SIROCCO
Excerpt, March 31, 2000
by
D.L. Witherspoon




Prologue
The searing whirlwind would be heralded by the arrival of two unexpected guests. With gale force, it would search and destroy, to leave in its wake mere ashes and dust where life once flourished. Normally-- naturally-- it originated in the vast, overwhelming heat of the desert, or perhaps in the churning, boiling depths of the earth. Once or twice, it had swirled from a tower of colliding atoms blooming in a mushroom cloud. Despite the lack of the defining cloud-- truly, the lack of anything visible to the naked eye-- this sirocco would be similar to that which destroyed Nagasaki and Hiroshima: for it was going to be hot, deadly....

And entirely man-made.

Chapter One
It was an accident, a stupid freak kind of thing that should have merited a "whoops", not the "oh, shit" that she was constantly muttering as she fled the building. But she'd seen too many movies, read too many thrillers, and knew better than to hang around, digesting what she'd accidentally seen on her computer screen. The information was hot, too hot for her to handle alone. But who could she turn to? She had no evidence, and wasn't too keen on trying to get some herself. Who would take her word at face value, and have the guts to follow up on what she had seen?

She giggled nervously as the answer came to her. He had loved her once, and knowing him, he probably still did in his detached sort of way. It wasn't his fault that it hadn't worked out. She wanted more than he had to give. She'd known he was deficient that way when she'd married him, but she'd convinced herself that she could change him. Hell, there had been tons of women before and after her who'd thought the same thing. Never thought it would be a younger man who would get the job done. Was he sleeping with him? She didn't know, didn't care. If it had just been about sex, they never would have gotten divorced. No, this man had some other kind of connection to her ex. It was almost tangible, yet indescribable.

Anyway, all that mattered was that both of them were happy-- she and her ex. At least, she'd been happy until she spilled her coffee on her computer, and instead of the circuits frying, they had taken her to a forbidden page, and she had seen what she ought not to have seen. When the page went suddenly dark, she had known that someone else knew she had seen it, and she'd gotten the hell out of Dodge. And now she had to get to her ex, because he would believe her, because he had loved her. And he would do something about it, because that was the kind of man he was. A Boy Scout, with a past that could probably handle whatever shit was about to hit the fan.

But first things first. She needed money. Thank God for credit cards...except credit cards could be traced. Bank card? Same deal. But.... She pulled out her wallet, and smiled. She'd always known there was a reason she hadn't cleaned the thing out in nearly a decade. The card was part of the joint account she had with her ex. There was a chance he had changed the account or the PIN, but there was also a good chance he hadn't. She could hear him now, giving a little shrug and saying, "I knew you wouldn't use it unless you had to, and I think if you had to, then I would want you to use it." Sometimes she wondered why she had divorced him. If she had just held on, his young friend would have shown up, and changed him anyway. A threesome might have been interesting.

"You're getting edgy and silly," she warned, as she pulled up in front of a bank machine. Hopefully, they wouldn't think about checking for activity under her married name. She had given it up a long time ago, hadn't really wanted it in the first place. Looking around, she stuck the card in the machine and punched in the remembered PIN.

The words appeared in fluorescent green: WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO DO?

Live a long and fruitful life. See Paris. Go on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and win without using a single lifeline (she'd never seen so many dumb women in her life). Oops. Maybe she should win first, then see Paris. Made more sense that way, right? Aw, hell, who was she kidding? All she really wanted was to see tomorrow. With an anxious look around, she withdrew as much cash as she was allowed, and headed toward the airport.

After purchasing a ticket, she changed a ten for a roll of quarters and went to the pay phones near the rest rooms. His voice sounded so sweet to her that she almost cried. But she had to hold it together a little longer. "It's me. I'm in trouble. My plane's about to board, so I don't have much time. Can you pick me up at the airport in an hour?"

Moments later, she was strapped in her seat, and silently singing the praises of the man she had married. No questions. No hesitation. No hint of impatience. He would be at the airport, and he would help her.

"Jimmy Ellison, you were, and always will be, the best thing that ever happened to me," Carolyn Plummer sighed, earning her a puzzled look from the woman seated next to her. She shrugged, and for the first time since those accidental moments in her office, she relaxed.



Police Detective Jim Ellison replaced the receiver, his brow furrowed worriedly.

"Problems?" his roommate and partner, Detective Blair Sandburg, asked. Although they were officially off for the evening, he had learned back in the days when he'd just been an observer that policemen were never off the job.

"That was Carolyn," Jim replied softly.

"Carolyn? As in your ex-wife?"

"Yep."

"Something wrong?"

Jim shrugged. Although they had parted the marriage as friends, he hadn't seen Carolyn in a number of years. A few months after he'd met Blair, Carolyn had moved to San Francisco to head the city's Forensics Division. "She wants me to meet her at the airport. Her plane lands in an hour."

"It takes more than an hour to get here from San Francisco. She called you from the plane?"

"She's not in California anymore. About a year ago, she took a position at a research facility in Oregon. She got tired of fighting the City Council for every little thing her division needed, so when this company-- GenoTech-- made her a very good offer, she accepted. I didn't tell you?"

"No, you didn't tell me, but that's okay. What's going on now?"

"I don't know, Chief, but--" He gave his head a small shake as if to jostle out the answer he knew was up there.

"What is it, Jim?"

"Carolyn is a strong lady. Her job exposed her to a lot of terrible crime scenes, and none of them ever really got to her. But tonight, on the phone, she was absolutely terrified. I could hear it in her voice, and in her heartbeat." He took his gun from its usual resting place and checked its clip.

"You need back up?" Blair started to reach for his jacket.

"You have a guest to attend to, Chief," Jim said, reaching for the door. Naomi Sandburg stood there, a hand raised to knock.

The redhead took a disconcerted step back, then held out her arms to embrace the man in the doorway. "Hi, Jim," she nearly squealed. "How's my second-most favorite guy?"

Jim smiled, and returned the hug. "I'm fine, Naomi. Just in a bit of a hurry. You'll be around for a while, right?" he asked. Sometimes her visits with her son only lasted a couple of hours before she flitted off to some other landing perch.

"A couple of days at least," she replied.

"Great. We'll have time to get together." He turned to his roommate, who was in the process of receiving his own hug. "Later, Chief."

Blair nodded. "Be careful, Jim. And call if you need me."

"I will."

Blair frowned as the familiar back disappeared down the stairs. With a sigh, he turned to his mother. "So, Mom, what brings you to Cascade?"

"Can't a mother just visit her son?" Naomi quizzed, as Blair took her heavy satchel and ushered her inside.

"Sure. But that's not why you're here."

"When did you become so spiritually gifted that you can discern my motives so easily?"

"For one thing, I've spent the past five years of my life working with cops. Ferreting out motives is sort of a specialty of theirs. For another, I love you, Mom. That gives me incredible insight into your thoughts."

"I just wanted to see how you were doing, honey."

Blair nodded. He had accepted her year-long absence for what it was: penance, atonement, whatever. Against his express wishes, she had made his dissertation public, and all hell had broken loose. The casualties had been high, almost too high. Captain Simon Banks and Inspector Megan Conner had been shot, and in a way, Jim being shot was also related to "Fiasco '99", his personal title for the disaster. Jim would have gotten the assassin, Zeller, before anyone was shot if the press hadn't distracted the Sentinel. The press wouldn't have distracted Jim if Sid, Naomi's publisher friend, hadn't released blurbs from the dissertation. Sid wouldn't have released blurbs if Naomi hadn't sent him the diss. Naomi wouldn't have sent him the diss if Blair had protected it better. So, in the end, it was all Blair's fault, and in the true spirit of "like mother, like son", he too had done a year of penance.

He'd joined the Cascade Police Department. He'd gone through the academy, had been issued a badge and a gun. Except for those two items, his job was the same as before: protect Jim. But still, it had been penance, because before he'd had a choice whether to become a participant or remain an observer. Now, there was no choice. He participated because he had to, because that was why the city was paying him. He was a cop, a pig, an oppressor of free speech. When Captain Banks handed him an assignment, he did it-- and learned to leave whatever lingering feelings and doubts he had afterward at his desk, or at the local cop bar he and Jim had taken to frequenting.

Jim hated the bar; Blair knew that without Jim having to say a word. But Jim was doing his penance, too. The older man had reacted badly when their world had exploded into a sea of flashbulbs and microphones, and had taken it out on his partner. When he'd watched Blair deny his whole academic life on television, he'd realized he'd been acting like an ass (his word, not Blair's). A doer, not a sayer, Jim had skipped over the "I'm sorry" bit, and gone to work repairing the damage that had been done. What couldn't be repaired, he'd replaced. Rainier University didn't want Blair anymore, so he made sure the Cascade Police Department did. Jim had never been forthcoming about how he'd arranged Blair's quick induction into the department and his rapid rise in rank, but Major Crime's newest detective figured it had something to do with the fact that the brass now knew Jim was a Sentinel, and assigned him the high profile (read "politically sensitive") cases.

Just as Jim quietly suffered the peccadilloes of the higher-ups-- covering what needed to be covered, and judiciously wording his reports-- he suffered the bar, with its clouds of cigarette smoke, loud jukebox, and unimaginable smells, so that Blair wouldn't feel isolated, cut off from the social world he'd inhabited at Rainier. Surprisingly, the bar did remind Blair of his old hangouts. It seemed that under the influence of alcohol, everyone was the same. There were the ones who spouted philosophical rhetoric, the ones who talked too loud and bragged too much, and the ones who predictably passed out by the third round. Blair smiled at the thought.

"I'm doing fine, Mom," he finally replied. "I'm good at my job, and I'm surrounded by friends, good friends. What more could I want?"

"The life that you had."

Blair shook his head. "None of us can have that, Naomi. We all have to move forward."

"But you don't have to change spheres to do that," Naomi said hesitantly. "You could move forward, yet remain in the same world."

"I got kicked out of that world, remember?" he asked dryly.

"I remember," she said, her eyes haunted and sad. "I also remember it was my interference which started...."

"Fiasco '99," Blair supplied. "I'm sure the networks would have come up with something better, but I didn't want to bother them. They had their hands full with Y2K and the millennium, you know."

Naomi's hands fluttered in her lap. "You've become so cynical. They have ruined you."

"They? What 'they', Ma? And you better be careful how you answer that. Don't want you to accuse yourself of being mother to swine."

Naomi fell silent, her arms wrapping protectively around her middle.

Blair saw the hurt in his mother's eyes, and silently cursed himself. He was doing the same exact thing Jim had done-- lashing out at the person closest to him. Actually, that person would be Jim, but the Sentinel wasn't here and the anger was, which shocked him. He hadn't realized he possessed this core of bitterness until he'd seen Naomi standing in the doorway. Apparently, seeing her had triggered repressed emotions. Damn, Jim. Why couldn't I have picked up some of your more redeeming habits instead of these?

"That was uncalled for," he apologized softly.

"I'm sorry you're having so much trouble coping, baby."

"I'm not. I mean, I didn't know I was until now. I'm afraid your presence has unsettled me a bit."

Naomi paled. "I'm sorry, Blair. I'll leave immed--"

"No!" He ran his fingers through his short, curly hair. "No, I don't want that. It's been a year. I've missed you."

"I've missed you, too, honey. But I thought you needed the distance, and I-- I wanted to find some way to make it all up to you."

"That isn't neces--"

"I have a letter," she said, getting up and bending over her satchel. "It can probably explain better than I can."

He took the envelope, startled to see the words "Duke University" imprinted in dark blue in the upper lefthand corner. "What is this, Ma?"

"Read it, Blair. Please."

He broke the seal, and quickly scanned the enclosed letter. His eyes widened at the closing words: The Anthropology Department would be pleased to add you to its roster of doctoral candidates. He looked up from the letter. "What have you done now?" he asked warily.

"Nothing, Blair. Not really. They didn't even know about the scandal. I guess it wasn't the worldwide sensation it felt like here," she said with a careful smile.

"Hey, don't bruise my ego like that," Blair teased uneasily. He hated seeing his mother holding back in his presence. He'd always cherished the openness they shared.

"I went to Martin because I had latent anger toward Sid and that disagreeable woman, Chancellor Edwards. I thought talking to a lawyer--"

"Martin's a lawyer?"

She nodded. "And on Duke's Board of Directors. I thought he would have some insight into what had happened. According to him, Rainier had no legal right to let you go."

"I admitted to fraud, Naomi."

"What fraud, Blair? You never submitted your dissertation. All anyone had was an illegally obtained file from your computer. You aren't criminally liable for that."

"What about morally liable?"

"You know how I feel about the policing of morals, honey. It can't be done. Besides, who did you defraud? For all the university knows, you never intended to submit that dissertation. You could have been planning to dump the entire thing and change topics, or leave the university altogether."

Blair flinched at how close she was to the truth. One of the reasons he hadn't wanted anyone to read the paper was because he hadn't been sure he could go through with formally submitting it. Even deleting Jim's name, labeling him as Subject A or something similar, hadn't seemed like enough of a protective net for his Sentinel. "What does this have to do with the letter, Naomi?"

"You have the right to complete your education, Blair. You could force Rainier to reinstate you, but the negative energies there would be difficult to get past. I thought maybe you'd like a new start in a fresh environment. When Duke's Anthropology Department got a look at your record, and the work you did for your Master's, they were impressed," she said proudly.

"And they got this information how?"

Naomi shrugged. "I just thought it would be best if you got away from the memories, away from the guns."

"Away from Jim?" Blair asked softly.

"Don't get me wrong, honey. Jim's a good man, but...I'm not sure how good you are for each other."

"I thought you didn't want to tear apart our friendship?" Blair remarked wryly, remembering the penitent Naomi talking to Jim in the middle of the mess.

"You can be friends from separate coasts. Email, chat rooms, what's that AOL thing that lets you know when someone else is logged on at the same time?"

"Instant Messenger," he answered distractedly.

"See? It would be easy for you to stay friends. He doesn't need you for a-- guide anymore, does he?" she asked belatedly.

Ah. The $64,000 question. Did Jim still need him? He said he did. But how much of that was part of the penance thing? When was the last time Jim had zoned, or had problems with his senses? Hell, Jim had spent a couple of nights talking to a ghost and had handled it with ease. If that hadn't shaken him, nothing would. Okay. Then if Jim didn't need him, did he need Jim? It was painfully obvious that if he did get his doctorate, it certainly wouldn't be for anything involving sentinels. Been there, done that, had the headlines to prove it. No, he'd focus on something practical. Like that bogus story they'd told people about him researching the thin blue line. He had notes on that already. Three years as an observer. One year on the force. Yeah. He was an expert on police subculture. So, no. He didn't need Jim. Not professionally anyway.

But what about the intangibles, the things he needed Jim for that defied simple understanding-- like the warmth of knowing someone worried when he was late, or the casual way Jim checked his vitals, warning him if his temperature spiked or his chest was congested? What about having a friend who could sense his emotional state, leaving him to sit on the balcony in peace, or laying his hand on a burdened shoulder when he needed to be reminded he wasn't alone? Those weren't things that could occur over the internet.

Yet, maybe the time for penance was over. All this sacrifice really wasn't healthy, and Naomi's arrival had shown him just what kind of anger was still burning. Would the resentment just keep growing until it exploded into a scene uglier than the previous one?

"Baby?"

Blair shivered. "You've given me a lot to think about, Mom. These people aren't standing by the phone waiting for my call, are they?"

"No. But if you want to enroll for the fall semester, they'll need an answer soon."

He nodded. "Well, this isn't a decision I can make on my own. Whether Jim needs me or not, we're still partners. I just can't up and leave him with a wave and an email address."

"Okay." She got up and headed toward his room, where she always stayed when she visited, then she took a few steps back to give him a hug. "Just remember that, no matter how close the two of you are, it's your life, Blair."

Blair threw his head back, and closed his eyes.