It was amazing how far you could get on one thought. One moment
of irrational, emotional thinking could carry a man for days while telling him
how right it was, how perfectly sane his quest appeared. A single fear or unanswered
question could numb logical thought and practicality, infect your feet as well
as your head, then suddenly abandon you halfway to the journey's end. As quickly
as it took over, it could leave without warning, drop you off to stand there looking
like an ass and wondering how you were going to explain yourself.
seemed like the thing to do at the time. Didn't it always? You find yourself swept
up in the thought, a solution presents itself and convinces you no one will find
it odd that you've just caught a flight halfway around the world, and off you
go. One simple morning turned into a quest that had become one of the stupidest
things he'd ever done. And it started out so innocently, too. He had three errands,
then the day was his own. Pick up bread and milk, drop off two shirts at the dry
cleaners, and stop by the University to check the mail. And it was all perfectly
normal, right up until Professor Kinyon popped her head in the door.
meant well, he knew that. But her innocent way of making a statement seemed at
times almost a ruse. Like the old Columbo movies. Make them drop their guard presuming
you're a fool, and suck them dry while they're bending over backwards to help
you. But, what motive could she possibly have? No, that was ridiculous. Almost
as ridiculous as the twelve year old sitting in the next row, eyeing him like
he was a cheesecake on the dessert tray.
Jim ran a hand over his face, feeling
the slight growth of beard budding out on his cheeks as he glanced out the window
at the dark sky. The glass reflected back, showing him the face of a man who had
just done a monumentally strange thing and had yet to come up with a good explanation
for being two hours away from Malaysia. There was no need to tell Simon what he'd
done. The Captain was in a conference all week and wasn't even there to know Jim
had asked for leave suddenly. But Sandburg...
Hey, Chief, I was in the
neighborhood and I thought....
Yeah, right. Nothing but the truth would
even be believed for a minute. Only the truth, in this case, was a little harder
to put into words.
Well, you see, Sandburg, I was at the University to
check your mail like you asked, and Professor Kinyon dropped in. Yeah, I know,
she means well. But she was going on and on about how Doctor Stoddard had asked
you to come down, not for the three week visit you told me it was, but as his
new assistant. She wanted to know if I'd need any help packing up your things
and sending them down. So is it true? Were you planning on staying here, and not
telling me? Is this your idea of getting off one rollercoaster and jumping on
another? Yes, I flew all the way out here to...to...
Oh yeah, that'll
sound good. Admit to the kid you flew halfway around the world because you believe
he'd do something like this. With a heavy sigh, Jim pressed his head into the
seat-back and closed his eyes. Maybe if he feigned sleep, the jail-bait in the
next row would put her eyes back into their sockets? God, if Sandburg was here,
her tongue would hit the floor. Of course, he'd be sound asleep himself, probably
resting his head on Jim's shoulder, which in turn always pinned Jim into one position
for the entire flight, giving him a kink in his neck that he'd have to make his
partner massage out. But he wasn't here. He was in Borneo, where Jim was heading.
Two weeks ago, he was seeing Sandburg off at the airport for a three week visit
with his old mentor. Three weeks to visit an old friend, soak up some old-fashioned
anthropology work, get all that exotic travel crap out of his system, and then
come back home all refreshed and ready to get back to work.
In seven more days,
he would have been at the airport picking Blair up, ready to spend three days
listening to the kid talk non-stop about his trip. Or would he? These past few
months had been pretty rough in Cascade. They both needed a break, and Blair had
been very anxious to speak to Dr. Stoddard in person. Had the stress finally gotten
to him? Could he have planned to join the research team, leaving Jim, and honestly
felt this was the best way to do it?
No, that wasn't Blair. Jim would have
sensed that kind of stress building in his partner and housemate. When you get
to know someone that well, there's nothing they can keep from you. Not something
that big. Not like...hiding evidence in a case against a hero of his. Or gathering
information from a bookie known for breaking legs when he told his partner he
was going home. Or going over Simon Banks's head and getting himself undercover
in a prison Jim had expressly forbidden him to go near.
Okay, so maybe he didn't
know Blair inside and out. Maybe that was why he felt flying to Borneo himself
to find out the truth didn't seem all that strange. But if he was going to be
honest with his partner, he'd have to be honest with himself. Sandburg held all
the cards in their relationship, Jim knew that. Blair could walk any time and
be none the worse for wear. But unless he could take these Sentinel senses with
him, Jim would be hard pressed to survive alone.
No, this was stupid. Blair
wouldn't just up and leave, then inform Jim from long distance that he wasn't
coming back like he said he was. The kid had changed since they first met, even
with the occasional fall back into his flaky ways, he'd grown. He understood the
kind of friendship they had, and how important it was. Maybe Simon didn't see
those changes, but Jim did. There was still an out. He could get off the plane,
then board a returning flight and go home, never mentioning to Sandburg what he'd
But that--after a 15 hour flight--would be just as stupid. He was committed.
Or possibly should be committed. Either way, they were circling for a
landing, and he had even more travel arrangements to make before he'd meet up
with the reason for him being there. Only this time, he had no blinding momentum
to see him through.
"I've been around that kid too long." It was
the only explanation for his having gone this far before stopping to think his
actions through completely. Only Sandburg could make him this crazy.
no trouble finding a place to stay for the night; since Malaysia's tourist season
wasn't for a few more months, there was plenty of room in the nicer hotels. From
Blair's description of Dr. Stoddard's base camp, he knew this could be the last
time he saw hot running water and a private toilet for a few days.
from his long flight, and the mental struggle to come to terms with what had driven
him all the way out here, dropped Jim into an unusually dreamless sleep. There
were no thoughts of Blair, no dreams of being half a world away from his home,
nothing. It was the most unrestful sleep he'd had in a long time. Hours later,
the morning sun brought smells of orchids from the rainforest on the edge of the
city, sounds of children playing in the street below, and a renewed sense of purpose
that helped blur Jim's feeling that he'd done the wrong thing.
And bugs. He
wasn't alone in the shower, but once he determined all of his bath mates were
non-poisonous, Jim ignored them and cleaned up. It didn't take long at all to
find a ride up the river that would take him to the trail up the mountain to the
base camp. Dr. Stoddard's group was well known in the area, and while Jim's boatman
knew very little English, he was able to give good directions through the jungle
and up the steep trails to his destination. It wasn't an easy trek, but Jim enjoyed
the struggle. Wearing a tank top against the sun, and heavy cotton pants against
the jungle plants, he set off to find his partner.
After four hours of hiking
up the switchback trail, listening to birds and monkeys and fending off the insects
attracted to his sweat, it occurred to Jim that Blair might not be there. He could
have gone on another side excursion to one of the many tribal locations he was
always talking about whenever Dr. Stoddard sent him one of his progress report
postcards. But as he rounded another section of the trail, voices could be heard
in the distance. Distinctly Western voices, with one that reached Jim's ears more
clearly than the rest. As he drew closer, a strange, yet familiar feeling returned.
It was one he had identified, reluctantly, but still had to overcome. Plain, and
very simple, jealousy.
Blair's voice rang clear through
the humid jungle air. Jim looked up to see his friend chasing after his own shout,
rushing in a mad frenzy of hair and unexpected pleasure. Stopping on the ridge,
he watched as Blair navigated rocks and loose dirt, oblivious of the fact that
Jim was about to walk down to meet him anyway.
"Hey, Chief." Smiling
in spite of himself, Jim reached out a hand and helped Blair over the lip of the
"What are you doing here?" Sweat ran from Blair's face and
neck, mixing with the dampness of his tank top. His already olive skin, slightly
tan from two weeks in the jungle heat, held scratches on his forehead, left cheek
and chin. Another, deeper scrape was visible on his neck, running from the middle
of his throat around behind his sweat-dampened hair. "Is anything wrong?
Jim, what happened? Why are you here?"
"What's this?" Jim pushed
wet hair away for a better look, suppressing a sudden, irrational anger at the
thought of Blair having been injured while here.
"Oh, it's nothing."
Waving off the hand, Blair shook his head and made an expression of disgust. "What
are you doing here, Jim? You were supposed to pick me up next week in Cascade,
Jim shrugged, glancing down the hill at the camp below. "I
thought what the hell. The city owed me some time off. Figured I'd come down here
and see what all this constant excitement was about." Blair's eyes were sparkling
behind his sunglasses, silly little square numbers that did more for looks than
shading. "So, where's this Dr. Stoddard you keep talking about?"
man, this is perfect!" Blair's expression immediately changed from perplexed
surprise to enthusiastic anticipation. "I was hoping you two would meet some
day, but I never thought...Oh, you're probably tired, huh? You can stay in my
tent, we'll just have to clear out some room, but there's an extra cot in there
that no one's using since Eddie went back home last month. Oh, and the caves,
Jim! You have got to see these caves while you're here, they're fantastic!
Man, how did you find this place? It's not exactly on the travel brochures."
Jim held up a hand to stop any further ramblings. "Sandburg, can we take
a breather here, just for a minute?"
"Oh, right, right." Blair
nodded, then glanced down the hill. "Yeah, let's get you down to the camp
and I'll introduce you around."
Jim watched his partner's facial display
with amusement. Blair could not only think in twelve directions at once without
really settling on one thought, but he could emote a hundred separate feelings
in the span of a heartbeat, never truly holding one long enough to know what it
"Dr. Stoddard's not in camp right now, but he'll be back in
a few hours." Blair took Jim by the elbow and began to lead him down the
hill. "How did you get past Simon and get time off?"
at a seminar with the Mayor. The leave board had spaces available so I took a
week." Jim had to quickly adjust his arm from being led to supporting Blair
while his partner slipped and scrambled down the rocks beside him.
was set in a small valley, surrounded by the jungle on one side and large, rock-strewn
hills on the other. In the center rested a nest of tents, large army surplus numbers
that looked similar to the wooden long-houses of the natives lining the valley's
opposite side. To the far left sat a house in the making, with several piles of
rough hewn lumber piled up beside freshly seated pillars and a large, cast-iron
pot of tar being kept bubbly warm over a fire pit. Surrounding several natives
were three decidedly Caucasian individuals that Blair was leading him toward.
One, a man about Blair's age and height, stood conversing with two natives and
making notes in a small book he held. His left hand continuously stopped writing
to shove large glasses back up his nose where they would stay a moment, then slide
again on a cushion of sweat. Next to him was another man, a few years older and
far more composed in the heat, with wraparound sunglasses and almost no visible
reaction to the sweltering jungle air. He was deeply involved in a study of the
foremost pillar, which had just been smeared with the hot tar. A few yards away,
a woman nearer Jim's age was examining a diagram. Her brown hair had been pulled
back from her face, but the rest was left to sway in the slight breeze coming
off the rainforest behind them. Khaki shorts revealed well-tanned legs that climbed
quite a distance before reaching the slender body they supported. To Jim's delight,
Blair stepped up to her first.
"Kathryn, I'd like you to meet Jim Ellison.
Jim, this is Kathryn Quinn, Dr. Stoddard's assistant."
Her smile was immediate,
and her quick glance to Blair for confirmation answered the questioning look in
her brown eyes. "Ellison? Is this the guy you've been talking about?"
Blair's nod came at the same time Kathryn's hand was extended.
"Good to meet you, Mr. Ellison."
"Jim." He smiled, slightly
surprised to see such an attractive woman. Not that he had expected ogres, but
for some reason he hadn't been expecting Kathryn Quinn. "Nice to meet you."
He shook her hand and felt the friendly warmth in her gentle grip. "I trust
you had the sense not to believe anything he said about me?"
was infectiously light. "I've known Blair long enough to know what I can
believe and what I should ignore."
Not a very reassuring answer, but he
took it anyway and nodded. "Good."
"And this, is Mark Bennings."
Blair turned to the younger man taking notes. "Mark, Jim Ellison. He stopped
by for a visit."
The glasses slipped down again and had to be pushed up
before his hand extended to shake Jim's. "Ellison? How do you do?"
to meet you." Jim returned his smile, then realized he was being scrutinized
from head to toe.
"Hmm, you look like you could handle a hammer and boards
"Mark, Jim's not here to work," Blair interjected,
raising a hand between the two. "He's here to see what we're doing and take
in the sights." With a hand on Jim's arm, he turned toward the older man.
"And this is Craig Colborne. He's in charge of putting up this longhouse
for the group to move into."
"Mr. Ellison, good to meet you."
"It's Jim, please." The hand he shook was worn by work and dirty
from dried tar, but his grip was solid and the smile very warm and friendly. "Looks
like you've got quite a job here."
Craig nodded, removing his sunglasses
to wipe a small amount of sweat from the bridge of his nose. "Indeed. The
natives invited us to build a longhouse, since Dr. Stoddard got the grant extended
another year. That will get us out of those tents when the rains come."
the rains come." Kathryn stepped into the conversation.
matter entirely." Mark nodded.
"Yeah. Listen, Jim, let me get you
settled in the tent and I'll show you around the place."
Nodding to the
others, Jim let Blair take his arm and turn him back toward the tents. "So,
Chief, this Kathryn...did she take your place when you didn't come down the first
"Hmm? Oh, yeah, she did."
Their tent was at the end
of the row. Swinging in the jungle breeze, its door-flap gave hints of a familiar
"She's been here since the beginning. But don't get any
ideas, Jim." Blair reached out and held the flap open. "She leaves in
ten days for the states and her fiancÚ so they can get married."
Jim ducked under the tent opening and stepped into Blair's room. Or at least a
travel version of it. "Is she coming back?" The only real difference
between this tent and the room he had renovated at the loft was the layout.
actually. She's staying in Cascade, I think." Blair hurried to remove piles
of notebooks and maps from a cot, then cleared a spot from one of two desks and
found a chair under a pile of wooden carvings. "Man, I can't believe you're
"Yeah, me neither." He set his backpack on the cot and
glanced around. "Listen, Chief, the reason--"
"Hey, Blair, do
you two want lunch?" Kathryn stuck her head through the tent flap and smiled
at them both.
"I could eat. Jim?"
He wasn't going to get anywhere
until they could be alone for a few minutes, and his arrival had been unexpected
enough to disrupt things, so Jim relented. "Yeah, sounds good."
on over to the main tent, we're just setting up."
The main tent was large
and open, with rolled up sides that allowed a cross breeze and mosquito netting
that kept the occupants protected. They sat at a long table set with five places,
Jim and Blair on one side of the table and the other three facing them. Whether
the fifth place was set for him, or was the absent Dr. Stoddard's usual spot,
he wasn't sure. Each of them seemed to have their own regular seat, as they spread
out with notebooks and papers during the meal. Either Blair usually sat with the
good doctor himself, or no one liked sharing that side of the table. That wasn't
very likely, since during the meal it became obvious everyone was friendly. And
little variations of Sandburg himself.
Mark, sitting at the far left end of
the table, still couldn't keep his glasses on his nose. Pushing them up every
minute or so seemed to be an ingrained habit his hand automatically performed
on a regular basis. He was quiet through lunch, nodding now and again to something
that was said as he continued his note taking with eyebrows knit in concentration.
Craig, for all his composure, practically burst with enthusiasm over the building
he was putting together outside. Jim was regaled with cultural facts and the significance
of their being able to live in the same style as the natives they observed.
of the tribes actually used to sacrifice their firstborn child and place the body
under the leading pillar, for good luck and prosperity." He sighed and shook
his head almost sadly. "They don't do that anymore, of course. Now they kill
a goat, if they have one, or bury something of great personal significance."
Jim raised both eyebrows and glanced at Blair. "So, what did you put under
His partner shrugged, lifting a glass of water. "Everyone
in the group put something in the hole. Dr. Stoddard put a picture of his daughter.
Mark gave up his sunglasses. Craig set a St. Christopher's medal down there."
"Well, it wasn't much of a sacrifice, now that he's no longer a saint."
Craig laughed, shrugging his shoulders. "But my mother gave it to me years
"And Kathryn sacrificed her only bottle of shampoo. Now she's
using the native concoction the rest of us use."
"Hence the rubberband,
as you can see." Kathryn smiled, pointing to the back of her head.
about you?" Jim cocked his head toward Blair, wondering if the casual question
would answer several other pressing issues right then and there.
sacrificed his dignity." Kathryn, and everyone else at the table, broke into
laughter as Blair rolled his eyes and nodded.
"I was exploring the caves
the day they were setting the pillar, and I kinda took a spill."
at the other members of the team and saw the confirming nods and smiles.
had to stop what we were doing, namely planting the first pillar for the house,
and go pull him out of the caves."
Blair made a face, then pointed to
his scratched neck. "So, they figured I made the ultimate sacrifice and lost
"You lost that a long time ago, Chief." Jim teased.
"Listen, there isn't a person here who hasn't fallen down that same slope
and landed hard." Craig stood and picked up his notebook and plate. "I
nearly broke my neck down there once. Blair got lucky, really."
"Nah, Jim, not really." Blair gathered their plates
and stuffed them into the large bucket of soapy water sitting in a corner of the
tent. "You've got to see these caves, man, they're really fantastic."
Jim stood and stretched while everyone else tossed their dishes into the bucket
and gathered their papers. "You're not trying to get me killed are you, Sandburg?"
"They're exaggerating." Blair shot a nasty look at the backs of the
others as they left the tent. "The Gomatong caves are a major source of income
for some of the tribes. They're home to these Swiftlet birds, whose nests are
harvested and sold to China for bird's nest soup."
"I thought that
was made from oriental noodles." Jim followed his partner out of the tent.
"Sure, for us it is. But in China they make it the way they always did.
It's a delicacy."
They were walking toward the new structure, where Jim
watched Kathryn clip a tool belt around her slim waist while Craig and Marc stuffed
nails into their pockets.
"These caves are huge underground tributaries
that house about 2 million bats." Blair leaned closer, his voice lowering
conspiratorially. "I've been dying to get you around bats, man."
Caves, bats...maybe he should have taken a flight to Hawaii?
Jim." Blair gestured impatiently, stopping to pull Jim away from the others
as if they were back in Cascade, hiding something from prying eyes in the bullpen.
"I know we talked about it before, sorta, but I've been curious to know just
how you might pick up on that much sonar."
Was his Sentinel secret just
that even here? Still secret? Maybe that was a good sign. "What I'd really
like to do right now is just rest a bit. Okay, Chief?" He glanced at the
sun, judging it to be around one o'clock. "It's been a long trip."