Disclaimer: All disclaimers, usual or unusual, apply.
Author's Notes: Inspired by a Themefic request from Hephaistos on the SentinelAngst List.
The Compassion Trap
It wasn't a dark and stormy night. It wasn't even a bright, sunny, hopeful morning, which in Cascade would have been enough to warn the cynical that Portents R Us could be in business. Instead, grey skies made a blandly predictable backdrop to a normal working day, and that suited Blair Sandburg fine; he was in the enviable position of loving his work and a routine day had its own charms. He glanced at his watch as he picked up the papers from his lecture. The last of his freshmen had just left the hall, enthused (he hoped) with the wondrous possibilities of anthropology, and the sad reality of their assignments wouldn't come 'til later in the term. He had a couple of precious hours for research and coffee, not necessarily in that order, and then he'd an interesting seminar to attend. He had no problems on his mind at all, unless he counted the question of whether Jim should be persuaded to knowingly eat something that was, technically, a seaweed, or whether it should simply be a mystery ingredient. Amazing that anyone with a background in special forces should be so picky. Of course, nobody really wanted a survival situation in their own kitchen...
There should have been a drum roll or an outbreak of ominous music; life's nasty surprises ought to come better heralded than the one that sprang out at Blair from the doldrums of the morning's timetable. Instead it came as silently as an assassin, and put the knife neatly into all his peaceful musing. One moment Blair was turning the corner towards the stairs, thinking of nothing very much at all. The next, his eyes had lighted on a visitor walking briskly along the hall towards the fire doorsand between one heartbeat and the next his day was shattered into jigsaw recollections of an almost forgotten nightmare.
He stopped dead, stared at the silhouette of the man against the light, reacted at a level below thought. The visitor, quite unaware of him, went on. Blair tried to control his breathing, which was suddenly turning to the rapid respiration of childhood panic. He tried to get a grip on his thoughts, to talk sense to himself of chance resemblance, of how you couldn't recognise a man after fifteen years from a briefly seen outline in a hall. It wasn't possible that it could be the person he remembered anyway. Logically he knew that man could not be here. Defiant of logic, his mind spewed up long past images of fear and revulsion, and he had to put a hand on the wall to convince himself of the reality of the here and now. His palms were sweaty, his heart pounding.
"Mr Sandburg, are you all right?"
He wasn't just scaring himself, he was scaring the students. He couldn't focus on the face in front of him, but he found the breath from somewhere to answer as normally as he could, "Yes, thanks. Just need a cup of coffee."
Having to speak jerked him back into some sort of grip on things. The man had gone. He looked along the empty corridor, and then hurried down to his own little cubby hole of an office. With hands that he could actually see shaking he shut and locked the door, then dropped at his overcrowded table and let his head rest on his arms. Rational or not, coincidence or not, that brief glimpse in the hallway had started off a chain of memories he would much rather endure in privacy.
Alone on the streets of Denver. He'd never been quite so alone in a place he didn't know at all. It wasn't Naomi's fault. He was thirteen, going on fourteen; he ought to be resourceful enough to sort this out. Okay, so the area looked rough, but you couldn't judge people by where they had to live... only you could judge them other ways, and it only took a glance to tell him to keep away from them, and he couldn't help noticing it was getting dark. He tried to walk purposefully so that nobody paid him any attention, because he didn't think 'rough diamond' was the way the most ardent philanthropist would describe anyone he could see. Maybe if he kept his head down and kept moving he would be just another scrawny kid and no one would think he was worth bothering with, and he wouldn't panic, and he'd keep breathing not panting and he wouldn't start to go too fast, and shit it was getting darker...
He came back down from the standing jump record he thought he'd probably just set, and if it didn't look much like the sort of rescuer he'd have liked in an ideal world, at least it was someone his own sizemaybe even scrawnierand the blue eyes that looked him over were surprisingly concerned. Blair took in the thin face and worn clothes, and the air the boy had of being able to look after himself.
"I'm lost," he admitted.
"Y' look it, and this ain't the best place t' be wandering. Where d'y want ta go?"
The accent, though Blair couldn't quite place it, certainly wasn't Denver, but the boy looked as if he knew his way about. He could think of a few inventive possibilities to avoid telling the truth about his predicament, but that wouldn't give him any more options than his current zero, and those blue eyes, still fixed intently on him, seemed to invite honesty.
"I don't really know," he said. "I don't know Denver. My mom sent me to stay with some friends of hers here, but when I got to their apartment they were... they'd just been busted, pigs found some weed. I saw the car. They took them all away."
"She sent ya here, on y' own?"
Blair flushed, not prepared to accept even this hint of criticism of Naomi. "It wasn't her fault. She hadn't seen them for ages; she just had an address. I don't think she knew what it was like here, or maybe she forgot. Anyway, my mom doesn't judge people by where they live. Only it's kind of difficult now, and I don't want to go anywhere official because that could make trouble for her. "
"Y' got any money?"
Blair shook his head. Naomi had barely had enough for the two bus fares, his to Denver, hers to some kind of impromptu meditation centre. "It shouldn't be long though. I mean, she'll come as soon as they let her know."
"They'll only get one phone call. Why don't y' ring her y'self?"
"She hadn't got a contact number when I got the bus. She was going to phone them with it when she got to the place."
"So she mightn't even ha' done it in time? Y' got an address for her?"
"No." He had to struggle again to quell the persistent risings of panic. The meditation place had been one of Naomi's more sudden decisions, inspired by the enthusiasm of a couple they'd met on the road. They'd given her rough directions, but warned her it wouldn't accept Blair. These friends in Denver had been the only ones who could have Blair at short notice; she'd made hasty arrangements and bought the bus tickets. He realised miserably he didn't even know the name of the meditation place. In spite of his best efforts, his breathing kept coming faster and faster, and his heart was pounding uncomfortably.
"What's y' name?" his companion asked quietly, something more supportive than mere sympathy in the blue eyes.
"Blair," he managed. "Blair Sandburg."
"I'm Vin Tanner. Reckon y'd better come with me. We c'n sort this out."
Fifteen years later, Blair could still remember the relief he'd felt at this quietly confident reassurance. He'd picked up his small backpack and gone with him without any hesitation; even now he'd met only a few people in life who'd inspired him with as much trust as Vin had done that night.
Vin Tanner. They'd been closer than brothers for a month; had kept up a sort of correspondence for a surprising number of years against the odds of ever changing addresses and Vin's difficulties with writing . Then he'd got into Rainier and Vin into the army, and they'd both had so many new challenges they'd almost lost touch. He'd had a card maybe three years ago, telling him Vin was out of the Rangers and, of all things, bounty hunting. It hadn't had an address, presumably nor had Vin, and the bounty hunting on top of the Rangers had discouraged Blair from even trying to reply. If he ever thought of Vin, it was to wonder how the quiet, compassionate boy he remembered could have become a part of something so violent. How did someone change so much?
Now, somehow, his own perspective had changed as well. Working with Jim had done that. Sitting, still shivering slightly, at his desk, he thought again of the Vin he'd known: quiet, but immensely streetwise, tough and competent; gentle, but passionate in his protection of those who needed it. Blair's idea of the Rangers was no longer the one that he'd learned from a hundred communes, and if he still had reservations, they were muted by his (off the record) admiration of Jim.
This wasn't something he wanted to talk to Jim about, thoughwhich meant he'd definitely better keep well out of Jim's way 'til his heart had stopped racing and he could stand up without shaking. Otherwise what was he going to have to say? I saw a man who scared me rigid, though I know he couldn't really have been who I thought he was. He just reminded me of something that happened when I was a kid, when Naomi accidentally mislaid me for a month in Denver... That would go down really well. Cop instincts and Jim's archaic views on child-rearing would have a field day with it.
He forced himself to make a cup of coffee and drink it, and organise his thoughts like a logical academic, not a teenager. It was... highly improbable that Dr Levine, if that had really been his name, was alive. Not impossible, though. Blair could think of several rather far-fetched scenarios which might explain it. But how much of a coincidence would it have to be for him to turn up at Rainier and be recognised by Blair? Logic, pushed into action, suggested that the visitor might well have signed in with some reason for his presence in the hall, and that Blair could walk upstairs and start to look into this.
He'd do it in a minute.
Instead he opened his laptop, connected to the internet and settled to what might be a long search. He felt a sharp need to talk about what had happenedpreferably to someone whose response might be a reassuring 'we c'n sort this out.' Vin Tanner, where are you now?
Friday afternoon, and the paperwork on Chris Larabee's desk was piled dauntingly high. Two successful busts and one washout had made for a busy week and a hell of a lot too much report writing. He glanced out into the office. There was paperwork supposed to be getting finished out there too, but it seemed to be coming a poor second to more relaxing pursuits. Nathan was on the phone, which might have looked like work if Chris hadn't recognised the inanely grinning look on his face as the one he wore when he'd successfully set up a date with Rain. Josiah was leaned over his work, but the angle of his head suggested he was napping not thinking. Buck was unashamedly taking a break, with his feet on the desk, and although JD was absorbed at the computer, Chris could see exploding meteorites on the screen, not text.
He expected to see Ezra writing, because Ez was claiming expenses so vast that Chris had told him to make his case direct to Orrin Travis, but even that motivation didn't seem to be working. Ezra was staring into space. Or perhaps not into space. Chris tilted his chair so he could see him more clearly. He realised then that though Ezra looked relaxed and his gaze was apparently on nothing more interesting than the window, he was in fact covertly watching the last member of Team 7the only one currently working.
So Ezra had noticed too. There'd been something on Vin's mind for two or three days now, though Chris doubted if anyone but himself and his undercover man would have picked up on it. Vin was too professional to allow anything to distract him when he was working, and it was barely perceptible when the quality of his quietness changed at other times. He was typing laboriously but steadily now and looked like being the first finished, but as he frowned at the screen there was still that shadow of some other problem haunting the lines of his face. Ezra looked up, perhaps with a sixth sense attuned to knowing when he was watched, caught Chris's eye and infinitesimally shrugged. So Ez had no more idea than Chris himself what, if anything, was wrong. Chris made the slightest gesture in return, and turned back to his paperwork. He'd reduced the pile by a millimetre or two before his sharpshooter walked in.
"Problem?" Chris asked.
Vin shook his head. "I'm done. Y'don't want me for anything else?"
The wrong note in his voice was barely noticeable, something too subtle to define. It grated on Chris like nails down a chalkboard.
He leaned back in his chair and waited.
" 'm going t'see a... friend for the weekend."
Chris thought maybe he caught the slightest of pauses before the word. "Old friend?" he tried.
Vin nodded, still not quite looking up to meet his eyes. "Be back Monday."
"Going far?" Chris was feeling his way here, step by cautious step. If Vin hadn't wanted any conversation he'd have been gone by now, but Chris didn't want to push the questions.
"Cascade," Vin said.
A whole jumble of questions ran through Chris's mind, well in the lead 'Is it trouble?' and 'You want me to come?' He bit them back and Vin offered quietly, "Tell y'about it Monday."
He finally looked up as he said it. Chris met his eyes and nodded. It might be trouble, but Vin didn't want company. Still, at least he wanted to talk when he'd got it sorted; and Chris had some idea now where this needed to go. He dropped his chair back onto four legs, stood up and held out his hand. Their arms locked for a moment, and Chris knew that this was right, that for some reason Vin had needed this reassurance. What the hell are you up to, cowboy that you need to take that reassurance with you?
Paperwork forgotten, he watched Vin out of the door of the office; he was filled with unease, all the more powerful for being so ill defined. He saw without surprise that his undercover agent was also unobtrusively watching. Figured. Times were when he and Ezra communicated about as well as if they spoke two different languages, but when it came to Vin they'd got an understanding that didn't even need words. He'd buy Ez a drink when the damn reports were all done; if nothing else they'd have company while they drowned their concern.
It wasn't until he slipped quietly into the loft in the early hours of Saturday morning that Jim remembered Blair had a visitor for the weekend. It was a mark of how tired he was and how prolonged his current case had been that everything else had been forgotten, but at least this last, lengthy stake out had paid off, and it was all over bar the reports. The main thing on his mind now was to get some sleep, but other thoughts had begun to filter through as he drove home. Now as he stood in the darkness of the kitchen, which wasn't dark for him, most of those thoughts were of Blair.
Blair had been... off balance, somehow, all week. It hadn't been obvious, and Jim had been home so little he might not have noticed it, except that whatever it was had disturbed Blair's sleep. Several times Jim had stirred from his own half-exhausted slumber and heard a soft movement downstairs in the early hours of the morning. Once he'd dragged himself up, but Blair had been so mortified that he'd woken him, and so adamant it was just college stuff keeping him awake that Jim had given in and dropped thankfully back into the few hours of sleep he had time to snatch.
Then they'd coincided briefly over the coffee pot on Friday morning, and Blair had said, with nothing like his usual confidence, "Okay if I have a friend to stay over a couple of nights?"
Jim had wondered briefly if he'd been giving a more than usually ungracious impression all week. Or was the friend going to be weirder than Sandburg's usual friends? Worse than Naomi and the sage?
"He can sleep in my room," Blair said hastily.
At least it was a he.
"He's not a native percussionist complete with ethnic drum kit, or the author of a seaweed cook book?"
That had won a reluctant smile from Sandburg. "He's in the ATF actually. Just an old friend I haven't seen in a long time."
He'd been looking forward to it; Jim had heard that, but there'd been an edge there too, not the relaxed expectation there should have been. Jim had had no time to do anything but swallow his coffee, look with frustrated concern at Blair and go out. Now, trying to recapture his hasty impression, it seemed to him that Blair had been worried, even afraid of something, and looking forward to this visit as a lifeline.
Troublednot least by the fact Blair had obviously not looked for a lifeline nearer homehe listened to the two heartbeats in Blair's small room. Asleep, both of them. On impulse he looked in. Even to his own ears he was almost noiseless, and there wasn't the slightest change in Blair, who was asleep under a mound of blankets. His visitor, on a sleeping bag on the floor, was a different matter. He didn't move, but his heart rate quickened and Jim saw alert blue eyes fix on him using the light from the uncurtained window almost as efficiently as Jim was using it himself.
Jim nodded to the stranger, appreciating the honed ability to wake to the slightest change in the environment, appreciating still more the tiny increase in tension and position that told him the visitor's waking instinct had been to protect Blair.
The man nodded in return, and uncoiled to his feet in an easy and soundless movement. He followed Jim out into the living room. With hair down to his shoulders, bare foot in a scruffy T shirt and threadbare sweats he didn't look much like any kind of federal agent, but Jim had already formed a pretty accurate idea of his quality. Agility, alertness, strength in every inch of the slight build, the movements of someone trained and utterly fit: some captain had got lucky with this one. He held out his hand. "Jim Ellison," he said quietly.
"Vin Tanner." Jim had been appraised as well, and apparently not found wanting. He could tell that from the way the blue eyes met his and the acceptance in the firm handshake. "Thanks fer puttin' me up."
"Blair's been looking forward to it," Jim said easily though his mind wanted to yell, He's worried. He won't talk to me. He thinks you're going to put it right.
Vin seemed to pick up some of the subtext. "We go back a long way. Reckon he wanted t' talk about some stuff from back then."
Okay. That made sense. Jim would still rather Blair had talked to him, but Tanner was a vast improvement on his vague expectations; anyone less flaky was hard to imagine. Feeling relieved, he let himself remember how tired he was.
"Make yourself at home," he said to Tanner. "Glad to have you."
Vin nodded. "Glad t' see Blair again."
Alliance declared, he went back to his sleeping bag. Jim dragged himself upstairs, shrugged out of his clothes and was asleep as soon as he was horizontal. It was broad daylight when he awoke, and the loft was empty. He took the opportunity of using all the hot water in a prolonged and much needed shower, and enjoyed the peace and quiet.
The loft was still empty in the evening. The peace and quiet had grown monotonous, and he went over to Simon's to watch the game, and wondered if Blair and Tanner had managed to catch it somewhere.
The loft was still empty at midnight when he got home.
Blair was probably introducing his visitor to the night life of Cascade, but...
It was still empty at 3 a.m.
At 7.30 he cracked and tried Blair's cell phone. He couldn't get through.
Mid morning he went into the PD and called up information on ATF personnel. That, at least. turned out to be encouraging reading. Tanner was exactly who he was supposed to be and his team had an impressive record. He and Blair were probably just sleeping off a party on someone's floor. All the same, Jim made a note of contact numbers for the Team 7 leader, and called up Cascade's accident records for the night. Nothing.
He went to the gym, called the loft, called Blair's cell phone again, went home and looked at the empty, untidy bedroom. Maybe they were just recalling more carefree days and having a really wild weekend.
Or maybe whatever had been worrying Blair had proved to be a present threat, not just a problem from the past. A bigger threat than the competent-looking Tanner could handle? His uneasiness grew.
Vin sat cross-legged in the corner of the bare room, chin on his knees and a cold feeling compounded of guilt and fury and fear gripping his heart. He should've done... well, hell, something different, that was for sure. Should've covered every angle and not been in such an all fired hurry to find out if it really was the Doctor. Should've acted like the man he was now, not the kid he'd been then...
"Not your fault," Blair said softly. He'd been walking round on another futile tour of the empty walls, the solid locked door, the high-up and completely unhelpful ventilator. "It was my idea to come here."
Vin shrugged. "I wanted t'know, same as you. And you were right."
Blair had been right. Maybe if Vin had really believed it was possible, he'd've taken better precautions. And maybe not. It had seemed easy enough. Blair had done the detective stuff before Vin arrived in Cascade, had found out the visitor to Rainier (signed in under the name Dr Josephs) had been visiting Professor Saunders, and had made an extremely illicit evening visit to Professor Saunders' computer.
Saunders was a Professor of Pharmacology, with a background in psychiatric drugs. For Blair, that had been another bit of confirmatory evidence, though what he'd managed to pull off the computer had been scanty enough. "And that's suspicious too," he'd told Vin, as they drove to the outskirts of Cascade. "I've never seen an academic with so many complicated ways of protecting material. I could have got into it if I'd had time, but I got the address and I thought that was the best place to start."
The address had been on a database Blair had managed to access. He thought it had been used for posting either information or actual samples of drugs, and it seemed like a private address rather than some research place where 'Dr Josephs' might be working. Their plan was basic. They would go there, confirm it was the correct address, and try to get a sighting and photographs of the man. If they were both sure enough on the basis of that that Dr Levine really had survived the fire that was supposed to have killed him, they'd have to decide where to go from there. Vin had checked that the body found fifteen years ago had been identified from dental records, and that meant that if something had gone wrong, it hadn't been a simple mistake.
It was obvious now it hadn't been a mistake at all.
The place hadn't been what they were expecting. That had been their first warning. It looked designed to be securein an unobtrusive way. Vin had noted the high gates and wall, the open grounds running up to the house. It was big, too. It might almost have been an expensive nursing home, if it hadn't been for the couple of men who didn't look much like gardeners, and the dogs who might have been pets but were good breeds for guard dogs.
"It wasn't your fault," Blair said again insistently, jerking him back to the present. He gave up his prowling of the room and came and dropped to the floor next to Vin. He was shivering a little. The room was cold, and they weren't warmly dressed.
After they'd driven past, Vin had vetoed the idea of approaching the place openly, or hanging around outside, in fact he'd dismissed the idea of doing anything in daylight. The grounds of the house opposite were more overgrown. They should be safe enough coming back after dark and taking cover in there to watch the gates. It might be uncomfortable, and not give them such a good chance of seeing their man, but it ought to be safe.
Only it hadn't been.
"We couldn't have guessed their security would be state-of-the-art national paranoia stuff," Blair said. "I did wonder if Professor Saunders had something to do with the CIA or whatever, but... Do you think those men who brought us in were telling the truth? Do you think this really is a hush hush government place?"
Vin thought of the speed with which their presence had been detected, and the quality of the equipment which had pinpointed them. To say nothing of the quantity of professional-looking armed men who'd appeared. "Probably," he said reluctantly. It was certainly something on a scale he hadn't anticipated. If he had to guess, he'd say CIA, somewhere on the unattributable fringe. The anonymous, smartly dressed man who'd had them locked up had exactly the right look. Now he wondered who they'd see when the door opened again. Would it help if they believed he was an ATF agent, or would it make things worse?
"What time do you think it is?" Blair asked. He sounded tired now, the adrenaline finally running out. Their watches had been taken, along with their shoes and any other loose possessions.
"Two, maybe three o'clock."
"Jim'll wonder where we are. Or else he'll think I've taken you to Club Doom."
"Y' tell him anything?"
"No." Blair shifted slightly. "Jim's only met my mom a couple of times, and he has this really negative attitude to kids being given a lot of freedom. I mean, he's a great guy but he wouldn't get past the 'loose on the streets of Denver' thing. And I could have been wrong, was likely to be wrong. You tell anyone?"
"Nope." Never really let the guys in on the past, not even Chris. Like Chris would give a damn about it. Wish I'd a telled him. Too late now.
Time passed, slowly. Vin thought of all the ways this might work out, and none of them were good. He should never have let Blair get into this. He'd good as promised Ellison he'd take care of things. Lousy job he'd made of it. Ellison was going to be pissed off.
So was Chris.
"It. Was. Not. Your. Fault," Blair said so forcibly it made him jump. "Why do you think they're leaving us so long."
"Soften us up, maybe."
"So we talk. They don't know why we're here."
Blair thought about it. "How much do we tell them?"
That was the question Vin had been wrestling with for the last few hours. "We tell them the truth about the ATF and you being an observer with the PD. Tell 'em you thought Prof Saunders was a bit of a suspicious character, and we decided to do some freelancing, looking into what he was up to."
"Right. That sounds okay. We don't say anything about...?"
"Not if we want any chance at all of walking out of here. And keep your face down a bit when we're talking. Lucky you've a real need to shave."
He could feel Blair's puzzlement, and the shudder when he suddenly got it. "Oh man. He wouldn't recognise us. No way. Children change a lot more than adults, and he barely saw us."
He'd seen them around before the final night, Vin thought. Anyway, they'd bust up the man's life work. Sick, warped, distorted life's work, but losing it was the sort of thing to fix an impression in a man's mind. He didn't say so though. Instead he said quietly, "Might as well get some rest. Could be a long time afore they bother to get us."
Blair was quiet for a while, his arm warm against Vin's as they leaned up in the corner. "I'd almost forgotten about it," he said eventually. "You know, pushed it down among the things I never thought about. I never told Naomi. If you'd asked me two weeks ago, I'd have said I couldn't really remember the details at all. Then since I saw him I've dreamed about it every night, full technicolour, nothing left out. Wish we'd known what happened to the children they rescued. Maybe then I wouldn't see them still there in the lab."
Vin had never stopped being able to picture every detail of the basement rooms and laboratory. Hell, when he thought about it he could even smell the place. "He ain't doing that now," he said. "Be something else. Debriefing, interrogating, that kinda stuff."
"Warping minds for his country?"
"I reckon. CIA must've known about him even then. Those dental records, the whole way it disappeared out the news. They got him out and recruited him. Probably as much of a prisoner as the poor bastards he was dealing with t' begin with. Fifteen years is a long time though. Don't know what sort a leash they got him on now."
It was a question he thought about a lot over the next slow hours. Blair seemed to doze a little against his shoulder, probably short of sleep after a run of disturbed nights. Vin dropped into a state of half alertness, not fully awake, but coming that way as soon as there were footsteps in the hallway outside the room they'd been locked in.
Even though he was ready, even though he knew well enough what might be coming when he heard the bolts drawn back, he wasn't ready for the effect it had on him when the door opened and the first man to step in was the one Denver's public had quickly nicknamed Dr Death when he was headline news. He moved automatically to put himself slightly in front of Blair, and he felt the fear rise in him thick and choking as if he was thirteen years old again.
The doctor smiled. He had several men with him, and Vin realised with failing hope that they were deferring to him. They had the look of men who'd been picked not to demur whatever they were asked to do, leaving thinking to their superiors. He looked vainly for the suited man who'd been in charge the night before. Behind him he felt Blair's fingers dig into his arm as if in warning, and he could see in the doctor's expression something like a personal hostility.
"I've waited such a long time to see the two of you again," Dr Levine said, confirming his worst fears. "When I saw the security tapes last night I was really quite surprised. You were instantly recognisable you know, especially seen together like that."
"Think you're makin' a mistake," Vin said flatly. "My name's Tanner. I'm an ATF agent." He spoke not to Levine but to the men with him. They looked at him stolidly, unimpressed. "This here's Mr Sandburg, who's attached to Cascade PD. We're looking into a Professor Saunders. If it's government business, we apologise for the crossed wires. We'll just walk out of here and ferget about it."
Dr Levine nodded. "Yes. Funnily enougheventuallythat's exactly what you'll do. You'll forget about this, and everything else from the last few years. I've persuaded my employers to allow me to handle this, you see."
"Our departments are going to be concerned about our whereabouts," Blair started, his voice commendably steady.
"Oh, I don't think so," Dr Levine said. "Nobody looking at you could believe for a moment that you have any connections with federal or police organistations, even if they didn't know about your past." He, too, Vin realised was speaking for the benefit of the other menunfortunately with much more success. "I have the facilities to know that there has been no sort of authorised surveillance of these premises, and that neither of you has made a call from your cell phone in the last twenty four hours. In addition, Mr Sandburg your... roommate? partner? has been calling you with increasing concern about your whereabouts. It seems quite obvious that whatever the two of you were doing was as individuals. I shall soon know exactly, of course. You will tell me, you see. That's what the facilities here are for."
"It'd be in your best interests t' let us go now," Vin said. He didn't sound convincing even to himself. It just seemed to amuse Dr Levine.
"Fifteen years," the doctor said, as if thinking aloud. "Such a long time. You've grown, and changed. Not married, I don't think? No. But you have some sort of careers. Something that gives you self respect? And you have friends, of course. Your phones were quite informative. I'm going to take all that away from you." He paused, smiled at their reaction. "I can do it you know. That's why I'm so valuable to our respected security forces. Any mind hack can get information out of someone, given the right sort of chemicals. But I can do so much more. I can convince a man he's spent his whole life working for us, so that he gladly tells us all he knows and goes back to collect more. Or I can convince him that he has deep personal reasons to eliminate an acquaintance. For you two I have something special in mind."
When had they backed against the wall? Vin made himself straighten up, felt Blair at his side trying to do the same though his breathing was starting to come far too fast.
Levine motioned the men behind him into the room. "You're going back to the streets," he said. "I can't convince you you're thirteen of course, but we can take some years awayquite a lot of years. And all that confidence. We'll build in a thorough fear of the law, I think, and a knowledge you don't have a future. No homes, no hope, no friends. That's what a man has on the streets. This time you'll stay there. Perhaps we'll add an addiction, or a disability. I'm going to take everything you value about yourselves and throw it away. And I will enjoy every minute of it."
There wasn't any point in trying to fight their way out, but Vin jumped into action anyway, kicking expertly at the first man who was now near enough, seeing Blair dive round another. They were doing it not from any sense they could actually get out of the room, but from sheer horror at the calm promises of the man in front of them. There were too many men with him, and they were too big and too well trained, but there was nothing left to do but give everything to the struggle. If he could do nothing else, Vin wanted to get his hands round the doctor's plump neck.
He didn't even get that far though. A fist caught him on the side of the head as he passed the second man, knocking him off balance, and at the corner of his eye he say Blair pinned against the wall. He tried to scramble to his feet, had them kicked from under him, and as he went down this time was pinned there by a weight he couldn't shift. Before he could try a different move, he felt a stinging pain at the top of his leg.
He had a few seconds for complete despair, and then the darkness took him.
Chris Larabee had no need to be in his office by 7.30 that Monday morning. He was expecting a quiet week, stuck behind a desk, and that wasn't normally something he'd have been eager to get into work for. He refused to think about the early hour, though, because that would have meant acknowledging to himself the vague unease that had pulled him from his bed at dawn and had him trying his sharpshooter's home phone and mobile from not much later. On the way in he'd tried again, and even phoned the office, only to get the answering machine. Now as he strode into the building he was hoping that Vin was in fact here, and simply letting the answering machine pick up while he brewed some coffee.
People cleared out of his way as he went rapidly up to Team 7's section. Noticing it, he moderated his pace a little and tossed a brusque good morning at one girl. She moved out of his way even more quickly than the rest and dropped the pile of files she was holding.
His haste did him no good, anyway. No relief for his unease offered in the bare, carefully cleaned office. No smell of bitterly strong coffee. No drawled greeting. Annoyed with himself for the way apprehension was building in him, he went through to his office and listened to the handful of messages. Nothing there, either.
He told himself that Vin almost never looked up old friends, was entitled to more time off if he wanted it. He was probably just making the most of this trip to Cascade; they'd all known it would be a quiet week. None of the others would be in much before nine, and Ezra not then unless someone gave him a wake-up call...
He picked up the phone. His mood lightened very slightly at the annoyed and less than usually coherent response. An hour earlier and Ez might actually have been monosyllabic. He hadn't heard from Vin either though. Seemed likely the brief call Chris had got on the Friday evening, saying Vin had arrived and been picked up by his friend, was the last any of the team had heard of him.
"Ah have no doubt that by the time it is a civilised hour you will hear from him," Ezra said. "My recollection is that he said he would return on Monday morning; he made no commitment to be in Denver at dawn."
"Dawn was a couple of hours ago."
"Technically. Nevertheless, my point remains valid. I will see you at nine o'clock, and, if necessary, I am sure at that point we will have no problem in ascertaining which flight from Cascade Mr Tanner had booked." He put the phone down in a way that definitely came over as insubordinate.
Chris looked at his watch. 7.45. Maybe it was a bit early to be concerned. Vin after all, was an adult. A highly trained, competent adult, probably more dangerous than anyone he was likely to meet. His mind knew it; it was somewhere at the level of instinct that he was troubled.
He pulled his files towards him abruptly. It was plain stupid to think his feeling of unease meant anything. The one unbearably appalling thing that had happened to him in his life he'd had no premonition at all, no warning to prepare him for the news. He'd wait 'til everyone got in, and if Vin still hadn't showed by then, maybe he'd take up Ezra's suggestion and get JD to find out the flight bookings. He started to sort through his papers methodically, shutting out all thoughts except work.
At 7.59 his phone rang, and he picked it up so hastily he almost dropped it. "Larabee."
"Jim Ellison, Cascade PD," came an unfamiliar voice. "Think I had one of your men staying with my roommate this weekend."
"What's happened?" Chris asked tersely.
His first alarm subsided a little as he realised it was not definitely bad news, but it certainly wasn't good news either. Vin had apparently been unaccounted for, along with his friend, since Saturday.
"And you didn't feel concerned enough to do anything about it 'til now?" he asked sharply.
Ellison, in a mood which matched his own, retorted, "Hell, yes I felt concerned. I also felt that there was a good chance they were at an all night party. They're not a couple of kids. I checked traffic accidents and emergency rooms. It didn't seem grounds for an APB Saturday night."
"You've put one out now?"
"2 a.m.," Ellison admitted. "No sign of the car or either of them."
Chris rubbed his forehead irritably. He'd known on Friday night there was something... Maybe he should have pushed.
"Did Tanner tell you why he was coming to Cascade?"
"To see a friend, that's all. You know any more than that?"
"No. But I think there was more to know."
"Think you're right." Chris looked at the papers on his desk. There was nothing that couldn't wait, or that someone else couldn't do. "Think I might come up to Cascade," he added slowly.
"I'll pick you up," Ellison offered, apparently more than happy with this.
Chris drank a hasty cup of coffee, found he could get a flight and headed out. He'd planned to call the office from the airport, but crossed paths with Buck who was on his way up. "I'm going to Cascade," he said shortly. "You're in charge. I'll be in touch."
He escaped while Buck was still assimilating this, and before the questions started. He was already regretting his sharpness with Ellison over the APB. It was an awkward call. He wasn't going to tell the team Vin was missing 'til he was dead sure it was that and not just Vin for once letting go and having a wild weekend.
That wasn't how it played in his mind though. Vin had been troubled by something on Friday; when he'd said he'd be back Monday morning he'd been promising himself as much as Chris.
He rang Jim Ellison from the airport, and again a couple of times on the way.
"Sorry Jim. Still nothing." Simon Banks leaned back in his chair a little, and tried reason. "You know, if the two of them had had an accident or got into any kind of trouble we'd have heard by now. They're probably just sleeping off a two day hangover. Haven't you ever got together with college friends?"
"I don't think it's that, sir."
Simon winced. It wasn't even Jim's sarcastic 'sir'.
"I just think you might be overreacting here, Jim. Sandburg works his butt off most of the time between Rainier and helping you out. You can't tell me the kid doesn't miss clubbing or letting his hair down with his friends occasionally." The expression on Ellison's face told him he was getting exactly nowhere with this tack. He tried another. "Maybe they went out of town. You know Sandburg's car. They could still be walking home."
"Blair would have called, and if he didn't Tanner would have done. He was supposed to be back in Denver this morning."
"You're sure of that?"
"I called his captain first thing." Ellison glanced at his watch. "He's coming up here. I'm going to pick him up in an hour."
This really did get Simon's attention. What the hell had Jim told the man? And since when did Jim call in the feds on anything, even informally? And what was this going to mean for the smooth running of Major Crimes? "You did tell him that we have no reason at all for assuming there's a serious problem?"
"He wanted to know why I waited so long before putting out an APB," Jim said, with what might have been just a trace of satisfaction. "Look, I want to go over to Rainier before I pick him up and..."
"Fine," Simon interrupted hastily. "And when you find Sandburg and Tanner on someone's floorsome girl's floor, knowing Sandburgmake sure you tell them it was your idea not mine to have the whole PD looking for them. Oh, and Jim, this ATF captain who's comingwhat's his name?"
"Larabee," Jim said, already on his way out of the door. "Chris Larabee."
Simon's day, which hadn't started wellhe hadn't appreciated being phoned at dawn by Ellisontook a nosedive towards total disaster.
"Larabee," he said aloud, though the door had already slammed.
If that wasn't typical of Sandburg. He couldn't mislay himself with some other college student, or someone with a nice sane police captain for a boss. Simon could count on one fingerthe one he was about to raise at Fatethe number of ATF captains whose names he'd actually recognise. Larabee wasn't just famous in law enforcement, he was notorious. If half the things Simon had heard about him were even partly true, then putting him with Ellison would be like putting the detonator in the C4.
He needed a cup of coffee.
Actually, he needed something stronger, but coffee would have to do.
Jim had never heard of Chris Larabee. The only thing he knew about him was that Larabee was the one person he'd dealt with so far who not only approved the APB but was inclined to think it should have gone out earlier. In Jim's book that made him an ally.
An ally worth having, was his first impression when he saw him. Larabee looked like a man who could handle any amount of trouble. His records showed he'd been in the Seals, and he had more that air about him than much hint of being a federal agent. A tiny primitive bit at the back of Jim's mindthe bit which Sandburg was tactlessly amused bycouldn't help assessing how he'd fare in a fight against the man. He wasn't totally confident he could take him, but luckily it was irrelevant. The minute he met Larabee's eyes he knew they had a shared agenda.
"How long are you here for?" Jim asked, leading the way to his truck.
"Long as it takes."
"Got anywhere to stay?"
"You can put up at my place if you like."
Jim, not a man himself who'd ever tried for conversationalist of the year, appreciated Larabee's terseness; it confirmed what he was picking up with his senses in the man's body language: he was as worried about Tanner as Jim was about Blair, and equally determined to do something about it.
"We'll call in at the PD, see if anything useful's come in and introduce you to my captain," he said. "I'd better warn you, he thinks I'm overreacting."
Larabee's tension increased slightly. "Vin's a professional. If he says he'll be somewhere at a given time, he's there. If he wasn't in some kind of trouble he'd have been in touch long before now. Want me to tell your captain just how out of character this is?"
Jim thought about it. It was time Simon began to take this seriously. "Go ahead," he said.
On the way up, they checked for any sightings of their missing people or Blair's car. There was still nothing at all.
Blair was somewhere dark and smooth and still, somewhere where there seemed to be nothing at all in his world except emptiness, and a voice. Sometimes he floated further from the voice, and sometimes close to it, but he could never get away from it entirely. It was low and persuasive and relentless, and the longer the emptiness around him lasted, the harder it was to ignore its words. His mind was fuzzy, as though he was thinking in his sleep, and when he tried to anchor his thoughts he couldn't do it. A part of him almost welcomed the voice, because it was something real outside himself, but at the same time he flinched from it, though in the emptiness he couldn't quite remember why.
Chris Larabee wasn't used to following someone else, not these days, but for the time being he hadn't a lot of choice. He let Ellison take the lead: to the PD, to an interview with his captain, and from there to Rainier, where apparently Sandburg worked as an anthropology student and teaching assistant.
It was made easier by the fact that he'd decided, provisionally, Ellison was a man he could respect. He soon added to that a grudging regard for Simon Banks. The man wasn't intimidated easily. Well, wasn't intimidated at all Chris suspected, but Banks did seem able to accept he might have called it wrong on the matter of Tanner and Sandburg. Once he'd got that point across, Chris eased up a bit. Wasn't, after all, as if he didn't have any tact in handling colleagues.
"I'll be here 'til we've got somewhere on this," he told the man, knowing he'd be grateful not to have to put any more of his own men on it.
Banks made an odd sort of noise. "I appreciate that," he said, "but won't that be a problem for your own case load."
"My team can handle what we've got on at the moment," Chris said briefly. "Reckon it'll be better if I'm on the spot here."
He'd have pointed out a few things the PD hadn't done and might have considered doing towards improving their search for the missing men, but at that point Ellison had hurried him off to Rainier, where they called on the head of campus security to set things in motion and then went along to Sandburg's office.
It seemed to Chris as good a place as anywhere to start. He didn't know Cascade, or anything about Sandburg, and if nothing else it would help him start to build up some sort of picture of Vin's friend. He wondered about a cop like Ellison having a ridealong observer, and still more about the fact he seemed to have taken the kid in as a lodger, but the one thing that actually seemed to matter about it was that Ellison clearly felt as strong a tie, as sharp a mix of concern and responsibility and sheer alarm for a friend, as Chris did.
The cupboard-sized office with Sandburg's name on the door was a mess. On closer inspection it was a mess into which someone had been trying to bring some sort of order.
"I started to sort through this lot this morning," Ellison said. "Frankly, I don't think there's anything that will give us a lead, but I'll collect all the recent stuff except student papers."
Chris shifted a pile of papers off a chair and sat down, taking in the details of the room. "Anthropologist?" he asked.
Ellison nodded, maybe surprised.
"Got a friend with a background in anthropology," Chris explained. "What does an anthropologist study at the PD?"
Chris let it go. The answer seemed to him too quick and too short, and nothing like an adequate explanation for Ellison's long term involvement, but unless it seemed to have something to do with Vin's disappearance he wasn't making waves. He flicked absently through some of the printed off papers piled up next to him. None of them were about closed societies in any shape or form. They seemed more medical than anthropological, a whole sheaf of them dealing with perceptual problems. They were not, except presumably to Sandburg, remotely interesting. He put them down again, watched Ellison collecting bits and pieces, stretched his legs and tried to think.
"Your team know Tanner's missing?" Ellison asked.
"They'll have worked it out. Thought I'd contact them a bit later. Maybe by then we'll have some news for them, or something useful they can do."
"Background would be useful," Ellison said. "Whatever's happened, I don't think it was a run of the mill accident on the way home from a night out. I don't even think now they were planning a social weekend."
Chris nodded. That fitted with his own impression. He tried to find the words to convey the subtle tension there had been about Vin on the Friday night. Trouble was, he barely understood it himself. "Vin knows what he's doing in almost any situation," he said slowly. "He can handle himself. He's quiet, but he's got that confidence if you know what I mean. He wasn't like that before he came here. It wasn't the way he'd be if he was just expecting some kind of reunion."
"He was expecting trouble?"
"Don't think it was that definite. Maybe not sure what he was expecting... hell, I don't know. Whatever it was, he wasn't talking about it."
Ellison put the papers down. "Sandburg's been awake at 2 a.m. most nights this week. He wasn't talking about it either."
"I should've made him talk," Chris said, frustrated. "Damn it, I knew there was something."
Ellison started to say something and stopped as there was a tap at the door and a student looked in. At any rate, he looked the right age for a student. Otherwise his appearance was more football pitch than library.
"Oh," he said, disconcerted. "Where's Mr Sandburg?"
"Were you expecting to see him?" Ellison asked.
"Yes. He helps me out with my work on a Monday. Who are you anyway? What are you doing with Mr Sandburg's things."
Showing him both their IDs was possibly overkill.
"Wow. What's happened? Has Mr Sandburg got on the wrong side of some gunrunners. Hey, I saw a movie once where these AK47s were being smuggled inside mummies and..."
Ellison looked at him and he trailed off.
"Mr Sandburg is missing. Campus Security are going to take statements from anyone who's seen him since after classes on Friday. What's your name?"
"Watson, sir. Byron Watson. Everyone will want to helpMr Sandburg's a great teacher, and he helps a lot of us out. I mean, to keep our grades up overall, not just in Anthro. I haven't seen him since last week though. I'll put the word round that you want to see people." He started to leave, then paused in the doorway. "You know, if it is something to do with a criminal gang, I think maybe Mr Sandburg saw one of them last Tuesday."
"Why do you think that?" Ellison asked, giving the kid some rope.
"I saw him Tuesday morning, and he looked like he'd just seen a ghost or something. Seriously, sir. I bumped into him in the corridor and he was just staring into space and he looked as if he was about to pass out."
Ellison glanced at Chris, who shrugged. Since they'd got exactly nothing, it was worth hearing it out.
"Was anyone else there?" Ellison asked.
"Someone had just gone through the fire doors I think. I didn't really lookI mean, I thought at first he was feeling ill, only when I spoke to him he sort of shook it off and just said he needed a coffee. Then I thought it might have been bad news or something. It could have been someone he'd seen though."
He looked at Ellison hopefully. Ellison said, "We'll bear it in mind. Ask around, see if anyone else noticed Mr Sandburg on Tuesday morning, and I'll see Campus Security include it in their enquiries."
That seemed to be enough to send the student off happy.
Ellison picked up the pile of papers he'd collected. "Anything else you can think of we could do here?"
"Blair uses a laptop, and I can't find it. I'm beginning to wonder if he took it with him when they went out."
Chris looked round at the packed room. If there was anything here, they needed some sort of line on where to look, and he thought that would have to come from somewhere else. "Reckon the question we need to answer is where Tanner and Sandburg knew each other from."
Ellison nodded. "I've been trying to track down Sandburg's mothershe's on the move all the time. We might as well go to the loft, check if she's left a message there. You can contact your team." He paused. "I don't know a whole lot about Blair's past, certainly not before Rainier."
Chris knew what he was getting at. There were probably things in Vin's life too that he'd've preferred to keep private. If it was a choice between respecting that privacy and finding Vin, he knew what he'd do, even if he had to take the flak afterwards.
Vin had fought the darkness, the sense of nothingness, the emptiness that had still managed to feel smothering. He'd fought until the tide of lassitude in him became so strong that he could do nothing so active as struggle. But there were other ways to win. When the voice started, he knew it was his enemy, as the darkness was. He could not shut the sound out, but he could set it aside, and make it meaningless. The voice went on, 'til it threatened to become the whole world, but Vin had known this sort of battle before. Sometimes, you had to retreat a little, find a safe place, outlast the enemy. He found a still place, somewhere within him where there was peace. He'd been there before, when he'd had to outlast hunger or humiliation or pain. The voice went on, but the words hardly reached him.
Chris dropped his bag by the door of the loft and looked round him with appreciation. It was remarkably like the one Buck and JD shared except that you could see the floor and the furniture without filling a rubbish sack. In the small spare room he could see Vin's sleeping bag spread on the floor and a few of his belongings piled on it.
Ellison was already checking his messages, but there was nothing helpfulone from a TA saying she'd cover Blair's classes, one from Banks saying there was no news. He looked for a moment as if he'd like to throw the answering machine against the wall, then he turned abruptly to the kitchen.
"Beer? Or coffee?"
They drank in silence; not an uncomfortable silence, more a mutual acceptance that at the moment there was nothing to say. Then Chris called his team and told them what they'd pretty much already guessed, that Vin seemed to be missing. There were things he couldn't very well say while he was a guest in the loft, but he'd confidence anyway that they'd thoroughly check out Ellison and Sandburg. What he was more concerned to do was to get them working on finding out what the link was between Vin and Sandburg, and why exactly he should have decided to come to Cascade this weekend.
He set Josiah to trace any links that might have come about through the anthropologyVin, they all knew, had strong friendships among native Americans. Buck was to deal with Vin's time in the Rangers and bounty hunting, though it didn't seem a probable connection. JD he told to go through Vin's computer and his recent emails as far as he could, and wasn't surprised when the kid objected.
"It's an order, JD. The responsibility's mine."
"But..." There was a noise that seemed to be Buck forcibly removing JD from the phone. Then for a minute or two he got Josiah in the foreground giving him details of what Vin's flight bookings had been, while scarcely less loud in the background were Buck and Ezra explaining in stereoone extremely bluntly, one with rhetorical emphasiswhy JD had to do it.
Nathan was the only one of them who had anything unexpected to say. "Just had an odd conversation with Vin the other day," he said, when he finally got hold of the phone. "May not mean much, but it kind of stuck in my mind. Remember ThursdayMandy Roblin bringing her baby in for everyone to see?"
Chris did remember. It happened from time to time that one of the staff who had left temporarily or permanently to have a baby would come in to show off the new arrival. He always caught himself eyeing them uneasily for any resemblance to Buck.
"Well, we all saw the baby was a real pretty little thing, and how Mandy fussed over herit was clear that baby was the most precious thing she'd ever held. Vin and me, we were at the back of the group admiring her, and suddenly he says to me, 'What do babies remember, Nate?' Told him it depended. Some folk remember way back, others can't seem to recollect anything much before they were walking. Then he says, 'If a baby suffered bad, then it went to a home where someone was good to it, d'you reckon it would grow up okay?' It wasn't no casual question, either.
"What did you tell him?" Chris asked.
"Told him love could turn most things round and babies were a lot tougher than he'd think. And that was just when Mandy got Ez to hold the baby and it brought up a little bit of milk..."
Chris grinned involuntarily at the memory. Ezra had been caught between horror at that infantile act of bioterrorism and the need to be courteous to the mother and otherwise charming daughter. It was no wonder Nate had lost the thread of the conversation.
"Something was on his mind," Nathan finished. "Nothing cheerful either."
"Yeah." Chris put the phone down, and glanced at Ellison.
"I heard," Ellison said briefly. "That phone's loud. Will your boy go through the computer?"
"Yes. You find anything?"
Ellison had been sitting there sifting through the papers he'd brought back from Rainier. "Not a thing."
After that there wasn't a lot either of them could do, except waitfor any replies, for news, for something to give them a hint of where to start. They could have gone back to the PD, but Ellison was hoping one of his many attempts to get hold of Naomi Sandburg would result in a call, and he wanted to be there to get it. She seemed their best hope at the moment.
They ate without paying much attention to the food, then sorted out the spare room, partly in case Ellison had missed anything, partly so Chris could get in there to sleep. Picking up the strewn belongings, Chris felt it was uncomfortably reminiscent of packing up someone's belongings in the forces, to return to his family because he wouldn't be going home. He didn't need more than a half glance to see it felt no better to Ellison.
While Ellison put clean sheets on the bed, Chris looked over the small pile of things that had been with Vin's sleeping bag. Vin never packed much; maybe it was a hangover from times in his life when he'd had to carry all his belongings around with him. He picked up the small street map of Cascade. When he'd first noticed it, it had seemed an obvious enough thing to have in an unfamiliar city, but now he noticed it wasn't new, and anyway, Vin hadn't needed to find his way anywhere: Blair had picked him up and they'd been together all the time.
"Is this Sandburg's?" he asked.
Ellison looked at it. "Could be."
"Maybe they were looking up an address."
Ellison looked slightly more interested. He took the map and scanned it as if he could see something, though Chris certainly couldn't, then ran his fingers lightly over its surface. Chris had checked for any marks or indentations and was fairly sure there weren't any, but Ellison had an intent, withdrawn look, as though he might be able to discern something from the map.
Then the telephone rang making them both jump. Wincing as if the sound had hurt, Ellison lifted the receiver.
"Simon? Hold on a minute."
In spite of what he had said about the loudness of the phone, he now flicked a speaker switch so that Chris could hear both sides of the conversation.
"We've found Sandburg's car," Simon Banks said. "In the car park at Rainier. Well, to be accurate, we didn't find it. A student noticed it and called Campus Security."
"Have you sent a forensic team down?"
There was an audible sigh. "Jim. They're adults. They're men. They've been missing less than twenty four hours by any reasonable reckoning, and we've no grounds for supposing a crime's been committed. Exactly how do you think I'm going to justify sending out a forensic team?"
"It wasn't there at 5 a.m. this morning."
"Sandburg's car. I went round the whole of Rainier at around that time, car parks included. The car wasn't there."
A brief silence, then Banks, reluctantly. "It doesn't make it a crime, Jim. Look, I've done the best I can. Campus Security will make sure no-one else touches it 'til you've gone over it personally. It's dark now. They are not expecting you until tomorrow, all right?"
"I can manage in the dark."
"Tomorrow. They've got it in a secure lock up."
He rang off before Jim could raise any more objections.
Ellison's hand was clenched on the receiver so hard that his knuckles were dead white, but he put it down with careful precision, as though any loss of control now would be to unleash the whirlwind. With the same outward calm he opened the doors to the balcony. Chris let him go, and waited.
He sensed rather than saw the moment when Ellison stopped being on the verge of an explosion, then joined him in the evening's damp chill. The silence stretched a while, then Ellison said bitterly, "It's not some superstitious fucking hunch."
Chris knew exactly what he meant, shared the same gut deep feeling that Tanner and Sandburg were in trouble. "Think it would make a difference to get the car tonight?" he asked.
Ellison drew back from somewhere far away he'd been staring at. "No. But it would have been something we could do."
And that was the worst of it. They had nothing, right now, they could do, and consequently no ease for the prickling concern that made them restless. Chris thought about the conversation he'd just heard. "You don't think they or the car were at Rainier last night?"
"I'm sure Sandburg wasn't there," Ellison said with more certainty than seemed reasonable. He caught Chris's reaction, and looked as if he was about to say something more, but just then the phone rang again and interrupted them.
"Jim?" It was woman's voice this time as Ellison answered. "I had a message you were trying to get in touch with me."
"Sandburg's mother," Jim muttered to Chris, who had worked this out anyway. "Naomi. Where are you?"
"Southern Ireland, on the Atlantic coast. It's so beautiful here, Jim. But why did you need to speak to me?"
"It was about Blair," Jim said. "I hope there's no problem, but he's a bit late back from a weekend with an old friend, and I was slightly concerned. I thought you might know his friend and where they could have gone."
He was obviously trying to be tactful and avoid alarming the woman. He certainly succeeded. There was a peal of laughter from the phone. "Oh, Jim, lighten up. Blair can't live with timetables and regulations all the time, he's always been a free spirit. You fence him in too much."
"I'm just a bit worried about him," Ellison said, with a patience that surprised Chris. "He hasn't been in touch, and nor has his friend. Do you remember the name Vin Tanner, Naomi. Blair must have met him some time ago."
"Blair has such a lot of friends. Maybe if you told me what he looks like or..."
Chris leaned over and took the receiver. "Brown hair, wears it long, blue eyes, old-fashioned manner with women, probably called you ma'am."
There was a long pause, then Naomi said uncertainly, "I do remember a boy. I think he's the only person I've ever met who called me ma'am. But that was so long ago. It must have been nearly fifteen years ago."
Jim took back the phone. "Could have been, Naomi. Blair said it was a friend from way back. I think it was someone he'd kept in touch with from time to time over years."
"He tried so hard to keep in touch with the friends he'd made," Naomi said fondly. "Detaching was one of the things Blair never really did well. I don't remember him mentioning this boy though."
"You remember where they met? Or how?"
"Well, yes. It was in Denver. I was really grateful to the boy, in fact, though I never did meet his family. Blair was in his early teens then, and I'd sent him to Denver to stay with some friends of mine. The arrangement fell through, and it could have been quite awkward, but luckily Blair made friends with this boy and was able to stay with him. I remember how sensible they were. When I got to Denver they were waiting outside the house where Blair should have been. I would have been quite worried otherwise." She paused. "You know, Jim, I'm sure I took a photo of them together. Blair was very insistent we take... Vin, was it?... out for a meal. We went to some dreadful junk food place. I really had to set off with Blair after that, but I took a photo of the two of them. Blair had a little album, and he used to put pictures of friends in it when we moved on. I'm sure he still has itit's probably in his room. A little book made out of handmade paper, with some pressed leaves on the front. You might be able to tell from that if it's the same boy. But I don't remember Blair ever seeing him again; I can't imagine what they would be doing if it is him." There was some noise in the background. Distracted by it apparently, Naomi said hurriedly, "Jim, I really have to go. Don't worry about Blair. He needs his space. Don't try to stifle him or stop his spontaneity. Let him be himself."
"How can I get in touch with you?" Jim asked hastily before she could cut him off.
"Oh, I'll get back to you. In a couple of days. Give Blair my love when he comes home."
She was gone. Ellison looked as if he had a headache.
"Unusual mother," Chris said.
"Believe it. I didn't want to panic her, but maybe I should have put it a bit more strongly."
"She wasn't going to believe anything was wrong," Chris said. "Anyway, she obviously didn't know much, if anything. We'd better go and look for that album, but some things didn't sound right. Vin's no family, and that long ago, I wouldn't even be sure he had a home."
Ellison shrugged. "We'll look, anyway."
It took them a long time to find the album, and Chris hadn't much hope of getting anything from it anyway. It turned out to be a battered little book, the dried leaves crumbling on the front, and the pages well thumbed. Ellison turned them carefully. Those at the beginning were a small boy, always in a new setting, with a different friend or friends. Chris wondered if Sandburg was still long-haired and waif like.
Towards the middle of the book, the pictures seemed nearer the right age. Some were clearer than others. Chris wasn't sure if he'd recognise Vin in a photo from so long ago. Then Ellison turned another page, and he didn't need to wonder about it any longer. The photo seemed to leap from the page at him with heart stopping clarity, though in fact it was a simple snap like the rest.
"That's Vin," he said aloud, and saw Ellison had recognised it too.
For a ridiculously long time, they simply stood and stared at the picture. The image of the two boys, long wavy hair dangling round thin faces, grimy T shirts emphasising their skinny build, pushed all the wrong buttons when they were already worried. It was the eyes that got to Chris. The camera had captured something almost haunted in them. They looked out from the photo, too old and too stoical, and denied the smiles on their faces. 'I'm fine' that smile said to Chris. 'I'm fine; I can do it alone. Don't need help.' There had been an echo of that lonely, ingrained self reliance on Vin's face when Chris had last seen him. If two kids had been struggling on the streets and had tried to clean themselves up and put a good face on things to impress someone, they'd look exactly like what he was seeing there.
"Vin was homeless a lot of his childhood," he said quietly. "Could she not have knownSandburg's mother I meanif her son had been loose on the streets in Denver for a month or however long it was?"
"He wouldn't tell her," Ellison said, so promptly he'd obviously been thinking along the same lines. "He'd just let her think that he'd managed fine, and she'd pick him up and move on. It would be forgotten."
"But wouldn't she have seen?"
It seemed to Chris that one glance at a kid looking like Sandburg did in that picture would have told a mother that all sorts of things were wrong. Hell, even knowing how long ago it was, he couldn't see Vin looking like that without a wrenching need to do something about it.
"She mostly seems to see what she wants to see," Ellison said. He closed the book gently. "Well, that explains how Blair came to know Tanner. It doesn't go far towards giving us any idea what they could have been doing this weekend."
"If it was anything to do with that time, you'd expect them to have met up again in Denver," Chris agreed. "More likely, they've got together for other reasons since. I've got Josiah looking into the anthropology side. I'll tell him to extend that a bit to other interests they might have had as kids and I to go back tohow long ago did Sandburg's mother say she thought this was?"
"Fifteen years, maybe."
"I'll get him to work back as far as that, then, looking for anything at all, but I can't see what he might expect to find."
Even though Ellison had closed the book, Chris couldn't get the picture of Vin as a street kid out of his mind. It was one thing to know it was in Vin's past, another to look at it like that. He'd seen familiar things in that kid's face of coursehe could imagine that even then Vin had had the courage and the independence he had now. But it wasn't that which haunted him. It was the vulnerability he'd also seen. He wished he'd handcuffed Vin to his desk until he told him what the hell he was planning in Cascade.
The nothingness in which Blair passed eons of unmeasured time had changed a little. His lethargy had lightened. Now the voice which never seemed to go away asked questions as well as telling him things. He didn't really want to answer the questions, but his will seemed to be one of the things that had floated irretrievably away. Without wanting to, he found himself talking. Then gradually, drifting through his mind in a way that could hardly be called thought, he found a different solution. He didn't seem to be able to keep silent, so he talked and talked, piling detail on detail, talking until the voice went away, and in case it hadn't he still went on talking then, about his work and expeditions he'd been on and anything and everything that was safebecause however far from himself and the world he seemed to have gone, somewhere in the core of him he knew there was one thing he must never talk about.
Jim Ellison had not slept the previous night and he was achingly tired, but he still slept shallowly and woke very early. He jerked from sleep with a start, alarmed and with all his senses aware. Shreds of some unpleasant dream, forgotten in the moment of waking, drifted away from him. Was that what had woken him? He let his senses reach further. No, not his own nightmare. Larabee's. Now that he listened, he could hear the man's speeding heartbeat and even smell the sweat on him. Coming from Sandburg's room it had jolted his instincts into alertness.
The breathing below grew faster, then changed. He heard the movement as Larabee sat up abruptly, as wide awake now as Jim. They weren't either of them likely to sleep again. Jim went down and started the coffee. They were both showered, shaved and drinking it before six o'clock. The disadvantage of that, of course, was that most of the other residents of Cascade weren't quite as ready to start the day, but at least they could go to the PD and kick start proceedings there.
Jim was more than capable himself of inspiring some greater activity into the investigation, but he found quite quickly that it gave him an extra edge having Larabee along. The ATF agent loomed at his shoulder like a pissed off black shadow, and anyone who had developed an immunity to Ellison's pleasantly persuasive manner crumpled when faced with Larabee's additional charms. Unfortunately some of the people they had urged on to greater efforts took the coward's way out and put indignant calls through to Simon Banks.
Simon, apparently, hadn't planned to be at the PD before seven a.m.
Jim left it to Larabee, who wasn't Banks subordinate, and who laid it on the line clearly enough. "There's only two reasons Tanner wouldn't have contacted me by now. He's completely trapped or he's... unconscious. Anything else and he'd have found a way."
Jim noticed the very slight hesitation. There was another alternative, but they weren't going there. Sandburg and Tanner were alive, and they were going to find them while that was still the case.
"I'm told Sandburg's car showed no trace of any accident or problem," Simon said. "I still think it's most likely they'll turn up sometime today, and then you can give them hellthere'll be a queue here waiting to do the same. Anyway, the car's at Rainier and that's where they seem to have been seen last. Go and follow up the leads there this morning."
He didn't add 'and stop harassing my detectives' but it was all too obvious he meant it.
Jim glanced at Larabee, who gave the slightest of nods. They'd anyway been planning to go to Rainier as soon as it was far enough into the morning to have a chance of doing anything there. Neither of them was happy with Simon though, and while they were still within earshot Jim said as if conversationally, "I suppose you could always get your boys up here."
"The team's just waiting for the okay," Larabee agreed, a glint in his eye. "Might get something done then."
"Seven ATF agents," Jim mused. "Certainly could make a difference."
Behind him he could actually sense Simon's blood pressure rising.
Being questioned called up trained reflexes in Vin. Name and rank. Whatever the voice asked, he heard himself repeat just that, name and rank, over and over again. He didn't listen to the words of the question, they were irrelevant. Whenever the voice stopped, he gave it the same information. He didn't know how long it went on, but he had given nothing else when the questions finally stopped. He hugged that small victory to himself as he slid back into the darkness.
Jim took one look at Sandburg's car and knew that whatever he had got into was not going to be simple. The car was spotlessly clean, inside and out. It looked as though someone had run it through a carwash several times and then gone over it meticulously by hand. He doubted if even his senses were going to pick up anything useful here.
"This was filthy Saturday morning," he said quietly to Larabee. "It always is. Usually it has a collection of old coffee cups on the seat, and worse."
Larabee nodded, getting his point. He stopped to look at the almost spotless tyres. "Professional," he commented.
Jim increased the intensity of his sight until he could see the minute variations, tiny details that normal eyes could never detect. It didn't help. Not only was there nothing like a hair, he couldn't even pick up skin cells, and in his increasingly frustrated search for some tiny fragment he began to lose himself in the greyness of a zone.
"Ellison?" It was a surprisingly quiet reminder he had company. He shook himself.
"Sorry. Thinking. This isn't what I was expecting."
"Security organisation, or some rogue branch of one," Larabee said, confirming his own thoughts. He'd already checked Brackett was still locked up. How many more Bracketts were there around? But he doubted if this was anything to do with his sentinel abilities, or he would have heard from someone with their demands by now. It seemed more as though Blair and Vin Tanner had run across something they hadn't expected either.
"No one's going to get anything from this," Larabee added, gesturing at the sanitised car.
"It'll make Simon take things more seriously," Jim said. "He always said he wouldn't get in it without a tetanus shot."
Larabee had gone to the door, but Jim lingered a moment longer. What would Blair have suggested he try. Smell, probably. Maybe if he sifted past the surface scents of cleaning materials, something else would remain beneath. He began to try, concentrating, discarding the odours that he'd decided were irrelevant. The others were faint, elusive. He pinned down vegetation, the lingering hint of crushed leaves. Maybe they'd left the car off road somewhere overgrown. And even fainter than that, a slight chemical smell that didn't belong with the cleaning stuff... it was difficult to capture and define... he searched for it more closely, and this time lost himself completely.
Fresh air on his face, and his name being said, more urgently this time, brought him back. He blinked, realised he was now outside, the world flooded back into reality, and he saw Larabee looking torn between annoyance and concern.
"You want to tell me what the hell is going on?"
Well, no, he didn't; though he could see that he might eventually have to. For now he put it off. "It happens to me occasionally when I concentrate," he said dismissively. "Just get my attention."
"That's what I've been trying to do for the last ten minutes."
"I brought you out here because I heard some of campus security coming along, and I thought you might rather they missed the zombie impression."
"Thanks," Jim said, and left it at that. One thing about Larabee, he wasn't over talkative. He might be wondering, but he didn't ask any more questions.
They managed to snatch a cup of coffee before they went along to join in the interviews with the students and other members of staff who had seen anything of the missing men over the weekend. All the more recent sightings were by studentsBlair's colleagues hadn't set eyes on him since the Friday, and Jim could do the lie-detector thing well enough to check their veracity without fear of zoning.
Everyone, without exception, seemed genuinely keen to tell them anything they knew. The trouble was that the sum total of it added up to very little. However, he and Larabee gradually began to build up a tentative time frame. Sandburg and Tanner had clearly been at Rainier for some time on the Saturday afternoon. Quite a number of people had seen them, though no one later than the early evening. What they'd been doing seemed straightforward enough: having coffee, going to Blair's office, going up to the library. Then they did get an interesting titbit of information. An earnest young biology major told them Sandburg had come to see him to borrow his night goggles.
"Why do you have night goggles?" Jim asked, wondering if he'd misunderstood.
"I'm studying nocturnal movements of small mammals for a research paper. Mr Sandburg knew that because once I... it was a complete accident... I would never use the goggles for something like that on purpose..."
Jim could see where this was going. "You saw some different nocturnal activity involving Mr Sandburg and one of his girlfriends?"
"Yes sir, exactly. I mean I would just have gone away quietly, but Mr Sandburg had already heard me. He was really nice about it. He quite often joked with me about it later, and of course I sort of owed him one so I was glad to lend him the goggles. I hope he's all right."
They all hoped Blair was okay. Jim found it almost disconcerting to discover quite a lot of them looked on Blair as an older friend or mentor, even a big brother figure. It made him look again at his own feelings. Was he over protective? Maybe it was because they were nearly always together in his professional surroundings, not Blair's, and the dangers and problems were very different. Right now though, he wasn't going to review that feeling. Somewhere, somehow, he was certain Blair was in trouble, and no amount of concern on Jim's part was going to be over the top.
After they'd interviewed all those who'd actually seen their missing men on Saturday, they left the routine of follow up to the university's security people, and turned their attention to the previous Tuesday morning. When he thought about it, it seemed to Jim that the timing tied in with when he'd first noticed something out of key with Blair. It was difficult to know exactly how to track down what it was, but they decided to start with visitors at around the time slot when young Watson said he'd seen Blair looking disturbedthe corridor was near the office where visitors were expected to check in, and it was a possibility that he'd seen someone coming from there.
The list of people for the whole of Tuesday morning was quite extensive.
"We go with Watson's time slot?" Larabee asked.
Jim nodded. "With classes and practice most of them have a reasonably accurate idea of where they were when. If we go with that and leave any routine deliveries for campus security, along with visitors earlier or later that gives us..."
"Four." Larabee was ahead of him. Four people who might be worth looking into personally. He took down the names and the details. A visiting academic from Canada, Scott Ballantyne, calling on a history professor. "He was here a couple of days last week," the man on the desk said helpfully. "They were on some expedition together. He's left Cascade now I think." Then there was a Miss Hope. "Come from the grants committee. She's eighty one, and a tartar. She's not what I'd call a regular visitor, but she comes in from time to time." There was a Dr Josephs, to see a Professor Saunders. "Never seen him in here before last week, but I'm pretty sure I've seen outgoing postpackagesaddressed to him." Finally there was a Ms Barber. "She's in every Tuesday, does something with the fine art people. She'll be here now I should think... yes, she's signed in." He closed the book. "You said this was something to do with Mr Sandburg?"
"We're concerned about his whereabouts," Jim said briefly.
"Well, he was in here one day last week having a look at the book. He told me he was expecting a visitor he thought might have got lost, though."
That sounded to Jim like typical Sandburg disregard for anything so uncreative as the simple truth. The unpromising list of names suddenly took on more interest. "Thanks," he said. "We'll start with Ms Barber, as she's on the premises. Can you give us directions?"
The room was in a part of Rainier he hadn't been through before, away from the usual lecture rooms. They had to ask again a couple of times before they tracked her down, getting something rather ambiguous in the expressions of the people who directed them. They realised why, when they finally opened the door of the correct room.
Ms Barber had been described to them as a 'nice-looking' blonde, mid twenties, 5'6'', wearing large hoop earrings. Jim couldn't fault the description. No one, however, had told him that the earrings would be all she was wearing.
"Fine art," Larabee muttered in his ear, though whether ironically or appreciatively Jim was too taken aback to tell. The art class appeared to be studying what might be called life-sculpting. A number of people were constructing, in various mediums, forms which really didn't do justice to the naked charms of Ms Barber, poised in the centre.
They escaped with an arrangement for her to be interviewed by campus security, though not before the predatory lady in the paint smattered smock who seemed to be in charge had suggested that an athletic male model would be a nice change for her (mainly female) students. Jim, listening without really intending to as they beat a hasty retreat, was mildly piqued to hear in the hubbub of comments that most of them thought Larabee had a better butt.
The history professor also turned out to be a lady, but thankfully she was middle aged and clothed, and reserved her enthusiasm for her subject. She knew Blair, and seemed genuinely upset to hear he was missing. She'd also known Scott Ballantyne for years, and more significant, she'd walked along and met him at the office on the Tuesday. "We didn't see Blair, in fact I'm almost sure he hadn't quite finished his class," she added. She was telling the truth, Jim thought, and he didn't really see her as affiliated to the people, whoever they were, who had done such a professional job on Sandburg's car. He would get Ballantyne checked out further, but from this it didn't sound as though he was the person Blair had seenif he'd really seen anyone at all. The foundations of their theory were shaky, and they didn't seem to be building much on it at all.
"Professor Saunders?" Larabee said, as they walked yet again along Rainier's corridors.
Professor Saunders small laboratory was locked up. He had no assistant. No one seemed to know whether he was likely to be back shortly or nothe didn't have teaching responsibilities and kept pretty much to himself. In one way that was rather frustrating; on the other hand there was something tidy about it which for the first time quickened in them a sense of something worth following up.
They went back to the reception desk, where they found that they had no record of Dr Joseph's address and no knowledge of Professor Saunder's whereabouts.
"You say you think you've had post for Dr Joseph?" Larabee asked.
The man on the desk nodded. "I've been trying to recall anything about it, but all I can tell you is that it was somewhere localaround Cascade."
Jim called Major Crimes and put someone on to finding out what they could. Meanwhile, it had occurred to him that he was overlooking someone who might well know all sorts of useful things about anything or anyone unusual at Rainier.
"You ever read a book by a chap called Jack Kelso? Ex CIA, writes about some of the less acceptable facets of it?" he asked.
Larabee, for once, didn't quite come out with a straight answer. "Someone gave me a copy of it a Christmas or two back."
"I haven't read it properly either, but I've met Kelso a few times. He lectures in foreign affairs here, and he's given me some valuable help before. Looking at Sandburg's car, I couldn't help wondering... And, anyway, Kelso has the training of a lifetime in noticing what's going on around him."
He found Kelso by the simple expedient of listening for the rather characteristic sound of the wheelchair, and hoped Larabee would just assume he knew where to look for him. Kelso was wheeling along towards the library, but as soon as he caught sight of Jim he came over to them.
"Ellison. Is this rumour true that you're here because Blair is missing?"
"Blair's missing along with a friend of his, Vin Tanner. He's an ATF agent from Denver. This is Chris Larabee, his captain."
Kelso nodded to Larabee. "This friend was here to socialise or in an official capacity?"
"He wasn't here on ATF business. It was supposed to be a weekend seeing an old friend but now..."
"Now we wonder quite what they've got themselves into," Jim finished. "If you've got a bit of time to spare there's something I'd like to show you."
Kelso wheeled round Blair's car in silence. On the way there, Jim had told him the little they knew for certain, and summed up their speculations.
"Professional," Kelso said, unknowingly echoing Larabee. It was in fact the only appropriate word. "I'll tell you something though. It's not what I would have done if I knew the two men in the car were an ATF agent and an observer with the PD."
"Go on," Jim said, interested.
"Frankly, if Blair hadn't got this postand roomwith you, no one would have even reported him missing yet. Someone would have covered his lectures, and there might be some annoyance he hadn't phoned in, but it certainly wouldn't have been taken seriously for another day or two. There's nothing about Sandburg's appearance to suggest he has a connection with anyone who would recognise what a thorough job's been done on this car. A fellow TA might be surprised it looked clean, but no more. I'd say, someone returned it here assuming Sandburg wouldn't be missed for a while, and the car would simply misdirect any enquiries that eventually arose. A week out in the weather, and a hasty check inside for anything suspiciousthat's what they'd expect for the car."
Chris Larabee was following this thoughtfully. "Vin was in scruffy jeans and an old biker jacket. The last thing he looked like was an agent," he said slowly. "He wouldn't have been carrying ID."
"So we can imagine a situation where they seemed like a couple of students taking an interest in something they shouldn't. I wonder if someone is still thinking that. Quite what, or who would object to their curiosity, we don't know."
"Or how strongly they'd object," Jim added grimly. "If you've got the time, maybe we could get you to take a look at what we're thinking of following up next."
In Kelso's office, they went again through what they had. It seemed to get less every time.
"Professor Saunders," Kelso said thoughtfully. "I don't know anything definite about him, but there's been a lot of speculation about where his grants come from. He doesn't teach, and hardly publishes. I've wondered about him." He glanced at his watch. "If he's not back, I suggest we get someone to let us into his office. His computer might be more informative than he would be."
It probably would have been. Someone certainly thought so, because the desk top PC which was supposed to be there was missing too. Several people >from the department who knew the lab by sight confirmed it had been bulky enough to make this surprising. The lab in general seemed remarkably empty. Frustrated again, they left a technician trying to make a list of what might have been expected to be there, and decided to split up. Kelso would pursue what he could on campus; Jim wanted to go to Major Crimes and Larabee wanted to talk to his team which he could do well enough from the loft.
"Come and eat with me tonight," Kelso offered. "Blair's a friend of mine, and I don't like the feel of this. If there's anything I can do, I want to help."
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