Half an hour later, Blair sat across from Dr. Hannigan, nervously twisting his hands in his T-shirt. It wasn't part of the act. Even though he'd been in and out of therapy since he was in diapers, it had never really stopped being an anxiety-producing experience. Somehow, it didn't help calm him that this session with Dr. Hannigan wasn't really about himbut about Blair Ellisa fictional character. He was still the one sitting in the chair across from the doctor. He was still the one who had to answer the questions.
Dr. Hannigan had a young face, round cheeks, dark eyes and hair, an Irish sort of look. It surprised Blair that she was even old enough to be a psychiatrist. Blair guessed she must either still be in residency or this was her first position on staff.
She smiled at him, obviously trying to create a friendly, non-threatening environment. "So, Blair, it's nice to meet you."
"Yeah, sure. Nice to meet you too," he said, with more than a hint of sullen sarcasm, trying to imitate the attitude his students took when they came to his office to bitch about their grades.
She looked at him mildly. "I get the feeling you'd rather be anywhere else than here."
"Isn't that how you'd feel if you were in my shoes?"
She nodded. "Perhaps, although I'd like to think that I'd recognize I needed help, that I'd really want to get better."
Blair sneered. "You only just met me. How do you know there's anything wrong with me? What? Just because my brother says so?"
"You have to admit that you seem to have made some poor choices lately, Blair."
"Says society as a whole. You've been skipping classes. Your grades have dropped. That's usually a sign that someone's troubled by something."
"My parents died. Yeah, that troubles me. The two people I loved most in the world got wiped out in one lousy moment because some asshole didn't know when to stop drinking and couldn't be bothered to call a cab instead of trying to drive home. Don't you think I have every right to be troubled by that?"
"Of course, but you sound so angry, Blair, so alienated."
"You're damned right I'm angry. That bastard murdered my parents. If you ask me, there would be something wrong with me if I wasn't pissed off."
"Anger is a part of grief. That's true. But sometimes grief can be so all-consuming that we let it destroy our life too. It's as if we're trying to follow after the people we lost. That's when it's time to get help."
"Don't bullshit me, Doctor. I know why I'm really here. Jim caught me making out with another guy, and he freaked all over the place. Two days later I'm sitting in Dr. Thompson's office, and he's signing the papers to have me committed. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that one out."
"Your brother was concerned that you were engaging in behavior that could profoundly change the rest of your life and not for the better."
"Half brother!" Blair corrected, vehemently.
"From your tone, I take it you're not that close then? Tell me what that's like."
"It sucks. Jim's the only damned family I have left, and he doesn't approve of me. He does this to me, dumps me in this place, so he won't have to be bothered about my choices. That fucking bites."
"But you have so much anger towards Jim. Was there always a rivalry there? Were you envious of the attention your parents paid him as the elder son?"
"No, lady, I'm pissed off that he abandoned me, that he had me locked up in a mental institution because he doesn't like who I'm sleeping with. Try to keep up. I've been saying the same thing for the last ten minutes."
"Blair, problems like these don't just crop up overnight. They're the culmination of years of experiences. I'm trying to get insight into your family, to understand the dynamics of all the players. That'll help us understand some of the roots of your current difficulties."
"What? Do you think Jim sexually abused me? Or maybe it was Dad? Or Mom, for that matter. Right? Because something bad must have happened to turn me into a faggot. That's what you're thinking, isn't it? As far as you're concerned, there's no way I could just have been born this way, that it could be who I am, who I was meant to be, that it could be perfectly normal. You're just another bigot who hates gays."
She shook her head and spoke very gently, "I don't hate people for their homosexual behavior, but you're right that I don't think it's a particularly good life choice or a natural state of being. I know there's been some talk about homosexuality as a function of genetics, but much of that research has been disputed and even disproved. From my experience, it's almost always a choice on the person's part, perhaps not consciously, but a choice nonetheless, which means that the person is free to make a different, healthier, more socially acceptable choice in its place. I think that's something we should explore together."
"Homosexuality's no longer recognized as a mental illness in the DSM," Blair said.
The doctor looked at him with surprise
"I'm planning to minor in psychology," he said, to explain how he knew about the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of the psychiatric profession.
"Well, Blair, then perhaps you've already learned that sometimes a circumstance in someone's life, while not a form of illness in and of itself, may be a symptom of larger, underlying problems that are being masked by the behavior."
"And what does being gay mask?"
"A sense of masochism, perhaps. Poor self-image. Depression. A person who's acting out through homosexuality doesn't think very highly of himself. Otherwise, why would he embrace a lifestyle that can be so dangerous and is so universally despised by society?"
Blair tried to remember why he was there. He tried to hold onto the intention of winning over Dr. Hannigan as an ally. He tried to remember to sound like a twenty-two year old college student. But it was very hard to manage.
"First, not everyone is so narrow-minded that they categorically condemn all gays," he argued. "And second, it's not about a lifestyle. It's not about acting out. It's not about low self-esteem. It's about a person, and it's about love. I'm here because the one person I love above all others just happens to be another guy."
"Wait. Let me finish. You're married, right?" he asked, looking down at her hand, at the wedding ring.
"What if someone told you that loving your husband was wrong? What if they wanted to keep you from being with the one person in the world who made you feel safe and desired and cherished?"
"We're not here to talk about me, Blair. We're here to understand what's troubling you."
This time Blair couldn't help losing his patience. "Well, right now you're troubling me. I don't understand how such a well-meaning, intelligent, apparently kind-hearted person can be so blind."
"I'm just trying to help you, Blair."
"Well, then get me out of here. I haven't done anything to even remotely suggest I'm a danger to myself or others. I'm not into drinking or doing drugs. I'm not depressed. I'm not acting out. I'm just in love with another man. That doesn't make me crazy or a criminal. I don't deserve to be locked up for it."
For a moment, he thought he might have swayed her, and maybe then, he could find out what she knew, use that information to bring an end to the injustices going on in this place. But it was only a momentary hesitation, the briefest shadow of doubt, before she put her detached, professional face firmly back in place.
"Resistance to therapy is normal in the beginning," she said, falling back into psychiatric jargon. "We need to work on establishing a sense of safety for you and some trust between the two of us. Then I hope you'll be able to open up to me and really tell me what's going on with you."
Blair just rolled his eyes. He could really begin to see why kids got so frustrated with adults. Some grownups were simply maddeningdisappointing too. He'd really thought Dr. Hannigan was a possible ally, someone who might help him gather the evidence he needed. But apparently, she wasn't going to be able to see past her own prejudices, and that did depress him.
It was only the second night with Blair at Larchmore, and Jim couldn't believe how silent and empty the loft felt, almost as if his roommate were gone for good. That thought set off waves of panic that he'd been trying to calm all evening. He'd told himself over and over again how stupid it was, how silly he was being. He'd tried to shake it off. Of course, Blair was coming back, and it wasn't like he'd never been gone before. Hell, Blair was always on the go, in and out, somewhere, all the time. There were all those weekend afternoons when he went to the library to work on his dissertation, long hours he spent grading papers in his office, all the many nights he slept elsewhere, in some woman's bed, someone Jim would most likely never meet.
Blair had even been out of town for five weeks last summer doing field work in Guatemala, and Jim had been fine. Okay, so maybe it had been a little quiet. Maybe he'd missed the kid. Maybe he'd been happier than he could ever have admitted when Blair stepped off that plane at the Cascade airport. Still, he hadn't been unnerved like this. He hadn't felt the need to pace around the apartment like a caged animal.
It's just because of what happened at Conover. He was terrified when I came to get him. I'm just remembering that, and it's setting off all these damned Blessed Protector instincts of mine.
Jim wandered into the kitchen, a little aimlessly, still not especially hungry. But he needed something to do, so he opened the refrigerator, searching its shelves for something to eat. He found the lentil soup Blair had made a few days ago, took it out, heated it up. It tasted even better leftover, just the way Blair had said it would.
Sandburg really is a genius. That thought stopped him short for a moment. He suddenly regretted all the times he'd complained about Blair's trying to make him eat a healthier diet. There were so many silly things he hassled his friend about. He made a mental note to cut the kid more slack, to show him more often how grateful he was for all he did.
Geez, Ellison, you sound like he's on his deathbed. He's just undercover, and this time, it's not at some hardcore place like Conover with somebody as dangerous as Chappel running around on the loose. It's a suburban psychiatric hospital with high-priced doctors and an upscale teenage clientele. He's going to be just fine and back home before you know it.
Still, Jim couldn't help flashing back to that night at Conover, the way Blair had raced around that corner and into his arms, his heart pounding, the sweat pouring off him, his face pale with terror. Jim could still remember the exact expression on his face when he'd looked up and realized it was Jim who'd caught him, the utter relief, the perfect trust. He could still conjure up the way Blair felt in his arms, his body trembling, nervous hands grabbing fistfuls of Jim's leather jacket in his panic. He could still hear the desperation in his partner's voice as he begged him to get him out of there. Worst of all, he remembered finding the bruises on Blair's throat, invisible to any but Sentinel eyes, but there just the same, the evidence of Chappel's hand, grabbing his partner, squeezing, intending to kill him.
Leaving Blair at Larchmore was one of the hardest thing he'd ever had to do. All his instincts were on fire about whatever it was that Blair was hiding from him. It made him realize how much he'd taken for granted that he knew everything there was to know about him. Hell, they'd lived together for three years, shared all the everyday things that bred intimacy between people. He should know everything about him by now. It bugged him that there might be things Blair had kept back, big things, important things, things that Jim was now desperate to find out.
Then there was that parting look Blair had given him back at the hospital. That really got under his skin. In his reasonable mind, he knew it had all been part of the act, Blair in character, putting on a convincing show for Dr. Thompson. But there was another voice inside him, the voice of guilt, that was convinced Blair really did feel that way, like he was being abandoned. Hell, that's how it had felt to Jim, like he was deserting his partner in that god-awful hell hole.
It's no more than five days. Blair knows how to handle himself. He'll be fine. Whatever he's not telling me, maybe it really is something he saw at Conover or that other hospital where he worked. A lot of shit does go down in those places. He has so much compassion for people that of course it would bother him, and maybe it would be hard for him to talk about it. Maybe he was afraid I'd think he was too soft or some bullshit like that.
Still, something nagged at Jim. He just couldn't shake it. During the Chappel case, Blair had spoken only of his previous experience at Conover. He'd never mentioned working at another psychiatric hospital. If it were anybody else, he wouldn't have given it a second thought, but this was Blair, never one to leave out details. He felt certain there must be something significant about the omission.
Jim half-heartedly finished his dinner and left the dishes soaking in the sink, something that usually drove him up the wall. But he was jumpy and not in the mood for cleaning. He promised himself that he'd do the dishes in the morning and promptly went back to his pacing.
Why didn't he talk about this before? What happened at Hill Crest? Is that what he doesn't want me to know?
For a moment, he considered trying to track down Naomi to ask her about it, but just as quickly, he realized how fruitless it would be. The odds of actually finding her weren't very good, and there was even less of a likelihood she would know what had been going on in her son's life back then. No, he wouldn't find out what he wanted to know by asking Blair's mother; he'd just have to do it the old-fashioned way.
I know it's not exactly respecting his privacy or trusting him, but I've got to know. I'll go insane if I don't. If there's something personal making him volunteer for this assignment, I need to know what it is. So I can get him the hell out of there before he gets into serious trouble.
If Jim had not been an ex-military man, if he had not spent years learning how to compartmentalize, to focus on the goal at hand at the expense of all other considerations, he would have felt guilty for what he was planning. A distant corner of his mind registered that he would have to deal with the fallout of his decision eventually. Of course, he would admit to Blair what he'd done, his own sense of honor demanded it. He had no doubt his partner would be pissed. Of course, there would be consequences, perhaps even serious ramifications, depending upon how violated Blair felt, how badly his trust in Jim was damaged.
As little as he liked to think of those possibilities, his instincts shrieked at him to take action, convinced that Blair was in danger. He'd already tried to bring Simon over to his side, but his captain hadn't listened. He'd have to change his mind, and to do that, he'd need more information. He'd have to uncover whatever it was Blair was hiding. In the end, he would do anything to keep Blair safe, no matter how questionable or unethical. He'd even risk losing him if that's what it took, even though that was the most painful thing he could imagine. He couldn't let how he felt, what he feared, get in the way. It had to be about protecting Blair.
For the first time that evening, Jim felt some measure of peace, now that he'd decided to do something about the situation. He locked up, turned off the lights and headed up to bed. He undressed and slid beneath the covers, tossing and turning a little before finally falling into a light sleep in which he dreamed of rescuing Blair, over and again, from countless dangers.
Jennifer and Ritchie were as good as their word. After a day of watching and waiting, measuring the reactions of the hospital staff, they finally judged it safe to befriend Blair. Now he hung out with them whenever the rules allowed. He ate lunch with them, sat with them during the recreation periods. He was more grateful for the company than he ever could have imagined. He'd never realized how much he depended on ordinary social interactions, the little things, like shooting the breeze with the reference librarian as she helped him find some long forgotten manuscript lost somewhere in the endless stacks, or chatting with the donut girl as he picked out his breakfast. They were never anything terribly intense or intimate, these everyday kind of exchanges, but they were important nonetheless. They made him feel whole and human and alive. Two days of isolation and silence were nearly more than he could handle.
Of course, it had given him the opportunity to listen and observe, a valuable thing, if not exactly enjoyable. What he had seen disturbed him greatly. He realized that he was no authority on mental health care, but there were so many of the kids who appeared much too together to merit hospitalization. He had to wonder just how many of them were in the same boat as Ritchie and Jennifer, stowed away at an institution simply because their families couldn't deal with certain aspects of their lives.
"I still find it so hard to believe that parents would prefer to send their kids here rather than just dealing with the fact that they're gay," Blair said to his new friends, seated with them around one of the tables in the day room, pretending to play cards as they chatted.
Ritchie considered that. "I think it's because they see their kids not as people in their own right, but as extensions of themselves. The last thing they'd want is to be gay, so their kids can't be either."
"You sound like you're speaking from personal experience," Blair said.
Ritchie laughed. "Oh, honey, you don't know the half of it. My dear old Pops is a former All-Pro linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks. The one thing he ever wanted was a son to follow in his footsteps. Finally, after four daughters, he gets me. But uh-oh, there's a kink in the plan, and I do mean a kink now, honey. Little Ritchie's interest in football runs more to dating the players and dressing like the cheerleaders. Things are not too happy in our house. I can't tell you how many therapists I've been to see, how many Sunday afternoons I've been forced to spend outside playing catch with the old man, listening to him bitch about how I throw like a girl. I even had to put up with a semester of military school, until I managed to get myself thrown out. You wouldn't believe some of the things Pops has thought up to straighten me out, if you know what I mean. But this...well, I guess the old man must be getting really desperate."
"That sucks. I'm sorry, man," Blair said.
Ritchie lowered his eyes for a moment, trying to wrestle the emotions into place. When he looked up again, the easygoing expression was back again. "Well, Blair, sometimes life just does suck. You know how that is. Seems like you're pretty much in the same boat."
Blair nodded, falling into character, a man in love with another man, not much of a stretch. "Yeah, I guess I am. But what I don't understand is why the hospital goes along with it. I mean, what's in it for them?"
Ritchie laughed. "Money. What else? Insurance money, to be specific. My father's policy allows for 120 days of inpatient treatment a year. So I got another couple of months."
"I can't believe it would be so blatant," Blair said.
"Like clockwork, honey. The minute the well runs dry the kid is magically 'cured.' Of course, the bad news is that you're not getting out before then. You better hope your brother's got bad insurance. Of course, if that were the case, they never would have taken you in the first place."
Jennifer looked down at the table.
Ritchie put a hand on her arm. "Oh, honey. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bring up that subject again."
"It's okay," Jennifer said, although the obvious distress in her face said that it wasn't. "I've gotta go to individual. I'll catch ya later."
Blair waited for her to go and then asked, "Why was she so upset?"
"Princess has it hard. Her family's got the money, honey. I mean, there is a reason I call her Princess. You know all those glossy, pretty people in the society pages? Her relatives. She calculates they got enough money to keep her here a couple of years past the end of time. She's got a lot of spirit, that Princess does. She tries not to let it bother her too much. That's why she's so involved in taking care of everybody else, to keep her mind off her own troubles."
"So she got busted with another woman?"
"Yeah. Princess got a steady girlfriend. Stacey. She loves that girl to death, misses her something awful. It just breaks my heart to see."
"That must be really hard for both of them."
"Yeah, and she worries that Stacey will just forget about her while she's stuck in here. I try to tell her that's never gonna happen, but you know, she can't quite believe it. So what about you, Blair? You got a man waiting for you on the outside?"
Blair couldn't help dropping his eyes, his cheeks getting a little red as he thought of Jim.
"Ooooh, I see the answer to that, honey. What's his name?"
Blair hesitated, looking down at the table. A lie was always more convincing when it bore a striking resemblance to the truth. But in this case, the truth was undercover as his brother.
He felt a gentle hand on his shoulder. "That's okay. I understand. You don't want to say his name in here. Can't say as I blame you. If you got something good, why make it dirty by bringing it into a place like this? That's cool, man. So you don't want to tell me his name, but what's he like at least? A hero or a zero?"
Blair smiled, all the joy he felt at the thought of Jim rushing into his face.
Ritchie whistled appreciatively. "A hero. Definitely. Oooh, you did get lucky, didn't you? Not that I'm surpriseda boy who looks like you. Still. It's not like there's any surplus of good men in the world."
"He's the best," Blair whispered softly.
"The big, strong, silent type, I'm betting. You strike me as someone who'd go for that. A little yin to your yang."
"Big, strong and silent definitely describes him, although it doesn't nearly do him justice."
"So how big?" Ritchie asked, leaning forward, a mischievous twinkle in his eye.
Blair blushed, but the secret door in his mind opened just the same, all the carefully stored images tumbling out, an indulgence he rarely allowed himself. Jim was the most physically unselfconscious person he'd ever met, so there was no dearth of material to draw on: mornings when he came to breakfast in nothing but boxers, times when Blair had tended his scrapes and bruises after some brush with the criminal element. But most deliciously of all, there was the day he'd accidentally walked in on him just as he was coming out of the shower, and Jim, supremely undisturbed by his presence, hadn't even bothered to turn away, leaving his naked body, still beaded with moisture, open to Blair's hungry gaze.
"That's why they put you in here, isn't it, for loving him?"
"Was he the first?"
"Well, I see from the pained look on your face that the first one didn't work out too well."
"He changed his mind."
"About the relationship?"
Ritchie winced. "That's the worst."
"That's why I've never..."
"You and the hero? Never? Not once?"
Blair shook his head. "My brother found something I wrote about him, kind of erotic, you know? That's how I ended up in here."
"Does your hero even know?" Ritchie asked.
"That I'm into guys?"
"No, I don't think so. I haven't been with a guy since I've known him. The other one was before we met. I go out with a lot of girls now."
Ritchie seemed to understand. "Yeah. When you get burned on one side of the fence, it's natural to look to the other. I mean, if you're into both sides of the fence. Me, I'm not. Girls as friends is good. Girls in my bed is just a crowd. So back to the hero though, am I getting the vibe that he's straight? Is that why you never told him?"
Blair frowned. "I used to think so, that he was like one hundred percent, pure, unadulterated het. But lately I've been thinking maybe...I think he's had more experience than I gave him credit for."
Ritchie leaned in, licking his lips, relishing the gossip. "What clued you in?"
"We live togetheryou know, roommates. And lately I've just been getting these signals, like maybe he's kind of...into me. You know?"
"So how far into you do you think he'd like to be?"
Blair blushed scarlet, and Ritchie laughed. "Never mind. Don't answer that. I can see I've shocked you. But good for you, honey. Good for you. I'm getting the definite vibe that you and the hero are meant for each other. True love, Blair. I see it in the stars for you."
Blair couldn't help the wide smile that broke out on his face. True love with Jim. Oh yeah, that sounded good. When he got out of this hell hole, he was going to find out once and for all the true nature of his partner's feelings for him. He wasn't going to let the past foreclose his future anymore. If there was any way that Jim could love him, then it would be worth the heart-pounding risk he'd have to take in order to find out.
"So what about you, Ritchie?"
"You mean, have I made that love connection yet?"
"No, I'm afraid not. I mean, I've got a guy. Sort of. Jose. You see? I can say his name in here. That boy's already sullied himself so much that nothing I do could possibly hurt him. You ever been with someone that you just know is a dead end? I mean, you know it. He's about as faithful as a dog in heat, and he's got the attention span of a gnat. But there's just something about him. You can't help yourself. You keep going back, over and over, even though you know no good will ever come of it."
Blair looked down at the table sheepishly. "Actually, I think I may have been that dog. With women."
"Well, honey, that is why they call it being heartless. When your heart's not in it, it's a hell of a lot harder to treat a person well."
"I wasn't just using them to take my mind off my roommate," Blair insisted, defensively.
Ritchie rolled his eyes. "Uh huh."
"Blair, honey, I believe you. Absolutely, with all my heart. I know at the time you didn't think that's what you were doing, not consciously at least. But way down deep in your secret, hidden heart, that's exactly what you were up to. You wanted the hero. You thought you couldn't have him. Hard truth was that no one else would do. So you set your sights on the ladies and went through girls like Kleenex. Because you knew perfectly well what you really wanted, and they sure as hell weren't it."
Ritchie shrugged. "So now you know. Now you won't do it anymore. And when you get out of this snake pit, you'll go after your man, get what you really want. Live and learn. I mean, if you got to suffer a couple of months in this place, the least you can do is take away...I don't know, some new insight into things. Right? You know what I mean, Blair?"
"Yeah, man. That makes sense. And believe me, the first thing I plan to do when I get out of here is have a good, long talk with my roommate."
Ritchie got a little misty eyed. "You do that, honey. It does my heart good to hear about somebody in love. I mean, if I can't get the real thing myself, it's at least nice to live through somebody else."
"There's gotta be somebody wonderful out there for you."
"Ah, I hope so, Blair. But you should always remember that heroes don't grow on trees."
Blair nodded. "Yeah, Ritchie. Somehow being in this place has really begun to make that clear."
Jim flashed his badge and his best smile at the woman behind the desk, the personnel director at the Hill Crest psychiatric facility.
"I'm investigating a case involving a former employee of the hospital. It would really help me understand what I'm dealing with if I could get a look at his personnel file."
"What's the name?" the woman asked.
"Sandburg," she repeated, typing the name into her computer.
"That's right," he said, smiling again, flirting a little, just for good measure. "I appreciate your helping me out like this, Miss Jackson. I can't tell you how many hours of searching this will save me."
She blushed slightly, pleased with the attention. "Call me Lisa," she said.
"Lisa," Jim said, smiling warmly, playing it up. "This guy was employed a while ago, about ten years, if that helps."
"Yeah, it does actually. That was before we computerized, so we have a paper file with his employment records. But since he left the hospital so long ago, I'm not sure if we would have hung onto it or not."
"Would it be too much trouble to check?"
Lisa smiled brightly. "Not at all, detective. I'd be happy to take a look for you."
She got up and moved to a file cabinet near the back of the room. She dug through the top drawer and then moved to the next one, flipping quickly through the file folders.
After several minutes, she pulled one out. "Here it is. I just need to check through it first and make sure there's nothing in here that I can't allow you to see without a court order. You know, it's the law and all."
"Of course. I understand completely," he told her.
She returned to her desk and quickly scanned the contents of the file. "No, it's fine. You're welcome to use Kathy's desk. She'll be out to lunch another half hour or so. You can take notes if you like, but I can't allow you to remove anything from the file or to make photocopies."
"Thanks," he said, taking the file and seating himself at the empty desk
He opened the folder, and his heart turned over in his chest. Paperclipped to the inside was a small photograph of Blair, from more than ten years ago, taken when he was only eighteen.
Oh my God!
He still sometimes caught himself referring to his partner as "the kid," even though he knew Blair was a grown man, perfectly capable of taking care of himself. But this Blair...now this truly was a kid. He looked so young and innocent in the picture, the same wild hair and big blue eyes, but strangely vulnerable. If he'd ever felt protective of his friend before, it was nothing compared to the warm rush of solicitude he felt for this teenaged Blair.
He glanced over at Lisa who was engrossed in her paperwork. He quickly removed the photograph and pocketed it. He often used photographs during an investigation, to help him get a sense of the people involved, to remind him what was at stake. For all intents and purposes, this Blair was a stranger to him. Being able to puzzle over the boy in the photograph might help him get into the mindset of that younger Blair, might help him figure out what happened to him, so he could get his Blair out of harm's way.
If there were other reasons why he felt the need to steal the picture, he chose not to explore them.
He leafed through the rest of the information. There was little of particular use to his investigation, although he found it all personally interesting. Most of the contents were simply routine paperwork, but there were several notes from doctors, nurses and other staff members praising Blair's work with the patients. This certainly came as no surprise, but it did make him proud. The last item in the folder was the notice of termination. It said only that Blair had been fired for unsatisfactory job performance, odd given all the glowing commendations, one dated only two days before he was let go.
"Excuse me, Lisa?"
"Yes, Detective Ellison?"
Jim took the folder over to her desk. "The reason for termination here doesn't really give much information. I was wondering if you might recall the circumstances."
She frowned. "I'm afraid not. Most of us are fairly new around here, only a couple of years on the job. This was long before my time or before anyone else here in personnel for that matter." She looked through the folder. "Although...here's a letter of commendation written by a nurse who's still on staff with us. Her name is Terri Haskins. Maybe you'd like to speak with her about Mr. Sandburg?"
"That would be great. Is she on duty today?"
Lisa opened a drawer and consulted a master copy of the schedule. "You're in luck. She's on the third floor at the nurse's station there. I'll call up and tell her to expect you."
"Thank you so much for your help, Miss Jackson."
"Lisa," she insisted, smiling brightly.
"Lisa, I appreciate it."
"My pleasure, detective."
Jim took the stairs, two at a time, and found his way to the nurse's station. A kindly looking woman in her late forties glanced up from the chart she was annotating. "Detective Ellison?" she asked.
"Yes. Lisa said you wanted to speak to me about Blair Sandburg."
"Yes, ma'am. I was hoping you might be able to shed some light on the circumstances that led to his being fired."
"That was a long time ago."
"I realize that."
"What's your interest in Blair?" she asked, sounding defensive.
Ah, so she doesn't want to get Sandburg into any trouble. It figures. He makes friends everywhere he goes.
"I'm not really at liberty to say why I need the information, Ms. Haskins, but I can assure you that we don't suspect him of any criminal wrongdoing. It would just help us on an important matter if we could get a sense of what happened here ten years ago. I was hoping you could tell me a little about Mr. Sandburg's time here."
She studied him a long moment and finally said, "Blair was a really wonderful person. He worked on this floor, so I got to know him pretty well. He was a funny, hyperactive kid, tons of enthusiasm for just about everything, a big, big heart." She smiled, remembering. "He could talk a mile a minute, and he knew a little something about everything. You wouldn't believe some of the subjects he could get started on."
Jim suppressed a smile and the urge to assure the woman that he knew perfectly well the arcane lore Sandburg could rattle off without even breaking a sweat.
"It was obvious that he had a lot of potential, that he was going to be somebody special when he grew up," she continued. "I always wondered what became of him."
Again, Jim had to resist the impulse to tell this woman, who had obviously thought very highly of his partner, just how well he had turned out.
"That's why I always felt it was such a shame that he got fired. He was so good with the patientsgentle, kind, endlessly patient. But what else could the hospital have done really? I mean, he'd misrepresented himself from the get go."
Jim frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Blair wasn't just another student looking for a little extra spending money. He started working here specifically to get to a patientsome friend of his. They only found out when he tried to help the boy escape. He was pretty lucky they didn't have him arrested. Although luck probably had nothing to do with it. He was quite a talker, could get himself out of anything. You know the kind?" the woman asked.
Jim nodded. He knew Blair's gift for gab, his power of persuasion as well as he knew his own name.
"I don't remember the details very well, but somehow he convinced them just to fire him. He probably told them it would bring a lot of publicity if they didn't. Things were a little...lax, shall we say, back then. Public attention would have been the last thing they wanted."
"What do you mean by lax?"
"Not as careful about who they admitted as they might have been. I know it sounds really unlikely in this day and age, but some people still try to use the mental health care system as a way of getting rid of people, kids who are too much trouble or a spouse who won't agree to a divorce. The administrator back at that time was open to...certain incentives, shall we say."
"You mean, he was taking bribes?"
"I'd rather not come out and say that. There never was any proof. I mean, he wasn't exactly forced out. He and the board 'came to a mutual agreement.' But yeah, that was definitely the talk. And right around the time he left, we had maybe thirty percent of our patients suddenly released, just like that. That's unheard of."
"Who was this guy?"
"Dr. Thompson. Fred Thompson."
Jim felt himself go cold all over. Shit! He'd sent the kid into another situation where his cover could easily be blown.
Somehow he managed to speak past the lump in his throat. "He's the one who fired Blair?"
"Well, no, not directly. He wasn't actually on premises when that whole thing broke open. Dr. Thompson is fairly prestigious in the field. He lent his name to the hospital, but other people were responsible for the actual day-to-day administration and for dealing with the patients. He travelled a great deal. I saw him maybe once or twice the entire time he was on staff. From what I understand, that's how he got out of taking responsibility for what was going on. He claimed he knew nothing about it."
"You didn't believe that?"
She hesitated. "It's not like I had any evidence, any concrete reason to doubt him. But the few times I met the man he struck me as the really controlling type. Even if he was basically an absentee director around here, I still couldn't see him not being on top of things, not knowing exactly what was going on. He had a rather intimidating presence. People were scared of him. I just couldn't imagine anybody being brave or stupid enough to go behind his back like that."
He nodded, absorbing this new information. Terri Haskins struck him as a reasonable and observant person. He trusted her instincts about Dr. Thompson. But it left him in a quandary about what to do about Blair. Thompson hadn't seemed to recognize him that day. It had been years since Blair worked at Hill Crest, and it was possible that he'd never even so much as passed the man in the hallway. Still, his Blessed Protector code demanded that if there was any possibility Blair could be in danger then he had to get him out of there.
"Would you happen to remember who the friend was, the one Mr. Sandburg tried to help escape?" he asked.
The woman's face saddened. "David Donnelly. But I'm afraid you can't talk to him. He killed himself not long after he was released from care."
Jim managed to keep his expression neutral, but his gut twisted. He could just imagine how hard Sandburg had taken the suicide of a close friend, how he must have blamed himself for not being able to help the boy. That explains why he's so hell bent on helping Jennifer Ross. Shit, shit, shit!
"Well, thank you Ms. Haskins, you've been a lot of help. I appreciate it."
He was already halfway down the hall when she called him back.
"I'm sorry, Detective. I really only told you half the truth. You know when I said David was Blair's friend? Well, that was kind of a euphemism. I'm pretty sure he was Blair's lover. I'm also fairly certain their relationship pushed David's parents to have him committed. I mean, the official diagnosis was depression, but there were a lot of kids here back then because their parents didn't want them to be gay. They were all labeled as depressed."
This time Jim couldn't keep the horrified expression off his face. God, Sandburg, what kind of hell did you go through back then? And why didn't I know you had male lovers?
"I know, Detective," Nurse Haskins said, misinterpreting his expression. "It's pretty horrible to lock kids up for their sexual orientation. I swear, we don't do that kind of thing here anymore."
"I'm glad to hear that at least."
"I went to his funeralDavid, I mean. He was a good kid. I was so sorry to hear what happened to him. And Blair, he was a good kid too. I hope he's not in any kind of trouble."
Jim shook his head. "No, Ms. Haskins. No trouble." He prayed to God that was true. "Thank you. I really do appreciate all your help."
She nodded and smiled, before going back to work.
After lunch, Blair made a point to seek out Jennifer, to follow up on what he'd learned from Ritchie, to see if he could get any information from her, something that might help him find the evidence he needed.
"Hey," he said to her. "Mind if I sit down?"
"Not at all," she said, smiling. "Join me in a game of backgammon? They say it's very calming, good for us nutcases."
He returned her smile. "Love to."
"Do you want to be white or black?"
"You can be black," she offered. "Black goes first, and I have to warn you that I'm a backgammon shark. So you will need every advantage."
"Thanks for the fair warning." He grinned at her.
"Well, we are friends."
Jennifer set up the backgammon board, and Blair made his first move.
"I was sorry that we upset you earlier. I didn't mean to tread on sensitive ground," he said.
She waved off his apology. "It's not your fault. It's just the way things are. I have to get used to it. It's just kind of hard sometimes."
Blair nodded. "Yeah, it sure is, especially with... Ritchie told me about your girlfriend. Stacey, isn't it?"
Jennifer reacted to the mention of her lover's name with happiness, followed quickly by pain.
"Yeah," she said softly. "That's her name. God, I miss her."
"I can imagine," Blair said, compassionately. "What's she like?"
Jennifer's face lit up. "She's the most beautiful woman I've ever known. The most beautiful person, period. She's very, very sweet and terribly serious and smart as a whip. She's got the kindest heart. We have three cats now, because she keeps finding strays and taking them in. She can't stand the idea that they might starve or end up at the SPCA where they'll be destroyed. She's absolutely the best thing that's ever happened to me, and my only hope in life is that I can get out of here before it's too late for us."
She said it in a uninterrupted, breathless stream, pouring out her heart. After she finished, it was as if she finally recollected where she was, who she was talking to, and she blushed furiously.
"I'm sorry," she said. "It's just that I spend so much time pretending to hate the woman I love, agreeing with them that she's a bad influence, since that's my only prayer of ever getting out of here. So it's just such a relief, such a luxury to be able to talk about her honestly, with someone who hasn't heard it all before. Poor Ritchie still tries to listen as if he's interested, but it's starting to put him into a coma."
"It must be really hard, having to pretend like that."
The same weary, stricken expression he'd seen earlier that day came over her face. "It's sheer hell, Blair. It makes me feel sick inside to deny Stacey. It makes me feel crazy to always have to say the opposite of what's really truelike seeing white and always having to call it black. If I ever actually go over the edge, that's what will do it to me."
"That's just so wrong. I mean, I guess there's no point in resisting, but it really pisses me off."
She grabbed his arm, urgently, almost hurting him, surprisingly strong for someone her size. "Don't do it, Blair! I had the same idea when I first got here, the same rebellious impulse. But believe me, it gets you absolutely nowhere but drugged and strapped down to your bed. They have all the power, and fighting back is considered a sign that you're really troubled. Their philosophy is that they have to break you in order to put you back together the right way. You don't know what it's like to be stripped of everything that gives you a sense of humanity, not allowed to move, to keep yourself clean, to be in your right mind. It makes you so damned grateful afterwards for even the smallest of privilegesa shower on a regular basis, to be allowed to watch television, conversation with other human beings. I just...I never want to see anyone else go through what I did. I feel really lucky to have made it out the other side with some sense of self intact."
"That rough, huh?"
Tears gathered in her eyes. "Really, really bad."
"I'll be careful. I'll go along to get along."
She managed to smile through her unhappiness. "Now that's the Larchmore spirit I like to hear."
Ralph, the orderly who gave him the creeps, came closer, and they both fell silent, pretending to concentrate on the backgammon board. Blair moved one of his pieces, and Jennifer countered. Ralph stopped by their table, staring down at the game board.
"You got a move there," Ralph pointed out to Blair. "It will put you ahead of her."
"Hey, thanks, man," Blair mumbled, following his advice.
Ralph smiled at him, in that unsettling way of his. "My pleasure."
Blair nervously dropped his eyes, and Jennifer struggled not to glare at the man, careful to keep her attention on the game. But Blair could see her white knuckles as she gripped the edge of the table, trying to decide her next move.
"See you later," Ralph said and moved off to another table.
Jennifer let out the breath she'd been holding. "Shit, Blair. Speaking of being careful, do not trust that pig. He may come on all smooth and helpful at first, but his favorite pastime is cornering patients in the isolation room when there's nobody else around. And don't count on your being a guy to put him off. Believe me, he doesn't discriminate. He's an equal opportunity rapist."
Blair stared at her, eyes wide with shock. It was difficult to believe the depth of abuse there was to investigate in this place. "Do you know that for sure?"
Jennifer shook her head. "Not exactly. This place doesn't inspire people to trust or encourage them to exchange confidences. But there's this kid, Dougie, who came in with some problems. Unlike most of us, he probably did need professional help. And at first, he seemed to be getting a little better. He was less withdrawn. He talked a little in group. He got into painting ceramics in art therapy. He'd smile every now and then. I was working on making friends with him. Not that he ever said much. But he'd let me sit with him at lunch, and every now and then he'd make some comment. You know, nothing big, about some movie he liked or a television show or the weather. But it was communication, you know? And then Ralph started taking an interest in him. At first, Dougie didn't seem to mind. The truth is, as skittish around people as he was, I think Dougie desperately needed attention. But then something changed. Every time Ralph came around, Dougie got terrified. I mean, it was so obvious anyone could see it. And he stopped talking completely. One day I tried to have lunch with him, you know, like I'd done a million times before, and he just got all spooked and jumped up. But before he did, I saw bruises on his arms, Blair. Finger marks. Hand prints. And when he sat down at another table, he made this terrible, pained sound and nearly jumped out of the chair, you know, like it hurt."
"So you think..."
"I think Ralph anally raped him," Jennifer said bluntly. "God knows how many times or what else he may have done to him. But it wasn't long after that day in the cafeteria that Dougie stopped responding altogetherlike he didn't see you standing there or hear you when you were talking to him. He's in long-term care now. Completely catatonic. I don't have any evidence that's what happened to him, only my instinct. It just screams at me that Ralph is big time trouble. So please, Blair, don't mess with him."
Blair shook his head soberly. "No. I agree with you. He gives me the creeps, too. But he shouldn't be able to get away with something like that. I mean, if he brutalized a frightened, troubled, defenseless kid and drove him over the edge, there ought to be some kind of justice for that."
Jennifer covered Blair's hand with her own and smiled at him. "See? We're just meant to be friends. But Blair, as much as I agree with you in spirit, I have to tell you that you'll quickly find it's naive to expect any kind of justice in this place."