by Southy

© July 2006




Jim rolled up the magazine in his hands and sighed. He hated inactivity. It was worse when his senses weren’t detecting distant sounds as part of the natural background of his environment. The offices at Fleming’s BodyGuard Service were surrounded with white noise generators, so the bodyguards – many with varying degrees of sentinel abilities – couldn’t hear anything being said behind closed doors.

His new shoes hurt his feet. 

He unbuttoned his suit coat.

Finally, the door opened. “Ellison,” called Samuel Fleming, son of the firm’s founder. He was a short, slender man with a thin mustache.

Jim gratefully entered the office.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Fleming said as he closed the door behind them. “Have a seat.”

Jim took the plush chair before the large mahogany desk. His ankle still had twinges from when he’d twisted it during his last assignment as the guard for a murderer out on bail. It had been a challenge to save the worthless prick from a couple of attempted hits.

After sitting down, Fleming pushed papers aside and opened a file. “Your next assignment should be easier than the last one. Prestige Publishing is paying for you to guard one its most prized writers, a…,” Fleming flipped over a piece of paper, “Mr. Blair Sandburg.” He looked up. “You ever heard of him?”

Jim shook his head. 

“I haven’t either,” Fleming said with a tight smile. “It’s not expected to be anything heavy. He’s got women climbing the fence to his estate, that sort of thing. He actually doesn’t go out in public much, so you’ll mostly be in the house. He lives alone, though he has a maid who comes in every other week. As I said,” Fleming looked up again, “pretty tame stuff.”

There was a limit to how much “tame” Jim could handle. “How long?”

“Indefinite,” Fleming said with satisfaction. Jim knew he wanted to keep billing the publishing house as long as possible. “I think they’re waiting for all the hype from his latest book to die down and then you’ll no longer be needed.”

“Good enough.”

“All right then.” Fleming held out a thick manila folder. “Here are your copies of everything we have on Mr. Sandburg. He’s expecting you tonight. You’ll have a comfortable bedroom there and free access to all the rooms in the house. He doesn’t seem to have any peculiar requests or traits that alerted our interview team. The publishing house is merely concerned that trespassers not distract him from finishing his next book."

Jim took the folder. “I’ll get right on it. Thank you, sir.”


The breeze had picked up when Jim arrived at the wrought iron gates of the estate in the lower elevations of the Cascades. He drove up to the keypad outside the gate and punched in the code he’d been given.

The gates slowly opened and Jim waited impatiently in the Cadillac provided by the firm. His own personal vehicle was considered too crude for the upper class image the firm wanted to project for its wealthy clients.

According to the file, this estate was owned by the publishing company, not by Sandburg. In fact, from the little bit the file said about Sandburg, Jim was starting to wonder if he was going to be a semi-hostile client, as there was no indication that he himself had requested a bodyguard. It all seemed to be Prestige Publishing’s idea.

What he had learned is that the 26-year-old Sandburg had written two books that appealed mainly to adolescent girls, and the second one had been a blockbuster. Prestige was all the more eager for the third book to meet its Christmas deadline. It was now February, and Sandburg had until June to turn in the first draft.

The circular drive was quiet when Jim pulled up. Lights were on from inside; otherwise, the large house seemed vacant.

Jim took out his ID and knocked on the front door. 

A moment later the door opened, revealing a long-haired man wearing wire-framed glasses. “Mr. Sandburg?” Jim said, regretting the hesitation in his voice. He could see that it was the same man as in the file’s photograph, but the latter had depicted someone with short, wavy hair and no glasses.

“Jim Ellison?”

Jim handed Sandburg his ID. “Yes, reporting for duty.”

Sandburg barely glanced at the ID. He opened the door and stepped back. “Great, come on in. You’re right on time too. They called me earlier and were really great with giving me all the details of what to expect.”

To Jim, it seemed a nervous ramble. Sandburg had obviously never had a bodyguard before. Those assignments were the most difficult to settle into, for the client often felt they had to cater to the bodyguard’s needs, in the name of politeness, rather than simply allowing them the freedom to do their job.

Jim stepped into the foyer. 

“What do I call you?” Blair asked.

“Jim would be fine.” Jim’s eyes began surveying the interior, and mentally matching it up with the blueprints in the file.

“Great. Please call me Blair. Listen, I’ve never had a bodyguard before. I think it’s a bit much,” he laughed nervously, “but the publishing house insisted.”

Jim nodded while noting the way the livingroom window looked out over the back garden.

“Hey, I’ve got some chicken and dumplings on the stove. A fresh, tossed salad. And some warm bread in the oven. You’re welcome to join me.”

“I’ve already eaten,” Jim said, his eyes moving to the upstairs landing.

“Oh.” Sandburg deflated. “If you change your mind….”

Jim didn’t feel it necessary to reply. His eyes continued to roam the interior.

“You’re welcome to anything in the refrigerator at any time, including leftovers. It’s just me here, so it’s not like the food is being saved for anything special.”

Jim nodded, to be polite.

Blair rubbed his hands together. “Why don’t I show you to your room? The maid was here a couple of days ago and she fixed it up nice.”

Jim nodded again, eager to see the upstairs and how trespassers might access Sandburg’s bedroom.

He followed his client up the curved staircase. 

Blair opened the first door on the left. “Here it is. Mattress nice and firm, I’m told.” He went over to the window. “You’ve got the best view of the entire grounds from this window. The master bedroom is bigger, of course, but you can’t see as much from the windows.”

Jim wondered if that meant Blair would have given up the master bedroom, if it had provided a better view. “Where have prowlers come in?” he asked.

“I guess they climb the fence, even though it’s the wrought iron all the way around. You wouldn’t believe the injury some of these people are willing to risk.”

“Your file mentioned two incidents since you moved in three weeks ago. Have there been others?”

“Not what I’d call prowlers or even trespassers. Some people have come right to the front door and knocked, because they want me to autograph a book. Usually it’s a mother/daughter pair. Somehow they get the front gate to open. I always accommodate them, because I have to respect the fact that at least they knocked. My agent says I shouldn’t encourage them.” Blair shrugged. “But, you know, I don’t want them thinking I’m some kind of hard ass.”

“I’ll answer the door from now on,” Jim said firmly. “I’ll announce who it is. I’ll turn anyone away who doesn’t have an appointment, so I’m the one who is being impolite, not you.”

Blair looked at him sheepishly. “It’s not really a problem, for the few that have done that.”

“It can become a problem very quickly. With the internet, word can spread to millions in a matter of minutes that esteemed author Blair Sandburg will talk to anyone who walks up to his door.”

For the first time, Blair’s smile appeared heartfelt. “Esteemed author?”

Jim’s voice carried amusement. “That’s the impression I got from your file. If you want to know the truth, I’ve never heard of you before.”

Blair chuckled softly. “I didn’t think you looked like the type of guy to be reading books aimed at teenage girls. Anyway,” he said more seriously, “I’m glad. It’s refreshing to have a conversation with somebody who doesn’t think they already know me – when, in fact, they don’t have a clue.” He quickly looked away.

Jim touched Blair’s elbow and moved past him. “I’d like to see your room, so I have an idea of how somebody might try to get in, if they get over the gate.”

“Okay. It’s untidy already, even after the cleaning lady was here two days ago.”

“That won’t matter.”

The master suite was indeed large. A full bath and walk-in closet off to the side. Clothes were spread out on the bed and across a chair. A newspaper was on the floor. A saucer and remnants of a sandwich were on the nightstand. The room was located in the corner of the house, so the view out the two windows was indeed limited to a narrow part of the backyard.

Jim investigated the rest of the upstairs, and then they moved back down to the foyer. He resettled his jacket on his shoulders. “I’m going to take a look around and familiarize myself with the yard and the noises from the neighborhood.”

“Hey,” Blair said, laying his hand on Jim’s arm, “is it really true what they told me about you? About your extra keen eyesight and hearing and stuff? Or was that just marketing b.s.?”

Jim was tempted to not answer. But his abilities were a part of the package sold to clients. “It’s true,” he replied, and then moved out the front door.


It was nearly a half hour later when Jim returned to the house, carrying a suitcase and duffel bag.

Sandburg sat at one end of the large, rectangular dining table. He ate slowly, his head bowed.

He looked so lonely. 

Jim felt a twinge of guilt for turning down his offer of dinner. 

He put his luggage in his room and then came back downstairs. He spent a moment familiarizing himself with the rooms there, and took special note of the study, which was full of bookcases and a large desk. A laptop was the centerpiece.

So, this was where Sandburg’s writing took place.

When he came back out, Blair had pushed his plate away, but was still picking at the salad.

As Jim approached the table, Blair looked up hopefully. “Sure you don’t want any?”

“I guess I’ll have a roll,” Jim said as he took one, determined to at least grant the guy a conversation. He sat down and pulled the butter closer.

“You can heat it up in the microwave.”

“No, this a fine.”

Blair drank from his water, and then shifted in his chair. “This is going to be a really boring assignment. I’m not even sure how long it’s going to last. Please feel free to make yourself at home. Watch whatever you want on TV. I’m usually in my bedroom, the kitchen, or the study. I don’t take much watching over. If you really have extra good hearing and stuff, then you’ll know if anyone’s trespassing without having to be so vigilant.” He shrugged. “Like I said, it’s only happened a couple of times.”

“You leave the premises much?”

“Sometimes I have to, because my publisher sets me up for interviews. I have to be careful about the ones that are aired nationally. People recognize me after I’ve been on one of those. I usually hide out here for a few days, and then people forget.” He pushed his hair back. “I don’t think there’s many pictures of me out there with the long hair. And I always try to have it pulled back and tucked in my shirt when I’m going to be on TV. The publicity from the last book is starting to taper off, so I’m hoping that within a month or so that I won’t have to worry about it so much.”

“Do you have trouble with fans bothering you when you’re out and about?”

“They don’t really ‘bother’ me,” Blair said. “It’s just that if one or two ask for an autograph, then everyone in the store or on the street decides they want one. Some don’t even know who I am or what the fuss is about. They just don’t want to be left out, I guess.”

Delicately, Jim asked, “Do you have problems with the young girls wanting more from you than an autograph?”

“Sure. I try to be really careful about that. I mean, if they kiss me on the cheek, there’s not much I can do about it. But I made a decision a while ago that I’d never kiss them back, never initiate anything or encourage them. Still, it’s hard to be polite and deflective at the same time.” Sandburg’s eyes lowered as he muttered, “The mothers are the worst.”

“The mothers?”

“Yeah, the daughters read my book, fall in love with Sheldon Rockmund, the lead character, and so they think I’m like him so they fall in love with me – though it isn’t really me. And then I guess the mothers feel that, since I’m too old for their daughters, they’ve got to catch me for themselves. With the teenagers, I expect them to behave like teenagers.” Blair shook his head. “But the mothers… it’s pretty daunting when they raise their shirts and try to show me their breasts and stuff like that. I mean, what kind of example does that set for their children?”

Jim cocked his head, having finished off the bread. Sandburg seemed genuinely sincere about his dislike of all the female attention.

Jim wasn’t sure what to say. He couldn’t relate to that kind of unwanted attention – or any attention at all. He was accustomed to lingering in the shadows. “You don’t have a girlfriend?” he asked conversationally.

Blair snorted. “I sort of did. After I had my first interview, she couldn’t handle all the fans waiting outside the door of the TV studio. She was history.” He got up and took empty dishes to the large kitchen.

Jim did likewise, following him.

“Are there any visitors I should always know to let in?” Jim asked.

“Megan, my agent. She has an Australian accent, so you’ll know her when you hear her. Andy Nickerson is my editor with Prestige Publishing, but he’ll probably just call and email while I’m working on my next book.” Blair looked up at Jim, shrugging. “That’s really it.” He bent to place dishes in the dishwasher. “My mom, Naomi, is always welcome, but she’s spending the spring in Japan. She writes travel articles.”

Jim waited a moment, but no other names were mentioned. 

Blair turned on the dishwasher and wiped his hands. “I’m going to retire to the study. I usually do the biggest chunk of my writing at night and sometimes into the wee hours of the morning.”

Jim said, “I take it you don’t want to be disturbed whenever you’re in your study?”

Blair quickly waved his hands. “No, not at all. I’d love to be disturbed. Feel free to interrupt me anytime, man.” He moved away.

Jim watched his retreating back.


The days were indeed uneventful, if not outright boring. Jim caught up on a lot of reading and got interested in various daytime TV programs. It seemed to make Sandburg happy to see him relaxing. 

Of course, he kept his senses alert to any intruders. Once, he did hear commotion on the street in front of the house, but it turned out to be neighbors who were trying to catch their runaway Irish Setter. 

The fourth night of Jim’s assignment, he accompanied Blair to a black tie dinner party at a hotel in Cascade. Jim spent three hours with other security personnel, watching his client from afar while alert for anyone who might in any way disrupt the party or be a bother to Blair specifically.

Blair struck up a conversation with a young blonde woman and seemed to enjoy himself. Therefore, Jim wasn’t surprised when the blonde accompanied Blair in the backseat of the Cadillac, while Jim drove them all back to the estate.

Blair had kindly introduced the woman as Karen Loveton. But once home, he briskly said goodnight to Jim and escorted his date up to his bedroom.

Jim settled in to watch late night sitcoms.

Less than twenty minutes after arriving home, Jim heard Blair’s bedroom door open, and then there was the sound of two sets of footsteps along the upper level.

“Jim,” Blair said sharply as he came down the stairs, still dressed in his now-unbuttoned shirt and slacks, “please take Miss Loveton home.”

Jim was immediately on his feet, and he began putting on the tie he’d previously removed. “Yes, sir.” It was going on midnight. Sandburg should be fine for an hour or so. Perhaps he might be able to subtly question Sandburg’s short-term “guest” for any information that might prove to be important.

Blair moved back up the stairs, leaving Miss Loveton to wait. Her expression was carefully neutral.

“Miss Loveton,” Jim said as he held the door open for her.

She stepped out onto the patio, and then Jim escorted her to the front passenger seat of the Cadillac.

“Where do you live?” Jim asked, once they had turned out of the driveway.

“In the West Hampton area. Do you know where that is?”

Jim nodded. He’d worked for clients there.

She settled back in her seat. Then she asked, “Is he always like that?”

Jim glanced over at her, having no idea what she meant. In any case, he had no intention of revealing anything about his boss to a virtual stranger.

She clarified, “Just up and changes his mind before you even get to first base?”

Jim focused on driving.

“Does he have problems getting it up or something like that?”

Jim didn’t look at her.

She waved her hand. “Never mind. I’m just talking.” She opened her small purse. “Do you mind if I smoke a joint?”

Jim bristled. “Uh, yeah, actually I do. I have allergies.” One whiff of marijuana with his senses….

She took out a reefer. “How about if I keep the smoke outside the window?”

“Miss, please. I’ll have to call a cab to take you the rest of the way home, if you do that.”

She threw the joint back in her purse. “Fine then.”

They were silent for a while. Then she pleasantly asked, “So what’s he like?”

“Who?” Jim asked without thinking.

She snorted. “Blair Sandburg, silly. What’s it like being around him?”

Jim looked pleadingly at her. “I can’t discuss my employer with anyone.”

“You think I work for one of those tabloids?”

Jim heart lurched. He suddenly realized what life was like for Blair.

“Do you?” he asked casually, listening for her heartbeat.

“No, of course not, silly.”

Jim relaxed. She was telling the truth.

“I just see him mentioned in the tabloids sometimes. I always wonder how those magazines get those stories. Maybe they just make them all up.”

Jim was silent but that didn’t deter her from expanding on the thought. “They say he’s a recluse. He seemed charming at the party tonight. But I guess he is a recluse. Living in that big house all alone. He doesn’t seem interested in female companionship.” Pause. “Is he gay?”

Not that I’m aware of, Jim wanted to say. But it would be unprofessional to continue the conversation. “I can’t discuss my employer,” he repeated. Then, trying to appease her, “Just as, if someone asked me if I’d given you a ride home from his place. It would be wrong of me to answer one way or the other.”

“Yeah, I get it,” she said. “Not that I’d care if anyone knew I’d been at his place.” She grinned. “It might be kind of fun to have people think I slept with Blair Sandburg, famous author of The Willow Place.”

Jim wondered if that, indeed, was what she was going to do. Had bragging rights been her motivation for attracting Blair in the first place?


It was nearly an hour later when Jim returned to the estate. 

Blair sat in an easy chair, sipping a beer, his expression grim. “Did you get her home okay?” 


Blair looked out the window at the darkness. “Was she mad?”

“It’s hard to say.” Jim did not want to be in the middle of Blair and his lovers – or potential lovers.

“I ought to know better,” Blair said with a hint of anger.

Curious, Jim said, “Did you think she was with a tabloid? I’m sure she wasn’t.”

Blair looked up. “Huh? No, that wasn’t it.” He gazed into space for a long time.

Sensing his client’s need to talk, Jim sat on the sofa and waited.

Blair swallowed. Then, “She mentioned meeting my mother in Greece a couple of years ago. I fell for it.” He bowed his head. “I thought she was on the level. That she was really interested in me. Me.” He jabbed his chest with a thumb. “But once we were back here, some things she was saying didn’t add up. Then I knew she’d never met my Mom, but had read about her travels in a magazine.” Harsh snort. “She was just a fan, out trophy-hunting.”

Levelly, Jim asked, “You never sleep with fans?”

Blair closed his eyes. “God, no.” Then he opened them and seemed to relax a bit. “I admit that I wouldn’t have expected to feel that way. Attractive young women throwing themselves at you – who wouldn’t want that?” he asked, looking at Jim.

Jim waited.

“It’s so demeaning,” Blair said. “You realize what a Nothing you are. They don’t care anything about you, only what they can get from you, from that image they’ve fallen in love with.”

Jim wasn’t sure if Blair would appreciate his next words. “It sounds like a lonely life.”

Blair gazed at the floor. “It is.”

“What about friends? Other writers?”

Blair snorted. “What a joke that turned out to be. I had good friends in college – when we were all struggling together and dreaming of writing the Great American Novel. We’d congratulate each other when one of us got a short story published in a magazine, things like that.” He paused, gaze remaining on the floor as he slowly sipped his beer. “They were even happy for me when I got my first book published. Then came the second book, and,” he glanced at Jim, “you know Eric Whalen, the actor who suddenly got big after that gangster movie last year?”

Jim nodded. “Yeah, I saw that movie.”

“Well, he was on Oprah, and he happened to mention that his daughter loved The Willow Place. The next thing I know, I’m famous and all my friends are gone.”

Jim tried to fathom that. “Maybe your friends were afraid, you know, that you’d look down on them.”

“No, they weren’t.” Blair shook his head. “Not afraid. Jealous. I overheard them talking once, and they made a crack about what a lousy writer I was; how I was the one among us who deserved it the least.” He looked away. “I was never able to feel the same way about them after that.”

Jim couldn’t believe it was all that gloom and doom. “What about other well-known writers?”

Another snort, this one harsher. Blair looked up. “They don’t want me in their circle. I haven’t groveled and crawled as much as they have. My second book, I received what it took most of them decades to achieve. I’m not a ‘real writer’, as far as they’re concerned. I haven’t paid my dues. They’ve decided my work is trash and the public is too stupid to realize it.”

Jim tried a soft smile. “Surely, it isn’t as bad as all that.”

Blair looked directly at Jim, his mouth falling open. Then he rubbed his hand along his forehead and pushed his hair back. “Ah, man, I’m sorry. You don’t need to listen to my pity-party. Thanks for taking her home. I know that’s not really part of your job description.”

Jim realized that Blair had already forgotten her name. 

Blair bowed his head, his thumb outlining the opening of the beer bottle. “I just wish, so much sometimes, that I could go back to living a normal life. When people wanted to be around me for me, and not because I’m famous.”

Jim gently said, “I think that’s understandable.”

“It’s so weird,” Blair went on. “I’m living the great American dream. My own dream.” He slowly shook his head. “It’s so damn empty. Didn’t help that it happened so fast. One minute I’m anonymous; the next, I’ve being interviewed on Good Morning America and written about in Newsweek and it seems like everyone I meet wants a piece of me.”

Jim wasn’t sure how sincere Sandburg was, but he asked, “Can’t you get out of it? Maybe disappear?”

Gentle snort. “I fantasize about it sometimes. But I owe Prestige another book. I want to write it, but after that I want to go on to other types of writing. I think I’ll have to get another publisher and change my pen name. I don’t want everyone expecting another Willow if Blair Sandburg is the author.”

“Sounds like you just need to stick it out until this book is done.”

“Yeah. But then it’s in my contract that I have to do the talk show circuit when it’s published. So, it’ll be another year at least before I can quietly disappear. Though,” he looked at Jim bashfully, “disappearing or being a recluse aren’t really in my nature. I’m the type of guy who likes to be around people.”

And he was here in this big house, all alone.

Blair rested his chin in his hand. “Enough about me. Why don’t you tell me something about you. How long have you been a bodyguard?”

“A couple of years.” Jim thought that Blair’s side of the conversation was a lot more interesting.

“What did you do before that?”

“I was a cop with the Cascade PD.”

“Really? Why did you quit?”

Jim hesitated and Blair quickly waved a hand. “Never mind, eighty-six that. I don’t have a right to pry.”

But he wanted to keep talking, Jim could tell. Keep interacting with someone who wanted nothing from him or from the image of the character he had so skillfully written.

“It’s nothing secretive,” Jim said. “These abilities I have, with my senses?”


“They’re really helpful in a quiet environment like this. But with the chaos of being a cop, being on the streets and so much always going on at the station, I couldn’t focus on my job. It was too much input. They finally had to let me go.”

He thought he’d sounded matter-of-fact about it, but his tone prompted Sandburg to say, “Sorry.”

“This job actually pays better,” Jim said. “And it’s not often that I have to deal with scum, like I did as a cop. Still,” he admitted reluctantly, “it’s a little too tame sometimes.”

“I can imagine,” Blair said. He brightened. “Oh, hey, this house has a basement. There’s a large gym down there. The equipment is all set up. I never use it. Feel free.”

Jim nodded. “Thank you. A workout in the morning sounds like it could hit the spot.”

Blair stood, leaving the beer bottle on the end table. “I’m turning in.” He gave Jim a wry smile. “Thanks for putting up with all my whining. I try not to get down about all the success I’ve had, and appreciate it instead. Still, it’s hard sometimes…. Well, goodnight.”

He turned away.

Jim watched him move to the stairs. 

He's so alone.


A few days later, on a Saturday, Blair was scheduled for an appearance at a local bookstore, to autograph copies of his books.

He emerged from his room wearing jeans, a black leather jacket, and a dark beret atop his head. His hair was tied and tucked inside his shirt.

“That’s quite a get-up,” Jim said, as he accompanied Blair to the stairs.

“I always try to look the same way when putting in a public appearance, so it makes it harder for people to recognize me at other times. Remind me to take off my glasses before we go into the store.”

Jim made a mental note to do just that.

The plan was for Blair to arrive five minutes before two o’ clock, when he was scheduled to appear. They would park in the alley behind the bookstore, and be greeted by an employee at a backdoor, which was normally locked.

They passed by the front of the store first and got a glimpse of the line that was already two blocks long. There was a mixture of people – though mostly female – of all ages.

Jim heard Blair draw a breath before saying, “Seems like the entire city has turned out. It always looks overwhelming. But once you sit down and start signing, it’s more comfortable – except you get writer’s cramp like crazy. I always start out determined to have a conversation with everybody, but by the end I’m just exhausted and it’s an effort to keep smiling.”

“Keep the line moving,” Jim said, reminding him of their discussion the prior evening. “In a long line, people start getting upset when they feel like they’re being held up. Just focus on what you’re doing and I’ll be within a few feet of the desk, keeping my eye out for anybody who looks like they might be there for something more than a book signing.”

“I can’t imagine what,” Blair said with a nervous laugh.

Jim turned into the alley. “Some people will want to have their picture taken with you. The store put out on all their advertising that no posed photographs would be allowed. If anyone asks to have their picture taken with you, I’ll handle it. You won’t need to say anything at all. Just keep smiling and keep signing.”

An employee was waiting at the backdoor.

“Take off your glasses,” Jim said as he cut the motor.

Blair did so. “Thanks.” He tucked them in his pocket.

“Hello, there,” the employee greeted. “Right this way. There’s quite a crowd.”

They entered a narrow hallway. A well-dressed woman appeared, whom Jim assumed to be the manager he had spoken to previously. She held out her hand. “Blair Sandburg, what an honor it is to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you,” Blair said, shaking her hand.

She glanced up at Jim. “And you must be Mr. Ellison. I’m Kathy Wents.” She rubbed her hands together, turning back to Blair. “Just give us a moment to announce you, and then you can take a seat at the desk. We’ve got a barrier across the front – where the first people have been waiting since eight o’clock this morning – and as soon as you’re seated and comfortable, we’ll remove the barrier.”

“Sounds good,” Blair said, his voice still nervous.

“Would you like coffee, tea, water, or soda?”

“Uh, I’ll start with coffee. Black. But please have water available.”

“It’ll be right there on the desk. I’ll be hovering around, so just tell me if you’d like anything. I think we’ve got a good supply of pens for you.” She glanced at Jim. “I’m sure Mr. Ellison will keep an eye out for any trouble. In the meantime, the local police have assured us that they’ll be doing frequent drive-bys.”

“Thank you,” Jim said, “that’s appreciated.”

“All right,” Kathy said, “are you ready for me to announce you?”

Blair nodded with a gulp. 

“Are you going to want to say anything before you sit down?”

“No,” Jim put in quickly. “With this large a crowd, it’s best if he just gets started.”

“All right then,” she said, and then turned down the hall and disappeared through a door, which she left open a few inches.

The excitement on the other side of the door was palpable.

“May I have your attention please,” Kathy said in a loud voice. 

Jim placed his hands on Blair’s shoulders and gave them a reassuring squeeze.

“Here’s the moment you’ve all been waiting so patiently for. Barnyard Books is very proud to present Cascade’s most famous author, the man who wroteWhisps of Willows and its sequel, The Willow Place, the one and only and highly talented… Mr. Blair Sandburg.” She began clapping and looked back toward the hall.

Jim pushed the door open and waited for Blair to enter the main room of the store. The clapping increased amongst cheering and whistling.

Jim watched the crowd from where he was, as he didn’t want to interfere with Blair’s moment or draw attention away from him.

Blair stood before the small desk and chair. “Thank you all so much for that warm welcome. I’m looking forward to meeting you all. So, I’ll sit down here and get right to it.”

He pulled the chair back and sat. A pen was placed in his hand before he could select one from the stash in a nearby cup, and Kathy set a coffee cup to one side.

“Thanks,” Blair said breathlessly.

The crowd started to inch against the barrier.

Jim casually emerged from the hall and moved over to a nearby bookcase. He crossed his arms.

The barrier was removed and a mother and daughter, about eight years of age, moved quickly up to the desk.

Blair smiled brightly. “Well, hello there, little lady. What’s your name?”

“Lisa,” she said.

Her mother placed two books on the table. “Make The Willow Place to her, and the other book to me.” She smiled. “My name is Suzanne.”

Blair had the first book open. “All right, Suzanne.”

As Blair wrote, Lisa said, “You look a lot shorter in real life.”

Blair’s grin widened as he finished the autograph with a flourish. “That’s what a lot of people say.” He grabbed the second book. “How about I write, ‘To a sweet little princess named Lisa. May she grow to be tall and even more beautiful than she is right now.”

She giggled.

Suzanne hovered a moment, as though considering having something special placed in her book.

Jim was relieved when Blair firmly said, “Thanks,” and handed her the books, while making eye contact with the next people in line.

Good job, Chief.

Jim could see what Blair had meant. With the first signing under his belt, his nervousness was gone and he was focused on his task. While he seemed to enjoy it when someone started a conversation, he was adept at cutting them off without appearing impolite.

It was the fifth pair in line that caused Jim to straighten and approach the table. A woman was pushing her five-year-old daughter toward the table while putting a camera to her eye. “Go on up, honey. Say hi to Blair Sandburg and go stand next to him.”

Jim was next to her in two strides. He put his hand on her arm. “Ma’am, no posed photographs are allowed with Mr. Sandburg. You can take pictures while he’s autographing.”

“I just want one of him and my daughter shaking hands. It’ll take one second.” She put the camera back to her eye.

“No,” Jim said more firmly, while keeping his voice as low as possible. “If you try to take a posed picture, I’ll take possession of your camera and escort you out of the store. You wouldn’t want to disappoint your daughter, would you?”

“I don’t understand – ” she began.

“It’s the rules,” Jim said with forced patience. “My security firm,” he emphasized the words, “won’t allow it, for the safety of Mr. Sandburg. We have to keep the line moving, so everyone can get their book signed before the store closes.”

Behind him, he heard Blair say, “What a pretty dress you’re wearing, Samantha. When do you get it?”

“For my birthday,” the little girl replied.

The woman wasn’t happy, but she relented when she saw that Blair was speaking so nicely to her daughter, across the table.

Things continued uneventfully, and Jim was surprised when he looked at the clock and saw that the first hour had already passed. The line still seemed long.

A young employee stepped up next to him, holding a white envelope. “Mr. Ellison?” she said hesitantly, as though not sure if Jim would be friendly.

He accepted the envelope while she explained, “A man out front asked me to give this to you.”

Jim looked out toward the front window, but only saw parked cars and more of the crowd. “Is he still there?”

“No, he left.”

“Did he ask for me by name?”

“No, he asked if you were Blair Sandburg’s bodyguard, and I said I thought so.”

Jim nodded, dismissing her, and studied the envelope, which was sealed and didn’t have any writing on it. He had a bad feeling about it.

He made sure the crowd was still behaving, and then took a moment to tear the end off the envelope. He took out the single sheet of paper and unfolded it.

The handwritten print said:

If you would like to make $20,000 cash for a half hour of your time, call this cell phone number: 555-555-2368.

$20,000 cash because he was Blair Sandburg’s bodyguard.

It was probably a tabloid reporter, looking for dirt.

It was a while longer before the young employee was again within whispering distance. Jim asked, “Can you tell me what the person looked like who gave you this?”

She shrugged. “Just kind of sandy-haired and blue eyes. A little bit tall, I guess.”

“Thank you.”

At least he could keep an eye out for anyone who might be tailing them.

As for the note… he crumbled it up and stuffed it in his pocket.


The store stayed open nearly a half hour after closing time, so Blair could finish autographing. By the end, he was scribbling frantically and hardly talking to anybody.

He looked frazzled and worn out when they were headed home. His right hand shook when he put on his glasses.

“Exhausting work, huh?” Jim said with sympathy.

“Yeah. Still, a local crowd like that is easier to deal with than those who hang out at the big television studios, waiting to get a glimpse of you, or pull at your hair for a memento.”

Jim wondered if anybody had ever really done such a thing. Nothing like that was going to happen on his watch.

“You want to stop for something to eat?”

“You mean at a restaurant? I don’t have the energy. Maybe we can just do a drive through.”

Jim glanced over at Blair. “There’s a lever on the side to lean the seat back, if you want to take a catnap.”

“It’s tempting, but I’ll feel better with the food.” Pause. “Jim?”

Jim looked over at him.

“Thanks for hanging out through all of that. I know it had to be pretty boring.”

Jim shrugged. “Just doing my job.”

“Yeah, well, I felt a lot calmer about the whole thing. I used to practically have a panic attack when I was going to have to meet a bunch of strangers. But knowing you were there, my nerves were minimal.”

“Glad to help out.” As he said it, Jim realized how sincerely he meant the words.

Jim kept checking the rear view mirror for a tail, but no one followed them. No doubt, the tabloid thought he’d call their number and they’d have a sleazy “true” story, straight from the bodyguard’s mouth.

All the money in the world wouldn’t tempt him to betray Sandburg’s trust.


A few days later, Jim had just finished working up a sweat when he heard a car drive up. He quickly threw a robe over his damp gym clothes and trotted up the stairs.

“Somebody’s here,” he called to the study in warning. 

Blair looked out the window. “It’s the mail truck.”

Jim went to the door and opened it. The postman was taking a large cloth sack out of the back of his truck. “Blair Sandburg, right?” he said, looking at the tag on the sack.

“Yes, he lives here. I’m his bodyguard.”

The man handed him the sack with a smile. “More fan mail. I wouldn’t want to be his secretary. Have a nice day.” He moved back to the truck.

I wouldn’t want to be his secretary either, Jim thought as he brought the heavy bag inside. It had to contain hundreds of letters.

“You can put it there behind the door,” Blair said when Jim approached.

Jim put the bag down behind the door, where another half dozen sacks were. “This is all fan mail?”

“Yeah,” Blair said without looking up from his laptop. “The next time I talk to my agent, I’ll have her arrange something with a fan club service.”

Jim noted that all the sacks were closed. “You ever look at any of it?”

Blair shrugged. “I did at first. But – ” he quickly went back to his laptop, clicking away.

“Too much to handle, huh?” Jim said.

“That,” Blair said, finally giving Jim his full attention, “plus… some of the letters….” Blair shuddered.

Jim took a step toward him, frowning. “Are some of them threatening?”

“No,” Blair said with a chuckle. “At least, not the way you’d normally define threatening.”

Jim took a seat on the other side of the desk and crossed his arms. “I think you’d better fill me in, Chief.”


Jim didn’t respond. He’d used the nickname without thinking. “What did you mean about threatening?”

“Some of those letters are really lewd. I swear, I love dirty talk as much as the next guy, but at least half of those are enough to make even me blush. Women talking about their sexual skills – in detail – and telling me what they’d do to me if I invite them over.” Harsh laugh. “Some even enclose their letters with their daughters’. Their thirteen-year-old daughter will write me, telling me how much she loves Sheldon Rockmund and can’t wait for the next book; and in the same envelope will be a letter from her mother, telling me how seeing me on Good Morning America made her ‘pussy all wet’.” Blair pushed his hair back. “I mean, man.

For a moment, Jim thought Blair was protesting too much. But then he realized he was sincerely flabbergasted. “Look, Chief, since I have the time, why don’t I start going through those? You say that other writers and old friends don’t like you. What if there’s something threatening in there and we don’t find out about it until months from now, when the mailing service gets its hands on it?”

Blair shrugged, opened a desk drawer, and pulled out a letter opener. “Sure. Knock yourself out.”


Jim showered, dressed in casual clothing, and brought the first sack – the one just delivered – out to the dining table. He started opening each envelope and quickly browsing through the letter within, with an eye to spotting anything threatening.

Before long, he was beginning to understand why Blair was so disturbed. Some women – and some men – enclosed pictures of themselves in provocative poses, scantily clothed, sometimes outright naked. Some gave their addresses and described what time Blair should meet them, as though they really thought that simply writing and giving an appointment time was all that was needed for Blair to travel to their part of the globe. One woman enclosed plane tickets to Switzerland.

But many of the letters were from children, and those tended to cause Jim to slow down and read, and realize how talented Blair must be to have such a strong, positive effect on young lives. “I want to grow up and be just like Sheldon Rockmund,” some letters claimed. “I started my own detective agency with other kids on my block,” another read. 

Jim sat some of the more heart-warming ones aside, so Blair could enjoy them without worrying about what they contained.

“I’m already a writer,” one twelve-year-old girl boasted. “I‘m writing a novel about a magician. It would be really cool to meet you someday, but I know you’re probably too busy writing your next book.”

Jim included that in the pile to show Blair.

He heard voices outside. Young voices. He called, “Sandburg, be alert. I hear something.” He went to the door, reaching to the holster at his back.

Blair worriedly came out of his office. “What are you hearing?”

“I think it’s children’s voices. It sounds like it’s coming from the south side.” Firmly, he said, “Stay here and remain alert.” He went outside.

“Don’t hurt anybody,” Blair called after him.

Jim trotted around to the south side of the house. Three pre-adolescent girls were scaling the iron gate. One was already in the yard, and the other two jumped down to join her.

“All right,” Jim said in his firmest voice, “hold it right there.”

The girls looked at each other, then the oldest one – with long strawberry blonde hair – said, “We heard Blair Sandburg lives here.”

“Well, he doesn’t. So, let’s go to the front gate and I’ll let you back out. Otherwise, I’ll call the police and have you arrested. Your parents will have to bail you out of jail.”

Unfortunately, they didn’t look worried.

One of the girls crossed her arms. “We know Blair Sandburg lives here.”

“Yeah? How do you know?” Jim wondered.

“Our friend told us and she knows everything.”

“Well, she told you wrong.” Jim waved a beckoning hand. “Come on, to the front gate, or I’ll call the police.”

They began marching in single file. “Where are your parents?” Jim asked.

“At some stupid meeting,” one of the girls said.

“A seminar,” another corrected.

“Where do you live?”

“In Salt Lake City.”

They were now at the front of the house. The door opened and Blair stepped out. “What do we have here?”

They looked at him in puzzlement. “We’re looking for Blair Sandburg,” the oldest one said.

Jim pointedly said, “I’ve already told them that no such person lives here.”

“Well,” Blair said, pulling out a rubber band, “it just takes a little transformation.” He pulled his hair into ponytail and then tucked it back in his shirt. He pulled off his glasses. “Now, who do I look like?”

“Blair Sandburg!” one of the girls squealed, rushing toward him. The other two followed and Blair squatted down to their level.

A storm of questions followed. “Do you know Sheldon Rockmund for real?” “Have you ever been a detective?” “Are you working on your next book right now? What’s it about?” “Is Sheldon going to die in any of the books?”

Blair answered their questions, darting his eyes up and down dramatically and gesturing grandly. 

Jim stood back and waited, thinking it wasn’t a good idea to encourage the girls. Yet, he could understand Blair not wanting to disappoint them.

Just a half mile away was the Cascade suburb of Franktown. It had a couple of hotels and Jim supposed the parents must all be there from Salt Lake City, to attend a seminar.

“Do your parents know you’re here?” Jim asked when the chatter finally started to wind down.

The eldest said, “They said we could walk down the road, as long as we stayed together and didn’t get in a car with anybody.” She indicated her pocket. “I have a cell phone.”

“Yeah, a cell phone,” another said.

“Maybe you should call your parents so they know where you are.”

Blair stood and waved his arm. “Jim.”

Jim went over to him.

Blair said, “If they call the parents here, they might be worse than the kids. They could have people from the whole town gawking around here. Let’s just let them leave out the front gate and walk back. This is Friday. Hopefully, whatever event their parents are attending will be over today and they’ll be back on a plane tonight.”

“All right,” Jim said with reluctance, and then turned back to their uninvited guests. “I’ll open the front gate for you girls. Do as your parents say and stay together and don’t talk to any strangers.”

“We will,” they promised.

“It’s been very nice meeting you,” Blair said sweetly. He held out his hand and shook each of the girl’s.

Finally, they were out the gate and heading back down the private lane.

Blair stood watching them, grinning. “I don’t mind meeting fans like that. When they’re sweet and in small groups.”

“They shouldn’t be jumping the fence,” Jim said. “They could have hurt themselves and you’d been the target of a major lawsuit.”

“Yeah,” Blair said with a sigh. 

He turned back to his study.


Two days later, they both sat in the living room, watching TV. A volleyball game was taking place on a beach.

“When’s the last time you played volleyball?” Blair asked.

Jim shrugged. “High school, I guess.”

“Yeah, it’s been a long time for me, too.” Then, wistfully, “It looks like so much fun.”

Jim turned away from the TV to look at him. “You need to get out more, Chief.”

“I can’t be around other people. They expect me to be somebody I’m not.”

“Maybe it’s time for you to start showing people the real you, regardless of what they think.”

Blair grimaced. “It’s not easy to continually disappoint people.”

The game on the television did look like fun. Maybe there was a way of getting out without needing to intermingle with others. “Do you fish?”

Blair’s face brightened. “Sure! I love to fish. I don’t have any equipment with me though.”

“Neither do I. Let’s go to a tackle shop tomorrow, in mid-morning when there aren’t a lot of people around. Then let’s go fly fishing.”

Blair grinned at him. “Okay.”


No one was around when the drove up to a bank along the Suwanee River, deep in the Cascades. After being satisfied that their new equipment was set, they waded out into the water and began casting their lines.

Jim was so engrossed in the joy of the process that it wasn’t until a door slammed that he realized another car had pulled up, fifty yards away. He kept an eye on the elderly couple that emerged and wasted little time in making their way out into the water with their fishing lines.

Jim turned his attention back to his own fishing.

“I think I’ve got something!” Blair called.

Jim moved closer to him, only to find that Blair had reeled in an old bicycle tire.

Blair disentangled his line and then cast it back out.

Jim realized the elderly couple had moved closer. The woman had bird-watching binoculars, and he heard her say, “I’m sure that’s him, even with the fishing hat. There’s no mistaking those eyes. I know he lives in this general area.”

Jim could see that the couple’s stares were in the direction of Blair, who was too involved in fishing to notice.

The husband grunted. “He doesn’t look like much.”

Jim firmed his jaw.

“He looks awfully damn short, compared to on the TV.”

“Everyone looks taller on TV,” the wife said.

“He hasn’t caught anything either,” the man said.

With humor, the wife countered, “He’s a writer, not a fisherman.”

“Why don’t you say hello?” the man prompted.

“No, I couldn’t do that,” the woman said. “He’s here to relax, like we are.”

“You can brag to the grandchildren. They’ll never forgive you if you were fishing right next to Sandburg and didn’t even get his autograph.”

“There’s nothing here for him to sign.”

“He looks like a damn fag,” the man said.

“Robert!” she scolded.

“He even has a buddy with him.”

Jim moved quickly over to Blair. “Chief,” he said as casually as he could manage. “Let’s call it a day. The fish aren’t biting.”

Blair grinned up at him. “It’s fun though and we still have another hour of sun.”

Jim lowered his voice, “That elderly couple is thinking of asking for your autograph. I heard them.”

“Oh.” Blair made a point of not looking toward them. “I wonder how they recognized me.” He started to reel in his line. “Must be the hair.” It was pulled back in a neat ponytail.

As quickly as possible, they moved their equipment and put it in the trunk of Blair’s car.

“Man, this was fun,” Blair said, beaming at Jim as they got in the car. “I could do this all day.”

“Since we cut things a little short,” Jim said, “how about we go out for a steak dinner? My treat.”

“Great!” Blair replied. As they turned onto the main road that paralleled the river, Blair said, “You know, if I’d just given them my autograph without any fuss, they probably would have left us alone, and we still could have fished a while.”

Jim grunted, “Too late now.” He didn’t have the heart to tell Blair what the husband, in particular, had said about him.

He was starting to see what Blair had meant about how difficult it was being in public. He wasn’t anywhere near as famous as a movie star like Brad Pitt, or a football hero like John Elway, but that didn’t stop people from treating him like a piece of furniture, to be studied and analyzed. And judged.

Jim thought people ought to mind their own damn business. And get a life.

And leave Blair alone.

Well, not alone. Blair was already plenty alone. He yearned for companionship with people who weren’t oogled by the fact that he’d written a bestseller. Or envious that he’d obtained the fame and recognition that they wanted for themselves.

He wanted a friend.

He wanted to be loved for himself.

He wanted the same things everybody wanted. And seemed to have a damn hard time getting even a tiny bit of his share.

Jim wished he could fix things for Blair.


Jim’s cell phone rang. “Ellison,” he answered.

“Ellison,” Samuel Fleming’s voice said, “how’s it going?”

“It’s going fine,” Jim replied. He’d been on assignment five weeks now.

“Yes, that’s great. Listen, Ellison, we need to pull you off your current assignment.”

Jim’s heart clenched. Abandon Sandburg? “Is that necessary, sir? There haven’t been many problems here, but Sandburg still occasionally has trespassers.”

“Yes, we can put Jenkins on it. With your police background, we need to put you on another assignment that requires more vigilance.”

And was more dangerous, Jim knew.

Fleming went on, “This is a top client, so you’ll get the top tier pay. It’s a Norwegian family with some Asian enemies. You’ll be inside the house, and we’ll have other guards on assignment to watch the outside of the house and their place of business.”

Jim swallowed. A whole family. More action, he wouldn’t mind, but there was something to be said for a quiet life. A quiet life with Sandburg.

“We’ll be calling Sandburg to let him know what’s up. Jenkins should be fine for the job.”

Jenkins was also a zero on the personality scale, Jim realized. He didn’t expect he and Sandburg to like each other much. 

Jim heard the phone ring in Sandburg’s office. “When do I report to my new assignment?”

“There’s a strategy meeting with all the guards tomorrow morning in my office. And then you’ll be disbursed to your various locations. Can you manage that?”

“Uh… yeah,” Jim said, not liking it.

“Good, Ellison. See you tomorrow at nine.”

Jim cut the line.


What was wrong with him? Sandburg would be fine. The money would be good on this new assignment. He’d have more to do. He’d have other guards to oversee so wouldn’t have any reason to pay much attention to the client’s personal lives.

He furrowed his brow, surprised at himself. He’d allowed himself to get personally involved with Sandburg, hadn’t he? It had happened so easily that he hadn’t even realized it, let alone resisted.

He couldn’t feel guilty or sorry about that.

Blair emerged from his office, his face pale. “Your firm just called and said they’re replacing you.”

“Yeah,” Jim said regretfully. “I’m needed on another case. With my police background, it makes me the ideal bodyguard for certain types of jobs.”

“It’s a lot more dangerous than this, isn’t it?” 

Jim shrugged. Then, with a soft smile, “I’ve always been able to handle myself. Anyway, you’ll do all right with Jenkins.” You just won’t like him much.

“Damn,” Blair said softly.

Yeah. Damn.


Later that afternoon, Jim had his bags in hand as he approached the door. He set one down and handed Blair his card. “I’ve written my home phone number on the back, which I check for messages, in case you can’t contact me on my cell. If you need me, for anything, you give me a call. All right?”

Blair looked him in the eye. “I need you to go fishing with me.”

Jim smiled. “Let’s plan on that, as soon as I have some time off. I’ll let you know as soon as I know.” He reached to pat Blair on the cheek. Then he said, “Don’t let yourself get too down about things. I’ve read some of your fan mail. Your books mean a lot to some of these kids.”

Blair nodded with a grimace.

“After you finish this book,” Jim went on, “you’ll be free of your contract and can maybe build the life you want.”

Blair nodded again. Then he said, “You take care, Jim. I mean that.”

“I will.” Jim bent to pick up his bags, but suddenly Blair’s arms were around him, squeezing tight.

Blair swallowed. “Goodbye, Jim,” he said softly.

Jim briefly hugged him back, wondering why such closeness could only happen at hellos and goodbyes. “Same here.” He put his hand on the door. “See you, Chief.”


Part Two

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