Cycles VIII

by Francesca

Author's disclaimer: These guys are pretty much mine, actually.

Author's notes: Ok, normally I'm a pretty reliable producer of product, but I can't claim that regarding Cycles. Mea culpa. Everyone's probably forgotten what the damn story's about in the first place, and I don't blame you one whit. The previous seven stories are in the archive and on my page, and this installment probably won't make much sense unless you reread or remember those. I feel, however, like events are starting to come to a climax, which is good — I've just got a bit more groundwork to lay before I can do anything really interesting here. You few, you proud, you fans of this series — I apologize and will try to do better. The rest of you guys — as you were, just delete.

WARNING: sort of a death story, in that the guys are dead before it even starts, but hey — you're not really dead if you're alive in someone's memory or heart.

Daniel Casey clutched the telephone receiver in his hand and stared down at the keypad of the telephone. He willed his fingers to move; he knew the number by heart. He just had to overcome his anxiety and dial already.

Oak. Be the oak. Make the call. He took a deep breath, screwed up his courage, and punched in the numbers. The phone began ringing slowly and he clenched his jaw and waited.

Sonia picked up on the fourth ring. "Hello?"

Before he realized what he was doing, he'd slammed the phone back into its cradle.

Oh, shit. Very smooth. Totally fourth grade.

Some oak you are.

Okay. He had to get a grip and try it again. He could claim that he'd been disconnected — no biggie. That happened now and then; that would fly.

Presuming, of course, that she believed him. Presuming that she didn't think he was some sort of chickenshit stalker. Of course, he thought glumly, "chickenshit stalker" pretty much covered it once you took the mysticism out of the situation.

Be the oak, he reminded himself sternly. Think oak.

He reached for the phone again and then jumped as it rang.

Oh, shit.

He should answer the phone. Except he couldn't answer the phone. Because it could be her, and that would mean that she knew that he'd just called and hung up. He could deny it, of course. That might work. "Daniel, did you just call?" "Who, me? No, of course not. How are you doing, Sonia — nice to hear from you."

Smooth as silk, oh yeah.

He reached out for the receiver, and just as his hand touched it, it stopped ringing.

"Goddammit!" He nearly hurled the phone across the room. Except, of course, it wasn't his phone, and it wasn't his room. The whole shebang belonged to Ellison and Sandburg, and it was bad enough that he'd failed to be sufficiently oaklike. He couldn't trash their place on top of it.

He turned resolutely away from the telephone and sat down the sofa. The coffee table was still covered with the clippings he'd compiled. He picked one up and glanced at it. "SERIAL KILLER CAUGHT AFTER 20 YEARS!" the headline blared, and he dropped his eyes to the first paragraph.

"NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana. Today, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that it has discovered the identity of the man believed to be responsible for a series of killings dating back to 1978. The suspect's identity was discovered through the use of a new federal task force, according to FBI Press Representative Marcia Shethham. 'This program represents a new level of collaboration between federal, state, and local authorities,' Shethham explained. 'We hope that today's arrest symbolizes a new era of collaborative policing.' The New Orleans Police Department have announced that they now have in custody a man who has been identified as — "

The phone rang, and Casey dropped the clipping back onto the table and scrubbed at his hair, which was growing out of his military cut. Should he answer it? Of course he should answer it. Except if it was her, he still didn't feel ready, chickenshit that he was. But if it was her, he should definitely answer it.

He was still waffling when the answering machine clicked on and Blair Sandburg's voice filled the room. The first time he'd heard the machine he'd been startled. The first time Sonia had heard it, she'd been annoyed, and had asked him to change it. He later learned that Blair Sandburg's voice had been on Sonia's voicemail at Rainier, and guessed that she was feeling hemmed in. Fair enough, he supposed. Sandburg could do that to you — even dead, he seemed to be everywhere.

Still, though, he wasn't ever going to change the tape. In fact, some nights, when he felt anxious, he played it over and over until he felt better, listening to Sandburg's deep, soothing voice. "Hello. This is 555-4197..." A strange bedtime story, but whatever — it worked.

"Mr. Casey? This is Daryl Banks. I was calling to — "

Casey scrambled off the sofa and grabbed the telephone. "Mr. Banks! I'm sorry, I was just — " He didn't have any particular way to finish that sentence, and so he didn't.

Daryl Banks didn't even seem to notice. "That's fine, fine. I was actually calling to invite you to dinner. Figured that you don't know a whole lot of folk in Cascade — "

"I don't," Casey instantly agreed.

" — and that you might want a hot, home-cooked meal," Banks finished. "Nothing fancy," he amended, "just meatloaf and mashed potatoes, but — "

"It sounds great. It sounds wonderful. I'd love to," Casey said.

He drove to the address that Banks had given him — a large, Victorian house at the end of a quiet, tree-lined street. He parked and then turned to collect his packages off the passenger seat: a bottle of wine, a dozen donuts. He wanted to be a good guest. He wanted to be asked back. Daryl Banks had known Ellison and Sandburg, and knew stories about them. He wanted to be asked back again and again.

Carrying his offerings, he walked through the gate to the front door. To his surprise, it was already open, and he was greeted by a tall, skeptical-looking woman with amused black eyes. She looked like a queen — she had the long neck, the graceful carriage, the regal expression. And her name was...Jean? Janette? No.

Jeanine. Jeanine Banks.

"You must be Jeanine," Casey said, mentally crossing his fingers.

"I must be." Jeanine favored him with a wry smile and jerked her closely cropped head toward the kitchen. "Dad's putting the final touches on dinner. You want to give me your coat?"

He nodded, and offered her the bottle of wine and the donuts before shrugging out of his jacket. "Oooh, donuts, " Jeanine said, peering into the bag. "Trying to make a hit with Dad, huh?"

"Well, I figured, once a cop always a cop," Casey said with a bashful smile.

She smiled back, appreciating the joke, and then motioned for an exchange — she'd take his jacket, he'd take the donuts and wine. "You bring them in," she advised, taking his coat. "Get your money's worth, maximum credit." She hung his jacket up in the closet and then gestured for him to follow her into the kitchen.

"Your dad said you went to West Point," Casey offered, and she stopped and gave him a searching look.

"Yeah. Yeah, I did. I'm afraid you've got the advantage here." She frowned. "Dad just told me you were some guy he met over at Uncle Jim's place."

Just hearing Jim Ellison's name made his spirits lift. Uncle Jim: he was already glad he'd come. "Well, yeah. We had a bit of a run-in over there."

"You were friends with them?" Jeanine asked as she pushed through the swinging kitchen door.

"Well, sort of," Casey hedged, and turned his attention to Daryl Banks. Banks was wearing a white apron over his clothes and whisking a brown liquid in a small saucepan.

"Perfect timing, perfect timing," Daryl Banks said, looking pleased. "Gravy's just about done, meatloaf's done, potatoes are in the bowl. How're you doing, there, kid?

"Fine, sir. Thank you, sir," Casey said, automatically. He started as Jeanine nudged his arm, and remembered his presents. "I brought some wine. And some donuts for dessert."

"Hey, that's great. Jeanie, find the boy a corkscrew, would you?"

"Sure, Dad," she replied, and began to rummage in a side drawer.

Banks put down the saucepan and surveyed the scene in front of him with satisfaction. A casserole dish containing a huge meatloaf, a bowl of creamy, steaming mashed potatoes, another bowl of sauteed broccoli. "Okay, we're good. Looks good, huh?" he asked Casey.

"Oh yes, sir," Case answered instantly. "Looks terrific."

This was the right answer; Banks's smile broadened further still, showing a mouth of white teeth. "You want to know about Jim Ellison, right?" he asked, waving the whisk at Casey. "Well, you just look right here at this meal. Meat and potatoes — Ellison was basically a meat and potatoes kind of guy. This is his recipe for meatloaf — my own father, God Rest His Soul, couldn't really cook for beans."

"Grandpa actually made pretty good beans, Dad," Jeanine said, handing Casey a corkscrew.

"Okay, so he made beans. Couple of other things, too — things that his mother taught him," Daryl admitted. "But you gotta admit: Jim was a much more versatile chef." Jeanine nodded, apparently admitting the truth of this, as she slid her long dark fingers into oven mitts and picked up the casserole dish.

Casey instantly scrambled to make himself useful, tucking the bottle of wine under his arm and reaching for the bowl of homemade mashed potatoes. "I didn't know Detective Ellison could cook. I guess I always assumed that Blair did most of the cooking."

"Oh, he cooked, too," Jeanine said offhandedly as she moved through the archway and set the casserole down onto a neatly-set dining room table. "But he made weird stuff."

"Not 'weird'," Daryl Banks corrected. "Gourmet."

"Gourmet, maybe — but it was gross to a kid." Jeanine made a face as she yanked her hands out of the mitts. "Ostrich and tofu and sprouts...alfalfa algae crap. Euchh."

"Yeah, well — the way I remember it, all you ever wanted to eat was chicken fingers." Banks carefully poured the gravy into a china boat.

Jeanine put a hand on one hip. "Hey, I like chicken fingers. What's wrong with chicken fingers?"

"My daughter." Banks rolled his eyes. "The sophisticate." He crossed to the table, put the gravy boat down, and surveyed everything. "That's everything, right? I think that's everything."

"Sit down, Dad," Jeanine said, touching her father's shoulder gently. She was nearly as tall as he was — she had to be almost six feet. "If we've forgotten anything, I'll get it."

Daryl Banks stared at the table, ticking the items off on his fingers. "Meatloaf. Gravy. Potatoes. Vegetables. Kid brought the wine. Knives, forks — ah, ah — we need a serving fork for the meatloaf."

He made to turn but Jeanine dug her fingers into his shoulder. "Dad. Sit down. Let me get it."

"Okay, okay," Daryl Banks relented and sat down at the head of the table.

Casey stood until Jeanine returned, and sat only after she did. "This is self-serve," Banks said with a wave of his hand. "Staff's on vacation, so help yourself. Guests first."

"Thank you," Casey replied, and began to fill his plate with food. It looked fantastic — real stick-to-your-ribs stuff, the kind of food he hadn't eaten in years.

"Come on, son — don't be shy," Banks encouraged. "Dig in." Casey obliged and loaded his plate up.

"So, I never did get the story," Jeanine said, spooning mashed potatoes onto her plate. "How exactly did you know Uncle Jim?"

"Well, he didn't exactly know him," Banks said before Casey could say anything, and Casey noticed that Jeanine's eyes flashed suspiciously. Banks chuckled. "It's a hell of a story, actually, Jeanie. "

"Sort of a strange one, really," Casey added, wincing apologetically.

"You see," Banks continued, apparently enjoying himself, "Lieutenant Casey here believes that Jim Ellison had supernatural powers. And frankly, I'm inclined to agree with him." He sat back triumphantly and waited for his daughter's response.

Jeanine only nodded impatiently. "Well, me too — but you're not answering the question, Dad. How exactly does Lieutenant Casey know — "

The smile fell off Banks's face. "What do you mean — me too?" he demanded.

Jeanine rolled her eyes. "Oh, come on, Dad — it was obvious."

"It was not obvious," Daryl Banks said, sitting up straight.

"It was so obvious," Jeanine insisted. "I even asked Grandpa about it and — "

"You asked Grandpa?" Daryl Banks sputtered.

"Sure. Course I did. Years ago. And he told me that Uncle Jim and Uncle Blair were special, but I had to keep it a secret or they'd get into trouble."

Daryl Banks looked dumbfounded. "He said — Jim and Blair?"

Jeanine sighed and shook her head. "Sure, Dad. Of course."

"And Grandpa knew?"

"Of course Grandpa knew. I thought you knew, too."

"He really must have known, sir," Casey interjected quietly. "I mean, he was their commanding officer for years. He had to have known what they were capable of."

"Of course he knew," Jeanine said, dismissing the point. "He knew perfectly well. Really, Dad — I'm surprised at you."

"I..." Daryl Banks was lost in thought. "I mean, it made sense when Lieutenant Casey said it. But I never really noticed while it was happening..."

"Well, maybe it was because I was a kid, but it seemed pretty obvious to me," Jeanine said with a shrug. "Like — didn't you ever notice that Uncle Blair used to talk to himself? Or at least, I thought he was talking to himself — but he wasn't, he was talking to Uncle Jim. Even when Uncle Jim wasn't there." She stopped, lost in thought. "I remember, once, when they were sitting for me. Or Uncle Blair was, really, and at some point he sat up straight in his chair and said something like, 'Oh brother. I forgot the refill. Jim, I forgot the refill. You've got to stop off at the pharmacy for me. Doctor So-and So phoned it in, I forgot to pick it up. Can you get it?' And of course," Jeanine mused, "when Uncle Jim came home he was carrying a little white pharmacy bag in one hand. I didn't even think anything of it by that time. I was already eight or nine, and this had been going on for years."

"That's — not possible," Daryl Banks protested. "Heightened senses, yes — but no senses are that powerful — "

"It wasn't just Ellison's senses," Casey explained. "It was also Sandburg's voice. That's the other half of the puzzle, see? They met each other halfway."

"Exactly," Jeanine agreed with an eager nod. "They were like Frick and Frack, the two of them — I can't believe you never noticed! I mean, Uncle Blair's voice was — geez, Dad, it was...."

"It was what?" Daryl Banks asked, looking confused.

"Maybe he never used it on you. But he used it on me, once or twice." Jeanine Banks bit her lip. "There was this one time, around the same time, when I was nine. I, um..." She stopped and coughed discreetly, face flushed with guilt. "Damn, I still feel bad about it — that ought to tell you something. I'm not exactly guilt-prone, as you know."

"Jeanine," Banks said, shaping her name into a warning.

"I stole fifty bucks from Mom's purse," Jeanine confessed.

Banks stared at her for a moment, and then began to laugh, shaking his head. "Girl, you were such a hellraiser — "

"Hey, I was a good kid," Jeanine protested, but she was grinning. "There was this ring I wanted — my birthstone, a ruby. I was desperate for it. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. So I took the money from Mom, and ran down to the store, and bought it — my hands were shaking, Dad, you should have seen me, I was so scared. But I bought it and I put it on my finger and that helped a bit — it looked real pretty on my hands."

Daryl Banks frowned. "Wait a minute, wait a minute. I remember that ring..."

"Wait till the end of the story, Dad," Jeanine chided. "So I came home with the ring, and then realized that I couldn't wear it — somebody was bound to notice it, and then I'd get caught. So I put it on a long chain and wore it around my neck, far down my shirt, where nobody could see it."

"Except Blair Sandburg knew all about it, right?" Casey murmured.

"Well, sort of," Jeanine admitted. "He didn't know about the ring, I don't think. Not exactly. But he sure as hell knew something. The next time I saw him — we went over to the loft, Dad," she said, turning to her father, "you, me, Mom, and Grandpa. And Uncle Blair — the moment I saw him, I knew he knew. I felt like my face was burning with shame. I told myself I was crazy, there was no way he could know anything. But then later on, he said he was going out to get some ice cream, and invited me to go with him. That's when I knew the jig was up."

Daryl Banks's face now reflected only pure curiosity. "So what happened?"

"He let me sit in the front seat of the car like a grown-up — which you never did," Jeanine said with a reproving stare, "and he asked me what flavor I wanted, and what flavors I thought you guys wanted, and then he asked me what I needed so bad that I had to steal for it. I just burst out crying." She stopped, her face suddenly seeming younger as she lost herself in the memory. "I mean, just — sobbing. And I remember he pulled the car over and hugged me for a long time. I cried all over his coat, got snot all over him." She smiled faintly, and shook her head. "And when I could put two words together, I told him everything — I showed him the ring, and told him how I'd taken the money, the whole story. And then he asked me what I wanted to do about it — and see," Jeanine said, suddenly sitting upright, "that was where — his voice. I mean, you just had to hear his voice when he asked me that. 'So, what do you think you should do, Jeanine?' Gave me the cold shivers, I swear — and right then I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to tell Mom, I wanted to bring the ring back to the store, get the money back. I just blurted it all out: I had to tell Mom, I had to give her her money back, I'd take whatever punishment she dished out — anything to get this weight off my chest. He said that seemed like a fine idea. I was so crazed by this time that I begged him to take me to the store — now, now, I had to get the money back right now! So he drove me to the store, and I remember walking in, holding his hand, and going up to the counter. I put the ring down and told the guy that I had bought this ring two weeks ago but I couldn't really afford it and could I please have my money back. The guy looked at me like I was nuts. I thought he was going to tell me to scram, but Uncle Blair just looked at him and said something about financial responsibility and how brave I was, and certainly his store wanted to encourage sensible spending patterns in young people, didn't it? — but see, the main thing was that he using that voice, that same voice, and the guy went all strange-looking and said, "Yeah, sure, whatever." He took the ring back and gave me two twenties and a ten out of the register. I gave the money back to Mom the next day and she grounded me for two weeks. And that was that."

"Why didn't I ever hear about this?" Daryl Banks demanded.

Jeanine smiled. "Cause Mom said you'd be mad and I shouldn't tell you. So I didn't. Hey — she lied, not me," she added sanctimoniously. "I was fair and square with my God."

"So when did they give you the ring?" Casey asked, and Jeanine looked at him suddenly like she'd forgotten that he was there.

"My next birthday," Jeanine said, nodding in approval at his deduction. "My tenth." She turned back to her father. "That's why you remember that ring, Dad. I still have it, actually."

"So you're saying..." Daryl Banks began slowly, "...that Blair had some sort of hypnotic power?"

"Not hypnosis, exactly," Jeanine said with a frown. "Just — it was really, really hard to lie to him. Like, you didn't even want to. He just made you want to tell the truth, sort of."

"In his book," Casey added, "he called it pushing — he said that he could usually push people into doing the right thing if they really wanted to do the right thing, deep down."

"Yeah," Jeanine murmured, staring at him. "That's exactly it. That's exactly right."

Daniel Banks shook his head slowly, processing this. "This is weird. This is so damn weird."

"Yeah," Casey muttered. "Tell me about it."

Jeanine was still staring at him, and he felt his face growing hot under her gaze. "So how do you know about all this? Where do you come into the picture?"

Casey swallowed hard. "I. Well. I'm one of them," he confessed.

"I don't know why I got this C -. I think I deserved at least a B." The kid glared at her, his face a mixture of irritation and arrogance.

Sonia took a deep breath and took a moment to glance up at the ceiling of her office. There were no answers there, alas.

She let her gaze fall back to the student's face and the bluebook he was angrily clutching. She wanted to tell him that his midterm was a plodding, uninspired piece of work. She wanted to tell him that she hadn't been fooled by his nonstop in-class chatter — that she knew the difference between chit-chat and participation. She wanted to tell him that she strongly suspected he hadn't cracked his textbook all term, and that the rehash of classroom conversation he'd presented on his exam didn't substitute for reading and processing the material. She said, finally, "I don't think you addressed the questions in enough detail. I'm sorry, Chris."

Chris looked furious, but she kept her face totally neutral, trying to convey that she was open to all comments of substance and would register nothing else. She watched as he spluttered, trying to find some way past her teacherly defenses. Was this it? Was this what she had worked for — forty years of explaining to dumb-ass undergraduates why they got Cs instead of Bs? Forty years of Intro To Anthropology, teaching students who had to fulfill their social science requirement?

It occurred to her suddenly, meanly, that Blair Sandburg, the bastard, had escaped this. That bastard had had the devil's luck — okay, so he never got tenure, but he only taught the classes he wanted. His office had stayed an office — had never become the usual academic prison. He'd taught when he wanted, written when he wanted, traveled when he wanted.

God, how she hated him.

The student's face was turning ugly — of course, he hadn't been able to think of any substantive reason why she should change his grade. With a start she sat up, realizing that he was about to threaten her. God, she was stupid — so stupid — why the hell had she scheduled office hours after her evening class? The building was near-deserted — would anybody hear her if she yelled for help?

"Look, lady," Chris growled, and took a step closer, "I need to get a B if I'm gonna play hockey. And I am going to play hockey. What the fuck do you care what grade I get? Just change the fucking thing, and let me get out of here, okay?"

Holy shit, Sonia thought, feeling her eyes go wide. The kid was standing up, now, looming over her desk — he hadn't crossed the line yet, not yet, but he was going to, he was psyching himself up to, she could see it in his eyes.

"I'm sorry," Sonia said, and her throat felt dry. "I can't — "

"You sure can. You bet you can. And believe me — you'll be glad you did." The smile was feral, the phrase apt. You'll be glad you did. You'll be sorry if you don't. God, he'd chosen his moment; he'd come at night, knowing the building would be empty...

She stood up, trying to muster authority. "I can get you into a lot of trouble, mister."

Chris's eyes narrowed and he smiled thinly. "Yeah. Same here."

Her mind worked furiously, processing this. He wouldn't — couldn't — do anything now, could he? He wasn't going to kill her for a B! So what could he do? Well, he could slash her tires, break her car's windows. Worse yet, he could get his thuggish fraternity brothers to do his dirty work — to frighten her, follow her home, maybe even hurt her. She wasn't naive — she knew the damage that they could do to women when they wanted to. The Jane Doe reports had crossed her desk. She also knew how hard it was for the University to prove anything, to make any harassment charges stick...

"So," Chris said; he was watching her closely, and she was suddenly, eerily sure that he could see what she'd been thinking. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a crumpled change of grade form. "Whattya say?" He took a threatening step forward, and she took a nervous step back against the bookcase. The seventeen volumes of Blair Sandburg's dissertation were at her back in their neat rows, and she debated grabbing one off the shelf and hurling it at the kid's head.

He took another step towards her, looming hugely, and she told herself she'd better make up her mind, better make a decision now, because in a minute she wouldn't be able to do anything at all. She whirled, grabbed a fat volume off the shelf (Volume 16, it turned out) and hefted it up, glaring at him. "You just back off, mister! You just back off and sit down!"

The kid instantly skittered backwards and raised an arm to protect his face, as if he were a vampire and she was holding a crucifix and wearing a garlic necklace with matching earrings. His eyes went wide and he sat down heavily in her desk chair. "Good," she said, trying to keep the surprise out of her voice. "Um." She hadn't thought this through; she hadn't expected him to actually listen. "Look," she managed. "You got a C because you earned a C and that's just that." Chris was staring at her with wide eyes. "If you want to keep playing hockey, you're just going to have to work harder and get a better grade on the next test. Okay?"

"Okay," he repeated, nodding dumbly.

Okay? That was it? She felt like an idiot — she felt like someone who'd just tried to break down an open door. She realized she was still brandishing Volume 16 and slowly lowered it, clutching it to her chest, trying to look normal.

"Well, okay, then," she granted nervously. "So just you throw away that change of grade form."

Chris nodded again and immediately wadded up the paper and tossed it into her trash basket. All right, this was weird. This was totally weird.

"You might also think about signing up for tutoring. That should help."

"That's...a good idea," Chris said. He looked puzzled. "That's a really good idea — I never thought of that."

This was clearly an alternate universe. She wanted out — now, please, thanks. She swallowed hard and said, " should...uh...go over to Academic Services. They'll help you find a tutor." She waved one hand at the door, wanting him to go, leave, goodbye.

The kid nodded, heaved his bulky frame out of her chair, and made for the door. "Okay. Thanks," he said and just walked out, like this had been a normal student-teacher conference, like this had been a normal conversation, like this was just any old normal day. She stared after him, and then realized she was still clutching the sixteenth volume of Blair Sandburg's dissertation to her chest. She dropped it on her desk, grabbed her jacket off the back of her chair, and bolted.

Office hours were officially canceled. Maybe for good.

Jeanine took yet another few steps backwards, and then raised the open Oxford English Dictionary. "Go on," she said, excitedly. "Can you still read it?"

It was a stupid question: of course he could still read it. He'd told her already, but he was happy to show her, to indulge her interest and curiosity. "Quark. Verb," he read. "To croak. Hence quarking. 1860 J. F. CAMPBELL 'The gurgling and quarking of spring frogs in a pond.' 1893 D. JORDAN, Forest Tithes, etc. 'The herons quarked harshly — '"

"That is so cool." She lowered the book and squinted at the page he was reading from before giving in and picking up the magnifying glass that came with the set. "The herons quacked harshly," she read and then gave a satisfied sigh. "Casey, I can't even read that when it's in front of my face. You're amazing."

"Sometimes it's amazing," Casey admitted, crossing the dining room and moving to the far side of the living room, where she was standing. "And sometimes it's a pain. It's not good to see too much."

Jeanine thought about this and then made a face. "You mean — can you see germs and stuff? Fleas, bugs — ?"

"Yeah." He nodded grimly. "For starters. Mainly, I'm trying to learn how to filter that sort of stuff out. The book helps. Blair Sandburg's book."

She put the heavy OED down on the coffee table with a thud. "He helped Jim with this?"

"Yep. He helped a lot. He was a Shaman and a Guide."

"A Guide, huh?" She seemed impressed. "Cool name. What is a Guide, exactly?"

Phrases flashed through his brain: The Guide is zero on the scale, noon on the clock, the first, orienting marker, the horizon line from which the Sentinel puts all other sensory input into perspective. A Guide is a Sentinel's organizing principle, made manifest, made flesh. But that was too difficult to explain, and plus, somehow, that explanation was too personal: it was the explanation he liked best. He selected another, simpler phrase of Sandburg's: "The Guide's there to watch the Sentinel's back."

Jeanine crossed her arms and looked speculatively into space for a few moments. "Seems to me you've got to get yourself a Guide," she said finally.

He laughed helplessly, though it came out sounding more like a groan. "Like I haven't been trying. It's more complicated than it seems: you don't know the half of it."

Jeanine extended her long, finely wrought arms out at her sides and turned in a slow circle. "What about me?" she asked, when she had come round to face him again.

"What about you?" he asked, not following.

"I could try this Guide thing. I mean, I know I'm not a Shaman or anything. Sha-woman, whatever. But when it comes to watching your back..." Jeanine bent her arms at the elbows and gracefully curled them upwards, smiling broadly. Some pretty powerful muscles popped out of her sleek arms.

"I appreciate the thought," Casey said sincerely, and he did: Jeanine Banks had been the first person to react positively to his bizarre genetic condition. "But it's really kind of complicated — "

She took a step toward him and laid a hand on his arm. "Before you make up your mind," she said quickly, dark eyes shining with excitement, "just consider. I'm making you an offer, here — so listen up."

He listened up.

"You know that Dad and me run a detective agency."

"Banks and Banks," Casey said, nodding.

"Exactly. Now just consider what we could do with a guy like you. I mean, Uncle Jim was Cop of the Year practically every year — if you're even half as good as he is, you'd still be fantastic. You're like a walking telephoto lens, Casey — you're like a walking high-powered mike. Okay, so we'd be skirting the legalities a little," she admitted, "but Dad is the law-and-order guy. Not me."

Casey began, "I really don't think that I — "

"Just hush and hear me out. You're military, I'm military, we understand each other. You've got the background — the skills, the attitude. You work for me, and I'll try the Guide thing — "

"You don't understand," Casey interrupted. "The Guide thing — I think it's genetic."

Her face fell. "Genetic?"

"Yeah," Casey said, regretfully. "I don't think it can be just anyone. You've got to have — well, the voice for one thing." Jeanine's face fell still further: she'd forgotten the voice. "There's other stuff, too. I like you — and I'd like to work with you — but I don't think you can be my Guide, Jeanine."

"Hmmph," Jeanine said, and threw her lanky frame down onto the sofa. "Well. Okay, forget the Guide thing. You want to work for me, anyway?

Casey sat down in an adjoining chair. "Like I said, I'd love to, but I'm not sure I can."

She crossed her arms and stared him down. "Why not?"

"I'm on disability right now. From the military. I get — headaches. I blank out, pass out, have fits."

Her face softened. "You seem okay."

"I'm mostly okay," Casey agreed. "Lately, anyway. On the other hand, I don't leave the loft much. It's easier for me in the loft. Outside the loft, I try not to use my senses. I can't control them yet."

She nodded slowly. "So if you tried to use them, the headaches and blackouts might come back?"

"They might, yeah. I'm getting better at it — I'm studying Blair's book, trying to train myself. But it isn't the same as having a living Guide," he finished glumly.

"But if it's a genetic thing, this Guide thing," Jeanine asked, her forehead wrinkling, "how do you know you'll ever find one?"

He felt a lump rise up in his throat; she had hit the nail on the head. "Maybe I won't find one," he admitted. "I don't know, yet."

She shook her head impatiently. "So, wait a minute — what are you supposed to do in the meantime? Just hide in the loft? No, no," she said, indicating with her body language that that was passive, weak, unacceptable. "That's just stupid. You can't live like that."

"What choice do I have?" Casey asked quietly.

"You just go for it," Jeanine said, curling her long fingers into a fist and banging it down on the arm of the sofa. "Okay, so maybe I'm not the right Guide, and maybe I can't do everything, but we can try, no? Maybe I can do something for you." She leaned forward, bracing her arms against her long legs. "Where can I get a copy of Blair Sandburg's book?"

Daryl Banks chose that moment to appear in the doorway. "Coffee's up," he called. "And remember — we got donuts!"

It was late when Daniel Casey finally got home, but he was flying, wired, overcaffienated, overstimulated. He shouldn't have had any coffee, and he shouldn't have listened to Jeanine Banks. It raised...too much hope, and he couldn't afford hope like that. Jeanine wanted to try being his Guide — but that was impossible. Sonia was his Guide. Ellison and Sandburg had said so.

Still, maybe they were wrong, Daniel thought, pacing up and down the living room floor. Maybe they were wrong about Sonia. Maybe he should ask them about Jeanine. Except he hoped they weren't wrong about Sonia — it had to be Sonia, it just had to be. He'd felt something strong, possessive, primal, the minute he'd met Sonia Cortez. He'd tingled when she touched him. He hadn't felt that way about Jeanine Banks, but he liked Jeanine — liked her strength and her determination and her enthusiasm. And — who was he kidding? — he liked that she liked him, that she saw him as an asset, not a liability. Working for a detective agency could be fun. He could see himself going on stakeout with Jeanine, hunting down criminals, and then going over to the Banks house on Sundays for meatloaf and potatoes...

He pushed the fantasy away, chided himself for being both delusional and pathetic, and went to brush his teeth. Later, in bed, he stared up through the skylight at the stars, trying to calm down and go to sleep. Deep breaths. Deep breaths. He thought of Sonia's beautiful almond eyes, of Jeanine's broad quirky smile. He hungered for Sonia, wanted her more than anything. He and Jeanine would have such beautiful mocha-colored children...

Disgusted with himself, he roughly shoved the covers aside and hurried down the stairs to the answering machine. He popped the tape out and took it to the stereo, set it to play on automatic repeat: that would calm him down. He pressed play, and Blair Sandburg began to murmur gently to him: "Hello. This is 555-4197. Please leave a message at the sound of the tone. Hello. This is 555-4197. Please leave a message at the sound of the tone. Hello. This is..." Satisfied, gratified, Daniel Casey went back to bed.

In the dream, he was sitting in the passenger seat, staring out the side window as the city rolled by. He glanced at the driver — Blair Sandburg, of course. Sandburg shot him a deeply sympathetic look. "What do you need so bad that you have to steal for it, Daniel?"

He felt his face crumple and contort and he looked away to hide his shameful expression. God, he was such a colossal wuss, such a total failure — at moments like this, he just couldn't stand himself.

The car pulled over and the engine stopped. He looked back at Sandburg — Sandburg was now offering him an ice cream cone. His favorite, strawberry, double dipped. "Go on, take it," Sandburg encouraged him. "Come on, son — don't be shy." He took the cone, vaguely worried that it would melt onto his hand, or onto the car seat. It didn't, though. "It's going to be okay," Sandburg assured him. "You just hang tight, be the oak, and eat your ice cream."

He nodded and obediently started licking — it was delicious. "But what about the ring?" he asked, worriedly. "When do I get the ring?"

"You've already got the ring," Sandburg replied, starting the car again. "You just don't know that you have it."

"I don't understand! I don't know what you mean!"

"This is 555-4197," Sandburg said conversationally, eyes fixed on the road ahead. "Please leave a message at the sound of the tone."

He sighed heavily and returned to staring out the side window, idly eating his ice cream cone. Sandburg said he already had the ring. He wasn't sure what that meant, but it was apparently the only answer he was going to get. Trees had rings, he mused; he remembered that from elementary school. Except you had to chop them down to count them. You didn't know how many rings they had until they were dead.

He sighed and looked up into the sky, where this had all begun, and saw that the falcon was still circling overhead.  

The End