Mr. Sandburg Goes to Town by Stormy Stormheller

Mr. Sandburg Goes to Town - Stormy Stormheller

Chapter 1. To Heir is Human

The drive through the Cascade Mountains was relaxing, the scenery picturesque. The trees blazed a bright green that lifted the spirits and touched the soul. Pink blossoms confettied the highway. There were even some newborn lambs to add a pastoral touch as the countryside whizzed by. Simon Banks toyed with the idea of pulling over for a bit. It would be great to stretch his long legs, inhale the fresh air, and escape his annoying passenger.

Leaving the scenery for a moment, Simon glanced at his travelling companion. Lee Brackett was flipping through the major Cascade newspapers. Simon returned his attention to the road; he didn’t need to read the papers again. It was all the headlines had screamed for the last couple of weeks:

Eccentric Millionaire Dies in Fiery Crash!

Wealthy Industrialist Killed in Auto Accident!

Disclosure of Lipshitz Estate Awaited

Heir as Yet Unknown

Simon kept his left hand on the steering wheel and gestured with his right at the newspapers in Brackett’s lap. “You’re not going to show him those, are you?” There was a hard edge to his voice, just in case Brackett was actually planning on it.

“What?” Brackett’s attention was on his papers. “God, no! I’m not totally insensitive, you know.”

Simon refrained from responding one way or the other.

“Probably already seen ’em, anyway,” Brackett continued. “No. We’ll introduce ourselves, tell him what’s up, and then head home. The rest is up to him.”

“So this is a fishing expedition, then?” Simon liked fishing; it was an analogy he could live with.

“That’s right, Banks. We’re going to lay out the bait and reel him in, hook, line and sinker.”

Simon wasn’t so sure he liked the comparison, after all. He slowed the car down in accordance to a “reduce speed” sign. After zipping along the freeway for a couple of hours, it felt like they were barely crawling as they rounded a bend in the highway and passed a colourful billboard that read:

Welcome to Clayton Falls-Wash.
Population.... 15,000

Home of the worlds"
best local theater!!!

Someone had taken a taken a red pen, changed the number to read “15,286”, and had then gone on to correct the sign’s punctuation atrocities. Using a brown pen, another defacer had made a line drawing of a face rolling its eyes, captioned with the words: “Mister Sandburg was probably here”. Simon sat up a little straighter. A teacher who defaced highway signs? The trip just got a fraction more interesting.

Having left the freeway behind, they drove through the quaint little hamlet, quickly coming across Clayton Falls’ main street, which was, unremarkably, called “Main Street”. Following the directions Brackett’s administrative assistant had provided, they began to look for the home of Blair Sandburg. They drove around a while. Then a while more. Eventually, they found themselves at the far end of town. Simon pulled over by a sign that read:

Your now leaving Clayton Falls-Wash.
Population now 1 less
Come Back Sooon!!!

The sign looked brand new, and no one had yet corrected the grammar. Simon wondered if he had a marker in his briefcase. His years in public relations, first with the Cascade PD and later as a freelancer, had taught him the value of clear, accurate communications. He hated imprecision.

“You know, Banks. For a minuscule town, you’re certainly having a tough time finding this place.”

“Me? Oh, it’s not like you…” Simon found Brackett’s insinuation highly annoying, but he censored himself, remembering his future employment could be linked with Brackett’s. “Let me see that.” Simon yanked the MapQuest directions from Brackett’s hand. “This is a map to Clayton Drive, Washington, D.C.! Did you even check it?” The white paper seemed pale and bleached out in contrast with Simon’s dark skin. He balled his huge hand into a fist, making the directions crumple with a satisfying crunch. He didn’t even wince when the staple pricked his palm.

“I guess Rhonda screwed up,” Brackett said, nothing resembling apology in his voice.

“Sure, Lee. Sure.” It was just like Brackett to lay the blame on his admin. Brackett’ed probably given her poor instructions, and she was too afraid of him to ask for clarification. Simon liked Rhonda and had recently written a letter of recommendation to help her get another job. Too bad he didn’t need a secretary himself. He could ask his old friend Joel Taggert, Editor of the City Section at The Cascade Times. He’d think about it after he got back.

“Let’s ask somebody,” he told Brackett.

“Sure. It’s a small town. I’ll just roll down the window and yell, ‘Which way to Goldberg’s place?’ Everybody’s bound to know.”

“We’ll ask at the library. He’s a teacher. They’ll know him.” Simon sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose where his glasses irritated it. “And it’s ‘Sandburg’, by the way.”

“‘Goldberg’, ‘Sandburg’. What’s the difference? They’re all the same.”

Simon looked at him askance. “Excuse me?”

“You know. Small town folk. They’re the same everywhere you go.”

“Oh,” said Simon, somewhat mollified. He had to admit that over his years working with Brackett, the man had never seemed like a racist. A “Brackett-ist” maybe, but not a racist. Simon brightened a bit. He’d finally found something good to say about the lawyer sitting next to him: Lee Brackett was a selfish son of a bitch, but not a racist. Great.

Simon pulled the car up at a gracious federal-style building, which had the words “Clayton Falls Public Library” and “Clayton Falls City Hall” engraved above the door. Before Simon could get out and ask someone, Brackett had yelled at a group of people milling about on the steps. “Hey! Does anybody know…?”

A few moments later, they were on their way, again. It might not have been very polite, but Simon had to admit it had been effective. Six people had practically fought over the privilege of pointing them towards Sandburg’s house. Apparently, this Sandburg guy was very well liked in Clayton Falls. Or at least well known.

Simon pulled up in front of the house as directed, shut off the car and climbed out.

Neither “quaint” nor “charming” were words Simon Banks used often, but he used them now to describe Blair Sandburg’s residence. It had an air of loving, if sporadic, care. The Arts and Crafts-style bungalow featured the original oak trim left unpainted, although its weathered finish could have used a coat of varnish. The cement steps were probably original to the house, but were crumbling badly. The front lawn had been turned into garden that had run amok; but then who was to say which blossoming plants were weeds and which were flowers? A number of artefacts were on display in the garden: a shiny blue gazing ball on a stick tilted slightly to one side, a Buddha-head nestled among the roots of a sumac tree, a winged gargoyle was being strangled by a flowering vine. The house itself was similarly adorned. A large red mask peeked out at them from behind the stained glass front window, and the doorknocker was obviously South American in design. Simon had spent time in Peru and recognised the symbols from one of the local tribes.

The door opened just as he reached for the ornate knocker.

“Yes?” The man who had opened the door was average height, five-eight, five-nine, maybe. He was slim and fit, although more like a runner than the sort that works out regularly. He had long curly brown hair pulled back in a ponytail that was slightly lopsided, like the garden’s gazing ball. The man’s eyes shone dark blue, also not unlike said object, as well. Simon deduced the man wore glasses from the pressure marks on his nose, but he wasn’t wearing them now; far-sighted, Simon concluded; you could take the detective out of the bullpen…

Stepping in front of Simon, Brackett asked, “Are you Blair Sandburg?”

“That’s me.” The man nodded.

Brackett held out his hand. “Nice to meet you.”

Sandburg took it, although at this point, he wouldn’t have had a clue who these guys at his door were. “Uh… Hi.”

Brackett scooped a business card from his suit jacket pocket and presented it to Sandburg. “I’m Lee Brackett, of the Cascade legal firm Brackett, Brackett, Brackett, and Oliver.”

Sandburg took the card respectfully in both hands, Japanese style, examining it carefully. “Brackett, Brackett, Brackett, and Oliver,” he read aloud. Smiling, Sandburg looked up at Brackett. “Poor Oliver must feel a bit left out around the holidays.”

Simon Banks snorted. “Nah. He’s their cousin,” he explained, ignoring Brackett’s look. He, too, held out his hand, “I’m Simon Banks. No relation.” He patted his pockets, “I must have left my cards in the car.”

And then they stood there, Sandburg looking expectant, Brackett looking impatient, and Simon feeling awkward. After a very long minute, Simon ahem’ed and began, “We’re here about—”

Brackett cut him off. “May we come in?” He patted his designer briefcase. “We have some important matters to discuss with you.”

“You’re not, like, here on behalf of a church or anything are you?” Sandburg rocked up on the balls of his feet, “‘cause, I could, like, you know, tell you all about my cult. See I’m into the great FSM who created the…”

“That’s a very clever way to deal with crackpots, Mr. Sandburg. I’ve got to remember that.” Simon smiled. “I assure you we’re here on business that concerns you personally. We’re not selling anything.” Yet, he added silently.

“Okay. Sure.” Sandburg stepped back to allow the two men to enter. “Make yourselves at home,” he gestured toward his worn but comfortable-looking furniture.

Simon eyed the beanbag chair warily before seating himself on the futon that served as a couch.

Brackett grabbed a hard-backed chair from the dining table, dragged it into the living area, and seated himself gingerly. “Hope this holds me,” he said, sotto voce; surely, he’d meant Blair to hear him.

Before he closed the door, Sandburg reached into the wrought iron mailbox next to the door and retrieved a large, brown envelope. It looked to Simon to be one of those bubble-pack envelopes, and this one was pretty dog-eared. He hoped on Sandburg’s behalf, that it had successfully protected whatever it held. Sandburg looked at the envelope, then at his guests. Reluctantly, he crossed the room and took a seat on the futon next to Simon, still holding and stealing surreptitious glances at his package. He started fingering the envelope’s pull-tab.

Brackett got right to the point. “I’d like to ask you a few questions, Mr. Sandburg.”

Blair nodded in acknowledgement, while continuing to fiddle with the tab, working it open an inch or two at a time.

“Mr. Sandburg, are you the son of Naomi Sandburg?”

“So she always said, although I wasn’t exactly there, you know.” He pushed an errant curl away from his face and yanked the tab all the way across. “And call me Blair, ’kay?”

“Okay. Blair.” Brackett made it clear he thought Blair was a dumb name. And quite possibly a dumb guy to go with it. “Are your parents living?”

Blair appeared taken aback by this question. After all, Simon thought, who appears at your door and starts asking questions like these? Despite his obvious misgivings, Blair answered anyway, “No. My mom died last year in a tragic yurt incident.” He looked off into the distance, eyes a little misty.

“And your father?”

“I’m an IC baby. No father on record.” Blair upended the puffy envelope and a worn, old volume slid into his lap.

“IC?” asked Brackett, one eyebrow raised in a gesture Simon had always envied.

“Immaculate Conception, Lee,” Simon answered for Blair. Simon and Blair exchanged a grin that utterly excluded the pissed-looking lawyer. Perhaps, Simon thought, this is the start of a beautiful friendship.

Brackett harrumphed, returning to his questioning. “What do you know about David Lipshitz?”

“Uncle David?” Blair turned the book right way up, stroking the old leather binding almost reverently. The Sentinels of Paraguay by Sir Richard Burton, Simon leaned across the futon and read at Blair’s shoulder. “He’s my mother’s brother. I saw him pretty often when I was at Rainier University. Not very often after I moved back here and started teaching at the local high school. My mother had little contact with him.” Sandburg focussed on Brackett. “Half-brother, actually. Hence the different last name. Seems my grandmother—”

“Well,” Brackett interrupted Blair’s family history lesson. “Lipshitz passed on. He was killed in a car accident a few days ago.”

Simon shuddered at Brackett’s curt announcement, only too glad Blair had indicated they weren’t that close, although he figured Brackett would have handled it the same even if Blair had said otherwise.

“He was? Gee, that’s too bad. If there’s anything I can do to—”

“I have good news for you, Blair.” Brackett said. “Mr. Lipshitz left a large fortune when he died. He left it all to you. Deducting the taxes, it amounts to something in the neighbourhood of $20 million.”

Blair opened the book gently; a daguerreotype of a South American aboriginal holding a shield and spear stared out at them. Blair tipped the book a little to the left so Simon could see it more clearly. Blair’s only reaction to the startling news about his inheritance was to lift his eyes in Brackett’s direction. “Would you like a snack? I’ve got a great whack of fresh fruit I picked up at the farmers’ market this morning. And real homemade yoghurt to go on top. You know, the thick, all-natural stuff. You don’t want to go to the local diner.” He rolled his eyes at his last comment, indicating that the diner was not the eatery of choice. “The cholesterol’ll kill you, man.” He returned his attention to his new old book.

Brackett looked surprised and a little annoyed, while Simon remained interested, and a little entertained.

“Perhaps you didn’t hear what I said, Mr. Sandburg! The whole Lipshitz fortune goes to you!”

“What? Oh, yeah.” Blair turned another page. “I heard you, all right. Twenty-million dollars. That’s a whole shitload of bucks, isn’t it?” He laughed. “And I thought I paid a fortune for this!” He gestured at the book on his lap.

“And how much was that, Mr. Sandburg?” Brackett asked, apparently clueing in that this book was important to Sandburg for some reason.

“I paid $350 on eBay. Plus shipping. And let me tell you, there was some fierce bidding going on. Right up to the last possible second. There I was, poised to go in for the kill, and… hi-ya!” Blair made karate chop moves in the air with his free hand. “I, gentlemen, have the fastest mouse button finger in the Pacific Northwest.” He blew on his finger like a smoking gun and sat back, grinning in triumph.

Simon laughed. “Twenty-million bucks’ll buy a history book or two.”

“Anthropology, actually. Although the two can be practically interchangeable at times.” Blair’s stared at the ceiling. “I wonder why he left me all that money. I don’t need it.”

He sat forward again and resumed his reading, then raised his head, looking thoughtful. “You know, I could do a lot of good with that money. I bet I could set up a foundation, or divide it up among any number of important charities.” He seemed lost in thought.

Brackett practically leapt out of his chair, “Charities? Give it away? You can’t just go around—”

Seeing the look on Blair’s face move from surprised to pissed to stubborn as Brackett spoke, Simon cut in quickly. “Hey, Blair. Is that offer for fruit and yoghurt still open?”

This got Blair’s attention the way $20 million hadn’t. “Of course, Simon, coming right up. How, ‘bout you, ah…” He glanced at the business card he’d laid on the end table beside him. “Lee?”

“No, thanks. I’m not big on natural foods. If it wasn’t grown with pesticides, it’s probably got bugs, and if it’s not filled with preservatives, it’s probably rotten.” He grinned like he’d made a joke. Simon rolled his eyes, and Blair looked horrified. Blair opened his mouth to speak, but a minuscule headshake from Simon indicated it was pointless. Blair closed his mouth and headed to the kitchen.

~ ~ ~

“This was great, Blair. Tell me where the farmers’ market is, and I’ll take some home on our way back out of town.” Simon’s spoon clanked against the bottom of the bowl as he scooped out the last of the yoghurt.

“Glad you like it, Simon.” Blair grinned and looked again at the business cards lying on the table in front of him. Simon had fetched one of his from the car while Blair was fixing their fruit salads. “Your card here reads: ‘Public Relations and Private Investigations’. I get that Lee here is a lawyer and solicitor for the Lipshitz estate, but what’s your role in this?”

Before Simon could answer, Brackett, impatient and jittery—probably from low blood sugar, Simon guessed—jumped in. “Mr. Banks here is an ex-cop who was associated with your uncle for many years, as a sort of buffer.”

“‘Buffer?’ What exactly does that mean?” Although Brackett had been the one to speak, Blair focussed his attention on Simon.

“I guess ‘buffer’ is as good a term as any, although sometimes I think ‘glorified pit bull’ would be more accurate.”

Brackett leapt in again, “Yes, you see, rich people need someone to keep the crowds away. The world’s full of pests. Then there’s the media and paparazzi to handle. And hundreds of ‘good causes’.” Brackett made air-quote around the last two words. “One must know when to seek publicity and when to avoid it.” He stared at Blair.

Blair focussed on Simon as he had the old book. “That’s quite an interesting career path, Simon. I get the cop to private investigator thing, but how does the public relations fit in?”

Simon sighed and gave the abridged version of his career. “Do you remember the Channing Avenue gang wars of a few years back?”

“Sure. I had just finished my Bachelor’s and was about to start my Masters that fall. It was one long, hot summer for sure.”

“Well, I’d just made detective then, fresh off the streets and had good contacts with the gangs. I’d done a degree in public relations before going to the police academy, so the higher-ups started coaching me and putting me in front of the media, and I helped negotiate the truce between the Deuces and 357s.”

“Right. Right. I remember. As far as I know, that truce still stands today. Nice work! So you ended up in PR, right?”

“That’s right. But times change and things change…” Simon trailed off.

“Like budget cuts and promotions that never came,” Blair supplied. “I hear that, man. I hear that.”

Simon was startled by Blair’s accurate and vehement description. “Something like that,” he agreed, not liking to slam his previous employer. “So I got a job in public relations at The Cascade Times. Another former cop was rising through the ranks there and brought me on board. I worked there for about 18 months. I liked it, but I really wanted to be my own boss, so I quit and hung out a shingle—public relations and private investigations—like it says on the card. Your uncle was one of my first clients, and I was with him until the end.”

“You liked Uncle David?”

“I did. Very much so. He was a self-made man and didn’t have any of the…” Simon searched for the right word, “uh, sense of entitlement that people who are born wealthy often have. He was…”

“Powerful?” supplied Brackett.

“Cool?” suggested Blair.

“Yeah, cool. Thanks.” Simon took off his glasses and cleaned them with the napkin he’d not used for the fruit plate.

“Well, this trip down memory lane has been fun, but we have a few more details to get straight here,” Brackett jumped in. “With $20 million comes a lot of responsibility. You’ll need to spend all of your time managing your money. It’ll be a full time job for you.

Blair had returned his attention to the old book but now seemed surprised by the question. “Who, me? What do you mean? I don’t know anything about managing money. And besides, it’s hardly how I want to spend my time.”

“Well, you could find someone to manage all that money for you.” Brackett tossed out his line casually. Simon knew Brackett had been angling for this since they got there. “That way you could concentrate on doing things you’d always wanted to do. Is there a life-long dream you’ve always wanted to fulfil?”

“There is one thing I’ve always wanted to do, since you ask. I’ve gotten fixated on the idea of finding a Sentinel. It’s the subject of the Ph.D. thesis I never completed. My therapist says I’m a bit obsessive.” Blair winked. “But as far as letting someone else manage Uncle David’s money, I’d really have to give that some thought.”

“Completing your thesis, hmm?” Simon rose hoping Brackett would realize it was time for them to leave. “That’s very dedicated of you. Don’t you think so, Lee?”

Brackett scowled and stood as well. “Well, I suppose we all had dreams like that when we were young, but we outgrow them. We’d better get started. You’ll have to pack.”

“Huh? What for?”

“Because you’re going to Cascade with us, of course.”

“I am? When?”

“As soon as you’re ready. So you’d better get started. You do own a suitcase, don’t you?”

Apparently, Brackett’s abrasiveness was starting to get on Blair’s nerves. He answered with a low note of anger in his tone, “Listen. I’m an anthropologist. I’ve been all over the world on expeditions. I keep my passport up to date and a backpack ready to go at a moment’s notice. So I’m ready now.” He stood with hands on hips looking a bit pissed.

“What about your students.”

“It’s six weeks to the end of term. We have a half-time science teacher who’ll be very glad to get the extra hours. It’s not a problem.”

Brackett seemed pleased. Simon wondered if he was just obliviously offensive, or if he had just manoeuvred Sandburg into coming to Cascade with them without argument. After all, Blair could have insisted they settle the estate from Clayton Falls.

Brackett picked up his briefcase and headed for the door, stopping at the last moment to say, “Congratulations, Mr. Sandburg. You’re one of the richest men in Cascade. We’ll be waiting by the car.”

Chapter 2. Blood is Slicker than Water

Lee Brackett strode up the lushly appointed corridor to a frosted glass door. “Brackett, Brackett, Brackett & Oliver” was stencilled in gold leaf on the glass. He pushed open the door and walked through. The receptionist wished him a good morning, but he didn’t bother to reply. Turning a corner, he reached his own private office.

“Good morning, Lee,” Rhonda mumbled.

This time he did respond, not in greeting, but by asking for the mail, messages, anything urgent.

“The other senior partners would like to meet with you as soon as possible, but you have a meeting with John Smith. He’s been waiting a while in the lobby. Shall I buzz him in?”

“Smith? Who the hell is John Smith?” Brackett asked as he leafed through the pink message slips Rhonda handed him.

“He’s a law student looking for a place to article when he graduates next month. You thought he looked good on paper, and our HR director said he had potential. He graduated top of his class.”

“Oh. Tell him I can’t make it today. Set up something for later in the week.”

“But, Lee, he’s already…” She trailed off as he walked into his office.

“And, Rhonda. Tell my brothers and Oliver I’ll see them in the boardroom in 20 minutes. He closed the door. He had nothing on his schedule for the next 20 minutes now that he’d cancelled Smith, but it was good to let them wait.

~ ~ ~

Twenty minutes later, Brackett, Brackett and Oliver had ordered their secretaries to re-arrange their jam-packed calendars, rushed through early-morning meetings, and congregated in the boardroom. The table was littered with coffee cups, Blackberrys, cell phones, and a half-eaten bagel.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” Brackett began.

“How was the fishing expedition?” asked Brackett.

“How’d Sandburg take it?” asked another Brackett.

“What’s he like?” asked Oliver.

“We’ve got nothing to worry about. He’s as naive as a child.” Lee Brackett was the eldest, and they all looked up to him. At least in his mind, they did. “The smartest thing I ever did was to make that trip.”

“Uh, Lee. Did you get the, uh—?” Oliver asked, speaking for them all.

“No, Oliver, I didn’t get the Power of Attorney. But don’t worry, I will.” He beamed confidence at his partners. “I asked him yesterday what he intended to do with the money, and what do you suppose he said?”

“What?” asked Brackett.

“I can’t imagine,” said another Brackett.

“He’d buy a yacht?” asked Oliver.

Brackett drew out the suspense, taking a long sip of coffee. Finally, he said, “He said he’d give it away.”

“Give it away!” repeated Brackett.

“What?” asked another Brackett.

“The boy must be crazy!” declared Oliver.

“Exactly,” said Lee Brackett. “That’s why I brought him back with me now. He’s staying at his late uncle’s place and hasn’t a clue what to do in a big city. Last time he was here he was a starving student. Probably knows his way to Rainier and the reference library and nowhere else. He’s been all over the world, but always as part of an academic expedition organized by somebody else. Any time he’s spent outside of Bumblefuck Falls has been in this jungle or that forest. He knows how to handle himself on a dig or in an airport and that’s about it.” Brackett laughed. “He’s a utter naïf. I told him he’d inherited $20 million, and he asked if I wanted a fruit cocktail!”

“Well, Lee, you certainly had the right hunch!”

Oliver looked a bit concerned. “Lee. About the Power of Attorney. We can’t afford to—”

“I know. I know.” Brackett snapped. “We can’t afford to have the Lipshitz account books investigated right now. You must have said that a thousand times already.”

“But what if they fall into somebody else’s hands, why, uh…”

“Well, it hasn’t happened yet, has it?”

“But four-and-a-half-million dollars! My God, where are we going to get—”

Brackett slammed his cup down on the table, denting the expensive finish. Coffee slopped every which way. PDAs and the bagel were quickly snatched out of danger. “Will you stop worrying! It was me who got old man Lipshitz to turn everything over to us, wasn’t it? And who got the Power of Attorney from him? All right, and I’ll get it again!” He sat back, a little calmer. “Don’t you worry. Those books’ll be above reproach before the IRS makes their next visit. I promise you none of us are going to jail! Cross my heart.” He ran his index finger up, then down his breast pocket, knowing the familiar gesture from their childhood would go a long way toward reassuring his brothers and cousin.

Chapter 3. Married Alive

Larry Lipshitz sprawled across his black leather sofa, reading a newspaper and trying fairly successfully to ignore his wife. She waved a copy of the financial section about, pointing over and over at the headline:

Lipshitz Heir Located. Small Town Boy $20 Million Richer!

“A hick! A yokel. Nothing worthwhile every came out of Clayton Falls! Your uncle must have been crazy to leave all that money to him! You’re as closely related to him as this bumpkin is, and what did you get?”

She tossed the financial section into his lap. He moved it over and carried on reading the sports section. “I said, what did you get?”

“Stop yelling at me, Cassie. Can I help it if my uncle didn’t like me?” Larry looked at his wife. “Besides, we’re doing all right. We don’t need his money.”

“I told you to be nice to him. Ten years we’ve been waiting for that old man to kick off. And then we were going to be on Easy Street.”

Larry looked around—they had a lovely home, furnished in excellent taste. He did okay as a financial analyst, and she had a high-paying job in R&D at Dupont. They’d done well in the stock market and, having never had children, were looking forward to early retirement and moving up to the summer place permanently. “The summer place. Uncle David gave us that beautiful place as a wedding present. I’ve always felt he was very generous.”

Cassie tossed her red curls. “Considering his net worth, he could have been a whole fuck of a lot more generous than that! I’m going to see about getting the will overturned. We have a good claim on that estate, and we’re going to see that that hayseed Sandburg doesn’t blow it on… I don’t know, hay or something.”

Larry sat up and put his paper aside. “Well, I don’t know about that, Cassie. I suppose I could go see Cousin Blair and see if he wants to, uh, maybe split it with us or something. I could ask.”

Cassie eyed her husband critically. “Don’t bother. What idiot in their right mind would give away money they didn’t have to? I’m going to try to reach Lipshitz’s lawyers. I’ve got their card right here. They can advise us on our chances of getting something out of the old man.”

“What ‘us’?” Larry asked, but Cassie was already dialling.

Chapter 4. Liars and Taggerts and Blairs. Oh, my!

Joel Taggert stood at the front of The Cascade Times “situation room”. It was a fairly large boardroom, the inside wall constructed completely of television sets, each showing the news from a different channel: local, national, international. A dozen remotes were holstered to a Velcro-covered bar near the front, all currently set on mute. While a newcomer might find the silently scrolling reports and flashing graphics distracting, the seven reporters and photographers scattered around the boardroom table were all pros, ignoring the endless broadcasts.

The facing wall was floor to ceiling windows, slightly tinted to avoid glare on the TV screens. A tall, handsome man leaned against one window, staring out at Cascade harbour, apparently indifferent to the heated discussion going on around him.

“He’s news!” Joel was saying. “Every time he blows his nose, it’s news. A corn-fed bohunk like that falling into the Lipshitz fortune is hot copy. But it’s got to be personal. It’s got to have an angle. What does he think about? How does it feel to be an overnight millionaire? Is he going to get married? What does he think of Cascade? Is he smart? Is he sexy? There’s a million angles, people. Get. Me. One!”

“Yeah, we tried to—” one reporter spoke up.

Joel interrupted her. “Sandburg’s been here three days, and what have you brought in?” He pulled out a large purple bandanna and mopped his sweaty brow.

The self-appointed spokes-reporter tried again. “You know Simon Banks. He’s keeping this Sandburg guy under lock and key.”

“Simon Banks, huh?” Joel smiled. “I know Simon well. He’s a good guy. Find a way around him! Listen, people. This is just like diffusing a bomb; you have to finesse it. You have to study it carefully, circle it, check it out and then swoop in and do your thing. And if you think you got it wrong, run like hell so you can live to try again another day.”

There was laughter around the room, even though most of them had heard the bomb analogy before.

“We’ll try, sir!” One of the young photographers had a little case of hero worship for Joel. The other reporters rolled their eyes or smiled warmly, depending on their temperament. The man by the window ignored them all.

“Now here are some updates we’ve pulled together from other sources.” Joel tossed a pile of photocopies to the first man on his right, who took one and passed them on. “So bone up on these and then come see me when you’ve got a plan. I want a coordinated effort here. No cowboy stuff. My door’s always open to you.”

The group knew the signal for “meeting adjourned” when they heard it. Noisily, they collected their notebooks, both electronic and the old-fashioned paper kind, and scrambled to their feet.

The man by the window remained. Now that the meeting was over, he turned to face the room, watching his colleagues file out. Joel picked up his favourite coffee cup, the one with a picture of his first grandchild on it, and walked over to the windows.

“‘Cornfed bohunk’, Joel? Who writes your stuff? Minnie Pearl?”

“You’re welcome to criticize my word choices any time, Jim. That is, anytime you put something of your own on my desk for editing. I can’t believe that you, my star reporter, haven’t brought me anything on Blair Sandburg. The newspaper-reading public loves this human-interest stuff, Jim. The only reason I haven’t whaled on your ass is that none of the other papers have come up with anything either.”

“‘Whaled on my ass,’ Joel?” Jim’s tone was dryer than good gin.

“Metaphorically, speaking, of course.” Joel smoothed his tie. He and Jim Ellison went way back and genuinely liked each other.

“I thought I was supposed to be a crime reporter, Joel.”

“And it’s a crime nobody’s got anything to report on Sandburg yet.”

“Look, Joel. I know you gave me a chance when no one else would hire me, when my...” Jim made a sweeping gesture that encompassed his ears-eyes-nose-mouth-entire-self. “You know, senses or whatever went crazy, and I couldn’t be a cop anymore. I appreciate that, Joel; I really do. But you said then that my experience in law enforcement, my detective training and skills would really give me an advantage as a crime reporter.” Joel nodded. “So explain to me how spying on some lucky stiff who just inherited 20-million bucks is, in any way shape or form, crime reporting?”

“Look, Ellison. Nobody else can get near him, and you’ve got a history of working well with Simon Banks. Hell, so do I. Simon’s a great guy, and you know as well as I do that he’s putting his knowledge and training in law enforcement to good use keeping everybody away from his boy.” Joel leaned in close. “And besides, it’s a slow news week. I promise I’ll pull you from the Sandburg story the instant some crazy takes hostages in an elevator, or hides bombs in public places, or threatens to poison the water supply. How’s that for a compromise?” He slapped Jim soundly on the shoulder. Jim winced a bit.

“Okay, Joel. Okay.” Jim shrugged, staring out the window again. “He hasn’t taken out Old Man Lipshitz’s yacht since he’s been in Cascade. It’s just sitting there at the Cascade Yacht Club. Lee Brackett was out there earlier with a pretty young girl, though. Wonder if Mrs. Brackett knows.”

“Don’t tell me you can see all the way to the yacht club from here, Jim. That’s preposterous.” Joel was aware that Jim had great vision, but that far? No way. “What’s gotten into you, anyway, Jim? I remember a time when you’d blast this town wide open before you’d let Simon Banks get between you and a good story.”

“Oh, Simon’s not getting in my way. Don’t you worry about that.” He looked at Joel, a grin that could only be defined as “shit-eating” on his handsome face.

Joel’s face lit up. He wagged a finger at Jim. “Ah. So, you’ve a plan then. Are you going to share with your old Editor?”

“When have I ever?” Jim smiled back, complicity the bond between them.

“If it were anyone else, Ellison. Anyone else.” He shook his head but was still smiling. He laid a hand on Jim’s arm, and they turned to leave the boardroom. “Listen, Jim, get me some stuff on this guy, and you can have—”

“Two month’s vacation?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I could never get that past the higher ups.”

“One month, then.”

“Done! Get me the goods on Sandburg, and you can have a month off with pay.

They reached the door and stopped again. “Leave four columns open on the front page tomorrow,” Jim said loudly; loudly enough for the rest of the newsroom to hear. He headed up the hall toward his office.

“Hey, Jim!” Joel called after him. “What’re you gonna do with a month’s vacation?”

Jim turned back, but kept walking, somehow able to move through the crowded work area without hitting anything or anybody. “I’m going to Peru to see a man about a Guide.”

“A man about a… Well, that’s just crazy!” Joel muttered. He heard Ellison laughing down the hall. It was almost as if Jim had heard him.

Chapter 5. Clothed for the Season

The former Lipshitz Manor, now the Sandburg residence, was an imposing structure. It featured gothic, Italianate, and Victorian detailing. It had turrets and crenellated rooftops. It had ivy and ginger-breading and gables galore. It had marble pillars and flying buttresses. It should have been an architect’s nightmare, but instead, it all kind of worked together in a strong, eclectic manner. It might not have been beautiful, and Frank Lloyd Wright would have run screaming, but it was one of the more interesting homes in Cascade, and Blair was quite taken by it.

He’d been there before, of course. His uncle had invited him for dinner a couple of times a year when Blair had been studying at Rainier University, but Blair’s education had spanned a lot of years, so it had meant a lot of dinners. He’d liked his uncle, although he’d rarely seen him since he’d moved back to Clayton Falls. Apparently, though, Blair’s mother, Naomi, and Uncle David had had some sort of falling out. Something about bailing her out once too often. Blair suspected that it might have been Uncle David’s money that had allowed Naomi to keep her fancy-free, hippie lifestyle, flitting here and there around the world without ever holding down a job. He’d ask Simon about it later. Maybe there was a trust fund or a stipend somewhere on the books. It would be good to know that Naomi and David had attained some sort of truce, now that they were both gone and no reconciliation could ever take place. At least not on this plane of existence.

The house seemed huge to Blair, although there were plenty of other mansions on the street that dwarfed it. It had a living room, a formal dining room, a parlour, a party room, a “rec” room, six bedrooms with ensuite baths, and more that Blair hadn’t had a chance to discover yet. There was even a small ballroom on the ground floor near the front. He’d eschewed the master suite that had been his uncle’s, feeling too much like an interloper although Simon and Rafe both assured him Lipshitz wanted him to have everything—hence the will. Still, he’d chosen a smaller room and even offered the master suite to Rafe if he liked. Rafe declined, saying the apartment over the five-car garage was more than spacious, and much more private. The emphasis Rafe had put on “private” had confirmed some things Blair had suspected. Also, in ensuring his own privacy, Rafe also ensured Blair’s.

Blair had inherited Rafe, the valet, along with the rest of the Lipshitz estate, and as far as Blair was concerned, he was the best thing about the place. Slim, good-looking, with a quick mind and very dry sense of humour, he provided nearly transparent service and pleasant, if deferential company; the man was the quintessential in-service professional.

Most of the house, though, seemed to be left unused. In fact, everybody congregated in the “family room”, although there was nothing “family” about it. It seemed to have been his uncle’s workroom and office. It had a desk and chairs on one side, couch, TV and bar on the other. A huge antique mirror graced one wall. Most importantly, it had direct access to the kitchen. Rafe had referred to it as “command central” when giving Blair his initial tour of his new home. The name had stuck.

It was in command central that Blair found himself on the morning of his third day as a millionaire. He was positioned on a tailor’s podium and stood awkwardly as two tailors waved chalk and pins like magic wands, fitting him for one suit after another. The one he was currently sporting was almost done. It was a conservative navy pinstripe, and he was as uncomfortable with the tailoring process as a kid at the dentist.

“This is the first time I ever had a suit made for me.” He fidgeted, shifting his weight to the right.

“Please, sir,” tailor Maurice reprimanded. “You’re skewing the drape.”

“Uh, what does that mean?” Blair asked, shifting his weight to the other side.

“It means,” Maurice’s partner, Travis, said, “that if you don’t hold still, this will have to be done over from scratch.”

Blair couldn’t bear the thought of going through this process again and so forced himself to hold as still as he could. He wished he could meditate—that would help—but there was too much commotion for him to relax and get peaceful.

“I usually just go to Ross Store and find something waaayyy discounted, “ he told the tailors. “In fact, I’ve got a couple of suits already. After all, I only wear ‘em to weddings, funerals and job interviews. Why, I bought a Harry Boss suit just a few years ago.”

“A suit that was off-price a few years ago would be terribly out of date by now.” Maurice sniffed and adjusted his designer glasses. “And by the way, that would be ‘Hugo Boss’, sir.”

Blair thought hard a moment. “Nope. I remember passing on the Hugo Boss stuff because it was so pricey. Now Harry Boss I could afford. Must be a family business, because the logo was practically identical. It’s like this Roltex watch I once bought. Got it way cheaper because the manufacturer made a typo in the name.” He grinned.

“You’re joshing with us, Mr. Sandburg, aren’t you?” Rafe entered the room with beverages “all round” as Blair had requested. Interestingly, Rafe, it seemed, could afford Hugo Boss suits. Not for the first time, Blair wondered what the dapper valet’s relationship with his uncle had been.

“Yeah, Rafe-buddy. I am. You guys think I’m such a hick. Try and remember I have two-and-a-half degrees, will you?”

“If I might be so bold, sir,” Maurice began. “I might hazard a guess that none of those degrees is in fashion design, is it?” He held Blair’s worn and torn jeans in one hand and a faded plaid shirt in the other, like exhibits A and B.

Blair threw his head back and laughed. “Ow!” His movement had caused Travis to stab his thigh with a pin—probably accidentally. Blair rubbed the spot, still chuckling. “You got me, man. Not one of the many courses for the many degrees was in modern-day fashion, although I did take a course in tribal body adornment. Did you know that the Ubangi of Africa often pierce—Ow!

“Please hold still, sir. I cannot guarantee your continued safety if you keep dancing about like a… like a…”

“Like a kid that needs to pee?” Blair supplied helpfully.

“I was going to say like a go-go boy at Club Doom.”

This time Travis was quick enough to move the pins to a safe distance when Blair laughed so hard he doubled over.

“Now look what you’ve done, Maurice. I’m going to have to re-pin the knees as well as the seat and crotch.”

This, of course, set Blair to laughing again. Travis stood with hands on hips, all formal and stern, but his smile indicated he was having more fun with his present client than he had had in a long time.

Simon Banks and Lee Brackett chose that moment to enter. “Wow, Blair. That looks great on you,” Brackett said. “The chicks are going to go crazy for you.”

Rafe raised one eyebrow. “Well, someone certainly will,” he seconded. “May I get you gentlemen a drink?”

Simon Banks sniffed the air. “Is that Colombian I smell, Rafe?

“You’re good, sir. I just brewed up a fresh pot of Nariño Supremo. I’m assuming you’d like a cup?”

“Oh, yes, please. Or, you know, an entire pot. Whatever’s easier.” Simon sniffed again, sighing contentedly.

“Mr. Brackett?” Rafe asked.

“Uh, same for me, uh, Ralph. But that last one you made me tasted kind of funny. See what you can do about that, will you?”

“Very good, sir.”

Blair snickered, thinking Brackett might be wise to either learn Rafe’s name or stop drinking the coffee.

Brackett made himself at home at the antique desk in the corner, pulling papers from his briefcase and taking up their conversation of yesterday exactly where he’d left off. “It’s merely a suggestion, Blair. I don’t wish to press the point, but if you’ll give me your Power of Attorney, we’ll take care of everything. It’ll save you a lot of petty annoyances. Every shark in town is going to try and sell you something.”

Blair was about to protest. He’d told Brackett again just yesterday that he needed time to think about it and, frankly, twelve hours hadn’t been what he’d meant. But Brackett had, ironically, raised a good point about people trying to sell him something. “You’re right, Lee. There’s been a lot of hangers-on and people with their hands out around here already.” He looked pointedly at Brackett. Simon looked uncomfortable, but Brackett was oblivious. “Strangest kind of people.” Blair continued. “Salesmen, politicians, lawyers… They all want something.”

“Lawyers, hmm?” Brackett looked nervous. “Well, until the estate is fully settled, you’re locked into my firm. You can undertake the painful process of short-listing, interviewing, reference-checking, negotiating…” He sighed. “I don’t envy you the task, Blair. Finding a new lawyer you can trust, one that’s up to speed and large enough to handle all your needs, while keeping the business here in Cascade… Whew!” Brackett blew out his cheeks. “That’s a helluva lot of work, and you have to get it right or it could end up costing you. Costing you a lot.” He sat back in his chair, looking exhausted, looking overwhelmed by how hard he was trying to help his dear friend, Blair Sandburg. “It’s up to you, of course,” he concluded.

Blair ignored the theatrics; he knew a sales pitch when he heard one. “You know, I haven’t had a minute to myself. Haven’t been to the Ventriss Museum yet. They have a display of tribal—”

“That’s exactly what I mean, Blair. You don’t need to bother with all the business of being wealthy. Your uncle never bothered with that sort of thing. He left everything up to us. He travelled most of the time and enjoyed himself. You should do the same thing, Blair.”

“Besides wanting to be my lawyer, you want to handle my investments, too?”

“Yes. That is to say—”

“Outside of your regular fee, how much extra will it cost?”

“Oh, nothing,” Brackett answered quickly. It’s all part of the service. No extra charge.” He beamed at Blair.

“But that involves a lot of extra work, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, but that’s an added service a firm like Brackett, Brackett, Brackett and Oliver usually provides. It’s a token of our appreciation for your legal business.”

Rafe appeared in the doorway. “The ladies and gentlemen from the theatre company should begin arriving shortly. You’ll be ready to join them in about 15 minutes?”

“Oh, right? Thanks for the reminder, Rafe. I forgot all about them.”

The tailors had finished their pinning and were carefully peeling the suit-in-progress from Blair. He grabbed his jeans and plaid shirt and pulled them on quickly, asking, “What do you think they want?”

“Your uncle was Chairman of the Theatre’s Board of Directors. They probably expect you to carry on,” Simon answered.

“Oh, I guess I’d better hear what they have to say.”

“I’ll go with you, Blair.” Simon picked up the coffee Rafe had brought him and rose to escort Blair into the main dining room that apparently did double-duty as boardroom for the Cascade Royal Theatre Company.

Before he could reach the door, Brackett gave his agenda one last push: “I think you ought to give this matter some thought, Blair.”

Blair had moved on from that conversation and was focussing on the one ahead, so his response was a sophisticated, “Huh?”

“I mean, about the Power of Attorney,” Brackett responded, impatience creeping into his tone.

“Oh, yes. Yes, I will.” Blair paused and turned back to Brackett. “Tell you what, Lee. I’ll give it a lot of thought. You know…” He scratched his chin. “There was a fellow named Winslow here a little while ago, wanted to handle my affairs for nothing, too. It puzzles me why these people all want to work for nothing. It isn’t natural. So I guess I’d better think about it some more. Maybe do some research. I’m good at research.”

Chapter 6. From Here to Paternity

Before Blair could exit to join the Theatre Company, Rafe entered again. “Mr. Blair? There’s a Ms. Sanchez to see you, sir.” He held out a card.

“Did you say Sanchez?” Brackett tried to grab it, but Rafe moved deftly out of Brackett’s reach and placed the card on the table where Blair could read it.

“Yes, sir. Ms. Beverly Sanchez. I believe she, like yourself, is a lawyer.”

“Well, don’t let her in!” Brackett ordered.

“Why not?” Blair asked. “Who is she?”

“Nobody!” Brackett answered far too quickly. Blair just stared at him until Brackett looked down at his own cuticles and elaborated a little. “She’s nobody you need to worry about.” A longer pause and he went on. “Beverley Sanchez is a feminist lawyer representing some woman with a claim against the estate.” He turned to Rafe who was still awaiting instructions. “Tell her to see me at the office.”

Rafe waited patiently for directions from Blair, who said, “Well, if she has a claim, we’d better see her. Rafe, please send Ms. Sanchez in.”

“Very good, sir.” Rafe left the room.

“She’s capable of causing you a lot of trouble, Blair,” Brackett warned.

“How can she make any trouble for me? I haven’t done anything.”

Rafe appeared at the door, accompanied by a professional-looking woman in a navy skirted business suit. She had wavy brown hair and a turned-up nose that was very appealing and that she probably hated. “Ms. Sanchez,” Rafe said by way of introduction.

She smiled warmly, held out a hand and took a step in Blair’s direction. “Mr. Sandburg, I’ve heard—”

Brackett rose quickly, interposing himself bodily between the attractive young lawyer and Blair. “I thought I told you to take up this matter with my office, Sanchez.”

“I’m a little tired of being pushed around by you, Brackett.” She raised the hand she’d been holding out to shake Blair’s and she smoothed her hair. “Look. I have a legitimate claim against the Estate of David Lipshitz, and I’m representing a widow and orphan. It’s my sworn duty to make sure their claim is heard.”

“Widow and orphan?” Blair asked, peering around Brackett.

“That’s right, Mr. Sandburg. I represent Mrs. Lipshitz.”

Blair’s eyebrows climbed skyward. “Mrs. Lipshitz?”

“Yes. Your uncle’s common-law wife. She has a legal claim on the estate.”

“We’ll let the courts decide what her legal position is.” Brackett stepped to the right, bringing himself back in line with Sanchez and Sandburg.

“You wouldn’t dare go into court with a case like this, and you know it!”

She feinted left, then when Brackett scooted that way to keep between them like a basketball guard, she gracefully went right and forward. For Brackett to have countered that move would have meant he’d crash into her and knock her sideways, which was far too sympathetic a position for her to be in. He flailed about wildly, trying to catch his balance. He recovered, but not without looking like a demented windmill for a few seconds. Blair and Ms. Sanchez exchanged a smirk; nobody seemed to like Lee Brackett very much.

“Mr. Sandburg, can you conceive of any court not being in sympathy with any woman who gave up the best years of her life for your uncle?”

“What kind of wife did you say she was?”

“Common-law wife.”

“Common-law? What a coincidence—her last name being Lipshitz, as well.”

Sanchez looked uncomfortable. “Yes, sir. Well, actually, she changed it.”

“Changed it? Why would she do that?” Blair looked more and more confused.

“She wanted to give her son his father’s last name. She didn’t want him to bear the stigma of being a bastard!” Sanchez became impassioned, warming to her topic.

“I know what that’s like. I’m illegitimate myself. It was one of the things Uncle David and my mother fought about. He believed the ‘son-of-a-bitch that knocked her up’—and I’m quoting here—should do the right thing by her. Funny, he said he’d never leave some poor child nameless. He even said if the mother wasn’t willing to marry him, he’d move for legal custody.”

Sanchez looked nervous, Brackett hopeful, Blair sceptical.

“How old is the child?” Blair asked.

“Uh, around four or five. I can check my notes if you need a more accurate number.”

Brackett mumbled something about “being unprepared” and “not having all her facts straight”.

“That’s funny, too, Ms. Sanchez. Over the years, I attended family gatherings and some of his fancy parties. While he always had women around him, he never introduced anyone as his wife, common-law or otherwise. If he’d been seriously involved with someone, if there’d been a child, I think I would have known.”

“That doesn’t mean,” Sanchez leapt back into the fray, “that he didn’t get one of those many women pregnant.”

Brackett jumped in too. “Or that, knowing how he felt about children, one of them got pregnant to trap him into marrying her or at least buying her off!”

Blair looked from one lawyer to the other and back again. He walked over to the intercom and pressed a button. Rafe immediately appeared at the door, almost as if he’d been awaiting the summons. Or listening from the hallway. “Rafe, how well did you know my uncle?”

“Very well, sir.”

“And you’ve worked for him a long time, right? Say, for over a decade?”

“Why, yes. I did.”

“When I used to come here while I was in university, Uncle David had a valet named Peotyr. Did you train under him?”

“Yes. He was my mentor. He runs a very exclusive catering business now. I used his excellent service for all Mr. Lipshitz’s large affairs.”

“Where the hell are you going with this?” Brackett demanded. Sanchez nodded.

Blair was a little worried that the lawyers were now, apparently aligned against him. “A little latitude, please.” Blair chuckled inwardly. “I’m just playing in your court now, pun intended.” Neither lawyer laughed, although Beverly smiled a little.

“Were you here when Uncle David had, what he referred to as ‘la petite opération’?”

Light dawned in Rafe’s brown eyes. “Yes, sir. It was the only time I’d ever seen him take to his bed. I brought him ice packs for two days.”

“When was that?”

Rafe thought a moment. “It was just after I’d started here. I was so nervous. So almost exactly eleven years ago.”

“And were you privy to what my uncle was referring to by ‘la petite opération’?”

“Why, yes. Peotyr told me. In confidence.” He looked at Blair, rolling his eyes in the direction of the lawyers.

“I think it’s okay to spill the beans now, Rafe. My uncle’s not going to object, is he?”

“Probably not, sir. But if I were to go around telling Mr. Lipshitz’s personal business, wouldn’t the obvious conclusion be that I would also tell your personal business?”

“We wouldn’t think that, Ralph.” Brackett assured him. He appeared very eager to find out what ‘la petite opération’ was and why Blair thought it relevant to this claim on the estate.

Sanchez nodded. Blair figured he was still such a wild card to these people that they couldn’t anticipate which side he’d come down on.

He thought about what Rafe was saying about confidentiality. With reporters hounding him, Blair needed to know that he could trust those close to him. He faced Brackett, “Lee, anything Rafe says here today is covered under our client-lawyer privilege, right?” Brackett nodded. “And Ms. Sanchez? What about you? Can you give me your guarantee as a lawyer that whatever Rafe has to tell us remains between the three of us?”

“I’ll need to inform Mrs. Lipshitz of the outcome of this meeting. I can’t necessarily control her, but I can give you my guarantee that I’ll not repeat anything heard here, and that I’ll draw up a gag order and ask her to sign it before I reveal anything.”

“Rafe?” Blair turned to his manservant. “I understand your concern. I admire your loyalty. Are you satisfied that the arrangements here today will guarantee David Lipshitz’s continued privacy?”

“Yes, I am. Thank you, sir. ‘La petite opération’ was Mr. Lipshitz’s euphemism for ‘vasectomy’. Apparently, he was not interested in having children and thusly ensured that he would father none.”

Brackett had the ill-grace to hoot his triumph. He fisted the air and gave Sanchez an “in your face” look. “We’re going to hit you with a counter-suit to compensate Mr. Sandburg for the trauma he experienced with your stupid nuisance suit.”

“We’ll do no such thing, Brackett.” Blair said tightly. “My time isn’t that valuable, and I’m sure you bill me for every second you hang around here, whether you’re doing lawyerly things or not.”

Sanchez looked shocked. “I’m so sorry to have wasted your time, Mr. Sandburg. Thank you for clearing this up. I can only assume my client was unaware of Mr. Lipshitz’s sterility and had mistakenly assumed that the baby was his.” She looked off in the direction of the window. “It would explain why Mrs. Lipshitz and Mr. Lipshitz both had dark hair, while the child is very blond. I just assumed his hair would darken as he got older.”

“Never mind, Ms. Sanchez. You did what you thought was right. I hope you’re compensated for the time you spent on this.”

“Oh, no. It wasn’t about the money. I took this case on a pro bono basis.”

“But… But…” Brackett sputtered. “If you’d won, your fee could have been huge!”

“I only want to see justice done, Mr. Brackett. I do paying work as well, but Mrs. Lipshitz is very poor and qualifies for government assistance. I took on her case for free.”

Simon Banks appeared in the door. “Blair. That Cascade Royal Theatre Board is ready for you now.”

“Thanks, Simon. I’ll be right down.” He turned to Ms. Sanchez. “Beverley? Can you call me later in the week? Maybe we can work something out.”

Brackett jumped in again. “You can reach Mr. Sandburg via my offices.”

“No,” Blair said. “Rafe, please give Ms. Sanchez my direct number. Uh, Rafe? I have a direct number, don’t I?” Rafe nodded. “Okay, then. When you’re done giving it to Beverley, can I have it too, please.”

Rafe, Beverley and Blair laughed. Lee Brackett did not. Rafe escorted Ms. Sanchez from the room.

“What did I miss?” Simon asked.

Chapter 7. Theatre Farts

“Do the theatre people always come here for their meetings?” Blair asked as he and Simon walked down the grand staircase toward the meeting.


“That’s kind of odd, don’t you think. Why is that?”

“Why do mice go where there’s cheese?” Simon gestured toward the dining room and followed Blair through the double-doors.

A dozen or so people were seated at Blair’s long dining table. They were drinking coffee and snacking on fancy pastries that Rafe had served them while they awaited Blair’s arrival.

Blair approached the distinguished-looking group with obvious trepidation, only too glad to have Simon Banks as back-up. Rich people always made him nervous, even now that he was one.

The man seated at the head of the table rose, extending his hand. He was tall and expensively dressed, with greying temples. He looked every bit the stereotype “benefactor”.

“Hello, Mr. Sandburg. Welcome. Welcome. I’m John Douglas. Call me Jack.” He shook Blair’s hand heartily, making deliberate eye contact. Blair wondered at the protocol of welcoming him to his own home, although, in all fairness, Douglas had probably spent more time there than Blair had.

Douglas ignored Simon, who took a seat at the far end of the table; he turned Blair to face the group and quickly introduced the rest of the Board. Everyone, apparently, had a formal name, such as Joyce, George, James, Brenda, and William. But they all went by nicknames, probably holdovers from some exclusive prep school. There was, among others, Muffy, Gordo, Jimbo, Mitzy and Bren-Bren. Blair didn’t need two-and-a-half degrees in anthropology to recognize a homogeneous group when he saw one. He suddenly felt like an outsider in a way he never did when travelling among indigenous people in foreign lands. He wondered how Simon felt.

“Now, gentlemen,” Douglas was saying. “The first order of business will be the election of a new Chairman of the Board.”

One of the men—possibly Richard who was, apparently, known as “Dick”—rose and ahem’d. “As a sentimental gesture toward the best friend theatre ever had, the late Mr. David Lipshitz, I think it only fitting that his nephew and heir, Blair Sandburg, should be made our next Chairman. I, therefore, nominate him.”

Muffy and Bren-Bren both seconded.

“All those in favour...” Douglas called.

“Aye.” The vote was unanimous.

“Carried,” Douglas pronounced, banging on a little oaken disk with a wooden gavel. “Congratulations, Mr. Sandburg. You are now Chairman of the Board of the Cascade Royal Theatre Company. Come. Sit here.” Instead of giving up his place at the head of the table, Douglas made everyone on the left side of the table shift down a chair.

“I’m… I’m Chairman?” Blair asked, moving to the vacated seat.

“Yes, of course. You’ve just been elected. That’s what this process means, you see. We all took a vote and—”

“Hey, Simon. Guess what? I’m Chairman.” Blair called down the table, ignoring Douglas’s patronizing lecture.

“Mazel tov,” Simon said dryly.

Blair could have kissed him, but the rest of the group seemed focussed on Douglas.

“Now, the next order of business is the reading of the minutes of the last meeting.”

“Move we dispense with it,” called Mitzy or someone. Blair had completely lost track.

“Second!” called one of the men.

“All in favour?”

A chorus of voices said, “Aye!”

“I think they can be dispensed with,” Douglas said. “We’re ready now for the reading of the Treasurer’s report.”

“Move we dispense with it.”


“All in favour?


“Now, the next business will be—”

“Wait a minute.” Blair interrupted. “What exactly does the Chairman do?”

“Why, the Chairman presides at the meetings.” Douglas looked surprised that Blair wouldn’t already know this.

“That’s what I thought. If you don’t mind, I’m rather interested in the Treasurer’s report. I’d like to hear it.” Blair sat forward, reaching for the gavel as if it were just something handy to toy with. Simon sat forward with interest.

There was an uncomfortable shuffle. For a few minutes, no one spoke. From the rear, a tall man rose.

“Yes, Mr. Chairman. I’m Jimbo Smythe.” Blair appreciated the re-introduction. “The Treasurer reports that the Cascade Royal Theatre Company has generated a…” he shuffled papers, returning to the one on top. “A deficit of $20,000, for the current fiscal year.”

“A deficit! You mean we’ve lost $20,000?”

“You see, Mr. Sandburg, the CRTC is not conducted for profit.”

“It isn’t? What is it conducted for?”

“Why, it’s an artistic institution!” There were indignant nods all around the table. Mitzy drew her cardigan more securely across her shoulders. Muffy toyed with her pearls.

“We own the theatre, don’t we? The actual building, I mean,” Blair asked.

“We do.”

“And we give shows?”

“We give ‘theatrical performances’,” Douglas corrected.

“But you charge. I mean, you sell tickets?”

“Of course.”

“And it doesn’t pay?” Blair asked.

“Of course not. The Cascade Theatre has never ‘paid’.” He put withering little air-quotes around the word ‘paid’. Blair wondered why it was the rich people thought money so demeaning.

Blair scratched his head, pushing a curl back from his forehead. “Well, back in Clayton Falls, our local theatre group put on regular performances.”

“Well, then,” Douglas said. “We’re really very fortunate to have such a knowledgeable theatre expert in our midst.”

“I’m not a theatre expert, and you can cut the sarcasm,” Blair said. “My point is that if our little amateur theatre company back in Clayton Falls could turn a profit, then so can you—the real theatre experts!

Every face around the table registered shock, some turning white with indignation, and others red with anger. Blair had extensive first aid training and thought he was going to have to use CPR on Douglas. There was considerable hubbub, and no one listened when Blair tried to bring them to order. He noticed Simon just about to rise and, hoping to avert a scene, he grabbed the gavel and banged on the disk, hard.

“Order. Order,” he shouted. Over his lifetime, Blair had sat on and chaired dozens of committees. You couldn’t swing a grad student at an academic association or a charitable endeavour without hitting a committee or twelve. He knew Robert’s Rules Order like he knew the words to “We Shall Overcome”. If this group of self-important patrons thought he was easy, he would show them a thing or two.

“What then, Mr. Chairman, do you suggest?” Douglas asked, knuckles white from gripping the arms of his chair so tightly.

Blair sat back and steepled his fingers. “At this point, I’m thinking of all the great musicals that are mounted in urban centres across the globe. They make money, or nobody’d be doing them. I wonder if we’re maybe putting on the wrong kind of shows.”

Simon Banks smiled. The directors were stumped.

“The wrong kind! There isn’t any wrong or right kind. Theatre is theatre!” Douglas was practically apoplectic.

“I guess it is. But I personally wouldn’t care to be head of a business that kept losing money. That wouldn’t be common sense. Incidentally, where was the $20,000 coming from?”

“Well, we were rather expecting it to come from you.”

“Me?” Blair squeaked, clutching the gavel as if he meant to use it in self-defence.


“Excuse me, gentlemen, there’s nothing natural about that.”

“You see, Mr. Sandburg, the theatre was not conducted like any ordinary business.”

“Why not?”

“Because it just isn’t a business, that’s all!” Douglas cried. “Your uncle was a great supporter of the arts. A true humanitarian.”

Implying I’m not, Blair thought. He rolled his eyes. The more excited the Committee became, the calmer he felt. When you’d faced hostile tribes on the Amazon and drug runners in Mexico, a group of well-meaning Cascadians wasn’t all that threatening. “Well, maybe it isn’t a business to you, but it certainly is a business to me, if I have to make up a loss of $20,000. If it’s losing that much money, there must be something wrong. Maybe you charge too much. Maybe you’re not charging enough. Maybe you’re selling bad merchandise. Maybe lots of things. I don’t know. I’m hoping to do a lot of good with the money my uncle left me, and I can’t afford to put it into anything that I don’t look into. I want a full report on my desk in two weeks analyzing what we’re doing wrong and looking into what other theatre companies are doing right. That’s my decision for the time being. Goodbye and thank you for making me Chairman. Er, Chairperson. Uh. Chair.”

These were good people, he reasoned, the kind of people who make things happen, who are willing to give their time to a worthwhile endeavour. They just needed a bit of a paradigm shift in their thinking. He’d helped turn volunteer boards around before, and he felt he’d made a good start.

He headed for the door, then turned back again. “Rent!” he cried.

“I told you,” Douglas said. “We own the building. There’s no rent, and your uncle paid off the mortgage years ago.” He had passed angry and was well into long-suffering.

“No, man. Rent!, the musical. It’s the big thing all over these days. We should mount a production of that.”

“Oh, my,” breathed Muffy-Buffy-Puffy. “Isn’t that about hustlers and drug addicts?”

“Don’t forget homosexuals,” laughed Blair. “It’ll be great. Look into it. Dick?” The Treasurer’s head flew up. He obviously wasn’t comfortable to be included in this part of the conversation. “Dick, draw up a budget for a big time musical. My desk… er, dining room table. Two weeks.”

He headed out of the dining room. Simon rose to follow his new boss. “Gentlemen, Ladies. I look very much forward to your next dramatic production. I understand Rent! also features Negroes.”

Chapter 8. Escape Claws

Simon had enjoyed retelling the Theatre Board story over lunch. Blair had insisted that the tailors join them, although Rafe had declined, saying he’d prefer to serve. Since Maurice and Travis were tailors to all the wealthy of Cascade, they had some interesting but not too personal tidbits to share about Mitzy and Muffy and Dick.

Brackett has been uncomfortable about having “staff” eat with him, but he too had enjoyed the account; hearing stories in which his peers were taken down a peg always warmed his heart.

After the tailors had left and Simon was busy on the phone, Brackett took advantage of the privacy to speak with Blair. “That was very astute, Blair,” Brackett said, helping himself to more pâté. “Being your attorney will be a very simple affair.”

“You’re not my attorney yet, Lee. Please don’t act on my behalf without talking to me about it. I know you have my best interests at heart, but I’ve never had anyone ‘manage’ my stuff before, and I’m really not comfortable with it yet. Okay?” Blair smiled, hoping he didn’t look too mean. He didn’t want to hurt Lee’s feelings, but he really felt he had to take a stand, and now was as good a time as any. “You know, asking the theatre treasurer for his report kind of got me in the mood for some accounting.” He rubbed his hands together like he was about to embark on a fun adventure. “Suppose next time you come by, you bring the books for my uncle’s estate so I can have a look at them. Okay?”

Brackett blanched, but recovered quickly. “Yes, of course, if you wish. But you must be prepared for a lot of work. I’ll have the books ready in a couple of weeks. And then, I warn you, it’ll probably take you a couple of months to do through them.” He gathered some papers together and shoved them in his briefcase. “If it becomes annoying, you let me know. I can have someone from our accounting department prepare an executive summary and save you a lot of time and headache.”

“I might take you up on that, Lee, but I’d like the chance to decide for myself. The books, two weeks. ‘Kay?”

“‘Kay,” Brackett answered, looking worried.

~ ~ ~

Blair ate dinner alone, glad to be rid of Brackett, but missing Simon’s company a little. Still, he hadn’t had a moment to himself since he’d returned to Cascade, and it was kind of nice to be alone with Burton’s monograph. He’d read it through quickly once and was now halfway through it a second time, carefully making notes as he went. If he ever found that Sentinel, he’d be ready.

He stretched. He’d been stuck in this house since he’d gotten there, the media mob on the street penning him in. He decided he’d go out tonight, hit a bar, have some fun.

He was reminded that he was not really alone when Rafe entered his bedroom to find him pawing through his closet, trying to find something to wear.

“Is there anything you’d like, sir? An apéritif, perhaps?”

Blair pondered a moment, then turned to face Rafe. “There’s two things I want you to do for me, Rafe.”


“First, call me Blair.”

“Blair,” he tried on the word. “Yes, sir. Blair.” He looked concerned.

“Something wrong, Rafe?”

“No, sir. Yes, sir.”

“What? Did I do something wrong. I’m new at the whole rich-bitch thing. Cut me some slack, will you?” Blair grinned, hoping he hadn’t done anything offensive. He liked Rafe, and although he was sure he’d get the same level of service one way or the other, he really hoped that Rafe liked him, too.

“Well, if you don’t mind too terribly much, I’d prefer not to call you by your first name. I’m just not comfortable with that level of informality.” He glanced at Blair who was standing in boxer shorts and socks. “I’m rather old school, you know.”

“Hmmm. It’s not that you don’t like me or anything, is it?”

“Oh, no, sir. It’s like the lights have gotten brighter since you’ve been here. I liked working for your uncle, but he could be stodgy and set in his ways. You’re rather a breath of fresh air. I especially enjoyed your handling of the Theatre Board.”

“Oh, uh. Well, I like you, too. If you’re not comfortable calling me Blair, and I’m not going to answer to ‘sir’, how ‘bout a compromise, then?”


“Call me, uh, Mr. Blair.”

“Very good, Mr. Blair. I do believe I can live with that. Now, you said there were two things?”

“Second, stop pretending you think I’m straight, and direct me to the best gay bar in town, will you?”

Rafe perked right up, looking absolutely delighted. “Why yes, sir! Mr. Blair. It’s called Club Doom, and it’s on Channing Street.” He laid a finger alongside his nose. “Your secret is safe with me, Blair.”

“What secret? I’m pretty out about the whole thing, really. Besides, who’d care, anyway?”

With that, he tossed Rafe the newly tailored pants, which Rafe caught expertly. Blair grabbed his soft, old denim jeans and a tank top. Adding a slightly less worn plaid shirt, he stood in front of the mirror. “How do I look, Rafe?”

“I’m sure a lot of people at Club Doom will be very attracted to you in that outfit.”

Adding a second diamond stud to his ear lobe, Blair turned. “And they would be…?” he prodded, hearing some underlying note in Rafe’s voice.

“Why the lesbians, of course, Mr. Blair.” He raised one eyebrow. “Perhaps plaid was the fashion statement of choice in… where was it?”

“Clayton Falls.” Blair sighed and removed the shirt.

“Allow me, Blair.” Rafe strode quickly to Blair’s immense closet and found a white silk shirt of clean lines and generous cut. He held it out for Blair, who stepped back into it. It fit him like it had been made for him, largely because it had.

“Okay, man. Point taken.” His diamond studs sparkled as did his dark-blue eyes. “Somehow I feel safer putting myself in your hands than that prick, Brackett’s.”

“You have impeccable taste, sir. Have a good evening.”

“Thanks, Rafe. You, too. You’re taking off now, right?”

“You won’t need me again this evening?”

“Nah. I won’t even be home, so do whatever it is you do. Maybe I’ll see you later.” Blair left the question dangling about whether Rafe frequented this Club Doom. He didn’t expect an answer; Rafe was entitled to the privacy he so obviously valued.

Blair exited his dressing room. At the top of a grand staircase, he glanced around. Seeing no one was watching, he slid down the banister and patted the statue at the bottom for good luck. Chuckling, he headed for the front door only to find his way barred by a large, husky black man who popped out of an alcove. “Can I, uh, help you?” Was this a reporter? Lawyer? Long-lost relative?

“Hey, man. I’m Henry. You going out?”

“Why, yes, Henry. Is that all right?”

“No. Well, yes. Okay. Where are we going?

“Excuse me. I don’t want to be rude, Henry. But, ah, who are you?”

Henry blinked. “Didn’t Simon tell you? I’m your bodyguard du jour. You don’t go anywhere without me.”

“Oh, right. I think Simon did say something about that. You’re an off-duty policeman?”

“That’s right. I’m a detective. Worked with Simon when he was with the force. He needed somebody he could trust on you, and I could use a little extra cash. Big anniversary coming up.” He grinned. “Simon said stick to your tail no matter what. And we all know how to play ‘Simon says,’ right?” He laughed at his own joke. He seemed like an affable person.

“That’s very nice of Simon, but I don’t want anybody sticking to my tail no matter what or otherwise.”

“Sorry, Mr. Sandburg. I’ve got my orders.”

“Henry, I’m confused about something here; maybe you can help me out.” He glanced up at Henry’s pleasant, round face.

“Sure thing, Mr. Sandburg.”

“Blair. Call me Blair,” he said absently. “So here’s the thing. For some odd reason, I was under the impression that my life was my life and my whereabouts were my business.”

“Oh, right.” Henry made a huge, unsubtle wink. “You don’t have to worry about that. ‘I see nothink. I hear nothink. I know nothink.’” He quoted the old Sixties sitcom, pointing at his eyes, ears and, head as he did so. “Unless of, course, you do something illegal. Then I’ll have to arrest you.” He laughed out loud at this.

“Oh, okay then.” Blair smiling. “This is going to be fun.”

“Some people like it.”

Blair glanced around the room thoughtfully. “Give me a hand with something before we go out?”


“I got a trunk in that room. Will you get it out for me?”

“Sure. No problemo.”

Blair opened the door to a study and ushered Henry through before him. “In that corner. The light switch is on the far wall.” Blair watched Henry take a few careful steps into the room, hands in front of him like a sleepwalker, feeling his way in the darkness. When Henry was halfway across the room, Blair closed the door and locked it.

“Hey, hey!” Henry cried, “Ow!” There was the sound of crashing furniture, then pounding on the door. “I’m your bodyguard. You can’t do this! Simon’ll flay me alive!”

Blair felt guilty for a moment. Yelling back through the door, he said, “I’ll explain to Simon. I’ll pay you for your time. I’ll tell Rafe…” He glanced up to see Rafe watching from the upper mezzanine. Blair figured he’d been there the whole time and flushed a little, thinking about the slide down the banister. Henry pounded on the door again and rattled the knob forcefully. Blair hoped the art nouveau handle was up to the challenge; it looked like it was original to the house, and he’d hate to see it damaged. “I’ll have Rafe let you out in 20 minutes. Okay?” He heard only silence. “If you kick this door down, you could hurt yourself. And I’ll tell Simon you lost me through incompetence, and then he’ll be way pissed at you. So what do you say? Can I leave now?”

There was a long pause during which Blair was sure Henry was nodding. Finally Henry called out, “Okay. Okay, Mr. Sandburg. You’re a good man, and those are fair terms. Have fun tonight. By the way, where did you say you were going?”

Blair laughed—you had to give the man credit for trying. He glanced up at Rafe, who touched his watch and gave him a thumbs up. Blair saluted him back in similar style and headed out without answering poor Henry.

Blair peeked through the front curtains. There was a gaggle of people milling about in front of his house. They were probably reporters and scam artists and maybe even a needy soul or two, but Blair couldn’t sort them out tonight. Later in the week he’d get a system in place to sort out the worthy from the unworthy, the legitimate causes from the illegitimate, the greedy from the needy. But tonight, he needed to let off a little steam and have a little time away from lawyers and minders, bodyguards, and manservants.

Rafe appeared at his side. “May I suggest the back way, Mr. Blair?” He gestured toward the kitchen, every inch the genteel gentleman’s gentleman, but there was something knowing and cunning in his eyes. “It’s proved… useful in the past. Mr. Lipshitz and Mrs. Owens-Thomas from next door had a reciprocal arrangement for avoiding the media and other unpleasantness. You go through their yard, and, when needed, she cuts through yours.”

Blair grinned. He was liking Rafe better and better all the time. “What constitutes ‘other unpleasantness’?”

“Mr. Owens-Thomas, actually.”

Blair laughed outright and departed via the kitchen.

Chapter 9. Not for the Feint of Heart

Across the street, Jim Ellison lurked in the shadows; Megan Connor, his photographer-partner from the Times, stood nearby. Jim was very intent. He chuckled and mumbled something. She shook her shoulder-length hair back from her face, not bothering to ask Jim what he meant by “poor Henry”.

“Okay.” Jim said. “Get ready. He’s coming out.” He pushed off from the tree he’d been leaning against and strode up the street.

“Where are you heading?” Megan asked, but she knew from experience not to expect an answer although it killed her not to know what was going on. It was just not in her nature to follow blindly, although she had to admit that since partnering with Ellison, they’d managed to scoop the other reporters almost every time. She hurried after Jim, state-of-the-art digital camera at the ready.

“Stay in the shadows on this side of the street. Zoom lens only.”

“But I—” she protested.

Jim put a finger to his lips, then whispered, “Tonight you’re not going to get close to him. But I will. Snap whatever you can get. He’s going to come out of that house.” He pointed to the property next to the former Lipshitz residence.

Megan began to argue again, but let it go. Ellison was good at this—uncannily so. He pointed to a bus shelter a few yards up the block and nodded. She headed to it. Ellison crossed the street and waited.

~ ~ ~

Blair crept through his neighbours’ yard, hopped a fence and headed out their front walk. He hoped he hadn’t set off any silent alarms. Their wrought iron gate creaked softly, then snicked closed behind him. It only opened from the inside, but he figured he’d be able to get back in via his uncle’s place—his own place, now, he reminded himself. Surely, the crowd in front of it would have thinned out to a manageable size by the time he got home. He intended to de-stress tonight and figured that would take until the wee hours. And a lot of dancing. Possibly some making out. But first, he wanted to do some anthro-stalking.

He was psyched and started off down the street in the direction away from the gathering in front of his place.

A tall man was walking down the street toward him. The man seemed very focussed on him. Blair’s first thought was that this was another, more clever reporter. The man stopped directly in front of him, staring at him. Blair looked into pale blue eyes—eyes that seemed to grow vacant as he gazed at Blair. The man seemed to sniff Blair, then his face grew slack, and he slowly collapsed, just kind of falling in on himself.

Blair reacted instinctively, clutching at the man, managing to ease him to his knees, rather than have the guy crash into the concrete like a felled redwood.

“Hey, man. What’s the matter? What’s wrong?” Kneeling himself, he supported the man with one arm, while feeling for a pulse with the other. Finding what seemed to him a strong, healthy pulse, Blair refrained from calling out to the oblivious hangers-on halfway down the block. Although this man’s health came before any other concerns, he’d see if the guy had maybe just fainted before he fed the hungry media jackals exactly what they craved. He’d once travelled with a man who had petit mal epileptic seizures, and he knew that patience and encouragement were what was called for. “Hey, man. Come back to me now. Listen to the sound of my voice.” Blair drew breath to begin his litany anew, when the man seemed to come back to himself.

“Where? I…” The blue eyes fluttered open, the pupils huge in the darkness. Blair wondered if the guy was stoned or something. He looked pretty clean-cut, although that was no real indicator to sobriety. The man blinked a few times, then suddenly looked embarrassed. He pushed Blair away, not roughly, but firmly, then needed to lean on him again a moment later.

“Are you okay, man? You don’t have to stand up yet.”

“I’m okay, I think.” He pulled on Blair, stood, swayed a bit, finally standing upright without assistance. “I… What happened?” He looked warily at Blair, around him, and back at Blair.

“You fainted or something. Do you get these, uh, episodes much?”

“I’m fine. I’m fine.”

Blair kept a hand on the man’s arm in case he started to sway again.

He yanked his arm from Blair’s grasp. “I don’t need any help.” The man seemed pissed now. Blair figured he was just doing the macho embarrassment-equals-anger thing. It was tedious but normal.

“Look, my house is just over there if you’d like to come in and sit down. I can call a doctor for you.”

“No. I’m all right.”

The man seemed about to snap at him again, when he suddenly changed his tone. “Well, I guess I haven’t eaten much today. I just got a new job, and I’ve been putting in extra hours.” He passed a trembling hand over his face. “In all the excitement, I guess I forgot to eat. Uh, thanks, by the way.” He gave Blair a quick smile, and for the first time Blair noticed how handsome he was. The man turned and headed back the way he’d come.

Blair watched him go, then darted after him as the man began to sway again, clutching at a nearby security fence to keep his balance.

He charged up to the man, who gave him a wry smile. “It’s a blood-sugar thing, I guess.”

Blair was about to insist the guy come back home with him when shouts behind him told him the paparazzi had finally noticed the action down the block. He needed to get the guy out of there. Across the street, a taxi just happened to be idling.

“Hey, taxi!” Blair called loudly. He dragged the man over to the cab and shoved him in. “The Rainier University Alumni Centre, please.”

The driver nodded and pulled away from the curb. He picked up a radio mike and repeated Blair’s directions: “Rainier University Alumni Centre.”

Stepping out from behind a tree, Megan balanced camera equipment and walkie-talkie, “RUAC centre. Got it!” she confirmed, rushing for her car as the rest of the paparazzi ran after the cab.

Chapter 10. Shredded Wit

The dining room at RUAC was both elegant and crowded. It seemed that some scholarly group or academic conference met there every night of the week. After his extended time as a student, Blair was no stranger to its ferned ambience and felt it was nice to be back after several years away.

He and Jim Elliott—they’d finally gotten around to introducing themselves—sat at a corner table. Jim had acted surprised to find himself having dinner with Cascade’s newest celebrity. He’d known about the Lipshitz fortune and its reluctant heir, of course. It had been front-page news. But since no photographer had managed to get a recent picture, the only photo the papers were running had been obtained from the University. And the man currently dining on a large bowl of jambalaya didn’t much resemble his Rainier Student ID picture from a dozen years earlier. Jim said he hadn’t made the connection.

Jim poked his fork at a last piece of steak. He popped it in his mouth almost reluctantly. Sitting back, a hand caressing his now-rounded tummy, he groaned, “I ate too much.”

“But you feel better now?”

“Yeah. Thanks. It was great. I feel a little steadier on my feet. Or at least on my chair.” He grinned that killer grin again. “Thanks, Blair.”

“Do you have these, uh, episodes often?” Blair repeated his earlier question, hoping it would give less offence this time. Jim gave him a sharp look, so he added, “I hope you don’t mind me asking.”

Jim took a deep breath. “Yeah. No. Well, I did for a while. I was a cop, and there was this incident, and I started having these problems. Like tonight. Then I couldn’t be a cop any more. I’ve been trying to find something else to settle into since then. I still get these ‘episodes’ as you called them from time to time. I never know what’s going to set them off. Plus, I have all sorts of environmental and food reactions.” He looked ruefully at Blair. “I guess I’m just kind of fucked up.

Blair quickly changed the subject. It was no good to say “No, you’re not!” when he didn’t really know the guy. It just wouldn’t ring true, so Blair found something positive to dwell on instead. “But you’ve found something now? You said you have a new job.”

“Yeah. An old friend gave me a break. You’re looking at The Cascade Times’ newest employee.”

“As a reporter?” Blair asked sharply. He wasn’t suspicious by nature, but this past week had made him more aware of his surroundings than he usually was in the jungle.

“I wish. Someday, maybe. Nah. More like general office help. Their insurance provider won’t let me out in the field in any sort of official capacity, so I’m just sort of hanging around and making myself useful. That’s what I was doing here tonight.”

Blair waited, nodding for Jim to go on.

“One of the photographers called. She’d forgotten the flash attachment for her camera, and I was running it out to her on my way home.”

“It’s 9:30. That’s a late shift. What time did you start?”

“Around 6:30 this morning, I think.” Jim picked up a roll and started tearing it into little pieces.

“Six-thir—! That’s a helluva long shift. When did you eat last?”

Jim stared at the ceiling. “Uh, yesterday, maybe. Maybe the day before.” He shrugged, then looked down at his plate. “And now, I’ve eaten a lot. Thanks.” He patted his stomach again. “You’re a real lifesaver.”

The waiter approached them, asking if they wanted dessert or coffee. Both men elected to have coffee, and Jim, at Blair’s insistence, ordered the cherry cheesecake.

“Has anybody come in yet, Tom?” Blair asked the waiter. The staff at the RUAC were recruited from among the grad students who needed extra money for tuition and expenses. Upon Blair’s inquiry, their waiter had told them his name and that he was pursuing a sociology Masters.

“Anybody from the anthro conference?” Tom scanned the room. “Oh, no. Nobody important. But they probably will. All roads lead to RUAC.” He grinned.

Blair smiled back. “You’ll let me know, right?”

Tom agreed. He’d taken several anthro courses, he’d said, and so knew the big-name anthropology professors and guest lecturers by sight.

“I’m an anthropologist myself, you know,” Blair said.

The waiter gave Blair a once-over, probably to see if he was somebody important.

“But I never finished my doctorate.”

“Uh-huh.” The waiter suddenly noticed the people across the room that had been waving at him for some time. “Excuse me, sir.”

Blair felt a little deflated. He’d been looking forward to seeing some old colleagues or putting faces to some of the authors whose papers he’d read in the quarterly anthro journal, “Travels With My Ant.” He was lost in thought when Jim brought the conversation back to Blair’s own recent activities.

“You’ve been having quite an exciting time here, haven’t you? All those meetings and business deals and society people. Been having fun?”

“No. That is, I wasn’t.” He paused, studying Jim. “Until I met you. I’m enjoying talking to you. Imagine my finding you right on my doorstep.” Blair looked a little suspicious again, but the waiter approached their table and derailed his train of thought.

“Stoddard just came in,” the waiter announced as he topped up their coffees.

“Eli? Where?”

“Over at that big table. The whole table is full of the big guys just in from the anthro conference. Stoddard was today’s keynote speaker.”

“You were there?” Blair asked, wistfully.

“I used to be an anthro major.” Tom shrugged as he tidied their table and asked if they cared for anything else.

Blair didn’t respond, staring in the direction of the anthro table. A group of men and women were in the process of settling in at a long table. They had that distinctly professorial look. The men, regardless of age, all had ponytails, including one balding fellow with a white, rather wispy one. Their dress was casual and seemed to involve a lot of khaki as if they might have to rush off to a jungle or desert at a moment’s notice. The women wore nubby natural fibres and large clunky jewellery in silver or brass. Their hair ran the gamut of short styles, all shot with grey—no fancy, high-maintenance hairstyles for them. Everyone wore bracelets; the men tended towards leather thongs with a few primitive beads floating loose, while the women wore rows of clanking silver bangles that danced up and down their forearms when they gestured or buttered their rolls.

Blair toyed with his own leather bracelet, sliding the single African trading bead back and forth absent-mindedly while starting at the conferencees. He looked quickly at his coffee when Tom approached the table of anthropologists. The waiter leaned in a little, although not too close, whispering to Stoddard. The Professor looked around the room, then focussed where Tom directed. There was conferring and laughter. Blair blushed dark red; Jim looked angry.

The waiter headed back their way. “They said to tell you to join them. Hey, I didn’t realize you were that Sandburg guy.” He looked conflicted; he probably figured a former grad student turned millionaire would remember his starving student days and be a big tipper. Or not.

Blair looked across the room tentatively. Stoddard and the other anthropologists waved and beckoned. Blair’s spirits bounced back instantly. “They want me—us—to join them, Jim. That’s great.”

Jim didn’t look so sure. “I don’t know, Blair. These guys are pretty full of themselves. What if they—?”

“Hey, what do you know about these guys?”

“I meant, guys like these…”

“That’s just anti-academic prejudice, Jim. I’m surprised at you. Now they’ve invited us over. You don’t need to come if you’d rather not, but I’m going.” He stood up and strode across the room, only glancing back once to make sure Jim was coming. He didn’t intend to abandon his new friend and was glad to see that Jim chose not to call his bluff, but followed along instead.

“Sandburg!” called Stoddard far too loudly since Blair was now standing right beside his chair. “Hey, everybody, this is Sandburg. I took you with me to Bora Bora one time, didn’t I?”

“Borneo, actually, sir. Nice to see you—”

“So, you’re a millionaire now. Well, doesn’t that just knock the dust off your mummy!”

There was general laughter and uncaught introductions around the table as everyone squeezed over to allow the waiter to fit in two more chairs. There were far more fussing and discussing and pinched fingers than would normally be necessary. Blair realized his new table-mates had made the rounds of several of the finer drinking establishments in town before ending up at the RUAC for dinner.

“Hey, John,” Stoddard called. “A little service here.”

“Uh, it’s Tom,” Blair corrected.

“Uh, what? Yes. Yes. He was in one of my sections. You think I don’t know the names of my students?” Stoddard looked like he was going to lose his temper, but then appeared to lose his train of thought instead. “Yes! Sandburg here had a very unusual thesis proposal. A drink for Mr. Sandburg!”

Tom appeared and put a couple more beers down in front of Jim and Blair.

“Tell us, Sandburg. Did you ever find one of those sentients you were looking for?”

“It was Sentinels. I had hundreds of documented cases of people with one or two heightened senses, but I never found anybody with all five.”

Beside him, Jim choked on his beer. Blair rubbed his back and handed him a clean napkin.

“So you built your entire Ph.D. thesis on a single idea and then weren’t able to substantiate it. Why the hell would anyone—” Stoddard interrupted himself when Tom returned. “Bring a round for the table. It’s on Sandburg here. He can afford it.”

The rest of the anthro crew, who were obviously big members of the Eli Stoddard sycophant society, raised their glasses in salute, crying “Sandburg!” in something far from unison.

“I found lots of references to Sentinels in many of the first anthropological books and early explorer journals. Apparently, each tribe or village—”

“That was that quack, Sir Richard Burton, right?” asked the woman on Jim’s left.

“Oh, him,” commented the man across from her. “He was such a twit. And all those marriages. Although I probably would have married Elizabeth Taylor if she’d’ve really, really begged,” he cackled.

“Not that quack Sir Richard Burton, the other one. The explorer, not the actor. I’m surprised you ever got a degree, Reggie,” another woman said.

“My area of expertise is Inuit studies, my dear. What do I care for some guy who explored South Africa?”

Blair jumped back in again, “But there are reports, documented reports of Sentinels among the Inuit and the other First Nations people of North America. Why the Algonquin Tribe—”

Blair was interrupted by a loud “whooo-ooo-ooo” from Reggie-the-Inuit-expert in the most tasteless ululation of political incorrectness Blair had witnessed in a long time.

“So you abandoned that ridiculous field of study and wrote on what, instead?” one of the bangled women asked.

“I didn’t. I still hope to someday find a Sentinel. Maybe even a Sentinel/Guide pair. Each Sentinel had a Guide, someone to watch his back and—”

“Hey,” cried the man next to Blair. “I can see down your blouse, Cassandra. I must be a Sentinel! Let me see if I’m extra touchy-feely, too.” He reached toward the woman across the table from him, his hand snapping open and closing like a hungry maw. She shrieked with laughter, yanking her plunging peasant blouse up over her cleavage an inch or two.

“Sentinel this, Archie!” The man next to Cassandra stood up and gave his own crotch a squeeze à la Michael Jackson. He turned toward Blair, then Jim. “Maybe Sandburg would like to give me a little Sentinel job. Or how ‘bout the boyfriend?”

Blair was horrified. Jim looked around the table, getting more and more pissed.

“I did the research. I got the grant. I was encouraged…” Blair’s voice was low. He was practically whispering. “You, Eli…”

The waiter passed by and deposited another three bottles of wine on the table. A general free-for-all ensued until the table was spattered with red wine and other wet marks.

“Maybe I should look into Sentinels myself,” a man named Geoffrey said. “I could use a few more years of grant money.” He took a deep swig of his wine. “With nothing to show for it in the end!”

The table rang with laughter and toasts: “To Sandburg!”, “To grants!”, “To Sentinels!”

“And what is your field of expertise, Jim?” Geoffrey now turned his wit on Jim.

“I’m a psychic, actually.” Jim lied.

“A psychic?” Cassandra asked, leaning her chin drunkenly on one hand; perhaps she thought she looked winsome, or maybe she’d topple over without the added support. “That’s so interesting.” Clearly she thought it wasn’t. “Tell me something about me.” She blinked flirtatiously.

Jim sat back and looked at her. He inhaled once, deeply. He placed one hand theatrically on his forehead and stared at the ceiling. “At some point between leaving the lecture hall and arriving here, you disappeared for a few minutes.” The table nodded, a bit interested. Cassandra looked a bit uncomfortable. “At the same time, this man…” Jim pointed a long, accusing finger at a man further down the table.

“Freddy?” said a woman sitting next to him, presumably Freddy’s wife. “Yes, Freddy.” Jim confirmed like a pro. “Also disappeared. You!” Jim pointed to the wife. “He disappeared long enough that you began to wonder why he was so long in the bathroom.” She nodded, growing angrier by the second. “I guess he has stamina, eh, Cassandra?”

“I… But…” she sputtered. “It’s not true!”

“Your lips are red and swollen, and if you look closely at her, uh, cleavage, there’s a wet spot which is thick and sticky and will later dry crusty.” He winked hugely so that no one would mistake his meaning.

There was general uproar at the table. Jim rose, pulling Blair up with him. “You!” He pointed at Stoddard like an avenging angel. “You should stop sleeping with your students and then stealing their ideas and passing them off as your own!” He sniffed the air again. “And that dope you think you’re smoking—it’s oregano. You’d think you’d have developed some expertise since the sixties.” Jim ran his gaze up and down the table. Each person shrank from him when his gaze fell upon them. He snorted. “You’re not worth it.” And turned away.

“C’mon, Chief.” He grabbed the stunned Blair and dragged him toward the exit.

Tom the waiter hurried to catch them. “Your bill, Mr. Sandburg.” He was grinning hugely.

Blair examined the bill quickly. “This isn’t right. You didn’t put the wine and stuff from their table. This is only for the meal Jim and I had before we joined them.”

“I think that’s exactly right, sir. I have Professor Stoddard’s credit card on file, and I’ll make sure the necessary charges go through.” He winked and finished processing the bill through the register. “Thanks for a wonderful evening. Come back soon.” He held the door for the two men as they departed, stepping out after them. “I can’t thank you enough for that. Stoddard stole my thesis idea and claimed it as his own. Published a paper based on my research! Then the fucker failed me. I was just telling that to this new girl earlier, while you guys were eating. She was all ‘Eli this’ and ‘Eli that’. I didn’t want her to have the same shit experience with the guy that I did.” He shook Blair’s hand, then Jim’s. “It was because of that rat bastard I switched from anthro to soc., but thanks to you tonight, I think I just might switch back!”

Blair grinned for the first time since his thesis topic had become the subject of much hilarity. “Don’t let the bastards get you down,” he said. He pulled a wad of bills from his pocket. “Here. From Cascade’s newest millionaire to Rainier’s next anthropologist.” He forced the bills into Tom’s hand despite some pretty sincere protests.

Jim and Blair headed down Channing Street to a gradually receding litany of thanks from Tom that continued until the maitre d’ pulled him back in the dining room.

“Wow, Jim.” Blair practically danced down the street. He punched Jim in the arm. “That was terrific. How’d you know all that stuff? Are you really psychic?”

“Nah. Don’t forget, I used to be a detective.” He punched Blair’s arm in return, leaving Blair to puzzle out how he’d known.

Jim slung his arm loosely over Blair’s shoulder, feeling like all was right in the world. For the first time in ages, he was free of the ravages of his crazy senses. A clock in a nearby tower chimed 11:00. “I’ve got about another hour before pumpkin time, Chief. I got an early day tomorrow,” Jim explained. “Anything you want to do in that hour? Assuming you want to spend it with me, that is.”

“Let’s go for a walk in the park. It’s lovely this time of year.” And they headed off toward Cascade’s closest green space.

Chapter 11. A Sense of Rumour

“‘I still search for a research subject even though I’ll probably never finish my thesis,’” Joel read aloud. “This is one of the many startling statements made by Blair Sandburg, Cascade’s newest millionaire. Sandburg apparently went out last night to prove that his uncle, the late David Lipshitz, from whom he inherited $20 million, was not the most eccentric member in the family. According to Dr. Eli Stoddard, eminent anthropologist and former academic advisor to Mr. Sandburg, Sandburg believes in a boogeyman called ‘a Sentinel’ and feels his role in life is to become The Guide! And he’s been guiding Cascade through a series of wild events. The Guide was seen last night standing Cascade’s intelligentsia on its gifted ear.

Joel gazed fondly at his favourite reporter who sprawled in a guest chair across from Joel’s huge editor’s desk.

“The Guide! That’s sensational, Jim! Sensational! Our readers will eat it up. The competition will be forced to quote us!

Jim smiled and touched the brim of his Jags cap in acknowledgement of the praise.

“How’d you get close to him, Jim? Nobody else could.”

Jim looked a little uncomfortable. “It took some high-powered acting, believe me,” he obfuscated.

Joel waited, nodding and looking fascinated. “Go on.” Joel was a friend and colleague, and never played the boss card with Jim. He didn’t have to. After a lifetime of hierarchical environments—his father’s house, the army, the police force—Jim unconditionally responded to questions from a superior, either direct or implied.

He really didn’t want to go into it. He felt kind of guilty about misleading Sandburg, but then the only thing he’d really lied about was his actual position with the paper. And everybody lied about their job, anyway. “I faked a fainting spell,” he mumbled.

“What?” Joel asked.

“I faked a fainting spell,” Jim practically shouted. “I followed the guy from his house and faked a fainting spell. You should have seen me, I was a real Southern Belle.” He should have mimed a delicate flower of womanhood, but was actually disgusted with himself, not because he’d faked it, but because he hadn’t. He’d gotten lost in Sandburg’s deep blue eyes, and the next thing he’d known, he was on his knees in the guy’s arms; and not in a good way either. He hated his fucked-up senses and all the baggage that went with them. He could feel a killer headache coming on.

“And he went for it?”

“Hook, line and sinker. He helped me up and invited me in to his house despite the media circus we’d have to pass through. I wanted to see him interacting with people, though, so I said no. He got us a cab and took me to dinner. The rest is there, in my article.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose.

“Was he really that big a sap?”

Jim was surprised, but Joel looked so eager. Scooping the other newspapers was a big deal to him. Jim supposed he shouldn’t be surprised that the former head of the bomb squad was a bit of an adrenaline junkie. “He’s an original, all right, Joel. There are no carbon copies of Blair Sandburg.”

“The Guide! That nickname just might stick with him the rest of his life. Can you imagine Simon Banks’s face when he reads this?”

Jim genuinely smiled at that one. He liked Simon but enjoyed beating him at this as he would a good game of golf. It wasn’t the first time since their career paths had diverged that they’d gone up against one another; Jim trying to get an interview and Simon trying to protect his client.

“How’d you get the pictures?” Joel held up the paper although Jim had already seen it. There were several pictures. The first showed Blair shoving someone into a cab, looking furtively back over his shoulder. It looked like he was up to no good, when in fact, he’d been helping Jim into the cab before the media could get to them. The man couldn’t be identified as Jim at all. The caption read, “The Guide guides a man into a taxi, whether he wants to or not.”

The second, showed him staring googly-eyed at some rather impressive cleavage while his hand reached across the table toward her breasts as she screamed and clutched them protectively. It wasn’t, of course, Blair’s hand at all, and if one looked closer, one could tell it belonged to the man seated next to him, but who would bother to look closer? It was captioned, “The Guide looks for his Sentinel in some pretty interesting places.”

The third showed him kissing a horse on the nose. That one was accurate, but in the company of the others and the caption that speculated about Blair’s unmarried state, the picture didn’t put him in the best of lights, further supported by the caption, “The Guide has a rather unusual fondness for animals.”

Jim was horrified. His article had been a balanced, if entertaining, report of a pleasant evening out in the company of an interesting and eclectic man, but the pictures and captions put a spin on it he hadn’t intended. He’d been furious at first, but by the time he’d seen it, it had been on every newspaper stand in Cascade and available on the wire internationally. His anger had been diffused somewhat by the praise that had been heaped on him by his peers, and the grudging respect (and blatant requests for introductions) from reporters at other print and broadcast media.

“These are great pictures,” Joel commented.

“I arranged it so Megan could follow us.”

“You guys make a helluva team,” Joel said, not for the first time. He began reading aloud again. “At two o’clock this morning, The Guide tied up traffic while he fed a bagful of doughnuts to a horse. When asked why he was doing it, he replied: ‘I just wanted to see how many doughnuts this horse would eat before he’d ask for a cup of coffee.’ That’s just beautiful!”

“You know, Joel, they weren’t doughnuts he fed to the horse, but a bag of carrots he’d gotten from a green grocer that was closing up late. The horse looked kinda underfed, so he went and bought them and fed them to him. Gave the driver a fistful of cash, too, since he seemed like he really cared for the horse.”

“But he did say that, about the doughnuts, right?” Joel looked worried; a lawsuit wasn’t a good thing in his books.

“Yeah. Only because somebody stuck their nose in his business and asked what he was up to. He didn’t owe the guy an honest account of his business; it would only have embarrassed the driver that he was broke. So Blair was just being funny, I guess.” He trailed off; it wasn’t his job to protect the subject of his story.

“Well, it wasn’t me that cut the explanation from your article. Blame my boss.” He rolled his eyes upwards, in the direction of the Editor-in-Chief’s executive offices. “What happened after that?” Joel prodded.

“I don’t know. I had to run to get the story out. He gave me his private number though.”

“When’re you going to see him again?”

“See him again? I thought if I got you the Goddamn article, I could I go back to the crime beat. Somebody’s got to have done something criminal in the last couple of days while I’ve been out doing ‘summer stalk’.” He didn’t need to finger-quote his pun, Joel got it. He always did.

“Jim. You know I would if I could, but nobody else can get to him. Now you need to see him again tonight. Get more dirt on the guy. The sales department called just before you dropped by, and both our advertising sales and subscription rates are higher than they’ve been in years!” Joel continued right over Jim’s protests. “I know. I know. And we are a serious newspaper, but we’d better be a serious newspaper with increased ad revenues and subscriptions, or we won’t be any kind of newspaper at all!”

“Okay. Okay. Point taken. If the human interest crap sells papers, then I’ll get you the human interest crap,” Jim agreed reluctantly. “I’ll call Sandburg at noon and set up a meet for tonight.”

“Why wait till noon? Call him right now.” Joel shoved his desk phone toward Jim and leaned forward eagerly prepared to listen in.

“Can’t. I told him I was a sort of errand boy around here. He wouldn’t have talked to me if I’d said I was a reporter. So it only makes sense that I can’t receive calls or call him until my lunch hour.”

Joel nodded and laughed. “You’re a genius, Jim, a genius! You think of everything. Did you give him your right name?”

“No. I told him my name was Jim Elliott and arranged to move into Megan Connor’s spare room in case Simon Banks starts snooping around.”

“Good! Good! Stay there. I’m glad your by-line is ‘J.J. Ellison’, so there’s little chance Sandburg’ll make the connection. They’ll never know where the stories are coming from. Stick close to him, Jim; you can get an exclusive story out of him every day for a month. We’ll drive the other papers crazy. Jim, I could kiss you!” Joel started around his desk with his arms spread and a puckered-up smile on his big round face.

Jim quickly side-stepped the move, laughing. “Oh, no. Joel, I’m not that kind of a boy. Remember, our deal was for a month’s vacation with pay!

Joel stopped and leaned against his desk. “Sure. Jim, I remember. And after today’s article, I’ll have no trouble convincing the higher-ups. Just keep those fun facts comin’.”

Chapter 12. All the Ooze That's fit to Print

Blair woke late, yawning and stretching. He hadn’t stayed out so late in a long time, although, now that he thought about it, he used to stay out much later when he was a student and still managed to make it to class and get good grades.

After Jim had said he had to go home, Blair had headed for Club Doom; but once there, his interest in partying had dissipated. He’d danced a few, enjoying the feel of his body in motion, but the men who hit on him—and there were several—had all seemed uninteresting after his evening with Jim Elliott.

Blair hummed some generic dance tune as he walked back in the room wearing just a towel slung low on his hips, scrubbing his hair dry with another.

“Morning, Mr. Blair.”

Blair jumped, still not used to having another person in his space all the time. “Morning,” he echoed, glancing around, waiting for his heartbeat to return to normal.

The drapes had been opened and the bed made as if it had never been slept in. Blair wondered if he’d ever get used to that. “Anybody call yet? A guy named Elliott, maybe?”

“No. Are you expecting him to?”

“Kinda. I met this guy last night. He was having a sort of a zone-out. At first, he wouldn’t let me help him. He’s got a lot of pride. Not just after my money. I like that.”

“That’s good. As long as you’re sure he’s what he says he is.”

Rafe’s comment made Blair a little uneasy. He changed the subject, “Is there any coffee, Rafe? I need about a gallon this morning.”

“Of course. I’ll get you some.”

At that moment, Simon Banks stormed into the room, a newspaper in his hand. “Did you see all this stuff in the papers?”

“Morning to you too, Simon.”

“How’d it get in there? What’d you do last night? Who were you talking to?”

He flung the paper on the bed. Blair glanced at it, his face clouding as he checked out the headline, pictures and captions.

Simon carried on, while Blair ignored him and began dressing. “And what’d you do to Henry Brown? I hired him for the simple task of following you around. He quit this morning. Said you locked him up.”

“Henry seemed like a nice guy. I just wanted some privacy. Something I’ve had very little of lately,” he said, stepping into a pair of khaki pants and looking straight at Simon.

“What do you think bodyguards are for?”

Blair pulled on a pair of Doc Martins, tucking the laces inside. He began to fully read the newspaper article Simon had indicated.

“The stuff in the article, the pictures,” Simon demanded, “is it true?”

“‘Yeah, for the most part. ‘The Guide!’ That’s kind of clever. I wonder who wrote that.”

“You’re lucky that’s all they called you. Somebody called my office today to try and reach you. Said they met you last night at Club Doom. You don’t need that kind of nickname.” Simon stared pointedly at Blair. Blair guessed Simon knew a thing or two about prejudice and was just trying to protect him.

“You know, Simon. I think I’ll go down to The Times and meet this reporter.”

Simon looked horrified. “And give him more ammunition? I don’t think so. And I know; it’s my field.” Blair was about to interrupt when Simon cut in. “I wouldn’t question you if you told me something, uh, anthropological, now would I? Why I bet you know more about my African ancestors than I do.” Blair clamped his mouth shut. After last night’s debacle at the RUAC, his professional pride could use a little buffing up.

“You’re right, Simon. I’ll stay away from The Times.” He was about to add that he now had a friend who worked there, but Simon cut in again.

“I’ll take care of this Guide thing. That’s my job. I’ll keep that stuff out of the papers, if you’ll work with me. But I can’t do anything if you go around talking to people. Will you promise to be careful from now on?”

“Yeah, I guess I’ll have to.”

Simon took a cigar from a case in his jacket pocket and popped it in his mouth, unlit. “Thanks. If you feel the house rocking, it’ll be me blasting into Joel Taggert.”

“Who’s Joel—?” Blair began, but Simon left the room as quickly as he’d entered. Blair followed at a more relaxed pace, heading into command central for coffee. He was just starting his second cup and thinking about the fresh fruit on the sideboard when Rafe waved a phone in his direction. “Telephone call, Mr. Blair. The one you’ve been waiting for.”

“Great. I’ll talk to Jim.” Blair took the cordless receiver from Rafe. “He’s the only one I’m going to talk to from now on. I know I can trust Jim. I can feel it.”

Chapter 13. Paper Heir Pain

For the next two weeks, Jim and Blair spent almost every evening together. They usually met for dinner, eschewing the “fine dining” establishments around town, preferring the ethnic places that served hearty meals at reasonable prices. They took turns choosing the eatery, but each tried to pick a place the other would like. They also traded off paying, despite Blair’s arguments that he could more than afford it. They ended up agreeing to a two-to-one ratio, so Blair paid twice to every one time Jim picked up the tab. Since they took equal turns selecting where to eat, sometimes they chose and paid, and sometimes they chose when the other guy was paying. When it was Blair’s turn to choose, he tried to pick restaurants that catered to the more health conscious customer. But when it was Jim’s turn to pay, Blair picked cheaper places. Jim chose Wonderburger the first couple of times it was his turn, figuring it was in keeping with Jim Elliott’s errand-boy persona. And more importantly, because it was his favourite food. Or had been. He had to admit that fresh bean sprouts were a helluva lot tastier than wilted lettuce, and turkey burgers appealed to his sensitive taste buds more than Grade B hamburger. He drew the line at tofu, though; he agreed that it picked up the subtle flavours of whatever it was cooked with, but he just didn’t like the feel of it on his tongue.

Jim would beg off around midnight, claiming early working hours the next morning. That gave him time to get to the office and write up his article for the next day’s edition. His reports on their activities were interesting and well-balanced, but the final versions that hit the news stands were so edited that they made Blair look like an eccentric fool. He was a bit of a character, Jim admitted, but he was certainly no fool. Jim was furious at his colleagues for putting his new friend in such a bad light.

To be honest with himself, though, Jim couldn’t blame Megan. She could only photograph what was in front of her. Her camera was snatched from her as soon as she entered The Times building each evening and the entire contents uploaded into the editing and layout system, out of her hands, out of her control. Or Jim’s.

Joel, too, was blameless, at this point, although Jim was giving both Joel and Megan the cold shoulder anyway, for their contribution to making Blair look like an idiot. The Editor-in-Chief, Gus Ventriss, seeing the effect the Sandburg articles were having on subscriptions and ad revenues, had yanked control away from Joel and was personally selecting pictures and writing captions that made the activities of the warm and eclectic academic look like the crazed actions of a madman. Jim threatened to stop writing the stories—to quit, even—but then someone else would have taken over who would have messed the situation up even more. So he stayed at it and tried to keep it real. He submitted his stories later and later, dawdling at his desk, drawing out the first draft, in hopes that deadlines would keep Ventriss from editing his articles so much. It didn’t work though, because Ventriss just cut things instead of re-writing them and then they looked even worse. Like the time Jim and Blair had been late for the theatre and eaten Wonderburgers in the private box. Blair had accidentally knocked a few French fries off the balcony. The picture in the paper the next day showed him looking down at a pissed-off couple on the level below. The caption read, “Guide tosses vegetables at arts patrons.”

Ventriss had cut the reasonable explanation part in which Jim had faithfully reported that it was his own fault—without giving his identify away, of course—they’d been late. He’d had a bad allergic reaction after being spritzed by an overzealous perfume boy at the local department store they’d stopped into. Jim had nearly collapsed, unable to catch his breath. Quick-thinking Blair had dragged Jim to a decorative fountain and used the water to sluice away what he could. When that only partially solved the problem, he had darted to the drug section and grabbed a bottle of rubbing alcohol, distilled water, and a package of cotton balls that he’d used to remove the last of the clingy cologne from Jim’s skin, the distilled water to cleanse his eyes. The store manager had arrived bearing antihistamines and apologizing profusely. The perfume boy had apologized as well, promising never to spritz another customer without express permission. Megan, hidden among the mannequins, had refrained from snapping any pictures, which Jim appreciated greatly. A freelance paparazzi had captured it all, though, and Ventriss had been only too happy to pay for a picture of Blair ducking Jim’s head in the fountain, captioned: “Guide tries to drown fellow shopper.”

Simon Banks, in his role as Blair’s public relations consultant haunted The Times’ offices daily. Ventriss left Joel to deal with his old colleague, and things between them were strained. Simon threatened cease and desist orders, slander, and libel lawsuits, but because most of the damaging material was in the pictures, and the pictures were unretouched, he couldn’t actually bring a suit against the paper.

Lee Brackett had been in screaming as well, and had sent a series of lawyer’s letters, but the paper’s legal department assured the editorial staff that Brackett’s case was without teeth. And so the lawyers argued, Banks threatened, and the articles continued. Jim was glad his assignment meant he was working nights and catching up on his sleep during the days; he heard all this stuff from Joel when he checked in by phone each day prior to meeting Blair for dinner.

Jim hated the situation, hated his part in it; despite the honest journalism he practiced, he felt like a liar. Nobody could look good under such scrutiny. Jim was just glad he himself hadn’t been recognizable in any of the shots so far. Simon Banks would have known him instantly and put a stop to Jim’s masquerade; and Jim didn’t want to stop—to stop seeing Blair. He hadn’t felt so good since his senses had gone haywire. Plus, he really liked Blair Sandburg. He was the best thing to happen to Jim in a long, long time.

Chapter 14. An Embarrassment of Bitches

It was Saturday night—nearly three weeks after their first meeting. Jim and Blair had just come from the opening of a new exhibit of Inuit artefacts at the Cascade Museum. Jim had enjoyed himself, although he certainly hadn’t expected to and said as much to Blair.

“That was great, Chief. I especially enjoyed the live throat-singing demo.” He grinned at Blair. They were standing on a street corner a few blocks from the museum. They’d stopped for a moment to decide which coffee shop to hit. As they stood under a streetlight, light glinted and twinkled off Blair’s tiny diamond studs, catching Jim’s attention, and he began to lose himself in the twinkling lights.

“Yeah, they’re just about the only culture that figured out how to throw their voice down their partner’s voicebox so the vibrations— Jim?”

Jim could hear Blair’s voice; it sounded tinny and far away. Like he was down a tunnel, a tunnel that grew longer and darker every second…

B-boom. B-boom. B-boom. Jim followed the sound of the drumming back down the tunnel. There was light to guide him now where there’d never been before. And then he was back to himself, Blair’s face looking up at him questioningly, warm hands massaging Jim’s forearms, deep voice crooning encouragements, “Come back to me now. I know you can hear me. Just follow the sound of my voice, Jim.”

He opened his eyes, unaware he’d closed them, focussing slowly on Blair, all up close and personal.

Jim smiled; it was the fastest and easiest time he’d ever had coming back out of one of those weird fugue states. “Thanks, Chief. I’m okay now. I just get kinda lost sometimes.” He blushed a bit; it was embarrassing to have to deal with these fits.

“It’s okay, Jim. You just had to listen to the sound of my voice to get grounded and find your way back.”

Jim didn’t tell him that is wasn’t so much Blair’s voice, but rather his heartbeat that he’d followed back, the drumming like a beacon in the scary blackness of his mind.

“You’ve tomorrow off, right? Let’s do some work on these zone-outs. You need to be able to anticipate them. Deal with them when I’m not around. Get you some control back.”

Control. That was Jim’s favourite concept, and he jumped at the chance. “Absolutely, Chief. I am good with that.”

Blair still hung on to Jim by both arms. He took a step forward, pretty much walking into Jim’s arms. “You know, Jim,” he said huskily, “we could get a much earlier start on the control thing if you stayed the night at my place. I’ve plenty of room for you.” The words were neutral, but the tone was anything but bland. Blair’s smile was full of sex and promises, and for a moment, Jim leaned in, brushing his lips over Blair’s. The tiniest of clicks cut into his sexual haze, and he remembered the cameras.

He jumped back immediately, pushing Blair away at the same time. “Uh, thanks for the assistance, Chief. I think I’m okay now. The, uh, dizzy spell has passed!” he proclaimed loudly, trying to cover his momentary lapse, hoping any reporters or photographers that had followed them from the Museum would buy his “dizziness” ruse.

Sandburg looked hurt and confused. Jim glanced around, groaning aloud as his reconnoitring showed him a paparazzi on the church steps across the street, zoom lens pointed at them like a weapon.

At the groan, Blair switched from hurt to concerned. “Are you okay?”

“Fine, Chief,” Jim assured. It wasn’t Blair; he’d wanted to believe the dizzy spell bullshit, but it was just like the guy to put someone else’s well-being before his own hurt feelings. “We’ll do the pyjama party some other time.” He tugged on Blair’s ponytail playfully, hoping to convey promise as well as reassurance. He really did want to be with Blair, but not under the false pretences he’d built up; although if their relationship survived that revelation, it would truly be a miracle. They walked along in silence for a while.

Eventually the reporter in Jim got the better of him, and he fell into interview style out of habit. “Got any news to report, Chief?” At Blair’s curious glance, Jim caught himself and quickly rephrased the question. “I mean has anything exciting happened lately?”

“Sure. I met you.”

Jim chuckled. “You know what I mean. What’s happening with the theatre? You still Chairman?”

“Oh, that.” At first, Blair sounded disinterested, but quickly warmed to his subject. By now Jim knew that Blair threw himself into everything he did, the embodiment of the old saw: a job worth doing is worth doing well. He was especially dedicated when it benefited the arts or any other noble endeavour. “First thing I did was change my title to ‘Chair’. He rolled his eyes.

Jim fisted the air in fun. “Way to be non-gender-specific, there.”

“Yeah. Go, me. I’m so PC, I titled myself after a piece of furniture. I should at least have picked something more imposing like ‘desk’.” You know, so the ‘From the desk of’ memos would read ‘From the desk of The Desk’.” He shrugged. “Anyway, we had another meeting. I told them I’d go on being Chair and lending my influence—apparently I have influence, now, you know.” Both men laughed at that.

“You have money now, Chief. Where money leads, people follow.”

“Especially the media.” Blair laughed.

Jim looked around guiltily, catching site of Megan’s rubber-soled flats peeking out from under a bush down the block. He recognized a guy reading a paper at the bus stop as his counterpart from the Cascade Tribune, the city’s other major daily.

“So Simon got my accountant to go over their books. And, how ‘bout that? I have an accountant now, too. He made some recommendations, and they lowered their prices and cut down expenses. We’ve got a camera crew lined up to film the mounting of the next production and distribute it as a documentary for people who want a ‘behind the scenes’ kind of look at how a play’s produced.”

“That your idea?”

Blair pushed a strand of hair off his face. “I just figured that the popularity of all the ‘making of’s’ and out-takes that are added to DVDs are the results of some pretty sophisticated research. So I thought we’d piggyback on those findings and see if this would sell. It’ll also be handy for teachers and others trying to put on small-time productions. I could have used an instructional video like that when we were doing Rent! back at Clayton Falls Community Theatre.” He looked up at Jim. “It’ll be free to schools and libraries, of course. I’m paying for that personally. I want to do some good with my money.” Blair stared off into space. Jim could just imagine what Blair intended to do with his inheritance. For some people, the hard part would be giving any of it away, for Blair, it would be to figure out how best to deploy his philanthropic dollar.

“And what did the rest of the Theatre Board say?” Jim asked, calling his companion back to the present.

“Oh. They said I was crazy. Said I wanted to run it like a Wonderburger.”

“And you said?”

“‘You say that like it’s a bad thing,’ ” Blair quoted himself. Jim laughed. “I had paper hats printed up for each board member, reading ‘Puttin’ the biz back in show biz’.”

“Were they pissed?”

“Nah. They’re all entrepreneurs and corporate executives. They caught the fever, and now they’re making it the tag line of the season. By next month, the gift shop will be selling hats, stationary, T-shirts, and things imprinted with that slogan.”

“I thought you were big on charities and supporting the arts. What’s with the profit motive?”

“That’s just the thing, Jim. There’s a finite amount of money available to support good causes. Even with my deep pockets. You have to choose them carefully. I know the theatre is important, but I’d rather see my donation dollars going to find a cure for cancer or providing hot breakfasts for under-privileged children—they learn better on a full stomach—than to a cause that could be self-supporting. In fact, my accountant figures the theatre will make enough money to support some after-school drama programs in underprivileged neighbourhoods.”

“So everybody wins.”

“If I have anything to do with it, yeah. I’ll tell you, though, being rich is a full-time job. I might just have to hire an assistant.” He winked at Jim, who turned away uncomfortably. For a moment there he’d gotten caught up in his admiration of Blair Sandburg and his noble intentions, and had forgotten he was really Jim Ellison, sleazy, lying, son-of-a-bitch reporter.

“Yeah, well,” Jim said, feeling pissed at himself. “I’m sure there are some much more deserving people out there than me. I’m just a good-for-nothing—”

Jim’s self-deprecation and Blair’s protests to the contrary fell silent as two women walked down the sidewalk toward them, chatting. They were dressed for an evening out and might already have had a drink or two. “Oooh, look,” one cried, grabbing her friend’s arm and pointing at a newspaper box. “There’s another picture of that hunk Blair!”

Jim was surprised. He’d been so focussed on the poor slant the papers were putting on his friend that it’d never occurred to him that Sandburg’s good looks might catch an eye or two. Besides his own, of course. There was no debating Blair’s good looks, that was for sure.

“Blair, who?” the second girl asked. “Oh, The Guide! What a weirdo. If I saw him coming, I’d run the other way, screaming.”

Jim looked at Blair, who’d stepped into the shadows of a nearby building. Jim wanted to grab him and get him out of earshot—normal earshot, that is. Jim would have to listen to their distressing comments for blocks; it seemed suitable penance for his own part in the fiasco. He couldn’t get to Sandburg, though, without alerting the girls to his presence, and he didn’t want this to be any more of a scene than it already was.

The first girl, the one who’d thought Sandburg “a hunk” now said, “I’ll take a little ‘weird’ with my money, thank you. Do you have any idea what I could buy with $20 million?”

“Don’t worry. Somebody’s probably taking him for plenty. Already stringing him along with some line or another.”

Jim did move then, not toward Blair, but toward the girls. “Can I get you ladies a ride home? It’s not safe for women to be out alone after dark.” He could easily see, despite the darkness, that they weren’t really that young, and they were probably able to fend for themselves. He loomed at them menacingly, though, putting all his Army Ranger aggressiveness into his stance. He reached into his pocket, and one of the girls jumped behind the other. “I’ve got mace!” she declared, voice only slightly trembling.

“I’ve got a gun,” squeaked the other, peering over the questionable protection of her friend’s shoulder. Neither mace nor firearm made an appearance.

“And I’ve got a cell phone, ladies. May I call you a cab?” Jim held up the small device Blair had recently gifted him with.

At that moment, a cab pulled into view, and the girls dashed out in the roadway to hail it, pouring themselves quickly into the backseat.

Blair stepped out of the shadows. “My hero,” he said sourly. “You enjoyed that.”

“Yes. Yes, I did. Not the dissing-the-Guide part, but the sending-them-packing part? Yes. I confess. I didn’t want to hear any more. So sue me.”

It was still early, but the ambience was spoiled for the evening. Blair seemed mildly pissed, and Jim felt both pissed and guilty. He feigned exhaustion—what was one more lie?—and begged an early night. Sandburg didn’t protest, and they headed in different directions without the usual dawdling and promises to call the next day. Jim walked home even though it took over an hour.

Chapter 15. Fiscally Fit

Lee Brackett paced the floor in his big office while his partners sat around a meeting table, looking worried.

“I don’t want to be critical, Lee, but—” Oliver started. Lee’s younger brothers always let Oliver do the talking; that way he got the brunt of Lee’s temper.

And Lee did exactly that now, cutting rudely in before Oliver could complete his sentence. “Yes, I know. Time is passing, and we haven’t got the Power of Attorney yet!” He stared down each of his partners, glaring at the other man until he looked away.

There was an uncomfortable silence before Oliver spoke again. “Yes, but you said—”

Brackett interrupted again, this time coming close to lean over his seated cousin. “I don’t care what I said. I can’t drug him and force him to sign, can I? I’ve already stalled giving him his accounts to look at. Eventually, I’m going to have to give them to him.”

There was some discussion about the viability of this action before they abandoned it as too illegal even for their questionable ethics—it wasn’t about right or wrong, of course, but rather about their chances of getting away with it.

One of the Brackett brothers finally spoke. “It’s ridiculous for us to have to worry about a boy like that.” He gestured at a pile of newspapers on the table. “Look at these articles! ‘The Guide’! Why, he’s carrying on like an idiot.”

There was general consensus and accusing glances in Lee’s direction. The buzzing of the intercom broke up the hubbub. Brackett crossed to his desk and hit the button. “What?”

“Mr. Lipshitz and his wife are still waiting.” Rhonda’s voice sounded more timid than usual.

“So? Let ‘em wait! I’m busy.”

“You did make an appointment with them. It seems kind of rude—” Brackett pressed the disconnect button with more force than necessary.

“Those people have been in every day this week,” Oliver commented.

“Who are they?” asked one of the brothers. “Isn’t that the same last name as—”

“Yeah. It’s another nephew. Some brother’s kid. They say if it hadn’t been for Sandburg, they’d have gotten all the money.”

“Does their claim hold any water, Lee?”

“Course not. I drew up the will myself. It’s air-tight. David Lipshitz loved Sandburg, hated this nephew. Larry, I think his name is. Larry is a complete wimp, and his wife’s a money-grubbing, social-climbing nag. Lipshitz knew if she got her claws on the money, she’d use it all on herself. He wanted the money to be distributed to good causes. He was going to leave it all to United Way. At least I talked him out of that.” There was nervous laughter around the table. “So he figured his other nephew, Sandburg, would do some good with it. The whole family’s nuts.” He whirled a finger around near his ear. His brothers quickly copied this childish gesture of insanity.

“Uh, Lee?” Oliver began. The others ceased their gesticulation and looked at him with impatience. The meeting had that wrapping-up feeling, and they hardly wanted to start anything new. It was nearly lunch, after all. They had a noon reservation at their club and a 1:30 tee-off time. “Does it have any merit?”

“Does what have any merit? Oh, wait.” A light went on. “Yeah. Hey. A competency hearing. We might be able to get control of his money if we can convince the courts he’s not capable of looking after himself. It would be the right thing to do, then if we were to look after all that money for him...”

“But we need someone to bring the case forward. We can’t do it ourselves,” a younger Brackett said.

“We can bring a case forward on behalf of these guys in our lobby,” Oliver said. “It’s what they want, anyway.”

“Hang on, now. We don’t want them to win the case, or we’ll be right back where we started, trying to get the heirs to give us control,” one of the Brackett brothers said.

“We’ll be worse off.” Lee stroked his chin while he thought aloud. “I remember David telling me Lipshitz’s wife is pretty sharp. They could prove useful, though, in bringing a case forward. What we need is to get the court to recognize that Sandburg needs ‘legal’ supervision. Then we’re in an even better position than we were with the old guy who left everything up to us, but could have decided to stick his nose in his business at any point. Yes, this is good. This is exactly what we needed. Glad I thought of it.” He crossed to the intercom. “Rhonda. Tell the Lipshitzs I’m ready for them now.” He disconnected the intercom and shooed his partners out the rear door that led directly from his office into the main boardroom. They didn’t bother to apologize to the junior partner who was meeting clients there, as they crossed the boardroom and exited into the hallway.

Brackett crossed to his main office door and swung it open just as Rhonda was about to knock. He reached past his secretary to shake hands with the red-haired woman leading the way and drew her into his office.

“Cassie Lipshitz?” Brackett said, making warm and sincere eye-contact.

“It’s Cassie Wells. I kept my name.”

“Well, who could blame you?” Brackett laughed, stepping back to let Larry Lipshitz enter. “No offence, there.” He shook Larry’s hand, but it was obvious Cassie pulled the strings.

“We’ve been trying to—” she began, once she was seated at the recently vacated meeting table.

Brackett smoothly cut in. “I’m so sorry to have kept you waiting. I don’t know what my secretary could have been thinking to keep you waiting this long. Did she at least get you coffee?”

“I wouldn’t mind a Perrier, Lee.” Cassie settled back, looking very much at home. “Litigation is such thirsty work.”

Chapter 16. Scents and Sensibility

“Pass the wasabi, please.”

“Are you sure, Jim? It’s pretty intense stuff for a guy with sensitivities, you know.”

“That’s just the thing. When I’m around you, Blair, I feel a lot better. Well, a little, anyway.” He scraped a miniscule amount of the lumpy green horseradish onto his sushi dish with one splintery chopstick.

“We can work on that if you like. Maybe teach you some control. I have some reference material I left back in Clayton Falls. I’ll see if I can get one of my students to pack it up for me and send it along.” He looked wistful. “Former student, I mean.”

“You won’t be going back to teaching once everything’s settled?” Jim was surprised. Blair had told him he loved teaching and had planned to go back.

“I’m not sure anyone will let me near a classroom again after Monday’s paper.”

Jim had written about Blair’s plan to use profits from the theatre company to provide after-school drama programs for inner-city children. They’d dug out a picture of Blair with his arm around a crying child in the park from a completely different day when he’d helped a lost little boy find his mother again. The caption had read, “Guide takes an unusual interest in young boys.”

Jim had been horrified by the caption and blasted Ventriss for it. The Editor-in-Chief had promised not to go down that road again, but he had balked at publishing a retraction. After all, the statement was true, wasn’t it? The lawyer who’d slipped quietly into the room while Jim was yelling nodded. Blair had been unusually quiet Monday evening, but he hadn’t mentioned it at the time. Ventriss had kept his word, and the papers had gone back to making Blair a fool, but not any sort of pervert or criminal. Jim never brought it up, feeling that he’d actually done some good for Blair for once in steering Ventriss away from that harmful spin.

Now he said, “You’re worried about those articles the papers are writing about you, aren’t you?”

“I’m not worried any more. I suppose they’ll go on writing them ‘til they get tired. You don’t believe all that stuff, do you?”

A guilty look spread over Jim’s face. “Oh, no. They just do that stuff with the pictures and the captions to sell more papers, you know. The articles are, uh, more balanced.”

“Yeah, I guess so. I just wonder if anybody actually reads the articles or if they just look at those dumb pictures. I’m so glad that you’ve been left out of this mess. You’re not recognizable in any of the shots, and your name hasn’t been connected with me. I…” He looked at Jim. “I would understand if you stopped, you know, hanging out with me because of all this shit.”

“Oh, God. No, Blair. I lo—. I love the time we spend together. This may surprise you…” Jim glanced around, then laid his hand on Blair’s, whispering conspiratorially, “but I don’t actually have a lot of friends.”

Blair guffawed at the unexpected confession, which had been Jim’s intent. He balled up his napkin and tossed it at Jim’s head. Jim ducked, and it hit the guy at the next table. They apologized and Blair offered to pick up the guy’s tab. Recognizing Blair, they settled for an autograph—which surprised the hell out of both Jim and Blair—and they went back to their sushi.

But despite his claims to the contrary, the articles really seemed to be bothering Blair, and he returned to the subject, gesturing with his chopsticks to emphasize his point. “What puzzles me was why people seem to get so much pleasure out of hurting each other. Why don’t they try and like each other once in a while?”

There was an awkward pause as Jim tried to remove a drop of soy sauce from his shirt. Finally, without looking up, he said, “I like you.”

Blair reached across the table and covered Jim’s left hand with his own. “I like you too, Jim. And maybe that’s enough.”

Continued in Part Two

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