by Laura Jacquez Valentine
* * *
"Partnership is like a marriage, son. Give and take, up and down, who left the empty butter dish in the fridge. It isn't easy." --Robert Fraser
* * *
'Dear Mr. Sandburg...'
An innocent beginning to a letter that told me there was another full sentinel in North America, another cop with five heightened senses. In Canada's Northwest Territories, to be exact.
I put the letter down and rubbed my eyes. Damn. He mentioned a partner in his letter, and I wondered if the partner was actually guiding him, or just looking out for him, doing his best to help the sentinel through everything that went with that--spikes, zone outs, all the hell I'd seen Jim go through.
I pressed my fingers into the knots in my neck and winced. We had vacation time coming. Maybe we could go see this sentinel, make sure he was OK. He hadn't mentioned any problems, but if he was anything like Jim, he wouldn't.
'Dear Mr. Sandburg.' After all this time.
* * *
"Jim! Jim, are you listening to me?"
"Sandburg, you can't be serious. You remember what happened last time."
I rolled my eyes. "Come *on*. You can't be worried you're going to be overcome by a mating urge." I whapped him on the forehead.
Jim flushed and looked away. "No, I'm worried he's a nut. I'm worried he's going to kill you. Or me. I mean, what do we know about him?"
I threw the file I'd had faxed over to the station at him. It was a thick file, even though the sweet-voiced girl who'd sent it to me assured me it was "just the highlights." He picked it up and flipped it open, and I said, "He's who he says he is, at any rate. Benton Fraser, Royal Canadian Mounted Police. History of some weird shit, Jim. Guy goes to extremes. Sound like any sentinels we know?" I tapped the table with one finger. "Nothing in there to indicate he's inclined to murder anyone."
He leafed through the file, scowling down at the black-and-white photo of Fraser--a serious-looking, dark-haired man with an unlined face and blank eyes. "Huh. Worked with the Chicago PD." He picked up the phone, and I went into the kitchen for a beer, knowing I'd already won. I could hear him in the background, just bits and pieces: "...licking stuff? Are you serious?...no, no, thank you...." He hung up and dialed again, and I busied myself with the cupboards.
I poured spaghetti sauce into a pan on the stove and added the rest of my beer. "So?"
"So. We have time off. We had it coming to us anyway. You wanna go find this mystery sentinel of yours, we'll go."
"Thanks, Jim," I said, and bumped him away from the sauce with my hip.
* * *
The file indicated that Benton Fraser's current assignment was an RCMP detachment in Gameti, about halfway between Great Slave Lake and Great Bear Lake. We flew into Yellowknife, and from there to Gameti. It was a tiny town, less than three hundred people, the kind of place I used to summer in back when I was a student. A silent woman, after looking us over for a minute or two, pointed us towards the local RCMP office. We would have found it ourselves in less time.
"Fraser?" said the Mountie inside, who was drying wet socks over a small gas heater. "You wanna find Fraser? Now?" He looked startled, and not exactly pleased.
"Yes," I said. "I'm Detective Sandburg with the Cascade, Washington, Police Department, and--"
"I'd really love to help you gentlemen," he said, "but Corporal Fraser has..." and he winced, slightly, "...irregular habits and we're not quite sure where he's likely to be. I haven't seen him in weeks. For all I know, he could be digging Franklin out of the ice."
The confused expression on Jim's face would have made me laugh if I hadn't been certain it was mirrored on my own.
"Is there any information you can give us?"
He frowned and cracked his knuckles. "Fraser lives with his partner a ways out of town. No road out there this time of year, though; you'll have to walk."
He shrugged. "An hour, maybe. You go out back of the hotel and head straight north until you come to the pond. Then you go east. I've never done it, myself. Not worth it. His partner's an American." The way he said it, it sounded like a curse.
We thanked him and left.
* * *
We'd been walking about half an hour when Jim held up a hand. "I can hear someone chopping wood," he said. I touched his back, rubbing my knuckles over the tense muscles there. "There." He pointed, and we headed in that direction, following Jim's hearing. I loved seeing him like that, really in his element, using his senses.
I wondered what it would be like for a sentinel to grow up out here, and I hoped again, fervently, that Fraser had had some kind of a guide, someone to keep him grounded. I'd met enough crazy sentinels to last me a lifetime. His choice of career gave me some comfort, but the attitude of the Mountie in Gameti had been less than reassuring. Irregular habits, my ass.
The chopping wood sound came from outside a small cabin, where a blond guy was splitting logs and stacking them against the wall. We came closer, and as he tossed sweaty hair out of his eyes, he caught sight of us. He held the ax poised for the downstroke, and frowned before thumping it into the chopping block and walking towards us.
"What can I do for you gents?" he asked, his tone faintly hostile. Jim and I looked at each other. Not Fraser, not with that accent; this must be the partner.
"We're looking for--" Jim started, but the man interrupted almost immediately.
"Americans, huh?" He looked us over and shoved his hands into his pockets. "Might as well come in." He headed for the cabin without another word. Jim and I shared another look.
"What?" I said.
"Sandburg, I swear," he answered, and that was enough. I knew what he meant. I shrugged, and together we walked to the cabin.
It was small and well-built, and when we got inside, the blond man was heating water on the stove. "You guys like tea?"
"Yeah," I said. "Look, I'm--"
"I'm Ray," he said. "You looking for Fraser?"
"Well, he's not here." He turned back to the stove. "Myself, I hate tea, but you wouldn't believe the price of coffee here."
I looked around the cabin, at the two chairs and small table, at the neatly-made bed, at the battered CD player and the bookshelves built into the walls. The floors were bare and worn, swept clean. It was a sentinel's home, all right, nothing unknown, nothing to confuse the senses. Jim looked at ease here, although he was studying Ray carefully.
I grinned at Jim, knowing how long it had taken him to let me run interrogations my way on occasion. He knew damn well that his usual tactics wouldn't work on this guy--who, unless I missed my guess, was ex-Chicago PD. I shook my head and tried again. "He sent me a letter."
Ray didn't turn around. "Yeah, well, he's that kind of guy." He ran his fingers through his hair, making it stand on end. "What did he send you a letter about?" He looked over his shoulder at me.
I took it out of my jacket pocket and handed it to him. He unfolded it and read it, then gave it back. "So, you want to talk to him about him licking things? You came all the way from Washington for that?"
"I want to make sure he's functioning, that he's not having any problems."
For some reason, that seemed to annoy Ray. He turned around and crossed his arms over his chest. "I think you should leave Fraser alone, is what I think. He's good." His eyes flicked to Jim. "He's better than good."
"I'm a sentinel," Jim said. "Sandburg here is my partner. He helps me control my senses. He just wants to make sure your partner is in control. He can help--"
"Hey! My partner doesn't need help," Ray said, and poured three tin mugs of tea. He passed one to Jim, and then gave me mine. He held my eyes when he did so. "He'll be back end of the week. If you're still around next Tuesday, come by then. Not before. You got it? Good." He sipped his tea, looking down at the floor, and made no further efforts at conversation.
I could see why the Mountie in town didn't like this guy.
Ray finished his tea. "I gotta go into town for supplies. You guys want a ride back? Hotel probably has a room open if you make nice to Sal."
"Yeah," I said. "Yeah, we'll come." I'm not sure what else he expected us to do.
He had a beat-up black Jeep, and Jim said "The guy in town said there weren't any roads this time of year."
"You got directions from Killian?" Ray said, and gestured for us to hop in. "The Mountie on duty?"
"Typical." He didn't elucidate, and he didn't say anything else on the drive to town--along a gravel road we hadn't even noticed. I didn't feel comfortable asking him about his partner. I knew, though, that this guy wasn't acting as Fraser's guide, and that worried me. A sentinel, out alone? Who the hell knew what could happen.
Back in town, Ray pulled up in front of the RCMP office. "Killian!" he yelled, leaning out the car window, "you ever tell anyone where we live again and I'm gonna kick you in the head."
"Understood," the Mountie called back. "Of course, Ray, you realize I must execute my sworn duties, and that those might involve revealing your location or Corporal Fraser's?"
Ray waved at him, and Killian retreated into his station. "Here's a lesson. You can trust the Mounties to tell you how to do something. Here's another. You can't trust them to tell you the best way to do it. And don't listen to Killian, whatever you do, he hasn't been the same since they thawed him out."
"Thawed him out?" I asked, but Ray only shrugged.
"I think we've been had, Chief," Jim said, but he was smiling.
* * *
Gameti wasn't a very interesting town, even though the locals were friendly and --after a day or so--chatty. We spent a lot of time walking, keeping the town in sight so we wouldn't get lost, even though Jim claimed he could have found it by smell from quite a bit further out. "Nothing out here, Chief," he'd said. "Just..." and then he'd smiled.
I like Jim smiling, so I didn't press him about it.
Sal, who ran the hotel, was an old man with eyes nearly invisible behind his wrinkles. He was unfailingly polite, but not very informative. Constable Killian, who turned out to be Fraser's subordinate, dropped by the hotel with his wife, Katherine Mary, and told us stories about Fraser. With a good meal and several cups of tea in him, he got a lot less formal.
"Corporal Fraser is...unique. There have been stories about him for years, you know. His father, too--but his father wasn't as strange. I mean, anyone who spends as much time alone as Fraser does is bound to be a little cracked."
I looked at Jim, who shrugged. Isolation can trigger sentinelism--and now I was wondering if Fraser's father had been a sentinel as well.
Killian started telling a story about Fraser and Ray that sounded highly unlikely--something to do with a nuclear sub--and finally explained his comment about Franklin. Seems Ray and Fraser had gone off to look for the Hand of Franklin, the frozen hand of a dead explorer. Katherine Mary said she thought it was "sweet" that Fraser had been willing to go with Ray on this bit of insanity, and I wondered just how crazy Fraser and his bitterly uncommunicative partner were.
After Killian and Katherine Mary left, I went to my notebook and wrote down everything I could remember. Any information--even second or third hand--could help me understand Fraser, if I ever met up with the guy.
Tuesday we walked back out to the cabin. Jim had been uncharacteristically quiet since Saturday, but he seemed to be fine--no aberrant behavior, no sensory problems. I guessed from that Fraser had come back home Saturday, although I wasn't sure. I wondered if Jim's presence would be affecting Fraser at all, but I figured that Jim wasn't any kind of a threat to Fraser, not like Alex had been. And I figured that if Fraser was acting strangely, his partner would have found some way to blame us and would have turned up to let us know about it.
"Someone's singing," Jim said when we were about a mile from the cabin. "Not Ray." He cocked his head and smiled. "Nice voice."
"I don't recognize it."
We kept going, and finally I could hear it as well: a strong clear voice, singing "Nobody's Girl." Tracy Jenkins, not Bonnie Raitt. It broke off in the middle of a word, and a large white dog bounded around the cabin and snarled at us. Close on his heels were Ray and a drop-dead gorgeous man in jeans and a neatly tucked-in flannel shirt.
Is there some law that says sentinels have to be pretty enough to knock you over at twenty paces?
Benton Fraser's file photograph did not do him justice. Nothing in that picture had given any indication that I'd find anything but a withdrawn and serious man, but this man was smiling, his eyes crinkled at the corners. The dog left off snarling long enough to glance over its shoulder at him. "Oh, don't be silly, Diefenbaker," he said. "I'm sure that they mean no harm." The dog looked at us and grumbled, then turned back to Fraser. "Oh, yes. I know. Don't worry about it." He touched Ray's arm, and ignored the dirty look his partner shot him.
"C'mon, Dief," said Ray. "I got some bacon with your name on it." He and the dog disappeared into the cabin.
"Pretty dog," said Jim.
Fraser frowned. "He's a wolf."
"I'm Blair Sandburg," I said.
Fraser looked at me sharply, and then nodded. "I had deduced as much. Won't you both come in and have lunch with us?"
We preceded him into the cabin, where Diefenbaker was eating bacon in front of the stove. "How many pieces have you eaten?" Fraser asked him, and the wolf raised his head, his ears pricked. "Don't look at me like that--how many pieces have you eaten?"
"Six, Frase, calm down," said Ray, who was seated in one of the chairs, leaning back against the wall.
Fraser rubbed his eyebrow, and Ray moved to the bed, gesturing to Jim and me to take the two chairs. I watched Fraser make lunch with quick, certain movements, and I wondered how strong his senses were. As he sliced bread, he began to speak. "I hope you didn't mind my writing, Mr. Sandburg. I understand that the subject must be a painful one for you. I thought, perhaps, that you might like to expand your sample size, since I understand you only had opportunity to study one."
"Two, actually," I said. "But I didn't get to work much with the second. She, um. Kind of tried to kill me."
"I'm sorry," he said, turning to look at me. His tongue flickered over his lower lip, and he looked serious. "I know you aren't writing your dissertation anymore. Still, I thought it might help you if you had some idea of what the variation is in sentinels."
I frowned. "You didn't seem surprised, in your letter."
"I wasn't surprised. I am familiar with protecting one's partner." He glanced over at Ray for a second, and then back at me. "And I have read Burton, Mr. Sandburg. " He tilted his head to one side. "I think you will find that here, no one finds my abilities odd."
"No, they just find *you* odd," Ray said from the bed, but Fraser didn't respond to him.
"So, uh, what's your range?" I asked.
"You mean how far away can I lick things?" His expression was perfectly deadpan, but Ray snorted. He put a plate of sandwiches on the table and I took one. "Taste is my strongest sense, in tandem with smell, of course. Touch is my weakest, but not by much."
"Hearing is my strongest sense," Jim said, around a mouthful of sandwich.
Fraser smiled at him. "A great asset in a city. There were many times when I was in Chicago when I wished my hearing were more acute."
Jim shrugged, apparently accepting that. I took a deep breath. "So. The other sentinel we met--when she was in Cascade, Jim got...well, very territorial."
"And you want to know if I'm feeling the same?" He frowned slightly, as if considering, then shook his head. "No more than usual."
Diefenbaker grumbled from the floor. "Well, there was that," Fraser acknowledged. "But that was in the course of my duties."
Ray paid the odd exchange no mind, and so I decided to let it go. Jim was starting on his second sandwich and watching Fraser out of the corner of his eye.
"Tell them about the case, Fraser," Ray said.
"Yes, of course, Ray. I was coming to that." He leaned back against the counter and crossed his legs at the ankles. "If you would like to see me use my senses in a professional situation, there is an illegal hunting case I would like to pursue. Ray and Diefenbaker will be accompanying me, and both of you are welcome to come along."
"Isn't that against procedure?" Jim asked.
"Yes. The RCMP understands, however, that I am not precisely orthodox in my pursuit of the criminal element." A half-eaten sandwich flew over my shoulder and hit Fraser in the chest. "Thank you, Ray," he said, and took a bite, looking thoughtful. Jim and I started to laugh.
We finished lunch, and Fraser indicated a willingness to have his senses tested. He and I headed off into the woods. He moved swiftly and surely through the trees, the lines of his body relaxed and casual. After about ten minutes, I said, "So, have you always had your senses?"
"As long as I can remember," he answered, turning to help me over a fallen log. Diefenbaker bounded ahead of us, tail waving.
"Have you ever had a guide of any kind?"
"When I was a boy, a man named Tom Quinn taught me to track animals. He is a guide."
"No, I mean--well, someone to help you with your senses."
He looked at me oddly. "Quinn taught me how to use my senses and powers of observation to--"
I waved my hands in the air, and he stopped, looking at me with this wide-eyed-and-curious expression. "No, I mean, like, someone who really worked with your senses, helped you use the right one at the right time, helped you not zone out."
"Zone out?" He shook his head. "What do you mean, zone--oh. No, of course not. My senses are perfectly natural to me; why should I have any difficulty with them?"
I licked my lower lip. "Jim did. Still does, sometimes. And the other sentinel--Alex Barnes--she was just a mess. I mean, really a mess. I'm pretty surprised that you've--"
He cut me off with a motion of his hand. "Ssh." He stood still for a moment, and I recognized the stance. That was Jim's sentinel-hearing-engaged pose. "Huh," he said, and then shrugged.
"What was it?"
He smiled at me, and his smile was almost as sweet as Jim's. "Diefenbaker has apparently found a girlfriend."
"Ah." I nodded, and thought for a second. Getting useful information out of Fraser was as hard as getting it out of Jim had been, back when we first met. "So. You were singing. You're good."
"Thank you," he said. "Actually, I sang on the studio recording of that particular song." He looked amused. "It was an interesting experience. Ray was quite entertained."
"So, you and Ray, are you, do you--" Damn, how did I *ask* this? A suspect or a student, those people I could ask questions. This guy was another story.
He frowned at me slightly. "We sing in the choir together," he answered, "although Ray has a rather idiosyncratic way of following a tune."
I gave up.
He and I found a quiet place to sit, and he sat cross-legged and leaned back against a tree. "How would you like to go about this, Mr. Sandburg?"
"Well, I would like to start off with a kind of guided meditation--just to find out how you conceptualize your senses, that kind of thing--I'll tape it, if that's OK, so you can hear what you said afterwards."
He raised an eyebrow, which irritated me, but said only "I sometimes hypnotize myself in order to improve my recall. I suspect I will have no difficulty with guided meditation."
He closed his eyes, and I turned on my tape recorder and started to talk. Get him settled, Sandburg, I told myself, and then see where he goes.
Jim's never been talkative when I talk him into a meditation and then let him go; Fraser, on the other hand, opened right up like a flower.
Like a fucked-up crazy flower.
It started out fairly normally, but took a left turn early and never went normal again. I thought maybe it was just--you know, where he grew up, an unusual childhood and career, but then he started talking about using his senses in Chicago, and it was *still* not making any sense.
"...and Ray, the other Ray, the real Ray, not that Ray's not real but the real Ray Vecchio, only I'd only just met him then and hadn't met the other Ray at all..."
I asked about his senses, and he told me a long and involved story about Chinese fireworks, federal agents, and listening to potholes.
If possible, Fraser has a worse opinion of the feds than Jim does. I was pretty impressed.
I asked him if he'd ever seen any ghosts. I figured--hell, Jim claimed to. His eyes snapped open and the entire set of his face changed. "What makes you ask that, Mr. Sandburg?"
"I, um." I shrugged. "There are some spiritual aspects to the senses in...in Jim and in Alex Barnes, and I just thought--"
He relaxed slightly. "They're coming from a different tradition. If I understand the excerpts of your dissertation that were made publicly available, Mr. Ellison's spiritual beliefs are rooted in a form of shamanism or animalism--"
I interrupted him. "But Alex's weren't. She had no exposure to any culture that would accept her abilities, but she still had the same symbolism, in her work, in her dreams. That's the thing, if it's some kind of unconscious--"
"No." He shook his head. "Oh, no, thank you." He stood up and studied me intently, his face serious. "There is no denying what we are, but don't make it more than it is."
I jumped to my feet and dusted off my jeans. "Look, I don't want to make it more than it is! All I know is that I had two sentinels who shared a common mythology. Jim told me that Alex could read a language she had no exposure to, no way of knowing--"
"She had a way, Mr. Sandburg. She very surely had a way." He looked down at the ground, and then back at me. His tongue flickered over his lower lip--must be a nervous habit; he did it fairly often. "She was probably just...talking to a ghost." He narrowed his eyes and nodded, suddenly as blank and cold as the file photograph.
And then he spun on his heel and headed back the way we'd come.
Well. Wasn't *that* interesting.
When we got back to the cabin, Ray and Jim were cooking. "You eat weirder stuff than Sandburg," Jim said, as we walked in.
"You don't like lichen? You make your own dinner. I do not cater to you, or to anyone, you got that?"
"Diefenbaker," Fraser said, and Ray whirled on him.
"Shut up, Fraser, who the hell asked you anyway? I do not cater to Dief. Dief and me, we got an understanding."
We didn't mention ghosts or sentinels again.
Dinner was good, if odd; Ray hadn't been kidding about the lichen, and he'd used it as a topping on something that approximated pizza. Wrong cheese, wrong sauce, good crust.
Dief got a small pizza to himself, which made Fraser roll his eyes.
Ray gave us a ride home and said he'd be back for us at eight AM sharp. As we watched him drive off, I asked "So, what do you think?"
Jim shrugged. "I think they're both crazy. And I don't like you being with Fraser."
"I can take care of myself, Jim."
He looked at me, and I could see the old fear in his eyes. "It's not--it's just, Alex."
"He's not Alex," I said, softly.
* * *
Ray showed up at eight on the dot, dressed in a brown Mountie uniform. "You're a Mountie?" Jim asked.
"Long story, Ellison. Suffice to say that under very exceptional circumstances the laws here in Canada allow non-citizens to be members of the RCMP. You don't really wanna know. Now hurry up, Fraser's waiting at the plane."
By nine, we and our gear were packed into a tiny Cessna with Fraser at the controls. Diefenbaker, with whom Fraser had carried on a long and apparently serious conversation about how flying with Fraser in light aircraft was unsafe and unsanitary, had refused to get on board; Ray and Fraser both appeared resigned to this. "How long have you been flying?" Jim asked, and Fraser smiled over his shoulder.
"Since just before I met Ray. Well, this Ray."
Jim gave me a strange look, and I shrugged. That made twice Fraser had mentioned, unexplained, another man named Ray.
I strapped in behind Fraser, and Jim sat behind Ray, who was in the copilot's seat. I hate being a passenger in anything that flies--choppers are the worst, but planes are pretty bad, too. Picked that up from my own days flying, I guess, since I never had problems as a kid.
The first hour of the flight went peacefully. I read, trying to ignore the windows; Jim stared out of them, apparently enjoying whatever he was seeing out there.
Ray jerked upright, which snapped me out of a particularly poorly researched Time article. "Do not say 'oh dear', Fraser, I hate it when you say that, that is not a good thing to say."
I hadn't heard Fraser say anything over the noise of the plane, but one look at Jim told me that *he* had, and that he hadn't liked what he heard. I opened my mouth--and the Cessna bucked suddenly. I could hear the shriek of metal and what sounded like an explosion. "What the--" said Jim, his knuckles turning white on the arms of his seat. "We've been shot, Chief." He swallowed, looking panicky. I thought about the last time he'd been shot down--years ago, when he lost his whole team in Peru--and I reached out to him. He twisted his fingers into mine.
Ray leaned over and put his arm across Fraser's seat back. "Fraser, do not say 'turtles.'"
Fraser pressed his lips together and did not answer. He seemed calm, even though the plane was shaking almost out of control, and I could smell metal burning.
"I swear if you say 'turtles' I will kick you in the head. We will have no turtles on this flight."
"Shut up and fly, Fraser!"
"No! You did not kill Vecchio when you crashed the plane and you are not going to kill me. And you are not going to throw me out--do not say 'turtles', you got that?"
"He's crashed planes before?" I asked.
"He's crashed everything. Maybe he never crashed my GTO but that was pure chance." Ray was shouting over the increasing noise, and behind him was Jim, eyes closed tightly.
"Hang on," Fraser said, and I braced myself. We were low over the trees, and the metal buckled around us.
Something must have hit me, because I blacked out.
* * *
I woke up to the sound of an argument.
"You only let me drive it twice, Ray; I hardly think that's a fair sample."
"If I had let you drive my car more than twice, you would have wrecked it. Third time's the charm, Fraser."
"Gimme those needlenose pliers, willya?"
"Of course, Ray."
I rolled over on my side and saw Ray and Fraser sitting by a fire. Ray was working on something that had probably once been a radio, and Fraser was next to him, his right leg pressed firmly against Ray's left. Jim, looking groggy and confused, was across the fire from them.
"What happened?" I asked.
Fraser looked up at me and smiled. "You're awake! Would you like some pemmican?"
"Not if he has any sense," Ray said.
I sat up, my neck and shoulders aching, and walked over to the fire. I took the pemmican from Fraser and chewed on one end. "So?"
"You passed out on impact. We all did. You don't appear to have any serious head injuries, but you're badly bruised."
Nice to know, but not want I wanted to hear. "No. I mean, we got shot down?"
"Well. The hunters I mentioned are apparently using..." He pressed his lips together and made an abortive hand gesture. "Well, they're using illegally obtained antiaircraft weaponry, among other things."
I stared at him, taking in the blood on his brown shirt and the way he kept his left hand close to his chest. "And you didn't think this was important to mention?"
Fraser looked at Ray, who shrugged. "Don't look at me, Frase, I've gotten used to it."
"How do you get used to being nearly killed?" I asked. As close as I've come a number of times, I've never gotten used to it.
Ray stopped what he was doing and looked at me. After a moment, he said, "Let me give you another lesson. This is the Fraser survival lesson, and I'm not even charging you for it, so listen up. If you are going to spend time with Fraser, you will get used to your life being endangered in wildly bizarre ways." He went back to his repair job.
"Wildly bizarre ways?" Jim said, and I rolled my eyes. He'd be off on a tear now. "This is completely--what the hell is wrong with you two? You nearly kill me and my partner, you strand us in the middle of nowhere, you failed to mention vital information that would have helped us establish both the risks of the mission and a plan of action!" He was standing now, his fists clenched, his eyes narrowed. Cute as he always looks that way, it usually means that someone is about to get thrown against something.
"Hey!" Ray said. "You siddown and shut your hole, Ellison."
"And I do not need the input of some punk burnout from Chicago, Ray Whoever-the-hell-you-are!"
"Kowalski. Stanley Raymond Kowalski. Now sit. Down."
It was a mark of how upset Jim was that he didn't even notice the name. I nearly inhaled my own lips trying not to laugh when my best friend was ranting up a storm, but damn. Stanley Kowalski?
Fraser looked mildly amused, and Jim looked like he was about to do his imitation of Vesuvius. Unfortunately, so did Stanley. Ray. Whatever.
"Listen to me, you little jackass," Jim said, pointing at Ray, "I have to put up with too many crazy people in my life, and too many of them came damn close to getting me and Sandburg killed."
"It's part of being a cop, Ellison. You're a cop, so you deal with it. Fraser and I are not your enemies here, you got that?" Ray put the radio down next to him and leaned forward, his hands open and relaxed on his knees.
"This is not part of being a cop. This is--"
"Well, then what the hell is it?"
"This is about your goddamn partner being a senti--"
Jim didn't get to finish the sentence--at "goddamn" Ray was in motion, and he hit Jim hard, throwing him back against a tree and pressing an arm across his throat.
"You do not mess with Fraser, you got that?" I stood up and headed for them, intent on pulling Ray off of Jim.
Fraser didn't move, but he started repeating Ray's name over and over.
"I don't care if you're the baddest cop in the U.S. of A.; up here you're in his territory, you got that? You just shut your mouth and we'll get you out of here, all in one piece, but you mess with us and I'll--"
"Ray. Ray. Ray. Ray. RAY!"
Ray let go of Jim and backed off. I grabbed Jim's arm. "You OK, man?"
"Fine, Chief." His voice was raspy, and his eyes never left Ray, who was pouring a cup of tea.
"Here," Ray said, holding it out to me. I took it, and he looked at Jim. "It'll help with the sore throat." He sat back down and started working on the radio again.
Jim sipped the tea and kept close to me. He was acting oddly--too violent and paranoid by half. I wondered if it was being in another sentinel's territory that was doing it--some kind of instinct thing--or if it was just Jim's fear-based response to Fraser--fear that Fraser was like Alex, although so far (near as I could tell, anyway) Fraser was strange as hell but pretty stable. I couldn't keep from worrying about his lack of a guide, though; that really bugged me. I didn't get how he could keep it together.
Ray and Fraser spoke in low tones as Ray worked on the radio. Jim relayed the conversation to me under his breath. "Fraser thinks Ray is being overprotective. Ray says we're a threat. That we don't understand." I looked over the fire, and saw Fraser tap the back of Ray's wrist; saw his mouth move. "Fraser said something about red ships and green ships...I don't know," Jim said. "I can't--I mean, I can hear them, but they're not making any sense."
"They're partners, Jim. Partnership is a very strange and sacred relationship. It's built on compatibility and trust and eventually on shared history. It develops its own codes, its own lingo. They're probably just reaffirming that to each other, the same way you and I do."
He looked at me out of the corner of his eye, still facing Ray and Fraser. "We do?"
I grinned at him. "I wouldn't give up three million dollars for a gun and back rent for just anyone, Ellison."
He chuckled and set his cup down. "Point taken, Chief. Just sleep close tonight, OK?"
"Twist my arm," I said, and he pushed me over on my side. My bruised side. "Ow!"
He lay down next to me. "Sleep, Chief."
As I fell asleep, I thought I heard Fraser singing.
* * *
"Rise again, rise again, that her name not be lost to the knowledge of men..."
I opened my eyes. Jim was gone, and Fraser was salvaging supplies from the plane, singing in that nice light baritone of his. He was wearing jeans--which showed off the clean lines of his legs--and a flannel shirt.
A toe nudged me in the ribs. "Hey. Keep your eyes to yourself. You want coffee?"
I squinted up at Ray. "Coffee? Yeah. Sure." I climbed to my feet and took the coffee from him. "Where's Jim?"
"Taking a leak." He eyed me suspiciously. "You need to be checked out? How's the side?"
I stretched. "Bruised. I'll be OK."
"You sure? We need to move fast today. I don't want any foul-ups, and I don't want to find out you're too hurt to keep up."
He nodded curtly.
I sipped the coffee. "Thanks for this. S'good."
That made him smile. "Normally, it's just me who has coffee. Frase likes this bark tea--you don't wanna know. I say, I'm a cop, cops need coffee."
"I like bark tea," I said.
He looked at me, then yelled, "Hey, Fraser, Sandburg's a freak!"
Fraser stopped singing and yelled back, "Understood! Oh, the year was 1778..."
"Freak," Ray said, his voice soft. He smiled at his coffee for a moment before speaking. "You should go find Ellison and then get cleaned up. We gotta get out of here."
I turned to go find Jim, and then looked back over my shoulder. Ray was watching his partner, his face relaxed. "I just--I wanted to ask. Why don't you like us? I just want to help."
He sighed and the lines reappeared, making him look suddenly old. "Yeah, well, the last time someone came up from the States looking for Fraser they turned out to be hit men, so you'll forgive me if I'm not all that enthusiastic."
"Hit men? What happened?"
He smiled, but it wasn't a happy smile. "They're missionaries now. They were in a locked room with Fraser for six hours. Does funny things to a guy." He shook his head. "Really funny things."
I swallowed, feeling like I shouldn't have asked, and headed for a bunch of bushes which seemed a likely place for a makeshift latrine in a two-sentinel camp: downwind.
An hour later, with neatly rolled packs--Fraser having made them with all the precision of a sushi chef--and dressed in clean warm clothing, we were on our way. We'd had pemmican for breakfast, which had made Jim grumble about Army field rations, and I'd noticed that Ray had a stash of what looked like M&Ms in one of his pockets.
Fraser led the way, and I followed, watching him. He was an excellent tracker--better than Jim. He'd probably had a lot more practice over his lifetime, though, and sometimes I think Jim has taken to relying on his senses rather than on his other skills.
That worries me, sometimes. I mean, his senses could fade with age. On the other hand, getting him to stop using what we'd spent so much time working on and learning how to use...well. That wasn't a good idea, either. I tried to guide him, but he didn't always listen to me.
I dropped back to walk with Ray, who was bringing up the rear. He didn't seem inclined to talk. I studied him out of the corner of my eye, comparing him to Incacha. To myself.
Shamanism didn't seem to be Ray's bag, or inner peace, or whatever it was that made Incacha and me part of Jim's life-as-sentinel. Ray was--like every stereotype of cops that Naomi ever fed me. Unpleasant, rigid, violent, poorly educated. The kind of cop I wasn't friends with, back in Cascade; the kind who wouldn't give a fuck.
If he hadn't cared about his partner, I probably wouldn't have even tried to talk to him. But he did, and so I wanted to find a connection. Everyone's human, plus this guy had worked with Fraser for years. If I could find out what he'd seen, it would help me build a picture of what Fraser might need, of what problems he was or wasn't having.
"Shut up," he answered.
"I just wanted to ask--"
"I'm not gonna tell you."
"--about Fraser's senses."
"I said I'm not gonna tell you."
"Look. I know you don't like me. But I need to know if he's OK. He's got an extraordinary gift. And I think you might like to know how to work with that gift. It can only help you work with him."
He stopped dead. "Look, kid. You got some kinda misconception here. Me and Fraser, we're good. We're better than good. I don't need you or anyone telling me how to work with him. I don't need you studying him and me and queering the whole thing."
"'Queering the whole thing'? Just what are you saying?" I remembered his toe in my side, him telling me to keep my eyes to myself.
"That you shouldn't mess in another guy's partnership, that's what. Fraser wants to help you out. That's fine. You get what you need and you get out and leave us alone." He took a deep breath. "Now come on. We gotta keep moving."
He gestured for me to step ahead of him, and I ran to catch up to Jim. "What was that about, Chief?" he asked.
"You didn't hear?"
"I wasn't listening."
"Just as well," I said. "That asshole pisses me off." I frowned. "Do you think he and Fraser are...you know."
Jim looked at me. "Are what?"
"You know," I said again, making my little punching-fucking gesture.
Jim shrugged. "Don't know. Don't care."
"They only have one bed."
"Jesus, Chief, what does it matter? What is it with you and the sex lives of sentinels, anyway?"
He glared at me and started jogging, leaving me behind. I watched as he fell in with Fraser. They spoke for a few minutes, and then Jim took off into the trees.
* * *
Around mid-afternoon, Fraser stopped dead and cupped a hand to his ear. "Ray," he said, and Ray pushed me down on the ground.
"Stay there," he said, and rolled away from me. He had his gun drawn--that's right, I thought, he's a Mountie, he can carry here. I missed the pressure of my gun against my side.
I missed it even more a second later when bullets started hitting the tree Ray was leaning against. "What the--"
"Those would be the bad guys, Sandburg," he said, putting on a pair of glasses and leaning out to look around the tree. "The ones with the antiaircraft gun. And the automatic weapons. HEY! ROYAL CANADIAN MOUNTED POLICE! QUIT SHOOTING OR I'M GONNA COME OUT THERE AND KICK YOU IN THE HEAD!" He fired two shots and ducked back, fumbling at his pants leg with one hand as another bullet whizzed past us. "That worked better when I was Chicago PD. Here. Have a gun, Detective." He slid a snub-nosed revolver out of an ankle holster and tossed it to me. "It's loaded."
"Thanks, man." I felt better just holding it--and where the hell was Jim? I looked around for him and noticed something else. Where the hell was Fraser? "Does he do this a lot?"
"Do what?" asked Ray. "Frase! Two o'clock, eleven o'clock?"
A two-way radio I hadn't noticed replied, "One, eleven, Ray. Detective Ellison at eight and moving. Lake at two; heading there."
"Your two, five here."
Ray cursed. "OK, Sandburg, follow me. We gotta take out the guy at one o'clock and then get to the lake."
We used the trees for cover, staying low. Ray was fast and silent--I have to admit I was impressed. The guy was an ass, but he knew what he was doing. And he did work pretty well with Fraser. Not as well as Jim and me, but then it's hard to beat a sentinel and a guide.
"I think he saw me." Ray moved slightly, and a bullet whizzed by us. "He saw me." He fumbled for the two-way.
"Hey, no, no. Come on. We split up. You go that way, I go this way--we surprise him. Divide his focus."
Ray frowned. "Yeah, OK. On three. One."
We split and headed for different trees. I hoped like hell that Jim had gotten Eleven O'Clock because Blair Sandburg and Stanley Kowalski vs. One O'Clock was more than enough excitement for one day. I held my borrowed gun low and tried to figure out what was what: Eleven was quiet. One was shouting, yelling at Ray. Ray was lateral to me and past him I could see Fraser, belly-down on a rock overlooking the lake. Jim...where the hell was Jim?
I didn't have time to worry. Ray waved at me, and I circled around, getting behind One. I turned the gun around in my hand and threw it, nailing the son of a bitch on the back of the head. He dropped like a rock.
Ray emerged from a nearby bush and stared at me. "You threw the gun."
He cut me off with a wave of his hand. "I don't wanna hear it. Swear to God I get all the crazy ones. Fucking fruitcakes, every last one of them..." He continued his rant in a mumble I couldn't pick up as he tied One's hands behind his back, then collected the gun and ammunition and jammed them into his pack. "Well, come on, Sandburg. Let's get this felon on the road."
I helped him pick up the still-unconscious One, and we headed for the lake.
Jim and Fraser were waiting for us, hidden behind the same rock I'd seen Fraser on before. A guy I assumed was Eleven was tied up nearby.
"Good, you're here," said Fraser.
"He threw a gun," Ray said. "Who the hell throws a gun?"
"You gave him your backup?"
"Yeah, Fraser, arrest me later, OK? What's going down?"
"Five men. They've packed most of their weapons in that boat." He gestured to a yacht with three men on deck.
"OK." Ray nodded, then looked over at Jim. "This is how it goes down, OK? Me and Ellison go out there, because we're the heavies, right? We keep it heavy, they get scared, they get on the boat, you guys chase 'em."
"In what?" I asked.
"The Skanky Mermaid," replied Fraser, as though it were obvious. I followed his pointed finger to a smaller boat, close to us. Sure enough, in bold blue letters on the side was her name: The Skanky Mermaid. "Ray," said Fraser, as Ray and Jim turned to leave, "Red and green ships."
"You're a freak, Frase," Ray said.
"Understood," Fraser answered, and Ray and Jim crept off to go do their bad-cop thing.
"That doesn't bother you?" I asked.
"Him calling you a freak. I mean, Jim hates it."
Fraser frowned. "Ray understands me, and I him. There's nothing to be bothered about. Besides--I am a freak, in many ways. So is he. So are you." He slid off the rock, heading down towards the water.
I followed him and helped him untie the lines. He continued talking. "I would caution you against using Jim as a baseline. Or me, for that matter. What's normal for people with our abilities hasn't been established." He coiled rope neatly and looked over at the criminal soup du jour. Ray and Jim had evidently done *something*, because there were only two men on the boat now--and they'd just started the engine, apparently set on abandoning their comrades.
There--they took off, and I could hear Ray yelling "ROYAL CANADIAN MOUNTED POLICE!" in the distance. Fraser started the Skanky Mermaid and we zoomed out onto the lake, following the yacht.
Over the noise of the boat, I yelled, "So, how are you and Jim getting along?"
"He's a very interesting man," Fraser answered. "He and I have a great deal in common." He glanced at me. "I don't think he trusts me with you."
"Probably thinks you want me to be your guide."
"Why on earth would I want that?" He turned hard, and I clung to the metal railing. The Twilight Zone. I'd fallen into an episode of the Twilight Zone, with a sentinel who not only didn't have a guide, but didn't *want* one.
"Because sentinels--whoa!--need partners along--and--"
"I have a partner," he said. "Hand me that grappling hook." I did so. "In fact, I have two, since Diefenbaker makes an excellent partner, if a somewhat unconventional one. Steer, please. Bring us in as close as possible."
Fraser might not be Jim, but he's still a sentinel. And sentinels are extremists to the bone, that much I know. Or maybe they just like jumping onto fast-moving things--maybe I'm all wrong about them. Fuck.
He reached out and hauled himself over to the yacht, where he stood up and drew his gun. "I'M AFRAID I'M GOING TO HAVE TO ASK YOU TO SURRENDER," he yelled, startling the hell out of the two guys. They just stared, helplessly, at the man who had mysteriously ended up behind them, on their boat, with a gun.
Twilight Zone for sure; Jim would have been noisy about the whole thing and someone would have jumped overboard.
* * *
When we got back to shore with our two captives, Ray and Jim were entertaining themselves by interrogating One, Eleven, and the three others they'd snagged. Or rather, Jim was watching and Ray was interrogating.
"You wouldn't," said one of them.
"You don't think so?" Ray glared at him.
"You're a Mountie."
"Do I fucking sound Canadian to you?"
"He said he was a Mountie, didn't he?" asked another. "What if he's not really a Mountie?"
"I'm a Mountie, I'm just not Canadian. Now, are you gonna talk or am I gonna have to break your jaw?"
"He sure doesn't sound Canadian," said the first guy, eyeing Ray nervously.
"Ray," said Fraser, and the collection of bad guys relaxed.
"Now, *he's* Canadian," said one, sounding satisfied.
I walked over to Jim, content to watch Ray and Fraser work from a distance. "Weird day," I said.
"Yeah," he said, and then frowned down at his shoes. "I heard you and Fraser talking, on the boat."
"Yeah. I think I envy them, you know?"
"Ray and Fraser?"
"Yeah," he said again. "What they have. That level of partnership."
"Hey, you don't think we have that?"
"We have something else." He looked inexpressibly sad for a moment, and then smiled. "I'm a sentinel. You're my guide. It's different. It's...it's good. It works for us." He jerked his chin at Fraser, who was rubbing his eyebrow as Ray ranted. "That wouldn't, because I need a guide. But I wish--"
He closed his eyes. "I wish you and I were partners for some other reason, Sandburg. I wouldn't give us up for the world, don't get me wrong, but..."
His voice trailed off, and I leaned against him, pressing my shoulder into his, my arm into his arm. "I'm in this for good, Jim," I said. "I told you I liked this roller coaster, remember?"
"Yeah." He pressed back against me, slightly. "You like him?"
"Fraser? I guess. He's hiding some stuff. Should have seen him when I asked about ghosts."
Jim grinned. "Have to admit, Sandburg, it's a strange question." He looked down at me. "No, I mean--you're attracted to him."
I glared at him. "It's not *my* fault sentinels only come in 'pretty' and 'goddamn pretty', Jim."
He fidgeted a little. "So, Chief..."
"Which category am I?"
"DO NOT GIVE ME SOME CRAZY LAMEASS STORY," Ray yelled, "or I will hit you right in the face, I swear."
"Goddamn pretty, Jim," I said.
* * *
"Fraser, that stuff stinks."
"You always say that, Ray."
"It always stinks. Ow!"
"Well, you shouldn't have punched that tree. Hold still." Fraser smoothed salve over Ray's knuckles, resting the palm of the hand on his knee. Like so many things between them, it was startlingly intimate. Ray's shirt was off; his skin was still damp from the shower he'd taken.
We were back in their cabin--Diefenbaker had greeted us at the door, and there had been a warm meal in the oven. If Dief had had anything to do with that, I didn't want to know about it. Fraser appeared to think that Dief had told Constable Killian when we would be returning, and that Killian had told Katherine Mary.
However the dinner got there, I didn't care. I simply took the offered shower and then ate and watched Fraser tend to Ray's injuries on the bed. Jim was ignoring them completely and on his third helping of casserole.
Around a mouthful, I said, "So, Ray, how'd you become a Mountie?"
He winced and jerked away from Fraser. "Ow, dammit! Um, well. I first came to Canada on the trail of the killers of Fraser's mother--"
"That's not true, Ray," said Fraser. "You first came to Canada on the trail of the killers of your informant and a flight attendant."
"Fraser, you are interrupting me. That's not buddies, that's not polite. You need to go back to Mountie school or something because you, Benton my friend, are getting rude." He glared at his partner for a moment. When Fraser didn't respond, he continued. "As I was saying. I had recently un-become Ray Vecchio, and since I did not feel like becoming Stanley Kowalski, I stayed here."
"Really, Ray, you're oversensitive about your name."
"Why the hell couldn't my old man have a thing for James Dean is what I wanna know." He aimed the index finger of his free hand at Fraser's nose. "There is no cooler name than James Dean, Fraser."
"Er," I said. "Un-become Ray Vecchio?"
"My first partner in Chicago," Fraser answered. "He went undercover, and Ray went undercover as Ray."
"You're not serious," Jim said, his fork halfway to his mouth.
"Perfectly serious, I assure you," Fraser said, and looked down at Ray's hand. "I think you have a splinter--"
"Ow!" Ray yanked his hand back and flopped over on the bed. "Dammit, Fraser! How many times I gotta tell you not to mess with my splinters?"
Fraser wiped his hands carefully on a towel. "You need to dance, Ray?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I need to dance. Dance with me, Frase?"
I expected Fraser to go to the CD player, but he didn't. He just handed Ray a t-shirt and moved to the center of the room, where he waited.
For the first time since I first saw the cabin, it occurred to me that it wasn't just set up for a sentinel. No reason for a sentinel to have pushed the table into the kitchen area; no reason not to have a couch.
Ray joined Fraser and closed his eyes. He took Fraser's hand in his skinned one and rested his good hand on Fraser's hip. They began to dance, silently, to something only Ray could hear.
"Ray," Fraser said, "you're a freak."
"Understood," Ray said, and began to move more quickly. "You think Ellison and Sandburg want to dance?"
"You'd have to ask them. And they might need music."
"You guys wanna dance?" Ray asked, and Jim mumbled something around serving four--or was it five?--of casserole.
"No," I said.
"Suit yourselves. Frase, you still got no rhythm."
"That *is* why you're leading, Ray."
I fell asleep watching them dance, watching the give-and-take of their partnership.
I dreamed of dancing with Jim.
* * *
You've got to push on through the cold and the pain and keep going 'cause that's what partnership's all about. There are red ships and green ships but there's no ships like partnerships. -- Ray Kowalski