.

I'm sorry, Chief.

"Did they suffer?" Fred asked, his voice flat and dull.

"There were signs of violence at the scene."

"Oh my god. Who would -- just a little girl. Why would anyone --" He tore away from Blair, trying to push past Jim as well. "I want to see them."

"I'm sorry." Jim stopped him easily. "That's not possible."

"Take your hands off me. Goddamn you, Ellison!" He struggled fiercely for an instant. Jim heard Simon and one of the uniforms approaching fast, but the fight went out of Angelone almost at once. He sagged in Jim's arms, weeping in noisy, gasping sobs. Jim looked up and saw Blair watching it all, blue eyes wide, imprinted with so many horrors tonight.

Something inside Jim broke at the sight as well. The sensations that rushed through him so hot and fast were almost unendurable. The smells were the worst, because the blood permeated everything. Blood and fresh cedarwood mulch. Blood and Fred Angelone's aftershave. Blood and earth and asphalt, blood and the unstoppered bottle of lavender bath salts in the upstairs bedroom in that blood-soaked house, blood and Blair Sandburg.

Jim dragged Fred Angelone up, forcing him to keep his feet. Simon was close enough now to take an arm and help support him as well. "Mr. Angelone," he said. "Simon Banks. I want you to come with me now. Mrs. Ottinger said she'd be glad to make you a cup of tea, so we're gonna go next door and get out of the street, all right?"

Fred looked at Simon as though he were speaking another language. Then his head swung back to look at Jim again. "It's those people who kidnapped Gwen. You killed their boss. That's why. Oh god, that's why, isn't it? Who else would want to hurt an innocent little girl?"

"We're looking into all the possibilities," Simon assured him. "But it's too early to jump to any conclusions."

"You're the one who killed Gruenditch. Why didn't they come after your family?" Fred reached out, knotting his fist in the front of Jim's shirt. "I didn't want anybody to get hurt. I didn't care about the money. You're the one who shot him. I didn't have anything to do with it. Gwen didn't have anything to do with it. My baby was just a little girl. Why didn't anyone warn us? Why did you let this happen?" His voice was rising into hysteria. "I want an answer, detective. I think I deserve an answer." And then Angelone was weeping too violently to get the words out anymore. Simon motioned Jim back with a shake of his head and Jim stepped away. A patrolman helped Simon walk Angelone across to the neighbor's house. His knees kept buckling, and the sound of his weeping carried clearly in the still spring night. The neighbors stood watching, their faces washed out in the streetlights.

"Jim," Blair said, and there he was again, right at his side, his hand on Jim's shoulder. "You all right?"

Fine. Just fine. I'm the one trained for this. I'm the one who knows what I'm doing here.

He locked his jaw and looked away. There was a glow in the east. The streetlamps looked dimmer already. Blair's hand tightened on his shoulder. "It's not your fault, Jim. You know that. It didn't have anything to do with you."

 

8: sao jeronymo reserve, parana, brazil (ten years ago)

"We fell into the hands of soldiers suffering from a collective form of mental derangement, which would have repaid anthropological study, had the anthropologist not been obligated to use his entire intellectual resources for the purpose of avoiding its unfortunate consequences."
Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques

Blair's eyes widened in astonished recognition. "Desculpe-me," he blurted out. "Can I look at that?"

Luis Carlos Valin Orinoco turned, still holding the earthenware bottle. One eyebrow was raised in mild reproof, but he was smiling.

"I'm sorry," Blair apologized at once. "I'm a terrible guest, I know. Just tell me to get out, and I'll leave."

"Don't even joke about such things." Maria Amelia, Orinoco's wife, turned from the hearth and glared at her husband and at Blair. "You are always welcome in our home." She was roasting coffee beans on a bed of sugar, and the smell of the coffee and hot sugar mingled with the smoke from the hearth and the oil from the single paraffin lamp.

"I really just wanted to see it," Blair said sheepishly. He held his hands out in an empty-pockets gesture. "Besides, Zenaida's already got all my money."

The child sitting on the beaten dirt floor looked up at the mention of her name, her eyes crinkled to slits of amusement above her round cheeks. She was wearing Blair's concert T-shirt, just as she'd been every time Blair had seen her for the past two weeks. The shirt hung down past her knees, and the hem was unraveling. "I'm serious," Blair told the little girl, smiling back at her. "You've got everything. I've got no money, no nothing. Dead broke." He repeated it in English because it sounded more emphatic. He didn't know how much Zenaida understood, but she cocked her head thoughtfully.

Hemisfereo, Orinoco's brother-in-law, laughed out loud and said something Blair didn't quite catch, though he thought it might have meant "Too bad." Blair glanced over his shoulder, but Hemisfereo's head was still bent over the harness he was braiding. Zenaida went back to her game as well, muttering softly to herself. The game was complicated, involving circles drawn in the dirt and burnt matchsticks moved back and forth with all the solemnity of a general deploying his armies. It was Maria Amelia who took the bottle away from her husband and put it in Blair's hands. "It belonged to my grandmother, Miriam Madalena," she said.

Blair accepted it reverently. "You know what it looks like to me?"

Orinoco laughed. "Something else you read about in school, I'm sure."

Blair laughed too. "Well, yeah, it does, actually." He got up and went to crouch beside the bowl of paraffin on the floor, trying to see by the light of the floating wick. The bottle was small and roughly formed, shaped like a stylized human figure, but the design was oddly complex. There were two inner chambers, a hollow handle, and a spout with breathholes that made it look a little like a musical instrument.

"I could be completely wrong, but it looks kind of like the Moche/Huari whistling bottles. Those date back some twenty-five hundred years." He heard his own words as though someone else was speaking them, and the awe gave him a rollercoaster-ride feeling in his gut. "Some anthropologists think that Moche shamans might have used whistling bottles during yage ceremonies -- blowing into them produces a sound that may have real psychoacoustic effects, even without yage. One acoustic physicist detected as many as seven partials -- " Blair realized he had switched to English again in his excitement. Orinoco and Maria Amelia were regarding him with amused tolerance.

"OK, OK. I know, sorry. I always get carried away." Blair turned the clay bottle around in his hands, survival of a tradition that had crossed continents and millennia. He took a deep breath. "What do you use this for?"

Orinoco and his wife just looked at him as though he were still speaking English.

Blair lifted the pitcher. "No, I mean, what do you do with it? Do you carry water in it -- do you actually drink out of it, or what? Do you use it every day, or just for special occasions? Oh, hey, and do lots of people have these -- or just you? Are there any potters in the village who make these now?"

The blank expressions didn't change.

"Am I not saying this right?" Blair talked faster, stumbling over the unfamiliar language in his haste and frustration. "I just want to know what you do with this. Do you blow into these holes here? Or does it make a sound when you pour water or something out of it? Is that what it's for?"

Maria Amelia turned back to the hearth where the black coffee beans gleamed against the yellow sugar. "It belonged to Miriam Madalena," Orinoco said, and his voice was sad. "She died a long time ago."

Blair stopped at once. "I'm sorry," he said miserably. What did he think he was doing? Barging in on Orinoco and his family night after night, treating their home like an interactive anthropology exhibit. No better than the evangelicals he had come here with. At least his roommate and his friends were more honest about their motives. "I didn't mean to insult you," he went on quietly. "Forgive me."

He tried to hand the pitcher back to Orinoco, but he couldn't quite manage to let go of it. Despite his shame at his rudeness, every fiber of his being yearned to try it -- just once, just to know. So the whistling bottles were still being made two and a half millennia later? What were they used for? How had the tradition survived? Questions Orinoco and his family couldn't possibly answer -- questions Blair knew he didn't have the training or background to ask, even if they could have answered him. And still he couldn't let go of the bottle. He raised his eyes helplessly, and found that Hemisfereo had laid the harness down in his lap and was watching him. The red light from the hearth softened his expression until it looked like a smile.

"Go on, Blair," he said. It was the first time Blair could remember Hemisfereo speaking to him directly in all the time he had spent in Orinoco's house. "It won't hurt anything."

Blair's hands tightened on the vessel. He glanced at Orinoco and Maria Amelia again, and found nothing in their expressions to dissuade him. "Thank you," he said, and lifted the bottle to his mouth.

He blew softly, and it seemed he could feel the bottle vibrating in his hands. He took a deeper breath and blew again, deeper, slower, blowing into it as though it were a recorder, then angling his breath across the top as though it were a flute. He blew until he started to feel light-headed, and little black dots sparkled before his eyes. He finally heard a moan from the belly of the vessel, soft and low, ending with a squeak when he had to break off to gasp for air.

"Did you hear that?" he panted, ecstatic, just as the violent white light flooded the interior of the hut. The illumination was terrifying after an evening lit only by firelight. Blair laid the pitcher aside and stumbled to his feet. In the harsh light, the faces of Orinoco and his family were colorless. Zenaida had covered her eyes with her hands. Only then did Blair hear the car engine and realize the light came from headlights shining starkly through the open lattice walls of the hut.

"Oh, my Luis," Maria Amelia said to her husband in a flat, hopeless voice. When Blair looked at her, he saw that she was trembling. Orinoco put his arms around his wife and held her, smoothing his hands down her back and murmuring something that Blair couldn't hear over the racket of slamming car doors. Black silhouettes moved across the walls of the hut.

"What's going on?" Blair whispered, his voice shaking. He backed away from the flimsy palm-leaf door. "Who are they?"

No one answered him. Maria Amelia broke away from her husband and pulled Zenaida up from the floor, talking to her in a soft, rapid voice. Zenaida began to cry, a low wail that rose in the night as the door was carelessly torn from its hinges and men poured into the hut. Blair had no idea how many there were -- they seemed like an entire host, though they couldn't have been more than four or five. Haloed by the headlights behind them, their faces were shapeless blanks.

They were wearing masks, Blair realized an instant later. One of the intruders was screaming at them to get on the ground. Maria Amelia had pulled her granddaughter to the floor with her, curling around her as though her body were some protection. Blair tried to kneel, but his knees were locked. He just kept standing there, staring back at the men who had shattered the evening, and thinking that this could not be happening. He saw the gun barrel swing up. Nope, absolutely impossible.

Then a hand fell on his shoulder. Hemisfereo's. "Do what they say," he told Blair, and that calm voice broke Blair's paralysis. He dropped his head and sank to his knees, Hemisfereo's hand still on his shoulder. He felt a rush of wind past his head, and heard a flat crack. The hand on his shoulder fell away, and with a grunt, Hemisfereo sprawled flat on the ground. Blair dropped as well, expecting to be struck too. He reached for Hemisfereo anyway, curling his hand around the other man's wrist. Hemisfereo lay huddled on his side, a bright ribbon of blood winding across his face. "Are you all right?" Blair asked desperately.

He didn't answer Blair but he moved his arm down enough to clasp Blair's hand as well, and held him hard. The meaning in his eyes was unmistakable. Lie still. Be quiet.

Zenaida was still crying. One of the men had begun barking questions that Orinoco answered in a muffled voice. No, he didn't belong to the Comimissao Pastoral de Terra. No, no one in his family had participated in the occupation of the Jacuma estate. No one in his family had anything to do with communists.

Blair felt a sick, terrifying heat, trickling down his scalp like sweat.

No, Orinoco was saying. No one in his family had anything to do with Americans either.

Maria Amelia screamed once, piercingly, before the gunshot. Blair flinched, yanking his hand out of Hemisfereo's grasp to throw both arms over his head in an instinctive, hopeless attempt to shield himself. But then while his ears were still ringing, he got to his hands and knees. "Please!" he shouted in his clumsy Portuguese. "What do you think you're doing?" He tried to get to his feet. "Please stop, you don't need to do this." He saw faces covered in dirty cotton sacking, and gun barrels gleaming in the headlights, shiny as roasted coffee beans. Maria Amelia was sobbing. Shadows moved across the ceiling and the far walls of the hut, and there was blood on the dirt floor.

"No Americans?" said one of the men. "Then who's this? Just a white goat you brought in from the stable?"

Someone kicked him, the booted foot driving under his ribcage. Blair crashed to the floor, curling helplessly around the blow. The second kick glanced off his knees, drawn up protectively over his gut. The toe of the boot hit his chin and snapped his head back. He sprawled flat, the shock of pain so profound that for long moments he couldn't even breathe. He simply lay there, tasting blood in his mouth, feeling it run down his face, and looked up at the palm leaves interlaced across the ceiling. He heard a low sound coming from somewhere near at hand. Someone moaning.

No, not a someone at all. Something. That precious whistling bottle. Its moan filled the hut, crowding out all the other sounds around Blair. He closed his eyes for a moment, concentrating, but the sound faded when he did that, so he opened them again. The roof of Orinoco's hut was gone. Blair saw wavering outlines, deflected sunlight, tangled greenery, as though he were looking up into the jungle from beneath the surface of a lake. He couldn't hear the bottle at all anymore. Now all he could hear was the roar of rushing water.

 

9: cascade, washington (11:05 tuesday evening)

As carefully as Sandburg had been watching him, the little exploratory surgery he made before dinner shouldn't have been a surprise. But Jim was still unprepared when Blair suddenly came back to the couch and tapped Jim's forehead with two fingers. "By the way, how are your senses doing, Jim? You feeling in control? Everything OK up here?"

Jim snorted in exasperation and pushed his hand away, which didn't bother Sandburg, of course. He dropped onto the sofa beside him. "Oh, come on, talk to me, man. You need to be one hundred percent here. If something's wrong I want to know about it."

He shouldn't have let the growl escape, but he was so tired, and there were no defenses around Blair. "Not now, Sandburg. I just want you and Sigmund Freud to leave me alone until we've got a suspect behind bars, you understand me?"

Blair just wrapped an arm around Jim's neck, having to pull Jim down a little to manage it. "Right, tough guy, I understand you. Would you rather I ordered pizza? It won't hurt my feelings."

Jim closed his eyes. Blair's arm was heavy over the back of his neck, all the scents of that nursery he'd gone to filling Jim's head. "Whatever's easiest," Jim said quietly. "I don't have a lot of energy tonight."

"Right. That sounds like 'anything but the sun-dried tomato paste and feta cheese,' to me," Blair said. "Listen, I'll get pizza, then you tell me what the plan is for tomorrow, OK?"

"You're gonna be at school," Jim said. "That's the plan."

"Nice try." His left arm still resting heavily over Jim's neck, Blair threw a mock punch at his stomach. Jim caught his fist in his hand. "Classes don't start till Friday. I'm with you on this one." When Blair tried to pull his fist free, Jim held on. "I can handle this, you need me --" He was grunting now, trying more seriously to twist his hand free of Jim's easy grip. "So you just might as well give it a rest." He finally had to take his arm off of Jim's neck, trying to unpry Jim's fingers with his other hand. "What do you think you're doing?"

Jim let go. "Just trying to defend myself."

"You're such a dick," Blair told him cheerfully, pushing through the books and papers stacked on the coffee table. "And what have you done with the phone? How am I supposed to order pizza if I can't even find the telephone? Last time I saw it, it was right here. Doesn't it bug you the way it's always getting lost?"

Jim crossed his arms over his chest. "Anything I say, you're likely to start beating on me again."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Tell it to the marines." Blair checked behind the cushions of the other sofa, lifted aside the stack of journals piled up on the yellow chair on top of a red corduroy jacket that Jim knew perfectly well had been there for five days now, ran his hand along the top bookshelves and then finally said, "Oh well. We'll find it next time somebody calls, I guess," and padded into the kitchen to use the phone on the wall.

Jim sighed, long and deep. He did it again, breathing carefully, letting the air out slowly. He happened to raise his eyes then and see Blair watching him from across the room, a pleased little almost-smile on his face.

Caught, Jim thought. So the deep breathing worked and Blair knew it. He closed his eyes and deliberately inhaled more slowly yet. As he breathed out he heard Blair dialing, the nattering of a tinny voice on the other end of the line that Jim had no interest in trying to hear, and then Blair saying, "Sure, I'll hold."

Blair's fingers drummed against the wall as he waited. One foot tapped. Jim kept his eyes closed, and listening to the varied sounds of Sandburg nominally at rest. At last Blair said, "Yeah, hey. Calling to get a pizza delivered? Great." He gave the address, having to spell 'Prospect.' "That'll be a large, one-half vegetarian supreme, no cheese, and a double order of greek olives, and the other half double pepperoni, bacon and green peppers. Extra cheese on that half. You get that? Need me to repeat it? What do you mean? No, it's OK. I order it all the time. Ask Abdullah. Is he there tonight? Just tell him it's Blair Sandburg. It's OK. Sand-burg. Oh, come on, man. Work with me here."

Jim opened his eyes when he realized how close he had come to falling asleep. Blair was just hanging up. "I hate it when they hire new people." He got out a couple of mugs and poured two cups of tea. Jim could hear errant droplets splashing on the counter. Blair didn't seem to notice, of course, and carried the mugs over to the sofa without stopping to wipe the counter. "It's chamomile." he told Jim, handing him one. "It'll help you relax."

"So would a beer," Jim said, but he took the mug.

"You don't need that kind of relaxing," Blair said seriously. "Neither one of us does." He pulled his legs up, sitting cross-legged on the couch beside him. "So what's the plan tomorrow?"

Jim looked at him. "I'll be talking to Fred Angelone. That's first on the agenda."

Blair lowered his head immediately and pretended to be engrossed in the stream rising from the mug of tea.

"Chief," he said quietly. "There's no need for you to be there. I know you want to be there. I know you want to look out for me, but this has nothing to do with my senses. In fact, I'd feel a lot better if you went to school tomorrow anyway."

Blair looked up at once, and Jim knew he'd already lost. "No, Jim. I'm with you."

Just like last night.

***

What a hell of a partnership this was, Jim thought, and wondered if Blair understood. Blair's hand was still on his shoulder, Fred Angelone weeping and cursing as Simon and Officer Yolen helped him into the neighbor's house. The moment Blair touched him, everything had clarified and come to rest. Jim could still smell the blood, but he could filter, make choices. The reek upstairs was different from the lingering scent clinging to Sandburg's hair and clothes, the smell of it on his own skin, a miasma of filth that twisted his stomach where the remains of dinner so many hours ago still sat, indigestible. Why had he tried to eat that? He could still taste it at the back of his throat, the taint of corruption and decay. Just what he needed, to double over and lose it here in the driveway.

Jim hesitated, then reached up and covered Blair's hand with his own for a moment before shrugging free and walking around to the driver's side of Fred Angelone's car. He snapped on a latex glove and opened the car door, smelling leather, Mr. Angelone's aftershave, and stale coffee. The styrofoam cup from a 7-11 still sat in the cup holder. He closed his eyes and waited. Only a moment, and Blair was next to him again, close enough to touch. "Anything?" he asked Jim, and then put his hand on Jim's back.

With Blair so close everything was discrete, manageable. When Blair touched him, the clarity was more perfect still, a serene concentration that stretched out into the world, searching, accepting, seeking further, stretching on and on through the darkness of dawn, following a thread that wavered and shimmered so faint and clear and far away --

There. He backed away from the car and stood up. There it was. Blair's hand was still on his back. Jim wanted to weep, and he wondered if Blair knew that too. This was the cruel bargain he struck for the use of these senses. When he was open enough to use them the way Blair wanted, he couldn't shut out the other things either. Couldn't retreat behind the hard angry shell, the cop who could look at the corpse of a little girl and feel nothing but the angry desire to find her killer.

Did Blair know what a lousy cop the sentinel was?

"This way," he said, taking long strides so Blair had to jog a little to catch up. The white-faced neighbors retreated in his wake, but not by much. Jim heard them shuffling back to the end of their driveways after he had passed. The road curved down around the steep hill, and they were almost to the intersection before the first news van passed them. Jim hardly noticed, but Blair stopped to watch it go by, then ran again to catch up with Jim. "Vultures," Blair muttered.

Close, now. Along the alley that backed another block of homes that were too large for the lots they were built on, and much too close together. A dog started barking frantically. Jim stopped. Now that he was so near, it was more difficult. There were too many other smells. The uniform city garbage cans that lined the alley were all full. Rotting food. Disposable diapers. Waste, filth, decay, everything the living cast off from themselves in dismay, as though it would somehow delay the inevitable.

"Sandburg, it's here," He turned in a broad circle. "But I'm losing it. You've gotta help me."

"Hey, Jim." He was right in front of him, hands on either side of his face, making Jim look at him. "Listen to me. You're not losing it. If it's here, you can find it. Just hold on. Take it slow."

When Jim closed his eyes, steadied and grounded by the warmth of Blair's hands on him, he found it almost it once, the stunning pure scent of death that brought everything back with such horrific clarity that he staggered a little, groaning. That child dead in her own bedroom, on her own bed. She might have seen it coming. Unlike her mother, her body lay sideways on the bed, one foot almost touching the floor. It looked as though she had been trying to get up out of the bed the moment her murderer struck.

He pushed Blair aside roughly in his haste. Here it was. The fourth garbage can on the right side of the street. He eased off the lid, still wearing the latex glove, saw and smelled the rotting lettuce, cat litter, and blood.

He pulled out the crinkling material slowly. The paper looked dark gray under the glow of dawn and the security lights. The blood spattering it was black.

"Aw, Jim!" Blair said. "Fantastic! I knew you could do it. We're like two blocks away and --" He broke off as suddenly as he had started, and Jim knew he was seeing it too. The grim reaper stalking the upstairs hallway of the Angelone home in a green paper surgical gown, wielding gardening tools from Smith & Hawken. Jim didn't know whether to laugh or scream. Blair was panting softly, sounding as though he was trying to keep from being sick.

Sandburg was an anthropologist. An academic. He had no business being here.

Jim never would have found this without him.

***

"Forty-five minutes till the pizza gets here," Blair said. "Maybe longer, they're always so slow. You want something to munch on?" Blair had finished his cup of tea and set it aside. Jim took the opportunity to put his own almost-untouched mug down as well. He really didn't like chamomile. The honey sweet smell of it was too intense. It crept up on him, interfered with other things, tinged everything with its sickly yellow glow.

Blair glanced down at the discarded mug, then back at Jim, almost smiling. "It really would help you relax."

"Sandburg, listen to me. I know you think you can handle this. You're probably right. The problem is, I'm not sure that I can handle having you involved in this case. Can you understand that?"

Blair sat back heavily, slumping so he could rest his head on the back of the couch. His hands lay open at his sides as he gazed up at the ceiling, considering. Jim thought about beating a strategic retreat, taking a shower, maybe, or going upstairs, but it wouldn't do anything but delay Blair a little, if at all. He envisioned having this conversation with Blair shouting at him over the noise of the shower, and decided to just stay put.

"I understand," Blair said at last. He rolled his head to the side and smiled at him. "I think I do, anyway. But there's something you need to know." He took a deep breath. "This afternoon. While I was at the nursery." Blair sat up, pulling his knees up, then crossing his legs and propping his elbows on his knees. "No, that's something else."

Jim felt a funny little shiver of cold right down his spine. The same sort of feeling he got when he realized he had left something very important undone. "What is it?"

"Just, I do understand, Jim. I think sometimes you forget I didn't spend my whole life in the library before I met you. I've seen stuff out in the field that wasn't any easier to handle than this case is."

"What happened at the nurs -"

"This was in Madagascar. Five, six years ago. Something like that, while I was doing fieldwork with the Betsileo. You know, I'd really pushed for that grant, but I was still probably too young, not nearly enough field experience, though maybe it wouldn't have made any difference in the end. There are some things you just can't be prepared for, no matter what. Anyway, I hadn't been there any more than six weeks, just long enough to start to feel at home, get to know some of the villagers, and this young woman who had told me a lot about their creation myths gave birth to twins. The Betsileo -- um -- they believe twins are monstrous. Inhuman. As soon as Adheo was strong enough, she took her own babies, these two beautiful baby girls, and she -- "

Jim knew this wasn't what Blair had intended to tell him at first, but tears were suddenly bright in his eyes, and Jim couldn't interrupt. "She killed them herself. I was right there. A part of me knew exactly what was going to happen, but I just couldn't believe it. Then it was all over with, just like that, and I hadn't done a thing. Ever since then I've thought, I don't know, that maybe if I had been more prepared I could have gotten them away, brought them home and raised them myself --" Tears spilled down his cheeks and he wiped them away clumsily with the back of his hand. "Stupid. There was nothing I could have done, not really. But I still think about them."

He got up suddenly and walked away, getting as far as the kitchen counter. He stopped and stood there, his back to Jim, and said softly, "So I understand, Jim, I really do, but you don't have to try to protect me from this. I'm already involved." His voice got quieter. "I mean, I've already been there. There's no way to take it back now."

He turned around and faced Jim at last, his arms crossed over his chest, his chin thrust out in determination. "You need me on this, Jim. And I need you even worse to get through it, because the real, total truth is, this is eating me up inside. When I think about what happened to Gwen, it's like a fire burning up my brain. Like I'm losing my mind." There was a catch in his voice, and his eyes were suddenly wide, as though he had suddenly revealed far more than he'd meant to.

"Sandburg -" Jim began, frustrated, grieving, and furious with himself. He'd known Blair had no place in an investigation like this. He never should have let the Blair ride along last night. What the hell had he been thinking?

He'd been thinking he couldn't face this alone either.

 

10: sao jeronymo preserve, parana, brazil (ten years ago)

" That the fate of a human being could be settled in so short a time and in such an offhand manner filled me with amazement. I could not bring myself to believe what I had just witnessed had actually happened. Even today, no dream, however fantastic or far-fetched, can inspire me with such a feeling of incredulity."
Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques

The stars were so beautiful. Blair watched, breathless, as the rope of the Milky Way arced across the sky. He felt a great wind at his back, lifting his shoulders and urging him skyward.

No, not wind at all. Rushing waters, boiling out of the deep places of the earth.

Then voices spoke in anger, and the vision bled away like water from a cracked cistern. There was nothing under Blair's back but a dirt floor, and nothing overhead but the roof of Orinoco's hut. A man crouched down over him, blocking Blair's view of the roof, and wrapped his fist in the front of Blair's shirt. He had no features, just blank, black holes where his eyes should have been. Hurting and confused, Blair reached for that featureless face, touched the sackcloth, felt lips moving underneath. Then the man's other fist came down hard, smashing into Blair's mouth and crushing him to the earth.

Maria Amelia wept. The man who had struck Blair was screaming at him to stand up.

"Stop hitting me," Blair said, tasting blood. His lips felt swollen, and the right side of his face was numb. Even his teeth hurt. "I'm getting up." He tried to get to his feet, but the man above him still had his fist knotted in Blair's shirt, and the pressure in the center of his chest kept him down. Blair put his hands around man's fist. "Look, how do you expect me to --"

He saw a blur of movement from the corner of his eye an instant before the stiff-armed slap knocked his head to the side. Then while he was groaning and trying not to be sick, the man who kept hitting him dragged him to his feet by the grip he had on Blair's shirt. It hurt, just like everything else hurt, the seams in the armholes cutting into his shoulders, the collar drawn across the back of his neck like a yoke. He tried to stand, but the pain in his side doubled him over.

A hard yank on the front of his shirt, and he lost his footing altogether, twisting helplessly as his feet tangled and dragged across the dirt. The hot, close smells of coffee and paraffin and too many men in very close quarters gave way to the cold openness of the night countryside. Blair could hear the car engine running, and the reek of exhaust blotted out the living scent of cattle in the nearby field. The glare of the headlights leached the color from everything. He heard his own voice talking on desperately as he was dragged into the shadow of the car. He was trying to explain that there was no need for them to do any of this, and he was pleading with them to leave Orinoco and his family alone. He was begging for his own life as well.

Then his shirt ripped, and Blair dropped to the ground. He reached out a desperate hand, still trying to stand up, still pleading. A booted foot rolled him onto his back. The muzzle of a gun was in his face, pressed hard against his bruised lips, and the man above him hissed, "No vai terboca."

You're not going to have a mouth left.

There were others moving in the periphery of Blair's vision. Orinoco, being carried between two of the masked men, and Hemisfereo limping behind, holding his head with both hands. Blair heard the creak of a heavy car door swinging open, but he couldn't turn his head to see. He was staring hopelessly up at the faceless man above him. The man was laughing in anger, and he bore down so hard that Blair's bottom lip split under the pressure of the muzzle. Blood trickled down his chin.

A night bird screamed over and over again. Blair heard the thump, and Orinoco's groan of pain. Up until that moment, he hadn't realized that Orinoco was still alive. He heard the click of the trunk being released, and the thump of another body. Suddenly the pressure against Blair's mouth was gone, and with the abrupt release, everything hurt more than ever. Someone grabbed his arm and hauled him to his feet again, half-dragging, half-pushing him around to the back of the car.

It was a huge old Chrysler, Blair noticed with a shuddering sense of the absurd. Hemisfereo already lay huddled in the trunk, one wide eye visible in the dim light. "No, please," Blair said, but it did no good. A rough hand knotted around the waistband of his jeans, hauling him off his feet, and tumbling him forward to land in a tangle of limbs. There wasn't room for both of them, but Blair heard the lid swinging down, and Hemisfereo must have seen it. He grabbed Blair and pulled him down as it slammed shut, smacking hard against Blair's back.

Car doors slammed. The engine coughed and refused to start. Once, twice, a third time, then idled roughly, the whole car shaking and the trunk filling with exhaust fumes. Blair coughed and felt bile rise in his throat. He swallowed violently. Hemisfereo's elbow was pressed hard against Blair's aching ribs, and Blair knew his own elbows and knees had to be hurting the other man as well. It was already difficult to breathe, and would only get worse. No need to worry where they were taking him, or what they planned to do with him when they got there. Blair doubted he would survive the journey.

"Run," Hemisfereo said, his breath puffing against Blair's cheek, and Blair moaned. The car finally lurched into movement, jostling them violently, and the pain in Blair's side stabbed like a knife. Run? He couldn't run even if by some miracle he got the chance to try. He wouldn't even be able to stand up. Oh god, this was not the way he had planned the summer at all, he thought, still dazed by the speed with which everything had ended. Who would tell Naomi? What would they tell her? Would anyone even know what had happened to him?

The car was moving faster now, jouncing over a dirt road rutted with wagon tracks. "I'm sorry," he told Hemisfereo, wincing as they were jolted over and over again. This was all he could do, and it was so little. A worse-than-useless apology from the stupid kid who had gotten them all killed. "They never would have come if it wasn't for me. I'm so sorry."

Hemisfereo managed to find Blair's arm in the darkness. He held on hard, coughing, and finally managed in a whisper. "Pray to the Virgin."

"But I'm not even a missionary," Blair said in despair. "You don't understand, I've lied about everything, all along." He couldn't say anything more. He was taking great, violent gasps of air, but it did so little good he might as well have been underwater. His lungs burned, and he could feel pins and needles in his fingers and toes. What a horrible way to die -- though maybe it would be easier than the gunshot. What would they do with his body?

Hemisfereo said, "You sang the icaro."

Blair knew he had heard that word before, but he couldn't remember what it meant. Perhaps he should ask. Hemisfereo's voice was clear and low, not whispering anymore. A great, rushing blackness seemed to be falling over Blair, and he knew that if he had been able to turn his head, he could have seen right through the trunk of the car, up to the great vault of the jungle and the stars beyond.

And then he found he could turn his head after all, and when he did, he saw the tree. The roots drank from the water at the center of the world, and the canopy was the Milky Way. Water poured through the heart of the tree and up into the heavens. Blair swayed closer, reached out, and saw that his own outstretched arm was covered with eyes. Hundreds of them, thousands, blinking open one after the other. There were no more illusions now. At last he was seeing true. Hemisfereo sat crosslegged, weaving a harness by firelight, and coiled around his forehead was a serpent that shone like gold. He told Blair, "Sing, curandero. If you are strong and wise, the white souls who take care of the universe will take care of you too."

The next thing Blair knew, he was on his hands and knees in the mud, throwing up over and over again. Every time his stomach contracted, he felt the pain in his side like a hot poker between his ribs. I'm supposed to be running, he thought vaguely. Headlights shone against the side of his face, burning like the sun. He could smell the vegetable reek of slow moving water somewhere close by.

At last, too weak to support his own weight anymore, he curled onto his side, and saw Orinoco and Hemisfereo beside him. Orinoco lay face down, blood pooling underneath him. Hemisfereo knelt, head bowed, eyes closed as he crossed himself. A man was holding a gun at the back of his head. Blair heard the click, and shut his eyes before the explosion.

He couldn't hear his own screams over the gunshot, but he felt his throat burned raw by the force of them. His ears still ringing from the blast, Blair didn't hear the splat of Hemisfereo's body hitting the mud either, but he heard the rest of it, footsteps squelching, a pause, and then the splash.

They came for Orinoco next. Blair opened his eyes and watched them, reminded in a strange, distant way of the time he had surprised a very young rabbit in the woods. The creature had been stupefied with terror, crouching frozen on the path, the heaving of its sides the only sign of life. Blair didn't think his own sides were heaving though. He wasn't even sure he was breathing. But Orinoco was. Blair saw the man's fingertips twitch, and the instant of insane hope gave him the strength to say, "Please help him. Look, it's not too late."

No one paid any attention to him. Two of the men hoisted Orinoco like a bag of cement and carried him beyond the glare of the headlights. Now would be the time to run, Blair thought. He heard the splash, and he was still lying there when they returned at last for him. They surrounded him, muddy boots standing in a circle around his head, and someone tried to push him over onto his stomach. They were going to shoot him in the back of the head, just like they had shot Hemisfereo. Then they were going to throw his body in the water, and no one would ever know what had become of him. Blair braced himself with one hand, and he shouted up at his murderers, struggling to make his voice loud enough to carry over the roar of the night jungle. The croaking of a million frogs, the song of a billion insects. So many lives teeming around him in such overabundance it seemed absurd to fight for one more. He didn't know what he was saying until he heard the words. He didn't even know if he were speaking in English or Portuguese anymore.

"Richard Melton is my father. Listen, you don't know what you're doing here. I'm the son of the American ambassador."

There was a moment of perfect stillness from the men above him, then an explosion of sound. But not the gunshot he was expecting, just the loud voices of angry, frightened men, cursing each other and cursing Blair. Someone kicked him in the belly, and he folded in agony. There was a scuffle above him, an argument, and finally rough hands grabbed his arms and dragged him up. He couldn't breathe past the pain in his stomach and his side. Someone ripped a long piece from his already-torn shirt and used it to blindfold him, knotting it hard at the back of his head. Blair hung suspended in their arms, not entirely certain that he wasn't already dead. He was blind now, and he still couldn't breathe, and Hemisfereo was singing. Blair could hear his low voice under the slow murmur of the water.

He was pulled around, felt metal against his shins, and began to fall. He tried to bring his arms around to brace himself, but his knees bumped hard, and then his bruised stomach. The pain was as sharp and brittle as glass, and when he finally gasped a breath, the jagged hurt made tears start to his eyes. Someone hauled at his shoulders, dragging him forward. His cheek scraped across a rough, carpeted surface that reeked of mildew and blood. He was on the floorboards in the backseat of the Chrysler, lying with his face in a puddle of Orinoco's blood. He felt movement above him, careless blows and kicks, and then booted feet resting on his calves and heavy against his shoulder. He was thinking if only he'd kept his mouth shut, he could have been resting now. No more terror and pain, just the sluggish flow of water, Hemisfereo's low voice, and the stars moving overhead like wind-tossed leaves.

 

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