This really shouldn't be so difficult. Why couldn't he work it out? He had plenty of boxes. Just how did he build it?
It was the cold, he knew – hypothermia. It led to confusion and an inability to concentrate, to hallucinations, to failing muscle coordination, a sluggish brain…
Yes, but he knew how to do this. All those weeks with the Inuit, living their life, dreaming their dreams – he'd learned so much. Why couldn't he remember? Maybe if he just put some boxes in a circle...
Yeah, okay, that's better. This looked familiar. Jesus, the turkeys in these boxes were the big guys, no doubt about it. He could barely lift them, and even his gloved hand now was numb and clumsy. At least it didn't hurt so much – he just didn't feel things. Toes, ears, nose, fingers; he kept checking for frostbite, tried to keep the blood moving. If he'd had his backpack, he could've put it on his head. Nah, if he'd had his backpack, he’d have climbed into it by now.
Where was his backpack? Oh yeah, they took it. And his phone. Not that the phone was any use. He saw it now, sailing in a graceful arc from his hands over the balustrade at Rainier, the victim of a clumsy jostling by one of his students on the staircase. He’d just taken it out to ring Jim, to tell him he'd be maybe ten minutes late. He saw the thing shatter on the tiled floor below, students ducking for cover and then gathering to gawp at the dead body. By the time he’d got to the bottom of the stairs, most of Anthro 101 had been to look, and the same clumsy student presented him with the Sim card, a heavy scratch right across it.
“Sorry, Mr Sandburg, I just stood on it.”
He’d shoved what remained of the phone casing back into the backpack. The bad day was getting worse. For all Jim's bad temper and Blair's irritation with the guy, he genuinely wanted to make sure he backed his partner up. Juggling two jobs was a bitch – he knew he was late more often than he cared to be. He hated that; he hated Jim thinking he might be flaky, and ducking hard work at the PD. It pained him to admit it, but he really, really wanted the big lug’s approval. And yet he constantly put his foot in things.
Must try harder, Sandburg.
North yard was unmanned and secured with a high chain-link fence and padlocks, but Jim's bolt-cutters from the truck made short work of them.
“I thought you said we were looking at all Nordyck’s locations,” snapped Jim as he pushed through the high gate.
“I said we got to as many as we could,” Simon retorted. “The guys would have got here later…”
“Yeah, too late!”
Jim ran into the compound. There was row upon row of refrigerated trailers and trucks. He looked in horror at the sheer number of them, and turned to Simon.
“I've got to check…” he began, when three more cars roared up, discharging Rafe, Brown and a number of their MC colleagues. A couple of black and whites were on their heels. Engines were running, voices shouting instructions and men started running up and down the ranks of trailers, trying to force open doors. It was chaos. Simon drew himself up to his full height and used his best foghorn bellow.
“Stand down, you guys! Stand down!”
There was a rapid stilling of feet and voices.
“We’re getting nowhere doing this. I need you to…”
Jim grabbed his arm.
“Wait, Simon, let me go further in. Let me listen. Keep everyone quiet, will you?”
Simon frowned at him and then nodded.
Okay, everyone, to me! Let Ellison have the first look.”
His team regarded him oddly, but withdrew to their vehicles and watched as Jim loped up one side of the seemingly endless rows and then down another. The chatter built up again.
“Shut the fuck up!” roared Jim, turning in midstride with his hands clamped over his years. His colleagues, struck dumb, stared back in puzzlement. Sure, Ellison was worried, but what the hell was that all about?
Simon glared at them, and then raced off to catch up with Jim. He found his friend in the lee of a large truck, breathing quickly, with a hand pressed to his head as if warding off pain. He looked up, stricken, at Simon’s approach.
“I can't hear him, Simon! I can't hear him! If he's here, then he's not… he’s…”
Jim didn’t finish his thought. Simon stood in the now quiet yard and listened himself. Then he nodded.
“You can't hear anything, Jim.”
“I just said, I can't …“
“No, I mean, you can't hear anything, because there's nothing to hear! If any of these trailers were working, then you'd hear the refrigerator units. If none are working then they're not cold. And Blair’s somewhere where it's cold…..”
Now this was more like it!
A sturdy wall, three turkeys high, with the top layer curving in, and one final box perched on one side. He edged himself in and curled up – just big enough. But he needed to fix the roof.
His hands weren’t working at all now. It took ages to shift the last box along the rim so that it covered the hole at the top. Ages – slow painful work. He had to move the box with his wrists. And it hurt to breathe – hurt so much. The ice in the air seemed now to be lodged in his lungs. He couldn't tell how cold he was – he had no sense of touch.
Ironic, huh? He specialised in people – well, a person – with heightened senses, and now he himself had no senses left. No touch, no sight in this little black hole he’d built, no hearing other than the hiss that was his laboured breathing. He thought maybe the woollen glove was now frozen into his skin. Would they be able to pull it off when they found him? Would it have melded with his flesh? Was he going to be like a mammoth in the permafrost, preserved for millennia and then defrosted for his DNA? Better still, Jim could keep him in a chest freezer in the basement. He wouldn't take up much room.
No, no, stop thinking like this! Think cheerful, think warm! Come on, imagine somewhere warm! A beach, the Caribbean, Bob Marley singing about gloves, the palm trees and warm winds, and brightly coloured cocktails in the beach bars, chinking with ice…
No, no, that wasn't right! Beaches didn't work. He didn't get a real feeling of warmth from that. No, warmth was a roaring fire, and tea with honey and lemon, a big blanket, mulled wine, that kind of thing.
Christmas – Christmas sounded warm. All those chunky Fair Isle sweaters that Jim liked to wear when it was snowy, the logs burning brightly on the big stove in the Loft …
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your toes...
Enough Jack Frost, thank you. But there were yuletide carols sung by the choir, too, and folks dressed up like Eskimos. And that was just perfect, because here he was in his own igloo! Though he really ought to quibble with that whole Eskimo misnomer …
Jim and Simon raced back to the cars.
“Brown!” shouted Simon “You got a plan of the site?” Henri Brown nodded and pulled a sheaf of papers from the back seat of his vehicle.
“What we need,” huffed Simon as he rushed up, “is to see if there is anywhere else in this yard that would hold cold storage, refrigeration, something like that. Something that’s operating, running cold right now.”
Brown looked baffled.
“Not on this site, Sir. It’s just what you see. Just truck storage, no buildings.”
Jim turned without a word and punched the side of one of the black and whites, hardly flinching at the blow. His colleagues watched him nervously.
“Anything, anything…” muttered Simon, pawing at the papers.
Then Jim spoke.
“We've missed something,” he muttered.
Simon turned to see him staring at the line of trucks. He moved to Jim’s side.
“What is it, Jim?” He asked quietly. “What do you see?”
Jim's eyes were fixed on the side of a vehicle a long way up the furthest row.
“There's an address there,” said Jim. “South of Madison. Cold storage centre.”
Simon squinted at the distant, miniscule lettering on one corner of the truck.
“That may be so, Jim, but there are cold stores all over Cascade.”
“This one, said Jim, with a quirk of the lip that might have registered hope, “ this one is in Nordyck’s name .
Yeah, that was the warmest place in the world – the Loft.
The Loft, with the fire going, and Jim smiling for a change, all snuggled up in one of his hand-knitted polo-necks. Hot coffee and bagels and eggs in the morning.
Everyone knows that a turkey and mistletoe help to make the season right...
Turkey he had, thank you. When Jim came to fetch him, maybe they could take a box home as a souvenir, and roast it on the open fire with sleigh bells in the snow. Hang on, that was the other song – may your days be merry and bright and all your Christmasses be... something or other.
Yeah, merry and bright. The Loft was merry and bright, when he was there with Jim. Christmas in the Loft would be a delight; no need to go outside, just sitting there on the couch with reindeer roasting on the open fire, listening to the sleigh bells.
Perfect. Blair Sandburg's perfect world.
The journey was mercifully short, considering the havoc the convoy of truck, cars and black and whites caused in late afternoon traffic. Glancing over, Simon observed Jim’s clenched jaw and the working muscles in the man’s face. Jim might like to think he was made of iron, but Simon knew that when it came to Sandburg’s well-being, stress was easy to read in Jim's expression.
Simon tried not to think about what might be waiting for them at the cold store; maybe there would be nothing at all. But if all this was horrible reality, how resilient could Blair – could anyone – be to that kind of treatment? He wondered how Jim would deal, should they not find Sandburg in time. Then again, what if they were simply chasing their tails? Had Nordyck just got them dancing to his tune, racing around like idiots, while Blair…
No, he refused to let his thoughts go in that direction. Blair's survival was a prerequisite. They would find the kid, no doubts. And anyway, it wasn't as if Sandburg had been wandering around in jeans and a T-shirt. The guy routinely wore five layers in summer. Today, in early December, he would have been packing a heavy coat, gloves, scarf, you name it. Sitting for a few – well, quite a few – hours in an industrial freezer, it would just be like a bad day in the Cascades, surely? He’d just sit tight, and …
Jim's voice broke through his reverie.
“What's that, Simon?”
Simon blinked. Had he spoken aloud inadvertently?
“I was just thinking, Sandburg had his big coat on, yeah?”
He glanced at Jim and was shocked at the withering look that Jim returned.
“You don't think Nordyck left him with his coat, do you?”
Jim turned away again and floored the gas pedal once more.
Sleigh bells in the snow – ringing, ringing, ringing. Like the phone on Jim's desk at the PD when he rang from the call box after talking to Sneaks. Nobody picking up – typical.
“Borrow your phone, man?” he’d asked Sneaks, after turning up a mere fifteen minutes after the specified time and finding Jim already gone in a flurry of bad temper and righteous indignation about Sandburg's timekeeping. Sneaks had been bouncing up and down, his eyes flicking to the bus stop every ten seconds.
“I can't lend you my phone, Blair. It's private.”
“Dammit, Sneaks, it's police business!”
“You aren't a cop!”
Blair threw up his hands in exasperation.
“Not you as well? Oh, for Chrissakes…”
So he jammed a glove in his jeans pocket and dialled from the phone box, and when the PD failed to answer, he rang Jim’s cellphone, only for it to go to the messaging service. He ground his teeth in frustration and put on his brightest and most cheerful voice.
“Jim, it's me. I just missed you. I couldn't call you ‘cos my phone got broken. But it's okay, Sneaks has passed on your message. I'll see you there, man.”
He put the phone down and turned again to Sneaks.
“You sure about this message, man? I mean, I’ve no idea what I’m supposed to be doing when I get there.”
“I got to go,” mumbled the snitch, edging towards the bus stop. “Nesbitt and Vine. There's a pre-Christmas sale on.”
A pre-Christmas sale - you could buy all sorts of things for the Loft at a pre-Christmas sale.
Like reindeer, and sleigh bells, and children with their eyes all aglow listening to things in the snow – wow, were these kids Sentinels as well?
Reindeer roasting on an open fire...
After they've been defrosted – A Foster’s Award-Winning Reindeer.
It was a little-known fact that Blair Sandburg was the only man in the world on that day to have been put in two deep freezes in quick succession. Blair reflected proudly on this. First, a ride in a refrigerated truck from the infamous North Yard – may he never hear its name spoken again - to wherever the hell he was now. He’d still had his coat then. Then the second, where the Nordyck guy had been pretty insistent that his boys didn't leave Blair with any unnecessary luxuries. Never mind, he could get new stuff as Christmas presents. Jim could maybe buy him Christmas presents, and lots of toys and goodies on the sleigh.
Sleigh bells roasting on an open fire….
It really was the warmest place in the world. If he knew he could stay in the Loft this Christmas, then this whole freezer nightmare would be a walk in the park. Just thinking about it made him warm. Really warm and sleepy. Pretty soon Jim and he would be relaxing on the couch, watching a game and drinking mulled reindeer and sleigh bells.
Children roasting on an open fire…
Yeah, Christmas at the Loft would be just perfect. He’d give Jim an igloo for Christmas. An igloo for Christmas. An igloo for Jim.
It was a big facility, made more confusing by the fact that Nordyck’s cold stores were only one part of the whole complex. Jim and Simon faced no opposition as they flashed their badges and raced into the heart of the building, but every sector looked the same; dead, grey, cold and dank. Jim's headlong flight slowed, stuttered, and finally stopped altogether in a long corridor of large, anonymous units, each of them sealed and humming gently. Forklift trucks and pallets stood nearby, ready to be called into action to load and unload. But there was no sign of human life.
Jim tilted his head, and Simon could see him gazing into the dark corners behind one of the forklifts. Then he rushed forward, dived into a pile of garbage lying in the shadows and emerged bearing Sandburg's heavy winter coat.
Simon couldn't help the feeling of utter despair that swamped him.
“It's not over!” snapped Jim. “He's here, he must be!”
Jim dropped the coat and turned slowly, his intense concentration showing on his face. Simon moved forward to put a hand on his arm, trying to copy what he had seen Sandburg do on many an occasion – keeping Jim grounded by touch. He could tell the man’s whole body was taut and thrumming with tension. There were some MC colleagues somewhere behind them, but thankfully they stayed clear. Jim didn't need prying eyes at this point.
“I'm not sure, Simon. These doors are going to be inches thick, with special seals. I don't think even I can get through. Hold on….”
Jim moved forward, tracing the lines of the doors with sensitive fingers, while he stared down at the concrete floor, looking for tell-tale signs; of a struggle, a body being dragged – anything.
And there it was, a mark in the otherwise barren concrete that only a Sentinel could've seen, but which spoke volumes to Jim; of Blair’s boot, the way he’d resisted, the strength of his step. There was still hope.
They clawed desperately at the front of the freezer. The handle didn't seem to work, and there was some kind of programmable lock. Jim was howling in frustration when Henri Brown dragged a startled workman down the corridor and presented him to his Captain.
“Open it! Fast!”
And the guy did. The door, with all its eight inches of steel, was heaved open, and both Jim and Simon gasped as the first touch of the icy air hit their lungs. Simon grabbed the workman’s flashlight, and he and Jim stepped inside.
“Blair?” breathed Jim.
Simon played the flashlight’s beam around the freezer’s interior. The large space inside was frosted all over with a thick white rime. Half of the space was filled with cardboard boxes, each of them with the lettering stamped on the side “A Fosters Award-Winning Turkey”. About six of these boxes were clearly forming a shaky set of steps leading up to a thermostat in the ceiling. The rest were arranged into a rough circular structure, with a precariously-balanced roof.
Without a word, Jim and Simon approached the structure and carefully lifted off the upper box. Inside, huddled with his knees tucked into his chest, one hand shoved into an armpit and the other incongruously wearing a woollen glove, was Blair. His hair was completely frosted over – the rich dark curls now an old man’s white. In the torch-beam, they saw his face and lips were quite blue and his eyes were closed – frozen closed.
He was perfectly still. He was no longer breathing.
Simon heard Jim give an odd, twisted kind of cry. Then wildly, the two men grabbed the rest of the boxes and flung them away from the silent form, until Jim could fall to his knees and push himself into what remained of Blair’s igloo to gather the young man up into his arms. He looked up at Simon.
“Get help,” he said hoarsely. Brown spoke from the doorway.
“Paramedics on their way. You want to bring him out, Jim?”
Jim lifted Blair, and Simon helped carry his friend out of the freezer. Coats were laid on the ground and then more coats piled onto Sandburg’s still form as he lay in Jim's arms. Simon gave Jim a searching look, and his friend threw him a brief nod in return.
“There’s still a heartbeat, Simon,” he said, his voice very soft. “It’s faint, but it's still there.”
The room was oddly cool. Jim had expected it to be pulsing with heat by now, bringing the frozen Sandburg back up to room temperature, but then he remembered his own survival training. The doctors were adjusting Blair’s temperature gradually, minimising as far as possible yet more strain on his body, especially his lungs and heart. He’d had warm water baths, both inside and out – an indignity Jim was looking forward to teasing his friend about – and was now luxuriating in blankets and a saline drip, floating in and out of sleep.
And it was nothing short of luxury for Jim himself to sit by the man's bedside in the shadowy room, listening to the hiss and bump of the monitors, and hearing above all the strong thump of Blair’s heartbeat and the steady whisper of his breathing.
It hardly began to compensate for Jim's anger and guilt at seeing Blair once again confined to a hospital bed, especially when he knew that, however unwittingly, he had played such a part in putting him there. Something of that must have been showing in his face that afternoon when Blair woke, because Jim suddenly found himself stirred from his mild zone over the blessed heartbeat by a hesitant touch on his hand.
“Chief? You awake? You want something?”
Jim bent over the bed, smiling down at the drowsy face below him. Blair’s eyes swam into focus, and he raised a hand to pat Jim’s cheek.
“Don't,” said a quiet voice. It was almost as if Blair had thought the word, rather than spoken it.
“Don't what, Chief?”
“You know what. Just a mistake. Not anyone's fault but mine.”
Jim took his good hand and gently squeezed it.
“It was not your fault, Chief. I should never have stormed off. I should have made sure Sneaks knew what to tell you.”
A barely-there shake of the head.
“Not Sneaks’ fault. Just a confusion. I didn't… just didn't…” Jim frowned.
“Didn't want to be late again. Not let you down, man.”
The heavy eyes closed, but the grip on his hand was still firm. Jim grasped back tighter still.
“You don't let me down,” he breathed. “You don't ever…”
The blue eyes opened lazily. Blair smiled.
“Jim, can I ask you something?”
“Anything, Chief. What is it?”
Blair’s look was almost shy.
“I wondered, maybe, can I stay with you for Christmas? In the Loft?”
Jim looked down in puzzlement at the strange question. Didn’t he know Christmas in the Loft was a given? Was Blair’s mind still confused by the hypothermia? He thought it best to play along.
“Of course you can, Chief. I mean, it's your home. Why are you even worrying about that, huh?”
Blair smiled lazily again.
“Tha's good. ‘Cause it was thinking about it, kept me warm. Kept me warm in that freezer. Thinking about Christmas with you, and sleighbells, and roasting stuff, like - I dunno – like chestnuts?”
“Not turkey?” ventured Jim with a grin. He was gratified to see Blair’s smile widen.
“No turkey, maybe. But I’d like to stay. If that’s okay. I mean, if it's no trouble….”
The grip on Jim's hand slowly relaxed, and Blair’s head slipped sideways, his breath evening out in sleep once more.
“No trouble at all, Chief,” said Jim softly, frowning down at the sleeping man and then settling back in his bedside chair. “Believe me, it's no trouble at all.”
End note: Song lyrics of course come from Bob Marley’s “One Love (People Get Ready)”, “The Christmas Song” (Torme and Wells) and “White Christmas” (Irving Berlin).