The Ghosts, the Sentinel and His Guide

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"But sir …"

"Don't `But sir' me, Jim. I know you and Sandburg were supposed to have Christmas off but Rafe, Conner and Joel are all down for the count."

Simon Banks looked out his interior windows to where Henri Brown slumped over a pile of used tissue. "And I give Brown `til noon at best. The other departments are just as bad off. So I *know* you had plans, but as of now they're been cancelled."

Jim wished Blair would do something more than just stand there with his arms folded, observing. He knew Blair had thought it wrong from the start that Jim had pulled strings so he'd almost managed to skip every rookie cop's holiday duty – Christmas patrol. He had that Zen look, like he felt that karma had given everyone the flu just so the universe would right the cosmic misalignment.

"Just one question, Simon. What makes it so important we stake out a supposedly abandoned house, tonight of all nights?"

"Come on, Jim." Simon clamped down on his unlit cigar. "You've been around Cascade long enough to know the old Rickman place attracts all kinds of crazies on Christmas Eve. Now that that e-mail's been going around …"

"Classic urban legend," put in Blair, choosing now (of course, mused Jim) to finally join in the conversation. "Dale Kaupp's doing a paper on its evolution. Do you know I got a very mixed up version of it from a banker in Hong Kong by way of a microbiologist in Bath?"

Blair unfolded his arms, his natural buoyancy released by the rare opportunity to play lecturer again. "Admittedly, it's got all the makings of a classic – the backdrop of the first world war, the doomed, star-crossed lovers. Maurice Eagleton, a brooding but heroic
young man is beloved of one Lyda, a sublime beauty with a light that seemed to follow her wherever she went. The Cascade populace likened them to two angels descended from heaven, whom even the gods could not protect from the horrors being visited upon this cold, gray earth. Driven by a tragic fear of separation they forged a lovers' pact so that they might spend eternity together and not spend one precious Christmas apart."

"They killed themselves," translated Jim, flatly.

His lack of excitement went completely unnoticed by his partner, who finished up brightly, "And supposedly, on Christmas Eve, their ghosts have so far inspired four other couples to do the same."

"Well, the Mayor wants to make sure that no one does the same thing on her watch. Last thing we need is some Romeo and Juliet eclipsing the Mayor's peace-and-goodwill address on the front of the Cascade Times." Simon looked back to where H sank slowly in his tissue graveyard. "If I can find someone to relieve you tonight I'll send them. Otherwise you're on double-shift."

"Wonderful … sir."

Simon tipped his unlit cigar. "Merry Christmas to you too, Jim."

Blair straggled after his partner, raising a hand in farewell. "Merry Christmas, Simon."


"Merry Christmas, Blair."

~oOo~

Out in the hall, Blair gestured in the direction of the men's room. "Just gimme a minute and I'll be ready."

"Wait, Tiny Tim." Jim got a hand wrapped around his partner's elbow before he could disappear further down the corridor. "I still haven't finished shopping and if we're going to miss Dad's little get-together, I'm going to have to drop the gifts off today. You go
ahead and watch the place and I'll catch up with you. If you see anything, Chief, call for backup."

Blue eyes rolled as Blair watched his partner disappear into the stairwell. "Uh huh, Romeo and Juliet come and I should call for backup. Good one, Jim."

~oOo~

Blair sent another halfhearted kick at the Volvo's console. If the heater wouldn't chug back to life, at least the brief exercise provided a little warmth.

It had been so long that he was beginning to worry the sentinel was somewhere in a Cascade Mall, standing like a statue, zoned on blinking mini-lights and quickly developing a rash from overexposure to pine-scented aromatherapy.

He was still mentally composing the list of sentinel Christmas dangers when the diffuse glow of headlights bounced off the darkening pebbled drive of 1501 Larkspur Lane. Blair automatically put a hand on the gun stashed on the seat beside him, but the reassuring strains of Santana wafted from the truck's lowering window.

"I was starting to worry, man."

Jim nodded, tight lines visible around his eyes. "Checkout lines were worse than rush hour. If I heard `Silent Night' one more time I was going to start taking hostages. How are we doing here?"

Blair slid out of the Volvo and basked in the heat escaping from the truck cab. Jim waved a white bag and watched as his partner's frosty face screwed up into a grimace.

"Wonderburger?"

"Christmas Eve, Chief, nothing else is open. But if you'd rather not, I'm sure I can force it down somehow."

Blair climbed into the blissful warmth and snatched the bag, making a growling sound at Jim's grin.

"So, you see anything?"

Blair bit into the burger and swiped at the grease running down his chin, gesturing with the napkin toward the house hulking in the gloom of the overgrown yard. "Apart from the charming location? The dark, gothic manor? The omnipresent fog hugging the thicket of overgrowth? I'm still waiting for the hound to start baying on the moors."

Jim peered out the windshield. "No sign of life, huh?"

"Death either." Blair turned toward Jim, a look now as rare as it was once familiar transforming his features. "Unless you sense something."

Jim released a deep breath. "One odd experience doesn't make me an honorary ghostbuster."

"You still won't admit it, will you? You've had direct communication with someone beyond this earthly veil and you're still going to tell me you don't believe houses can be haunted."

"By ghosts."

"That's one way to define them."

Jim helped himself to a fry then stabbed it in the direction of the spooky fašade where a single light now glowed against the looming blackness. "You mean the kind of ghosts that turn on the electricity."

Opening the door let in the full force of a Cascade December. "Let's go, Chief."

Blair shivered.

~oOo~

The front door groaned slightly as Jim easily undid the rusty lock. Blair flicked on his flashlight just as thunder rattled the old wooden structure. Jim's hands flew to his ears and Blair put a hand to his back, murmuring quietly. Something clattered to the floor above them and both instinctively crouched. Two guns pointed automatically at the grandfather clock that chose nearly the same moment to chime eleven from some cubbyhole to their left, and then were lowered when nothing more resulted than the striking of the hour.

"Cold wind," complained Blair, drawing his coat tighter against the breeze that wafted through the entrance hall.

Jim tilted his head, listening. "Must be a window open upstairs."

Thunder crashed again, bringing with it a wind gust powerful enough to slam the heavy front door. Jim winced. "So much for the sneak assault."

He reached back for the oxidized knob and pulled. The wooden slab didn't budge. All the attempt produced was a grin from Blair. "I think the spirits are among us."

Jim tried the door again, ignoring him. "Will you quit trying to make me into Bill Murray and help me get this door open?"

"No, really. Sounds like there's somebody walking around upstairs. There. You hear that?"

Jim glared at the question. "Well we've certainly ruined any chance we have of getting in here unnoticed."

"Jim, I'm ashamed of you. Ghosts are benevolent entities."

What sounded like chains clanking wafted from above them.

"Mostly," added Blair, grinning like a kid in a Halloween haunted house.

"You are not convincing me," advised his partner flatly, looking at his watch. 11:03 -- the same time showing on the grandfather clock. By the time he looked back up, Blair was already moving -- a little too eagerly for his partner's taste -- toward the stairs. A
lightening flash illuminated the head of dark, curly hair. A second later another flash lit the silhouette of a figure next to the heavily draped window. Immediately Jim steadied the weapon and tried to see through the blinding afterimage, but the figure was gone.

"Jim . . ." The figure on the stairs had frozen, too. "What was that?"

Jim saw the shudder shake his partner, then inexplicably, Sandburg laughed. "Never mind, I gotta get a grip. I should know these are simply tricks that the mind plays. Ingrained cliches from a thousand horror films. When we hear a sound, we get a chill. We see a shadow and allow ourselves to imagine something that an otherwise rational
person would discount out of hand."

Putting a hand on the banister, Blair pointed the beacon from the small light up the stairs but saw nothing. "Uh, right Jim?"

Passing him, Jim tried a door and found it locked. "Mm-hmm."

"You know it doesn't take an advanced degree in psychology to understand the unconscious yearnings that these imaginings satisfy. The longing for immortality, the hope that there is something beyond this mortal coil. Powerful desires, man -- the very essence of what makes us human."

For a minute Jim just stood in the cold upper hall, bemusedly observing the younger man. To him the house was just a barren and somewhat moldering conglomeration of brick and rotting wood – damp halls with the overwhelming smell of musty carpets and rusted hinges.

Further down the hall a door creaked, opening slightly by no hand they could see. A yellowish strip of light crept across the floorboards. The slight body behind him tensed as if shaken by a sudden chill and Jim couldn't help but grin a little wider. He took the opportunity to put a comforting hand on his partner's arm.

"All right," conceded Blair irritably, pulling away, but only a few millimeters. "I'm a little afraid . . . but I know it's an irrational fear."

Jim nodded solemnly, nothing betraying the secret thrill he got whenever he was lucky enough to get to buttress his partner in a rare moment of Blair-insecurity. "You know I've got your back."

Swallowing a deep breath and the expected retort, Blair pushed past him in surprising compliance. "I know you do," he said softly.

Not that Jim would actually have any intention of letting him take point.

"So," he said, moving to position himself slightly ahead of the smaller man, who rolled his eyes as he was pushed back, "it did occur to you that there aren't ghosts here -- that somebody simply might be living in this house?"

"The briefing file said no one lives here."

Jim smiled unseen, imagining his partner curled in the cold Volvo poring over the case file. He carefully opened the offending door, blinking as a weak light poured across the floor.

"Did you happen to notice the clock downstairs is keeping perfect time?" He stretched out his senses and met nothing but the faint smoky haze left by a dying fire. "And how do you explain that?"

Jim pointed to the smoldering ashes in the fireplace of the library that spread below them and swung onto the ladder leading down from the balcony. Warily, Blair followed.

Dipping down beside the hearth, Jim surveyed the dim room. "Looks like this fire has just gone out."

"Yeah," agreed Blair reluctantly.

"Disappointed, Chief?"

"Well, why would anyone want to live in a cursed house?"

"Cursed?" Jim bent over, a sensitive palm hovering to check the cooling of the ashes. "Now the house is cursed?"

Arms gestured extravagantly. "The file said every couple that's ever lived here has met a tragic end. I'd pretty much call that cursed."

Somewhere above them a door slammed. Both men turned as one then turned back as, beneath their feet, the floorboards suddenly joined in the creaking. Frowning, Jim pushed back the two winged chairs resting in front of the fireplace. Blair pointed his weapon at the balcony when the groaning of the upper library door joined the chorus. He saw nothing, but the ladder they had just used was gone.

"Uh, Jim?"

"I think there's some kind of hiding space under the floorboards." The wood shuddered again as if to agree. "I hear something. There may be somebody trapped under there. We've got to get them out."

"Uh, Jim. I really think we should get out of here."

"Chief, you're holding a gun. And," he chided gently, "I think we can safely say we've been in much more dangerous situations."

Working under his partner's disapproving grimace Jim lifted the boards with surprising ease. The body beneath them may have once been protesting, but that was quite a while ago. The corpse he exposed was shrunken and desiccated -- apparently male, wearing
khakis and a sweater, a bullet wound caving the chest.

"Well, I was half right," muttered Jim, the amusement at Blair's concerns rapidly leaving him.

Lifting the remaining boards revealed yet another body, this one dressed in jeans and flannel. A hole in the plaid fabric over the collapsed abdomen.

"Looks like they were both shot to death," observed Blair, leaning down. "You know what's weird?"

"Other than they're buried in someone's library?" replied his partner dryly.

In the glint of the firelight Jim could easily see the curly head nod. "This one is wearing my outfit."

"How embarrassing."

"Yeah, well," Blair pointed toward the other body. "The other one's wearing yours."

Jim looked closer -- the sweater was definitely green under the coating of dust. A glance to the head confirmed a dried-out crop of short, brown hair. The other corpse had a shock of curls covering its dusty forehead.

"Ah, Blair . . ." began Jim, but his partner had already come to the same conclusion.

"That's us."

Simon and innocent Romeo and Juliets be damned. Blair was right, this was getting too weird.

"Let's get out of here," motioned Jim, unconsciously trying to draw the smaller man behind him with a protective sweep of his arm. Blair remained slightly ahead of him despite his efforts.

Two doors lead from the balconied room. They picked the one in front of them, not knowing where it went, but never expecting to find their flashlights running over familiar walls of shelves, illuminating the cooling fireplace, the empty space where the ladder
had hung. Both beams stopped in the gaps where the floorboards had been tugged aside.

"This is the same room," observed Blair, his own light lingering on the corpse so eerily dressed in his clothes.

"That way," directed Jim, grabbing his partner's wrist so the flashlight no longer shone on the disturbing scene by the hearth. He hustled him through the same door they had tried before and found themselves in the same place they'd just left.

"All right. I'm beginning to get this," Blair grinned mirthlessly. "If I go through that door then I . . . should come out . . . this door."

"Right," agreed his partner shining a circle of light on the path.

Blair saw Jim cross the room and disappear through the exact same door they'd just tried twice -- only no one opened the door behind him.

"Jim?"

Jim opened the door just has he had the two previous times, fully expecting to see Blair standing just as he'd left him. But this room was empty.

"Blair?"

In both rooms the doors slammed noisily, locking themselves.

"Jim!"

Hearing the cry, Jim banged a palm on the sturdy wood, trying desperately to reconnect with his partner. "Blair! Blair, can you hear me?"

Drawing his weapon, Jim took the lock off in one shot. The door swung obligingly back on its hinges but left him to face . . . a brick wall. How the hell? He knew he'd come that way. Unless the room revolved, that could be it. But then there had to be two at
least. And he would have felt it. Besides they'd seen no signs this was anything more than what it looked like -- an abandoned, turn-of-the-century mansion. Bricks and mortar and termite-ridden wood.

He turned, determined to examine the second door, and instead found himself pointing his weapon in an embarrassingly shaky manner at a middle-aged man in a fishing hat.

"Who are you?" demanded Jim, his senses still straining to determine Blair's location.

The man seemed decidedly unperturbed at finding himself at gunpoint. "That's a question I should be asking -- being this is my house you're standing in. This isn't one of those home invasions, is it?"

"Ah . . . no."

The answer got a nod of approval from under the fishing hat. "Good. Would you like me to show you the door?"

The muscles in Jim's jaw clenched. "That's very funny."

"I wasn't making a joke."

"Have you looked at the door?" inquired Jim.

The man's eyes moved to gaze over Jim's shoulder.

"Tell me what you see," he pressed.

"I see a door with the lock shot off it. My door. You going to pay for that?"

Jim felt a back molar crack from the grinding. "That's a door with a brick wall behind it."

The man before him looked for the world like he was trying to humor a lost and slightly dense child. "Okay, sure."

Jim's blue eyes narrowed, his mind suddenly considering a possibility he would have never thought he would actually entertain -- despite the teasing he'd given his partner. He forced himself to concentrate on the man before him, but it was like his senses were all numbed.

"You're playing tricks on me."

A shrug hunched the man's broad shoulders. "If I am, I'm sorry, but I really don't know any tricks."

"You've been playing tricks on us since we got here."

Beneath the dangling lures blue eyes amusingly raked the empty room. "Am I to take it, then, we're not alone?"

"Ah, that's very funny coming from a ghost," countered Jim, somehow glad Blair wasn't there to hear him say it.

A beefy hand reached up to settle the fishing hat more soundly on the man's round head.

"Yeah, oh . . . the gun fooled me a little at first. You're one of those ghost hunters. And you think I'm a ghost, huh? I've seen a lot of strange folks coming around here with a lot of strange equipment but I think you must be the first I've seen come armed."

"Strange folks?" Jim asked.

"Mm-hmm."

"Like those nice people under the floorboard." Jim pointed the flashlight's beam in the direction of the hearth but this time the light struck only smooth flooring. His forced congeniality turned to a demand. "How did you do that? Is this all some kind of
hallucinogen?"

The man looked a little more concerned than he had originally, but still not so much for his safety as for Jim's sanity. "I didn't do anything."

The beam from the flashlight bounced among the legs of the chairs before the fire. "There were corpses here-- bodies buried under the floorboards."

"Why don't you have a seat, son?"

Glancing around, Jim holstered the gun. He didn't seem to be having much luck this way, perhaps a change in tactics would do some good.

The man ushered him to one of the leather chairs in an almost fatherly manner. "You been drinking tonight? Taking drugs?"

Jim shook his dark head, unsure where this particular line of questioning was leading.

"Sure you're not high?"

"No!" Jim started to get up again but the man waved toward him, motioning him to stay seated.

"Are you overcome with a feeling you're somehow special and it's up to you to protect everyone?"

He sank back in the chair looking at the man perplexedly as he continued.

"I'm in the field of mental health. I specialize in disorders and manias related to pathological behavior as it pertains to superman complexes."

Jim dazedly rubbed a hand across his eyes, half expecting the man -- or the apparition -- to disappear before he opened them again. Unfortunately he didn't.

"My specialty is in what I call world-evil prospectors-- a crossaxial classification I've codified by extensive interaction with visitors like yourself who seem to think they're burdened with some kind of super powers. I've found you all tend to fall into
pretty much the same category."

In some ways this was all too much like Blair in one of his scientific moods. "And what category is that?"

"Narcissistic, overzealous, self-righteous egomaniac." In the round face the man's lips curled in a tight self-congratulatory smile. "You kindly think of yourself as a protector of the weak, but you're prone to ordering people about, have only the shallowest
physical relationships. Fertile fields for the descent into total whacko breakdown."

"I don't think that pegs me exactly," protested Jim.

"Oh, really?" observed his host. "Waving a gun around my house? Huh? Raving like a lunatic about some partner that doesn't seem to exist and an imaginary brick wall?"

Jim checked. The bricks were still there, as solid looking as ever.

"You've probably convinced yourself that you're the modern day equivalent to Burton's sentinels or something. You know why you feel this way?"

Jim shrugged. He tried to piece out just when the conversation had fallen out of his control.

The man looked at him disapprovingly. "'Cause you're a lonely man. A lonely man chasing paramasturbatory illusions that you believe will give your life meaning and significance and which your pathetic social maladjustment makes impossible for you to find elsewhere."

For some reason Jim found himself looking down at his hands. "Paramasturbatory"? he repeated.

"Most sane people would rather stick their fingers in a wall socket than spend a minute with you."

That was too much. "All right, now just, uh... Just back off for a second. I do have a partner. That is a bricked-up doorway. You can't just—"

"Spend every Christmas this way . . . alone or stuck with family you hardly know who are more interested in appearances than you?"

"I'm not alone!"

One of the thick hands waved in his direction again. "More self-delusion."

"No, I came here with my partner. He's somewhere in the house."

"Behind a brick wall?" The man smirked. "Just how'd you get him to come with you? Tell him he had to follow your orders? You know why you do it-- listen endlessly to his droning lectures? Put up with his superior intellectual attitude? 'Cause you're afraid. Afraid of the loneliness. Am I right?"

Jim had to loosen the death grip he found he held on the chair's tanned arms. He'd been tortured, drugged, debriefed, whipped -- none of which had made him cling quite so tightly to the solid mass of the chair he was strapped into as this line of accusations.

"I'd just like to find my partner," he grated.

The man smiled approvingly. "Good . . . easy. Piece of cake." Jim's eyes followed his psychobabbling host as he rose. Halfway through the now-open doorway he turned back, gesturing toward the obviously unbricked doorframe.

"Brick wall? Or brick wall?" He pointed to his head, but clearly meant Jim's. "Go ahead, change your life."

Slowly Jim advanced on the treacherous doorway. Even to sentinel sight it appeared quite normal. The hallway his unwelcome companion had just slipped down was clearly visible. Finally he was getting somewhere. With a deep breath he stepped confidently toward it -- and found himself bounced back like a rubber ball, his feet weaving beneath him. He glared toward the door now clearly bricked up once more.

~oOo~

"Jim?"

Blair backed away from the locked door into the darkened room he'd never left. He turned by some instinct borne of spending too much time in the truck, and confronted a middle-aged woman in a long, white nightgown who screamed dutifully at him or the pointed weapon, or maybe just the look of shock on his face. Some part of him wanted
to join her.

"Stay there!" he warned. "I'm a police officer and I'm armed."

The lights flickered on and he could see her squint at him. "You're what?"

"I'm armed," Blair was nearly shouting just to be heard over the incessant tripping of his heart. Damn his own imagination -- ghosts. Doors could be rigged to slam. Ladders obeyed the same rules of physics as everything else.

It's just that nobody had told his nervous system and it continued dumping adrenaline into his bloodstream.

"Please," he snapped as she took a step toward him. "I'm a little on edge. Don't come any closer. My name is Blair. Blair Sandburg. I can show you my I.D."

The woman put a hand to her chest as if her heart was beating as wildly as his admittedly was. "My goodness, I . . . I thought you were a ghost."

"I can assure you that I'm not," replied Blair. "I got stuck in this room looking for my partner."

"Oh, the nicely-built fellow with the receding hairline."

"You've seen him?" he questioned sharply.

"With you in the foyer. I thought he was a ghost, too."

"That was you." Blair knew he sounded unpleasantly skeptical. Here he was, probably
in this woman's home, holding her at gunpoint while she held nothing more than the edges of her cotton robe in her hands.

"I sleepwalk sometimes. I thought maybe I'd dreamed it. But then here you were again."

"Look I'm sorry. I don't mean to scare you. It's just that we found bodies."

The woman gasped convincingly. The hand holding the cloth tightened its grip and Blair lowered his gun. "Bodies? Where?"

"There . . ."

In the light the floor's wood shone softly -- smooth and untouched. Blair found the smile that formed on the woman's face oddly unpleasant.

"You look like you saw a ghost. There are ghosts in this house, you know."

So he'd told Jim. Something made him point the gun upward again. "Who are you?" Blair demanded.

"I live here, thank you very much."

The shivery feeling of chill swept over him once more. "Where's my partner?"

Maintaining an air of injured prided the supposed lady of the house glared at him. "Why are you pointing that gun?"

"There were corpses right there underneath the floor!"

The woman laughed. "I think maybe the ghosts have been playing tricks on you."

"I don't believe in ghosts." It would have been a more convincing statement, Blair realized, if his voice weren't teetering.

"Then what are you doing here?"

"We were sent here to make sure nothing was going on."

A frown creased the woman's forehead. "And your partner, does he believe in ghosts?"

"He should," muttered Blair.

The expression on the face before him softened. "Oh, you poor boy. You must have an awful small life. Spending your Christmas Eve with him. Running around chasing things he won't even admit to believing in. But you'd do it for him wouldn't you? You'd do anything for him . . ."

"Don't come any closer," he warned.

"I can see it in your face - the fear, the conflicted yearnings. A subconscious desire to find fulfillment through another. Intimacy through co-dependency. "

Blair thumbed the safety on the gun nervously. "What?"

"Maybe you've repressed the truth about why you're really here; pretending it's out of duty or loyalty -- unable to admit your dirty little secret."

*His dirty little secret?* This was getting a little personal. "Look, you don't know me. And you don't live here. This isn't your house."

"You wouldn't think so, the way I'm being treated," she sniffed, daubing her nose.

Blair looked around at the bulky draped shapes, his brow knitting. "Then why is all the furniture covered?"

"We're having the house painted."

That was, Blair admitted, at least plausible. "Well then where's your Christmas tree?"

"We're Jewish."

Blair didn't have time to process the last answer. He whipped around smartly as a shadow moved at the edge of his vision. "Hold it right there. Don't make me shoot you. Stay where you are."

The man in the cardigan and fishing hat obligingly held up his hands, shrugging at the woman. "We really attract them, don't we?"

"Where's Jim?" demanded Blair.

"He'll be along," promised the man.

"Until he does, you will kindly move over there?"

The pair just looked at him. Blair gave the gun a shake in their direction. Whoever they were, whatever they were doing here, he didn't trust them.

"Move over there. And put your hands up - both of you," he urged the woman to join her partner's stance.

When she did the thin robe she'd been clutching fell open and revealed a gaping hole in her abdomen. Blair could see straight through to the shelf of books.

What was it that briefing report had said? Lyda Eagleton's cause of death was a gunshot wound to the stomach. Maurice Eagleton . . .

Blair walked over to the man and lifted the hat. Light gleamed through a hole as big as his fist. He felt suddenly weak. Dizzy. Black spots ate at the light passing through Maurice's head. In a second Blair was down and out, curly hair spilling around his face
like a halo.

The duo lowered their hands.

"You see what we've resorted to?" Maurice replaced the hat and waved impatiently toward the sprawled man. "Gimmicks and cheap tricks. We used to be so good at this."

"We used to have years to drive them mad," consoled Lyda. "Now we get one night."

"Well, this pop psychology approach is crap. All it does is annoy them. When's the last time we actually haunted anyone?"

"When was the last time we had a good double murder?" Lyda sighed. "Not since the house was condemned."

Maurice continued to grumble. "This is embarrassing-- amateur kid stuff."

"Look, if we let our reputations slip they're going to take us off the tourist literature. Last year no one even showed up."

"Oh, of all days, why did you pick Christmas? Why not Halloween?"

Lyda tenderly tugged at her husband's cardigan. "Now, who is filled with hopelessness and futility on Halloween? Christmas comes but once a year."

Maurice took another look at the body on his library floor. "You're right. These two do seem pretty miserable. We need to show them just how lonely Chridstmas can be."

"Now that's the old Yuletide spirit."

In his half-conscious state Blair could swear he heard laughter and the sound of enthusiastic kisses.

~oOo~

Jim clenched his teeth harder around the flashlight's metal casing and struggled to pull himself to the balcony, his toes barely touching the padded seat of the chair he'd dragged once more from before the fire. With a second effort he swung his legs up beside the railing, landing on the floor with a slight gasp. He didn't have time to do anything more than gape at the woman in the white robe who pulled open the library door.

"Are you Jim?"

Jim struggled to his knees. "And who might you be?"

Arms braced akimbo on her cotton-draped hips. "What are you doing using my chair for a ladder?"

With a small grunt Jim pulled to his feet, giving her a look that said it should be fairly obvious. "I'm trying to get out of this room."

"Trying to get out?" she repeated.

He gestured toward the doorway. "So, if you'd excuse me."

"Oh, no." She insinuated herself between the door and where he stood. "You can't get out that way."

Finding he was still unable to rely on his senses Jim hesitantly reached a testing finger out, jabbing at her shoulder. The finger seemed to meet flesh, solid skin and muscle. He pushed the resisting body against the wall.

"Masher," huffed Lyda in response.

Jim raised an aristocratic eyebrow and returned the compliment as he pushed past her. "You should be so lucky."

The door opened easily enough but the brick wall behind it was annoyingly familiar.

"I don't know who think you are but I don't appreciate being manhandled or called names. Certainly not at this hour."

Obviously not going to make it out the door, Jim turned his attention back to his new companion and set his mouth in what Sandburg had once assured him was a most charming smile.

"You're rather solid for a ghost."

"Oh, more names!"

With a second show of huffing, the woman started down the ladder that definitely hadn't been there a minute or two before.

"So, what happened to the star-crossed lovers?"

"Oh, let me tell you the romance is the first thing to go."

This confirmation of his suspicions was oddly disconcerting. "Blair was right. It is you. You're Lyda, and that was Maurice," Jim paused, puzzled. "But you've aged."

"I certainly hope your partner finds you a lot more charming than I do." reprimanded Lyda before she took a few graceful steps to the bookcase. "Let's see. Where is it?"

Jim watched her continue to mutter to herself as books pulled themselves halfway off the shelves.

"No, no, no, no . . . there it is." A leather-bound volume flew to her hands. "I was young and beautiful once, just like your partner. Whoo! Look at us. Maurice was so handsome."

Despite himself, Jim couldn't help but smile slightly at the comparison. A wistfulness crept into Lyda's voice and across the grate the fire blazed suddenly. "He didn't have a gut."

Jim took the offered book. There was a picture of an attractive couple, young, gazing in obvious adoration of each other under the title "Tale of the Star Crossed Lovers."

"I hope you're not expecting any great advantages to all this," observed Lyda.

"To all what?"

She indicated the book. "I'm assuming you came here with similar misconceptions."

"We came here to make sure no one got hurt tonight," corrected Jim.

"You didn't come here to be together for eternity?"

Jim laughed. He tired to imagine what the look on his "young and beautiful" partner's face would be if he thought Jim had brought him out here in hopes of eternal togetherness.

"Ah, no."

"Because you're filled with despair and woeful Christmas melancholy?" she continued hopefully, but the man before her looked more irritable than despairing. "Maybe it was your partner then."

Jim crossed his arms over his chest, his good humor suddenly leaving him. "What about him?"

"You knew this house was haunted."

"So we were told."

Lyda leaned against the dusty bookshelf. "Maybe you two should have discussed your real feelings before you came out here. I'm speaking from experience."

Jim realized he really hadn't been paying attention, his mind wandering to his missing partner. "What experience?"

"I'm not going to get into semantics. A murder-suicide is all about trust."

"I thought you had a lovers' pact."

"Poetic allusions aside, the outcome, is pretty much the same."

Lyda opened her robe with a flourish, clearly enjoying the shock on his face. "I don't show my hole to just anyone," she cooed.Jim suspected he was wearing the same grimace that overtook Blair whenever a case took them into the morgue. "Then why are you showing it to me?"

"It isn't like you're going to be eating any Christmas ham, is it?"

"Well, I had hoped to," he mused . He looked at her sharply, realization dawning of what she really meant. "Oh, you're trying to tell me that Blair's going to shoot me. Blair is not going to shoot me."

"Suit yourself," shrugged Lyda, "but if you shoot first, for him, the rest is an act of faith."

"Except I wouldn't shoot him."

"Maybe he shoots himself."

Jim shook his head, deadly serious. "I wouldn't let him."

The look he got in return was skeptical. "The bodies under the floor-- maybe that was just some kind of Jungian symbolism," offered Lyda. "Or maybe . . . there's a secret lovers' pact."

"We're not lovers."

Jim wished he hadn't sounded so … wistful.

"And this isn't a pure science. But you're both so attractive and there'll be a lot of time to work that out." She held a gun out to him. "Go ahead, take it."

Jim's hand automatically went to his shoulder harness. His own gun was gone.

"Take it. Think of it as the last Christmas you'll ever spend apart."

Lyda shimmered and faded. The gun fell into his hand.

Blair came back to full consciousness in the same darkened room, the gun and flashlight still beside him on the floor. Scooping them up, he staggered to the door that again refused to budge.

Only this time there was apparently a much more mundane reason for its immobility.

"I locked it. For your protection." Maurice had made himself comfortable in one of the wingbacked chairs.

"Stay away from me," warned Blair. "I want you to get me out of here and I am quite capable of pulling this trigger."

Maurice merely steepled his fingers. "I'm glad to hear it. You may well have to defend yourself against that crazy partner of yours." Jim. He'd said that before -- that he'd seen Jim.

"What have you done with him?"

"Kept him safe from his own mad devices-- at least for now. Do you have any idea why he brought you here to this house?"

Blair refused to consider the possibility. It was all mad ramblings. "No way, man. Simon sent us out here. All I know is this is just some bad dream. I'm starting to suspect this is all in my head."

"Yet here you are waving a gun at me just like your partner."

Speaking of Jim . . . there was a sudden banging at the door and the sound of his name being called -- a bit frantically even for his overprotective sentinel.

"Do you realize how seriously disturbed that man is?" inquired Maurice rhetorically through the commotion. "What a shallow life he leads? How dark and lonely? What he's capable of?"

"Blair!"

There was however not the slightest bit of hesitancy as Blair called back, starting for the door just as Maurice moved to block him.

"He's got nowhere he really wants to go this Christmas. No one he really wants to go with. You know that. The man is acting out an unconscious yearning. The deep-seated terror of being alone."

Blair pushed the ridiculous thoughts aside. This was Jim Ellison. His partner of years. His friend of just as long.

"Blair . . . Blair are you in there?"

"I'm here, Jim!" Blue eyes glared at Maurice. "Open the door."

Reluctantly, the man stepped forward, but he was still unwilling to leave the warnings behind. "I've seen it happen too many times in this house."

"I don't believe you. Now, please, open the door."

"But . . ."

"Open the door!" ordered Blair, his face flushing with impatience.

Maurice complied. Jim stormed immediately through the unlocked door and rounded on him, wild-eyed, gun held shakily. "Where's Blair?"

"Jim?" Blair entreated gently, confused by the look on his partner's face. "I'm right here."

The gun swung to point in his direction. And then, to his immense surprise, Jim fired. To his even greater surprise, he missed. A gilt-framed mirror, directly behind Blair, shattered into a hundred shining pieces.

"Jim, what are you doing?" A second bullet ricocheted off the wall. "Jim!"

"There's no getting out of here, Blair. There's no way home."

Another bullet ripped the air beside him. "Jim, put the gun down!"

"And let you shoot me?" demanded the confused sentinel.

"I'm not going to shoot you! I don't want to shoot you!"

The maniacal look on his friend's face however was beginning to frighten him. What had happened to him in the time they'd been separated?

"It's me or you . . .you or me. One of us has to do it."

"Of course not, Jim," he consoled. "We don't have to do this."

"Oh, yes, we do."

Blair waved a hand in direction of the door. "We can get out of here. We can leave!"

Jim's blue eyes were wild. The gaze that met Blair's was both frantic and tearful. "Even if we could what's waiting for us? More loneliness! And then three-hundred-sixty-five more shopping days till even more loneliness!"

"I don't believe what you're saying, Jim. And neither do you."

The barrel of the gun drooped a little. For a second Blair took a breath. Then the hand flinched. Despite the Academy training that would have him compress his own trigger finger automatically, Blair dropped his weapon and stared in shock at the blood that spread across his abdomen. Then his gaze moved numbly to his partner who looked in pain himself, the glazed look still in his eyes. Blair half expected him to fire again. His knees gave way and he found himself on the floor, looking up as his partner raised the gun to his own temple.

"Merry Christmas, Blair."

He wanted to get up, wrest the gun from his partner's trembling hand. Jim didn't mean this . . . couldn't . . . they'd done something, these two. Done something to make him . . .

As if reading his mind, Maurice restrained the struggling form. The voice Maurice heard was not Jim Ellison's, but Lyda's. The body he held lithe and feminine.

"Let me go!"

"Jim," Blair's voice was weak. Shock, probably not the blood loss, not yet . . . soon though.

"Let me go . . . let me go . . . " pleaded his partner, but he pushed only halfheartedly at the confining grip.

Oddly Maurice was smiling.

~oOo~

Jim found the doors blessedly unblocked -- not that they led anywhere but to another version of the library he'd just left. Still just to be able to move was something. The first of the identical rooms was empty, as was the second. What he found the in the third,
however, chilled him down to his very soul.

He swiftly knelt beside his partner, cursing himself for having taken so long to reach his side. "Blair?"

The answering voice was frighteningly weak. Shit. There was a lot of blood. He looked at the gun in Blair's hand in sudden horror. Had Blair done this to himself?

"What did you do, buddy?"

"I didn't believe it, Jim."

"You didn't believe what?" asked Jim gently, applying pressure to the seeping wound.

"I didn't believe that you'd do it . . ." Blair's voice was steadily weakening, "that I would."

From the floor, a pale hand raised the weapon. "Merry Christmas, Jim."

Jim didn't pull away, didn't move. It never even crossed his mind. "What are you doing?"

The gun jerked back as it fired and Jim stared dumbly at its movement before the velocity of the bullet pressed him back, metal tearing through his chest. The record on the old phonograph player lowered of its own accord and, as Jim finally closed his eyes, the strains of Bing Crosby began to fill the room.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let yourself be light
From now on, your troubles will be out of sight


~oOo~

The song played incessantly, the only constant in Jim's confused and whirling world.

There when he passed out. There when he pushed the shock back enough to climb to his knees. Blair was gone but the liquid trail of red he'd left behind him in the hall beckoned Jim on. When he reached the stairs he managed to stagger to his feet. It took far too much
effort and he didn't know if he'd make it down the marble risers but the door lay ahead of him and he could see Blair crawling on his belly across the foyer toward the same goal.

He stumbled, gripping the banister in both hands, leaving a second trail of crimson behind him.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the Yuletide gay
From now on, our troubles will be miles away
Here we are, as in olden days


His legs somehow held him until he reached the wooden floor where they collapsed decisively. Bereft of the energy to rise Jim lay gasping, watching Blair's bloodstained hands scrabble the smooth planks for a purchase he could use to drag himself a few more inches forward. What the hell had happened? If Blair wanted to kill himself why did he attempt it in the stupidest possible way? You didn't have to belong to the Hemlock Society to know that dying from a shot to the stomach was absolutely the slowest, most agonizing way to go. Why not do it right? Eat the gun? Or even shoot at the chest -- that
was effective. God knows he didn't think he could move from the place he'd fallen.

"Blair," he rasped.

It was getting monstrously hard to breath but he was desperate to not leave so much unexplained, so much between them unsaid.

Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us--

"Blair . . ."

Through the years, we all will be together--

His partner rolled painfully to his side, bloody hands holding the weapon pointing in his direction. Faced with the prospective of his lunatic partner shooting him a second time, Jim reluctantly fixed a bead on the curly head. Even braced, his own hand was trembling badly.


Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow--

The blue eyes, narrowed by the pain and shock, blinked rapidly. After a second the hands grasping the gun lowered and Blair rolled limply onto his back. The sentinel wasn't in his right mind. It wasn't his fault. There was no way he could look into those eyes and see anything but fear and concern.

"Not going to make it," Blair whispered, suddenly too cold to move, too disheartened.

Jim still clutched his gun but he knew it was useless. He wasn't going to shoot the only person who meant anything to him. No matter what Blair had been driven to. "No, you're not. Not without me, you're not."

Blair considered him quietly. The wild look was indeed gone.

"Are you afraid, Jim?" The shocking coldness was beginning to overcome him, urge him to the darkness it seemed he traveled toward. "Because I am."

"Me, too, Chief."

Almost simultaneously both guns clattered on the hard flooring.

"You should have thought of this," observed Jim wearily, unable to look anywhere but at the bloody hole in his partner's belly.

"You should have," countered Blair.

Jim raised himself up, finding even with the pain he still had energy for a war of words with his partner. "You're the one who shot me!"

"I didn't shoot you," gasped Blair. "You shot me."

If the fates allow--

A strange look settled over the Jim's unnaturally pale face. Then with what Blair knew had to be a last surge of strength, Jim made it to his feet.

"Blair . . ."

"What?" he managed to murmur before a fit of coughing convulsed him, intensifying the pain in his belly.

"Listen to me. You have to get up."

Blair realized belatedly that he was too far gone to even judge his partner's mental state. He'd let him shoot him. Then he'd allowed himself to believe that Jim had somehow regained his senses . . . if you could regain your senses after bringing your partner down in cold blood.

"'can't."

"Get up, Blair," rasped Jim. "You're not shot."

Jim tugged his own bloody shirt away from his chest. He looked down at his unmarked skin.

Blair's reply faded to a mere gasp.

"Come on. It's a trick. It's like you said - it's all in our heads. There's no blood, Blair. I'm a sentinel, trust me on this."

Damn good trick, though, even he had to admit looking at the pale and bleeding body at his feet - if scent didn't give it away. The odor permeating the hall was the same as it had been when they entered – damp, musty, definitely not the acrid sharpness of blood.

Blair looked up at him, blue eyes widened and disbelieving. But Jim made the decision for him. He pulled the smaller man to his feet and tugged the bloodstained shirt up.

"Look! No bullet hole."

Jim was right. His stomach was smooth and unmarred. He rubbed it tentatively as the sentinel jerked him toward the door. Once safely outside they both ran for the truck, exchanging glances over their now unstained shirts, but not saying anything. They drove back to Cascade in the same silence - Blair sleeping in the passenger seat, or pretending to, while Jim drove near-empty roads.

~oOo~

Inside the house at 1501 Larkspur Lane the clock struck the first chime of midnight.

Before the fire in the library a couple sat, observing the flames gloomily.

"You hear that?" said Lyda softly, turning an ear toward the hallway. "It's Christmas."

"One for the books."

"We almost had those two, didn't we?"

Maurice chuckled. A deep, warm laugh that she still loved to hear. "Almost had them."

Lyda looked toward her husband and shook her head. "Two such lonely souls."

"We can't let our failures haunt us," reminded Maurice.

"You wonder what they were really out here looking for."

"Hard to say. People now . . . this is just another joyless day of the year."

"Not for us," smiled Lyda.

Maurice reached over and gripped her hand. "No. We haven't forgotten the meaning of Christmas."

 

~Epilogue~

Jim sat on the couch and stared blankly at the black and white picture flickering on the television screen, his eyes unfocused just enough that the pixels blended into a coherent picture, but nothing more. Occasionally he dropped a hand to his stomach and rubbed an
imaginary wound. Across the narrow alley, windows had begun to light with early Christmas celebrations. A few multicolored bulbs glowed from behind frosty panes. He sipped morosely at the tumbler in his hand.

On the screen Ebenezer Scrooge laughed merrily and confided, "I don't deserve to be so happy. I can't help it. I just can't help it."

Peering distrustfully at the dancing geezer Jim swallowed down the rest of the drink.

Above the scene of Crachett Christmas dinner the narrator intoned sonorously: Scrooge was better than his word. He became as good a friend, as good a master and as good a man as the good old city ever knew or any other good old city, town or borough in the good old world. And to Tiny Tim--

There was the soft sigh of a door being opened. Blair stood, half-propped against the doorframe, changed into a sweater and jeans but still looking rather shell-shocked.

"I, uh . . . I couldn't sleep. I was . . ."

Seeing the exhausted look on the pale face, Jim got up, put an arm around the smaller man's shoulders and pulled him over to the couch. He caught himself looking over his partner critically then wondered what it was he was expecting to see.

"If you want, we can still make it to your dad's."

"Yeah," admitted Jim. They could still make it, but that hadn't seemed to be where he belonged. No, he belonged here – with Blair. The only place he'd ever really belonged was with Blair. He caught the blue gaze with his own, then dropped his head from the
moment of honesty.

Almost because it was less painful than the sight of his normally composed partner dipping his head shyly before him, Blair stumbled out the question that he'd been pondering ever since his heart had stopped its double-time tripping.

"Did you realize they--"

Jim tilted his head to one side, obviously aware of the sudden stutter in his partner's heartbeat.

"… thought we were lovers?" he finished for an astonished Blair. He grinned slightly. "Can't imagine what made them think that."

"Well, given their past history, they probably didn't expect a pair of cops," answered Blair, logically, moving back to put some distance between him and his hyperaware sentinel.

Jim frowned. "Do you know what `paramasturbatory' means?"

"What?" blinked Blair.

"Maurice, or whatever he was -- he said I was chasing paramasturbatory illusions that would give my life meaning."

Blair shifted his hands, moving them down to knead at the cushion. "Uh, `para' is a prefix that means `about'or`nearly' or even `beyond' like in paranormal."

"Beyond masturbation?" queried Jim.

"Um, well, he probably meant `about.'"

The sentinel frowned deeper.

"You have to remember they thought we'd made a pact," explained Blair, rapidly. "You know, that we wanted to go out together …well, not `out together' like a date. `Out together' like neither of us would want to be left behind if the other … uh, if something happened."

Slowly Jim nodded. "That's true."

Blair released a sigh that turned into a soft gasp as Jim continued, "I wouldn't want to go through this without you."

"This?"

Jim spread his hands. "This. The get-up, go-to-work, come-home stuff." He frowned again at the other man's confusion. "This.Life."

"You … you're saying you'd make a--," Blair shook his head. "What are you saying?"

"I'm saying, Chief, that they were wrong about why we were there, but they may have been right about a few things."

Blair swallowed, hard. "Which things?"

Pale blue eyes held their gaze for a long moment. "That if somebody offered me eternity with my `young and beautiful' partner, I wouldn't turn it down."

"Young and beautiful?" stammered Blair.

"Lyda's words," shrugged his partner, with a smile.

"You want to stay with me …" Blair reiterated, "for …forever?"

Jim leaned back nonchalantly. "Can't imagine anything else." He lifted an eyebrow. "Can you?"

"I was always going to stay, Jim. I mean I came for a week and--"

"You're going to stay. I'm going to stay. I'd call that eternity, Chief."

"Uh, Jim, there's just one problem. If we're going to talk about … forever. I mean there's the fact we've never--"

Jim leaned forward, swiftly capturing the still moving mouth with his. Words continued, well muffled, for a short moment, then Blair's tongue found something else to occupy it. They broke apart with breathless gasps but Jim fingertips remained on Blair's cheek,
stroking gently.


"These paramasturbatory illusions," asked Blair, leaning into the touch, "do they ever include a partner?"

"All the time, Chief," whispered Jim. "All the time."


~end~

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