Disclaimer: Standard disclaimer applies.
Warnings: Some rough language, angst, confusion and violenceboth implied and realahead.
Author's Notes: A little background... well, over a year ago, I accepted a challenge from Carolyn to write a Jim nightmare story. She's waited a long time for the resultquite patiently, I might add. This piece follows events from a previous storyOut of Harm's Wayalthough it is not a direct sequel and stands on its own merits (hopefully). Per the show's timeframe, this would take place within the third season. No Sentinel, Too references. My thanks to Carolyn for her beta effortsshe makes me look so good!and to Chris and everyone else who's written with encouragement.
Human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly,
distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling in its own nature with it.
Sir Francis Bacon, Aphorisms
... reflections... fragments... dark... cold... the smell of mildew and stale beer... an ancient face glimpsed only for a fraction of a second... a bony, gnarled hand clenching a sliver of deadly brilliance... the panicked beating of a heart... the knife-edged echo of a scream...
Jim Ellison woke with the scream and the pounding of his own heartbeat reverberating in his ears. Pale blue eyes stared upward through the skylight, desperately searching the sky which matched them. He flinched, startled by the thump of a small bird ricocheting off the glass pane and stared at the flock that streamed past unharmed.
Damn, what a way to wake up!
He shook his head to clear the last vestiges of the sleepy fog. Surrounded by the comfortable familiarity of his own bedroom, the disturbing images of the dream slipped away as he relaxed back into the pillows.
He jerked upright as the high-pitched squeal of a band saw cut the morning air.
Jim groaned and muttered one of his partner's more inventive curses when he realized it was the construction crew working on the building next door which had aged him another five years. He glanced over at the clock, fully prepared to have someone's head for violating the early morning peace. The plastic cover over the LED readout on his clock glimmered strangely. He shifted positions so the reflections bouncing down from the skylight no longer interfered with reading the numbers.
Jim shoved back the covers and scrambled out of bed, hastily pulling on his robe as he descended the stairs. Halfway down, something caught his eye and he glanced toward the balcony. He winced and blinked as a ray of sunlight bounced off the metal strip on the door frame and seared his vision. He squeezed his eyes shut and held them that way for a moment, while the glowing lightning bolt streaked across the inside of his eyelids.
Man, that was bright. No rain in Cascade today, obviously, he grimaced.
Shaking off the painful aftereffects, he blinked open his eyes and glanced toward the living room. Blair Sandburg was calmly sitting on the couch, reading from a thick, battered book and drinking a cup of coffee. The urgent reason for the trip down the stairs suddenly clamored in Jim's mind, reminding him of the alarm that hadn't gone off on schedule. He stalked down the remaining steps, targeted on the younger man who still had his nose buried in the ancient tome, and who seemed completely unaware he was about to have an irritated Sentinel breathing down his neck.
"Good morning to you, too, Jim," Blair answered. Unfazed by the annoyance in the older man's tone, he carefully marked his place and slid the book into the backpack that was resting on the floor next to him. He slipped the glasses off his face and into his pocket before looking up to meet his partner's glare. "Sleep well?"
"I slept fine," the Sentinel rumbled. "Just too long. We were due at the station an hour ago. Why didn't you wake me?"
"You didn't hear the phone?" Blair asked in surprise. "Simon called around 6:30. The briefing's been postponed until 1:00 p.m. He said since we're probably going to be working late tonight that we should wait until then to come in."
Jim ran the fingers of one hand through his close-cropped hair. "So you let me sleep..."
"Yeah, you looked beat. You must have really been tired, if you didn't hear the phone or me puttering around down here. You okay?"
The sound of the saw screeched through the apartment. The noise set the Sentinel's teeth on edge and sent disturbing visions from the dream flashing across his mind once more.
"Everything okay with you, Jim?"
Preoccupied with his own thoughts and discomfort, the Sentinel missed the concern in his Guide's voice. "I'm fine. Just wish the three little pigs out there would finish their house at a more reasonable hour. They've woken me up every morning for the past week with their racket."
"Guess they don't know about the house rules," Blair grinned. "You hungry? I can start breakfast."
The loud 'thwack' of hammers pounding in a ragged, distracting beat joined the wail of the saw.
"Sounds like the pigs have helpers today," Blair chuckled. "Maybe Tom Thumb or the Billy Goats Three decided to lend a hand."
"If they're not finished by tonight, they're going to get a reminder about what happened to the house that was built out of wood," the Sentinel grumbled. "As a matter of fact, ham and eggs sounds like just what the doctor ordered. Let me grab a shower and we'll catch something down the street. Where it's quieter."
"Sounds good to me."
Stepping out of the diner into the bright mid-morning sunlight, Jim winced and fumbled in his pocket for his sunglasses.
"You know, man, for someone who was ready to have diced construction workers for breakfast a little while ago, you didn't eat much," Blair observed quietly, settling his backpack on his shoulder.
"Guess I wasn't as hungry as I thought," Jim answered, reluctant to admit that his appetite had soured because of the headache that was pounding at the inside of his skull.
The annoying ache had started with a minute tightness between his eyes and had moved up to a Richter scale intensity level of at least seven. He'd thought that food might help, but things had simply grown worse the longer they'd been in the brightly lit diner. Between the sunlight streaming in through the windows and the overhead fluorescent lights, the reflections bouncing off the gleaming metal appliances and spotless counters had made his stomach roll queasily. He had wound up pushing the food around his plate, waiting for Blair to finish his own meal.
Jim blinked several times and felt the strained tightness of his furrowed forehead. Even his eyebrows hurt.
Never thought I'd find myself yearning for Cascade's usually leaden skies, he thought ruefully.
He took a deep breath and expelled it slowly. The relaxation exercise didn't seem to have much effect. With a small shake of his head, he slid the glasses into place. The polarizing lenses helped dampen the worst of the glare, but the headache had already taken hold and his gut still churned.
Maybe some exercise would help.
"Let's take the long way back," Jim suggested. Placing a hand on his partner's shoulder he steered the younger man to the right, away from the loft. "We've been sitting too many stakeouts lately. If you keep eating breakfasts like that you're gonna lose your girlish figure, Chief."
"No way, man. Not the way you run my ass off chasing the bad guys. I'm in better shape than I've ever been, thanks to trying to keep up with you," Blair grinned.
They ambled along the sidewalk, absently checking out the window displays of the shops that were wedged wall to wall along the familiar street. Blair shifted easily into his normal 'talk a mile a minute' mode, hands flying gracefully in punctuation of each thought and observation. The rambling words and gentle tones of his Guide ebbed and flowed around the Sentinel like a soothing tide and he started to relax.
While Blair paused to peer into the windows of a new art gallery, exclaiming excitedly over the items on display, Jim nodded a greeting to one of the storekeepers who was cranking down an old-fashioned striped canvas awning. The high-pitched squeal of metal grinding on metal sent a shiver down the Sentinel's spine.
"Let's go, Michaelangelo," Jim muttered, snagging Blair's arm and towing him along at a faster pace. His headache had returned with a vengeance and he wanted to get back to the loft for some aspirin.
"Okay, okay... Remind me never to let you sleep late and miss your regularly scheduled 6:30 a.m. feeding. You're a bear when your blood sugar is low," Blair grumbled in response, lengthening his stride to keep up with the older man. "Maybe we should detour over to the bakery and get you a dozen of those artery clogging glazed donuts that you like."
Despite his discomfort, Ellison grinned. "Now that sounds like a plan. Too bad they only had pineapple-filled croissants left at the diner."
"Early bird gets the worm, Jim... and the cherry Danish," Blair teased.
"First it's fairy tales now it's fables... what is it with you, Sandburg?" Jim growled in mock annoyance. "Real life not exciting enough for you that you've suddenly developed a passion for the Brother's Grimm? Is that what's in the book you've had your nose buried in for the last few days?"
The detective took a few more steps and abruptly realized that his partner was no longer by his side. He turned to find Blair standing motionless, an uneasy, troubled expression filling the younger man's eyes, his hand gripping the strap of his pack tightly. Frowning, Jim started to ask what was wrong when he caught a glimpse of movement from his left.
Someone lunging toward his Guide.
Someone with a knife.
The fractured elements of the dream came back full force and Jim reacted instinctively. The Sentinel pushed his Guide out of the way, planting himself in the path of the attacker, gun already drawn and rising to fire.
For a moment the world shifted, spinning drunkenly under his feet. He felt himself falling, pitched into a place that was dark and frightening, filled with a high-pitched-scream; the rank smells of decay and death. No sight, no sound except for a rhythmic thudding which was getting closer...
Pressure on his arm and warmth on his back drew him out of the darkness. The real world reasserted itself. Tearing off his sunglasses, he found himself standing in front of a plate glass window. Inside, the frightened shop keeper stood frozen in fear, white knuckled hands gripping a printed poster which he'd started to tape to the window.
"Jim... Jim come on! Put the gun away..."
Dazed, the detective looked down at his hands, trembling when he saw the drawn weapon.
"Jim, please, you're scaring me, here. And Mr. Donnello doesn't look too good either. Put the gun away, man. There's no danger. There's nothing wrong. It's safe..."
Reacting more to the soothing tones than the words, the Sentinel swiveled his head toward his Guide. Anxious blue eyes stared up into his.
... you're scaring me...
He felt his knees start to give way.
Blair lunged forward and caught Jim around the waist. With a massive tug, he managed to drag the bigger man backward several steps to lean against the side of a car parked at the curb.
"Lean forward... head down... breathe..." Blair commanded tersely.
Ignoring the panic that was gibbering at the edges of his own mind, he dropped the tone of his voice down several notches and began murmuring a soothing litany of support and reassurance. The Sentinel's body shook with tremors. Blair held the older man's left arm in a bruising grip to keep him from keeling over while gently massaging Jim's shoulders.
"That's right... just breathe through it, man... focus on my voice and my touch..." When the worst of the shaking started to subside, Blair released his hold on Jim's arm. Still whispering softly in the Sentinel's ear, his Guide gently pried the weapon from the older man's grasp. He flipped the safety into place with his thumb and shoved the weapon into the back waistband of his jeans. The weight of the firearm resting against his spine was far from reassuring.
"You're doing great, Jim... just keep it up..." Blair urged. He fought to keep his voice and breathing steady, but it was all he could do to keep from screaming in fear himself.
What the hell's going on? This isn't a zone-out... at least not like anything he's had before... God, he's still shaking like a leaf... He's scared!
That concept was enough to rock the anthropologist's world. Something had pushed Jim Ellisonex-ranger, ex-covert ops, ace detective and Sentinel of the Great Cityoff center and into a blind fear/panic reaction. Blair recognized the look and the body languagehe'd seen that flash of terror reflected back in the mirror far too many times in the last few years to mistake it for anything other than what it was.
But Jim... terrified to the point of drawing his gun without reason... it was almost too much to grasp.
Well you'd better find a way to 'grasp' it, Sandburg, he told himself grimly. And a way to fix it. That's your job.
Taking a deep breath, Blair pushed his own panic and uncertainties to the back of his mind. Jim's breathing was evening out and the shaking was nearly gone. In just a few moments, the older man would be raising his head, searching his Guide's face with those confused sky-blue eyeslooking for answers.
Looking to me for answers I don't have...
"Is Detective Ellison all right?"
Blair lifted his head to meet the worried gaze of the shopkeeper Jim had frightened. Anthony DonnelloUncle 'T' to his friends and those regulars he had adopted as surrogate familywas a wizened little man, barely five feet tall. He had the whitest hair Blair had ever seen and wore it styled in an old-fashioned pompadour. A pencil-thin mustache and goatee of the same color decorated a face etched with over seventy years of life's experiences. His normally warm and smiling brown eyes were filled with concern.
"I think so," Blair answered softly, still rubbing Jim's shoulders.
"Perhaps this will help," Donnello suggested, handing Blair a bottle of water he'd brought from the store.
"Thank you," Blair replied warmly. He took the bottle and unscrewed the cap. Leaning forward, he whispered to the detective, urging him to take the proffered drink.
After a moment's hesitation, Ellison nodded and trembling fingers wrapped around the bottle. Blair felt the tightening of muscles across the older man's shoulders and knew that his partner was valiantly trying to pull himself together. As Jim slowly straightened, the Guide kept his hand on his Sentinel's back, the light pressure intended to reassure and comfort.
Blair assumed his best 'things are going to be fine' expression and met the bewildered gaze he'd been expecting. The detective's eyes held the anthropologist's questioningly for a few seconds before his gaze flickered to the shopkeeper. A flash of embarrassment and guilt flickered across Ellison's face. Jim immediately began to apologize for his actions.
"Mr. Donnello, I'm..."
"There is no need to apologize, Detective Ellison," the old man interrupted with a wave of his hands. "There was no harm done."
Blair watched the muscles in Jim's jaw clench and felt the shudder ripple through his friend's body. "There could have been," Ellison muttered, shaking his head. "There's no excuse..."
Blair gritted his teeth in frustration. It was clear Jim was not going to readily accept the shopkeeper's reassurances. He knew his partner too well. Jim would continue to beat himself up over what he perceived as a blatant mistakea loss of controluntil they got to the bottom of what had happened.
"Take a drink, Jim," Blair ordered, nudging the arm that held the bottle of water.
Ellison graced the younger man with an annoyed glance, but Blair ignored it and turned to Donnello.
"What do I owe you for the water, Uncle 'T'?" he asked, digging in his pocket for his wallet.
"Nothing," the old man answered, folding his arms across his chest. "You two have done more favors for me and for this neighborhood than we can ever repay. I remember what it was like before the punks realized that we had a resident guardian. It's been a long time since I've had to look over my shoulder every time I lock up at night and it's not the security system that Detective Ellison suggested which is responsible for that. And as for you, young man," Donnello turned to Blair and patted him on the shoulder. "Stella said to remind you to stop by and get your reward."
"I told her she didn't owe me anything," Blair objected.
"Stella?" Jim asked.
Donnello glanced up at Jim and smiled. "Didn't Blair tell you what happened when he helped Mrs. Slavowitz clear out the extra storeroom in her shop?"
"No, he didn't."
Blair found himself the object of his partner's intense, suspicious scrutiny and shrugged. "I came across some old books and helped her sell them, that's all."
"Rare books, Detective. First editions," Donnello explained. "Worth a small fortune. Enough so that Stella will have sufficient money to keep the store and her apartment. If Blair hadn't recognized their value, she probably would have donated them to a resale shop. It's fortunate for her and for us that he has such a sharp eye, yes?"
Blair saw Jim start to grin and then the detective froze as if the old man's words had triggered something.
"What is it, Jim?" Blair asked quietly.
"That's why..." the Sentinel's voice was almost a whisper and his bewildered gaze sought his Guide's. "I thought I saw something... out of the corner of my eye..."
"You did see something," Donnello remarked. "You saw me. I was just about to hang a poster for the St. Delvan Festival in the store window. I'd promised them I'd post it last week, but I'd misplaced it until this morning. The festival starts tomorrow so I was eager to get it hung up."
Seeing Jim's frown, the old man shook his head. "It was my fault, Detective. I was rushing toward the window. Trying to do twelve things at once as usual. I must have startled you and you simply responded as you have been trained to do."
Once glance told Blair that Jim wasn't buying the explanation, but it was as good a reason as any that the anthropologist could suggest at the moment.
"He's probably right, Jim. With the glare, you wouldn't have been able to see who it was and your protective instincts just kicked in."
Jim took a sip of water and glanced at the store window. "Maybe. It still doesn't excuse my pulling my weapon. Speaking of which..."
Wordlessly, Blair withdrew the gun and handed it to Jim in exchange for the bottle of water. The detective checked the weapon, tucked it into the holster and then drew himself up to his full height. "My apologies again, Mr. Donnello," he murmured, extending his hand.
Blair screwed the cap on the bottle and dropped it into his backpack. He retrieved Jim's sunglasses from the pavement while the other two men shook hands.
"And again, none are necessary, Detective," the old man assured him. With a nod to both of them, the little man disappeared into his shop.
Studying the Sentinel carefully, Blair handed him the glasses. He saw the lines of strain around the older man's eyes and felt the palpable tension that was flowing off his friend.
"How's the headache?" he asked quietly.
"It's there," Jim muttered.
"Have you got the dials turned down?" Blair pressed.
"Yes, Professor," Jim growled back. "It's not helping. They haven't been working right for days now."
"Why didn't you tell me?" Blair asked softly.
"It's a headache, not a bullet wound, Sandburg," Jim snapped in annoyance. "Nothing that some aspirin won't cure."
Enough is enough, Blair thought firmly, making a fast decision. "We need to talk, Jim." He grabbed Ellison's arm and steered the detective toward the street.
"There's nothing to talk about," argued Jim, pulling back.
"Tell that to Simon. Or better yet, tell it to Internal Affairs when you freak out again and someone does get hurt!" Blair whispered, making his tone as harsh and damning as he could.
An abrupt, noisy intake of breath was Jim's only response. Blair couldn't see the ice-cold glare that hid behind the dark lenses, and he was thankful for that. No matter how difficult this was for either of them, they couldn't dodge the reality of what had happenedor what could happen. It wasn't his usual style to play on his friend's guilt, but if that's what it took to get the older man to cooperate, that's exactly what he would have to do.
"We're going to the park and you're going to sit down and tell me exactly what's been going on," Blair announced. Tightening his grip he pulled the older man with him.
Avoiding the busierand noisierportion of the park where a dozen small children were playing on the jungle gym and swings, Blair guided Jim over to a fairly secluded spot in the shade. Once he had the detective seated on a wrought-iron bench, the grad student began to pace back and forth, arms locked across his chest.
Ellison sat hunched over, elbows resting on his knees, hands clenched together. His attention seemed to be fixed on the ground, not on his restless Guide.
Blair's mind was racing faster than his moving feet and covering far more ground.
I knew that something was bugging him... I knew it and I didn't do anything about it... too preoccupied with my own chaos and problems... Jeez, what if he'd fired his gun? It would have been that whole deal with the nightwatchman all over again... he would have blamed himself... maybe finally decided that his senses aren't worth it... He could do that... 'a sentinel will be a sentinel as long as he chooses to be'... that's what Incacha said... Incacha... shit, I wish he were here... I wish he could have explained this whole Shaman thing before he died... I'm really out of my depth... If only I knew what I was doing... I should have been paying more attention to Jim instead of chasing around trying to figure out how to be something I'm not... It's my job to watch over Jim and I haven't been doing that...
He sorted and resorted the clues that he'd been accumulating all week until his own head started to pound. He was angry; at Jim for not having told him about the non-stop headache, and at himself for not seeing what was happening sooner. And he was worried.
"You said the dials aren't working," Blair stated without preamble. "Since when?"
"It's just a headache, Chief," Jim said evasively. He didn't raise his head, and Blair didn't stop pacing.
"I'm asking about your senses, Jim," Blair said tersely. "If you're having problems controlling them you need to tell me."
The Sentinel remained stubbornly silent. Blair was so frustrated he wanted to scream. Instead, he stopped pacing and knelt at Jim's feet, one hand on the older man's forearm.
"Jim, I know something's wrong," he said quietly. "You've been acting strange all week."
"You're overreacting, Sandburg," Jim muttered, finally raising his head to meet his Guide's searching gaze.
"Am I? Think about what happened ten minutes ago and then tell me who's overreacting."
Ellison's eyes widened. Blair thought he was about to say something, but he shook his head and glanced away.
"Come on, man. Talk to me," Blair pleaded. "I've never seen you like this. You're a walking bundle of nerves. You're jumpy, irritable..."
A rueful smile crossed the older man's face. "More than normal?"
"Majorly." Blair gave Jim's knee a gentle squeeze. "I'm worried about you, man. Whatever's bothering you has been getting worse. At first I thought maybe it was just the case we were working. I know it had you frustrated, but we wrapped that two days ago. It's like you're out of sync with yourself. You're not eating and your sleep patterns are way offyou're either walking the floor at night or out like the dead."
"Maybe I'm just overtired," Jim said with a sigh. He sat up and leaned into the back of the bench. "I don't know what's going on, Chief. I've felt lousy... like you said... out of sync... since the beginning of the week."
"Is that when the headache started?"
Jim nodded and pulled off his glasses, wearily rubbing at his eyes. "It was just annoying at first, but now..."
"Ugly right?" Blair grabbed his backpack and pulled out the water bottle. "Try another drink of this. We'll get you some aspirin when we get back to the loft. How's your vision?"
"Seems normal enough, except that things appear brighter at times," Jim admitted, accepting the bottle with a nod of thanks.
"I keep getting these flashes... of something shiny. Usually just at the edge of my peripheral vision. When I turn to find out what caused it, there's nothing there."
"Like a sensory spike?"
"No," Jim responded with a definitive shake of his head. "There's some similarity to what I experienced with those, but it doesn't feel quite the same."
"Did you get a flash like that in front of Mr. Donnello's store?" Blair asked quietly.
Jim took a sip of water and considered the question for a few seconds before answering.
"I think so..." he replied hesitantly.
Blair could see the muscles tensing in the Sentinel's face as the older man tried to replay the memory.
"Just take it one step at a time, Jim," Blair suggested.
"I vaguely remember... light... and movement," Jim said softly. "Then the impression of danger... I had the impression that someone was about to attack you... someone with a knife, I think... the next thing I remember is hearing your voice... and the gun in my hand..."
There was more to it than that, Blair was certain, but he decided not to push it any further for the moment. "It wasn't a zone-out, I'm sure of that, even though you appear to have lost some memory or time awareness. From what you can remember, the flash of light preceded everything. Maybe you're picking up something beyond the edge of the visual spectrum. That could explain the headache. What about hearing?"
"It seems fine one minute, and then suddenly it's like someone's blowing a dog-whistle in my ear."
"Hmm... the top ends of your range in both hearing and sight. Sounds like something's made you more sensitive."
"Everything seems more pronounced than normalerratically so. Except for taste. That's gone the opposite direction."
Blair nodded absently, storing away the information. "Which, combined with the headache, is why you haven't felt like eating. Your sense of smell's probably out of whack as well since taste is affected by olfactory signals..." He frowned, worried at his lower lip and abruptly rose to his feet to begin pacing again.
"Okay... all we need to do is backtrack to figure out what's causing this," he announced with much more confidence than he felt. "I'm going to need you to write down everything you can remember about last Monday... no, better include the weekend, too. I need to know what you ate, what you drank, exactly where you were, what clothes you wore..."
"I'll do a check on everything at the loft. I don't remember bringing home anything new, but it's possible. Once we figure out what flipped things out of gear, we'll either find a way to eliminate it, or find a way to adjust your controls to compensate for it..."
"Sandburg, will you stop for a minute?"
Blair halted in mid-stride at the irritated command and met his partner's worried gaze.
"I have to tell Simon what happened," Jim said quietly.
"Jim, we don't know what happened," Blair countered.
"I pulled my gun on an unarmed man with no justifiable reason, Chief."
"You reacted out of instinct."
"You're right. I did. I thought you were in danger and I reacted."
"Sounds normal to me. What's the problem?"
"There was no danger. Except from me." Jim stated quietly. "I reacted, but I don't know why. And I did it with what could have been deadly force. If you hadn't stopped me I could have killed Mr. Donnello."
"So I just stick close to you until we figure this out," Blair argued. "You tell Simon and he'll have to report it upstairs. At the very least they'd suspend you. Worst case scenario is that they'd suspend you and send you for a psych review. Is that what you want?"
"I don't want to hurt anyone, Chief. If that's what it takes..." Jim leaned forward and stared at the ground once more.
"What it's going to take is you talking to me. Telling me exactly what's happening and when," Blair snapped. "We've managed to find a way to deal with these kinds of problems in the past. Why are you so ready to give up now? Because you're scared?"
Jim's head snapped up so fast that Blair was sure he heard the neck ligaments groan. Fear flickered in the Sentinel's blue eyes for just an instant before it was replaced with denial.
Blair moved forward and touched Jim on the shoulder. "I know what fear is like, man... how it can eat at you... make you question yourself," he whispered. He shook off the darkness and despair of his own screaming demons and gave the Sentinel a gentle, understanding smile. "The problem is that it's a pretty foreign emotion for you. But you're only human, Jim. You're allowed to be scared."
The older man raised his head and met his Guide's determined gaze.
"I'll figure this out, Jim," Blair pledged. "I promise you, I will. I just need some time."
After a long silence, Jim finally nodded. The trust and hope in the older man's eyes almost made his Guide shudder.
I'll find a way to protect you, Sentinel. No matter what it takes...
Three aspirins and an hour and a half later they made their way to the station. Blair had wordlessly accepted the keys to the truck, sliding in behind the wheel as Jim belted himself into the passenger seat.
The drive was made in silence. While Blair maneuvered the truck through the hectic noon-hour traffic, the Sentinel concentrated on the breathing exercises his Guide had taught him. By the time they pulled into the precinct garage, Jim was feeling much better. He didn't know whether it was the aspirin finally kicking in, the time spent examining the inside of his eyelidsor just the reassuring presence of the younger man in whom he'd placed so much trustbut the worst of the headache was gone and he had managed to gain a working control of his mental sensory dials once more.
Glancing at his watch as they headed to the elevator, Jim realized they only had a few minutes before the briefing was to begin. He glanced at Blair suspiciously. Even if he had planned to talk to Simon, there wouldn't be time now.
"Cutting it a little tight, aren't we, Chief?" Jim asked quietly.
Blair shrugged and pushed the button for the elevator. "The briefing doesn't start until 1:00, Jim. We've still got time to slide in before Simon takes attendance and assigns demerits."
The elevator doors opened and they stepped inside. Jim thumbed the button for the sixth floor and leaned against the wall, his gaze fixed on the numbers above the door. He was aware of Blair surreptitiously shifting his own position so that he moved into Jim's personal space.
Instead of feeling crowded, the Sentinel felt oddly comforted by the physical presence of his Guide. Since they'd left the park, Blair had been barely more than an arm's length away at any point in time. The younger man had promised to stick tight and it appeared he meant that literally.
He turned his head slightly and met Blair's anxious gaze. He answered the unasked questions that were backlogged behind the blue-eyed stare with a small smile.
"Things seem to be staying on track, Chief. Headache's almost gone, too."
Blair's sigh of relief would have been audible even without enhanced senses.
"Great. So, we do this briefing and then as soon as you can, you start on those lists for me," Blair murmured. "If you pick up any of those weird flashes, or you start to have problems with the dials, you tell me right away."
Jim started to make a sarcastic remark about hovering, but the strained expression on the younger man's face stopped him. The detective's memory of the morning's events seemed fuzzy, but it didn't make what had happenedor almost happenedany less real. They'd avoided a disaster only by sheer luck and he didn't want to count on that particular lady any more than he had toshe was known to be fickle.
The elevator chimed and the door opened. Jim nodded his agreement to Blair's orders and stepped out, the anthropologist right on his heels. After a quick stop at his desk to unload their coats and Blair's backpack, they headed to the Operations Room.
Simon Banks knew something was wrong the minute the partners walked in. They were both too quiet. Normally, Sandburg would have been talking a mile a minute, regaling Jim or anyone who was in earshot with some exotic talemost likely something about an obscure tribal mating ritual. Ellison would have rolled his eyes and razzed his partner about how to use the technique to improve his own love life, and given him a playful punch or cuff on the head. Simon would have had to put on his sternest expression and remind them that this was a place of work. They would have exchanged an understanding grin and settled down to business.
But none of their companionable antics or chatter accompanied them today. Ellison nodded a terse greeting and took a chair at the end of the long conference table. Sandburg slipped in like a silent shadow. Instead of taking a seat at the table, the observer dragged a chair away from the wall and placed it just behind and to the left of his partner's. He settled onto the seat, finally flashed a small smile at the detectives that he knew, and then focused his gaze on Ellison's back.
Grabbing his coffee mug, Banks moved around to the other end of the table and slid into an empty chair. Joe Sterns, the acting captain of Homicide and two of his detectives were seated to Simon's left. Rafe, Henri Brown and Joel Taggert had taken chairs along the opposite side. Both groups were talking quietly among themselves. Giving everyone another moment to get settled, Simon's gaze shifted back to Ellison and Sandburg.
Definitely something wrong with this picture, Banks thought grimly.
Ellison actually looked fairly relaxed; more so than he had in days, Simon noted. On the other hand, Sandburg looked as tense as an over-wound spring. He wasn't talking and he wasn't movingnot so much as a bouncing knee or a wildly gesturing hand.
Now what's that all about?
Jim met Simon's curious gaze with a non-committal shrug. That slight movement made Blair's eyes flicker toward Simon for just an instantlong enough for Banks to read the anxious concern behind the silent countenance. Breaking eye contact, the anthropologist edged slightly closer to his partner.
Even if their seating preference hadn't announced it, their body language could only be read one waythey'd role shifted from detective and observer, to Sentinel and Guide. Banks had seen it happen often enough to recognize what was going on, even if no one else did, or understood what it meant. Blair was obviously in full protective mode, watching Ellison's back in the most literal sense. Whenever he did that it meant trouble brewing on the horizonusually trouble with Jim's senses.
Simon took a deep breath and let it out slowly. The bond of absolute trust that held the partners together also acted as a barrier between them and the rest of the world. When anything threatened one of the pair, they closed ranks like this. It was amazing to watch and frustrating to deal with, especially if you were a friend trying to help. Whatever was going on with those two would have to wait until either they were ready to talk, or he'd reached the point of no-return and had to resort to bludgeoning it out of them. Banks sighed and flipped open his case folder. At that signal everyone fell quiet and looked at him expectantly.
"Homicide has seen a marked increase in activity over the past week," he began, nodding to the officers to his left. "Captain Sterns has asked our department to lend a hand. Detectives Rankin and Briggs have been heading up the investigation on several murders they feel are connected. I've asked them to share their information at this briefing so we can all get up to speed as quickly as possible."
"As Captain Banks explained, we've come up with four homicides which appear to fit a similar pattern," Steve Rankin, the older of the two detectives began. "Rich, would you pass out the files that we brought?"
Briggs handed out a manila folder to each of the major crimes detectives. He slid two packets down the table toward Ellison and Sandburg. Jim caught them smoothly and handed one to his partner. Banks watched as the ex-ranger opened the file, scanned it, then turned his attention to Rankin who started to outline what they had so far. Sandburg on the other hand, dug out his glasses and buried his nose in the written details.
"Outside of the cause of death, our victims appear to have nothing in common," Rankin continued. "Victim number one is a John Doe. Caucasian, mid-thirties. From what we've been able to determine he was one of Cascade's homeless... went by the street name of Chuckles. Our JD frequented a shelter run by a Father Jameson down on Sixth and Elm. He was found down by the waterfront Sunday morning by an early morning jogger. Time of death was set at approximately 11:00 p.m., Saturday night.
"Victim number two is Mandy Vincent. Age 21, Hispanic... worked the six to midnight shift at a minimart over on the north side of town. She was found in Fountain Park Monday morning. He body was left in a dumpster near one of the pavilions. Death occurred sometime between midnight, Sunday and 1:00 a.m., Monday.
"Robert Jeffries, age 42, Native American, became victim number three at roughly 1:00 a.m., Tuesday morning. Mr. Jeffries was apparently new to Cascade. We spoke with the landlord of the building where he'd rented a room two weeks ago. Supposedly a nice guyquiet, friendly. No steady job that we've been able to ascertain yet. The body was found in an alley just south of King and Seventeenth.
"The fourth victim has been identified as Gloria Danen. Caucasian, age fifteen. From Seattle. Her parents reported her as a runaway about a month ago. Missing Persons faxed down the confirm. Her body was also found in a dumpster, this one at the Lakewood Mall. Time of death... 2:00 a.m., Wednesday.
"Which brings us to today... Thursday's victim... number five in as many days. We haven't found a body yet, but we're assuming there is one. All the precincts have been alerted to contact us if another corpse turns up."
Rankin paused to let the information sink in. He flipped through his own file folder and pulled out the forensics report.
"Differences aside, here's what we've got that links them all together. Each suffered a blow to the head. We don't have a handle on the weapon yet, but it appears to have been some kind of heavy, metal object. The bruising around the site of the head injury varies slightly, but we're guessing that the same or similar instrument was used in each case. That didn't kill them though. The ME has determined the actual cause of death to be the result of a single stab wound which punctured the heart. Presumably a knife or dagger with an approximately six inch, non-serrated, double-edged blade, tapered at the point."
"That's an unusual weapon," Jim murmured.
"Not unusual enough," Briggs sighed. "We've identified at least six major companies that manufacture a blade that matches that description."
"Forensics found very little blood at each scene," Rankin stated. "Given the nature of the wound, that suggests the victims were attacked and killed in one location, then transported to where the bodies were found. The fact that death was accomplished with a single stab wound would indicate that we're dealing with someone who either knows human anatomy extremely well, or someone who's been specifically trained to kill."
"That could be anyone from a second year med student to someone with a background like Jim's," Blair observed, making his first comment of the meeting.
"At least it doesn't include anthropologists, Hair Boy," Brown teased quietly.
Blair quirked an eyebrow, but remained uncharacteristically quiet, returning his gaze to the case folder.
"Are you saying we've got a serial killer on our hands?"
Banks had been watching Blair when Joel voiced the question. He saw the younger man's head snap up and caught the flicker of remembered terror in the wide blue eyes before the anthropologist regained his composure. Simon immediately glanced at Ellison to gauge his reaction. The detective's jaw muscles were working overtime, and his eyes had taken on a dangerous, cold glint.
"I think we have to consider that as a very real possibility," responded Rankin, apparently unaware of the dynamics unfolding around him.
"Four murders since Sunday night..." Rafe shook his head in disbelief and disgust. "What's this guy trying for? A record?"
"We don't know that it is a man, detective," Briggs pointed out.
"Whoever he is, he's a sick, sadistic son-of-a-bitch."
Blair's angry outburst caught everyone off guard and all but Jim turned to stare at the Observer. From the slightly embarrassed expression on his face, Simon wondered if the younger man had meant to voice the comment aloud.
"Cause of death might have been one stab wound," Blair said grimly. "But whoever's responsible for this madness didn't stop there. Your reports say the victims bodies were mutilated with multiple knife scores. Was it random or was there a pattern?"
Rankin eyed the anthropologist curiously. "There was a consistency in the placement of the secondary wounds, but no pattern that we could assess. What are you suggesting?"
"Nothing really," the observer demurred. "It's just speculation..."
"That's part of what we're here for, Sandburg," Simon growled. He'd never seen the younger man so hesitant to offer his opinions.
Blair glanced down at the file in his hands and swallowed hard. "Well, since there isn't an obvious link between the victims, then the connection has to lie within the killer, doesn't it? I mean, if we assume that these murders were done by the same personand the manner of death does fight the odds of coincidencethen there has to be a reason that he's chosen these people and marked them in death. A reason that makes sense to him and not to us."
"Your point?" Briggs said, frowning in confusion.
"If the mutilation pattern is the same and we can figure out what that means, then maybe we'll be able to narrow down our list of suspects to less than half the population of Cascade," Jim interjected. He turned to his partner. "Did I get that right, Chief?"
"Exactly." Blair flashed Jim a relieved smile and then glanced around the table. "Ritual mutilation of the living or the dead was a fairly widespread practice among many ancient tribes and religions. Defiling the body or corpse of a vanquished foe was often believed to transfer that enemy's power to the victor. Blood has always been recognized as a powerful symbol of both strength and immortality..."
"You suggesting we've got a vampire cruising the streets of Cascade?" snorted Sterns derisively.
"Not a vampire, no," Blair explained quietly. "But if there is a similarity in the pattern of the mutilation, we could be dealing with someone who's practicing either an ancient religion or some type of the black arts. Typically there would be some specific symbol or icon as part of the design that's carved into the body..."
The anthropologist's voice trailed off and he paled as if he suddenly realized what he was describing. Ellison turned toward the shaken young observer and Simon saw the older man place a comforting hand on Blair's shoulder.
"I don't pretend to understand the significance," Rankin announced. "But I'm all for any kind of lead that will help us find this bastard. The bodies are still in the morgue. If you want to investigate that angle, it's all yours."
Jim glanced up at Simon and nodded. "We'll want to check out the location where each body was found as well," the Sentinel added.
"All right. We've got more than enough ground to cover here, gentlemen," Simon decreed. "Let's divide this up and get to work."
They spent the next thirty minutes outlining their strategy. Rafe, Brown and Taggert were assigned the task of digging further into the victim's lives and the activities preceding their deaths. Rankin and Briggs had leads they'd already developed and Simon directed them to pursue them as long as they fed the information back in to Ellison, who would act as the head investigator on the case. Fortunately, there was no resistance among the Homicide detectives to relinquishing control of the case to Major Crimes.
Simon himself had some reservations about assigning the most grizzly aspects of the case to Ellison and Sandburg. Especially since neither one of them appeared to be at their best. Jim had readily volunteered a number of suggestions on how they should proceed, but he seemed even more reserved and unapproachable than normal. Sandburg had been fairly animated during his impromptu lecture, but had settled back into a reserved silence once the planning had begun, breaking that mute posture only when his partner asked him a direct question.
They both looked wrung out... and they did even before the memories of Lash reared their ugly head again...
Besides Ellison and himself, no one knew how badly the young observer had suffered after his last contact with a serial killer. Banks would have preferred to keep the anthropologist out of the action, but he knew he had little choice. Outside of the fact that he wasn't sure Jim would let the younger man out of his sight now anyway, Sandburg's insights might just have given them the lead they needed, and the Sentinel's enhanced senses had solved more than one perfect crime. Simon might regret it, but he needed them on the street, working together.
A call came in just as they were ready to break up. Rankin took it and shook his head sadly when he put down the receiver. His eyes were filled with anger and grim determination when he announced that they now had a confirmed fifth victim.
The trip to a small strip mall on the north side of town was made in silence. Ellison drove, his fingers clenched around the Ford's steering wheel in a white-knuckled grip. His headache had returned with a vengeance. Each jolt of the truck sent a new wave of pain surfing through his skull. The polarized sunglasses he'd donned again weren't doing much to cut the glare and it seemed like even the dullest surface sent a knife-sharp reflection straight into his eyes. The skin across his forehead felt drum-tight and his stomach was rolling queasily every time he cornered the vehicle.
Anger was fueling the headachedry tinder tossed on an already blazing fire. He wasn't certain what to blame it onthe case or his whacked out senses. The suggestion that a serial killer was stalking the people of his city was enough to make the Sentinel's blood boil. His contact with the last one had been far too personal. Knowing he was operating at less than 100 percent effectiveness wasn't helping the situation.
I never wanted these damn enhanced senses. What good are they? Now, when I could really use them they go crazy... making me act crazy. What if something happens at the scene? What if I lose it again like I did this morning?
Out of reflex, he glanced to his right seeking the presence of his Guide. The abrupt movement sent a blinding streak of pain zooming left to right between his eyes. He ground his teeth together to keep from groaning aloud and resolutely fixed his gaze on the road.
"Take a deep breath and dial it down, Jim."
It was the same order he'd been giving himself for the past twenty minutes, but it hadn't been working. The softly whispered command had an immediate effect however, the soothing tone of his Guide's voice cutting through the thunderous clamor in his head and prompting an automatic response from the Sentinel. Ellison inhaled, filling his lungs with the scents of herbs and leather and musty old booksfamiliar, comforting smells he had come to associate with his partner. On the exhale, he reached for the mental dials and one by one, nudged them lower.
He felt better almost immediately. Maintaining a pattern of even, measured breaths, he loosened his grip on the steering wheel, flexing the fingers of his left hand to work out the cramps and tingles. He repeated the exercise with his right and risked a peek out of the corner of his eye, assuming he'd find his Guide glaring at him for not having the brains to ask for help in the first place. There was no 'I told you so,' in his partner's eyes. Just concern. Jim managed a weak smile and Blair nodded, turning his attention back to the case file which rested in his lap. A curtain of curly hair hid the younger man's face from view and with his senses dialed down, the Sentinel couldn't monitor the younger man as easily as he would have liked. Not that I need enhanced senses to know how he's feeling, Jim thought grimly. Now that the specter of David Lash has reared its head again, I won't be the only one having nightmares. Ellison tightened his fingers around the wheel and pushed his foot harder against the gas pedal. The sooner we get there, the less time Sandburg's fertile imagination has to blow this all out of proportion.
The mall's tiny parking lot was plugged with police cars, the forensics van, an ambulance and the vehicles of the patrons who had the misfortune of picking that morning to do their shopping at the five small stores which the center contained. Seeing the logjam, Jim drove to the next corner and turned right, seeking a back way in. Seconds later, he pulled into a narrow alley which ran behind the building and brought the truck to a stop.
He leaned back in his seat for a moment, watching the crowd of uniformed and plainclothed officers busily attending to their tasks. The area was cordoned off with yellow tape proclaiming the crime scene. The focus of the activity was a rust colored dumpster, its massive bulk nestled against the back wall of the structure. His sensitive nose registered the reek of garbage which wafted through the truck's half-open window. Besides the dumpster, a dozen overflowing trash cans and mounded heaps of discarded, cardboard boxessoggy from the morning dewlittered the narrow space. Intermingled with the fetid odors of decay was another foul smelldeath. The heavy, metallic odor of blood was so strong he could almost taste it.
And I was worried about Sandburg over-reacting. I'm doing just fine on my own. He resisted the urge to take another deep breathknowing he'd regret it if he didand pulled up on the door handle. Elbowing the panel open, he eased out of the seat and glanced back inside. Manila folder clasped in one hand, Sandburg was fumbling at the catch on the seatbelt with the other, obviously intent on accompanying him.
"You don't need to see this, Chief," Ellison said quietly.
Blair glanced up and met his gaze stolidly. "No, but you do, so I'm coming with you." He shoved a thumb down on the release point of the belt buckle and tugged at the strap, freeing himself from the restraint. Without another word, the grad student climbed out of the truck, closing the passenger door gently.
Jim frowned and felt the muscles in his jaw spasm as they clenched. The action sent clawed fingers of pain dancing across his taut skin and renewed the throbbing in his skull. Moving gingerly, he shut his own door and walked to the front of the truck. A gust of wind caressed his face and he flinched. He shook his head to clear the stench from his nostrils and immediately regretted it. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard against the bile which rose in the back of his throat.
"Take it slow, Jim..."
The Guide's tone brooked no argument and the Sentinel obeyed without question. The warmth of his partner's hand on his arm worked its magic as usual, grounding the Sentinel and giving him back a measure of control. Ellison slowly turned his head toward the place where Sandburg was standing and cautiously opened his eyes.
"Bet you feel like crap," Blair said quietly. "It's no wonder. We're standing in the middle of Garbage Central. This is the worst place for you to be right now."
"Not much choice," Jim replied softly.
"Yeah, I know. You have a job to do. You'd better take a minute to get centered before you leap into the fray."
Ellison's frown deepened. "Sandburg "
"Don't 'Sandburg' me, Jim," Blair hissed, his own face creasing in a scowl. "You might be able to fool the rest of them, but I know you're hurting. If you'd just listen to me, I might be able to help."
The Sentinel struggled with his own pride for a few seconds before giving in. "How do you always know?"
Blair rolled his eyes. "I'm your observer, remember?" He tried for a grin, but the effort fell flat and his expression grew serious again. "The furrows in your forehead are a dead giveaway, but it's mostly your body language. Normally you carry yourself differently and your gait's looser. Even when you're suspecting trouble, your muscles are more relaxed. I always think of the panther when you shift into actionall that sinuous strength. Right now, your movements seem forced, not fluid. When you turned your head it looked like you were making a conscious effort to control what should be an automatic response of muscles to brainwaves. I'm betting you closed your eyes before you even attempted it in order to avoid a nasty flash of pain across the eyeballs. Am I right?"
Jim's reply was a barely audible grunt. His less than articulate acknowledgment didn't seem to faze the younger man in the least.
"You need to regroup before you go over there, man. I do not want to have to pull you out of a zone-out or another episode like this morning. Just do what I tell you and don't argue for a change." The harsh edge in Blair's voice disappeared as he dropped the pitch and volume to a soothing tenor whisper. "Take as shallow a breath as you can and then shut down smell and taste. Turn the dials down below zero if you can."
It was futile to argue with his partner when he was settled firmly into Guide mode, so the Sentinel complied.
Blair flashed him a reassuring smile. "Good. Close your eyes and take a deeper breath this timefill your diaphragm, not simply your lungsand let it out slowly. Then take another and release it the same way. Visualize the pain dial in your head and turn it down... keep taking deep breaths, the additional oxygen in your blood stream will help relieve some of the pressure from the headache."
Ellison concentrated on the velvety blackness behind his eyelids as the air surged in and out of his body. As Sandburg's mesmerizing voice washed over him, sluicing away the tension, the pounding in his head receded to a more manageable level.
"You're doing great, Jim," Blair whispered encouragingly. "One last thing and you'll be good to go. We're going to try a quick fix to unknot the muscles in your neck and shoulders. Keep up the breathing and pull your shoulders back... as if you were trying to touch your shoulder blades together."
Ellison straightened to his full height. The muscles across his back protested the movement, but he ignored the discomfort. "Now raise your shoulders toward your ears. When they're as high as you can get them, I want you to drop them. Hard." The Sentinel hesitated, anticipating the reawakening of the headache the movement would bring. "Trust me, Jim," his Guide pleaded. "This will work. Just keep control of the pain dial and you'll be fine."
The detective gave a terse nod and followed the younger man's directions. He nearly gasped in surprise, and quickly repeated the exercise, feeling the strain dissipate abruptly. Ellison rolled his shoulders and turned his head from side to side, enjoying the freedom of pain-free movement. It occurred to him suddenly that he probably looked like a fool to anyone who was watching. His eyes snapped open and he found himself staring across the top of his partner's curly head. The Guide had positioned himself in front of his Sentinel, shielding his partner from the cops who were handling the chaos at the other end of the alley. He held the open case folder in one hand, gesturing toward the top sheet as if he were pointing something out to Jim.
A grateful smile twitched at the corner of Ellison's mouth. There were times when Sandburg's creativity and obfuscation skills really came in handy. Like now. Jim reached out and clasped his partner's shoulder. The younger man raised his head, eyeing his Sentinel speculatively.
"Thanks," Jim murmured.
A genuine smile filled Blair's face. He closed the file, returned it to the passenger seat of the truck and rejoined his partner, nodding to indicate his readiness. Ellison fixed his gaze on the dumpster and strode forward.
Blair trailed after his partner, giving Jim the space he needed to do his job. He watched closely as the detective slipped under the tape barrier and with his mere presence, took command of the crime scene. The anthropologist shook his head in wonder, filled with pride and no small measure of awe. In his opinion, Jim Ellison was an uncommonly brave man. Proud to a fault, sometimes. Pig-headedly stubborn, certainly, but that particular fault often turned out to be a blessingit gave him the strength to deal with the curves his enhanced senses threw at him.
And right now, they're taking him for the ride of his life, Blair mused grimly.
He nodded a mute greeting to the cops he recognized, flashed his observer ID at those he didn't and ducked under the tape himself, halting just short of the dumpster and the blanket-draped shape which lay next to it. Jim was already kneeling beside the body, scanning the littered ground for clues. Blair held back, waiting for the cue which would tell him he was needed, postponing his contact with the bloody corpse for as long as possible. Even if he hadn't known what they were walking into, the sickly greenish cast to the faces of the officers already on the scene would have warned him it was going to be ugly.
This was the part of being Jim's partner that he hated. The stark reality of the cruelty one human being could inflict upon another etched itself a little deeper into his own soul with each dead body he viewed. It wasn't a fear of death which scarred himit was his empathic ability to imagine the horror and pain of each victim as they died. Raised by his free-spirited mother to revere and cherish life, he mourned the passing of every unique spirit and wished things could be different; wished for gentleness and compassion instead of brutality and malicious intent.
The death of a member of his adopted tribe took a toll on his Sentinel as well. Although to the casual observer, the detective's outward demeanor might appear cold and indifferent, Blair knew his partner felt each loss as much as he did. Ellison simply hid his emotions better than most, channeling his grief into the determined efforts he put forth to find justice for the dead.
If anyone can catch this guy, it's Jim. Even without his Sentinel abilities, he's the best detective on the force. He just needs to stay focused, which means I need to stay focused, too.
Blair took a deep breath, seeking to calm his nerves and settle his rumbling stomach, but inhaling the stench of rotting garbage and the metallic smell of blood had the opposite effect. He dropped his gaze and stared at the ground, swallowing convulsively, hoping desperately that he wouldn't embarrass himself by losing his breakfast right then and there.
The harsh screech of metal grinding against metal startled him. His head snapped up, his attention riveted on the rusty dumpster. One of the forensics techs had opened the lid to peer inside. Blair shifted his gaze to his partner's rigid back and mentally kicked himself for not suggesting Jim turn down the volume on his hearing when they'd adjusted the other dials. He stepped forward and dropped to a crouch at the Sentinel's side, his left shoulder brushing the older man's right, his own discomfort forgotten in the face of his partner's.
"You okay?" he whispered.
Ellison leaned lightly into the contact the anthropologist had initiated and nodded. He turned his head slightly, his eyes begging the inevitable question.
"Go ahead," the Guide ordered, steeling himself.
The detective twitched the corner of the blanket aside, uncovering the victim's face. Blair tried to study the man objectively. Not very old... early forties at the most... ragged hair, looks like he might have cut it himself... heavy beard stubble... hasn't shaved in a day or so...
Jim slipped his fingers under the man head, lifting it slightly. "There's a lump at the base of his skull."
"Just like the others."
Ellison nodded and carefully lowered the victim's head to the ground, treating the lifeless body with far more respect than the man's murderer had treated his living one. The Shaman concentrated on the thoughtful gesture as the Sentinel drew the blanket aside, exposing the rest of the corpse.
It was covered in dried blood.
Blair's eyes slammed shut and he clenched his teeth together. A stifled gasp was the only outward evidence of the scream trapped in his throat. Instinctively, the Guide shifted closer to his Sentinel, pressing against the older man's solid, reassuring bulk. Ellison didn't say a word, nor did he move away, for which Blair was grateful. After a few moments, the observer opened his eyes and met his partner's worried gaze. "Sorry," he mumbled. Jim's eyes narrowed, studying him intently and Blair flushed. He forced himself to look at the body stretched out in front of them.
The man was big, well over six feet tall, probably weighing in at close to 280 pounds. His torso was bare and there was no sign of a shirt or jacket nearby. He wore a patched pair of oversized trousers held in place by a worn belt and the grad student could see the tips of scuffed boots peeking out from under edge of the blanket.
"Looks like he could be another one of Cascade's homeless... the invisible poor whom the politicians don't seem to think exist," Blair murmured, struggling to keep his voice even. "Did he die the same way as the others?"
Ellison's gaze shifted back to the corpse and he nodded tersely. "Looks like it. There's one deep wound mid-chest which could have been caused by the blade Rankin and Briggs described. The secondary slash wounds look similar to what Dan Wolf documented in his reports on the other bodies as well."
Blair nodded absently, and stared at the victim's surprisingly peaceful looking, undamaged face, fighting to keep his revulsion under control. "You see anything else?" When the Sentinel shook his head, his Guide pushed himself to his feet and placed his left hand on his partner's shoulder. "Open up your sense of smellbut do it slowly... one notch at a time," he whispered.
He tightened his grip on the detective's shoulder, studying the older man's face intently, watching for any sign of distress. The Sentinel's nostril's pinched as he inhaled, then flared abruptly as Jim shook his head in disgust and rocked back on his heels.
"Jim, what is it? What do you smell?"
The Sentinel barely managed a choked reply. "Something sour... rancid..."
Blair reluctantly pressed for more information. "Is it the trash in the alley?"
"No... it's coming from the body..."
"Can you isolate it? Catalog it so we can try to identify it later?"
"I don't think... that's going to be... a problem," Jim gasped, glancing up to meet his gaze. The same expression of terror which Blair had glimpsed earlier that morning outside of Mr. Donnello's store filled the pale blue eyes.
The Guide made the connection immediately. Oh, shit! Whatever he's picking up now, he smelled this morning when he freaked out. The odor's coming from the body which probably links it to whoever murdered this guy, but how the hell does that relate to Jim's sensory problems?
Three possible explanations sprang to mind. The first, coincidence, Blair discarded immediately. He'd been through enough bizarre adventures with Jim to know that nothing ever just 'happened' to the two of them. Polar theory held that opposites attract and they were a pair of trouble magnets on the side of goodit was only reasonable to assume they would draw the bad guys into their sphere of influence.
Explanation number two was frightening. It implied that the killer had been standing within Sentinel sniffing distance of them that morning. Blair shuddered at the thought of some psycho being within even a mile of either one of them. That could explain why Jim reacted the way he did, though. He'd thought someone was about to attack me... with a knife... our killer's weapon of choice. Was he somehow picking up on the murderer's presence?
The third explanation was scarier still. It was possible that the Sentinel was on the verge of some kind of breakdown, and the smell he thought he was picking up from the body at their feet wasn't really there at allit was just a sensory hallucination, like the morning's episode had been. The expression on his partner's face told the Guide his Sentinel was seriously considering that line of thought, questioning the validity of the information his senses were feeding him.
If he buys into that scenario, we're sunk, Blair realized abruptly. He'll pull himself from the case rather than jeopardize it, which will reduce the odds of finding the killer from slim to none. I can't let him do that.
Blair bent forward and hissed insistently into his partner's ear. "You are NOT losing it, Jim. If you say you smell something, I believe you. There's a reasonable explanation for why it's the same odor you picked up this morning. I don't know what it is, yet, but you promised me some time to find the answers and I'm holding you to your word."
The Sentinel didn't seem to be listening, his eyes were dull and his body was sending off signals which panicked his Guide. Ellison was trembling, his breathing ragged. Blair dug his fingers into the older man's, hoping touch would provide a secondary point of focus, even though he didn't think his partner was lost in a normal zone-out. "Listen to me, Jim. Follow my voice back from wherever you are... Ignore the smell... filter it out... whatever it is, it can't hurt you... I won't let it!"
The Sentinel suddenly shook his head and blinked several times. His eyes were filled with confusion when he met his Guide's worried gaze. "What the hell happened, Sandburg?"
"You picked up a smell, Jim," the observer answered as calmly as he could. "Must have been pretty overpowering."
Jim glanced down at the body and took a tentative sniff, grimacing in distaste. "Yeah, it is." He started to rise to his feet and paused. "You can let go now, Chief," he said softly.
Blair hadn't realized he still had a deathgrip on Jim's shoulder. He flushed and released his hold, backing a step away. The detective straightened to his full height and turned away to question the uniformed officers who had found the body, behaving as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
His observer knew differently. With a weary sigh, Blair reached down and tugged the blanket over the victim's body. He stepped aside as the Forensic team moved in, eager to get on with their duties now that Jim had made his observations. Slipping into his usual place at his partner's side, Blair remained silent, absently absorbing the information which Ellison and the uniformed cop were exchanging while he pondered how to best help his Sentinel. He hadn't found an answer to Jim's sensory dilemma by the time his partner was ready to leave, but he had generated a question about the case and he posed it as they walked back to the truck. "Do you think there's any significance in the killer leaving this guy's body outside the dumpster instead of depositing him in it?"
Ellison halted mid-stride and cocked his head, staring at Blair curiously. "What are you getting at, Chief?"
"Mandy Vincent and Gloria Danen's bodies were both found inside of dumpsters. None of the others were, although if I remember the reports correctly, there should have been some similar kind of waste receptacle close to where the other corpses were found. The killer appears to treat his female victims differently than the male. Why? Is sex a factor? Mandy and Gloria were victims two and four. Does the even versus odd issue come into play? Or is it simply the size of the body which makes him choose one method of... disposal... over another?"
"The Wonder Brain's been working overtime again, I see," Ellison murmured. For a second, Blair thought Jim was making fun of his speculations, but there was no sarcasm or teasing in his tone. The detective's expression was serious and he turned to gaze back at the crime scene. "That's an interesting set of observations, Chief. All extremely valid. Unfortunately, until our killer chooses his sixth victim, we won't be able to rule out the male/female or even/odd questions." Jim swiveled his head and stared at his partner, his eyes narrowing thoughtfully. "Size of the corpse on the other hand, may be the key factor, and it could give us a possible clue as to the physical build and strength of the killer. I think we should have Dan take another look at all of the bodies. Maybe he can determine the height of our murderer from the angle of the blow to the back of the skull."
"But wouldn't he have checked that out already?"
"I'm sure he realized the deaths were related based on the uniformity of the autopsy findings. He's probably the one who pointed out the similarities to Rankin and Briggs. They suspected the murders were somehow connected, but they were still treating each homicide as a separate case. In a complex situation like this, it's easy to miss the simple clue that's staring you right in the face. You get caught up in details and don't see the big picture."
"Sort of a 'can't see the forest for the trees,' thing, huh?" Blair murmured.
Ellison nodded. "Standard investigative procedure suggests you look for the common denominator first, which is what we've been doing. You don't have a cop mindset, so you looked at the case from a different perspective and picked up on an anomaly instead." Jim pulled his cell phone from his jacket pocket and punched in the number for the Medical Examiner's office. When he was finished outlining what he wanted Wolf to check out, he tucked the phone back in his pocket, patted Blair on the back and started them moving toward the truck. "Good catch, Chief. Dan's on it. He said he'd have something for us later tonight. In the meantime, I want to check out the other crime scenes before we lose our daylight."
Blair opened the Ford's passenger door and hesitated, watching closely as Jim slid in behind the wheel. Despite the bizarre sensory episode he'd experienced beside the body, the detective appeared to be acting normally. He seemed calm, focused, in control. Just because he seems fine doesn't mean he is, Blair reminded himself. Throwing himself headfirst into the case was Jim's way of copinga textbook example of avoidance strategy, particularly when it came to dealing with the ramifications of his problematic senses.
Which might work for him, but it drives me crazy. He needs to deal with what's happening, not ignore it or wait until things have reached critical mass, but he won't put his own needs ahead of getting the job done.
Jim's voice pulled him from his own troubled thoughts. Mumbling an apology for keeping his partner waiting, Blair scrambled into the truck and belted himself in. He glanced at his friend and met Jim's worried, questioning gaze.
"Did you discover anything interesting during your little detour into the Sandburg Zone?" the detective asked quietly.
Blair forced a grin. "No, but I'll be sure to let you know when I do," he answered flippantly, falling easily into the familiar pattern of banter that they often employed when a situation got too intense. Keeping things light was another Ellison coping mechanism. He needs to distance himself from his fear of what's happening to him, and he's trying not to put too much pressure on me to come up with the answers I promised I'd provide. Okay, I can back off for nowplay it cool, keep the emphasis on the case, not on the Sentinel stuffwhatever it takes to give him some semblance of comfort and at least the illusion of being in control until I can get to the bottom of what's really going on. As Jim started the truck and backed it out of the alley, Blair settled deeper into the seat and launched into a rambling tale of an obscure South American tribe's mating practices.
The Sentinel came to a halt outside the door to the morgue and turned to look at his Guide.
"Don't even bother, Jim," Blair said firmly, answering his partner's question before it was even asked. "Where you go, I go."
"I draw the line at your following me into the john, Sandburg," Ellison remarked dryly.
"The morgue shouldn't be a problem then," Blair retorted. "I'm intimately familiar with the location of the 'facilities' on this floor." He pointed down the hall to Jim's right. "The men's restroom is that-a-way and there's a unisex version just around the corner. Feel free to visit either one."
"Smartass," Ellison muttered, reaching for the doorknob in front of him.
"Coming from you, I'll take that as a compliment," Blair responded blithely.
The Sentinel snorted softly. He closed his eyes and checked the mental sensory dials, surprised but pleased to find they were all holding at 'normal' levels. He exhaled slowly, then gave the doorknob an easy twist. A gentle push propelled the door panel inward and the detective crossed the threshold with his observer right on his heels.
They crossed the small, sparsely furnished waiting area, stopping at a waist- high counter. Two sliding glass panels formed a transparent barrier between the reception area and a tiny inner office. A small desk had been wedged into the closet-sized room. A huge computer system covered nearly every square inch of the desktop. A young, sandy-haired lab technicianwhom Jim didn't recognize-was seated in front of the computer, sandwiched between the wall and the desk.
Ellison rapped his knuckles on the glass, startling the man. The detective dug his badge-holder out of his pocket as the tech pried himself out of the cramped space and approached the window.
"I'm Ellison," Jim said brusquely, flashing his shield.
The young man stared at the badge, then checked a list of names on the clipboard which lay on his side of the counter. He slid one of the glass panels aside. "Detective Ellison. You're from Major Crimes. Dr. Wolf said you'd be coming. Hold on a second and I'll buzz you in." He pushed the pane of glass back to its original position and disappeared through a side door.
Jim turned and took two steps to his right, pausing in front of the door which would lead them into the working area of the morgue. The harsh, shrill sound of the alarm buzzer scraped across the Sentinel's sensitive aural passages like sandpaper as the lock clicked open. Irritated by the painful sensation, he placed the palm of his hand on the door and gave it a hard shove. The panel swung inward on its hingesalmost flattening the technician who was waiting for them.
Blair peeked around his partner and flashed the man a quick grin. "Sorry. Sometimes Herc here forgets his own strength," he quipped.
The man blinked, started to grin, then glanced up at Jim's glacial expression and took a nervous step backward.
"Quit scaring the help, man," the anthropologist muttered. Stepping around his partner, he walked up to the technician and extended his hand. "Blair Sandburg. I'm Detective Ellison's observer."
The tech closed a sweaty hand around Blair's and squeezed hard. "Ron Alberts." His eyes flicked to Jim's once more and he abruptly looked away, focusing on the anthropologist instead. "Dr. Wolf said you would want to view the five bodies he was working on today. The four oldest corpses are in the freezer. We're still processing the paperwork on the one that came in this afternoon, so he's in one of the holding rooms. Which... or I guess I should say, 'Who', do you want to see first?"
"The John Doe who was brought in last Sunday morning," Jim responded.
Alberts nodded and started down a sterile, white-walled corridor. Ellison gestured for Blair to precede him, sensing that the technician might be more comfortable with the anthropologist dogging his heels. The rear guard position also afforded the Sentinel the opportunity to monitor his Guide without being observed. He dialed up his hearing until the familiar pattern of his partner's heartbeat was loud enough to get an accurate reading.
A little fast... not bad considering where we are and what we're about to do... he decided. He let the familiar vibrations slide to the background and concentrated on Blair's voice.
"So, Ron, how'd you get elected to the graveyardpun intendedshift?"
"A little black humor, huh?" The tech chuckled. "Appropriate considering the setting. I'm the new kid on the block. Literally. I moved here a couple of weeks ago from the Mid-West. I'd just finished my forensic pathology residency and when this position opened up, I jumped at the chance to avoid another Wisconsin winter."
"Wait until you've experienced all forty kinds of Cascade rain before you tear up your return ticket," Blair advised.
Alberts laughed and the two young men began exchanging horror stories of graduate school. The Sentinel let his attention drift, ignoring the content of the conversation. He suspected his partner had initiated the discussion out of a need to deal with his own uneasiness, but it was having a calming effect on the technician as well. Sandburg had an innate ability to put people at easesoothing stressed-out sentinels was the Shaman's specialty.
Although the magic doesn't seem to be working right now, Jim realized. He squinted at the brilliant white walls and the painfully bright fluorescent lights and felt the headache he'd almost forgotten about beat against the back of his eyes. He rolled his shoulders trying to ease the tension between his shoulder blades and winced at the pull of stressed muscles. With every step he took toward the bodies, the more the hairs on the back of his neck prickled in warning.
"Man, when you said freezer, you weren't kidding!"
Blair's nervous exclamation brought Jim's attention back to his partner. The anthropologist and Alberts were standing in front of a huge stainless steel door at the end of the corridor. The burnished surface shimmered with a sickening, distorted image of the two men. The Sentinel grimaced as he tuned in on his agitated Guide's racing heartbeat.
Damn. I'd forgotten Sandburg's never been in this part of the morgue. He's never made it past the autopsy and holding rooms.
Lengthening his stride, Ellison quickly joined his partner, placing a hand on the younger man's left shoulder in silent support. Blair's gaze flickered back and forth between Jim's face and the freezer door and he shifted his feet uneasily as the technician flipped the heavy latch.
The loud sucking sound which accompanied the release of the door seal startled Blair and he instinctively took a step backward, inadvertently stomping on Jim's foot in the process. The Sentinel uttered a muffled grunt and tightened his grip on his Guide's shoulder, steadying him. Blair whispered a heartfelt apology though clenched teeth and forced himself to stand still as Alberts tugged the freezer door open. A blast of frigid air rolled out of the pitch black room, making him shiver violently.
The tech eyed him sympathetically and nodded at the coats Blair clutched in his hand. "You might want to put those on," Alberts murmured, reaching for one of the quilted jackets which hung on a wall-rack beside the door.
Jim's hand dropped away and the anthropologist slipped the backpack off his shoulder, dropping it to the floor. He scooted the bag closer to the wall with his foot, handed the detective his coat and gratefully slipped into his own.
"I'll get the lights," Ron offered, disappearing into the room. A moment later, a sickly greenish glow pulsed against the darkness, flickering into a harder edged blue-white glare which revealed the contents of the interior.
One quick glimpse was all it took for Blair's stomach to rebel. He swallowed hard and inhaled slowly, through his mouth, his pulse pounding. He felt the warmth of Jim's hand on his back for an instant, then his partner slid past him to lead the way. The grad student gave a firm order to his feet and followed. Once they were all inside, Alberts pulled the door shut, but he didn't seal it again, much to Blair's relief. The observer edged closer to the detective, his eyes darting around the room, his breath puffing out in ragged little clouds every time he exhaled.
It was like standing inside a metal box. The gray walls of the roughly 20 by 20 foot room gleamed dully, the flat surfaces broken by dark, uniformly placed horizontal and vertical lines. It took the anthropologist a moment to identify the grid-like pattern.
Drawers... those lines delineate the edge of each drawer where the bodies are kept... oh, man...
Chilled by more than the sub-zero temperature of the room, he forced his gaze to the center of the space where four wheeled gurneys stood side by side. Upon each rested a vaguely human-shaped form encased in a zippered black body-bag. A fifth gurney held a lonely vigil against the far wall, laden with a similar burden. There was nothing else in the room, although Blair's jello-like knees desperately longed for a chair. He shivered again and rubbed his hands against the sleeves of his jacket.
His gaze drifted to the walls once more, seeking a less unnerving sight than the covered corpses. Absently, he counted the drawers, estimating the capacity of the room at well over forty. The thought of that many dead bodies hidden behind the shining walls made the grad student's skin crawl.
Rationally, he knew that there was nothing to fear. Death was a universal transition, one that often aroused anxiety or irrational terror of the unknown. If there were bodies in the drawers, they were empty shells. The souls which had inhabited them were long gone. He knew that, yet it was still far too easy for him to imagine the ghostly presence of anguished spirits trapped inside the drawers, or floating invisibly around the room waiting for someone to open the door to their metal prison and release them.
And if I were a 'real' Shaman I'd be able to see them... do something for them...
Failure stabbed at him; knife-edged sharp. Shaman. That's what he was supposed to be. Incacha had named him that with his dying breath and in doing so had given Blair the keys to unlock the secrets of a whole new universe. The anthropologist had even ventured into it once, several months earlier. Although his memories of that short, agony-filled trip were fuzzy at best, he distinctly remembered the door which had led to that other plane of existence. Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, he hadn't been able to locate it again.
A wave of shame washed over him and Blair shook his head in disgust. This is not the time to be reviewing your own inadequacies, Sandburg, he berated himself silently. Or to be wallowing in self-pity. So you're a failure as a Shaman... you've still got responsibilities as Jim's partner and as the Sentinel's Guide. He needs you present and in control. If you hadn't been so immersed in your own futile quest, you would have noticed he was hurting before things got so far out of hand. Now get with the program!
Determined not to be sidetracked by his own demons again, Blair strode over to join his partner and the technician. Jim was standing in the space between the first two wheeled stretchers, staring down at the first bagged corpse. Alberts was directly across from him. The Sentinel raised his head and glanced at his Guide as he slid into his normal place just behind and to the older man's left, but remained silent.
"These are the four you'll want to see. They're all tagged by date of admission," Alberts explained, gesturing to the green paper rectangle attached to the zipper of each bag. He pulled a wadded handful of latex gloves out of his jacket pocket. He handed each of the partners a pair and donned one set himself.
"What about that one?" Blair asked softly, nodding toward the fifth gurney as he worked the skin-tight gloves over his cold hands.
Alberts frowned. "She came in a few days ago. Hit and run, I think. The family made arrangements to have the funeral home pick her up this evening, but I guess they got delayed. I'll put her back in storage once we're done here."
Blair repressed a shudder at the tech's casual reference to 'storage' and clamped down on his imagination before it could take off on him again.
"Dan was supposed to leave us a written report on his findings," Ellison said tersely, bringing them back to the subject at hand.
The technician nodded. "I was just typing up the last of his notes when you arrived. "
"Go finish," Jim ordered. "We can handle things here."
Alberts gaze shifted anxiously between the detective and Blair. "Are you sure you don't want me to stick around?"
The observer took a quick look at his partner whose gaze was riveted on the body atop the first gurney and shook his head. "Thanks, but Jim doesn't really like an audience when he works."
The technician raised a questioning eyebrow and glanced at Ellison again. He looked like he was about to say something else, then closed his mouth with an almost audible snap and backed a step away. "Oh... I see..."
"I think we can find our way back to the front office," Blair offered, trying to soothe the nervous man. "Anything special we need to do before we leave?"
"Just make sure the outer door's sealed," Alberts answered. "I'll get the lights later."
Blair flashed the technician an encouraging smile. "Okay. Thanks for your help, man."
"No problem," Alberts murmured. He glanced at Jim once more, then headed for the door, slipping out without another word.
Ellison reached forward, grasped the zipper-pull on the first body bag between gloved fingers and gave it a firm tug. Blair took a step backward as the detective eased the zipper two-thirds of the way down the length of the bag. Wishing he'd taken more than a quick peek at the coroner's photos of the bodies before being faced with the real thing, the anthropologist gave a decisive mental command to the scant contents of his stomach to 'stay put' and peered over his partner's left arm as Jim pulled back the edges of the bag.
He took one look at the corpse's flaccid, alabaster skin and turned his head, averting his eyes. The next thing he knew, he was sailing backward as Jim shoved him away from the gurney. The stunned Guide landed on his tailbone on the cold concrete floor.
Released from their confinement by the opening of the bag, the rank odors of death and the natural stench of decomposing flesh burst forth, smothering in their intensity. The Sentinel withstood the initial onslaught, but the instant he detected the frighteningly familiar odor from his waking nightmares, the dials spun out of control. Nostrils choked with the cloying scent, mind screaming 'danger', his first instinct was to get his Guide out of the line of fire. He planted the flat of his hand on the younger man's chest and pushed him backward, barely registering the look of shocked surprise on the anthropologist's face.
Jim shook his head hard, trying to clear it, but the noxious smell remained. It filled his nasal passages and coated the inside of his mouth. It tasted worse than death.
It tasted like insanity.
Sucking in a lungful of air through clenched teeth, the Sentinel whirled around in a 180 degree turn and reached for the zipper-pull on the second body-bag. He jerked it downward, his free hand working to open the edges of the heavy plastic. His head jerked back as another wave of smells hit him in the face like a physical blow. He forced himself to wade through the reeking sensory midden, seeking the 'other'the scent which threatened his grip on reality.
He recoiled when he found it, staggering backward against the side of the first gurney. He swayed to the left and lurched like a drunken man around the head of the second stretcher to the third. Again, he tore open the black shroud and again he reeled away from the fumes, the peculiar sour odor wafting out with the other smells of death. A frantic, keening moan filled his throat, but he clenched his teeth, stubbornly refusing to give his terror an outlet. He stumbled his way to the fourth corpse and wrenched at the zipper. The nightmarish scent preceded the others emanating from the bag, stronger, more intense. The Sentinel yanked his hands away and stared at the body in horror.
Dazed, Blair watched in open-mouthed shock as his partner staggered from one corpse to another, the detective's actions growing more frantic by the second. When the Sentinel pulled away from the last body and froze in obvious terror, it jump-started his Guide into action. Scrambling to his feet, Blair lunged to his partner's side. He grabbed the detective's arms and spun him around so that Jim was facing him, not the gurney and what it contained.
"JIM!" He dug his fingers into the fabric of the older man's jacket and shook him.
"That smell... it's there... on all of them..." Ellison gasped.
There was a wild expression in the detective's eyesa look of fear which Blair had glimpsed twice already that dayand the observer nearly groaned aloud at the sight. "Ignore it. You hear me? Filter it out!" He shook his partner again, but there was no reaction, just the unblinking stare.
Panicked, Blair almost lost it himself. He glanced wildly around the room, wishing Jim hadn't been so quick to send Alberts away. It was distinctly possible that he was going to need some help here, especially if Jim chose this moment to collapsepersonal experience had shown him just how hard the concrete floor really was when one made unexpected contact with it. His gaze fell on the fifth gurney, his eyes widening as a possible solution hit him. It was risky, but he was desperate. He half-pulled, half-pushed the unresisting Sentinel toward the far wall, letting go of him only when they were at the side of the wheeled stretcher.
Stifling his own aversion to being in such close proximity to the dead, Blair reached forward and grabbed the zipper-pull. Whispering an apology to the woman's departed spirit, he pulled the tab down the track and shoved the fabric away, exposing the corpse. He grabbed Jim's arm and pushed the Sentinel closer to the opening he had created. "Breathe!" he demanded, his voice harsh and commanding.
The Sentinel's nostril's flared and the Guide held his breath, gaze locked on his partner's face. Blair's heart pounded painfully against the inside of his ribcage, hope warring with fear when the older man suddenly blinked and took an uncertain step backward.
Blair squeezed Jim's arm gently and the Sentinel's head swiveled toward him. "The smell... is it there? Is it on her?" the Guide asked, his voice a bare current of sound.
Ellison cocked his head, his eyes narrowing as he stared down at the young woman's lifeless face. "No... I don't... I don't think so..."
"Try again," Blair pressed, knowing they had to be sure.
He watched as his partner leaned over the body, took a deep breath and then exhaled slowly. When the detective turned to look at him again, his face was contorted in a grimace of distaste, but the fear was gone from his eyes.
"It's not there."
Blair almost screamed in relief. "That proves it then," he said eagerly. "It wasn't your imagination or your senses playing a trick on you. Whatever that smell is, you picked it up on all five of the killer's victims, but not on her. The smell is connected to the case."
Ellison frowned, his eyes shifting back and forth between the body of the young woman and the other four. "It would appear to be, but..."
"But it still doesn't explain this morning," Blair finished for him. "Or why you seem to freak whenever you get a whiff of it." He squeezed Jim's arm again and then dropped his hand away. "I know this is making you feel like you're going crazy, man, but you aren't. We will figure this out."
The Sentinel nodded and turned back to the body bag containing the hit and run victim. He carefully zipped the bag shut, took a deep breath and straightened to his full height. "Let's finish this," he murmured as he turned and stared at the gurneys in the center of the room.
Blair eyed his partner worriedly. Jim's face was tight with strain, but the determined set of his jaw told the observer the detective was committed to finishing his examination of the other bodies. Great. I manage to talk him down off the ledge and now he wants to leap right back up on it. You're going to give me an ulcer, Ellison... assuming my heart doesn't give out first. He entertained the satisfying thought of knocking some sense into his stubborn friend as gestured for the Sentinel to precede him.
The Sentinel waited until his Guide was at his side before peeling back the heavy black plastic from the torso of the oldest corpse. It wasn't fear of another 'episode' which made him hesitatethe worst of his personal fears had been laid to rest thanks to his partner's quick thinkingit was prudence. The stress of the case combined with the strange sensory episodes had drained his mental and emotional reserves. Aching muscles and joints were painful reminders of his physical fatigue as well. If he pushed too hard, he could easily find himself lost in a zone-out.
And that's the last thing either one of us needs to deal with tonightespecially Sandburg. I've put him through enough today.
Confident that the reassuring warmth and support which emanated from his partner would sustain him long enough to do what needed to be done, the detective studied the slashes on the body; memorizing the placement, angle and length of each knife stroke's ruinous path. He was aware of the sour odor which had set him off before, but he ignored it, resolutely dialing down his sense of smell and taste. The task of determining what the smell was, and why it was important would have to wait until both he and his Guide were in better shape to deal with it.
After a few minutes Jim moved on to the second corpse, automatically comparing the mutilation pattern on Mandy Vincent's body with what he'd seen on the John Doe's. Without a word, he shifted to the third victim and then the fourth, methodically cataloging and assessing the wounds. Finally he straightened, frowning.
"What is it, Jim?" Blair asked softly, brushing against the detective's left elbow as he shifted closer.
"The slash marks are similar, but they're not exactly the same. Except for these," the Sentinel murmured, directing his Guide's attention to Gloria Danen's body and the two half circle shaped marks carved in the skin to the left of her navel. "Those nested 'C' shapes are consistent on all of the victimsplacement, size, you name it. The rest of the marks are almost random... as if the killer attacked the bodies in a frenzy, using the same knife to slash the victim's skins as he used to penetrate the heart. The secondary wounds are consistent in depth... deep enough to cause a lot of bleeding "
Blair's strangled gasp brought Jim up short. Silently cursing himself for his stupidity, the detective turned and stared at his partner in concern. In the harsh glow of the overhead lights, the younger man's face was colorless, his eyes wide with horror. Ellison grabbed Blair by the shoulder and steered him toward the door. When the wall was within reach, the anthropologist planted one hand against the cold metal to brace himself and to prevent Jim from ushering him out into the hallway.
"I'm... I'm okay..." Blair gasped, his eyes searching his partner's face desperately. "Just... just tell me... tell me he didn't... didn't do that while they were still alive."
The Sentinel's jaw clenched and unclenched as he stared down at his Guide. He wanted nothing more than to tell Blair that he was rightthat the victims hadn't felt the burning slashes of the knife as the killer desecrated their bodies, but he couldn't. He wasn't sure. No one, except the killer and the spirits of the dead knew that answer. Still, there was evidence to suggest a less horrifying conclusion and if it would soothe his Guide's troubled soul, the Sentinel was more than willing to offer it.
"I don't know, Chief," he admitted quietly, "but the fatal knife thrust was delivered with precision. That would have been almost impossible to accomplish if the victim was conscious. It's more likely that he killed them and then mutilated the bodies."
Blair closed his eyes, shook his head and exhaled a long, weary sigh. Jim patted him on the shoulder. "Stay put. We'll be out of here in a minute."
The detective returned to the gurneys and quickly sealed the body-bags. The partners exited the room without exchanging another word. Ellison shut the freezer door and clamped the latch into place as the anthropologist retrieved his backpack. They made a quick stop at the front office to pick up the report which Alberts had waiting and then escaped to the outer corridor. Blair's soft, relieved sigh when the door of the morgue closed behind them, mirrored Jim's.
"Where to now, man?" the observer's voice quavered, despite his obvious attempt to keep it steady.
The Sentinel barely hesitated before answering. Although his instincts were screaming that the killer would strike again that nightperhaps already hadcommon sense told him that cruising the streets would be pointless. A few hours of sleep, even if it was haunted by nightmares, were what he and his Guide both needed. Jim guided the subdued observer to the elevator and pushed the button for the parking garage level.
The trip to the loft took nearly twice as long as normal. The storm which had begun with a spit and a splatter had achieved full deluge mode by the time they left the station parking garage. Rain fell against the Ford's windshield in sheets, the frenzied efforts of the wipers barely shifting the sluggish mass. Visibility was reduced to a few feet and their speed to a crawl. The wind added its own brand of chaos, buffeting the truck with enough force to shift it sideways on the rain-slicked pavement.
Ellison clenched the steering wheel and ground his teeth in frustration, wincing at the strobing lights of the oncoming cars and the surreal shimmer of the street lights.
Sandburg clenched the shoulder strap of his seatbelt and mimicked his partner's lock-jaw approach, matching each of the detective's flinches with one of his own.
The short run from the truck to the shelter of the apartment building left them soaked. The partners each chose a wall of the elevator to hold up for the short trip to the third floor, neither breaking the fatigue-laden silence. Blair shrugged out of his dripping jacket as he trailed down the hallway behind his roommate, shivering at each icy trickle his dripping hair sent coursing down the back of his neck. Jim jammed the key into the lock, shouldered the loft door open and tromped inside. The detective made a beeline for the bathroom, dropping his own coat on the arm of the couch in passing.
Too wiped to comment on their role reversals, Blair flipped on the lights, hung his jacket on the rack next to the door and dropped his pack on the floor beside the mat where he toed-off his soggy sneakers. Another shiver sent him padding into the kitchen to fill a kettle with water. As it heated, he dug tea bags out of a wooden canister and set out two mugs. If he had guessed right, his partner was at that very moment downing a handful of aspirin in an attempt to combat the splitting headache which had resurfaced on the torturous drive home. The thought of the pills chewing away at the Sentinel's sensitive stomach lining sent sympathy pains through his own churning gut. A warm, soothing cup of teaforced down his roommate's throat if need bewas what the Guide intended to prescribe.
Blair glanced over at his backpack and frowned. He wished he hadn't brought home the case files. The last thing the Sentinel needed right now was further immersion into the realm of madness conjured up by their bloodthirsty killer. Sleep was a much better choice. Even ex-Rangers had to recharge their batteries, didn't they?
Primed to argue his case, Blair was surprised when Jim emerged from the bathroom a few minutes later and trudged slowly up the steps to his bedroom. Assuming his partner had gone upstairs to change out of his wet clothes and would be down shortly, the observer poured the boiling water into the cups and absently watched the tea bags slowly float to the top.
He started to nod off and snapped awake with a jerk. He cocked his head, listening for sounds from the upper loft, growing concerned when he didn't detect any. Picking up the steaming mug he'd prepared for his partner, Blair carried it upstairs, rehearsing his most persuasive arguments. The sight of his roommate, sprawled on the bed like a toppled tree was the last thing he expected to find. The carefully crafted words died in his throat. Setting the mug on the top of Jim's dresser, he moved to the side of the bed and stared down at his partner.
At least he managed to get out of his wet shirt and jeans before he collapsed, Blair thought grimly. He leaned closer, studying the slow rise and fall of his friend's chest. When he was convinced Jim was sleepingnot zoning or in some weird trancehe snagged the comforter from the foot of the bed and eased it over the exhausted Sentinel.
Retrieving the tea, he tip-toed down the stairs and returned to the kitchen. He set the cup on the countertop and poked at the tea bag in his own mug, pressing the pouch against the side before removing it. He raised the cup, inhaling the fragrant aroma, enjoying the way it filled his nostrils, replacing the stench of death.
He nearly dropped the mug as the memory of standing over the mutilated bodies smacked him full force. The hot liquid sloshed over the rim and cascaded down his shirt-front as he fumbled to place the cup safely on the counter. He pressed the palms of both hands flat against the Formica surface as a full- body tremor shuddered through him.
Intermixed with the horrific images of the case were the equally terrifying visions of his Sentinel caught in the grip of the debilitating sensory episodes. The grim and frightening scenes whirled through his mind plummeting him into a yawning black hole. He pressed his lips together, locked his shaking knees and hung on for the ride.
He hit the brakes before he reached bottom, stubbornly refusing to give in to the temptation of collapsing on the kitchen floor. He drew himself upright and banished the nearly overwhelming feelings of despair to the dark recesses of his mind where they belonged.
You will not fall apart. You can't. Jim needs your help. He's always been there for you... it's time to return the favor. Blair glanced at the clock on the microwave. One o'clock... I can work for a few more hours and still get some shut-eye. At this point, answers are more important than sleep, anyway.
He scrubbed at his face and raked his fingers through his still-damp curls. As he fought off a yawn, he realized he was going to need something stronger than tea if he was going to stay awake.
Coffee... make some, he prompted himself.
The familiar routine of preparing the coffee helped settle his nerves and allowed him time to order his jumbled thoughts. Getting his Sentinel totally back on line was his first priority. He had played the role of observer and friend all day, slipping into Guide mode only when necessary, deferring to Jim's unspoken preference to keep the Sentinel stuff on the back burner. With his partner safely tucked away upstairs, it was time to concentrate on his real job. While the Sentinel slept and healed, the Guide would stand watch, burning the midnight oil until daybreak if that's what it took.
As the coffee machine burbled and hissed, filling the waiting carafe with the dark rich brew, Blair made a quick circuit of the lower loft, taking on Jim's normal task of securing their home for the night. After checking the windows and the balcony doors, he retrieved his partner's jacket from the couch and hung it on the rack next to his own. Engaging the deadbolt on the front door, he slid the safety chain into place and picked up his backpack, lugging it to the kitchen table.
He emptied the bag onto the tabletop, quickly sorting the contents into four piles. The items which related to the casethe ream of printouts, his scribble-filled notebooks and the various report filesmade up the largest stack. One slim notebook made up the second; his school papers and two textbooks the third. The ancient, leather-bound tome he'd been carting around for weeks was the only item in the fourth.
Sticking to his plan, he picked up the lone notebookthe one he'd designated as the 'freak-out' journal. He flipped the narrow spiral-bound pad open and frowned. There were only a few hastily scrawled entries; vague rambling thoughts of his own, mostly. With Jim focused on the case and the breakneck speed with which the day had flown by, there hadn't been any opportunity for the Sentinel to generate the lists his Guide had wanted. Blair had managed to ask a couple of leading questions about the weird sensory 'episodes' during the course of their travels from one crime scene to another, but he'd been leery of pushing too hard.
Now he regretted that decision. He had only vague information. He needed details.
Well, we spent a good part of the past week joined at the hip. I'll just write down what I can remember about where we ate, what we ate, what we did, what he wore, etcetera, etcetera. That'll at least give me a place to start. Jim can fill in any blank spots in the morning.
Blair laid the notebook down and headed into the kitchen to pour his first cup of coffee. Returning to the table, he pulled a pen out of the side pocket of his pack and settled onto a chair. Flipping to a new page, he bent over the lined pad and began writing out lists of his own. It took nearly an hour, but when he was finished dredging every conceivable detail he could recall from the depths of his memory, he had almost thirty pages of notes.
Unfortunately, the answer he sought wasn't among them.
Time for phase two.
He rolled his head clockwise, then counterclockwise, trying to ease the tense muscles of his neck and upper back. The snap-crackle of bones shifting back into alignment and the stiffness in his body as he pushed himself to his feet reminded him of just how long he'd been sitting hunched over the table. He shuffled into the kitchen for another cup of coffee, allowing himself three gulps of the liquid caffeine before starting a systematic examination of the loft.
He searched every nook and cranny of the lower floor, but found nothing to account for the sensory dilemma his partner was facing. There were no new foods or beverages in the kitchen. No new pillows or fabrics in the living room. The same brands of toothpaste and shaving creme the Sentinel had been using for the past two years sat on the shelves in the bathroom. Blair read the labels word for word, but found nothing he hadn't identified and catalogued as 'safe' long ago.
He took his investigation upstairs, quietly climbing the steps to Jim's bedroom. He paused at the top of the stairs, eyes narrowing in concern as he studied his still sleeping friend. Under normal circumstances, the ex-Ranger would have been wide awake before Blair's foot touched the second step of the staircase. The detective had been known to charge down the stairs, gun drawn, at the sound of his partner's elevated heartbeat.
Even though Blair had tried to be quiet, the noise he had made rummaging around the lower loft should have at least prompted Jim to roll over, bury his head under the blanketssomething. Yet despite what should have sounded like an uproar to a man with enhanced senses, the Sentinel had slept through it all.
Definitely something wrong with this picture...
Blair knew it was close to impossible to sneak up on a Sentinel, awake or asleep. In the three years he'd lived with Jim, he'd tried that experiment numerous times. He could count on the fingers of one hand the attempts which had proven successful. The Sentinel's genetic gifts gave him an incredible 'awareness' of his environment, and, although he had yet to figure out a way to prove it, Blair suspected that his partner's enhanced senses were as active when Jim was sleeping as they were when he was awake. The anthropologist had theorized that instead of shutting down when he slept, the Sentinel's senses went into a modified 'stand-by' mode, acting as a hyperactive sensory netthe faintest stirring of which set off an immediate call to arms.
Jim could transition from a deep slumber to full-alert-and-battle-ready mode almost instantaneously. His military training, the eighteen months he had spent stranded in the jungles of Peru, and his experiences on the street as a cop had honed an above-average instinct for self-preservation to a fine edgehis enhanced senses had whetted it razor sharp.
When something interfered with his sensesmedication and exhaustion being the primary culpritsthey malfunctioned and the Sentinel became vulnerable.
Which is why you're here. To protect him. Stop staring and start looking.
The troubled Guide acquiesced to the demands of his conscience, quickly examining the contents of Jim's room as thoroughly as he'd checked the lower level. His search proved fruitless again.
Okay... phase three. Guide territory.
After needlessly tucking the comforter a bit closer around his sleeping Sentinel, Blair headed downstairs to his own bedroom. He left the French doors ajar so he could monitor his partner, although it was a safe bet that Jim wasn't going to be rousing any time soon. He eyed his own bed longingly.
That's not going to happen until you cover a lot more ground, he reminded himself. Get to it.
The determined Guide advanced on the room's small closet as though it were a deadly adversary instead of a treasure trove. He shoved aside the hanging garments and began to unearth the plain brown cartons which were hidden under a layer of sweaters, scandalously-worn blue jeans and stacks of old anthropology journals.
He hauled five boxes out of the confines of the closet and arranged them on the floor, lining them up in a row against the edge of his futon. Outside the storm still raged; thunder rolling in an almost continuous bass growl and rain tap-dancing against the fire-escape door. He settled himself cross-legged on the floor in front of the boxes, ignoring Mother Nature's antics. Nudging his glasses into place on his nose with the back of one hand, he dragged the first carton toward him. Despite the seriousness of situation, Blair grinned at the words which were stenciled in lurid orange marker across the top: TAXES '72-'89.
He lifted off the cover, pulled out a thick layer of old state and federal income tax forms, and stared almost reverently into the depths. Nested safely inside the box were rows of spiral bound notebooksthe tangible evidence of a lifetime spent researching sentinels in general, and years of observing The Sentinel in particular.
He tugged out the first notebook in the left-hand row and scanned the meticulously prepared index which detailed the contents of the box. The information in the journals ranged from what his partner would have called 'Sandburg Zone ravings' to painstakingly exact transcriptions of the tests Blair had badgered the Sentinel into taking. Tucked in-between were odd bits of research he'd accumulated along the way. He'd never dreamed he would have to delve into so many un-sentinel-related topics. When he first started working with Jim, it had all seemed so straight forwardrun some tests on the man's hyperactive senses, analyze the data, publish and collect his royalty checks.
I sure had that wrong, he mused, tugging the notebooks he wanted from the box. The anthropologist had quickly discovered that Jim's enhanced senses were as much of a curse as a blessing. After a dose of over-the-counter cold medicine had nearly cost the Sentinel his life, his Guide had made it his business to become an expert on anything and everything which could possibly pose a danger to his partner. And he had kept copious notes, as anal about his research as Jim was about housekeeping.
Let's hope all that effort pays off now, he thought grimly as he focused his attention on one of the journals he'd selected and started to review his notes.
He slammed the lid on the fifth box, seething in frustration and pushed himself to his feet. Grimacing at the painful tingles in his legs and the ache in his lower back, he limped out of his room toward the kitchen. His eyes automatically sought the clock on the microwave.
"Three-thirty?" he groaned. "Can't be..."
He grabbed a new mug, poured the remaining dregs of coffee from the carafe into it and stuck the cup inside the microwave, jabbing angrily at the control panel. He leaned wearily against the edge of the counter, feeling his anger drain away as the appliance hummed to life. He was too tired to hold onto the raw emotion for long, and he didn't need the negative energy sucking him dry.
I'm already running on fumes as it is.
He took a deep breath and released it slowly. He had checked every reference he had against the few sensory clues that either Jim had given him or he had observed himself, and he had found nothing to match what was happening to his partner.
He'd felt a surge of hope when he located the results of a vision test he'd run shortly after he had met the detective. Most human beings could detect light only within a narrow segment of the electromagnetic spectrum, but the data had implied that the Sentinel had a visual range which went well beyond 'normal' limits. Over the years, Blair had seen the proof with his own eyes. Day or night, his partner's eyesight was impressive. Searching for a connection to the vision problems Jim was experiencing nowthe flashes of light, the increased sensitivitythe anthropologist had reread his notes on the experiment eagerly, but they simply confirmed what he already knew. The scribbled entries in the margins were no help either.
So what if snakes can detect longer wavelengths of infrared light and insects can detect the shorter wavelengths of ultraviolet? Or that snakes are deaf to air-borne sounds? While probably interesting in the obscure, those tidbits don't do me a damn bit of good at the moment.
The microwave 'dinged' and Blair punched at the release button. He muttered a curse at the sight of the bubbling black sludge. Great... I must have screwed up the settings... He gingerly lifted the cup by the handle and quickly deposited it in the sink. The two mugs of tea he had prepared earlier were still on the counter. The tea wouldn't supply the caffeine fix he needed, but it would at least be palatable. "Assuming you can manage to set the timer right this time," he grumbled. He placed one cup in the microwave and carefully entered the proper codes. While the clock ticked through its countdown, his mind ticked through his partner's list of symptoms.
Altered sleep pattern, persistent headache, lack of control over his sensory dials, lack of appetite... those are all pretty general... could mean problems with one sense or all five... lights are brighter... sounds are more intense... touch he hasn't mentioned... have to remember to ask him about that... smell... well, it's pretty obvious that sense is working, given his reactions to one particular odor...
Blair shuddered as the scene in the morgue played out in his head once more.
Thank God that other body was there. Whoever she was, I owe her a debt of gratitude. If it hadn't been for the lack of that damn smell on her corpse, I wouldn't have been able to convince Jim he wasn't going insane.
Frustration and anxiety spurred him into motion. He grabbed a kitchen towel and channeled the nervous energy into a determined cleaning spurt, scrubbing at invisible specs of dirt and moisture on the countertop.
You've all but ruled out changes to his environment, food and beverage intake, and his contact with any other foreign substances. What's left?
Stress, which a cop's life provided in abundance, could account for the Sentinel's problems and changes in behaviorespecially the loss of sensory controlbut Blair suspected it was a contributing factor, not the underlying cause. His partner had been under far worse strain in the past and this particular combination of symptoms had never materialized. It was possible the headache was a manifestation of a medical problem though, something entirely unrelated to his senses. That thought gave Blair a new set of chills.
Jim's in great shape. He works out regularly, he eats better than he ever did before I entered the picture and he isn't taking any medications outside of the aspirin he's been downing to deal with the headache. Still, if I can't come up with another explanation, I'm going to have to get him into the hospital for some tests... oh yeah... that'll be fun...
Blair glared at the pristine Formica wishing the sparkling, inanimate surface would spring to life like a Ouija board and answer his desperate questions.
His senses are all functioning, they're just erratic... all but taste supercharged... but not all the time. Whatever that smell is, it seems to be the trigger. He's had at least marginal control over the dials except for when he's been exposed to that odor... then he loses it. Why? Is it sense memory kicking in? Has he come into contact with that smell, maybe even the killer at some point in the past and his subconscious is trying to remind him?
Blair took a last swipe at the counter and balled up the towel, tossing it aside. There was only one way to test that theory.
We'll have to try to analyze the odor... break it down... figure out exactly what it is. If that doesn't do the trick, then I'll have to walk him back through the times he's reacted to it...
Exposing his Sentinel to something which obviously terrified him was the last thing Blair wanted to do. What if he couldn't control Jim's reactions? His partner was still standing on shaky ground. What if Blair pushed too hard and sent him careening off the edge of the precipice? He shook his head angrily.
Come on, Sandburg. Think! he admonished himself. Turn the problem around. Try a new
A crashing roll of thunder pulled his gaze to the balcony as the lights went out, plunging the loft into darkness.
Wind and rain beat against the glass doors, sending sheets of water coursing down the panes. The dark clouds boiled and thunder rumbled ominously. Mother Nature released the full fury of her power with a sonic boom of thunder and jagged streaks of lightning that lit the sky to diamond-white brilliance. The force of the assault rattled the glass doors and sent an answering tremble vibrating through his aching muscles...
Another volley of violent thunder and an ear-piercing strike of lightning nearly rocked him off his feet. Blinded by the afterimage of the flash that danced madly across his retinas, Blair stared out into unending night, swamped by an overwhelming wave of terror...
He stared at his ghostly reflection in the glass doors, too dazed to question how or when he had moved from the kitchen. The rivulets of water cascading down the panes mirrored the tears that streaked down his cheeks...
Lightning flashed again and the thunder rolled in a counter point beat to the drums in the music. His focus shifted outward, following the swirling masses of clouds. Pain flared behind his eyes and the sensation of being physically removed from his body grew stronger...
Suddenly he was in the dream again. The hallway still stretched before him...
The lights flared to life.
"Whoa!" Blair hissed, taking a startled step backward. He caught sight of his own reflection in the glass panes of the balcony doors and froze. "What the hell?... How did I...?"
He stared out into the storm, running trembling fingers through his hair, trying to remember when he'd moved from the kitchen.
Lightning flashed again, and he retreated, stumbling backward until he came up hard against the couch. His knees gave way and he sank down on the arm, hugging himself against the nearly overwhelming emotions which raged through him in mimicry of the storm outside.
"NO!" he snarled. "That was before... this is now!"
He dragged ragged snatches of air into his lungs, his chest heaving with the effort. A screaming voice inside his head warned he was in danger of hyperventilating and he struggled to regain some semblance of control.
It's not real... It was a flashback... this isn't three months ago... there's no poison in your system... the cup of tea cooling in the microwave isn't full of cleaning chemicals... and you're not alone... Jim's right upstairs!
The thought of his sleeping Sentinel gave the reeling Guide the final incentive to get himself under control. He turned and glanced upward, straining to see if there was any sign of his partner on the stairs. Nothing. No sound but the storm. No movement from the upper loft.
Blair breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank God... I don't want him to see me like this..."
He pushed himself to his feet and staggered across the room to the kitchen. He grabbed the mug of tea out of the microwave and raised it to his lips, grateful for the soothing warmth. He forced himself to stand there and drink the entire cupful, taking small measured sips between each deeply drawn breath. When the mug was empty, he set it down on the counter with exaggerated care.
"Well... that was... unexpected," he murmured shakily. "So was it deja vu at its worst, or is someone trying to tell me something?"
He turned slowly, his gaze drawn to the ancient book on the kitchen table. He swallowed hard and walked over to pick it up. Fingering the tooled pattern of the leather cover almost reverently, he stared out at the slowly abating storm, his shoulders slumping as his partner's teasing comment from the previous morning rang in his ears.
"First it's fairy tales now it's fables... what is it with you, Sandburg?... Real life not exciting enough for you that you've suddenly developed a passion for the Brother's Grimm? Is that what's in the book you've had your nose buried in for the last few days?"
"Not fairy tales or fables, man, although you were close," Blair whispered. "It's a story... about a journey... one I thought I'd started upon three months ago..." He clutched the book to his chest, imagining he could feel each stroke of the raised lettering of the title through the fabric of his shirt'The True Path; a treatise on Shamanistic practices'.
A guidebook for a Shaman.
His throat tightened and he closed his eyes against despair. Finding the book had been the answer to his prayers... at least he'd thought so when he'd found the ancient tome tucked away in an obscure used book store. He'd been searching for answers to what had really happened to him three months earlier.
The official version of events was simple: tea bags which he'd kept in a container at the station had accidentally been contaminated with an industrial strength cleaning solvent. He'd drunk the tea and unwittingly poisoned himself. Under normal circumstances, the experience would have been painful, but not necessarily life-threatening. A particularly nasty strain of influenza had turned a serious situation into a nearly fatal one. The combined effects of the virus and the poison had incapacitated him. Fortunately, he'd been found in time. Unable to reach him by phone, Jim had contacted Simon. The captain had come to the loft to check up on the anthropologist at his detective's request. Blair had been immediately transported to the hospital. He'd woken hours later to find his partner at his bedside with a very 'logical' explanation for his dilemma. After a week's stay in the hospital to flush the toxins out of his system he'd been released. No charges were pressed. Case closed.
The unofficial version didn't end so tidily. Blair's memories of the incident were vague, warped by pain and delirium. He had been alone at the loft that weekend. Jim had flown to Denver on a prisoner extradition with Henri Brown, leaving the grad student in Cascade to finish a paper for one of his classes. When the first of the debilitating symptoms had struck, Blair hadn't realized he'd been poisoned. He'd been completely 'out of it', vomiting up blood, doubled up in agony. He dimly recalled an urgent need to find help, but he'd been in no shape to seek itnot through any conventional means at least.
Yet Jim had known. Hundreds of miles away from his failing Guide, the Sentinel had sensed something so frightening that he had called in the cavalry, sending a skeptical police captain to the rescue. It had been close. No one had come right out and said it, but Blair knew he would have died if Simon hadn't arrived when he had.
Blair had been lost in a dream, or so it had seemed at the time. Dim as his other memories were, the images of the 'vision' were indelibly etched on his mind. He'd 'walked' through the loft door and had stepped into a hallway filled with green doors. The pattern in the carpet runner had been filled with shapes and figures which had seemed involved in their own little game of hide and go seek. Behind the doors there were voices and sounds, yet he'd been unable to open any of them. He'd traversed the seemingly endless corridor searching for a way out, screaming for help, drawn back into the dreamscape time and time again as his body struggled against the effects of the poison. The surreal universe kept shrinking, doors disappearing, until there was only one left. He had struggled to reach that final door, desperate to make contact with his Sentinel, whose protective presence he sensed on the other side of the green panel.
When it too had finally disappeared, he'd been terrified. Alone. He had almost given up. Only the thought of leaving his Sentinel alone as well had kept the agonized Guide fighting for survival. When a new door had appeared in the swirling fog he'd stationed himself in front of it, instinctively understanding it was the portal which would lead him home. Unable to open it himself, he had waited, held in stasis by a voice which promised salvation, until the door had opened and he had opened his eyes to find Jim hovering over him.
How had the Sentinel known his Guide was at death's door? Blair had worried at that question during his stint in the hospital. Jim kept hedging each time he brought it up, but the anthropologist had been certain his partner was hiding something. It wasn't until they returned to the loft that Blair had gotten confirmation of what he'd suspected.
When pressed, Jim had finally admitted to having a dream which eerily matched Blair's 'vision'. Blair had known then that it hadn't been delirium. No matter what logical explanations anyone else offered, he was convinced that what he'd experienced had been realthat the 'dreamwalk' had led him to his Sentinel and that it had allowed him to send off a psychic call for help.
"I started on a journey that night," Blair whispered to the silent loft. "A first venture into the world that Incacha's bequest opened up for me. A Shaman walks in more than one world. I thought that's what my dream was all about. I thought that once I'd taken that first step that the way would become clear... that the next ones would be easier..."
Yet despite his best attempts, there hadn't been any next steps. No matter what he'd tried, he hadn't been able to find his way into that alternate world again. And he wanted to, not only for his own sake, but for his Sentinel's.
I need to understand this so that I can help him... Blair pressed the book tighter to his chest and pushed away from the table, pacing out his frustration and his fear. But I've failed... I've failed Incacha and I've failed Jim.
In a fit of irrational anger, he threw the book across the room. It skittered across the hardwood floor and landed face up, the fragile pages fluttering for a moment before they settled. A bolt of lightning sizzled across the sky at the same time, sending a shiver up the younger man's spine and covering his skin with goosebumps. He turned toward the stairs to the upper loft anxiously listening for any sound from his partner, but again, there was nothing. Like a silent shadow, the anthropologist slipped across the room to where the ancient volume lay. Blair's hands were shaking as he stooped to pick it up. He froze, transfixed by the contents of the page it had opened to.
The path to visions: Ayahuasca... the rope of the dead...
The glass panes of the balcony doors rattled as a gust of wind slammed into them. Rain pelted against the side of the building as the storm broke loose again. Blair was drawn back to the windows, the book clenched in his hands.
Drug induced hallucinations... Is that what it takes? Can the doorway to the Shaman's universe only be reached by that means?
He stared bleakly at his own ghostly reflection and grimly considered that frightening possibility. There was precedent to support the theory and it wasn't all archaic practice. Many tribal cultures still used hallucinogens in ritual ceremonies. Ayahuasca wasn't the only option. Some groups of native Americans used poisonous mushrooms like the Amanita muscaria to induce 'visions' during religious ceremonies. In Mexico and Central America peyote, mescal bean, the mushroom called teonanacatl, and a seed called ololiuqui were often used in the quest for spiritual enlightenment.
Blair had observed some of the rites himself and he'd read a great deal of the scientific research. The use of peyote by native Americans was noted by Europeans as early as the 16th century. At the end of the 19th century, a German chemist, Arthur Heffter, had demonstrated that mescaline was responsible for peyote's pharmacological effects. He had proven that Mescaline was related to the amphetamines and that when ingested, it could produce hallucinationsfrequently of a visual nature and characterized by vivid colors, designs, and distorted space perception.
Peyote was widely used by native Americans in the Southwest, and had been incorporated as a sacrament into the Native American Church in 1918. In the user's view, peyote symbolized spiritual power and was eaten to induce a hallucinogenic trance and communion with God.
The fact that it was an illegal substance hadn't halted its use.
Not only illegal, but dangerous... Blair mused darkly.
The drugs might generate visions, but they also stimulated the autonomic nervous system. The side-effects included nausea, vomiting, sweating, rapid heartbeat, pupillary dilatation, and anxietysymptoms which were far too familiar to Blair.
Been there... done that...
Blair shook his head. He'd never believed he'd contemplate a repeat of that experience.
But if it's the only way...
He leaned against the door frame, weighing the risks. He knew he could get his hands on what he needed from Jason Edwards, a fellow grad student majoring in Pharmacology. It wouldn't take much persuading to get Jason to monitor the 'experiment' either... not if he pitched it correctly. The more he thought about it, the more he realized that it was very do-able.
Jim would be adamantly opposed to the idea, of course and not just because Blair would be dabbling with illegal substances. Not even the assurances that the test would be run in a controlled environment would convince his Sentinel that it was worth the potential risks to his Guide.
But this isn't about being a Guide... it's about becoming a Shaman... Jim's Shaman. It's about my contributions to our partnership... my contributions to the tribe... about seeking my own destiny... about fulfilling my obligations to my Sentinel... if doing this will help him in any way, then I have to at least attempt it...
Blair straightened and sucked in a deep breath. He'd tried meditation, he'd tried the scientific approach... this was the option which remained. He turned from the windows and walked back to the kitchen table. Tearing a strip of paper from one of his notebooks, he jotted down Jason's name, bookmarking the chapter before closing the ancient text. He stuffed the book into his backpack, silently vowing to contact the grad student in the morning.
With that decision reached, he forced himself to sit down at the kitchen table and address the case files. Thumbing through the stack of printouts he'd generated at the station, he realized there was too much information for him to digest in the time he had. There were simply too many possible leads to follow, other research to dig up and cross reference. He couldn't do the search justice and still stick close to Jimand that was what he intended to do. Since the episode outside of Mr. Donnello's store, his instincts had commanded him to remain at his Sentinel's side and he was going to follow that directive to the letter.
Still, the research was important if they were going to stop the killer.
Since I haven't figured out how to clone myself yet, I'm going to have to call in a favor or two, Blair decided. Grabbing a pen and a fresh sheet of paper, he made a short list of friends and associates from the University whom he could ask for help. At the top of the list was another grad student. Patrick Crawford.
Patrick knows more about occult practices and ritual than I do. It's his field of study. If I gave him what I've already come up with and some of the classified details, he could take it from there without too much guidance. And he'd understand the need to keep it quiet. God knows what a field day the press would have with all of this if they got wind of it.
With trembling hands he pulled one of the forensic photos out of the case jackets. He couldn't turn the actual photo over to anyone outside of the department, nor did he think that Simon would authorize a trip to the morgue for a private viewing of the corpses. He wasn't sure he wanted to expose Patrick to that gruesome experience either.
If I made a drawing of the wound placements, that might be acceptable to all parties.
He headed off to his room and returned a few minutes later with the light box he used to view his slides, a black felt-tip pen and several blank, unlined sheets of paper. Lips pressed into a firm line, he plugged in the viewer and got to work. When he finished, he had a painstaking rendering of the cuts and slashes. Removed from their grisly context, the lines formed an innocuously innocent abstract design. As he stared at the drawing he'd made, the stark black marks seemed to come to life. The straight lines transformed into curves, spinning clockwise into a tight spiral before his burning eyes.
He shook his head and dropped the paper to the tabletop. You're fried, Sandburg, he chided himself, pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes. He didn't want to give in to the need for sleep, but he recognized the brick wall of exhaustion which he'd just collided with. He slid the drawing into the case folder and pushed himself to his feet. After stuffing everything except what pertained directly to the case in his backpack, he made a final circuit of the loft. He dropped his bag next to door and checked the deadbolt and safety chain once more before stumbling toward his own room. He paused at the base of the stairs to the upper loft for a few moments. The soft sounds of snoring convinced him his Sentinel had shifted into a more natural level of slumber and he continued his journey. He crawled into his bed and pulled the blankets over him without bothering to undress. Sleep took him immediately, spiraling him into an inky blackness filled with an endless series of troubling dreams.
All of which were filled with death.
Jim opened his eyes to the see the first faint hints of dawn lightening the sky, vaguely surprised to find that the storm had blown over. He lay still, enjoying the peaceful silence and the absence of the headache which had plagued him all week.
Guess it's too early for the work crew next door to be up and about with their hammers and saws.
He snuggled into the comforting warmth of the comforter wrapped around him, grateful for the reprieve until a persistent voice in his head reminded him that he didn't normally sleep cocooned in his bed-covers.
That's usually Sandburg's style.
He chased that thought to its obvious conclusion. The last thing he remembered was sitting down on the edge of the bed to pull off his wet jeans and shirt. He sat up, untangling himself from the comforter's cloying folds as he glared at the pile of discarded clothing on the floor. Great. I fell asleep while I was getting undressed. Sandburg probably came up here, found me passed out and decided his responsibilities included tucking me in for the night.
The Sentinel automatically extended his senses, searching for his partner. He found the familiar pulsing life signs exactly where they were supposed to bein the bedroom directly below his own. He crawled out of bed, stiff, but otherwise better rested than he had been all week. Padding down the stairs to the lower level, he stopped outside the French doors to Blair's room. The glass panels were ajar and he nudged one farther open, studying the vaguely human shaped lump buried under a mound of blankets.
I may have slept like a log last night, but there's no telling when he went to bed... probably just a few hours ago, knowing him.
Jim frowned, eased the door back to its original position and headed to the bathroom. He flipped the light switch and winced as blinding reflections danced across the shining bathroom fixtures and sparkling tiles. Dial it down, he reminded himself. Taking firm control of the sensory knobs as his Guide had suggested, he divested himself of his t-shirt and boxers and stepped into the shower.
The pounding spray eased the stiffness out of his muscles and he closed his eyes, luxuriating in the heat of the liquid massage. He tentatively turned his sense of touch up a notch, slightly surprised when it stayed where he had wanted it. One by one he played with the other dials, shifting his remaining senses higher and lower with effortless ease. By the time he'd completed his own impromptu sensory 'test', he felt inordinately pleasedhis senses seemed to be back on-line and under control.
Don't get cocky, he warned himself as he turned off the shower and stepped out into the steaming fog the hot water had generated. Grabbing a towel he briskly dried himself off and turned to the sink. He wiped the condensation off the mirror with the side of his hand and examined his reflection.
Despite the events of the previous day, the man in the mirror appeared to be the same one he'd seen every morning for the past several years. Outside of the stubble of a night's growth of beard fuzzing the strong jaw and a few tiny lines at the corners of the eyes, the face was unmarked by the passage of nearly forty year's of experiencemuch of it with the darker side of life. Short, dark, sleep-mussed hair masked a slightly receding hairline, but the overall affect was still handsome enough to attract the attention of the ladies.
"Well, you look sane, Ellison," he noted in a soft whisper. Are you? He looked closer, staring into the pale blue eyes of his mirrored counterpart. Are you ready to face what you fear? Are you brave enough to try to identify that smell?
He felt the muscles in his jaw clench and watched his double demonstrate the same reaction.
Because that's what it's going to take to get to the bottom of this mess. Besides whatever personal connection it has to you, that smell is tied to the murders... to the killer. If you want to stop him, you're going to have to risk another one of those 'freak-out' episodes. Can you handle that?
For an instant, the fear he'd felt the day before resurfaced and the face in the mirror altered to that of a young boyface white as a sheet, eyes round with terror. A sour, rancid smell filled his nostrils, and Jim struggled against the urge to retch. Blinking rapidly, he clutched at the edge of the sink, but refused to take his eyes from the 'other'the frightened little boy inside the manthe one person he couldn't hide from, no matter how stoic a facade he presented to the rest of the world.
He felt the cruel blade of uncertainty ripping at his guts, shredding his carefully erected self-image. James Ellison, ex-ranger, above average cop and Sentinel of the Great City was afraid. He'd faced down tribal warriors, armed gunmen, and rogue CIA agents barehanded, yet he was reduced to nothing more than a quivering child by something he couldn't even see. It pissed him off.
"I can handle it," he whispered, his pale blue eyes flaring with resolve, jaw clenched so tight the words barely had room to escape. "With Sandburg's help."
Jim straightened and reached for the canister of shaving creme and his razor, determined to finish his morning routine as quickly as possible. As he shaved, his thoughts kept drifting back to his partner. He had wondered, countless times, just what would have happened to him if the anthropologist hadn't blown into his hospital room and taken over his life.
Now he knew.
If anyone can figure this out, it's Sandburg. Blair knows how these senses of mine work better than anyone... better than I do. And he knows me better than anyone. I trust him, more than I've ever trusted anyone in my life. So we'll do this... together. It'll be just another one of his 'tests'. He's walked me through that kind of sensory work before... this won't be any different. He'll watch my back just like he always does. He'll keep me sane, just like he did yesterday... just like he has from the beginning. He wiped the last traces of the shaving creme from his face and hung the towel on the rack before heading to his bedroom to dress. When he jogged back down the stairs he his usual confidence had reasserted itself. The Sentinel glanced at his Guide's door in passing and did a quick sensory sweep. Finding his roommate still asleep, he moved into the kitchen, ignoring the case files stacked on the table.
Breakfast first, he reminded himself firmly.
He grimaced at the evidence of his partner's late night session as he dumped the remnants of the black coffee sludge and the cold dregs of tea down the sink. His stomach growled loudly as he started a fresh pot of coffee, surprising him with its demands. He grinned and rummaged in the refrigerator, suddenly eager for a big breakfast. As he bustled through the familiar routine of preparing the meal, he realized that this was the first morning he'd woken up hungry in nearly a week. He froze in the middle of cracking an egg into the sizzling fry pan as another anomaly struck him.
The nightmare... I didn't have it last night...
Shaking his head, he dropped the contents of the egg into the pan and gave the slowly bubbling mixture a quick stir. No headache, no nightmare, senses apparently behaving 'normally'... Why? What's changed? he asked himself as he turned to drop two pieces of bread into the toaster. He shook his head again with a self-effacing sigh. Maybe it's because you finally talked to Sandburg about what's been going on... something you should have done days ago. You'd think after nearly four years, you'd learn a thing or two about the value of putting your ego aside and communicating with your Guide, Sentinel.
A muffled groan from the lower bedroom caught his attention and he smiled at the familiar sounds of his friend's struggle to part company with sleep. Grabbing plates and utensils, he walked over to the table. Snagging the stack of files, notebooks and printouts, he transferred the case documents to the coffee table before returning to the kitchen. A few moments later, Blair emerged from his room and stumbled down the short hallway to disappear into the bathroom. Jim dialed up his hearing to eavesdrop only long enough to pick up the anthropologist's normal early morning grumbling and went back to stirring the eggs.
He poured his partner a cup of coffee as Blair emerged from the bathroom. The anthropologist shuffled over to the table and dropped heavily onto a chair. Jim set the mug down in front of his friend.
"Something new in sleepwear, Chief?" he teased softly, reaching out to finger the rumpled and creased shirt his partner had been wearing the day before.
The anthropologist cocked his head and fixed him with a baleful glare. "You're disgustingly chipper this morning," Blair muttered, wrapping his hands around the steaming cup of coffee. "I assume that means you slept well?"
Jim straightened, the playful smile shifting into a frown. "Yeah... I guess I did. Last thing I remember is going upstairs to change clothes."
Blair's glare softened immediately, the dark blue eyes filling with compassion. "Yesterday was... exhausting... to say the least. You needed the sleep, man."
"So did you," Jim responded pointedly, noting the dark circles under his partner's eyes. The younger man's usual heavy blue-black morning stubble was a sharp contrast to the pale, drawn complexion. "But it doesn't look like you got much."
The anthropologist shrugged and dropped his gaze to his mug. "Grad students can survive on less sleep than lab rats, Jim. There are documented case studies to prove it." The detective snorted in disbelief, but the observer simply raised his cup and concentrated on sipping the reviving brew. "How's your control over the sensory dials?" he asked nonchalantly.
"Everything seems to be in working order," Jim answered just as casually.
Blair nodded, then frowned. "Have you got your hearing turned down below normal?"
"Because those eggs are calling, man," the anthropologist replied, jerking his head toward the kitchen, effectively tabling any further discussion.
Recognizing his partner's standard evasiveness when he saw it, Jim sighed and went to retrieve their breakfast. The detective dug into his scrambled eggs and was cleaning the last of the crumbs off the plate before he realized that his roommate had barely touched his own meal.
Ellison rose to his feet and padded into the kitchen, returning with the coffee pot. As he filled both mugs he studied his friend, cautiously extending his senses. He carried the carafe and his own empty plate back to the kitchen, using the ruse of cleanup to mask his growing concern.
You've been so focused on your own problems, you haven't spared much effort to think about how this case is affecting him, he berated himself. He probably didn't even want to go to bed last night. What he was exposed to yesterday would have been enough to generate a year's worth of nightmares, even without the specter of David Lash lurking in the wings. Jim shuddered and cranked the knob on the faucet angrily. I never should have let him accompany me to the morgue, although God knows what would have happened if he hadn't... shit... this isn't what Sandburg signed on for...
A gentle touch on his arm startled him and he turned abruptly to find his friend at his side.
"You okay, man?" Deep blue eyes locked with his, mesmerizing the Sentinel. There was nothing judgmental in that gaze, only compassion, understanding and absolute trust. The windows to the younger man's soul darkened as worry cast a shadow over their depths. The grip on the Sentinel's arm tightened. "Jim?"
Ellison managed a terse nod and broke his gaze away, plunging his hands into the dishwater. "I'm fine," he murmured. "I was thinking about the case." Jim felt the faint tremble in his partner's hand before Blair released his hold. The younger man turned away and scraped the bulk of his uneaten meal into the garbage can before sliding the plate into the sink. The detective felt another pang of guilt and scrubbed furiously at the dirty dishes, jaw muscles spasming. It was at times like this that he hated being a Sentinel. Hated needing a Guide.
"You should go back to bed," he said gruffly.
He caught Blair's shrug out of the corner of his eye. "Too late. The caffeine's already kicking in."
Jim slowly turned his head to meet his partner's steady gaze again. "Chief, you don't "
"I spent some time working up those lists that you didn't get to yesterday," Blair announced, ignoring Jim's protest. "You can go over those later... see if I missed something. I didn't find anything in my old notes to explain why your senses are in overdrive, but I've got an... avenue I still want to pursue." The younger man paused as if troubled, then he shook his head and picked up where he left off. "First I want to grab a shower and then, if you're up to it, I want to talk you through an analysis of that smell. Once we figure out what it is "
"Save it, Jim," Blair retorted, adamantly standing his ground. "We have work to do. I want to catch this killer as much as you do. We both know there's a good chance someone else died last night."
Jim's frown deepened, acknowledging the truth of his partner's words.
"I told you yesterday I intended to stick close, Jim," Blair said quietly. "Nothing's going to change my mind about that, so don't even try to leave me behind today. I need to be involved in this. You need me to be involved. I'm your Guide. Let me do my job... please."
There was a desperate edge to the younger man's voice which matched the plea in his glittering eyes.
"Your job is to help me understand and control these senses, Chief, but "
"My point exactly," Blair responded quickly. "I'll leave you to your soapsuds and find some of my own."
The younger man whirled around and was halfway to the bathroom before the detective realized he'd been outmaneuvered once again. Jim ground his teeth together in frustration. "One of these days, Sandburg," he muttered under his breath. "One of these days I'm going to get in the last word and actually win an argument with you."
The Sentinel shook his head and returned his attention to the dishes in the sink.
Jim set two mugs of tea down on the coffee table and then seated himself on the couch. He started to reach for the stack of case files, intending to review them while he waited for his partner, but a sharply voiced "Don't touch those!" halted him mid-stretch. He turned his head to look over his shoulder and found his towel-clad roommate hovering halfway between the bathroom and his bedroom.
"You're dripping, Sandburg," Ellison growled irritably.
"Yeah, yeah, I know. Another House Rule shot to hell," Blair retorted. "Don't worry, I'll clean up the mess. Just keep your hands off of those files until I'm ready. I want you focused on your senses, not distracted by the case."
"And what am I supposed to be doing while I await your exalted presence?" Jim grumbled.
"Drink some tea, listen to some music, meditate... I don't care," Blair responded with a dismissive wave of his hands. "Go stare out the window and watch the rest of the early birds. What time is it anyway?"
"Almost 6:30 a.m."
"Almost," the anthropologist muttered in disgust. He rolled his eyes and fixed the Sentinel with a glare. "Five minutes. Don't. Touch. Those." He pointed to the stack of documents imperiously and scurried off to his bedroom.
Jim eyed the proscribed pile for a moment, then pushed himself off the couch. He walked over to the balcony doors and slid them open. Stepping out onto the rain-slicked platform, he inhaled the crisp morning air and concentrated on exhaling the last of his nervous annoyance.
Blair beat his own deadline by several seconds, hurrying out of his room while still toweling his hair. Jim moved back inside and sat down on the couch once again. The anthropologist perched himself on the arm of the sofa, gave his damp curls one more pat with the towel and then dropped the soggy linen to the floor. Jim shot him a glare at the blatant disregard for two more House Rules.
"Okay. You know the drill," Blair said, blithely ignoring the unspoken reprimand and getting down to business. "Sit back, relax, close your eyes..."
Obeying his Guide's commands, the Sentinel shifted positions until his head rested against the back of the couch.
"That's it, Jim... relax... breathe... listen to my voice..."
Jim let the soothing cadence of his partner's voice flow around him... engulf him. He didn't offer any resistance as it led him deeper into a trance-like state.
"You're doing great, man," his Guide murmured encouragingly. "We've done this before... there's no danger here... you're safe in the loft... your turf... no one here except you and me... we're going to go back into a memory and do a little sifting and sorting... nothing that's going to happen is going to hurt you... it can't... I won't let it... you know what we're trying to find... that smell... you've picked it up several times... it was on the bodies... in the morgue...
In the blackness behind the Sentinel's closed eyelids, a stark scene sprang to life. He stiffened when he recognized the morgue. He barely resisted the urge to shake himself out of the trance when he found himself standing over the open body bags, and then it was too late. A dark tendril of fear started to curl around his ankles, trapping him where he stood.
"Easy... listen to my voice, Jim... I'm right here..."
Heat caressed his arm and the Sentinel relaxed, grounded by the warmth of his Guide's reassuring touch.
"The smell, Jim... find it..."
Ellison's nose wrinkled in distaste. "All I can smell is death... decay..." he objected softly.
"I know...just filter past it...you can do this...find the sour odor you told me about...you said it was on all four bodies..."
The Sentinel frowned as he concentrated on following his Guide's directions. He let the scene in his mind play out... reliving the moment he leaned forward over the first corpse... the second... the third... the fourth... filtering out everything else until his nostrils were filled with the rank odor... he focused on it... drew the smell into himself...
And found himself dead center in the middle of his nightmare.
... reflections... fragments... dark... cold... the smell of mildew and stale beer... an ancient face glimpsed only for a fraction of a second... a bony, gnarled hand clenching a sliver of deadly brilliance... the panicked beating of a heart... the knife-edged echo of a scream... a boy's face... his face...
"Jim snap out of it!"
Ellison sat bolt upright on the couch, shaking his head and swallowing hard against the bile in his throat. A cup was forced into his right hand and he gulped down half of it without realizing what he was drinking. He leaned forward, cradling his aching head in his free hand. There was a buzzing in his ears and he shook his head again, angrily trying to escape the sound.
"Come on, man... hear me... it's gone... you're here... in the loft... dial everything back..."
His Guide's words and voice were saturated with comfort and safety, but underneath there was panic. He's afraid... Blair's afraid... Ellison's protective instincts flared and the Sentinel forced himself to respond, struggling to push his own nightmare-born fears aside and regain his composure. He leaned against the back of the couch and opened his eyes.
Blair's face was only inches from his, the younger man's eyes wide with fear as he leaned over his partner.
"Yeah," Ellison managed to murmur.
The anthropologist sank down on his heels, a huge sigh of relief breaking free. "Geez, man. You scared me."
Jim tilted his head back and stared at the ceiling for a few seconds and let out his own relieved sigh. Blair rose to his feet and disappeared into the bathroom, returning moments later with a pair of aspirin. Ellison shook his head when the younger man offered them to him.
"I'm okay," the Sentinel assured his hovering Guide.
Blair's eyes narrowed uncertainly. "You're sure? I thought... you looked like your head hurt."
"It did, but it seems fine now," Jim said quietly, the throbbing ache receding even as he spoke.
Blair placed the aspirin on the table and moved a few feet away. He started to pace immediately, muttering under his breath, arms crossed over his chest, fingers clenching the sleeves of his shirt. Ellison watched him trying to wear a hole in the hardwood floors, waiting for him to speak. When nothing was forthcoming, he cleared his throat hoping to break through his partner's agitated state. When that didn't do the trick, he summoned his most exasperated tone. "Sandburg, will you relax?"
"Relax?" Blair voice squeaked on the word. He stopped dead in his tracks and glared at the Sentinel. "What happened, Jim?"
"I did what you told me to do," Ellison answered, puzzled by his friend's reaction.
"No you didn't. We've done this before and you haven't reacted like this. You've never come out of a trance like that." His Guide's glare intensified. "You went really deep... too deep... you weren't listening to me."
"I heard you, Chief "
"You weren't *listening*, damn it!" Blair snarled. "How the hell am I supposed to protect you when you won't follow my directions. Don't you realize " He bit down on his own words and whirled around, striding toward the balcony doors. He shoved one aside and stomped out onto the porch.
Jim followed him immediately, stationing himself like a silent shadow at the younger man's back while Blair fought for control over his surging emotions. When his Guide's racing heartbeat slowed, the Sentinel moved to stand beside him. Leaning against the railing he stared out at the slowly awakening city.
"I thought I had the 'Blessed Protector' duties in this partnership," he said quietly, striving to keep his tone light.
"I'll have that incised on your tombstone," Blair snapped.
"Chief, I'm fine."
Blair turned abruptly and stared up into his partner's face. "Don't you get it, Jim? This is your head we're walking around in. I'm trying to lead you safely through a minefield and you go bolting ahead like you're romping through a field of flowers," he retorted heatedly. "When you're in a trance state you're vulnerable. If you don't stay in control, your subconscious lead you places you never intended to go. It can be dangerous, man, especially given your state of mind over the past few days."
The anthropologist drew in a ragged breath and held onto the railing with a white-knuckled grip, turning his face away. "You went so deep I was afraid I wasn't going to be able to bring you out of it intact," he whispered. "I'm not an expert on this hypnosis stuff. Shit, I'm not an expert on anything. I should never have suggested this... not without some backup of my own. I'm just an anthropologist. I'm not Incacha..."
Ellison's eyes widened in surprise at the mention of the Chopec Medicine Man's name. "Whoa, wait a minute!" Jim grabbed his partner by the arm and swung the younger man around to face him. "What was that about Incacha?"
Blair pressed his lips together in a hard line and refused to meet Jim's gaze. The hairs on the back of the Sentinel's neck prickled, but he didn't dare take the time to chase the elusive warning. His Guide needed reassurance and he needed it now. "Listen to me, Sandburg. What happened just now was not your fault. It was mine. I did go too deep. I had to, in order to get the answers we needed. The only reason I risked it was because I knew you were here, ready to pull me out if there was trouble. And you did. I heard you."
Blair slowly raised his head. His doubt-filled eyes locked with Jim's, fear still flickering in the background.
"You have good instincts, Chief. I trust you. You need to trust yourself." He gave Blair's arm a gentle squeeze and flashed a grim smile. "I got a handle on the odor. It's not one smell, it's several scents mixed together."
"Did you... did you recognize it?" Blair stammered. "Do you know where you've run into it before?"
The nightmare flashed through Ellison's mind, but he refused to yield to its terrifying influence. "No, but I know there's a connection... it feels... old."
"Yeah," Jim shook his head, unable to offer anything more specific.
"We can make a list of the individual components," the anthropologist suggested, frowning slightly as he turned his mind to the problem. "Maybe that will lead us somewhere."
"Let's get started then." Jim gestured for the younger man to precede him into the loft. "I want to get into the station as soon as possible and go over the interviews Henri and Rafe conducted yesterday. We didn't get a call from Father Jameson last night after I conked out, did we?"
Blair shook his head and walked over to the coffee table. He picked up the stack of case files and pulled out the drawing he'd done the night before. "I think we need to get some additional help on narrowing down the occult angle, Jim. There's a grad student I know who's more familiar with this stuff than I am. His name's Patrick Crawford."
"Chief, we can't release sensitive information to anyone without Simon's approval. If something got leaked to the press "
"I know," Blair answered. "Heads would roll. Mine would be the first."
"Followed in short order by yours truly's," Jim remarked grimly.
"And then Simon's... I get the picture," Blair acknowledged. "But we need help on this, Jim. The department calls upon outside experts all the time; this wouldn't be any different. Patrick's well respected in his field. I think we can trust him. Besides, I'm not suggesting we give him any real details on the case. I made a tracing of one of the coroner's photos last night, detailing the position of the wounds we found on the bodies." He handed the rendering to his partner. "I'd like to give that to him and see what he can make of it."
The detective stared at the cryptic black lines, his mind filling in the rest of the missing picture. He frowned, realizing what it must have cost his partner to make the gruesome sketch. "If you think we can trust Crawford to keep this to himself, I'll back your recommendation, Chief. We'll talk to Simon as soon as he gets in." Jim handed the drawing back to his partner who accepted it with a terse nod.
"Thanks, man," Blair murmured gratefully. He slid the drawing back into the appropriate folder and took the entire stack over to his backpack near the door. He pulled out a slim notebook and pen, then stuffed the rest of the documents into the bag. Returning to the front room, he settled cross-legged on the floor on the opposite side of the coffee table from the couch where Jim had seated himself again.
"Whenever you're ready," Blair said softly, flipping open the notebook to an empty page.
The Sentinel's let his eyes shift out of focus as he cautiously retrieved the information he'd garnered from the trance. "The strongest scent the rancid one... like some kind of fermented drink gone bad... stale beer, maybe... I could detect hops, yeast..." He wrinkled his nose at the memory.
"Got it," Blair murmured. "Next?"
"Oil... the kind used on heavy machinery... axle grease... sugar..."
Jim nodded. "Sugar... the refined kind... not the brown crystals. It smelled hot."
"Like it had been cooked or something?"
"Maybe," the Sentinel agreed uncertainly. "There was another sweet smell, but it wasn't food, it was sweat. It had a sickly, decayed overtone to it."
"It wasn't part of the natural decomposition of the corpses, was it?" Blair asked in a small voice.
"No," Ellison answered confidently. "This was different." He blinked abruptly and stared at his partner. "More like sickness... disease..."
Blair's eyes widened. "Maybe our killer's sick... dying of cancer or something. Medications can alter the body's chemical balance. That could account for the change in the scent of the bodily fluids. Did you detect any traces of drugs?"
"Not drugs. Herbs... spices..."
"Which ones?" the anthropologist asked quickly.
"Thyme and sesame. There was another one, but I couldn't place it. It had a strong aromatic scent."
"Tansy, maybe," Blair muttered, scribbling furiously in his notebook. "This could be the thing we're looking for, Jim," he said excitedly. "Herbs and spices are the basis for most folk medicine as well as being used for flavoring and food preservation. Some were also reputed to have magical powers. Thyme was considered a source of courage. Tansy and sesame were associated with immortality. It's possible the killer is acting out a specific passage ritual with each victim. The herbs and spices he's using could tell us which one "
"Passage rites are the rituals or ceremonies observed to mark the passing of a person or group from one stage or station in life to the next: birth, infancy, childhood, adulthood, old age, death," Blair explained, slipping into his lecture. "All passage rituals serve certain universal functions. They serve to dramatize the encounter of new responsibilities, opportunities, dangers. They readjust the participants and the audience to the changes. They alleviate disruption in the equilibrium of the community. They affirm community solidarity and the sacredness of common values"
Blair grabbed a breath and hurried on without stopping. "There are four main typesthe transition from life to death is the most appropriate in this case. Funeral customs, corpse preparation and disposal can take a variety of forms: ritual washing, attiring, wrapping, burial, entombment, embalming, mummification, cremation, exposure to the elements, cannibalism "
"Mutilation of the dead?" the Sentinel interjected grimly.
Blair blanched. "Yes. I need to tell Patrick about this, Jim."
"We'll run it past Simon, first," Jim hedged.
Blair nodded vigorously. "Anything else?"
"Mildew," Ellison murmured absently.
The grad student dutifully entered the item in his book. "The herbs and spices are our best clue," he noted, scanning the list. He glanced up at Jim, his expressive eyes filled with worry. "You did great, man, but I'd still recommend that you keep your senses dialed down today and let me know if your headache or any of the other symptoms resurface."
Jim nodded and pushed himself to his feet. "I'll be careful, Chief, but my first priority is catching the killer. I mean to do that before he decides to take his murder spree on the road again."
When they arrived at the station, Blair pulled the case files from his pack and laid them on Jim's desk. While the detective began to review them, the observer headed to the breakroom to retrieve coffee for both of them. An inch of dark liquid remained in the pot on the warmer. He dumped the contents into the sink and started a new batch. While the coffeemaker burbled through its cycle, he leaned against the counter, massaging his temples with his fingertips.
His head ached, his eyes felt like they had a beachful of sand under the lids and he felt drained. The combination of only a few hours of sleep and the adrenaline surge he'd experienced when he'd been unable to rouse his partner from the trance had left him enervated and depressed.
At least Jim seems to be feeling okay... no thanks to anything I've done... he thought bleakly.
His gaze drifted to the drawer where he kept his personal stash of teabags, his subconscious blatantly nudging him toward the memories of his poisoning and the vow he'd made in the early hours of the morning. He pushed himself away from the counter and grabbed two clean mugs from the shelf above the coffeepot. As he filled the cups he pondered his options for contacting
Jason. It was too early to reach the pharmacy grad in his office and he didn't want to risk leaving a message.
With my luck, Jim would pick up the call. That would leave me with a ton of explaining to do. I don't want to have to lie to himnot that I'd get away with it. One quick sensory sweep and he'd know I was trying to hide something...
Blair picked up the brimming mugs and headed back toward the bullpen, still deep in thought. I can't very well ditch Jim and run off to the university on my own, eithernot after having made such a big deal about sticking close to him today. And I sure as hell can't take him with me. I can just see the expression on his face if I tried that. 'Hey, Jim, do me a favor. Pull up in front of the Medical Arts Building. I have to see a man about securing some psychotropic drugs.' Yeah... that would go over real well.
A mirthless chuckle escaped his lips as he pondered the absurdity of that scenario.
"Care to share the joke, Sandburg?" Simon's voice boomed from directly behind him and Blair nearly dropped both mugs as he whirled around in surprise. "I'm sure we could all use a laugh," the captain continued, his dark probing gaze fixed on the young observer.
"Uh, joke? Well... I, um..." Blair searched desperately for some kind of articulate response, but came up empty. "I... I guess I forgot the punchline," he finally muttered lamely.
Banks frowned. "You feeling all right, Sandburg?"
"Yeah... just a little tired this morning," Blair said, offering a weak smile. "Long day, late night... you know..."
Simon's eyes narrowed, his gaze growing more intense. Blair shifted uneasily under the scrutiny and the unspoken questions which filled the older man's eyes. He didn't want to be the one to answer them. Fortunately, his partner came to the rescue, his timing exquisite as always. Jim appeared at Blair's elbow, file folder in hand. He took one of the cups, nodding a mute 'thanks' to the anthropologist before greeting his captain.
"There are some developments in the case that we should discuss, sir," he said quietly.
Banks' measuring gaze shifted from the observer to the detective, then he nodded and led the way to his office. Blair took a seat in one of the chairs in front of the captain's desk while Simon hung up his coat and poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot on his credenza. Ellison closed the door, signaling the need for privacy.
The observer let his partner take the lead in bringing Simon up to speed. Blair watched the captain's expression closely, trying to gauge the older man's reactions. Banks had been supportive of Jim's abilities in the pastgrudgingly at timesand it was crucial that he accept what the detective had discovered now. If Simon accepted Jim's claim that the smell existed and was an important clue, it would not only reassure the Sentinel, but the captain might be more willing to allow them to bring Patrick into the investigation.
Whether it was the pressure to solve the murders or they had caught Simon on a good day, he seemed inclined to accept their findings. The captain raised only a few simple questions, all of which Jim was able to answer, so Blair kept silent. When the detective broached the subject of seeking outside help from one of the anthropologist's colleagues, Banks stern gaze shifted, pinning the grad student in his seat.
"You sure you want to vouch for this guy, Sandburg?" Simon asked grimly.
Blair nodded. "Yes, sir."
"Let me see the drawing."
Jim pulled the sketch out of the case folder and handed it to the captain. Blair found himself holding his breath as the older man studied the rendering.
"All right," Simon finally responded, setting the drawing on the desk and fixing the grad student with another glare. "Call him and explain what you want him to do, then transfer him to me. I want to talk to him before we release anything."
Blair nodded tersely and quickly rose from the chair. He started to reach for the drawing, but Simon put his hand over the paper.
"I'll make sure he gets thisafter I'm satisfied that he understands what confidentiality means," Simon said firmly. The captain glanced down at the stack of pink message slips on his desk and sighed before looking up at Jim. "Any news on a sixth victim?"
Blair turned to look at his partner, relieved when Jim shook his head.
The detective's gaze flickered to Blair for a moment. The grim certainty in the Sentinel's eyes matched his Guide's. There would be another body foundboth men were sure of it.
Jim spent a few more minutes apprising Simon of the status of the rest of the investigation. When they turned to discussing other possible avenues to pursue, Blair excused himself and headed to Jim's desk to contact Patrick. He managed to catch the grad student just as he arrived at his office. As Blair had suspected, Crawford was eager to help and listened attentively as the observer briefly outlined the situation.
//"Sounds like a sacrifice ritual, but it's not one I'm familiar with,"// Patrick remarked. //"But don't worry. I've got most of the documentation that's out there. I'm sure I can come up with something. When do you need this?"//
"Way past yesterday, man," Blair responded. "Our killer's got on a timetable. One victim per day so far."
Patrick muttered a curse which Blair silently seconded. //"I'll get right on it. Send over whatever details you can. I'll start digging into the files and see what I can find on the herbal connection. Sesame and tansy, you said, right?"//
"I'm guessing at the tansy," Blair admitted. "It could be something else."
//"It's a good possibility, though, given what you've told me,"// Crawford replied. //"I'll check it out. Give me a number where I can reach you."//
Blair rattled off Jim's cell phone number. "I really appreciate this, Patrick. I'm going to switch you over to Simon Banks. He's Jim's captain. Just be warned... he's on the hot seat if any of this stuff gets out to the wrong people. He might come across as a hardass, but his bark's worse than his bite."
//"I understand,"// Patrick murmured. //"I'll put on my best professional demeanor."//
"Thanks. Hold on." Blair punched the hold button and then the intercom, connecting the call to Simon's office. "Patrick Crawford's on the line, Captain," he announced. He glanced at his watch, wondering if he had any chance of reaching Jason yet.
"You ready to roll, Chief?"
Blair looked up to see Jim walking toward him and hung up the phone. "I just need to leave my notes and stuff with Simon so he can send them over to
Patrick with the drawing." He snagged his backpack from the floor and dug out the materials he wanted, thankful he had an excuse not to meet his partner's eyes. "Where are we going?"
"There was a message on my voice mail from Father Jameson," Jim answered, grabbing his jacket. "He said we could catch him at the mission this morning. I want to head over there now, before things get... busy." Blair swallowed hard. 'Busy' in the context of the case could only mean one thingthat the killer had struck again, leaving them another mutilated corpse.
They pulled up to the 'mission'an old , three-story wood-frame rooming housejust a few minutes after 8:00 a.m. Climbing out of the truck, Jim surveyed the freshly painted building and the narrow stretch of dew-tipped green lawn with surprise. Perched on the fringe of the seedier portion of Cascade, the well-kept structure seemed distinctly out of place.
"Someone's put in a lot of effort to restore this place," Blair's partner murmured as he joined his partner on the sidewalk.
"The mission belongs to the Jesuits. The building was apparently left to the Order as part of a private bequest, with the directive that it be used as a shelter for the homeless," Jim explained as they proceeded up the walk to the front door. "Rafe ran a background check on Father Jameson. He's been in charge here for about five years. He did missionary work in several third-world countries before coming here. Apparently there wasn't much funding available from within the Order for more than basic upkeep, so he went on a one-man campaign to wrest funds out of the city coffers."
"Looks like he's been pretty successful at it," Blair observed. "It's good to see that someone's making an attempt to help. Cascade's got way too many people living on the streets or on the edge of poverty. More than half of them are children."
Responding to the anger edging his Guide's tone, the Sentinel squeezed his companion's shoulder gently. Blair glanced up at him and shook his head. "Sorry. I know you've heard me rant on this topic before. It's just so hard to think of kids living in cardboard boxes... eating garbage because there's no money for food. Things got tough sometimes for Naomi and me when I was young, but thankfully we never got to that point. There was always someone to crash with... a relative or a friend of a friend. We were lucky."
"Having met your mother, I'd say it was more than just luck," Jim responded. He pulled the door open and gestured for Blair to enter. The younger man stepped across the threshold, pausing in the foyer to turn and eye his partner curiously.
"Meaning she loved you too much to put you at risk. It couldn't have been easy for her, raising you on her own. She probably took some flack from some of those relatives that you stayed with for her lifestyle, but she didn't let her pride get in the way of making sure you were safe."
Blair nodded. "There were some rather 'pointed' remarks at times. Naomi always tried to pretend that they didn't hurt, but I knew they did. I never let what was said affect how I felt about her though. She was a great mom."
"She's a great lady," Ellison agreed.
"Just remember that she is my mother, Jim," Blair warned, shooting a mock glare at his partner.
A young woman of about eighteen, dressed in jeans and a brilliant tie-dyed t-shirt approached them. Jim shifted into detective mode, swallowing the teasing reply he'd been about to make.
"I'm Mary," she introduced herself, greeting them with a welcoming smile. "Can I help you?"
Jim pulled out his badge and held it out for her inspection. "I'm Detective Ellison and this is my partner, Blair Sandburg. We're here to see Father Jameson." "Oh, yes. He told me he was expecting you. Father's in the kitchen at the moment, helping with the breakfast cleanup. If you'll follow me?"
She led them down a hallway toward the back of the house. Jim studied the interior as they walked. The house had to be at least ninety years hold, yet it was in excellent condition and the overall ambiance was peaceful and soothing. The walls were painted and papered in lightly hued earth tones and subtle floral patterns which complimented the natural oak woodwork. The carpeted runner under his feet was worn, but not frayed and even his sharp eye had trouble finding a speck of dirt.
They passed several large rooms each framed with an arched opening instead of doors. The first was filled with comfortable-looking sofas, chairs and a scattering of small tables. A newish looking television set sat in one corner, but it was turned off at the moment. Several pre-school aged children were seated on the floor engrossed in a game of some kind under the watchful eye of a middle-aged African American woman. A ping-pong table took up the center of a second room and shelves crowded with books and game boxes lined two of the walls. Another group of kids were seated at a child's sized plastic picnic table, stringing brightly colored beads into necklaces, while two old, grizzled men faced off across a chess board in the far corner.
The rest of the rooms they passed were small, apparently serving as additional common areas. Some were occupied by people of various ages industriously engaged at some task or another; others were empty. Blair pointed to what was obviously the door to Father Jameson's office and grinned over his shoulder at his partner. A child's art gallery of colored picturesflowers, animals and stick peopleadorned the wooden panel from top to bottom.
The corridor ended at a huge kitchen which was bustling with activity. A slender gray-haired man of roughly Blair's height and dressed in a dark blue sweatshirt and black denim jeans stood at the sink, up to his elbows in soapsuds. He appeared to be fighting a winning battle against the dirty dishesthe pile to his left was smaller than the stack in the drainer and he had two young helpers busily wiping and putting the plates away as he worked. His back was to them, so Jim couldn't see his face, but he guessed the man to be in his late fifties. Two men and two women stood at a long wooden table, forming a mini-production line as they stirred, kneaded and shaped bread into loaves. A teenage girl set an empty glass next to the man at the sink, gave him a quick hug and grabbed a brown paper bag out of the refrigerator. She kissed one of the women at the table on the cheek and then streaked out the back door. Jim heard the woman mutter something about the girl being late for school, but he missed the rest of her comment as Mary called out a greeting of her own.
"Father, you have visitors."
The man at the sink turned and gave them a quick, measuring glance before pulling his hands out of the dishwater. He snatched a towel from one of his helpers and steered the child to the sink to take his place, answering the youngster's protest by playfully flicking soapsuds in his direction. His face was filled with a good-natured grin as he walked toward them and his green eyes sparkled with laughter.
"Excuse the chaos," he said, wiping his hands on the towel. "Things are a bit frenzied around here in the morning. It's worse than feeding time at the zoo."
Jim heard his partner's low chuckle and barely suppressed one of his own. "No problem," he responded, extending his hand to the priest. "I'm used to a certain amount of chaos on the homefront." He caught Blair's glare out of the corner of his eye as he shook hands with Jameson, and knew that his roommate had picked up on the innuendo. "Jim Ellison."
"Ah, yes." The priest's expression immediately became somber. Blair broke the awkward silence by introducing himself.
"It's nice to meet you, Mr. Sandburg," Jameson shook Blair's hand firmly. "You too, Mr. Ellison. I just wish it were under happier circumstances."
"So do we, Father," Blair murmured. "Father, these men are with the police department," Mary said in a soft, concerned voice. "Mr. Ellison is a detective."
"I know, Mary," the priest gave her an encouraging smile. "They're here about Chuckles."
The young woman's eyes filled with tears. Jameson stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her, holding her close. "I know you miss him, Mary. We all do. Chuckles was a special man. These men are investigating his death. I need to talk to them for a few minutes. Would you do me a favor and keep an eye on the boys? Make sure they take it easy on the dishes?" he asked softly.
She sniffled and nodded. "Sure, Father." She stepped out of the priest's embrace and stared up at Jim. "Father's right. Chuckles was special. He was a good friend. Find whoever... hurt him, please. Don't let him hurt anyone else."
Jim nodded, feeling the weight of the responsibility she'd given him and guilt because he'd already failed her. As if reading his thoughts, Blair shifted closer, the sleeve of his jacket brushing Jim's, his Guide's physical presence reminding the Sentinel that he wasn't in this fight alone.
Jameson watched her walk slowly across the kitchen, his eyes clouded with sorrow. He murmured a prayer under his breath and then turned to the partners. "Come. We'll find a quieter place to talk."
Jim and Blair followed Jameson back into the hallway. "This is a terrific sanctuary you've created, Father," Blair remarked. "There's a real sense of peace and safety inside these walls. Energy, too. All positive."
The priest stopped in front of his office door and turned, favoring Blair with a genuine smile which lit his eyes once again. "Thank you. That's precisely the atmosphere we strive to maintain. The people who come here need help in one form or another. Sometimes just a roof over their heads and a hot meal in their stomachs gives them the strength to keep going. All we ask is that they leave their drugs and liquor outside and contribute in some way to the upkeep or the housekeeping as payment. Believe me, we need all the hands we can put to the task. It's hard work keeping a place this size running. There's always something that needs fixing, which is why I opt for less 'official' attire." He gestured at his casual clothes. "I've become sort of a jack-of-all-tradesplumber, roofer, spiritual counselor "
"Pearl diver," Blair offered. Jameson chuckled. "In case you didn't know, that's a manual dishwasher, Jim," the anthropologist explained with an innocent grin.
"We called it something less glamorous in the army, Chief," Ellison replied dryly.
The priest smiled at their exchange and then grew serious. "I spoke at some length with two of your associates yesterday, Detective. I'm not certain what else you might require, but my time is yours."
"We appreciate that, Father," Jim said. "I read the statement you gave to Detective Brown. It mentioned that the victim lived here."
"Yes, he did. Chuckles was one of our semi-permanent residents."
"Semi-permanent?" Blair asked.
"Chuckles suffered from schizophrenia. He was fine when he was on his medicationa joy with the children and with the young adults like Mary. When he ran out or if he forgot to take it, he would disappearsometimes for days. He was never dangerous to others, but he tended to retreat from the real world during those phases. I always managed to track him down, or one of the other visitors to the shelter found him and brought him home."
"Was he in one of those 'phases' as you put it, last weekend?"
"No, Detective. He was quite well." The priest shook his head sadly. "He helped out here all day and headed out after supper."
"His body was found down near the waterfront. Was that a place he frequented?"
"Chuckles had a number of favorite spots around the city and friends he would go to see, Detective. Like most of the homeless, he was somewhat secretive about some of his activities. I'm afraid I don't have an answer for you."
"I understand. I'd like your permission to examine his room and its contents."
"Certainly. His room is on the third floor."
The priest led them to an ornate, bannistered staircase and began to climb the steps. They passed several people on the stairs, all of whom greeted Jameson fondly and eyed the detective warily. They seemed to accept Blair's presence without question.
Innocence recognizing innocence, Jim mused.
Blair stopped abruptly when they reached the third floor. The Sentinel slid past him, then stopped and turned to stare at his Guide. The younger man's heartbeat had suddenly skyrocketed and his eyes were wide, but unfocused.
Jim glanced behind him, down the long hallway which led to the sleeping quarters, but saw nothing to explain his partner's behavior. A patterned carpet stretched the length of the corridor and numerous wooden doors marked the individual rooms. There was no one present except the three of them.
"Blair?" The Sentinel reached out and touched his Guide lightly on the arm.
The anthropologist blinked several times and shook his head as if to clear it.
"Is something wrong?" the priest asked, eyeing them both in concern. "Are you ill, Mr. Sandburg?"
Blair blinked again and his eyes lost their dazed glaze. He blushed slightly and offered a rueful grin. "No. I'm fine. I just needed to catch my breath. Lead on."
Jim frowned at the obvious lie, but Blair brushed past him and immediately ushered the priest forward. The Sentinel trailed behind them, dialing up his senses to monitor his evasive Guide.
"Do you have any idea what his real name was?" the grad student asked, as Jameson stopped at one of the doors. "Or why he used the street name Chuckles?"
"I think his first name was George, but I never did learn his last name," Jameson answered. "As to why he chose Chuckles, well, see for yourself."
The priest turned the knob and pushed the door open. Blair's eyes widened in surprise. "This is incredible," the anthropologist murmured, stepping across the threshold. Jim was right behind him, as startled by what the room contained as his partner.
Every square inch of the wallspace was covered with circus posters and carnival playbills. Ticket stubs were thumbtacked along the top of wall near the ceiling, forming a colorful, ragged-edged border around the room. Atop the small four-drawer dresser sat a wig stand draped with a riotously curled neon-yellow wig. A collection of bottles and tubes of facepaint and makeup nestled next to the hairpiece. Draped carefully across one end of the twin bed was a boldly striped clown suit.
"As you can see, Chuckles was fond of the circus," Father Jameson said quietly. "He often dressed up as a clown to entertain the children here." Blair had wandered over to one of the walls and was running his fingers over the playbills, his expression one of wonder.
The Sentinel scanned the ticket stubs, reading the printing on each easily. "Did he attend all of these performances?"
"Oh, yes," the priest answered. "If a circus or carnival was in town, nothing could keep him away. Sometimes he asked me for a loan to pay for the tickets, but usually he volunteered to help the amusement company with odd jobs in exchange for free admission. He kept a scrap book filled with newspaper
"See if you can find that, Chief," Jim requested. Blair nodded, moved over to the dresser, and began carefully searching the contents of the drawers.
Ellison pulled a photo out of his inner jacket pocket and turned to the priest. "We suspect that whoever murdered your friend Chuckles has killed several other people."
"I gathered that when the detectives who were here yesterday showed me a group of photos," Jameson said softly. "I didn't recognize any of the other victims."
"We found another body yesterday," Jim explained, offering the photo of the fifth victim to the priest. Jameson took the picture and immediately stiffened. He closed his eyes and shook his head in dismay. "I take it you recognize this man, Father?"
"Yes." The priest's voice was a bare breath of sound. He swallowed, whispered a blessing and regained his composure enough to raise his eyes to meet Jim's. "His name is Leo. He was a friend of Chuckle's."
"Was he a resident here as well?"
"No. I'm not sure where he lived. Chuckles brought him by for dinner one night several months ago. Leo stopped in for meals occasionally and he'd often spend the night here, sleeping on the floor in this room."
"Do you recall the last time you saw him?"
Jameson frowned. "Last week... Friday, I believe. He was here for lunch and he helped me fix the railing on the back porch. Yes, it was Friday. He stayed the night, but left early Saturday morning."
"Jim, I think this is what you wanted," Blair called softly.
Ellison moved to his partner's side. The anthropologist eased a thick scrapbook out of the bottom drawer and handed it to Jim. The detective paged through the book which was filled with newspaper clippings about circuses and clowns. The most recent additions were several months old.
"Are there any recent clippings in the drawer, Chief?" he asked. When there was no immediate response, he glanced down at his partner. Blair was staring into the depths of the drawer, a puzzled frown on his face. The detective's gaze shifted to the contents. The drawer was filled with cheap toys and
trinkets, colorful balloons and gaudily dyed feathers. "Sandburg?"
"Yeah?" Blair's tone was distant, preoccupied, matching his expression. His gaze never left the odd assortment of paraphernalia in the drawer until Jim touched him on the shoulder. He looked up, still frowning. "What?"
"Did you find something?" the Sentinel said quietly, eyeing his Guide worriedly.
Blair glanced back at the drawer and shook his head. "No, not really. There's something nagging at me, but I can't quite get a handle on it."
The faint shrilling of Jim's cell phone startled them both. The Sentinel's gaze locked with his Guide's as he extracted the phone from his jacket pocket and answered it. Ellison's jaw muscles clenched when he recognized his captain's voice and Blair looked away, closing his eyes and shaking his head. The detective listened as Simon delivered the news they had been dreading.
"We're on our way, sir," Jim murmured after a few moments. He shut down the phone and tucked it back into his pocket. He reached out a hand and pulled his partner to his feet, meeting the anguished gaze of his young friend with a terse nod. "Another one," he said softly, confirming what Blair already obviously knew.
The detective turned and faced the priest. "Father, thank you for your time. We may need some additional information on Leo "
"I'll be happy to help in any way I can," Jameson assured them. "The victims are in my prayers, as are you two."
"Thank you, Father," Jim said quietly, gently ushering his silent partner toward the door. The way this case is going, we can use all the help we can get.
They made it to the newest crime scene in under fifteen minutes, bubble light flashing and tires squealing as Jim took several corners at faster than suggested speeds. Blair spent the trip with one hand braced against the dash, stomach lurching with each shift of the truck. Bleakly, he wondered what the rush was. It's not like we're going to be able to do anything for the victim. Whoever the killer took out last night is way beyond our help.
He tired to curb his cynicism, but immersed as he was in the case, his partner's problems and his own, it was difficult to fend off his morbid mood. They were racing to another bloody crime sceneone that would test his Sentinel's control over his senses and his sanity. To top it all off, Blair still felt shaken by the little detour to 'deja vu land' he'd taken on the third floor of the rooming house. One glimpse of the carpeted hallway filled with doors and he'd been thrust into the middle of the frightening memories of his dreamwalk once again.
And reminded of my failure...
He chewed on his lower lip and kept quiet. Jim didn't seem inclined to talk which wasn't a good sign. The detective hadn't shared any of the details of the call he'd taken from Simon, which meant whatever awaited them was probably worse than anything they'd seen so far. Not a happy thought. Yet a part of Blair was grateful for his partner's silence. His own thoughts were whirling around in his head so fast he was certain if he opened his mouth a string of absolute nonsense would emerge.
Either prefaced or followed by an ear-shattering scream, he mused darkly, swallowing hard against the one which was lodged in his throat. Breathe, he ordered himself, promising his shaken psyche that he would find a nice quiet padded room to do some primal scream therapy in laterafter the case was solved.
He stole a quick look at his partner. Jim had donned his sunglasses again, but Blair could easily imagine the guilt and remorse filling the pale blue eyes behind the dark lenses. The Sentinel was taking this newest death hard.
Because he couldn't prevent it. He feels like he's failed the tribe he's sworn to protect...
Blair understood. He felt the same way.
Ellison pulled the Ford to a hard stop behind a cluster of squad cars. Blair crawled wearily from the truck and followed his partner, his soul as leaden as the rapidly clouding skies. They threaded their way through a small gathering of curious onlookers, Jim nodding absently to the uniformed officers who were working crowd control. The detective paused at a yellow tape barrier and scanned the scene before them. Blair moved out of his partner's shadow to make his own observations.
They stood at one side of a tiny parka narrow sliver of green-space tucked between several multi-story office buildings. At lunch time the scattering of wooden benches and the single picnic table would be occupied with frazzled secretaries and perhaps a handful of harried executivesmunching on sandwiches, reading a chapter of the latest best-seller, or simply absorbing whatever rays of sunlight were available before returning to the confines of their offices. Now the peaceful ambiance was broken by a dozen uniformed and plain-clothed officers and members of the forensic team, scurrying to complete their assigned tasks and secure the crime scene. Despite their caution, their heavy boots and shoes had churned up muddy furrows in the soggy grass, turning the lawn into a pocketed battlefield.
"I want you to stay behind the tape on this one, Chief," Jim murmured, turning toward the younger man. "It's ugly," he continued, placing a hand on Blair's shoulder to ward off his objection. "The victim is a young boy. No more than twelve years old. When our killer finished with him, he stuffed the body in a garbage can."
Blair's gaze automatically swept over the scene, unerringly coming to rest on the sole trash can in the area. He caught sight of a small hand hanging limply over the lip of the metal container and looked away. He stared down at the muddy ground under his sneakers, swallowed hard and leaned slightly into his partner's reassuring grasp.
"Just promise me you'll take it easy," Blair rasped out hoarsely, finally raising his head. He could see his own reflection in Jim's glasses and knew that the greenish cast to his complexion wasn't all due to the tinted lenses. He felt sick at heart. "Keep the dials locked down."
The Sentinel gave him a terse nod and dropped his hand from the Guide's shoulder. Blair expected Jim to move away, but the detective hesitated. The observer eyed his partner with a curious sense of dread. Ellison pulled off his sunglasses and pocketed them, pinching at the bridge of his nose.
"There's one other thing, Chief," Jim said quietly. "We're going to have to run an in-depth check on Father Jameson."
Blair's face went slack with surprise. "You've got to be kidding," he said, incredulously.
Jim shook his head, his expression grim. "We have to consider him a suspect. He fits the general physical profile, he was acquainted with at least two of the victims and we know he wasn't at the mission last night. He didn't return my message until early this morning."
"That doesn't mean he killed this kid," Blair objected. "Or any of the others."
"Sandburg, I know you respect what Jameson is doing "
"You're right. I do. He's making a difference, Jim. If you drag him down to the station and some over-zealous media type gets wind of it, Father Jameson's reputation will be ruined. No matter if he's cleared or not, he'll lose his credibilityand his funding. The people he's trying to help will be the ones to suffer."
"We'll keep the investigation as quiet as we can, Chief," Jim assured him. "But it's got to be done. We need to know his whereabouts on the nights of the other murders."
Blair looked away, shaking his head in disgust, biting back the angry, ugly words which seethed within him. His hands balled into tightly clenched fists, but he resisted the urge to lash out either verbally or physically at the nearest target. Jim didn't deserve his rage. He was doing his job; following procedure.
"This sucks," the anthropologist announced in a low hiss.
"You're right," Ellison answered softly. "It does." The compassionate understanding in the Sentinel's voice cooled the Guide's rage. Blair glanced at his partner and realized that Jim regretted the necessity of investigating the priest as much as he did. "We can conduct the interview at the mission," the detective offered. "That way there's less chance of anything leaking to the press."
Blair nodded gratefully. "Who's going to handle it?"
"Who would you suggest?" Jim countered.
The observer considered the options for a moment. "What about Joel?"
"Taggert would be a good choice." Ellison pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. "Do you want to call him, or should I?" he asked gently.
Blair stared at the device like it was a poisonous snake, but finally reached for it. "I'll do it. You go ahead." He jerked his head in the direction of the trash can. "I'll stay on the perimeter so you can find me if you need me."
Jim gave him a pat on the back and then ducked under the tape. Blair watched him walk carefully across the muddy ground toward the officers grouped around the body. The observer inched his way around the flimsy yellow barrier, keeping an eye on his partner, Guide instincts at full alert. He held his breath as Jim reached the trash can. His own nerves were stretched to the breaking point and he could see the same signs of strain in the detective as Ellison bent over the metal container to examine the body.
Blair released the pent breath in a relieved gasp when Jim straightened and glanced over to where he was standing. The expression on the detective's face was grim, but it was obvious the Sentinel was in control. Ellison tapped the side of his nose with one finger and nodded, then turned to answer a question from one of the uniformed officers.
The observer immediately understood the gesture. The smell's there, but he's not reacting to it. Maybe the rain washed the worst of it away... Immensely gratified that there had been no new 'freak-out' episode, Blair flipped open the cell phone and dialed up the station.
His partner had completed his examination of the scene by the time Blair completed his own onerous task. "Joel's on it," the observer reported as Jim slipped under the tape. "Are you all right?"
The detective nodded, but Blair noted the lines of strain around his friend's eyes. It was obvious to the Guide that the headache which had plagued the Sentinel all week had resurfaced. Ellison seemed intent on ignoring the discomfort, so Blair played along, silently vowing to keep a sharp eye on his friend.
"The storm last night didn't stop our man from killing again, but it might have given us a break. We've got some partial boot prints near the trash can and something else." He gestured for Blair to accompany him around the perimeter to the opposite side of the miniature park. Deep ruts gouged the grass, muddy parallel tracks marking the passage of some kind of car or truck. "Looks like the killer drove right up over the grass," Jim explained. "He must have come off one of the main streets and down the alley behind one of the buildings."
Blair's eyes traced the direction of the tracks and nodded his agreement, stooping to examine one of the impressions. The wet grass had been churned and torn, nearly obliterating the tread pattern. "Is there enough detail here to get a make on the vehicle?" he asked, as eager for some definitive evidence as his partner.
"If we're lucky we'll find enough tread mark to identify the make and model of the tires," the detective answered. "That'll help narrow down the type of vehicle." Jim gazed at the tracks for a moment, then glanced at Blair. "I want to take a good look before forensics starts making their casts."
Jim oblique reference to using his enhanced visual abilities pulled Blair to his feet. "Let's do it," he responded, his voice pitching into the lower tones he used when guiding.
They walked the thirty-odd feet of track, the Sentinel's gaze fixed on the ground, the Guide's fixed on his partner, murmuring a soft cadence of instructions to keep the older man from zoning. When Jim stopped abruptly, Blair immediately reached out and placed his hand on the detective's back, physically grounding him. Ellison knelt next to the tire marks and extracted something from the mud. The observer leaned forward, eager to see what Jim had found.
It was an inch-long fragment of feather, most of it stained dark brown and clumped with dirt. It would have been easy to assume the broken plume had come from one of the hundreds of birds indigenous to the Pacific Northwest, if it hadn't been for the tip, which had surprisingly escaped the mudbath unscathed. It was a garish bright purple. A rare bird indeed.
Unfortunately, not rare enough.
"Look familiar, Chief?" Jim asked softly.
Blair nodded numbly. There had been handfuls of similar feathers in Chuckles' dresser drawer. He had pawed through a rainbow of the gaudy plumage hunting for the man's scrapbook. Some of the feathers had been loose, others had still been attached to the cheap bead and leather hairclips which were a common game prize at any carnival concession.
The odd sense that he was missing somethingsome vital clue which he already had, but didn't recognizenagged at the anthropologist just as it had back at the mission. Thoughts focused on following the elusive teasing thread to its source, Blair only dimly heard Jim calling for one of the forensic techs to collect the new evidence.
Feathers... here and in the drawer... mixed among Chuckles' other treasures... cheap carnival trinets... carnival...
A memory flashed behind his eyes and the connection he'd been seeking surged to life. "Mr. Donnello," he gasped.
The detective's eyes narrowed, filled with confusion and uneasiness as he met Blair's wide-eyed stare. "What about him?"
"He was late putting it up, but I bet other people who had them didn't forget," Blair rambled excitedly. "The notice could have been posted for weeks. He would have seen it. They all could have seen it. We'll have to check, but that should be simple, right? That's got to be it. That's where it came from. That's where we'll find him."
"Speak English, Sandburg," Jim growled softly. "Full sentences."
Blair rolled his eyes, but complied. "The poster Mr. Donnello had in his hand yesterday morning. It was for a church festival. I don't remember which one, but organizations like that often bring in an amusement company, like a carnival, as part of the fundraising effort. You find feathers like that," Blair pointed to the fragment in the detective's hand, "littering the ground wherever they set up the carnival midway concessions and games."
The detective's eyes lit with interest. "A carnival would be the perfect cover for our killer," he said softly.
Blair nodded. "The smaller companies are on the road a good portion of the year, traveling from one location to another. They get into a town, set up for a couple of days, then they're off to the next venue."
"Out of sight, out of mind," Jim murmured.
"Mr. Donnello said he'd intended to put the poster announcing the festival up last week," Blair added. "He'd forgotten to do it, but other store owners around the city might not have. We know Chuckles loved circuses and carnivals. Father Jameson said he never missed one that came to town. I bet he saw the poster and went to check things out. That could be how he met whoever murdered him. The other victims, too, if they share the same interests."
"Whoa, slow down, Chief," the detective admonished gently. "I can see where you're going with this, but the time frame's off. If I remember correctly, Mr. Donnello said the festival starts today. The murders started last weekend."
"Jim, even a small carnival takes a few days to set up," Blair countered quickly. "It wouldn't be unusual for some of the crew to arrive up to a week early to scope out the site and get the front end stuff done before the rest of the company arrived."
The detective tapped the cell phone Blair still held in his hands. "Call Mr. Donnello. Get as much information on the festival as you can. I'll contact the station and have them check the interviews Henri and Rafe did with the other victims... see if any of them shared Chuckles' love of carnivals and circuses."
Jim hurried off to use a radio in one the squad cars. Blair punched in the number for directory assistance as he made his way to the truck. Within moments he was talking to the friendly shopkeeper, jotting down the information they needed in one of his notebooks. By the time his partner slipped behind the wheel, Blair had a destination for them.
"It's St. Delvan's annual festival and it does include a carnivalfull midway, games and concessions," he reported. "They're setting up down near Waldrop Pier."
Ellison eagerly cranked the truck to life.
We're definitely in the right place, Jim noted, turning onto the access road which led to Waldrop Pier. The overflow parking lots situated at the top of the hill overlooking the city's waterfront festival grounds were filled with the incontrovertible evidence of the carnival's presence. Long, empty flatbed trailers, some still attached to their huge diesel cabs, were crammed into the paved lots. Numerous small covered trailers and equipment trucks were tucked in alongside the larger vehicles. Ellison drove slowly past a group of cherry-red semi-cabs snugged bumper to hitch like some bizarre, segmented mechanical insect. Each bore an artfully painted sign on their door, proclaiming them the property of 'J.J. Packard & Sons, Amusements.'
The detective pulled the Ford alongside the metal guard-rail on the right side of the road. Shifting into park, he killed the engine and leaned toward his partner, gazing past the observer at the scene below. Blair's attention was riveted on the grounds and the ant-like antics of the carnival workers as they scurried to set up their wares and rides. Satisfied that his Guide seemed to be oblivious to the fact they were only a few feet from a fairly steep drop-off, the Sentinel cranked up the dial on his enhanced vision and spent several minutes familiarizing himself with the layout of the area.
Below and to his left was the breakwater, an immense stone barrier constructed at considerable taxpayer expense during a burst of urban revitalization. Fortunately the expenditure had a practical side as well as a politically correct onethe wall of rock kept Mother Nature from reclaiming the precious, read 'valuable', shoreline. Its granite boulders took the brunt of the force generated by the waves dancing in the bay, providing a sheltered, calmer harbor where wet-suited sailboarders cruised and performed their watery acrobatics.
Waldrop Pier stretched out in a straight line before them, shamelessly challenging the waters of the bay. A fleet of fishing trawlers had once moored at its sides, but over the years the wooden structure had fallen into disrepair. The rotting jumble of planks and eroded metal pilings had been restored to its former glory when Cascade's city council designated the surrounding area as a festival park. The forty-foot wide walkway now hosted an eclectic collection of vendor stalls offering trinkets, food and refreshments. Ancient, craggy-looking fishermen still dropped their lines over the railinged sides of the pier while strolling couples and parents with frolicking children took in the breathtaking sights.
Immediately to the right of the pier were the main parking areas. At mid-morning, only a smattering of cars decorated the lots, but by nightfall they would be filled to capacity. A sizable pavilion built from native stone and timber graced the far end of the gravel lots, offering shelter from Cascade's fickle climate. Behind it lay a smaller parking area, normally used by the maintenance staff. Today it was stuffed to capacity with small mobile homes and campersthe 'residences' of the amusement company's transient employees.
A sea of green grass, roughly the size of three professional football fields, lay adjacent to the parking lots. Most of the area had been claimed by the amusement company. The largest rides, twenty of them, formed a horseshoe shaped perimeter. A double-sided row of concession booths with gaily striped awnings ran straight up the center, dividing the inverted 'U' shape into symmetrical halves. Paralleling the booths on either side was a row of rectangular shaped tents; additional games of chance. A flock of brightly colored feathers danced erratically in the wind, tethered to the tents by their leather cords and clips. A low growl vibrated in the Sentinel's throat at the sight of the tell-tale evidence which appeared to match what he had found at the morning's crime scene.
Smaller rides, obviously designed for children were sandwiched into the remaining space between the tents and the outer ring. Scattered throughout the inner area were ticket booths and refreshment stands. A wooden snow-fence had been erected to the right of the open end of the horseshoe, enclosing a beverage truck and a handful of picnic tablespresumably a beer garden.
Jim scanned the grounds convinced they were on the right trail. During the short drive from the crime scene, he'd received a call from Henri Brown. Gloria Danen's parents had confirmed their runaway daughter had loved the circus as a child and Mandy Vincent's co-workers remembered her enthusing over the news a carnival was coming to town. Assuming Leo shared Chuckles' obsession, that gave four of the dead something in commona reason which could easily have led them to the killer's doorstep. Henri was still digging into the background of the third victim, Robert Jefferies, and had assured Ellison he would follow up the lead as soon as they had an ID on the young boy who had been found that morning. The detective's instincts were telling him they'd match six for six.
Brown had also checked with the city clerk and determined that the necessary permits and insurance bond had been filed by the amusement company four days earlier. Although the time-frame still didn't match up exactly to the first death which had occurred late Saturday night, it validated Blair's suggestion that someone from the carnival might have been in town doing advance work. If the killer had been that person, then it was conceivable he had arrived over the weekend, putting him in a perfect position to commit two murders while waiting for the clerk's office to open on Monday morning. Jim dialed his vision up another notch and swept the area again. A warning born of ancient instincts prickled his skin and raised the hairs on the back of the Sentinel's neck. Instead of distracting him, the sensation strengthened his resolve. Other instincts, those honed by training and experience kicked in. Ellison committed each detail he was seeing to memoryplotting his approach strategy as though he were planning a dangerous covert mission.
He watched the frenetic activity of the workers intently, sensing a curious sense of order in the chaos. Men and women in blue t-shirts hurried from one booth to another, arms laden with supplies or crawled in and out of the rides. A small platoon of older children supplemented their efforts. Swinging baskets were adjusted, fitful sounding engines were tested, tracks were oiled, balloons were inflated and prizes hung as the crew raced to prepare their wonderland. The festival's supposed to start today. I wonder if they're going to make it, Jim mused silently. Looks like they still have four big rides to erect and test.
"Oh, man. They've got a Zipper and a Yo-Yo. I haven't been on either of those for years."
His partner's exclamation abruptly drew the detective's attention back to the interior of the cab. Blair was practically bouncing in his seat, his features alight with more animation than Jim had seen on the younger man's face in months. As pleased as Ellison was with that development, the vibrations pouring off the anthropologist were jolting their way through the truck's seats, aggravating the headache throbbing behind the Sentinel's eyes and setting already taut nerves jangling with a discordant rhythm.
"Sandburg..." Jim growled, clamping a hand on his partner's shoulder to still him.
The action startled the younger man, but he recovered his composure quickly. "Sorry, man," Blair grinned sheepishly. "I can't help it. I've had this overwhelming fascination with carnivals since I was a kid. There's something magical about them."
Ellison shot him a doubtful frown.
"It's true, Jim. I'll grant you it doesn't look like much now, but at night, when the lights come up and the music starts, all the dinginess and the paint scrapes disappear. It becomes a whole different world." The younger man peered out the window again and his expression turned wistful. "I always thought it would be so cool to travel with a carnival, but Naomi was adamantly against it." Ellison stared at his partner in surprise and Blair chuckled. "Hard to believe, I know, but it's the truth. Mom was never comfortable around carnies."
"Didn't like their aura?"
"Something like that. The closest I got to this lifestyle as a kid, outside of the few times I managed to con one of Naomi's boyfriends into taking me for a quick outing, were the two summers we spent traveling with a band of gypsies. Now that was an experience. Talk about your closed societies."
"So gypsies were okay, but carnies were anathema," Jim interjected, hoping to redirect his partner back to the subject at hand.
Blair nodded, his eyes twinkling with mischief. "I suspect Naomi's distrust was partly due to the crass ploys of the carnival concessionaires to part unsuspecting souls from their hard earned cash with games of chance. She always claimed the games were rigged."
Jim snorted. "Half of those games are rigged, Chief."
"Not the ones I ran."
"I thought you said you never traveled with a carnival."
"I didn't. Travel with one, that is. I worked a couple, though, while I was an undergrad. Most carnivals have a fixed crew that travels with them all the time, but they usually hire some locals for set-up and tear-down. You can make some fairly good money doing the grunt work and it's usually cash. Helped pay my book fees one semester." Blair grinned. "The summer after my sophomore year, I pulled a week-long stint with a small mom and pop company. One of the regular crew was laid up so they hired me on as a floater. I worked the food booths and ran some of the games. Never got to be a ride-jock," he added with a twinge of regret, "although I did get to test out all the rides. They had a multi-looper, which was pretty unusual for a show that size. Man, was that a headrush when it got rolling."
"It's a rollercoaster with more than one inversion. That's where the track curls over in a loop and turns the riders upside down." The anthropologist demonstrated the action with a series of rapid hand gestures. "It wasn't quite a hyper-coaster, because the highest drop was less than 200 feet, but it sure felt like you were falling a few stories when you came down."
Ellison eyed his partner in surprise. "And you went on this ride? Voluntarily?"
"Yeah. I logged fifty-seven trips before the week ended," Blair answered with pride.
"I thought you had a thing about heights, Chief."
Blair shrugged. "Actually, heights don't bother me. It's the possibility of falling from them that I have a 'thing' about," he explained blandly.
"Wouldn't hanging upside down from a car which is attached to a narrow metal set of rails only by the grace of centrifugal force fall into that category?" Jim asked in the same tone.
"Nah, it's different. Screaming your lungs out in terror is acceptable on a ride like that. You're supposed to be scared that you'll fall out. That's part of the fun." Jim scowled, feeling like he'd once more inadvertently planted a foot inside the 'Sandburg Zone,' where a convoluted or obtuse answer to a reasonable question was the norm. Not wanting to tread any further into his partner's detour-ridden domain, Ellison turned the key in the ignition and eased the truck out onto the road.
"Well plan on keeping your feet on the ground on this trip, Chief," Jim ordered. "We're here on business, not pleasure."
Blair nodded, sobering immediately. "I got it. So, what's the plan?"
"Brown got us the name of the owner. Randy Packard. He's apparently one of the 'Sons' in the business name. We'll hunt him down first."
"Are you going to tell him why we're here?"
"Depends," Jim answered, steering the Ford around a tight descending curve. "We'll see what he looks like. If he doesn't fit our tentative physical profile, we'll risk it. Packard's got information we need and we don't have time to be subtle."
Blair fell silent as Ellison rounded the last curve and pulled the Ford into one of the parking lots. "I hope the killer is here," he finally murmured as Jim turned off the engine. "Not just because it might mean the chance to catch him before he takes another life, but if we can prove it's someone else, it would clear Father Jameson."
Jim didn't bother to comment. He understood his partner's concern for the priest and would be just as happy himself if Jameson were off the hook. He shoved the truck door open and climbed out, stiffening abruptly as a gust of wind seasoned with the smells of the carnival slapped him in the face.
"Hops, yeast, stale beer, some kind of fermented drink gone bad... Oil... the kind used on heavy machinery... axle grease... sugar... the refined kind... not the brown crystals. It smelled hotcooked or something..." The Sentinel's own description of the complex odor he'd sensed on the bodies of the victims thundered in his ears. "Can you smell that?" he asked quickly, his nose wrinkling in distaste as he glanced anxiously toward his Guide.
Blair paused in the process of shutting his own door and drew in a deep breath. His eyes widened in surprise and he immediately turned to Jim. "Stale beer... that was one of the smells, wasn't it?" Jim nodded. "What about the rest?" the Guide demanded.
The Sentinel automatically rattled off what he'd identified.
"That's not everything," Blair murmured, moving to his partner's side. "What about the odor of sickness, or the scent of the herbs?"
Ellison shook his head, hesitantly. "I'm not sure..." He flashed on the images and smellsand the terrorof his own personal nightmare and shook his head angrily. "I can't "
"Take it easy, man," Blair murmured, grounding Jim with a touch. "Just relax. Don't let it overwhelm you."
Jim swallowed hard and nodded, jaw muscles clenching. "I'm not getting the rest, but I pretty much dialed down automatically after the first whiff," he explained apologetically.
"That's good," Blair assured him. "That means you're controlling your senses instead of the other way around." He glanced toward the carnival grounds and then looked back at Jim. "There's lots of heavy machinery... motors, gears, generators. That could explain the oil and the axle grease. They've probably got cotton candy for sale in most of the refreshment and food booths, which would account for the smell of burned sugar. That stuff has a nasty reek if the cookers get too hot. What you've accounted for so far are all environment-relatedodors which over a long period of exposure would attach themselves to the killer... to his clothing for example. I'm betting the others are unique to the murderer himself."
"I can't go up to every person here and sniff them, Sandburg," Jim objected. "And I can't arrest someone just because of his smell. It'll never hold up."
"I understand that," Blair responded. "We've faced this problem before, remember? And I'm not asking you to use your senses. I think you should keep them locked down until we figure out what we're dealing with here and why you've got such a personal reaction to it." The Guide met the Sentinel's disgruntled gaze with a determined, compassionate one of his own. "I know this weirdness is freaking you out. It's freaking me out, too. I wish I had the answers you need, but I don't. What I do know is that you're a good cop. The best detective on the force. Your hyperactive senses might have gotten us here, man, but it's going to be solid policework that puts this psycho away. You're smarter than this guy. If anyone is going to find and stop him, it's you." The anthropologist took a deep breath and tightened his hold on Jim's arm. "The killer's here. He has to be. What you smelled confirms it. Trust your instincts. Trust yourself."
Awed at the absolute, bottomless faith shining in the younger man's eyes, the Sentinel slowly nodded, resolutely pushing away the fears which gibbered at the back of his mind. "All right. Let's find Packard and catch ourselves a murderer."
As they passed the fenced beer garden, Blair's caught another whiff of the rank smell which clung to the beverage truck and found himself hoping Jim had taken his suggestion about dialing everything back to heart. He stole a glance at his partner and let himself relax a bit. The older man seemed fine. Focused, but that was to be expected. Ellison in cop mode was nearly as daunting as Ellison in Sentinel mode.
I hope he loses that clenched jaw and the laser beam glare before we start questioning anyone as to Packard's whereabouts, though, Blair mused. Carnies tend to get uncooperative when someone tries to intimidate them.
Jim angled to the left at the first booth, heading toward a blue-shirted figure hunched over a diesel generator. Blair lengthened his stride to keep up, eyeing the man his partner had targeted for interrogation. The crewman looked to be in his late thirties. Lank dark hair hung limply to his shoulders, held back from his face by the red and black bandanna which was doing double-duty as a sweatband. Streaks of grease decorated the man's arms and clothing, his worn jeans stained and torn at the knees.
The detective ground to a halt only a foot or so in front of the man and Blair shifted slightly to Jim's left, moving out of his partner's shadow to stand beside him. Even with Ellison towering over him, the carnie seemed oblivious to their presence. His attention was focused on the uncooperative device under his hands. He gave the generator a frustrated whack with a wrench and let loose a string of obscenities, the harsh litany unhindered by the cigarette drooping from the corner of his mouth.
The ex-ranger was apparently unimpressed by the verbal tirade and in no mood for small talk. "Where can we find Randy Packard?" he asked brusquely.
The crewman ignored the question and yanked at a set of wires, pulling them free of the housing. Blair glanced at his partner and grimaced inwardly as the detective's eyes narrowed. The observer knew the look. The patented 'Ellison Glare' had seldom failed to provoke a suspect or witness into spilling their guts, but the anthropologist suspected it wasn't going to work on the carnie.
Blair dropped into a crouch, bringing himself down to eye level with the man. Dark brown eyes flicked toward him. The intensity of the gaze would have been enough to make the younger man flinch if he hadn't been prepared for it. Instead, the anthropologist met the man's searching stare calmly, aware he was being weighed and measuredassessed in the way that all carnies appraised anyone who wasn't part of their 'family'.
"Those things can be pain in the ass when they're not working right," Blair offered sympathetically.
The man grunted noncommittally and drew a pliers out of the tool-belt hanging from his waist. He deftly stripped the wires and reattached the leads, working with an ease which suggested that coaxing the aging equipment to do his bidding was a familiar ritual.
"Damn wires should be replaced," the carnie muttered in a low baritone.
"We'll bring it up to the owner. When you tell us where we can find him," Jim interjected tersely.
The carnie slowly raised his head and stared up at Ellison. He gave the detective an insolently slow head-to-toe once-over. Eyes filled with disdain, he shook his head and returned his attention to the generator. "Try the spin and barf," he answered dismissively.
"The Tilt-a-Whirl or the Scrambler," Blair asked quickly.
The man's head jerked up and he glared at the anthropologist. Blair struggled to keep his expression wide-eyed and unchallenging, but he couldn't resist a slightly raised eyebrow. The carnie slowly smiled, obviously surprised, but grudgingly pleased by Blair's familiarity with the slang terminology. "Tilt-a-whirl," he replied waving them in the appropriate direction.
"Thanks," Blair rose to his feet and tugged on his partner's arm to get them moving.
"The 'spin and barf'?" Jim grumbled softly when they were out of earshot.
"That's a carnival enthusiast's term for a flat ride with spinning cars," Blair explained, fighting to suppress a grin. "I would have thought it would have been obvious, Detective."
"What's obvious, Chief, is that we need to sit down and have a long talk about your past and what you were doing all those years before I met you."
"Hey, a man's got to have some secrets, Jim," Blair objected.
"This from the man who knows my PIN number," Ellison grumbled, picking up the pace again.
Blair strode alongside the detective, keen eyes roving, sharp mind recording every detail, confident his partner was doing the same thing. It would be interesting to compare notes later. Sentinel senses notwithstanding, Blair knew his friend had the edge when it came to pure policework. When it came to observation skills, however, they were closely matched with the anthropologist often having an advantage due to his eclectic background. It was something Blair prided himself onhis contribution to the more 'mundane' side of their partnership.
He people watched unabashedly as they walked, being careful not to trip over the thick, black- and gray-coated power lines which snaked across the ground. Before the carnival opened, those cables lying in the main walkways would be covered with sheets of plywood, but that was a last minute detail. The first order of business would be to get all of the rides up and make certain they were in working order. From what he'd seen, they still had a ways to go before that goal was accomplished, although he knew from experience that a crack crew could set up a show this size in a remarkably short timefour hours for setup, two for tear-down, per ride, was pretty standard.
The crew members, men and women of varying ages, hurried by. Intent on their own business they seemed oblivious to the two partners. Blair knew that was far from the truth. Carnies were a naturally curious group and they made their living by being able to 'read' people. He had no doubt that news of their presence was spreading like wild-fire, carried from one worker to another through their own intricate system of hand-signals and subtle looks.
He realized Jim had probably been tagged as a cop the moment they stepped on the grounds and mentally kicked himself for having forgotten how perceptive carnies could be. Well, it's not like I haven't warned him about the aura he broadcasts, he thought grimly. I just hope we don't spook our killer.
He wondered if he should warn his partner, but one look at the slightly annoyed expression on the detective's face told him the Sentinel was already aware of the mute conversation going on around themand its potential ramifications.
"They're speculating, man," Blair said softly. "It's what they do."
Ellison nodded and the anthropologist was pleased to see him relax slightly, the tension easing from the Sentinel's shoulders as accepted the situation. Blair tried to quiet his own growing nervousness by shifting back into observer mode.
Steering clear of the food stands and game booths'grabs' and 'joints' in the carnie lingoas much as possible, they threaded their way through the carnival's kiddieland, which hosted attractions geared to children under 12 years of age. There were at least a dozen rides, most of them already set up and waiting for the hordes of eager children who would descend upon them when the carnival opened. Two workers were still in the process of inflating the Moonwalk, however, and another was testing the rotating seats of the Spinning Apples. A middle-aged woman with a cane and only one leg was hobbling the length of a small train track, awkwardly bending to check the safety belts on each of the miniature cars. A girl of roughly nine, who bore a striking resemblance to the older woman, crawled along the track itself, checking the connections. The youngster wasn't the only child he saw assisting in the preparations.
Blair nodded absently. Carnies were a societya tribeunto themselves. The nomadic lifestyle was surprising family-oriented, with several generations living and working side by side. Bloodlines, a common purposeand a shared distrust of outsidersmade them extremely protective of one another. Finding the killer among them was going to be a challenge.
The sight of purple feathers drifting in the wind made Blair shudder as the memory of the dead child they had found hours earlier flashed through his mind. Daunting as it might be, they had to find a way to breach the walls of this closed society and get the information they needed.
Preoccupied with how to accomplish that act, Blair barely noticed when they walked past the rides which had caught his attention earlier. Nor did his eyes light with pleasure when they passed other spectacularsthe Flying Bobs, the Rocking Ship and the Turbo. His concentration was fixed on the carnies themselves. He found himself comparing each man and woman with the vague physical description they had pieced together, nearly groaning in frustration when he realized that more than half of the people he observed could easily be a match.
He was so busy watching another long-haired man of about his own height hanging huge stuffed animals in one of the game booths that he almost collided with Jim when the detective came to an abrupt stop. He recovered his balance and once again moved to his partner's side, eyeing the half-erected Tilt-a-Whirl. Three crewmen were wrestling one of the spinning cars into position on the tilted trackbed. The detective called out, asking whether one of them was the owner. One of the men glanced toward Jim, graced the Sentinel with the same scathing look the first carnie had used and stabbed a pointed finger downward.
Blair saw the open panels on the side of the ride. He tapped Jim on the arm and nodded toward them. Ellison crossed to the gaping hole and bent to peer inside. The fitful chugging and gasping of a heavy-duty motor emanated from the darkened depths. The detective had to shout to make himself heard.
"Randy Packard?" The noise abruptly died and a deep, disembodied voice rumbled in annoyed response. "Who wants him?"
"The name's Ellison."
"I don't know any Ellison and unless you're here to fix this damn motor, go away."
Blair stepped closer to the hole and leaned casually against the side. "Hey, Jim," he said, speaking loud enough for the man underneath the ride to hear him clearly. "Did the clerk say which permit hadn't been filed properly?"
From the interior came a loud thud followed by a resounding curse. Blair shot his partner a grin. A moment later a blonde-haired head emerged from the opening, followed by a broad set of shoulders. As he straightened, the anthropologist realized that unless their profile was way off base, there was no way this man could be their killer. Randy Packard towered over Jim by a good four inches and he was obviously in superb physical shape, muscled biceps a match for Ellison's.
Blair noted the irritated expression on the man's face and the heavy wrench gripped in Packard's right hand. He fought the instinctive urge to put some space between himself and the carnival owner.
Jim, true to form, didn't flinch. "Good of you to join us, Mr. Packard," he drawled dryly.
"What's this about one of our permits being screwed up?" Packard demanded. "We filed everything at the beginning of the week and I had a handful of city inspectors here earlier this morning. They didn't say anything about a problem."
"As far as I know there is no problem with your permits," Jim answered quietly. "I do have some questions for you, however. Is there somewhere private where we can talk?"
"Look, I don't have time for "
"I suggest you make the time," Ellison hissed, stepping forward into the man's space. "Unless you want to be charged with obstruction of justice and as an accessory to a felony." The Sentinel's icy gaze locked with that of the carnival owner. "My questions will only take a few minutes," Jim said softly. "Your choice."
Packard held his ground for a few seconds longer, apparently weighing his options. Finally, with a resigned, "Oh, hell," he tossed the wrench onto the ride bed and wiped his grimy hands on a filthy rag which looked no cleaner than his soiled jeans. He turned to shout at the men working on the cars. "Cal, take over here. I'll be back in a few minutes." A red-headed man acknowledged the order with a grunt. The carnival owner shot another glare at Jim. "We can talk in my office." He stalked off without a backward glance.
Trailing a few feet behind him, the partners found themselves retracing their steps through the grounds. Snatches of muttered grumblings drifted back to them. Blair glanced at Jim, recognizing the slight cocking of the older man's head as the Sentinel's 'listening' pose.
"What's he saying?" Blair whispered, not at all pleased that Jim had cranked up the volume on his hearing, but accepting the necessity.
"He's less than enthused with our request," Ellison answered blandly. Blair rolled his eyes, but remained silent, waiting for the details he knew would follow. "They're supposed to open today at 4:00 pm and he's worried they're not going to make it," Jim continued softly. "Apparently the only big attractions that are fully operational are those which arrived early."
"How early?" Blair pressed. "And which ones were they?"
Jim frowned, his brow creasing as he concentrated on following Packard's comments. "He didn't say," the Sentinel finally answered with a shake of his head. "But you can be sure we're going to find out."
Packard exited the main grounds and headed toward the cluster of trailers behind the pavilion. He stopped at the rear door of a small camper, his face a mask of impatience as he spun around to face them.
"You're a cop aren't you?" he said, fixing Jim with a hard stare. Ellison's eyes swept left and right in what appeared to be a casual glance, but Blair knew what the Sentinel was doingusing his enhanced senses to determine whether they were alone.
"Detective, actually," Jim answered. He withdrew his badge and held it up to Packard. "Major Crimes." He nodded toward Blair. "This is my partner, Blair Sandburg. We're investigating a series of murders." "What does that have to do with me and my carnival?"
"We're following up a lead," Ellison explained. "We need some information on your crew and your itinerary." Packard blanched, his eyes widening as the import of Jim's words sunk in. "We'd appreciate your cooperation."
"And if you don't get it?"
Jim's eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched. "Then I'll do whatever I have to do to shut you down and keep you stuck here in Cascade until we complete our investigation."
"But you can't do that!" Packard objected. "We're supposed to be in Portland next Saturday."
"Then help us out, man," Blair pleaded. Packard turned to the younger man in surprise. The observer's gaze met the detective's; permission asked and granted in the blink of an eye. "The person we're after has killed six people in Cascade within the past week. One of them a twelve year old boy," Blair said softly. "It's possible he, or she, is also responsible for an additional 29 unsolved deaths, all of which took place over the past year and a half."
The carnival owner's eyes widened in shock. "And you think this murderer is connected to my carnival. That it's one of my people?"
"Like I said," Jim interjected. "We're following up a lead." He took another quick look around and stiffened as several crew members passed within hearing. "If we could speak privately?"
The softly spoken request seemed to shake Packard out of his daze. He nodded and turned around. Grabbing the camper's door handle, he tugged it open and gestured to the interior. "My office... such as it is..."
Blair glanced inside and saw that the tiny space was going to be too cramped for all three of them. "Go ahead, Jim. I'll wait out here."
"Keep your eyes open, Chief," Ellison murmured as he followed Packard up the three metal steps.
"Oh, I will, Jim," Blair promised, settling himself on the lowest step as the door closed behind his Sentinel.
Doubling as storage space and office, the interior of the small camper was a claustrophobic's worst nightmare. There was barely a square foot of surface or floor space which wasn't occupied. Cardboard boxes filled with lights, circuits, and spare parts were stacked floor to ceiling. Towering stacks of playbills wobbled precariously as Packard edged around them to take a seat at a small table which served as his makeshift desk. A laptop computer and printer were the only sign of modern technology amidst the clutter.
"Your partner's not really a cop, is he?"
"Anthropologist," Jim answered after a moment's hesitation.
Surprisingly, Packard didn't ask the standard follow-up question. He simply nodded, as if he were expecting the unusual reply. He turned a grim gaze on the detective. "All right, Detective, you've got my attention. What makes you think I've got a killer on my payroll?
Jim sidestepped the question. "I'm not at liberty to reveal the details of our investigation, Mr. Packard."
"I'm not asking for details," Packard hissed angrily. "I want to know if you're on a witch-hunt or if you're convinced the killer is here. I'll be blunt with you, Detective. I'm a carnie. I don't like cops. I don't trust them. They swagger in here, harass my crew and then, when they don't find anything, they leave without one word of apology. I still find it hard to believe one of my people is this mass murderer you're looking for, but I'm not willing to take the chance that you're right and I'm wrong. I'll cooperate, but I want something in return."
Ellison's eyes narrowed. "And that would be?"
"I want you to be straight with me. I want your word that if you find this killer on the premises, that you'll take him down without a blood bath. This is a business, but it's also my life. The men and women who work for me are like family. As the nominal head of the clan, it's my job to protect them."
"You admit you don't trust cops," Jim said quietly. "Why would you trust me?"
Packard shrugged. "Maybe because you're willing to claim a long-haired anthropologist as a partner. That puts you in a different category from the 'boys in blue' who've graced my threshold in the past. Maybe it's because of the expression I saw in your eyes when your partner was talking about the number of victims the killer has already claimed. Maybe it's because you look like the kind of man who would keep his word, once he's given it."
The Sentinel stared at the carnival owner intently for a few seconds. "I'll do my best to protect your people. There won't be any bloodshed if there's any way to avoid it," he vowed softly.
Packard's measuring stare held Jim's for a several heartbeats, then he nodded abruptly. "Good enough. What do you want to know?"
Ellison reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a stack of Polaroids, laying them one by one on the desktop. "These are the six people our psycho's already murdered. Do you recognize any of them?"
Packard stared at the grisly crime-scene shots. He shook his head, clearing his throat several times before murmuring a quiet, "No."
The Sentinel watched him intently, cautiously dialing up his hearing for a moment to assess the man's pounding pulse and harsh breathing. Packard seemed genuinely distressed, not guilty or evasive. "The first victim was killed last Saturday," Jim informed him. "I need to know who on your staff might have been in Cascade at that point." "My lot man, Pete Barrows, and his crew did the advance work as usual," the carnival owner answered. "They would have been in town by then, along with a dozen or so of the ride-jocks and drivers. Our last show was in a small town outside of Seattle. A local American Legion post hired us to do a fund-raiser. They underestimated how much space we'd need when they booked us. We didn't have room to set up the Fun House or five of the other big rides, so we sent them on ahead to Cascade."
"Is that standard practice?"
"What about the rest of your group? When did you arrive?"
"We finished tear-down on Sunday night just before midnight. About half of the crew hit the road then, the rest stayed over until Monday. I didn't arrive in Cascade until Wednesday night."
"So Barrows was in charge? Is he here, now?"
"He's somewhere on the grounds," Packard answered, frowning. He gathered up the photos. "Pete might recognize the... victims. He has a good memory for faces. Most carnies do."
Packard flipped open the laptop and booted the computer, powering up the printer as well. "I'm afraid our personnel records are pretty sketchy, but I'll give you what I've got. My father bought the business back in the late sixties. He wasn't much for paperwork. Neither was my brother. I've only been running the show for the last six months, but I've tried to modernize us a bit." He tapped away at the keyboard as he spoke. "My wife Carolyn worked as an administrative assistant for one of the big computer firms before we got married, so she's gotten us pretty well organized. She has the last six months of payroll and business records on the computer. Anything older than that is still hard copy. I'm assuming from what your partner said, you want to go back 18 to 24 months?"
Ellison nodded. The printer hummed to life, disgorging a stack of printouts within seconds. Packard typed in a few more commands and grabbed the pile. He handed the top three sheets to Jim. "This is a list of our permanent crew. Twenty-five in all, some married with families, some single. The rest of the names on the sheet are the independent concessionaires. We have a shared revenue agreement with each of them."
"I'll need to know how long each of these individuals have been with the company," Jim said, scanning the list. "And which were in the advance group."
Packard nodded and reached for the papers, handing another printout to Ellison in exchange. He tapped the keyboard again, opening another set of files and started jotting notes in the margins of the first sheets while the detective reviewed the new information. It was a list of the amusement company's contacts at each of the dates they had played over the prior six months.
"How long will it take you to put together complete records for the last two years?" Packard grimaced. "A few hours. Carolyn could do it faster."
The Sentinel hesitated, debating whether the information was worth bringing another unknown participant into the loop. The ticking clock in his head, decided him. He pulled a card out of his pocket and laid it on the desk. "Have her contact me when it's ready. My cell phone number is on the back."
"She'll keep this confidential, Detective," the carnival owner assured him. "Why don't you make a list of what you want while I print out another copy of everything I've got on the system."
When the voices inside the camper dropped to a murmur, Blair released the breath he'd been holding and sat forward on the step, shifting his attention to his surroundings once more. He'd been expecting the confrontation between the carnival owner and his partner. It was one of the reasons he'd elected to remain outside. He'd had no desire to play referee, but he'd been ready to do so if the situation hadn't resolved itself so quickly.
Confident his partner had things well in hand, Blair let his gaze rove, keeping his eyes open as he'd promised the Sentinel. His ears, too. The sounds of the carnival carried on the breeze, singing a discordant song of frantic activity. Several members of the crew hurried by his perch, some favoring him with a quick smile, others too preoccupied to even glance in his direction. A pack of children, too young to be drafted into work details stormed past in a screaming mob, chasing a kickball.
The sight brought a genuine grin of pleasure to the weary anthropologist's face. He followed their erratic progressthe open space between two of the larger rides on the perimeter of the grounds appeared to be their 'goal'until they disappeared from view. A flash of color and movement at the edge of his peripheral vision pulled his gaze to the left. Staggering out from between two of the campers was a teenager dressed in the standard blue crew t-shirt. The tow-headed youth was valiantly trying to balance several huge stuffed animals on top of a load of boxesand failing badly. Blair was on his feet and heading toward the youngster before he even realized it. He reached the boy's side and managed to grab a bright red bull and a hairy brown gorilla before they toppled into a mud puddle.
The dark-eyed youth eyed his benefactor in surprise and then flashed a grin. "Good catch. Thanks. My dad woulda had my head if those got full of mud."
Blair grinned back. "No problem." The teen shifted the boxes in his arms and the anthropologist noticed a gleaming white cast around the boy's right wrist and forearm. "That looks new. Are you sure you should be carrying such a heavy load?"
The teen's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What's it to you?"
Blair ignored the belligerent tone. "I've worn one of those before. Broken arm, not wrist, but I remember that it hurt like hell for the first few days. Itched like mad, too."
The wariness faded from the youth's expression and the grin resurfaced. "Yeah, it does itch. Doesn't hurt much though. Uncle Arnie said it was a clean break. Should be good as new in a few months."
"He's not really my uncle. He operates the fun house. He fixed me up so's dad wouldn't have to take me to the hospital. How'd you break your arm?"
Blair chuckled. "The truth? I fell out of a tree. I was pretending to be this great explorer. Lost my balance and took a nose dive. How about you?"
The boy flushed, dropping his gaze. "Same story, 'cept it's more embarrassing. I took a header off one of the carousel horses. I was pretending to be a world class jockey" he muttered.
"I take it someone else won the race," Blair deadpanned. The boy looked up, his smile back full force. "Where do these need to go?" the anthropologist asked, hefting the game prizes.
"My dad's joints. He's one of the concessionaires. He's a Barker. I'm his assistant," the teen said proudly. "Usually I run the ring toss or 'tip'em over coke', but this gig I'm stuck on the dunk the ducks."
Blair nodded sympathetically and glanced toward Packard's trailer. There was no sign of his partner. He debated with himself for a moment. It wouldn't hurt to get some 'inside' information to go along with the official line which Packard would be dishing out, and would only take a few minutes to help the boy. He'd be back before Jim even knew he had been gone. "I'll give you a hand with these," he volunteered, turning back to the teen. "My name's Blair, by the way."
"Thanks. I'm Kevin," the boy answered as he nodded in the direction they needed to head.
As they threaded their way through the grounds, the two chatted amiably. When Blair admitted that he'd worked a carnival or two, the boy opened up even more; one carnie accepting another as long-lost kin.
The youth had grown up with the carnival. His father had started with Packard's father twenty years earlier as green help and worked his way up through the ranks. The family had run the gamut on game joints. They had set up milk cans, pottery pitches, stand up the bottle, fool the guesser, smash the can, rat joints, red circles, and a variety of basket games. Blair learned that Kevin's mother had died two years earlier and that he had an older sister who was 'doing the straight gig' as a computer programmer.
Kevin segued from tales of his own family to observations about the inner workings of the carnival and its crew. The teen eagerly indicated several of the grabs which he claimed had the best foodand which ones to stay away from. His tone was filled with disdain when he pointed out a concession which he claimed was a 'flat store'a game that can't be wonand another joint which ran an 'alibi'a game which was rigged, but could be beaten anywayclaiming his family only ran legit games for the 'marks'.
By the time they reached Kevin's father's booths, which were on the far side of the grounds, the observer found himself wishing for one of his notebooks. The teen's candid comments had given him a great deal of information. Now he needed to rejoin his partner so that they could compare notes. He gave Kevin a hand hanging the stuffed animals at one of the booths then they parted company, Blair promising to stop by and visit again if he had the chance.
The anthropologist walked briskly toward the entrance to the grounds, following the inner curve of the horseshoe. A small motorized cart carrying a load of ice for the grabs cut across his path. Blair jerked backward, barely avoiding a collision. The driver, a girl in her late teens, braked to a lurching stop and the engine died a sputtering death. Good-naturedly waving off the apology the young woman offered, Blair glanced around as she restarted the vehicle and pulled away.
A flashing rainbow of lights caught his attention. He turned and found himself in front of the fun house. No ordinary fun house, according to the glittering sign proclaiming the two-story attraction to be the 'Wonderous Mirror Maze'. The entire front facade was covered with hundreds of square mirrored tiles. While some of the tiles were cracked and broken, the overall effect was still impressive, even in the stark light of day.
Blair grinned, remembering another midwayanother 'dark ride' filled with rolling floors, revolving barrels and sparkling mirrors. A precociously energetic six year old, he had managed to persuade his mother's then-current boyfriend into taking him to the carnival which had come to town. It had meant dealing with Naomi's disapproval when she found out, but Blair had considered the tantalizing adventure well worth the price of a scolding. The way the mirrors had distorted his shape had delighted himone had made him incredibly tall.
Entranced by the fond memory, he drifted toward the entrance, an open arched doorway framed in twinkling lights, fronted by a set of five narrow metal steps. Impish curiosity prompted him to climb the stairs. Blair paused at the threshold, peering inside. The interior was pitch-black. Disappointed, he started to turn away and halted abruptly, certain that he had seen movement inside. He took a cautious step forward.
A shrieking blast of cold air burst from beneath his feet, lifting his hair several inches off his shoulders as light flared all around him. Blair held his ground, grinning delightedly.
An army of Blair Sandburgs grinned back.
Tall, vertical standing mirrors paraded down each side of the corridor in front of him. Set in a slight overlap pattern, the reflective surfaces threw back multiple images of the entranceway where he stood. The floor and ceiling were covered with the same square mirrored tiles which he'd seen on the exterior, enhancing the illusion of spatial distortion. Bright colored lights danced among the mirrors, adding to the visual chaos. Blair glanced down at his feet and found the pressure plate he'd activateda slightly raised strip of metaland nodded absently, realizing that there were probably similar triggers planted along the convoluted course of the maze.
He eyed the far end of the corridor intently. The walkway appear to stretch into the distance, taking a sharp bend to the right at infinity. As he stood absently pondering whether it was the position of the mirrors or something in the contour of the reflective surfaces which created the illusion, the feeling of being watched hit him between his shoulder blades like a physical blow.
He turned slowly, scanning the outer grounds, trying to see if he could find his 'watcher.' Several carnies hurried past, but none even glanced in his direction. A laughing rainbow of colors streaked by, but it was only the children of the carnival workers, playing an innocent game of tag. Still, he couldn't shake the feeling that he was under surveillance. A shiver ran up his spine followed by a full-body shudder. "By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes," he muttered.
He swept his gaze over the surrounding area once again. His brain registered the man-shaped shadow tucked close to one of the food booths only a fraction of a second after his eyes had slid over it. His head jerked to the left and he found his searching stare captured by a pair of dark, angry eyes. He had only a moment to register the barest of detailsmale, roughly his height and build, wearing the blue t-shirt of the carnival crew, a mark or tattoo of some type on the left upper armwhen bony fingers closed over his right shoulder and a gravelly voice murmured in his ear.
"Can I help you, son?"
Blair spun around, wrenching out of the vice-like grasp which held him. He found himself eye to eye with a wiry, ancient old man. The expression in the pale hazel eyes which drilled into his was curious, not menacing, but Blair backpedaled a step anyway, grabbing for the metal railing to keep from falling down the short flight of stairs.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you," the old man explained. "I was working inside and heard someone activate the tunnel, so I came up to investigate. The ride's not open yet, you know."
It took Blair a few seconds to re-order his whirling thoughts into some kind of intelligible response. "Umm... yeah, I know," he admitted, slightly embarrassed at his reaction and the fact that he'd gotten caught 'peeking'.
The old man grinned and glanced back over his shoulder at the lit tunnel. "You should come back after nightfall," he said softly, turning back to face Blair once again. "The attraction is really spectacular in the dark."
A shiver zipped its way up Blair's spine, abruptly reminding him of the malevolent presence he'd glimpsed just before the old man had come up behind him. He turned his head and stared at the spot next to the food booth, but there was no one there. His 'watcher' was gone.
"Is there something wrong?"
Blair glanced back at the old man. A grizzled stubble peppered the craggy face and a shaggy head of graying hair made him appear dissheveled, but the hazel eyes were clear and he held himself with a air of command or superiority which made the grad student revise his first impression of the man's age. Late 50's, early 60s, at the most... The man wore the obligatory blue t-shirt tucked into khaki-colored trousers, but he seemed oddly uncomfortable in the casual clothes. As if he's used to wearing something else? Not a uniform, but something just as authoritative...
"Son? Are you all right?"
Blair's eyes flicked upward, away from his examination of the man's well-worn workboots to meet the carnie's concerned, questioning gaze. He looks like someone's grandfather... or uncle... this is probably the 'Uncle Arnie' Kevin was talking about. He's a harmless old man... He managed a wan smile, a bare shadow of his normal self-effacing grin and wondered, if that was true, why all the hairs on the back of his neck were standing at attention and his flight instinct was screaming for him to run.
"Yeah... I'm... I'm fine," he finally managed to stammer. "I've always been fond of fun houses. Curiosity got the best of me, I guess. I didn't mean to interrupt your work. You probably have a lot to do before the carnival opens."
The old man shrugged. "I've got things pretty well in hand, although," he cocked his head to the side and eyed Blair speculatively, "it never hurts to do a final run through with a live subject to make sure everything's working properly. Would you like to volunteer for a trip through the maze?"
Impulsive he might be, but Blair Sandburg was nobody's fool. He had no intention of playing lab rat for anyoneat least not until he knew for sure who had been watching him from the shadows. The memory of the malice in those dark eyes unnerved him. He released his hold on the railing and took a step backward, dropping down on the first step below the platform hard enough to rattle his teeth. "Uh, no, thanks all the same. I've got to go. Meet a friend. He's probably wondering where I've wandered off to," he murmured as he eased his way down the remaining steps.
The old man stepped toward the edge of the platform. "Are you sure you won't change your mind?"
The questionand the intensity of the man's gazestopped Blair in his tracks and caused his heart to try to climb into his throat. "I'm sure," he managed to gasp, backing even further away.
The carnie shrugged again. "As you wish." With a nod, the old man turned and walked back into the glowing tunnel.
Blair stared at the gaping maw of brilliance, stunned by his reactions to the man. I'm losing it. All he did was invite me to walk through the attraction. Why am I trying to read between the lines and find something sinister in what he was proposing? It's the other guy... the one whose glare could write a whole new definition to the cliche, 'If looks could kill,' that I should be worrying about.
The one-sided argument made sense, yet when he started moving, it was in reverse. He took several steps backward, strangely reluctant to turn his back on the glittering attraction. For the second time in less than ten minutes, he nearly jumped out of his skin as a hand closed around his right shoulder. He whirled around to find his partner standing behind him.
"Easy, Chief," Jim admonished.
"Man, don't DO that! Warn a guy next time you're going to sneak up on him, will you?"
Jim managed a weak grin. "A warning would negate the whole purpose, wouldn't it?"
"Yeah, probably," Blair muttered. He glanced around nervously, working hard to regain his composure.
"What's got you spooked, Sandburg?"
"Yeah, spooked. Your heart's working overtime. I didn't even have to turn up the dials to find you. Not that I expected to have to go looking." Blair looked up and met his partner's worried stare. He could see the pain reflected in the dulled blue depths and knew that the Sentinel's headache was back full force. And I didn't help matters any. His Blessed Protector instincts probably went into overdrive when he came out of the trailer and found me gone. What was I thinking? Wandering around when there's a good chance our killer's right on the grounds this very minute.
Angry with himself for adding to his partner's stress level, Blair pushed his own irrational fears aside. "Sorry, man. While you were giving Packard the 'Third Degree' I did a little fact finding on my own. I got some good background from one of the kids on the crew. I was on my way back to join you when I ran into something creepysomeone was watching me from the shadows over there." He nodded toward the foodstand.
Jim turned to study the area Blair had indicated. "Did you get a good look at him?"
The anthropologist shook his head. "Just a glimpse. Whoever he was, he was pretty pissed off."
"You weren't flirting with any young women at the time, were you, Chief? His girlfriend, maybe?"
Jim's clenching jaw muscles and the icy blue gaze which swept their surroundings told Blair the Sentinel wasn't taking the situation as lightly as his words suggested. Determined to keep things light until they found somewhere more private to talk, the observer rolled his eyes in mock dismay and started strolling toward the entrance. The detective's longer stride put him at the younger man's side immediately. Neither said another word until they were seated in the truck.
"Did you get what we needed from Packard?" Blair asked anxiously.
Jim's expression was grim as he pulled a sheaf of papers from out of his jacket and handed them to the observer. "I got enough to get us started. Packard gave me the files on his employees and a copy of the carnival's itinerary for the last six months. We should have the rest in a few hours. The documentation on the employees and concessionaires looks pretty sketchy. We'll just have to dig into each of their backgrounds and hope we find something more to work with. Simon might buy our theory that the killer's here based on the feather and the smell I picked up, but no judge in his right mind is going to give us a search warrant based on that kind of evidence. We need something more concrete."
"We'll find it," Blair said, putting all the confidence he had in his partner and his Sentinel's abilities into that declaration.
Jim gave him a weary, grateful smile. "Let's head back to the station."
"You won't get any arguments from me, man," Blair answered. When Jim shot him a surprised look, the younger man shook his head grimly. "This place gives me the heebie-jeebies. I think, after all these years, I've finally lost my taste for carnivals."
Simon intercepted the partners in the hallway outside of Major Crimes and directed them to the Operations Room which had been commandeered for their hastily assembled task force. Stepping across the threshold, Blair whistled softly under his breath, amazed at the transformation the conference room had undergone. Jim refrained from making any comments, but nodded in approval as he scanned the room.
It was buzzing with activity. Technicians from the station's Information Systems department were in the final stages of setting up a state-of-the-art computer system on one of the extra desks which had been sandwiched into the room to provide additional working space. Another tech from Building Services was checking the connections on the half dozen new phones scattered about the room, trying to tame the dull gray cords which snaked like tendrils of some exotic plant across the carpeted floor. Rhonda was making a circuit of the interior, placing stacks of yellow legal pads and handfuls of pens, pencils and highlighters on every flat surface. One of the support staff from the clerical pool trailed at her elbow, jotting down notes as Simon's assistant reeled off instructions.
Piles of case jackets and computer printouts covered half of the huge conference table. Three large, wheeled bulletin boards were strung the length of the room. One of them already held photos of the Cascade victims, including a Polaroid of the young boy who had been that morning's victim. Below each picture was tacked a pale green sheet of paper, detailing the specifics of each crime scene.
"You've been busy," Jim observed.
"I figured the paper trail this mess was going to generate was going to flood the bullpen," Banks explained. "We've got six hours to get a handle on where things stand. I've called a full meeting of the task force for 5:00 pm." He glanced at Blair and gestured to the computer setup. "You've got a secure line and authorization to tap into practically any data base you need, Sandburg. You can link in your laptop, but make sure there's a copy of everything, including anything your friend Crawford comes up with, on this system. I want proper procedure followed at all times. If we have to submit the computer records as evidence, I don't want any room for a defense attorney to raise issues of tampering. Is that clear?" "Perfectly," Blair answered quickly.
The captain turned to his detective. "If I'm going to go to bat for this theory of yours, I want the full story, Jim," he said, stressing the adjective meaningfully. "Not the vague generalities Sandburg fed me over the phone."
Blair grimaced. Once they had left the breakwater, the observer had contacted Simon via cell phone, filling the captain in on their progress. He hadn't divulged many details, nor had he dwelled on the questionable admissibility of the evidence which had led them to the carnival, choosing to stress the point that Ellison felt their lead was solid. Simon knew them too well to accept the delaying tactics for long, but Blair had hoped to buy a little more time. If they had hard evidence to support the clues which the Sentinel's enhanced senses had unearthed, they might avoid the issue of 'how' they'd discovered them altogether.
And there was no way he wanted to get into a discussion about Jim's senses right now. Outside of the aggravating headache which was obviously plaguing the Sentinel, Ellison seemed to be back to his normal assertive, confident self. The day had been blessedly free of any new 'freak-out' episodes and Blair preferred to keep it that wayespecially since he had no new answers or solutions to offer from either a Guide's perspective or the shamanistic angle. Their whirlwind morning had given him no chance to contact his friend Jason and he seriously doubted that the afternoon would be any different, given the deadline Simon had set for them.
Instinctively, Blair shifted closer to Jim, moving into a protective stance in front of his partner. Before he could open his mouth to offer an objection to the captain's demand, a warm hand closed over his shoulder, squeezing gently.
"Simon's right, Chief," Ellison said quietly. "He's the one who has to justify things upstairs."
Blair glanced up and saw the determination filling Jim's blue eyes. As hard as it was to back off from his hovering, the Guide knew that was precisely what the situation demandedand what his Sentinel required. He sighed and nodded. He slipped his backpack off his shoulder and dug out the sheaf of papers Randy Packard had given them. "I'll get started then while you two sort out the details." Blair shifted his gaze to Simon and fixed the captain with a glare. "I'm in full agreement on the tampering issue, Captain," he murmured cryptically. "Things have been a little complicated, but we seem to be on track right now. We still need some time to work out all the particulars though. I'd hate to see us have a problem because we made a mistake and pushed too hard at this point."
Banks raised one eyebrow at the anthropologist's comments. "I agree," he responded, just as enigmatically. Simon glanced at Jimwho bore a thunderous expression as a result of the little dance which was going on around himand nodded toward the corridor. "Let's discuss this in my office, Detective."
Ellison followed Simon out the door, bestowing a baleful glare upon his partner before he disappeared from view. Blair shrugged it off, knowing Jim's irritation would be short-lived. It was difficult for the Sentinel to accept being in the role of the 'protectee'. He was much more comfortable as the 'protector.'
He's just going to have to deal with it. I made a vow to keep him safe and I intend to keep that promise, Blair thought grimly. He deftly tied his hair back to keep the unruly strands out of his face and settled himself in front of the computer to map out a plan of attack.
Time flowed in spurts over the course of the afternoon, speeding by like a runaway freight train at one moment, reduced to a snail's pace the next. Jim spent less than an hour in Simon's office, returning to the tasks which faced them with focused determination, and without the anger and annoyance which had accompanied his departure. He'd given Blair's pony tail a teasing tug before seating himself at the table and digging into the files. Blair accepted the action for the peace offering it was, flashed the older man a reassuring grin and returned to his own efforts with a renewed sense of purpose.
In Jim's absence, Blair had managed to make good headway entering the information they ad into the data base he'd constructed and had sent out requests to various city, state and federal agencies for more. By incorporating the locations and dates of each deathincluding the 29 which had occurred before the first killing in Cascadehe created a structure which the entire team could use as they began the monumental task of correlating the information they had on the victims, the carnival's itinerary, and its crew.
In his own mind, Blair envisioned the database as the border of a complicated picture puzzle. It took time to sort out the edge pieces and connect them, but once the overall shape and size was established, finishing the puzzle was simply a matter of filling in the resteven if you no longer had the cover to tell you what kind of picture you were building. Working the sections of the puzzle which were the simplest to identifysky or grass or blocks of uniform coloroften produced a fairly accurate view of the completed image well before the last pieces were locked into place. If the analogy held, they'd be able to build enough of a case to identify a solid suspect.
Jim focused his efforts on the carnival employees, beginning with a background check on those who had arrived ahead of the rest of the company. Blair's fingers danced across the keyboard as he strove to supply the supplemental data his partner requested.
A search in the DMV mainframe supplied physical dataheight, weight, eye coloron each of their possible suspects. File photos of the employees who matched the tentative physical profile they had established were quickly tacked to one of the open bulletin boards. Addresses were checked for accuracy and phone interviews of known associates and relatives were conducted by other members of the Major Crimes unit and by the additional Homicide support staff Captain Sterns had assigned to the effort.
Rafe and Henri Brown joined Jim and Blair by early afternoon, adding their own energy and ideas to the mix, pursing specific directions which Ellison and Sandburg dictated. Simon rolled up his sleeves and jumped on the phone himself, smoothing the way for his detectives' calls to the police departments in the other cities where the killer had struck, using his superior rank and gruff 'don't give me any crap' tone when subtlety and good manners failed to produce immediate results.
The answers to their inquiries began to pour in. The fax machine spit out page after page of case files and autopsy photos, employment records and credit reports. The printer hummed as it translated binary data into readable characters, disgorging the flood of paperwork which Simon had envisioned.
A second computer was brought in and networked to the first when Blair began to get so overloaded with incoming e-mail that he was spending all his time downloading and printing files. Simon asked Rhonda for a staff recommendation to take over the onerous chore and she immediately volunteered. While she was busy shifting files from one system to the other, Blair grabbed a telephone and contacted Patrick Crawford, eager to know what progress his colleague was making.
Unfortunately, the news wasn't what he had hoped for. Crawford's research had generated more dead ends and false trails than answers. He had found documentation on over a dozen different sacrificial rituals which involved mutilation of the corpse and suggested the use of special herbs within the ceremony, but he hadn't come up with an exact match. Blair asked Patrick to send over the information he had and urged the other grad student to keep digging.
Interdepartmental courtesy was strained and the morale of the entire group started to suffer when Detectives Rankin and Briggs arrived on the scene. Once apprised of the developments, the Homicide cops began to question the direction the investigation was heading. Banks was faced with the challenge of trying to moderate the situation and keep tempers from flaring. Simon didn't believe that Rankin and Briggs' comments were intended to be obstructivethe two cops seemed genuinely concerned that the carnival angle was a wild goose chase, insisting that the best suspect to date had to be Father Jameson, given his known relationship with at least two of the victimsbut they were creating a problem, nevertheless.
Their assertions grated on the rest of the team. In just a few minutes, Simon watched Blair go from focused and calm to distracted and distressed. Ellison, reacting to his partner's agitation, physically placed himself between the civilian and the Homicide officers, pacing a protective path behind the anthropologist's chair. The palpable tension in the room ensnared Rafe and Brown as they glanced worriedly from one face to the next, trying to gauge what was happening and who would lose their cool first.
Joel Taggert's unexpected arrival with the news that Father Jameson had a concrete alibi for each of the murders doused the fires, but Banks knew that the embers of discord were still smoldering. Putting Rankin and Briggs back out on the street was the best solution. Simon charged them with the responsibility of retrieving the hard copies of whatever records couldn't be downloaded and handed them a list which Blair had generated. Briggs grumbled about being demoted to 'go-fer' status, but Rankin immediately agreed, and urged his partner out the door, reminding him that the important thing was to catch the killer before he struck again.
They got an unexpected break when Randy Packard's lot man, Pete Barrows, delivered the documentation the carnival owner had promised. As his boss had suggested, the carnie proved to have an exceptional memory for faces. When Henri Brown showed him the photos of the Cascade victims, Barrows recognized them all. The second victim, Robert Jeffries, had approached him looking for a temporary job. Barrows had hired him to help with setup. Jeffries had put in a full day of work both Sunday and Monday, but had not returned on Tuesday. Barrows made a written statement which placed each victim on the carnival grounds prior to their deaths.
As the clock ticked down to the 6:00 pm deadline, the picture Blair had been hoping for began to take shape. What they were still lacking was a motive and an explanation for killer's erratic murder spree. The 29 homicides the NCIC database had flagged had occurred in only 19 of the 57 cities the carnival had played. The number of killings in each city varied from as few as three, to as many as seven. Making it even more of a puzzle was the fact that the time between murders varied as well. In several instances there was a full month between one group of killings. The shortest span was three days.
Blair was still pondering the variablesand the possible reasons for themwhen Captain Sterns and his Homicide detectives joined them for the scheduled meeting. Passing on the sandwiches which had been delivered in lieu of a dinner break, the tired observer snagged a cup of coffee and slid into a seat next to Jim. He sipped at the hot beverage, wishing he could have an intravenous dose of caffeine instead of the oral variety. The burn of stiff and cramped muscles and the scratchiness dryness of his eyes testified to the number of hours he'd spent staring at the computer screen. He would have liked nothing better than to curl up on the couch in Simon's office and let Jim wake him when after the meeting was overor better yet, in a weekbut he simply settled deeper in his chair as Banks called the group to order.
While Jim summarized their findings, Blair idly thumbed through the stack of printouts which represented the tangible results of their afternoon's efforts. His gaze kept straying to a group of photos pinned to one of the bulletin boards. Based on the physical profile they had established and the background checks they had run, they had identified three members of the carnival's advance crew as their best suspects. One of them was the man who had been watching Blair from the shadows of the food booth. DMV records had confirmed his identityCalvin Chambers. Blair struggled to repress a shudder at the memory of the angry dark eyes which had bored into him from across the grounds.
He shifted in his chair and focused his gaze on the tabletop to avoid looking at another photo which hung nearby the target group. The grandfatherly image of Arnie Klerk, the fun house operator, made him as uneasy as the picture of Chambers, but for less definable reasons. Klerk had also been a part of the advance group and he fit the physical profile, but they were still awaiting the results of the old man's background check, so his status as a prime suspect was still up in the air.
Blair's thoughts returned to his partner as Jim concluded his portion of the briefing. The observer glanced at his friend and met the inquisitive, concerned expression which told him that the Sentinel had picked up on his Guide's distress. Before Blair could do more than shrug, Captain Sterns' bass voice broke the silence, capturing everyone's attention.
"We still don't have a solid suspect. Or motive."
"We've narrowed the field," Rafe objected. "We've identified three possible matchesCalvin Chambers, Nick Armstrong and Monica Bradford."
"Chambers was a Seal," Jim interjected. "That's the Navy's version of the Rangers. His military background is comparable to mine and would have included some fairly intensive medic training. He received a dishonorable discharge for disciplinary infractions two years ago and joined the amusement company a month after he received his walking papers. His superiors describe him as a hot-head. A loner with a chip on his shoulder. The Navy psychologist who interviewed him at the time of discharge categorized him as borderline psychotic."
"Armstrong was a fifth year med student, employed at a hospital in Seattle before he flunked out of their surgical residency program," Henri Brown added. "I talked to the hospital's chief surgeon who was in charge of the review board. He said that Armstrong was furious when he was told he no longer had a place within the program and that he vowed he was going to prove that his surgical skills were as good or better than anyone on their staff. Could be the killings are his way of carrying through on that promise."
"Bradford has training as an EMT," Rafe explained. "She spent two years working for the fire department in Portland. She left the department shortly after her twin brother was murdered. His body was found in a dumpster. He'd been stabbed to death."
Sterns raised an eyebrow. "That sounds too much like our cases to be coincidental. Did the department have a psychological workup of Bradford on file?"
Rafe nodded. "There was one done just prior to her exit interview. She was described as depressed and extremely bitter over the way the cops had handled the investigation into her brother's death. The case is still open, by the way."
"Maybe she's looking for the justice that she feels she's been denied," Rankin speculated.
"Our killer's not looking for justice," Blair objected. "He's making sacrifices."
"So we're back to the vampires and ghouls theory," Sterns muttered sarcastically.
"Actually 'ghoul' is more accurate," Blair commented dryly. "A ghoul is a person who is morbidly interested in death. I'd say that describes our killer." The Homicide captain shook his head in disgust, but Blair ignored him. "Look, these are ritual killings. Each one follows the same pattern. The killer disables the victim, dispatches them with a single knife thrust and then mutilates the body. Then he disposes of the corpse as if it has no further value. He's focused on the act of killing. Why? Because he hopes to gain something."
"What?" Jim prompted softly.
"Power, most likely," the anthropologist replied. "Sacrifice is a ritual act of worship, in which an offeringa plant, an animal or even a human beingis made to some higher being. Usually it's a means of honoring or appeasing said deity. Sometimes a sacrifice is made in the hope of claiming some of the 'being's' power or abilities for the participants.
"In pre-Columbian America thousands of human victims, many of them war captives, were offered annually in accordance with the complex Aztec ritual calendar. Human sacrifice also occurred on a lesser scale among the Maya and various Andean and North American Indian groups. Among cultures of Africa, the Far East, Southeast Asia, and Oceania, sacrifice is still commonly offered in connection with ancestor worship. Human sacrifice was formerly practiced by certain groups in all of those areas.
"You can even find evidence in the Old Testament of the Bible. The first mention of sacrifice is God's rejection of Cain's offering and his acceptance of Abel's. The principal sacrifices of ancient Hebrew worship were the Paschal Lamb and the scapegoat."
"You're talking ancient history and organized religion, Sandburg. That's a far cry from what we're dealing with here," Simon pointed out.
"Not really," the anthropologist countered. "There are mystery cults still in existence today whose members believe that by means of the performance of particular secret rituals they would gain knowledge not available to the uninitiated and thus effect a mystical union with the divine. In contrast to traditional religion, which emphasized the gulf between God and humankind, the mystery cults promised a share in the life of the gods, most importantly in their immortality."
"Secret rituals... immortality... What's next? Magic potions and spells?" Sterns scoffed. He turned to Simon, his expression grim. "This nonsense isn't getting us anywhere. We need hard facts, not wild speculation."
Stunned speechless by the abrupt dismissal, Blair sank back in his chair. The Homicide captain's words had the opposite effect on Ellison, whose anger exploded, lifting him to his feet.
"You want facts?" Jim shoved his copy of the report across the table toward Sterns. "We have six Cascade victims, all of whom we can place on the carnival grounds prior to their murders. We've confirmed that the advance crew for the carnival was in town prior to the first murder. We've ascertained that three of the crew members fit the physical profile forensics has established and that they have the medical background or training to deliver the knife wound which the ME has established as the cause of death. We've confirmed that the three suspects were a part of the advance crew which was present in each of cities and towns where the 29 prior murders took place. We have physical evidence found at the sixth Cascade crime scene which connects the murders to the carnival."
Jim's eyes narrowed dangerously as he fixed Sterns with an icy stare. "We have suspects, we have opportunity and, although you're too close-minded to understand it, my partner has supplied a motive. Now, do we sit here all night and debate the difference between fact and speculation, or do we purse the course of action that the evidence suggests?"
For a full thirty seconds, the room was deathly silent while Sterns and Ellison glared at one another. Blair crossed his arms over his chest and struggled to control a triumphant grin. It was no surprise to the anthropologist when the Homicide captain caved in, grudgingly throwing his support behind their findings.
Fifteen minutes later, Blair was no longer feeling so smug. Eager to get a closer look at their suspects, Jim was determined to make a return trip to the carnival grounds. It was the last place Blair wanted to gothe loft and bed being foremost on his listbut one look at his partner's clenched jaw suggested that arguing the advisability of such a move would be an exercise in futility, so he kept his opinions to himself. He followed Jim to the elevator and spent the ride down to the garage trying to convince himself that the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach was due to gravity, not fear.
It was nearly 7:30 p.m. by the time Jim pulled the truck into one of the few empty spaces remaining in the lower breakwater parking lot. The last fifteen minutes of stop and 'inch-forward' traffic generated by the crowds descending on the waterfront area had strained Ellison's patience and aggravated his headache even further. With more force than was necessary, he turned the keys in the ignition and killed the engine. Sitting back in his seat, he slowly turned his head to study his partner. Sandburg had been unusually quiet since they left the station, replying in short, clipped sentences to Ellison's comments or questions instead of instigating or directing the conversation. He hadn't even lifted an eyebrow when Jim had called Packard on his cell phone, asking the carnival owner to meet them at his trailer.
Blair had spent most of the trip staring out the window, his expression pensive, his brow furrowed in concentration. To the casual observer, it would appear that he was holding up well, despite the stress of the case, but Jim knew better than anyone that with Sandburg, appearances were often deceiving. The nervous bouncing of the younger man's knees, the lines of strain around his mouth and the darkening shadows under his eyes revealed a much different picture to the Sentinel.
Jim frowned, still irked at the slam the Homicide captain had delivered to his partner during the meeting. Ellison knew that Sterns' sarcasm had hit a raw nerve, but he was proud of how quickly the observer had regained his composure. Early in their partnership, Ellison had warned the grad student that he would have to learn to 'step back' and keep his emotions in check if he were going to hold his own in the detective's world. It had been a difficult challenge for the younger man, but somehow Blair had managed to adapt without becoming jaded. Sandburg still held to the fundamental belief that people were inherently gooda conviction which a case like their current one severely tested.
"You still with me, Chief?" he asked.
Blair nodded, but his gaze remained fixed on something beyond even the Sentinel's ability to see. "Yeah, just thinking."
"Anything you want to share? The condensed version, that is."
He expected Blair to roll his eyes or shoot him one of his trademark grins, but when the anthropologist turned to look at him, the expression on his face was grim, his eyes dulled by something Jim couldn't quite place.
"I was thinking about Lash."
Now why is that not a surprise, Ellison mused darkly, his frown deepening in concern.
"The yellow scarves," Blair continued. "They were his trademark. Kind of like his signature, right?"
The detective nodded. "Most serial killers leave an identifying clue for the police to find. It's their way of staking their claim and taunting whoever's hunting them. Our killer hasn't been following that pattern, though."
"Maybe he has and we just haven't seen it," Blair said quietly. "When you examined the bodies you said that the secondary slashes appeared to be random... slightly different on each corpse. All except one set of marks."
Jim's eyes widened, suddenly realizing where his partner's line of thought was leading him. "The interlocked 'C' shapes."
It was Blair's turn to nod. "The killer carved the same set of shapes into each body. I know it sounds kind of farfetched, but what if that's it? What if that's his signature? Or, more literally, his initials?"
"CC. Calvin Chambers," Jim said tersely, his jaw muscles clenching. "Damn. How could I have missed that?"
"Cut yourself some slack, man," Blair said firmly. "We didn't have the list of carnival employees until a few hours ago. Besides, it's just a guess on my part. I could be way off base. I admit Chambers really gave me the creeps this morning. Maybe it's just my overactive imagination trying to come up with a reason for his behavior."
"You've got good instincts about people, Chief," Jim said quietly. "And the background we've got on Chambers has him high on the suspect list anyway. Did your buddy Patrick mention anything about a signature element in the rituals he's researching?"
"Not specifically. I didn't say anything about the consistency of that particular set of marks either. I didn't want to prejudice his findings. Maybe I should have..."
"You just told me to go easy on myself, Sandburg," Jim growled. "Take your own advice."
Blair nodded tersely and glanced out the window toward the carnival grounds. "So what's the plan? Do we go in there and confront Chambers?"
"As much as I'd like to, I think we'd better take this one step at a time, Chief. Chambers certainly looks like our best bet, but we can't afford to be wrong. I want to get a closer look at all three of our suspects before we drag anyone downtown for questioning."
"How are we going to do that? The word's got to have circulated among the carnies that you're a cop, Jim. Even those that aren't on our suspect list are going to be less than enthused about talking to us." "I know. I'm hoping Packard can help us with that."
Ellison opened his door and climbed out of the truck. Blair slid out the passenger side and worked his way between the pickup's bumper and the car parked in front of them to join his partner.
"Jim, this place is going to be a sensory nightmare," the younger man cautioned. "You sure you're up for this?"
"I'm fine, Sandburg," the Sentinel snapped. His Guide's sharp intake of breath told him it was the wrong response. He glanced quickly at Blair, seeing the genuine concern in the younger man's eyes. "I'll keep things dialed down," Jim said softly. As usual, his Guide accepted his oblique apology without pressing for more. Blair simply nodded and gestured for Jim to lead the way.
When they met Randy Packard at his trailer, the carnival owner ushered them inside. This time the detective made sure the observer joined them. He had no intention of letting his partner out of his sight, especially given the dangerous interest Calvin Chambers had already exhibited in the younger man.
True to his word, Ellison told Packard as much as he could about the results of their investigation, but he withheld the names of their three main suspects. The carnival owner appeared shocked, but grimly agreed to help them.
"I usually make a tour of the grounds every couple of hours. I like to keep an eye on how things are going," Packard explained, glancing at his watch. "I'm due to start a circuit now. Why don't you join me? That will give you a chance to check everyone out. I figured you'd be back for a return visit, so I started the rumor that you were here earlier looking for a runaway. We've had cops on the grounds for that reason in the past."
"At least one of the Cascade victims was a runaway," Blair observed quietly, his eyes locking with Jim's. "We might get some reaction out of our suspects on that point alone."
Jim nodded his appreciation of both men's suggestions, the obvious and the implied. "Let's get started," he urged.
Packard led them from the trailer and strode quickly through the crowds streaming through the entrance to the grounds. The early evening attendees were mainly young couples pushing strollers or shepherding toddlers past the tantalizing food and game stands. Older children tugged at their parent's hands urging them toward the glittering rides. The Sentinel kept a firm grip on his imaginary audio dial and tried to ignore the high-pitched shrieks of delight which surrounded him.
The carnival owner stopped at the beer garden first, introducing the partners to the middle-aged woman who was supervising the area. It wasn't difficult for Jim to come up with a description of the run-away they were supposedly seekingthe image of the young boy they had found that morning was burned into his memory.
Their first stop set the pattern for each booth and ride. They spent the same amount of time at each grab and joint, describing their fictitious runaway, receiving the same suspicious glare and shake of the head from each carnie. Blair glided like a shadow at Jim's side, letting the detective carry the conversations.
They had interviewed a dozen carnies before they reached their first suspect. Nick Armstrong was ride-jocking the Zipper, the first of the spectacular's along the left side of the horseshoe shaped grounds. They had to wait until the carnie had a new group of passengers loaded before approaching him.
Armstrong was just an inch or so taller than Sandburg, with nearly the same body mass. His light blonde hair was buzzed so close to the scalp that at first glance he appeared bald. He had a pack of cigarettes rolled up in the left sleeve of his t-shirtred was now the color of the crew's casual uniformand he quickly dropped a lit butt in the dirt in deference to Packard's unhappy glare.
The Sentinel cautiously dialed up his senses, focusing them on the young man as the carnival owner explained the reason for their presence. He flinched slightly as the onslaught of sound, lights and smells that he'd been only marginally aware of, hit him full force. His Guide's familiar touch grounded him immediately. He breathed a silent 'thanks' for his companion's stabilizing presence and blithely rattled off the description of their runaway to the waiting carnie. "Haven't seen anyone like that," Armstrong answered with a shake of his head. "'Course the older kids don't usually show 'til later, once the stroller brigade heads for home."
The Sentinel had been carefully monitoring Armstrong's heartbeat and respiration, but the carnie had shown no marked signs of distress at the mention of a runaway. With some trepidation, Jim dialed down his hearing and mentally nudged the sensory control for smell up several notches. Armstrong stood only a few feet away; definitely close enough for the Sentinel to pick up what he was looking for if it existed. Concentrating on the sense memory of the smells he had detected on the bodies of the victims, Jim inhaled deeply. Filtering past the cloying odor of cigarette smoke took only a moment, cataloging the remaining smells which emanated from the carnie took even less time.
Sweat, cheap aftershave... grease, that's a match, but not conclusive... he had something to eat... a taco or burrito not too long ago... no herbal smells...
"We'd appreciate your keeping your eyes open and notifying us if you see anyone fitting the description," Jim said, exhaling softly.
"Yeah, sure," Armstrong replied. "Always willing to help out the cops," he muttered. The carnie glanced at his boss. "Can I get back to work now?"
Packard nodded. "Just keep the cigarettes in their pack until you're on your break. You know the rules."
Armstrong's expression turned sullen, but he remained silent, spinning on his heel and returning to his station at the controls of the ride. Jim caught Blair's inquiring look and gave a minute shake of his head before gesturing to Packard that they continue their tour.
Their face-to-face with Monica Bradford, who was running the spinning apple ride in the kiddie area, produced the same lack of sensory results, although ex-emergency medical technician was friendlier and seemed genuinely distressed when told the reason for their visit.
"I know it's tough for some kids to stay at home," she said, shaking her head. "But with the drugs and the pimps, the streets aren't safe. No one's safe out there..." Her voice trailed off and an expression of immense sorrow clouded her eyes.
Packard patted her on the arm sympathetically and gestured with a lift of his chin to the long line of children waiting for their turn on the ride. "You look like you've got your hands full tonight. Do you want me to send over some help?"
Bradford nodded gratefully. "I'd appreciate it, boss. Even if it's just a couple of the older kids. They do a great job of entertaining the little ones while they're waiting."
"You've got it," Packard answered, pulling a cell phone out of his pocket. Out of habit, the Sentinel tuned in to the conversation, pulling Blair aside when he confirmed that the carnival owner was passing on the request to his wife.
"She might fit the profile, but you're going to have a hard time convincing me she's the one we're after," the anthropologist said, leaning in close to Jim in order to be heard over the noise of the crowd which surged past them.
"I agree. I didn't pick up any of that strange odor around her, either," the Sentinel commented quickly. Turning his attention to the carnival owner as Packard joined them once more, he missed the worried frown which surfaced for an instant on his Guide's expressive face.
It took nearly forty minutes for the trio to work their way to the game booth where Calvin Chambers was stationed for the night and with each tick of the clock, Blair grew more worried about his partner. Jim was as tense as a coiled spring, his head jerking minutely from one direction to another as the cacophony of sound and light which surrounded them battled for his attention. Blair had been yearning for a set of earplugs since they'd set foot on the grounds and berated himself for not having thought to bring a pair for his Sentinel. He watched Jim flinch as a burst of riotous, off-key music exploded from the loud speakers of the ride they were passing and pressed a hand to his partner's back in silent support, wishing he could do more.
His concern for his Sentinel took a back seat for a split second when Chambers looked up from the toppled bottles he was arranging. The carnie's dark gaze locked with Blair's for an instant before shifting away. The anthropologist's breath caught in his throat, but he resisted the urge to retreat behind Jim's solid, protective form, even though the particle board counter and canvas walls of the booth which separated him from the carnie suddenly seemed far too flimsy a barrier.
"Calvin, this is Detective Ellison and his partner, Blair Sandburg," Packard said, handling the introductions adroitly. "They're with the Cascade Police Department. You might have heard that they were on the grounds earlier.
They're looking for a runaway. A boy of about thirteen."
Chambers' glare tracked from Jim to Blair and then resettled on Packard. "We get lots of kids that age at this booth, boss. Boys and girls."
Blair stiffened as Jim stepped closer to the counter, the Sentinel's pale blue eyes flashing their own icy glare. "Maybe a description would jog your memory," Ellison said coolly.
Chambers rose to his feet and approached the counter with an arrogant swagger. "You think you can manage one?" he asked belligerently.
Blair sucked in a surprised breath. Very few people dared to challenge his partner when the detective's laser beam stare was targeted on them. Chambers, however, seemed immune to the effect. Maybe it's a Seal thing. Jim equated the Navy's elite training program to the Rangers and I know that's where some of Jim's 'take no crap from anyone' attitude came from. Either that or Chambers is just plain stupid, Blair decided.
Ellison rolled through the spiel he'd been giving each of the carnies without batting an eye. Chambers' sneer deepened as he shook his head. "That description's pretty worthless. It could fit half the kids here. Now if you told me this runaway pitched right handed and he had an inch-long scar down the side of his index finger from where he sliced it open reaching through a broken window for a baseball, that would be something I'd remember. But they don't train you cops to look for that kind of detail, do they?"
Ellison leaned across the counter a little further into Chambers' space and Blair had to strain to hear his partner's soft retort.
"Actually, they do. So do the Rangers."
Chambers' eyes reflected his surprise, widening for a fraction of a second before arrogance narrowed them again. "Army. I should have known," he muttered in disgust. He glanced at Blair and shook his head disdainfully. "Bet none of your old boot-shine buddies know you're partnered with a long-haired fag."
"That's enough, Chambers," Packard snarled, echoing Jim's growl of rage.
Blair grabbed Jim's arm and pulled the detective away from the counter. "He's taunting you, man," he hissed. "Don't let him get to you. Remember why we're here." The muscles under his fingers thrummed with barely contained fury, but to his relief, the Sentinel didn't make a move toward the booth.
"Since your observational skills are so keen, you can be certain we'll be talking again, Chambers," Ellison promised, his quiet, controlled voice cutting like a knife through the surrounding noise. He gently disengaged his arm from Blair's hold and nodded to Packard. "We still have the rest of the grounds to cover. Perhaps your other employees will be more cooperative."
"You and I will be talking again, too, Chambers," Packard said, shooting a glare toward the carnie. "About whether you're going to have a job come morning." Chambers shrugged carelessly and turned his back on them, returning to the task of setting up his game for the next group of marks. Packard glanced nervously at Jim and Blair before leading them into the churning crowds toward their next stop. Blair stuck close to Jim's side, watching the detective's spasming jaw muscles closely.
"You okay, man?" he asked when they were out of Chambers' view.
The corded muscles in Jim's neck were tight with tension. "The Navy's reports were right. Chambers definitely has a chip on his shoulder," he murmured evasively.
"But is he our killer?" Blair pressed.
"I don't know, Chief. But you can bet I'm going to have Dan check the body of the boy we found this morning. If he finds a scar on one of the kid's index fingers, Chambers and I are going to do more than talk." The Sentinel glanced over his shoulder toward Chambers' booth. "I played into his game instead of running mine," Ellison admitted, shaking his head in disgust. "I let him push me off balance."
"You were off balance before we got to him, Jim. I told you this place was going to be a sensory nightmare, man. The noise level alone is enough to make my head spin and my ears aren't nearly as sensitive as yours."
"That's no excuse"
"No, but it's a reasonable explanation for why you lost your cool," Blair countered. "It happened. You have to get past it and stay focused, or we are going to have a problem."
Ellison stopped abruptly, obviously struggling to regain both his temper and his control. Blair motioned for Packard to go ahead and stood with his Sentinel, positioning himself in front of his partner in order to buffer him from the jostling movement of the crowd.
When Jim finally refocused his gaze on his partner, Blair shivered. He didn't like what he saw in the Sentinel's blue eyespain, uncertainty, self-castigating angerbut he turned and led the way to the next stand where the carnival owner was waiting. In order to give his partner more time to regain his equilibrium, the observer handled their next six interviews with the carnival staff. They were headed toward one of the few remaining booths when Packard's cell phone rang. Holding up one hand to halt them, he pulled the phone from his pocket. "Packard... Already? Where's Carolyn?... Okay, hold on." Packard lowered the phone and cast them an apologetic look. "Several of the grabs are running low on change. I need to get back to my office and open the safe."
"Go ahead," Jim said quickly. "We can handle the rest of the interviews."
"There are only a couple more booths left on this stretch." The carnival owner quickly rattled off several of his employees names for their reference. "Then there's the fun house. The man you'll want to talk to there is Arnie Klerk." Packard rose up on the balls of his feet and peered over the heads of the crowd toward the attraction he had just mentioned. "I don't see him out front," he said, when he turned back to face them. "He's probably inside tinkering with the lights. Arnie's kind of a character"
"I've met him," Blair interjected. He glanced at his partner, struggling to hide his sudden nervousness. "This morning," he added quickly, hoping the Sentinel would hold off asking any further questions about that meeting until they were free of Packard's company.
Packard seemed surprised, but he turned to Jim, his expression grim. "You'll keep me apprised, detective."
It was a statement, not a question. Ellison nodded. Packard turned to Blair. "I should apologize for Chambers' comments, Mr. Sandburg. Calvin's been warned about his attitude in the past. He has a quick temper, but he's always been a dependable employee. Believe it or not, he's really good with the teenage crowd. It's just"
"Authority figures that he has a problem with, right?" Blair flashed a wry grin at his partner. "First time I've been mistaken for one of those," he added dryly.
The carnival owner studied the anthropologist for a moment. "I heard a rumor that you've worked a carnival or two," Packard said. Blair nodded, not really surprised that Kevin had passed that information along to his boss. "You should have stuck with it," the carnie stated. "You have the eye." With an unfathomable smile, he nodded to each partner and turned away. He was lost within the churning crowd within seconds.
"Something you neglected to tell me, Chief?"
Blair looked up at his partner, still slightly stunned by Packard's comment. "What do you mean?"
Ellison frowned. "Arnie Klerk?"
"Oh. Him." Blair dropped his gaze, his pulse racing.
"You said you met him this morning," Jim pressed.
Blair felt the heat of embarrassment rising in his face and kept his gaze firmly fixed on the tips of his sneakers. "I was on my way back to catch up with you at Packard's trailer."
"I almost got run over by one of those golf-cart things."
"And I stopped to peek into the fun house." Blair raised his head and met Jim's grim stare. "I know, I know. I shouldn't have done it. I didn't plan to. It was just that I turned around and it was there and I started remembering a different fun house I'd been in when I was a little kid and"
"And before you knew it you were inside."
"Well, no. I didn't go inside," Blair hastened to correct him. "Not really. I told you, I just peeked. Arnie invited me in for a private tour, but that was right after I realized Chambers was watching me. I was feeling pretty rattled by the glare Mr. Angry Eyes was sending my way and I'll admit I wasn't feeling real comfortable about Arnie at that point either since he'd scared me out of about ten years of my life when he came sneaking out of the tunnel behind me, and"
"Stop." Jim held up both hands in a gesture of surrender.
Blair closed his mouth with a snap. His partner sighed and closed his eyes. Ellison pinched at the bridge of his nose, rubbed his fingers against his furrowed forehead and muttered something under his breath that Blair didn't catch, although the observer thought he heard the words 'Sandburg Zone.'
"Just tell me this, Chief," Jim said finally, his blue eyes opening, his gaze settling on Blair once again. "Who was it that had you so spooked when I caught up with you? Chambers or Klerk?"
Blair shifted uneasily. "I don't know. Like I said, Chambers watching me from the shadows really rattled me. Arnie didn't do anything threatening, he just made me... uneasy."
"Uneasy," the Sentinel said flatly.
"Okay, really uneasy," Blair admitted.
"Why didn't you say something before this?" Ellison demanded angrily.
"What was I supposed to say, Jim?" Blair retorted. He glanced at the people streaming past and lowered his voice. "Sterns practically laughed me out of the room when I volunteered the information on ritual killings and I can document that with tons of published research. Can you imagine what would have happened if I'd suggested we investigate Arnie just because I picked up some bad vibes from the guy?"
"You could have told me, " Jim said firmly. "You should have told me."
Blair looked away again. "I know, but everything we've discovered seems to point to Chambers as our killer. I figured my reaction to Arnie was just... I don't know... frayed nerves or something."
Jim frowned and pinned the anthropologist with a piercing stare which Blair did his best to meet without flinching. The detective's eyes narrowed suddenly and he spun on his heel. Without a word, he stalked offstraight toward the fun house. Blair scrambled after him, flinging apologies left and right as he forced his way through the congested midway.
Damn it, Jim, this is not the time to go into Blessed Protector mode or Pissed-off Detective overdrive, or whatever this is...
Elbows flying, the anthropologist emerged from the crowd just in time to see his partner step into the entrance of the fun houseand freeze as the lights sprang to life within the tunnel. Blair was up the steps and at Jim's side in a heartbeat. One glimpse of the frozen expression of terror in his Sentinel's eyes told the Guide all he needed to know.
Jim was caught in another 'freak-out' episode.
Gotta get him out of here, NOW!
Desperation gave Blair the strength manhandle the bigger man down the stairs. And he didn't stop when he reached bottom. Ignoring the startled looks from the people he shoved out of the way, Blair propelled his unresisting, spell-bound partner through the crowd and out of the grounds. A low groan and a sideways stagger told him that Jim was coming out of his waking nightmare, but the observer didn't release the deathgrip he had on the detective's arm. He kept them moving, murmuring a continuous litany of encouragement.
When they reached the truck Ellison muttered a curse, pulled out of his grasp and leaned heavily against the passenger-side door. "What... happened?" he demanded.
"You had another... episode," Blair answered, choking out the words through a mouth dry with fear.
Jim leaned forward, bracing his hands on his knees. "We have to go back."
The Sentinel raised his head. Most of his face was hidden in shadow, but his eyes burned with angry determination. "You're not calling the shots here, Sandburg."
"Yes, I am," Blair answered defiantly. "I'm the Guide. Your welfare is my responsibility. You've done enough. I'm calling a stop to this madness before we reach the point of no return."
"This is my case!"
"You're the lead investigator but you are not the only one on the team this time," Blair retorted harshly. Jim flinched and he immediately softened his tone. "Look, we can call Simon. Ask him to send in Rafe or Henri to run surveillance for the rest of the night. They haven't been down here, yet. With the crowds, chances are no one's going to pay much attention to them if they keep a low profile."
"I need to talk to Klerk and I want another shot at Chambers."
"Not tonight. Tomorrow. After you've gotten some rest."
"Forget it, Sandburg," Jim growled. "I'm going back. With or without you." He pushed himself upright and took a wavering step away from the Ford. Blair planted a hand in the middle of his friend's chest and with surprisingly little effort, pushed him back against the vehicle. He reached into Ellison's jacket pocket and snatched the keys.
"No. You're not." The anthropologist crossed his arms over his chest and widened his stance. "You're going to get in the truck and I'm going to drive you back to the loft."
"Sandburg, one of those men is the killer," Jim protested. "If we don't stop him tonight, he's going to take another life."
"I know that," Blair said flatly. "I'm not prepared for that life to be yours." He took a deep breath and played his last card, praying he held the winning hand. "I'll make you a deal, Jim. If you really believe it's imperative that someone interview Klerk tonight, then I'll do it."
The Sentinel's eyes widened and he shook his head adamantly. "No."
"Why not? I may not be a Sentinel, but you said yourself I have good instincts about people." Blair cocked his head and eyed his partner grimly. "Or was that just some bullshit you made up to make me feel better about getting my ass kicked during the meeting today?"
"I meant what I said," Jim said quietly.
"Then you shouldn't have any objections to my talking to Klerk."
"No. It's too dangerous."
Blair took a step closer to his partner. "Too dangerous for me, but not for you?"
"It's my job."
Blair sighed and shook his head. "You have my offer, Jim. Take it or leave it."
The Sentinel glared at him for a full minute and then shoved himself away from the truck. He jerked his cell phone from his jacket pocket and stabbed at the buttons. Blair stood his ground, waiting until the detective finished his call to Simon and climbed into the passenger seat before scooting around to the driver's door.
The drive home was made in silence, a tense void which held until Jim slammed his keys into the basket on the table inside the loft's front door. "This can't keep happening," he hissed. He stalked over to the glass balcony doors and then whirled around. "I can't do my job this way."
Blair took a deep breath, sent a silent prayer to the deity he often petitioned when he needed an extra dose of patience to deal with his stubborn sentinel and dropped his heavy backpack to the floor, closing the door with a practiced nudge of his foot.
"I thought you were going to find a way to fix this... problem," Ellison snarled.
The anthropologist covered the flinch the biting words caused by shrugging out of his jacket and hanging it on the rack before facing his friend. "I'm trying man," he said quietly. "But I can't do anything until you talk to me about what's happening. All I've gotten out of you so far are bits and pieces. I need the whole picture."
Blair grabbed his pack and lugged it over to the kitchen table. He dug out the notebook he wanted and held it out to Jim. "I spent some time last night drawing up those lists we talked about. I need you to go over them and add anything I might have missed."
Blue eyes met blue in a fierce battle of wills, but once again, Blair refused to back down. The Sentinel's angry glare slowly softened. He walked over to the table and took the spiral bound book from his Guide's hand.
"I'll make some tea while you look those over," Blair murmured. He laid a pen on the table and headed for the kitchen. He stretched the familiar ritual as long as he could, giving his partner some well-deserved space. When he decided he'd given Jim enough time to make some good progress, he emerged from his temporary sanctuary bearing two steaming mugs. He slid into a chair across from the detective and placed one cup within easy reach of his friend. He sipped carefully at his own drink, waitingwith what he hoped appeared to be endless patience.
When Jim finished reviewing the lists, he quietly set the pen on the tabletop and nudged the notebook toward the anthropologist. Blair spun the pad around and quickly scanned the entries his partner had made. There were less than a dozen additions, and to his disappointment, no ready answers to the Sentinel's dilemma.
"You did a pretty thorough job, Chief."
Blair looked up and met Jim's steady gaze. There was no trace of the anger which had flared earlier, for which the grad student was immensely grateful, but the utter weariness which dulled the pale blue eyes made his heart ache.
Ellison slumped back in his chair and reached for the mug of tea Blair had given him. "The only thing that's missing is the nightmare," he murmured, staring into the depths of the cup.
Blair tensed. Blinked. Blinked again. "What nightmare?"
Jim looked up in surprise. "The one I've been waking up to nearly every morning. The one I keep flashing on every time I have one of these... episodes. I told you about it."
The anthropologist carefully searched his memory for any reference his partner might have made to a dream. He didn't find one. He shook his head slowly. "No, Jim. You didn't."
Ellison shrugged. "It's just a dream, Sandburg. It doesn't mean anything."
Blair rolled his eyes. "This from the man who regularly chats with his Spirit Guide while he's in la-la land," he muttered.
"I wouldn't call them regular chats, Chief," Jim objected. "Besides, this dream is nothing like the ones the panther shows up in. It's a nightmare, pure and simple. Probably brought on by something I ate. You dragged me to that new Thai place late Sunday night."
The grad student let loose an exasperated sigh. "Contrary to popular belief, man, dreaming is not caused by eating too much spicy food before bedtime, or by environmental stimuli during sleepingalthough almost everyone has one of those weird phone dreams"
"You mean the kind where you're dreaming that the telephone is ringing and you wake up to find it actually is ringing?"
Blair nodded. "That's the one. Dreaming is caused by internal biological processes. Some researchers have proposed the activation-synthesis hypothesis. Their neurological research indicates that large brain cells in the primitive brain stem spontaneously fire about every 90 minutes, sending random stimuli to cortical areas of the brain. As a consequence, memory, sensory, muscle-control and cognitive areas of the brain are randomly stimulated, resulting in the higher cortical brain attempting to make some sense of it, i.e., the dream experience.
"As to whether dreams have intentional or actual personal meaning, well, there are essentially two schools of thought. The 'top-down' theory holds that the content or meaningful representations in dreams are caused by the nonconscious needs, wishes, desires, and the everyday concerns of the dreamer. The 'bottom-up' theory maintains that dreams are simply a neurological 'hic-up'. In between those two positions is an approach called content analysis. Content analysis simply describes and classifies the various representations in dreamssuch as people, houses, cars, trees, animals, and colorthough no deep interpretation is attributed to the content."
Blair leaned forward, resting his forearms against the table as he blazed onward. "Do you realize that only a small percentage of the population can remember their dreams? And that artists tend to recall more dreams than scientists? And then there's the whole issue of lucid dreamingthe ability of dreamers to become aware of and to control their dreams while dreaming. Some lucid dreamers can even learn to communicate with researchers through nonverbal signals."
Jim groaned and shook his head. "I assume this lecture has a point, Professor?"
"Yes, and I made it on page one. Check your notes," Blair replied glibly. "The dream experience stimulates the sensory areas of the brain. You've got five enhanced senses, Jim. They're constantly feeding you details about what you see, hear, feel, taste and smell. That information goes into memory storage. When that 'storage' gets tapped during the dream state, it creates very vivid, 'real' images."
"But it's still just a dream," Ellison countered.
'You're discounting the cognitive aspect. And the instinctual."
"Which means 'what', exactly?"
Blair paused, gathering his thoughts before he answered. "Numerous accounts exist of scientific problems being resolved, and literary works being developed in dreams after dreamers had consciously immersed themselves in a problem for an extended time. Some recent research seems to indicate that dream content reflects problems that the dreamer experiences in life, and that the function of such dreams is to facilitate the resolution of the problems."
"This dream isn't solving problems, If anything, it's creating them."
"It has to be connected to the sensory attacks. We've ruled out just about everything else. Maybe if we analyze the dream... pick it apart..."
Ellison frowned and shifted uneasily in his chair. "I don't know if I remember enough about it to do us any good. The nightmare is very vivid while I'm in the midst of it, but the details always slip away as soon as I wake up."
"Tell me what you do remember," Blair urged softly. "Are you in the dreamparticipating in what's going onor do you have the feeling you're standing outside of itwatching what's happening?"
Jim stared down at the tabletop, his eyes slowly losing their focus. When he spoke his voice was a hoarse, bare whisper. "In it, I think. I'm somewhere dark. Damp. Smelly. There's a face. Old. Wrinkled. Something bright. Shiny. Like a mirror. And something sharp. Deadly. A heartbeat. It's fast. A scream." The Sentinel shook his head abruptly and looked up. "That's how it always ends. I hear the scream and I wake up."
Blair felt like screaming himself. Shit, Jim, no wonder you're close to freaking out... He wrapped his hands tightly around his mug to hide their trembling. "And you've had this dream every night?" he asked, surprised at how calm his voice sounded in his own ears.
Ellison shook his head. "Not at night. In the morning. Just before I wake up."
"When did it start?"
"Monday. It's been as regular as clockwork since then. Except for today. I didn't have the dream this morning."
What was different about this morning? Blair wondered. "You were up before I was today," he offered suggestively.
Jim nodded. "Before six."
"You were dead to the world again last night," Blair murmured, still thinking hard. "I took a cup of tea up for you just a few minutes after you'd headed upstairs, but you were already out. I checked on you a couple of times during the night. You never moved even though the storm was noisy. Lots of lightning and thunder. I was surprised to see you looking so chipper this morning." He paused, letting his gaze drift around the loft for a few moments, before meeting the Sentinel's intense gaze once again. "Think back to this morning when you first woke up, Jim. How did you feel?"
Ellison pushed his chair away from the table, rose to his feet and paced over to the balcony doors. He leaned against the frame, staring out into the night. "I felt fine. The loft was quiet except for your snoring. I remember feeling stiff and a little irked that I'd fallen asleep in my clothes. When I realized I hadn't had the nightmare, I felt... relieved."
"What about the headache? Was it gone when you woke up?"
Jim turned his head in Blair's direction and nodded.
"How about the flashes of brightness at the edge of your peripheral vision that you told me about yesterday? Did you have any of those?"
Ellison scowled and glanced away. "Yeah," he admitted quietly. "In the bathroom. The light reflecting off the fixtures threatened to start the damn headache up again."
"No. I turned down the dial."
"Seemed to." Jim rubbed at his forehead.
"But it's not working now," Blair observed softly.
The older man started to shake his head and winced. "No. Not really."
Blair drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Enough was enough. His Sentinel was in pain. It was time to end this discussion. "Okay. Sleep worked as good as anything last night. Why don't you take some aspirin and hit the sack. If you're not out the second your head hits the pillow, try some of those breathing and relaxation exercises I taught you."
"Sandburg, we've got a murderer running loose out there"
"And you've got to be at the top of your game to catch him, Jim," Blair responded firmly. "You're not close to 100% right now, and you know it. Do I have to remind you again that you're not the only one working this case? Henri and Rafe will call the second anything happens."
"And if I do a repeat performance of last night, I'll never hear the phone," the detective grumbled.
"Not to worry. I'll hear it," Blair assured him. "I'm going to be up for a while."
Jim's scowl deepened. "Doing what?" he asked suspiciously.
"What I do best, man. Research."
"On the case? Or on me?"
"Both," Blair answered as nonchalantly as he could manage. "I need some processing time. And I want to take another look at the case files and the research that Patrick dug up... see if I can get anything to match."
"You don't get paid for overtime, Chief."
"The department doesn't pay me at all, detective," Blair managed a weak grin. "So if you get a bonus for solving this mess, I expect you to share."
A tiny grin flickered at the corner of the Sentinel's mouth. "You have something in mind?"
"Oh, nothing elaborate. Maybe a trip to the bookstore."
"I'd need more than one bonus to keep you in books, Sandburg," Jim retorted.
Blair chuckled, pleased at the familiar banter. If his partner was in the mood to tease him, that meant he was already more relaxed than he had been a few minutes ago. "Get some rest, Jim. I'll man the fort."
And hopefully I'll have some answers for you when you awake.
"This is getting me nowhere," Blair grumbled an hour later.
He glared at the legal pad in his hands. Jim's revelation about the nightmare had given him a whole new set of variables to try to work into an already mystifying equation. He'd filled several pages of the pad with notes and diagrams, painstakingly trying to put the seemingly random and disparate facts he had into some kind of organized structure. The attempt had failed. What had begun as clearly defined boxes, circles and arrows had degenerated into doodles. Most of the last page was filled with circles and spirals.
With a disgusted sigh, Blair tossed the legal pad onto the coffee table and pried himself off the couch. Hoping a natural sugar rush and a snack would boost his flagging energy levels, he walked stiffly into the kitchen, poured himself a glass of cranberry juice and popped a bagel into the toaster. Taking a deep breath, he released it slowly, concentrating on the sensation of the air expanding and contracting his lungs. He kept up the breathing exercise as he prepared his simple meal, resolutely ignoring the troubling, half-formed theories which swirled like wind-blown scraps of paper through his head.
He leaned against the counter as he munched on the bagel and sipped the cold, tart juice. As his gaze drifted around the dimly lit apartment, he shifted uneasily. It took several minutes to identify what he was reacting to.
There was something wrong in the loft.
The atmosphere which normally exuded a sense of peace and safety seemed charged with tension. Dropping the half-eaten bagel to the plate, Blair set his glass of juice on the counter and stepped cautiously out of the kitchen, eyes darting from side to side as he made his way to light switch near the door. He took a deep breath and then flicked the switch, flooding the interior with light. He scanned the lower loft quickly, a frown darkening his face.
There was nothing amiss. Nothing out of place. No one hiding in the shadows.
Yet something felt very, very wrong.
What the hell is it?
Back pressed against the door, the sound of his own pounding heart thundered in the silence.
His eyes widened abruptly.
The loft was quiet.
He was up the stairs and at his partner's bedside within seconds. Chest heaving as he gasped for breath, he stared down at his friend and for a split second he thought he was looking at a corpse. Jim was laying on top of the blankets, on his back, arms folded across his chest. His face was half hidden in shadow, but Blair could see that the older man's eyes were closed.
The whisper caught in Blair's fear-tightened throat. His hand shook as he reached out and laid it palm down on the Sentinel's chest.
The almost imperceptible lift and fall of Jim's chest as he drew one breath...
And then another.
Blair sank down on the bed next to his friend and released the breath he'd been holding, berating himself for his overactive imagination.
Jim's okay, so quit shaking. He's just in another one of those weird, deep sleeps. That's why he's so still. He did that last night too, and he woke up feeling fine.
The rationalization seemed plausible, but the troubled Guide remained unconvinced. Brow furrowed and eyes darkened with concern, he continued to stare at his eerily somnolent Sentinel.
Something is seriously wrong here. Jim's sleep patterns are totally off. Is that what's throwing his senses out of whack? Is that why he's having the nightmare? Blair's frown deepened. He wouldn't dream in this kind of state, though. He's completely zonked. Totally unaware of anything. It's like he's completely shut down. What would cause that?
The Guide's eyes widened abruptly. An overload could cause that... too much data... too much sensory input. The lecture about dreaming which he'd delivered to his partner earlier abruptly replayed itself in his head. Not an overload... overstimulation!
Blair shot to his feet and began to pace next to Jim's bed, matching physical action to his racing train of thought. That damn dream he 'thought' he told me about is the key to what's been happening. Overstimulation of the sensory areas of the brain could explain why his senses are all pushed to the limits... why everything seems more intense.
The anthropologist stopped in his tracks and stared at his partner once more. The altered sleep pattern Jim's been experiencing could be a natural Sentinel behavioral responsean instinctive means of trying to avoid intense sensory stimulation. In this case, he's trying to avoid dreaming because that's where the danger exists, but whatever is triggering and creating the nightmare is more powerful than the automatic defenses which are trying to prevent it. Jim said the dream was vivid. 'Vivid' in Sentinel terms probably equates to mind-blowing for the average person. No wonder he's feeling so out of control. His sensory nodes have been getting a new jolt each time he has the nightmare. That's probably why the 'shut down' isn't completely effectivethere's too much input to cancel out. I bet some of it stays in his system... a sensory 'charge' which continues to build until it reaches a point where it has to be released. That would explain why it took four days before
Blair's mouth dropped open in surprise as the answer he had been searching for abruptly presented itself. That's what the 'freak-out' episodes are... a discharge of that sensory overload.
He turned and scrambled down the stairs, taking the steps two at a time, no longer concerned about disturbing his sleeping partner. He zigged into the living room, snatched the yellow legal pad from the coffee table and zagged to the kitchen table. Like the prior evening, the tabletop was littered with case jackets, file folders stuffed with research, computer printouts and books. He unearthed the 'freak-out' notebook and flipped it open to the pages where he had listed the sensory problems which had been plaguing his Sentinel.
His gaze flickered eagerly from one pad to another as he scanned his notes, testing each symptom and item against his theory. "... the near-constant headache, Jim's lack of control over the dials, the flashes of brightness, the heightening of some senses and the dulling of others. Man, it all fits," he whispered, eyes wide with excitement. "And it explains why I couldn't find an external cause. It's internal!"
Blair turned a page in the notebook and found the entries he'd made describing the strange smell which Jim had identified on the bodies. The delighted grin which had begun to fill his face changed to a scowl and he raked his fingers through his tangled curls in puzzled frustration. If all of his senses have been affected, then why is that weird combination of odors the trigger? Why do the episodes appear to be linked to his sense of smell?
He stared down at lined pages without really seeing them as his mind struggled to fit the incongruity into place. Maybe it's cognitive association, he mused. The smell is the common denominator. We've established that it's connected to the case and Jim admitted that he recognizes it, or at least components of it, from his dream. He's certainly been exposed to that odor enough times in the course of the investigation to generate a higher level of sensitivity to it. It's either that, or the smell is tied to an actual memory.
Blair shuddered to think of what kind of memory could scare his ex-ranger partner so thoroughly. He sank down on one of the kitchen chairs, his legs suddenly feeling too rubbery to support his weight. He propped his elbows on the table, closed his eyes and cradled his head in his hands. The loft's pervasive silence was still oppressivean invisible pressure which weighed heavily on the weary Guide's soul.
He only had half of the answer he'd promised his partner. Until they understood why the overstimulation was occurring and figured out a way to stop it, the episodesthe dischargewould continue to occur.
And Jim will continue to suffer... losing confidence in his abilities... growing more doubtful about his sanity.
An image of his Sentinel, eyes filled with terror, locked in the grip of one of the bizarre sensory episodes flashed through Blair's mind. He shook his head, fighting off the wave of despair which accompanied the vision.
We have to get to the bottom of this. Jim said it himself. He can't do his job with this hanging over him. We have to figure out what the nightmare means.
Unfortunately, since his friend's recollection of the dream was so vague, getting to the bottom of the problem was going to mean putting the Sentinel into another trance state and walking him through it. If whatever was behind the nightmare was memory driven, the trance would have to be a deep oneand after barely avoiding disaster in their last session, Blair was leery of tempting fate again.
Man, I wish Incacha was here. He would know what to do. How to guide Jim safely...
The worried Guide opened his eyes and stared bleakly across the table. His gaze touched on the ancient book of Shamanistic practices which sat just inches away. He flushed guiltily. He'd never found time to call Jason and ask for the pharmacy student's help in securing what he needed to find his way into the Shaman's dream world again. The only time he had touched the book all day was when he'd pulled it from his backpack along with the rest of the paperwork he'd brought home from the station. "Damn it, my Sentinel needs a Shaman," he hissed. "I don't care if it's dangerous or if Jim catches me ingesting illegal substances. I'm not putting this off any longer."
Shoving the chair backward, he rose to his feet and headed purposely for the telephone in the kitchen. He stabbed at the buttons angrily, dialing in Jason's home number. "Come on, man. Be home." His plea went unanswered as the other grad student's answering machine kicked in. Blair snarled a curse while the inane recorded message suggested he wait for the beep. When it came, his message was terse and to the point. "Jason. It's Blair Sandburg. I need your help. Call me when you get in, no matter how late it is." He rattled off the phone number for the loft and repeated his message once more before hanging up.
He stood glaring at the phone for several minutes, willing it to ring, before he allowed himself to admit it was a futile gesture. His anger abated abruptly and he sagged against the refrigerator, the roller coaster ride from one emotional state to another leaving him feeling totally wrung out. The clock on the microwave caught his eye and he groaned aloud.
"11:45 p.m. Fifteen more minutes and the carnival shuts down for the night. That's when the killer will be free to strike again." Blair scrubbed at his burning eyes, lips compressed in a hard line as visions of mutilated corpses danced in his head. They taunted him with the knowledge that another victim would quite probably join their ranks within a few short hours.
Simon's got other members of the task force watching all of the suspects, he reminded himself. Including Arnie Klerk.
When Jim had called requesting the surveillance, he had asked that the old man be added to their list of prime suspects. Blair was grateful the captain had agreed so readily to the suggestion. Just knowing someone was keeping tabs on the fun house operator was reassuring.
We'll catch the killer before he strikes again. One of the others will call if they observe anything suspicious.
He straightened, rolling his shoulders to relieve some of the tension and ache which sat between his shoulder blades. Exhaustion sang its siren song, but Blair was determined to ignore the lullaby for at least a couple more hours, fearing if he did fall asleep, he wouldn't hear the telephone. He had no intention of missing either Jason's call or one from the surveillance team. He picked up the glass of juice he'd left sitting on the counter and drained it. With very precise, deliberate motions, he placed the glass back on the counter, pivoted on his heel and walked over to the kitchen table. He settled onto a chair and started reviewing the information Patrick had sent him.
Blair spent the next ninety minutes paging through the printouts and alternating between anxious glances at the phone and the clock. He didn't expect to learn anything of value. He was too tired and distracted to really concentrate on the information even though the data was fascinating.
Patrick hadn't managed to pinpoint the specific sacrifice or passage ritual their killer was trying to emulate, but he had made progress. Among the documents he had sent Blair was a list of twelve ceremoniesranging from archaic to modernwhich supposedly utilized thyme, sesame or tansy in some way. Patrick had also forwarded a wealth of general background information. Most of the data dealt with the medicinal uses of herbs and spices in folk medicine, but there were also several pages which referenced their use in black and white 'magic'. Patrick had referenced the author of the book he'd copied the information froma Dr. Marjorie Stahlas a respected expert in the field. Blair scribbled her name on a note pad and kept reading.
When he found himself nodding off and realized he had read the same paragraph at least a dozen times, Blair pushed himself away from the table and wandered out to the balcony. A gust of cold wind slapped his face. A second lifted the hair from his shoulders and produced a head-to-toe shiver, but he chose not to retreat into the warmth of the loft. He leaned against the railing and let the cleansing caress of the chilly, moisture-laden air work its magic. Within moments, the worst of the fatigue which had been fogging his mind was washed away, leaving him slightly light-headed, but more alert.
A pale, unearthly glow illuminated the city. Blair's gaze tracked upward to the source. Given the craziness they were currently facing, the observer wasn't at all surprised to find a nearly full moon hanging overhead. He had seen the notice posted on the station's bulletin board the previous week, alerting everyone to the upcoming phase change. The first time he had seen what was jokingly referred to as 'the werewolf' warning, Blair had been surprised. The anthropologist had a healthy respect for the beliefs which had spawned the various myths associated with the arrival of the full moon, but he hadn't expected normally no-nonsense cops to take the superstitions seriously. They did. Even the most hardened veterans on the force admitted that strange things happened under the light of a full moon and patrolled the eerily lit streets cautiously.
Blair found it ironic that modern man had come to fear what primitive man had welcomed. To the ancients, a full moon had meant safety. When the night sky was bright, their enemieshuman and animalcould not surprise them so easily. When hunters were far from home, the moonlight helped them find their way. The tribes regarded the full moon as a natural part of their world, their lives, their songs, their tales. A new moon, on the other hand, had been viewed as a time of danger. The tribe stayed close to the village, held the young ones close and kept the darkness at bay with bonfires which burned from dusk to dawn.
Modern man feared the night and the violence it too often concealed. He found no security in the illumination which bathed the city, whether it was of his own making, or the reflected brilliance of the sun. He had learned that civilization did not necessarily engender civilized behavior. When he took the time to look up at the moon, he did it from behind locked doors and barred windows.
The grad student loosed a sigh. Blair understood why, culturally, the shift had occurred, but he refused to become one of the cowering masses. There was. ugliness in the worldhe had seen more than his fair share of it working with the policebut there was also beauty and it was found as often in the dark as in the light.
Blair leaned against the railing and cocked his head to the side, absently studying the brightly lit sphere overhead. As a child, he had loved being outside at night. He had spent countless hours staring at the sky; watching the moon play hide and seek with the clouds; counting the stars; trying to decipher the mysteries of the universe. He'd been barely four years old when Naomi had told him the legend behind the Jack and Jill rhyme, her sing-song voice holding him spell-bound as she spun the tale of the brother and sister who had been carried away by the moon to live in the sky. He still sought out their shapes in the craters which patterned the lunar surfaceJill on the left, Jack on the right, carrying a pail hung from a pole between them.
His studies of other cultures had unearthed other tales. Myth and legend surrounded the moon; stories which morphed from fiction to fact from one generation to the next as mankind invented explanations for what lay beyond its reach and ken. Some perceptions were born of fear and ignorance. One tale held that a dragon lived in the sky, chomping off pieces of the moon to assuage its hunger and then spewing them out in an endless cycle of renewal. Others were based in ageless knowledge. Many farmers still faithfully followed those ancient beliefs; planting crops which grew above ground when the moon was full, and those which grew below ground when it was new.
The mysterious power which controlled the tides had inspired poets and baffled scientists. It wasn't surprising that the moon had also been worshipped and deifieda benevolent goddess in its waxing phase; an angry god as it waned. The fickle gods had been honored or appeased by their devotees by gifts of the harvest or solemn vows of devotion.
And if that failed, the spilling of blood.
Blair shivered again, chilled not by the night air, but by the direction his thoughts had taken. The blood which had stained crude stone altars was no different from that which was now staining Cascade's streets. Innocents were still dying under a glowing moon, their lives ended by a murderer whose motives were hidden in shadow.
"All we know is that he kills," Blair hissed in frustration. "We don't know why. We don't know what makes him decide to act at one time and not at another." The anthropologist glared at the bright disk overhead. "What does he do? Wait until the moon is in perfect phase or something?"
The sarcastic comment was barely out of his mouth before he realized how fitting it was.
The moon... perfect phase... Damn. What if that's it?
Heart pounding, he slipped back into the apartment, grabbed the case files and pulled out the sheets which listed the date of each murder. Retrieving his laptop from his room, he plugged it in and logged onto the net, seeking an astronomy site he'd run across before in his surfing. His fingers tapped an impatient rhythm on the mousepad as a starfield graphic appeared. He scanned the index as it generated and hit the link he wanted before the page had a chance to fully load. As the data on the dates of the moon's phases over the past 24 months filled the screen, the grad student's excitement grew.
The first night of the current full moon had been Saturdaythe night of the first murder in Cascade. Blair quickly checked the dates of the other 29 murders against the website's data. There was a correlation. The start of each killing spree matched the first night of a full moon. Blair dug out the carnival's itinerary and compared it to the list of full moon dates and frowned when he found an inconsistency which threatened to trash his theory. The carnival had played five venues where no murders had been committed, despite the fact that a full moon had hung overhead.
Inspiration struck and Blair tapped in a new URL to connect to the National Weather Service's website. Within minutes he was practically grinning again. The historic data archived on the site had given him the answer he was looking for.
It rained the first night of the full moon in each of those cities. He couldn't see the moon through the cloud cover, so he didn't kill. That would suggest that moonlight is crucial to his ceremony. The sacrifice has to be made in the light of a full moon.
Blair snatched up the list of rituals Patrick had supplied, scanning the brief description of each again, looking for any reference to the moon or moonlight. Within short order he reduced the twelve possibilities to two. The anthropologist eagerly concentrated on those, his efforts fueled by the adrenaline surge which had accompanied his discoveries.
Both rituals included sacrifices of blood and mutilation of the 'offering'. Both required the presence of a full moon. Both used tansy, sesame oil and thyme within the ceremony. Both ceremonies, if successful, granted some kind of 'divine' power although the nature of the gift differed. The first ritual granted personal power and immortality. The second empowered the person making the sacrificegiving them the ability to grant 'life' to someone of their choosing
Both were ceremonies of ancient, obscure cultures.
"The last practitioners of these rituals died centuries ago," Blair muttered, slumping back in his chair. "How the hell did the killer get his hands on this information? It's not like it's published on the best seller's list. Wait a minute... published "
Blair dug through the pile on the tabletop until he found the notepad he'd been using earlier. Dr. Marjorie Stahl... she's the expert, or so Patrick claims. The anthropologist tapped a new series of commands into the computer, connecting with Rainier's Library mainframe. His search for published works by Dr. Marjorie Stahl generated a list of over 300 articles and twelve books. Most of the subject matter dealt with alternative medicine and several were highlighted as textbooks being held in the Medical College's private library. The book Patrick had referenced was listed as well.
Blair eagerly followed the link to Dr. Stahl's most recently published work. The introductory paragraphs added by the publication's editor caused him to hiss in disappointment. He had been hoping to contact her, but he was nearly three years too late. Dr. Marjorie Stahl wasn't going to be answering any of his questions. She was deadthe victim of a fatal car accident. Discouraged, Blair jotted down a few quick notes, then shifted over to his mail program. He composed an e-mail to Patrick, quickly outlining his various theories. He included his speculations about Stahl's connection to their killer and asked the other grad student to check the files for an obituary. He also requested more documentation on the two rituals which he felt were most pertinent to the case.
Blair typed URGENT in the subject line and sent the message flying off into cyberspace. Then he attacked the pile of papers and folders on the tabletop again, this time plucking out the report the task force had prepared. He flipped to the pages of information on their prime suspects.
Nick Armstrong had been an aspiring surgeon and Monica Bradford an EMT. It was possible they could have run across Dr. Stahl's research in the course of their studies, but Blair only gave their information a cursory glance. Jim had found no trace of the strange smell on either of them and the Guide had faith in his Sentinel's sensory abilities.
Which left Calvin Chambers and Arnie Klerk.
Calvin Chambers looked like their man. He fit the physical profile; he had the medical training; the covert skills necessary to take down his victims; the opportunity; and, assuming they were right about the meaning behind the interlocked 'CC' marks on the victim's bodies, he had the right initials.
What they didn't haveoutside of the Navy's assessment that Chambers was borderline psychoticwas motive. Blair pictured Chambers' face in his mind. Cold, intense, hatred-filled eyes glared back at him and the man's venomous, challenging comments echoed in his skull. The anthropologist shuddered. The ex-Seal obviously believed he was superior to everyoneBlair could easily envision the man seeking immortality as a way of proving it.
Blair studied Chambers' background information carefully, looking for any clue which might connect him to Dr. Stahl or her research, but found nothing. The lack of evidence didn't really surprise himChambers hadn't struck him as the academic typecertainly not the kind to spend his time reading anything which hadn't been on his required curriculum list. Blair was determined not to overlook anything at this point, however. Chambers might be a crude, arrogant asshole with an attitude, but he wasn't stupid. He wouldn't have become a Seal if he hadn't been able to make the grade both physically and intellectually. Blair decided he'd run the theory past his partner. If nothing else, Jim's military contacts might be able to tell them what Chambers' medical training might have entailed.
Blair set the task force report on the table and picked up the file he had started on Arnie Klerk. The old man had joined the amusement company about a month before the first murder. Unlike the other suspects, he wasn't really an employee. Packard's notes indicated that Klerk had purchased the operating rights for the fun house attraction. He had negotiated a joint ownership agreement with the amusement company a week after he'd drawn his first paycheck. The arrangement itself wasn't unusual, but the business records indicated it had been a cash transaction in the amount of $275,000. Curious, Blair had decided to see if he could trace the money trail back to its source. The observer had requested additional records, including tax returns, going back five more years, but the information hadn't come in by the time he and Jim had left the station.
Blair shook his head in frustration. Once again he was trying to complete a complicated puzzle without all the pieces. He made a note to call the station first thing in the morning to have someone to download the files to his laptop and shuffled another paper to the top of the stack. His hands began to sweat as he studied the photo of the fun house operator they had pulled from DMV records.
He still had no proof Klerk was anything other than the harmless old man he appeared to be. True, Klerk fit the physical description they had established, but he had no prior record with any law enforcement agency in the country. No military background. Klerk held an Oregon driver's license, although Packard's files listed his permanent address as a post office box in a small town in western Washington. It wasn't unusual for a carnie to have a 'floating' address, so that discrepancy was hardly damning.
Even without an established motive, Chambers fit the killer's profile better than Klerk. Still, there was something about the man...
"What is it about you that sets my nerves on edge?" Blair whispered. He stared at the grainy picture until his eyes watered, but all he saw was a kindly old face with solemn eyes. "You don't look like a murderer. You look like someone's grandfather, or uncle..."
"Uncle Arnie said it was a clean break... He fixed me up so's dad wouldn't have to take me to the hospital."
Blair groaned as he recalled the young carnie's words. How could I have missed that? Klerk set Kevin's wrist. Expertly. I've got to let Simon and the others know.
Without bothering to log off the Internet, Blair powered down his computer and launched himself out of the chair toward the telephone. He glanced at the clock while punching in Simon's cell phone number and grimaced. Waking the police captain at 2:00 a.m. wasn't advisable under the best of circumstances and these hardly fit that category. Banks had already given them considerable leeway in the investigation, supporting Jim's sensory findings even though it was clear the captain suspected something screwy was happening with the Sentinel's senses. Blair struggled to get his thoughts into some kind of coherent order. He was going to have to present his suspicions quickly and concisely, or find himself on the hotseat facing questions he had no intention of answering.
He would have been closer to his goal if Simon hadn't answered the phone on the first ring with an angry snarl.
Blair gulped and charged breathlessly ahead. "Simon. It's Blair. I know it's late. Or, rather, it's early, but I've got some information on Arnie Klerk that I thought "
//"Klerk?"// Simon interrupted.
"The fun house operator. I'm still waiting for the rest of the background info, but
//"Forget it, Sandburg. Klerk's not our man."//
Blair's stomach did a fast, nervous roll. It wasn't like Simon to just blow him off. Not without a good reason. "How do you know that?"
//"Calvin Chambers has disappeared."//
The anthropologist's gaze automatically shifted toward the upper loft. Jim was going to be pissed. "I thought he was under surveillance. What happened?"
//"Chambers left the carnival grounds shortly after closing,"// Simon explained tersely. //"Headed to the northeast side of the city. Looked like he was going bar hopping on King Street. Rankin and Briggs managed to keep track of him through the first three dives, but lost him at the fourth. We don't know if Chambers sneaked out a side door or hid in the crowds at bar time. Bottom line is, he's gone."//
Blair nodded absently. He was familiar with the area Simon had mentioned - lots of smelly little hole-in-the-wall bars; dark narrow streets; and a warren of interconnected alleys. Lots of places to hide. Even if Jim were in top form, It would be difficult for him to pick up the fugitive's trail there. In his current condition it would be downright dangerous.
"Do you need Jim down there?" he asked, desperately hoping that Simon would say 'no'.
The brief silence on the other end told him the captain had picked up the unspoken plea. //"How is he?"// Banks countered softly.
The Guide's first instinct was to protect his Sentinel by keeping him out of the fray, but he knew it wasn't his decision to make. "He's sleeping. But you know Jim. He'll want to be in on this and I did promise to wake him if anything happened."
//"But you'd rather let him sleep."//
"It's not my call to make."
//"But if it were?"// Banks pressed.
Blair's protective instincts flared again, but he refused to give the answer they dictated. Jim would never forgive him. Ellison was a proud man. One unwilling to admit to any weakness. He would resent the implication he needed to be coddled. "It's not my call, Simon," he repeated flatly. "Do you need him?"
The thudding of his own rapid heartbeat filled the tense silence until Simon spoke again. //"Let him sleep. You and I both know he needs it. I've got units combing the area and we've issued a state-wide APB. Have Jim call me in the morning. I've requested a search warrant for Chambers' trailer. If we don't have Chambers in custody by then, maybe Jim can pick up a lead there."//
Blair breathed a sigh of relief at Simon's directive, but he still felt uneasy about the unexpected turn the case had taken. Something didn't feel quite right. Suddenly he remembered the reason for his call. His suspicions about Klerk. They seemed moot now, in the light of Chambers disappearing act, but -
"Simon, what about the other suspects? Are they still under surveillance?"
//"Rafe and Brown are still on stake-out at the carnival, along with another set of detectives from Homicide,"// Banks assured him. //Armstrong and Bradford retired to their trailers shortly after the carnival closed and haven't budged."//
//"Rafe reported seeing him entering the fun house shortly before closing. He never came out. Brown checked with Packard and he said that's not unusual. Apparently Klerk frequently does some after hours tinkering to keep the attraction running and often sleeps there. Probably has a cot to crash on."//
"Probably," Blair murmured, frowning at the shiver which zipped up his spine. "I guess that means Chambers is the guy we're after. It's strange that he would have taken off like that, though. He didn't seem like the kind who'd run."
//"Your visit must have spooked him."//
"Yeah, I guess..." Blair voice trailed off as a wave of fatigue washed over him.
//"Sandburg, you sound ready to drop. Why don't you follow your partner's example and get some sleep,"// Simon urged. When Blair didn't respond immediately, Banks' tone changed to a low growl. //"On second thought, consider that an order. Sleep. Now."//
"Aye aye, sir," Blair replied. The flippant tone he'd been striving for fell flat - a sure sign he had passed his limits. "I'll have Jim contact you first thing in the morning, Simon. Good luck."
Blair hung up the phone and leaned against the counter for a moment, trying to marshal enough energy to clean up the mess on the kitchen table. He quickly realized there wasn't enough left for even that mundane task so he left the piles where they were. He made a stumbling circuit of the loft, checking the locks on the doors and windows as he turned off lights. Pausing at the foot of the stairs which led to the upper loft, he listened for any sound which might indicate a change in his partner's sleep, but heard nothing.
Jim's still dead to the world, he muttered, immediately regretting the cliche.
He shook his head to rid it of that horrifying thought and wobbled to his bedroom. Shedding his overshirt and jeans he dropped into bed. He started to reach for the bedside light to turn it off and then realized it wasn't on - it was moonlight illuminating the room, not his reading lamp. He shuddered and shut his eyes, firmly banishing the gruesome visions of the case which the pale light evoked to the far corners of his mind. He replaced them with the image of a lit candle and concentrated on its flickering flame.
~~ The flame burned, strong and fierce. Mesmerizing. It beckoned and Blair followed, immersing himself in its incandescence. The flame flickered, its beat a living pulse. Bathed in brilliance he danced in the heart of the flame, moving to an elemental rhythm which called to his soul. Entranced, he closed his eyes and let himself become one with the song, giving himself up to its power and beauty. The tempo increased and he matched his pace to it, flinging his arms out and spinning in place. Faster and faster he whirled, delighted laughter spilling from his lips. ~~
~~ And then laughter changed to screams. ~~
~~ He was caught in a sucking whirlpool of blackness which pulled him away from the light. He struggled to free himself from the current, to keep his head above the foul smelling murk, but it was too strong. He managed one last gulp of air before he sank below the surface. ~~
~~ When he opened his eyes, Blair found himself staring at his own reflection in a full-length mirror. He blinked in surprise and took a step backward. A cold chill touched his spine and he spun around, confronted with yet another mirror. A glance to his left confirmed the presence of a third, and to his right, a fourth. He was boxed in. Frowning, he stared into the gaps between their silvered surfaces, but there was nothing but darkness. A black void. ~~
~~ He turned slowly, tracking his mirrored self as his double mimicked his movements. Facing the first mirror, he tentatively reached out to touch its surface. It was cold to the touch - a cold which made his skin crawl. He jerked his hand back and frantically rubbed his fingertips to work the feeling back into them. ~~
~~ Unwilling to try the experiment with the other mirrors, he stared at his disheveled reflection. Dark blue eyes stared back, filled with doubt and fear. Mocking him. Anger flared, hot and fierce, burning away defeat and replacing it with determination. Blair stepped forward, placed both palms against the shining surface, and pushed. ~~
~~ Bone chilling cold seared his palms, swept up his arms to his shoulders and arrowed its way toward his heart. He ignored it and pushed again, putting every ounce of strength he had into the effort. The mirror toppled backward and Blair fell forward into the void which had opened beyond it. Amid the ear-splitting clamor of breaking glass, he tumbled head over heels into the darkness, rolling to a jarring stop against something hard and unyielding. ~~
~~ Gasping, he lurched to his feet, using the wall which had halted his fall for support. As in his other 'dreamwalk', a carpeted hallway stretched before him. Only this time, instead of closed doors, there were mirrors. Dazed, but determined, Blair started walking the corridor. He stopped before the first mirror and sucked in a startled breath. He'd been expecting to see his own anxious reflection, but the mirror was empty of his image. It was as if he wasn't there. ~~
~~ He moved to the next mirror and found the same thing. The surface accurately reflected the opposite side of the hall, but not him. He looked down at his body and patted at it nervously, distinctly grateful to find that he was indeed substance and not just spirit. He started walking the corridor again, following its curving path. He glanced at the mirrors as he passed them, determined to keep going until he discovered one which would show his reflection. ~~
~~ He found it a few minutes later. Rounding a curve, he saw it standing in the middle of the corridor, blocking his path. Blair stopped within arm's reach, and, as if compelled, put his hand out to touch the silvery surface. ~~
~~ His hand went straight through it. ~~
~~ Alarmed, he began to pull back. Suddenly bony, gnarled fingers reached out from within the mirror. They wrapped around his wrist like a vise and pulled him forward. Insane laughter accompanied the shattering sounds of breaking glass as he plunged downward in a rapidly tightening spiral. ~~
~~ He screamed... ~~
And found himself sitting bolt-upright in bed, drenched with sweat.
Blair scrambled out of bed, shoved his way through the French doors and staggered into the living room. He collapsed on the couch and dropped his head into his hands.
He held onto that whispered mantra until the last screaming echoes of the dream faded away. When his breathing had changed from gulping hiccups to a more regular pattern, he raised his head and knuckled the last vestiges of sleep from his eyes. Blair glanced around nervously, but the tension and chill which had he had felt during the night was gone. The first rays of the rising sun had replaced the pale beams of moonlight with a warm glow. The loft thrummed with a peaceful ambiance again.
He, on the other hand, was a wreck.
Sagging against the back of the couch, he tilted his head and stared at the ceiling, willing the remaining dream-induced shakes to be vanish as well. His attention shifted to the upper loft. Gentle snores floated down. Sometime during the night, his partner had slipped into a more natural, healing sleep.
The sleep of the innocent. I'd love a dose of that. But no. Not only do I have my own nightmare images to contend with, but now I've got Jim's haunting my subconscious.
Muttering under his breath about bad Karma, he pushed himself off the couch and wobbled into the kitchen to make himself a cup of tea to settle his nerves. As he waited for the water to boil, he pondered the visions from the dream turned nightmare, wondering if it was the case haunting him, or his own failures.
He reminded himself that he didn't put much faith in coincidence as he plopped a teabag into a mug and filled the cup with boiling water. Carrying the steaming brew, he wandered over to the balcony doors and stared out over the city. Another day, dawning bright with promise. What would it bring? Chambers arrest...
Or another mutilated corpse.
Grimacing, he turned away from the windows and threaded his way across the room to the stairs. He hesitated for a moment, then climbed to the upper loft. Jim had shifted position slightly. He still lay on his back, but his arms were no longer crossed over his chest. They lay limply at his sides. Blair padded to the side of the bed, a smile filling his face at the sight of his friend's peaceful countenance.
The smile faded as he remembered the news he had to deliver. Given a choice, he would much rather face the Sentinel's snarling spirit animal than an angry Jim Ellison. Despite the fact that it had been Simon's decision to keep Jim out of the search for the suspect turned fugitive, Blair knew he'd catch some of the fallout when the detective awoke.
And there was still the sensory puzzle to finish untangling. Once he heard about Chambers, Jim would be in no mood to sit still for another trance session. Blair knew he had to find a way to make his partner agree to it, even though he still feared his own ability to guide his friend through it safely.
It's got to be done. If he won't sit still on his own, I'll sit on him, Blair vowed silently.
Jim's bedside clock read 6:53 a.m. Blair decided to wait a little longer before disrupting his partner's slumber and settled gingerly onto the foot of the bed. As he sipped his cooling tea and watched over his sleeping Sentinel, he found himself thinking about Chambers' disappearing act. Was Chambers really their killer? Simon had seemed so certain. Had their visit really spooked the ex-Seal? Blair still found that hard to believe. It seemed more likely that Chambers had caught on to the fact he was being tailed and decided to show his superior covert skills by shaking his tag-alongs.
But if Chambers isn't the killer, then who is? Simon said none of the other suspects left the carnival grounds last night. Not even Klerk.
Blair felt the now-familiar shiver down his spine which happened every time he thought of the fun house operator. Images from his nightmare popped into his mind and he shook his head in disgust.
I can't get that guy out of my head awake or asleep. Guess that explains why I'm dreaming about mirrors.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, intending to call up some of his meditation exercises to settle his nerves. He had just managed the second exhale when a high-pitched scream cut the air. His eyes flew open and he scanned the room desperately, seeking the source. He located it.
A groan from the bed drew his attention back to his friend. Forgetting about the noise he had just identified, Blair watched in open-mouthed shock as Jim's body stiffened and arched. The Sentinel's mouth opened as if he were screaming, but no sound accompanied the contorted effort. Before Blair could react, Jim rolled to the side and sat up, his outflung right arm sweeping the dazed grad student from the bed.
The nightmare engulfed him again... reflections... fragments... dark... cold... the smell of mildew and stale beer... an ancient face glimpsed only for a fraction of a second... a bony, gnarled hand clenching a sliver of deadly brilliance... the panicked beating of a heart... the knife-edged echo of a scream... a boy's face... his face in the mirror...
And then the reflection shifted, the image blurring surreally into another face, one he knew as well as his own. The panicked heartbeat was one he had heard too often in times of danger...
Two sets of blue eyes met, locked, and widened.
Confusion reigned in one pair; surprise in the other.
Ellison blinked first. "Sandburg?"
The anthropologist's startled expression changed to a frown. "You know, Jim, this is getting old," he muttered from his sprawled position on the floor.
Jim groaned and tried to dial down the screech of the ban saw and the disjointed hammering coming from the work crew on the building next door. He managed to reduce his perception of the noise to a point where it was merely aggravating and shifted positions so he was sitting on the edge of the bed. "It's too early for riddles, Chief," he rasped, rubbing his throbbing temples.
"Sorry. It's just that this is the second time I've ended up on my butt during this case. I'm starting to wonder if I need to rig some additional protection down there."
Jim raised his head and stared at partner. The younger man was obviously struggling to keep a grin from marring his sardonic expression. "I don't think they make Kevlar for that portion of your anatomy, Sandburg," Ellison responded dryly.
"Hey, I'll have you know that they're making full body armor, now," Blair retorted, his eyes twinkling with humor. "I already have a set on order. I'm just trying to figure out which form to submit to get the department to pay for it."
Jim snorted and reached forward to help his partner sit up. Blair grabbed his wrist and squeezed it gently.
"Are you okay, man?" he asked softly as he settled cross-legged on the floor.
The merriment was gone from the Guide's blue eyes, replaced with concern. The Sentinel answered his companion's searching gaze with a nod.
The younger man raised an eyebrow, indicating his skeptical assessment of that response. "The nightmare. You had it again, didn't you? Right before you woke."
Jim carefully dislodged Blair's fingers and sat back, running his fingers through his sleep-mussed hair. He studied the floor for a moment before meeting his partner's intent gaze. "Yeah. Same dream, but with a new twist at the end. You were in it."
Blair's eyes widened. "I was?"
"It was your face in the mirror. Your heart pounding in panic."
The anthropologist paled and immediately dropped his gaze to study his nervously twining hands. No sensory probe was need to see that the Sentinel's words had upset his Guide. It had to be unsettling to find yourself inside someone else's nightmare. Still, there had been a flash of something else in the younger man's gaze before he'd looked away. Jim frowned and started to reach out to touch his partner, but Sandburg scrambled to his feet before he could connect.
"Time to grab a shower, man. We've got stuff to do."
Jim frowned at his partner's evasive tactic and came to his feet as well. "Blair -"
The anthropologist held up both hands, palms out. A non-verbal stop sign. "Please, Jim. Just get a shower and get dressed. I'll make us some coffee and then we'll talk, okay?"
It wasn't 'okay', but the pleading tone of his Guide's voice strongly suggested the Sentinel agree. "Make it strong and go easy on the milk," he responded.
With a relieved nod, Blair turned and quickly thudded down the stairs. Jim grabbed some clothes and followed. He kept the sensory dials firmly tuned to their lowest level as he hurried through his morning routine. When he emerged from the bathroom, he cranked them up a notch. The coffee pot burbled as it approached the end of the brewing cycle, but there were no other sounds emanating from the kitchen. He glanced toward the lower bedroom, but the familiar noises which typically accompanied his partner's frantic search for something clean to wear were absent as well. He dialed up his hearing one more level. No heartbeat. His Guide was not in the loft.
Before his protective mode could kick in completely, the front door flew open and Blair breezed in. The anthropologist came to an abrupt stop just inside the entryway, an ear-to-ear grin splitting his face. "Hey, Jim. You're dressed already. That's great."
"Since when did you take up jogging?" Ellison asked dryly, noting the rapid rise and fall of the younger man's chest.
"Jogging?" Blair's excited grin slipped for a second, then it came back full force. "Oh. The gasping, half-out of breath thing. Just a quick trip up the stairs. I didn't want to wait for the elevator."
Blair reached back with one foot and kicked the door shut, then zoomed into the kitchen. Muttering under his breath, the younger man immediately began digging through cupboards and drawers, pulling out mugs and spoons for their coffee. Bemused by his partner's more-erratic-than-normal morning behavior, the detective wandered over to the cluttered kitchen table and began the task of imposing order on the chaos, assuming an explanation of some sort would shortly follow.
Not before I have at least one cup of coffee, Jim vowed. He bent over to retrieve a legal pad which had found its way to the floor and stifled a curse, deciding to add a handful of aspirin to that order as his headache flared again. Straightening, he tossed the pad onto the neat stack he'd already created, nudged the grad student's laptop out of the way and picked up a heavy, old book which had been hidden under the debris. Vaguely aware that it was the same book his partner had been carrying around for several weeks, he absently scanned the cover as he laid it to the side.
What the hell?
He bobbled the book as he snatched it back up and it fell open in his hands. The scrap of paper which had been used as a bookmark fluttered to the table, but Jim was barely aware of it. His eyes were riveted on the chapter heading.
The path to visions: Ayahuasca... the rope of the dead.
The Sentinel's eyes widened in stunned disbelief as recalled his Guide's strange comment about Incacha from the morning before. Suddenly the uneasiness and furtive distraction he'd sensed building in the younger man over the past few months made perfect sense. A cold fist of fear clenched his heart as he read the chapter heading again and he shook his head in fervent denial.
No. Blair wouldn't go to this extreme. He's too smart for that.
Ellison's fingers tightened on the book as he realized that his otherwise brilliant partner could very well have abandoned logic in this particular situation and followed a course dictated by desperation. Self-preservation always took a back seat to Sandburg's quest for knowledge, especially if his Guide thought the end result would benefit his Sentinel.
Damn it, I should have seen this coming. I remember how he was after I brought him home from the hospital. He was sure he'd started on some mystic journey as a Shaman. I scoffed at it, but he was convinced. A smothered groan slipped from Jim's lips as it occurred to him that his unwillingness to believe his partner had forced the younger man to tempt fate once again.
"Coffee'll be ready in a minute," Blair called from the kitchen. "Do you want any toast?."
Held frozen in the grip of a horrifying memory, the Sentinel couldn't even manage a grunted reply. The ghastly specter of his Guide's pain contorted face which had sent him flying home from Denver three months earlier filled his mind.
Ellison slowly raised his head and met the worried gaze of his partner. "Hey, man, what is it? What's " The rest of Blair's question died unspoken as his gaze shifted to the book in Jim's hands.
"I thought we had a deal." Jim's voice was brittle and faint to his own ears. "I thought we'd agreed to take the next trip together."
Blair paled and took an unsteady step backward. His hands cut nervous slashes in the air as if he were warding off the chill emanating from his partner. "We... we did. We will."
Jim plucked the scrap of paper from the tabletop and studied it for a moment. "Then who's Jason Edwards?" he asked icily. "Our tour guide?"
"He's... a friend," Blair stammered. He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and widened his stance slightly as if preparing for a battle. When he spoke again, his voice was calmer, more controlled and his eyes were filled with grim determination. "He's a grad student in Pharmacology."
"I see." Jim tucked the slip of paper into the book, closed the heavy tome and placed it on the table between them. "Make sure you give me his number. Wouldn't want to miss out on the trip just because you forgot to let me know when the ship sails."
"That assumes of course we're going by boat. If we're flying, then I should probably pack a parachute along with my toothbrush."
"Quick mocking me!" Blair hissed angrily.
"Beats pounding some sense into you, Sandburg," Jim retorted. "Which I swear is going to happen unless you stop playing games and start talking to me." The younger man's tightlipped expression told him the threat of bodily harm wasn't having any impact. Not surprising, since the younger man understood him well enough to know that it would never happen. "Blair, ayahuasca is a poison," Jim said firmly, changing his approach to one he hoped would have more affect. "Messing around with it could get you killed."
"Give me some credit here, Jim," the anthropologist answered heatedly. "I wasn't intending to 'mess around' with ayahuasca or whatever I decided to use. I planned to take precautions. Make sure the necessary controls were in place. "
Jim breathed a sigh of relief. 'Planned' meant his head-strong partner hadn't tried anything yet. "And when you were ready to do this... experiment... were you going to tell me? Or were you going to keep me in the dark until I got a call asking me identify some braindead shell at the hospital, or to claim your body at the morgue?"
"That's a worst case scenario," Blair protested. "Look, this isn't some wild idea I cooked up like some herbal remedy, Jim. Shaman have been using psychotropic drugs for centuries in order to touch the spirit plane. I'm just following in their footsteps."
"Damn it, Jim, I've run out of other options. I've tried fasting. Meditation. Purification. Research. That's how I stumbled across that book. I'm not crazy about taking this risk either "
"I have to!" Blair held his head high and looked Jim squarely in the eye. "Whether you like it or not, I'm going to do what I have to do. I'm supposed to be a Shaman. Your Shaman."
"You're my Guide. My friend. My partner," Jim said softly. "Isn't that enough?"
Blair shrugged. A sad, wan smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, but there was no humor in his eyes. "Incacha apparently didn't think so."
Only the respect he held for the Chopec beliefs kept Ellison from cursing the departed Medicine Man to the deepest depths of hell. Afraid of what he might say if he did open his mouth, Jim turned away from the table and stalked across the loft. He shoved the balcony doors open and stepped out onto the platform. Arms crossed over his chest, he stood at the railing and stared out over his slowly awakening city trying to fathom how Incacha's legacywhich should have been a blessinghad become such a fearsome burden.
The Sentinel understood why Incacha had been so desperate to pass on his gifts before he crossed to the spirit world and Ellison harbored no doubts that Sandburg was worthy of the bequest. But the circumstances of Incacha's death had dropped the mantle of the Shaman upon the younger man's shoulders without any warningcertainly without the years of study and preparation which would have normally been required.
That's where the real trouble began, Ellison thought grimly.
Jim believed that Blair knew instinctively what to do as a Shamanthat he had an innate understanding of the gifts, and the heart and spirit to use them wisely. But with Incacha dead, there was no one to light the way along the intricate pathways a Shaman traveled. No one to guide his Guide. Sandburg had done his best to honor the Medicine Man's memory and intent, but he had been forced to chart his own course. He was stumbling along without any idea of the dangers which lurked in the dark.
A whisper of sound behind him alerted the Sentinel to his Guide's approach and he turned slowly to face the younger man. Blair stood in the open doorway, hesitant, but resolutely meeting Jim's searching stare. The anthropologist's face was drawn and lined with fatigue, and the dark circles under his eyes bespoke a significant lack of sleep and an overabundance of stress.
He looks so tired. So worn, Jim thought sadly. He's given so much to me. To our partnership. Why does he feel he needs to do more... be more? Why is he trying so hard to be something he already is?
"Jim, I... I know you're angry," Blair said softly, breaking the painful silence which lay between them. "I know you probably feel like I've betrayed your trust. I swear I never intended to hurt you, but I knew you'd try to stop me if you found out what I had planned. And I can't let you do that." Blair stepped forward until he was standing only inches away. His eyes held a desperate entreaty; a plea for understanding and respect. "This is my cliff edge, Jim," he whispered. "My turn to decide whether to go forward or go back. And I've made my choice."
"To be a Shaman, " Jim murmured. "No matter what it takes... no matter what risks it entails."
"Yes." Silent, Ellison held his friend's steady gaze for several moments before he reached out to place his hand on the younger man's shoulder. He turned toward the balcony railing, gently pulling Blair to stand beside him.
"You've said before that a Shaman walks in more than one world," Jim said softly. "And I respect your need... your right... to travel those paths. But this," he gestured outward with a sweep of his hand, "this is my world. Concrete and steel. Flesh and blood. I'm sworn to protect it. To do that, I need you here. Beside me." The Sentinel turned to look down into his Guide's upturned face. "Delay your journey. Stay in my world," he urged. "Tread my path for a while longer. Keep to your oath, Shaman, and when the Way is no longer dark, I will willingly follow wherever you lead."
Blair's eyes widened slightly before he looked away. Faint tremors coursed through the younger man's body as he stared out at the city. Jim gently squeezed his friend's shoulder in silent understanding, and waited for his partner to reach a decision. The pale morning sky deepened several tones to a richer blue before Blair finally relaxed and straightened his slumped shoulders.
"It would be a lonely journey without you," he murmured. He leaned into the Sentinel's grasp for the space of a heartbeat, then turned to face Jim once again. "I'll keep looking for that doorway into those other worlds, but I promise not to do anything rash. I'll warn you though. You may regret that promise you just made, man. Once I get the hang of it, I intend to visit some pretty wild places."
Blair's tone was solemn, but the grin twitching the corner of his mouth told a different story. "Probably no wilder than your usual haunts, Sandburg," Jim responded dryly. He patted his partner on the back and nodded toward the open doorway. "I think I hear the coffee calling."
"I'm surprised it hasn't walked out here on its own," Blair replied. Jim shot him a puzzled glance and the younger man chuckled. "Hey, you said to make it strong so I doubled the ratio of grounds to water." He dodged a step to the right to avoid the mock punch Jim threw his way and then suddenly stood stock-still, his expression deadly serious. "Don't worry, man. I didn't tamper with the approved recipe, but I probably should have."
Blair's dark blue eyes were clouded with worry and a touch of fear as he turned away. The only explanation the Sentinel received for the cryptic response was the softly voiced comment his Guide threw over his shoulder as he slipped into the loft.
"I have a feeling you're going to wishing for something stronger than coffee by the time I finish bringing you up to speed."
It turned out Blair was correct in his assessment about the coffee. After a short, but intense briefing covering his partner's late night efforts pertaining to the case, and a somewhat heated telephone conversation with his captain, Ellison stalked into the bathroom. He emerged with aspirin in hand.
The headache he had managed to ignore during his confrontation with his Guide was hammering against the inside of his skull. His stomach was on the verge of rebelling, threatening to disgorge the milk-laced coffee he had managed to consume. The bright flashes at the edge of his vision were back; his control over the sensory dials erratic.
And he was angry enough to punch a hole through one of the loft's brick walls.
He brushed past Blair and wrenched the refrigerator door open, grabbing a bottle of water. Downing three tablets in one gulp, he slammed the plastic bottle down on the counter, wincing as the explosive sound hit his sensitive eardrums.
"I take it Chambers is still missing."
Jim's head swiveled toward his hovering Guide and the scathing tirade he had been about to unleash died unspoken. The younger man's face was pinched with worry and his tired eyes held the same expression the Sentinel had glimpsed earlier. This time he identified it.
Sandburg didn't deserve to take the brunt of his rage. It happened far too often as it wasprimarily because Blair was one of the few who dared to stay in close proximity even when Jim's 'Warning, Explosion Imminent' lights were flashing. It wasn't his Guide's fault Chambers was still at large, and his Sentinel was operating at less than 100 percent.
Although Blair probably thinks it is. He's forgetting he's come up with more answers on this case than I have, and that if it weren't for his forcing me to come back to the loft last night, I would have done something stupid which would have blown the caseand my careerright out of the water. Another temper tantrum isn't going to help matters any.
Ellison leaned sideways into the counter, took a deep breath and released it slowly. "Sounds like Simon had most of the department out searching last night," he said quietly. "Our presence probably wouldn't have made any difference."
Blair raised a skeptical eyebrow. "What about the search warrant for Chambers' trailer? Is it ready?"
Jim scowled and took another drink of water before answering. "Simon's tap-dancing before Judge Reynolds even as we speak. Apparently Reynolds wasn't too receptive to being dragged out of bed in the middle of the night. He demanded a full review of the evidence before granting the papers."
"You've got to be kidding! Doesn't he realize what the delay could mean?"
"Reynolds can be a tough sell, but you never have to worry about a defense attorney arguing the legitimacy of a warrant issued from his bench. Simon didn't think it would take much longer. Anyway, the delay on the search warrant doesn't mean we stop looking. The APB's still valid," Jim assured his distraught partner. "There's an unmarked unit stationed at the carnival grounds keeping an eye on things and Packard's been informed about Chambers' disappearance. If he shows, we'll get a call."
"So, we've got a little time then," Blair said quietly, a hint of nervousness tingeing his tone. "Before we have to be anywhere, I mean."
Ellison eyed his rumpled partner suspiciously. Blair was still wearing the paint-splattered sweat shirt and the threadbare pair of jeans he had donned prior to his own vanishing act, but Jim knew that the anthropologist's question had nothing to do with whether there was time for him to grab a shower and change into something more respectable.
"What's on your mind, Chief? And just where did you disappear to earlier?"
The younger studiously examined the inside of his coffee mug, a flurry of conflicting emotions chasing across his expressive face. He was silent for a few moments, then he squared his shoulders, set the cup on the counter and lifted his eyes to meet Jim's questioning gaze.
"I went down to talk to the work crew who've been doing the renovations on the building next door. I needed to confirm that they started the project Monday morning "
Jim grunted in annoyance. "I could have told you that, Chief."
"The same morning you started having the nightmare."
Ellison's eyes widened at the import of his friend's softly spoken statement. "You're suggesting the two are connected."
Blair nodded. "You were sleeping peacefully before they started working this morning, Jim, but you reacted almost violently when they cranked up the band saw. You admitted you were having the nightmare when you woke up. I'd say the two are connected, yeah. I bet it's been happening all week, except for yesterday when you woke up early and we were out of here before they started."
Jim rubbed at his still throbbing temples. "I'll admit the racket they've been making has given me a headache, Chief, but I thought you said dreams weren't caused by outside influences."
"You're the exception to the rule in more ways than one, Jim," Blair answered with a small smile. "I've theorized for a while that your sentinel abilities are working at some level even when you're asleep. Hearing is one of your strongest senses. I think in this case you're picking up on a sound, or, more specifically, a specific frequency of vibrations which has extremely negative associations for you. It's stimulating a kind of 'knee-jerk' reflex reaction which is overriding any protective defaults hardwired into your genetic programming and triggering the dream."
"Assuming you're right, so what? It explains why I'm having the nightmare, but it doesn't explain the problems with my senses."
"Actually, I think it does. See, if I am right, the dream is the key..."
In short, terse sentences Blair outlined his overstimulation theory and went on to explain how it related to the 'freak-out' episodes. Most of the explanation sounded plausible to Jim, but not all of it.
"You know more about how these senses of mine work than I do, Chief," Jim said quietly, pleased to see a tinge of embarrassed gratitude coloring the younger man's face at the off-hand compliment. "But I think you're forgetting something. It's that strange smell which has been setting off the sensory episodes. You proved that the other night in the morgue."
Blair paled a bit at the reference and shook his head. "I think I jumped to the wrong conclusion," he replied apologetically. "After what I witnessed this morning, I'm betting sound is the real culprit. It kind of 'primes the pump', so to speak, making you more susceptible to an episode when you're exposed to that set of smells, or a component of it."
"A sound which is also in the dream and which I've heard before," Jim murmured thoughtfully.
"We can test the theory," Blair offered hesitantly. "But it's going to mean putting you under and walking you back through each episode. And then "
"And then we're going to have to pick apart the nightmare. We figure out what it means, I stop having it, and the episodes go bye-bye, right?"
"That's the general idea, yeah."
Ellison pushed away from the counter and nodded. "Then let's do it." He started to walk past his friend to the living room, but Blair grabbed his arm, stopping him in his tracks.
The Sentinel was surprised by the alarm in his Guide's tone and the fear in his eyes. What is it, Blair? What are you so afraid of? he wondered. It's not like we haven't done this... ah... that's the problem...
He patted Blair on the shoulder, recognizing the reason for his friend's distress. "Relax, Chief. This is old hat. You start babbling in my ear, I drop into a trance and we thumb through the highly organized drawers of my memory until we find the answers. You guide and I follow." He smiled reassuringly and added gently, "I promise to listen and not get side-tracked this time."
"Can I get that in writing?" Blair responded with forced lightness.
Jim put both hands on his partner's shoulders and looked him straight in the eye. "I trust you to watch my back on the street, Blair. This is no different."
"Yes it is," Blair responded anxiously. "What if we go traipsing around in your subconscious and find that the dream is more than just a result of random sensory stimulation? What if it is an actual memory? Something you repressed... like Bud's murder. You said the smell was 'old'. That could mean it's something you were exposed to years ago, when you were just a kid. I hate to remind you, Jim, but it's an established fact that your emotional state has a hell of an impact on your sensory controls. Whatever occurs in the nightmare is obviously frightening. Terrifying. Fear is an emotional reaction, man. One of the strongest. If we bring this dream to the surface, you're going to have to face that fear. We could create more problems than we solve."
"Now who's the one talking worst case scenarios?" Ellison countered.
"Jim, it's risky. If I screw up... if something goes wrong, you could end up with less control than you have now."
"Blair, we've got a murderer to find and as you so correctly pointed out, I need to be at the top of my game to catch him. I don't want to sit on the sidelines any longer. If there's even a slight chance that confronting this memory, or whatever's causing the nightmare will mean an end to my sensory problems, then I'm willing to take the risk." He squeezed Blair's shoulders. "Besides. You're not going to screw up."
Blair's eyes narrowed, but he didn't look away. "Okay," he whispered finally. "Go get comfortable on the couch. I want to grab a couple of things from my room before we start."
Blair shifted the coffee table aside with a judicious nudge of his knee and placed several tall white candles on the wooden surface. Jim watched intently as the younger man knelt beside the table and fussed over their arrangement. Murmuring a softly chanted litany, his novitiate Shaman lit each candle, striking a new match for each. The faint, familiar fragrance of vanilla teased at the Sentinel's nostrils as the heat of the flaming wicks began to soften the scented wax. Blair sat back on his heels, eyes closed for a minute of silence, then settled cross-legged on the floor at Jim's feet.
"The candles are a nice touch, Chief. Kind of romantic," Jim teased, trying to ease the tension. "But what's with the sage?" He nodded toward the string-wrapped bundle of herbs the younger man placed on the floor between them.
"Precautionary measures," Blair responded, his expression far from amused. "I'm hoping the fragrance of the candles will occupy your sense of smell and keep you from getting blind-sided by that other odor if you run across it. This," he picked up the thick, gray-green purification stick, "is in case of an emergency. If you go too deep or we unintentionally trigger another discharge episode, I'm going to light it and wave it under your nose."
Ellison glared at the herbs. A whiff of their two-day-old pungent smoke was enough to make his eyes water. A fresh lungful would start a sneezing fit of epic proportions. Which, he realized abruptly, was exactly the reaction his partner intended to provoke.
"One knee-jerk reaction to offset another," Jim murmured appreciatively.
"Exactly," Blair flashed him a quick grin. "Think of it as herbal smelling salts." The younger man patted Ellison's knee reassuringly. "You ready?"
Jim nodded and leaned against the back of the couch, closing his eyes.
"Where are your dials?"
"Let them settle just above sentinel-normal and try to keep them that way." Blair's voice dropped in both timbre and volume, leading by example. "You're not going to have to go very deep for this first part. The memories we're looking for are pretty recent."
The Sentinel nodded, relaxing further as he followed his Guide's instructions.
"Okay... We'll start with the first episode. Two mornings ago. We left the diner and we were taking the long way back to the loft. Picture yourself on the sidewalk and think about the sounds you heard."
Jim frowned, his closed eyes squeezing even tighter as the memory began to take shape in his mind. "There are too many noises," he complained. "Cars, trucks... people... How am I going to know which sound I'm looking for?"
"Trust me, man, you'll know," Blair assured him.
And suddenly a shiver rippled down the Sentinel's spine and he did know. "The shopkeeper... he was lowering an awning... one of those old fashioned hand-crank kind... the gears were grinding on one another... they made a high pitched squeal..."
"What color was the awning?"
"Striped... green and white..."
"Johanson's Clock Shop is just a few feet from Mr. Donnello's store," Blair whispered excitedly. "He's got an awning just like that. Now switch your focus and go to smell." The Sentinel stiffened and he immediately felt the pressure of his partner's hand on his knee. "Relax, Jim. Just reach out for it. You know what we're looking for.
Jim took a deep breath and concentrated on the scents buried within the memory. He detected exhaust, oil and hot metal exuded by the passing cars and trucks; the conflicting fragrances of Old English and Halston from a strolling couple; the mouth-watering smell of donuts wafting from the bakery down the street; the sweet perfume of freshly cut flowers sold by the vendor on the cornereverything except the complex smell he'd come to associate with death and insanity.
"It's not there," he murmured in surprise.
"That's okay. Don't worry about it. I wasn't expecting it to be there. Go forward now," Blair urged, eagerly. "Next stop is the crime scene we visited that afternoon. We know the smell is there, so ignore it. Focus on sound again..."
"Got it," Jim announced almost immediately. "The dumpster... one of the uniformed cops raised the lid while I was examining the corpse..."
"You're right. The hinges were rusty. Even I heard the screech when he lifted it," Blair murmured. "Now in the morgue "
"It was the buzzer on the door leading from the reception area," the Sentinel interjected before his Guide had a chance to finish his sentence. "The high end frequency of the sound is in the same tonal range as the others!"
"Slow down, man! Don't get ahead of yourself."
Heeding his partner's warning Ellison curbed his own eagerness, repressing the urge to skip ahead to the next episode.
"Okay, that's better... The sixth crime scene, Jim. Same drill. Listen for it..."
"I am... it's not there," Jim responded after a few moments of silence.
"Yes!" Blair hissed exultantly. "We're on target, man. No sound, no episodeeven though the smell was present. Last one, now. The carnival. It was incredibly noisy there, so it's going to be tricky to pinpoint exactly which sound triggered the discharge. Be careful."
'Noisy' was an understatement, Jim thought grimly as he immersed himself in memory of the sensory chaos which had permeated the carnival grounds. The discordant music fought for dominance over the grinding engines and thunderous clamor of the rides, The screams of children tangled with the shouts of the barkers. The very air throbbed and pulsed with sounds which ranged from one end of the aural spectrum to the other. It all mixed together into one roaring tide of sound. Louder... louder... pounding...
"Uggghhh!" Jim gasped, rocking forward and clapping his hands over his ears.
"It's okay. It's okay..."
The Guide's soothing whisper was a lifeline pulling him back from the brink; the strong hands gripping his shoulders anchoring him to reality.
"Relax, man. Breathe. Listen to my voice and let the rest of it go."
And as always, it was just that simple. Drained, but back in control, Ellison dropped his hands to his lap. He opened his eyes and found himself practically nose to nose with his partner. "Sorry, Chief," he murmured. "Too much input."
"Don't beat yourself up over it, man." Blair's face glowed with the first genuine smile Jim had seen on the younger man's face in weeks. "You did great."
"We're on a roll. Let's finish this."
The anthropologist sank back on his heels, shaking his head slowly. "Jim "
"Now, Blair." The Sentinel's eyes burned with determination. "Time for phase two."
Blair scrubbed his palms nervously on his jeans. While he was overjoyed by their success so far, the next step was inherently more dangerous.
And as usual, Jim's ready to dive in head first.
"Okay, okay!" Blair acquiessed to his partner's demand with an exasperated sigh. "Just give me a minute."
The anthropologist dragged his fingers through his hair, pushing it away from his face and settled himself on the floor again. He gripped his knees for balance and sent a silent prayer winging upward.
"Abracadabra," he added for good measure.
"We're not opening a sealed cave, Sandburg. Just my head."
Blair opened one eye and glared at his partner. "I'll have you know that 'abracadabra' was originally a magical incantation intended to ward off evil spirits. While it was first employed in the Middle East in the occult ceremonies of the 2nd-century Gnostics, I'm not above calling in whatever favors I can garner at this point. I will, however, refrain from commenting on the appropriateness of the analogy you just offered beyond pointing out that those hypothetical treasure caves were usually made of impenetrable stone, just like the head of a certain detective I know."
"Point taken," Jim responded, struggling to control a grin. "Whenever you're ready, oh Wise One."
Blair grimaced at his partner's choice of nickname and dropped his gaze to the floor struggling with a fresh surge of self-doubt. Warm fingers wrapped under his chin, tipping his face upward.
"Trust yourself, Blair," Jim murmured as their gazes locked. "All the knowledge... all the guidance you need is here," the Sentinel's fingers slid upward to tap lightly against his temple. "And here." Jim's hand dropped to rest palm down over Blair's heart.
Blair managed a nod, his throat thick with emotion.
Jim smiled and sat back. Resting his head on the back of the sofa, he closed his eyes. Faced with such absolute faith and trust, the young Shaman found his voice. Resting one hand on each of Jim's knees, he began to utter the quiet words which would lead his Sentinel into the trance.
Trusting to the invisible safety net woven by his Guide's words, the Sentinel surrendered control. The initial stages of the trance were familiara leaden heaviness in his limbs which pressed him deeper into the soft cushions of the couch; the sensation of falling backward as his center of balance shifted; a moment of stomach-twisting vertigo; weightlessness.
He 'opened' his eyes to a twilight-lit void and squelched the impatient impulse which prodded him to take the next step on his own. He wasn't in charge of this expedition. Until he received instructions to the contraryuntil his Guide felt it was safehe would go no further.
"Looking good, Jim." Blair's voice was quiet; strained with nervous tension. "When I give the word, I want you to find the memory of the dream that's been troubling you. The instant you lock onto it, take a mental step backward and freeze the first images. Don't go any further and don't drop your guard. This sucker is tricky. It's going to pull at you... try to suck you in. Don't let it. Keep everything but sight dialed way back for now."
Jim managed a grunted reply which surprisingly seemed to satisfy his partner.
Like a notched arrow released from a drawn bow, the Sentinel felt his consciousness winging toward the specified target. Per his Guide's instructions, he managed to halt his headlong flight just inside the leading edge of a dark, menacing fog bank. He took a figurative step backward and fought to hold his ground against the grasping black tendrils which billowed outward, threatening to ensnare him.
"What do you see, Jim?"
"Darkness," he managed to reply. "I can't see through it."
"You don't have to," Blair's soft voice intoned. "The horrors lurking within that darkness aren't real, Jim, but the darkness itself might be based on a real place, generated by an actual memory. Each moment of time, each location in the real world has a unique sensory signature. We're going to try to use the dark place of your dreams as a point of departure to find its real world counterpart. I want you to keep sight on line and turn up touch. Let those two senses work in tandem. Imprint the exact nature of the darkness upon your mind. Identify its distinct shades of gray... feel its texture... its density... its temperature..."
The Sentinel steeled himself and stepped forward, holding onto his awareness of his Guide's presence like a lifeline. An icy chill enveloped him the instant he breached the perimeter of the inky darkness and gravity abruptly reasserted its hold, threatening to drag him downward into nothingness. He held firm, fearing that if he fell, he would pull his companion into the abyss with him. It took only a moment to engrave the 'look' of the dark on his sense memory. He extended touch, sampling the fabric of the cloying darkness. His other senses automatically tried to come on line, but he kept their dials locked down. When he had catalogued the dark's preternatural damp stillness, he gave a verbal tug to his tether.
"Step back. Breathe," his Guide ordered. The power in the younger man's voice effortlessly drew the Sentinel back into the safe zone once more. "We're ready, man, but let's be clear on what we're trying to achieve here," Blair said firmly, his tone brooking no argument. "This is not a search and destroy mission, Jim. It's recon only. You go in, take a look around, and report back to me. Is that understood?"
"Yes, sir." Ellison's voice sounded flat and toneless to his own ears, bereft of the gentle, teasing humor the response should have contained.
"Observer rules, man. Remember that," Blair cautioned. Jim felt his friend's finger's tighten almost painfully on his knees. "Whenever you're ready..."
There was no outward signno clenching of the jaw, no sudden scowl creasing the smooth forehead, no sign of increased tension in the relaxed muscles of the older man's bodyyet Blair 'felt' the precise instant Jim set off on his quest. He eased his grip on his friend's knees and whispered a warrior's blessing to speed his partner on his way. "May fortune favor the hunt, Sentinel."
Blair continued to murmur a constant stream of reassuring words, but as the silent seconds ticked by his anxiety grew. The tightness in his chest made it hard to breathe much less speak, and his soothing litany quickly degenerated into short choppy fragments interspersed with choked gasps. Knowing his own lack of control would affect his partner's concentration, the worried Guide struggled to alter his own breathing pattern to match the Sentinel's steady rhythm. He felt a surge of relief as they fell into sync and then a moment of disorientation. His vision blurred and he had the surreal sense of being displaced from his body; of being propelled forward at an incredible speed and abruptly slammed to a dead stop. An astonished gasp echoed in his ears. Blair blinked to clear his vision, glanced up at his partner's face, and froze.
The Sentinel's eyes were wide open.
The incredulous, wonder-filled response snapped the Guide out of his daze. Without releasing his hold on the Sentinel's knees, he rose to his feet, leaned in and searched Jim's eyes. Ellison's blank stare revealed nothing.
"What's real? Where are you?" Blair asked softly.
"A small room... damp... enclosed... a cellar, maybe..." Jim responded immediately. His eyes moved down, up, then left and right, as though he were scanning his environment. "Dirt floor... wooden doors set on a slant... light coming through the crack between them... shelves on one side of the room, filled with bottlesno, canning jars... mildew "
"Keep smell dialed down, Jim," Blair ordered tersely. "Stay with sight and touch." The Sentinel acknowledged his Guide's directions with an almost imperceptible nod. "Do you recognize the room?" the younger man prompted. "Have you been there before?"
There was a long pause, and then a hesitant reply. "It... it seems... familiar..."
"Is there anyone else there?"
"No... I'm alone." Ellison's brow suddenly creased in confusion. "But I shouldn't be... There were... others..."
"I... don't... I can't "
"Easy," Blair murmured, responding to the frustration in his friend's voice. "We'll come back to it. What else do you see?"
"Cardboard boxes... scraps of wood... bundles of something hanging from nails on one wall... dried herbs, maybe... There's something else... in the far corner... One of those old standing mirrors..."
Blair's mouth dropped open in alarm as images from his own nightmare flashed through his mind. "Jim, I don't think it's a good idea to "
"It's covered by a sheet..."
"Jim, listen "
"It shouldn't be covered "
"It wasn't "
Panicked, the anthropologist shifted his grip to the older man's shoulders. In his mind's eye, Blair envisioned the Sentinel reaching forward, removing the draped covering, gazing at his own reflectionor something infinitely more dangerous.
"Jim, listen to me," he hissed urgently. "Don't look in the mirror. Back away from it!!" Blair pulled his partner forward and shook him, desperately trying to break the Sentinel free from the trance. "Jim, do you hear me? Come back! Come back now!"
Mesmerized by the distorted reflections which flickered across the mirror's mottled surface, the Sentinel was oblivious to his Guide's urgent pleas. He stepped closer, swept the side of his hand over the glass and stared at the face reflected there. Pale blue eyes, identical to his own met his gaze and held it.
And held it...
Until someone called his name.
"Jimmy! Come on. Help me out."
Nine year-old Jim Ellison glanced over his shoulder at his best friend, Charlie Evans and grinned. "I already saved your life three times today, Charlie. What more do you want?"
He and his 'squad'which consisted of Charlie and three other school mateshad spent the day waging 'war' against another group of fourth graders. The backyards and alleys of Charlie's neighborhood had been their battlefield, a handful of plastic squirt guns their armament. An unexpected mid-summer storm had sent them scurrying for shelter. The old root cellar below Charlie's house had seemed an ideal location to wait out the rain and plan their next series of skirmishes against the 'enemy.' The only drawback was that there was no electricity in the dirt-floored room, and therefore, no source of light other than the narrow sliver of gray daylight shining through the crack in the closed wooden doors. Charlie was busy rummaging through the cardboard boxes stacked haphazardly along the wall on the opposite side of the dark cellar looking for something to rectify that situation.
"I know, I know. I owe you," Charlie muttered. "But I can't find the candles I left down here."
"So you're the one with the super hero 'see-in-the-dark' eyesight. Help me look for them."
"Yeah, come on, Jimmy. Help him out. It's dark in here," piped up another one of his 'team'.
Harry Saunders' freckled face was paler than normal when Jimmy glanced his way. Bob 'don't you dare call me Robert' Hansen, who had fearlessly run point for their afternoon's adventures stood next to Harry looking nervously left and right as if he expected something to leap out of the shadows. Only Brian Smith, the fifth member of their group seemed unconcerned with the lack of light. He had seated himself on the lowest plank of the short flight of wooden steps which led to the closed doors and was busy pulling a book of matches and a crumpled pack of cigarettes out of his shirt pocket.
"Put 'em away, Brian," Jim growled in annoyance. "Those things'll stink up the place."
"Brian, did you steal some more of your dad's smokes?" Bob called out. "I thought you said he threatened to ground you for the rest of the summer if you did that again."
"What he doesn't know "
"Forget about the cigarettes, for a minute, will you?" Charlie hissed. "The candles, Jimmy?"
While the others were obviously fumbling in the dark, Jim had no such problem. He could clearly see the objects in question. "They're on a box to your left. About level with your shoulder," he answered. As his friend located the candles and struck a match to light them, Jim turned his attention back to the old standing mirror in front of him, frowning slightly as he studied his reflection in its mottled surface.
He was tall for his nine yearsa good five inches taller than Harryand was better muscled than his friends, although much of that development was due to long hours of football practice. While the others wore their hair long enough to touch the back collar of their shirts, his dark hair was cropped shorthis father's preference, not his. The pale blue eyes which stared back from the mirror held a trace of wariness which was also absent from his friends'. Overall, he guessed that he was 'okay' lookingsupposedly Kelli, a girl in his class had told Charlie that she though Jim was 'cute'but it was something he hardly ever thought about. The differences he could see on the surface and the ones which lay hidden occupied enough of his time.
"Hey, Jimmy. Stop playin' kissy face with yourself and get over here," Charlie demanded.
Flushing with embarrassment, Jim turned around. His four friends were seated on an old tattered blanket which had been spread on the damp dirt floor and the lit candles flickered atop an upended wooden crate. Jim walked over and took his place in the circle, eyeing the dark brown bottle in Charlie's hands uneasily.
"Is that what I think it is?"
"Yep!" Charlie grinned, raising the beer bottle to his lips and taking a quick drink before handing it to Brian. Jim watched as the second boy wiped off the top and took a longer pull before handing it to Harry whose green eyes shifted to Jim's uncertainly.
"I'm not sure this is a good idea, guys," Jim said quietly. "If we get caught "
"We're not gonna get caught, Jimmy," Bob interjected, prodding Harry with his elbow. Harry shot a mortified look at Jim, took a quick sip and released the bottle into Bob's eager hands.
"Come on, Jimmy," Charlie chimed in. "I've been sampling my dad's stock for months and he hasn't caught on yet. I just stuff the empties back into the case."
Jim frowned at the bottle Bob was holding out to him. Charlie's dad might not mind, but his father would have a fit if he came home and found beer on his oldest son's breath. Jim could easily imagine the lecture he'd receiveand the disciplinary actions which would undoubtedly follow. He glanced around the circle, noting the challenging, judgmental expressions in his friends' eyes. This was a testthey wanted to know if he was one of them.
The need to belongto be accepted by his peersprompted him to reach out and take the bottle. As he raised the bottle to his lips, he resolutely ignored the image of his father's angry face which flashed through his mind. He would deal with the consequences of his actions later. His father's current work schedule had kept him at the office until well past his sons' bedtime for the past several weeks, so as long as he didn't get falling-down drunkunlikely on a few sipshis dad would never find out what his oldest son had been up to. And if he did, well, it wouldn't be the first time Jim had felt the sting of his father's disappointment.
The tepid beer tasted like the nectar of the gods as it slid across his tongue and down his throat. Jim grinned and passed the bottle off to Charlie who raised it in a salute before taking his next drink. Warmed by the sense of camaraderie and emboldened by his sortie into dangerous, 'rebellious' waters, Jim relaxed and decided to go with the flow. The first bottle of beer was quickly consumed amidst conspiratorial grins and whispered challenges. A second bottle started to make the rounds and Brian pulled out his cigarettes again. Jim frowned but offered no challenge as his friend lit up and passed the pack around. While only Charlie took Brian up on his offer, the enclosed space quickly filled with the smoky haze, making Jim's eyes water and bringing on the first signs of a headache.
Seeing Jim's discomfort, Harry popped up the steps to see if they could risk opening the doors, but returned with a regretful shake of his head. The rain was still falling. Jim nodded his thanks and refrained from commenting that he could have saved Harry the trip. He had been monitoring the heavy thud of the rain drops against the wooden doors for some time. They beat a rhythmic counterpoint to the hammering which was going on overhead.
The sudden realization that there was someone in the house besides Charlie's eighty year-old grandmother set a swarm of nervous butterflies loose in Jim's stomach. "Hey, Charlie. What's going on upstairs?"
Charlie calmly swallowed a mouthful of beer and passed the bottle before answering. "My dad's tearing out a couple of walls on the lower level to make a new bedroom for Grams. Since she fell and broke her hip last winter, she's been having problems getting up and down the stairs to the second floor. Don't worry, Jimmy. He doesn't know we're down here and with all the racket he's making he's certainly not gonna hear us." The screaming wine of a power saw cut the air underscoring his point. "Besides, where's your sense of adventure? The risk of getting caught is part of the fun, right?"
Jim rolled his eyes, but found himself nodding and grinning along with his school mate.
"Since we're going to be stuck down here a while," Bob interjected, "how about a couple rounds of 'Truth or Dare'?"
His suggestion was immediately seconded by Brian. A third bottle of beer and a portion of a fourth were quickly draineda measurable drink of the fermented brew the assessed penalty in the game. By the time they lost interest in razzing and testing one another, all but one of the candles had melted to fat sizzling blobs. The remaining flame flickered and danced each time a gust of wind beat against the outer doors, it's faint light barely penetrating beyond the blanket where the boys were seated. The increasingly spooky atmosphere of the cellar provided the perfect segue to a new topic of entertainment. Ghost stories.
As their official 'host', Charlie had the honor of going first. He scrambled awkwardly to his feet, wobbled over to the mirror which Jim had been looking at earlier and dragged it closer. He flopped down on the blanket and struck a dramatic pose.
"It was a dark and stormy night..."
Jim leaned forward as Charlie's voice dropped to a theatric whisper and found himself blinking furiously to clear his suddenly blurry vision. He sat up straight and immediately regretted it as his stomach rolled queasily. He swallowed hard, blinked a couple more times and, as casually as he could manage, wiped his sweaty face with his shirt sleeve. When had the room gotten so hot? He glanced around the circle, but none of the others appeared the least bit uncomfortable. Their gazes were all locked on Charlie, transfixed by his tale.
Jim tried to concentrate on his friend's words, but his hearing seemed to be fading in and out. He caught something about an old woman, a needle and a mirror, and glanced at the reflective panel in confusion. His vision blurred again, then sharpened until he could see each minute imperfection in the glass. He squeezed his eyes closed and stifled a groan.
He was miserable. His clothes scraped painfully against his skin. His head hurt and his lungs felt like they were on fire. The odors which assaulted him were the worst. The rank smell of stale beer from the case of bottles in the corner fought with the mildewed odor emanating from the blanket. The cloying pungency of the herbs which Charlie's grandmother had hung in bundles for drying made him want to retch. He would have sworn it was impossible, but he was certain that he could identify every ingredient the old lady had used to can the preserves which filled the wooden shelves.
He felt woozy. Disoriented. Jim shook his head, trying to clear it. For a few moments, his senses seemed to be working normally.
Then someone screamed.
Jim's eyes flew open and he lurched unsteadily to his feet, his gaze sweeping the room for danger. A flicker of light at the edge of his vision sent him whirling to his right. Face to face with the mirror. He stared at it, transfixed by the distorted reflections chasing across the surface, only dimly aware of his companions' frantic movements and terror-filled screams.
"I hear her!"
The heavy thud of approaching footsteps pounded against Jim's ears, drowning out the sound of his own racing pulse. Someone jostled him aside, almost knocking him to his knees. An ear-splitting screech jolted the room and he caught one brief glimpse of Harry's frightened face before the room exploded with white light. A knife-like pain stabbed at his eyeballs and tore the breath from his throat. Gasping for air, he inhaled a lungful of sage-drenched smoke...
And curled forward, coughing and sneezing into a pair of strong arms.
At the first glint of recognition in Jim's eyes, Blair hauled him off the couch and across the room to the balcony. He pinned the miserable, gasping Sentinel against the wall with his shoulder and fumbled with the doors, trying to flip the locking latch without dropping the still smoking purification stick. His second attempt was successful. He shoved the glass door aside and pulled his partner out into the fresh morning air. Positioning Jim so he could lean against the railing, Blair dumped the sage bundle into a rainwater-filled flower pot.
He took a good look at his friend, decided Jim was holding his own and ducked back inside the loft. Seconds later he was back at the Sentinel's side, rubbing and patting his partner's back with one hand, clutching a bottle of water and tissues in the other. In full hover mode, Blair murmured a continuous stream of reassuring words which shifted to anxious questions when the older man's breathing started to even out.
"Are you with me, Jim? Are you all right?"
Ellison grabbed one of the tissues, swiped at his still tearing eyes and nodded.
"Good. Because I want you to be fully conscious when I throttle you to within an inch of your life!" The frosty blue glare Jim shot him was no match for the inferno burning in Blair's as concern crescendoed to rage in the blink of an eye. The grad student stood toe-to-toe with the ex-ranger, prepared to give him the dressing down of his life. "You promised me, Jim! You promised you'd listen. You swore you wouldn't go too deep."
"You stopped breathing!" Blair hissed.
"How " Ellison coughed and cleared his throat, "How long?"
"Too long," Blair spat back. The terror he had felt when he hadn't been able to get a response out of his Sentinel returned, threatening to buckle his knees. He pushed it aside, ran his fingers through his hair in agitated exasperation and started to pace a tight circle in the confined space. "You were doing fine until you got fixated on that damn mirror." He turned and glared at Jim. "You stopped breathing. I could barely find a pulse." Blair shuddered and shook his head. "And then things got really freaky. You started talking to someone named Charlie. Said something about saving his life. I thought maybe you were channeling the dead, man. It was your voice, but different... younger. You sounded like a kid."
Physical and mental gears seized and pulled Blair to an abrupt stop. He blinked. "What?"
Jim opened the bottle of water and took a sip before answering. "The nightmare's the result of something that happened when I was nine years' old."
Blair blinked again, tried to process what he had just heard, failed. He took an unsteady step backward, collided with the edge of one of the deck chairs and dropped heavily onto the seat. "You mean it worked?" he squeaked.
"Not quite the way we expected," Jim acknowledged ruefully, "but I've got a lot to report." He glanced through the open door to the hazy loft and then back at Blair. "I'd volunteer to fetch one of your notebooks, but I think I'd prefer to let the air clear a bit first."
Blair's gaze shifted briefly to the sodden lump of sage sitting in the flower pot. "You can't say I didn't warn you, Jim," he retorted, rapidly regaining his composure.
Ellison snorted softly and pulled a second chair closer to Blair's. When he sat down, their knees were almost touching. The younger man found their close proximity immensely comforting. He listened intently as Jim recounted his experience, determined to hold his questions until the older man finished, despite his growing excitement.
"All hell broke loose when I heard that scream," Ellison admitted. "I found myself staring into the mirror. I could have sworn I saw something... beneath the surface... An old woman's face... a gnarled hand clutching a sliver of something bright..." Jim frowned and shook his head. "I know I heard footsteps. Then there was a screech and the whole room exploded in white light. I keeled over."
"Sensory spike?" Blair asked softly.
Jim paused as if considering the suggestion and finally nodded. "Could have been."
"What happened next?"
The Sentinel shrugged and sat back in his chair. "I woke up with a nose full of sage smoke."
Blair rolled his eyes and swatted his partner's leg. "Not now. Then. When you were nine."
Jim's gaze grew softer, distant. "The rest of the memory is a little vague on details, but I remember the highlights... if you want to call them that. When I opened my eyes, Charlie's dad was hovering over me, asking if I was all right. Apparently there was some kind of vent from the cellar to the first floor. He smelled smoke and came down to check it out."
"So they were his footsteps you heard," Blair murmured. "When he opened the door, he flooded the cellar with light. I'll bet the screech you heard were the hinges binding."
"You're three-for-three, Chief. Want to go for the bonus points and tell me whose scream I heard?"
Blair answered immediately. "Most likely Charlie, adding a little dramatic flair to his story."
"I knew there was a good reason I let you keep dogging my heels, Chief," Jim grinned.
Blair waved off the compliment. "You tossed me an easy one. If you ask me though, the scream was kind of overkill. The tale of 'Bloody Mary' is frightening enough without the sound effects thrown in."
"Bloody Mary. That's the ghost story Charlie was telling. It's a folktale about a wrinkled old crone who lives in the mirror. Any mirror. I can't remember the tale's exact origins, but it's pretty sinister. I suspect it was invented by some cranky parent to keep wandering children in their beds at night. Bloody Mary is supposed to be harmless during the day, but in the dead of night, she can reach out of the mirror. She's armed with a sharp pointed knife or needledepends on which version of the story you subscribe to, I guess. She stabs the unsuspecting and drags them back into the world behind the mirror, never to be seen again."
The images from Blair's own nightmare once again made an abrupt appearance in his head. He felt his face grow hot as his heart thudded against his ribcage. It was hard to ignore the similarities between his own dream and the ghost story, and between the ghost story and...
"They're the same," he gasped abruptly. Blair looked up to meet his partner's surprised gaze. "The images in your nightmare... they match almost exactly with what you thought you saw in the mirror that afternoon. The nightmare within the nightmare... Bloody Mary."
Jim scowled. "Sandburg, are you trying to tell me my senses are out of whack because of some ghost story I heard when I was a kid?"
"You didn't just hear it, Jim. You experienced it!"
Ellison muttered a curse and shot to his feet. The abrupt movement sent his deck chair skittering backward several feet. He ignored it, whirling toward the open balcony door. Blair shoved himself out of his own chair and grabbed his partner's arm, preventing the older man's retreat.
"Stomping out of here all pissed-off at yourself isn't going to solve anything, Jim. Do you think you're the only one to ever have a childhood memory show up out of nowhere and bite them on the ass?"
Ellison's jaw muscles spasmed, and his eyes flashed fire as he glared at the hand on his arm, but he didn't try to shake it off. Blair took advantage of the opening.
"Look Jim, memory is a complicated process which involves the storage and retrieval of information. Sensory information. The vividness of a memory is based on the amount of detail which is perceived and accumulated during an experience. A person with average senses can identify and store the detail necessary to call up an accurate memory of the sound of a violin, the taste of an apple or the color of a sunset. You're blessed with enhanced senses. Your awareness of every aspect of your environment is greater than anyone else's. Your senses were on-line that day "
"They were out of control, Chief. I was out of control."
"You didn't start experiencing problems until you started drinking the beer," Blair countered. "You saw the candles in the darkened cellar when no one else could. You monitored the sound of the rain and heard Charlie's dad working upstairs. You drank practically a full bottle of beer in a short period of timeprobably on a pretty empty stomach since you'd been running around playing soldier all day. In addition to affecting your motor reflexes and giving you a nice 'buzz', the alcohol adversely affected your innate sensory control. But it didn't turn your senses off. They were still receiving input and your brain was still cataloging it. You heard every word, every nuance of Charlie's story, even if you weren't consciously aware of it. You also picked up on the reactions of the other boys. When they freaked, you freaked."
"Over nothing," the detective argued.
Blair shook his head emphatically. "The monster under the bed might be imaginary, Jim, but the fear that it's going to grab you sometime during the night is very real. It didn't matter then that it was Charlie's dad who burst in instead of Bloody Mary and it doesn't matter now. You thought it was her. Your mind associated the fear you felt with the visual descriptions Charlie used to describe her, and it automatically connected the sounds and smells you were being bombarded with to the memory.
"There was a lot going down in the cellar that day, Jim. The five of you were treading the line between childhood and manhood. You were testing each other. Daring each other. Drinking Charlie's dad's beer on the sly, even though you knew there would be hell to pay if you got caught, lent a sense of reckless excitement to the situation. Given the setting and the whole male-bonding, passage ritual thing you guys had going, it's no wonder the dramatic conclusion to the days events left such an impression. I'd bet that even if Charlie hadn't been telling the story about Bloody Mary, you would have been scared shitless by his father's abrupt arrival."
Ellison stood silent, considering his friend's words. He still felt foolish. And angry. He'd gotten thrown off stride by a simple childhood memory. Sideswiped by another incident he'd repressed. How many more ticking time-bombs from his past were hidden in the dark, waiting to explode at the least opportune moment?
He felt the subtle change of pressure as Blair's fingers tightened on his arm; the gesture reassuring and demanding at the same time. Waves of strength, resilience and pure stubbornness emanated from his Guide. Blair pled his case with an empathic touch and an intense gazemute arguments which were just as powerful as his words. His partner wanted him to accept what had happened and move on. What Ellison perceived as weakness, Sandburg saw as a normal, completely understandable human reaction. Where Jim expected to find ridicule and scorn, he found compassion and genuine concern.
The expression in the dark blue eyes also suggested that Jim was not going anywhere until he embraced Blair's point of view. Ellison had no desire to butt heads with the immovable wall which Sandburg could become once he took a stand. Especially when there was no reason to do so. Shaman and Guide abilities aside, Blair was a student of humanity. He understood people, but, more importantly, he understood James Ellison.
Jim quit stonewalling. Warmth born of friendship, respect and trust flowed from Guide to Sentinel, easing the tension which had knotted Jim's muscles, wiping away the self-doubt which had clouded his mind. He felt an immense weight lift from his shoulders as the last remnants of humiliation and anger were swept away.
"You're probably right," he acknowledged, finally breaking his silence. Ellison glanced out over the city for a few moments. When he turned back to look at Blair, a wry smile lifted the corner of his mouth. "So, what you're saying, Chief, is that this is another one of my classic 'fear-based' reactions."
"'Classic' being the operative word, Jim," Blair quickly assured him, releasing his hold on the Sentinel's arm. "Bottom line is, you had a hell of a scare as a kid. You've run into something as an adult which has triggered the memory of the event and the negative associations tied to it. Everyone faces something like this at one point or another. The fallout is just affecting you a little differently "
"Because I'm a Sentinel."
"And because nothing with you is ever simple, Jim." Blair grinned as Ellison glared at him. "Hey, it's the truth, man. I just call 'em as I see 'em."
"Then take another look in your crystal ball, Swami. Do you see me having this nightmare again any time soon? Or any more episodes?"
"I'm afraid neither one of us is going to be free of bad dreams until this case is over," Blair responded softly. "But unless you're planning to change careers and become an accountant, they kind of go with the territory." The weak attempt at humor fell flat.
"That doesn't answer my question, Chief."
"Knowledge is power, man," Blair answered solemnly. "It illuminates the dark... lets you see what's really there. If Bloody Mary does raise her ugly head again, you and your senses will be ready for herand for whatever emotional baggage she's packing."
Blair suddenly yawned hugely and shot Jim an apologetic grin. "Sorry man. Guess I could use another cup of coffee." He glanced into the loft, made a show of sniffing the air and then looked at Jim. "Is it safe to enter the temple?"
Ellison chuckled at the 'innocent' expression on the anthropologist's face. "Just don't defile it again, Sandburg," he growled in mock annoyance. He stepped inside and headed toward the kitchen, the younger man trailing in his wake.
"Just out of curiosity, what happened when your father found out what you'd been up to that afternoon?" The concern in his Guide's voice was evident.
"Nothing," Jim replied. He poured two fresh cups of coffee and handed one to Blair. "Mr. Evans never reported the incident to any of our parents. Guess he figured the scare he'd given us had taught us a lesson. Once he was sure I was okay, he fixed all of us with a glare some of my old drill sergeants would have given their eye-teeth to possess, and verbally reamed us up one side and down the other. We were a pretty sorry sight before he started and by the time he was done."
Jim paused and shook his head sheepishly. "Before he sent us home, he strongly suggested that since we all obviously had extra time on our hands, we report to him each morning for the next two weeks. He promised to find something to 'keep us busy'. Which, he did. The renovations on Charlie's grandmother's house were finished in record time."
"Is that where you picked up your carpentry skills?"
"A good portion of them."
"You guys were lucky," Blair pointed out.
"Yeah, we were," Jim acknowledged. "Charlie's father was a great guy. A lot like Bud. Tough, but willing to cut you some slack if he thought you were trying to do your best. Unfortunately, that summer the job market for carpenters grew tight and he had to look elsewhere for work. The whole family moved to Texas a few months after school started. Charlie and I kept in touch for a while, but neither of us were great letter writers." A hint of sadness dulled the Sentinel's eyes. "I looked them up after I got back from Peru. Mr. Evans died in a car accident while I was stranded there."
"And Charlie?" Blair asked quietly.
"He's living in LA. Ended up as an accountant." Jim's suddenly grinned and his eyes glittered with amusement. "Last time I talked to him he was grousing about what a handful his nine year-old son had become."
"Like father, like son, huh?"
The shrill trilling of the telephone sobered both men immediately. Jim saw the lightning-like flicker of dread in his partner's eyes before the younger man looked away. The Sentinel's own expression was grim as he answered the call.
//"Jim, it's Simon..."//
The detective listened intently to his captain's terse report. The search warrant for Chambers' trailer had been approved and while there had been two homicides during the night, neither matched the serial killer's M.O. Their prime suspect was still at large. Jim glanced over at his partner, eager to let him know that the good news outweighed the bad. The Sentinel's eyes narrowed in concern and automatically tuned out Simon's voice, targeting his enhanced senses on his Guide.
The younger man was leaning against the kitchen counter, staring down into his coffee cup as if it held the answers to the universe. Yet Jim realized that what appeared to be focused concentration was actually utter weariness. The eager enthusiasm and determination which had animated Blair a few minutes earlier was gone. It was as if someone had flipped a switch, cutting the anthropologist off from his normally boundless energy supply. Blair seemed lost in a world of his own, completely unaware of Jim's scrutiny. Stringy strands of curls hid the expressive beard-stubbled face and eyes. The white-knuckled grip on the mug, the slumped shoulders, and the heavy pounding of a heart as it valiantly pumped blood to the younger man's trembling extremities spoke of mental and physical exhaustion. Ellison berated himself for not seeing the obvious signs sooner.
//"Jim? You still with me?"//
The detective responded to the mixture of annoyance and concern in his captain's voice with a brusque, "Yes, sir." He took a quick look at his watch. "I'll be there in about thirty minutes."
Jim hung up the phone and stepped further into the kitchen, placing his half-filled cup of coffee next to the sink before he turned to face his partner. "The papers are ready, Chief," he said quietly.
Blair slowly raised his head. His eyes were dull, his expression confused. "Papers?"
"The search warrant," Ellison explained patiently. "Judge Reynolds approved it."
"Oh. Yeah." Blair gave his head a quick shake as if to clear it, then nodded. "Just give me a couple minutes to shave and change and I'll be good to go." Blair pushed himself away from the counter, almost dropping the coffee cup in the process.
Jim plucked the mug from his partner's hands and set it next to his own. "The only place you're going, is to bed," he said firmly.
"No way, man," Blair responded with a defiant lift of his chin.
"Sandburg, you're practically asleep on your feet," Jim countered, grabbing Blair's arm to keep him from edging past.
"I'm fine," Blair retorted, the deep shadows under his eyes and his pale, lined face putting the lie to his words. "The caffeine's just taking a little longer than usual to kick in. I'll grab a few 'z's' in the truck, if I need to."
"You've done more than your fair share on this case already, Chief. I can take it from here."
"I told you I was going to stick with you "
"Until we figured out what was going on with my senses," Jim interjected. "Which we just did."
"Yeah, but "
"I'm not pulling you off the investigation, Blair. I just want you to take a couple of hours of downtime while there's a lull in the action. I'll swing by and pick up the search warrant, then head down to the carnival grounds. I'm not really expecting to find much of anything in Chambers' trailer, but if I do, I'll give you a call. You can meet me down there."
Blair looked like he was going to object again, but his expression abruptly changed from irritated to puzzled. "What do you mean you don't expect to find anything?"
"The killer we're after is too smart to leave anything incriminating lying around. If Chambers is our man, he would have had ample time to dispose of any evidence last night before he pulled his disappearing act."
Blair's eyes widened in surprise. "If? Are you saying you don't think Chambers is the murderer?"
Jim hesitated, trying to find the words to explain the feeling that they were chasing the wrong man. The evidence all seemed to point to Chambers, yet the Sentinel was still bothered by his partner's odd reaction to Arnie Klerk.
"Let's just say I'm glad Simon didn't pull the surveillance on the other suspects last night," he said finally. "Until we get the results of that background check you requested, I'm not willing to cross Klerk's name off the list."
Seeing Blair tense at the mere mention of the old man's name, Jim silently vowed that his first order of business after searching Chambers' trailer was going to be a 'face-to-face' with the funhouse owner. It was time to meet the man who had rattled his partner so badly.
Blair peered anxiously over the balcony railing, watching intently as Jim eased the blue and white Ford into the last remnants of morning rush-hour traffic. Despite the breakthrough they'd made, he was worried about his friend and desperately wished he'd been able to change his partner's mind about heading out alone. But Ellison had been adamant and Blair had finally acquiescedafter extracting a promise from the Sentinel that he wouldn't push himself or his abilities too hard.
"Not that he'll necessarily keep it if things get 'interesting', but it was good to hear him say it," the tired Guide grumbled as he strained to follow the pickup's progress down Prospect. "He thinks he's fine now. He's sure we've solved the problem with his senses. The 'fix' is in." Blair wished he was as confident. It seemed like they were on the right track, but like always he was charting a course through deadly terrain without a map, his only compass the dictates of his heart and instincts. If he was wrong about what was causing the freakout episodes, the consequences could be disastrous.
Especially now that Jim's out there on his own.
His gaze flickered to the Volvo, parked below. He had his own wheels. He could follow Jimfrom a distance, of course. The anthropologist quickly rejected the idea. The potential fallout wasn't worth the risk. Still, he couldn't help wishing he was at his partner's side. Having spent most of the last 48 hours as Jim's personal shadow, it felt decidedly odd to suddenly be separated. Odd and dangerous. "Be careful, man," he whispered as the truck disappeared from view.
Chiding himself for hoveringafter all, Jim had been taking care of himself for years before Blair arrived on the scenehe turned and slipped into the loft, locking the door behind him. He paused, giving the silent loft a bleary-eyed scan. The atmosphere lacked the strange tension of the night before, but the empty silence was almost as unnerving.
He scrubbed his face, barely stifling another yawn. Jim had been right about one thinghe was wiped. Fatigue was skewing his perceptions and playing havoc with his already frazzled nerves. A few hours of sleep would improve his outlook immensely.
After I take care of one small detail.
Jim's hesitant admission that he wasn't certain Chambers was the killer had fueled Blair's resolve to put his enforced downtime to good use. If the search of the carnie's trailer did come up dry, the observer wanted to be ready with a new lead for his partner.
Blair took a deep breath and headed toward the phone. He punched in the station's number and in short order was on the line with Rhonda, asking her to forward any new information which had come in to his university email account. After setting up his laptop on the coffee table, he stumbled to the bathroom. The promised files were waiting in his mailbox when he emerged fifteen minutes later, toweling his wet hair and wiping the last dabs of shaving creme from his face. He glanced at the screen and groaned. There were only six messages, but the attachments were huge. He marked them all to download and detoured to his bedroom. When he plopped down on the couch wearing a relatively clean pair of jeans and his favorite a burgundy flannel shirt, the transfer was still in progress.
He sagged against the back of the couch, struggling to stay awake despite the growing sense of uneasiness which was twisting his stomach into knots. The shower had cleansed the sweat and stink of fear from his skin, but his mind was still fogged; his thoughts and emotions dark and muddied. Staging a private rebellion of their own, his eyes drifted shut. He forced them open and knew exactly how Dorothy had felt when she realized she wasn't in Kansas anymore.
Wherever he was, it certainly didn't feel like home.
Nor look like it.
Not that he could actually see anything at the moment, because wherever he was, it was dark.
A sensory wasteland comprised of nothingness.
Even the laws of physics seemed to have taken a holiday. There was nothing but empty blackness beneath his feet. His head told him that he should be fallingplummeting downwardbut there was no sense of motion. No gut-twisting feeling of vertigo either, for which he was grateful. He rocked back on his heels, warily testing the unseen surface beneath his feet. No change. He widened his stance a bit, but decided not to press his luck any further. All evidence to the contrary, he was standing 'on' something. What that 'something' consisted of, and whether it would hold his weight if he went charging further into the dark were still unknowns.
He turned his head cautiously to the left and then to the right. For good measure he took a quick peek behind him. The view was the same on all sides. A black void.
He closed his eyes and took a deep centering breath before opening them again. Nothing had changed. He frowned, perversely irritated. If this was a dream, the lack of details proved his subconscious had a pretty poor imagination. If it was a vision, it was less than illuminating. In either case, he needed more to work with.
"Okay," he muttered impatiently. "Let's get this show on the "
Blair's words died in his throat as a full-length mirror materialized directly in front of him.
He eyed the reflective panel suspiciously. The mirror hovered in midair without any visible means of support. The silvered surface was smooth and unblemished, his reflection clear and sharply defined against a jet black background.
Remembering his last run-in with a similar device, Blair decided to avoid a head-on confrontation. He leaned to the left, craning his neck to peer around the edge of the mirror. Another glittering pane stood behind it. And another behind that. Cautiously testing each inch of the darkness before fully committing himself, he slid his feet across the invisible 'floor' until he stood beside the first mirror. What he saw from his new position confused him. The first three panels were only the beginning of a long line of mirrors. An army of reflective rectangles, each positioned roughly two feet directly behind the other, marched into the distance.
Leading where? he wondered.
He took a hesitant step forward and then another. When he was abreast of the fifth mirror he paused, glancing nervously over his right shoulder. For a moment, he had been certain he was being watched, but there was no one there. Nothing had emerged from the mirrors to sneak up on him. He forced himself to ignore the itchy tension between his shoulder blades, took a deep breath and another step.
His pace increased with each mirror that he passed. Tentative shuffles became long strides and then a slow jog. The mirrored column continued to outpace him, stretching endlessly onward. Driven by an urgency that he didn't understand, he broke into a full run. His path curved to the right and suddenly there were mirrors on both sides. He blasted full-throttle down the tight corridor they formed, spiraling deeper and deeper, drawncompelledtoward the core. He needed to reach the center. That's where he'd find the answers he sought. That's where he would find
The image of a bloodied, mutilated body suddenly slammed into his mind. Blair stumbled and lurched sideways. He fought to regain his balance, but his momentum carried him into the row of mirrors on his right. Pain tore through his side as he collided with their knife-sharp edges. His grunting gasp was lost amidst the ear-splitting sound of shattering glass and a keening wailthe echoes of which followed him as gravity abruptly reasserted itself and he fell, dropping like a stone into the darkness.
Randy Packard was busy directing the activities of a youthful cleanup crew as Jim climbed out of his truck at the waterfront grounds. When the carnival owner caught sight of the detective, he ushered the children off to their duties and gestured for Ellison to join him.
"No sign of Calvin yet this morning," Packard announced, confirming the report the detective had already received from the uniformed cops running surveillance from the waterfront's upper parking lot. The carnie eyed the folded papers Jim pulled from his jacket pocket. "I assume you're here to check out his trailer."
Ellison nodded and extended the warrant to the carnival owner. Packard frowned and accepted the document, but didn't bother to read it. He simply turned and led the detective to a small red and white trailer parked at the edge of the lot. His expression was skeptical as he handed Jim a small, gold-colored key to unlock the door.
"I know his dropping out of sight looks suspicious, detective, but I'm still not convinced Calvin's the man you're after." Jim remained silent. He had his own doubts about Chamber's guilt, but they conflicted with the news Simon had delivered less than fifteen minutes earlier. Banks' phone call had reached him as he was leaving Judge Reynolds' chambers with the search warrant. There had been another murder. A young woman. Killed the same way as the other victims. Chambers was the only suspect whose presence was unaccounted for. If he does resurface, he'd better have a hell of an alibi, Ellison thought grimly.
Unaware of the dark thoughts running through the detective's mind, Packard glared at Jim, muttered a reminder that Ellison had promised to keep him updated on the investigation and turned away, leaving the detective to his search. Cautiously dialing up his sense of smell, the Sentinel unlocked the trailer door and pulled it open. The air which wafted outward was stale, scented with cheap cologne and the rank smell of cigarette smoke. There was no trace of the odd odor he'd found on the bodies of the victims and no telltale reek of blood.
Ellison climbed the trailer's narrow metal steps and paused just inside the threshold, scanning the shadowy interior once before flipping on the lights. He frowned as he prowled through the cramped living space. Chambers lived simply, his quarters nearly as spartan as Jim's loft had been before Sandburg and his eclectic stream of clutter had taken over. There was an empty coffee mug upended in the sink of the galley-style kitchen, but no other signs that the occupant spent muchif anytime using the cramped cooking facilities. The narrow built-in bunk was pulled down and the covers thrown back in disarray. The Sentinel found no residual warmth lingering on the pillow or the balled sheets. The tiny bathroom showed signs of age, but outside of the beard stubble in the sink and the lime buildup in the toilet bowl, it was nearly as clean as the one in the loft. Jeans, t-shirts, several jackets and a pair of heavy boots filled the single closet.
Jim quickly checked the contents of the built-in cabinets which lined the walls. He found nothing out of the ordinary, very little in the way of personal belongings, and no weapons of any kind.
Prudence and a significant body of evidence dictated that they consider Chambers their number one suspect, but Jim was growing more certain the ex-Seal had nothing to do with the murders. He'd been a cop long enough to know that appearances could be deceiving. Chambers might have rabbited because he was guilty, or, as his partner had speculated, he might simply have been thumbing his nose at them. Personally, Jim thought the latter option was more likely. He had known men like Chambers in the service. They got off on making their competition look bad. They loved playing games. Except when it came to killing. That was business. They generally didn't resort to a lot of ritual hocus pocus when it came down to getting the job done, either.
Ellison took one last look around the interior before exiting the trailer, locking the door behind him. Packard was nowhere in sight, so he pocketed the key. He hesitated and glanced at his watch, debating whether to call his partner and bring him up to speed. Blair has enough nightmare material to work with as it is, he decided. The newest crime scene was being held secure until their arrival. After he concluded his business here, he'd swing by the loft to check on his partner. If Sandburg was up to it, they'd head out together and Jim could fill him in on the way. Satisfied with that rationalization, Ellison strode toward the main entrance to the carnival grounds. The funhouse was his next destination, an overdue meeting with Arnie Klerk the next thing on his agenda.
A group of laughing children toting bulging black plastic garbage bags passed him as he threaded his way between the silent food and game booths. An older youth, sporting a cast on his wrist, trailed behind them pushing a small two-wheeled dumpster filled with more trash. That must be the kid Sandburg talked to... Kevin... Jim realized. He made a mental note to talk to the boy before he left the grounds. The teen might have some interesting insights to offer on both of their suspects.
As the funhouse came into view, Ellison's thoughts focused on what he knew about 'Uncle Arnie'. Klerk appeared to be a harmless old man who had chosen to live the carnie life instead of sitting out his retirement in an old age home. However the slowly accumulating facts were beginning to suggest that there was more to the old man than met the eye. There was no mention of it in the information Packard had given them, but Klerk obviously had some medical training if he'd been playing doctor for the carnies. Setting broken bones wasn't like slapping on a bandaid. It required appropriate supplies and the training in how to use them.
And then there was the whole issue of how he had purchased the funhouse. Ellison was as eager as Sandburg to know why Klerk paid cash instead of using a certified check or bank draft. It was as though the old man didn't want anyone to know where the money came from.
Why? What's he trying to hide? Jim wondered. He stopped at the base of the steps which led to the funhouse entrance and eyed the dark tunnel suspiciously. It suddenly occurred to him that Klerk might be trying to hide something besides the money trail. Klerk's joint operating agreement with Packard gives him ownership of the building. That makes it his private little haunt. His own little world. He's got his own trailer, but he often spends the night in the funhouselike he did last nightsupposedly working on the attraction. But what if he's doing more than adjusting a few mirrors?
Sentinel senses dialed up to the max, he jogged to the near end of the building and started a careful circuit around the exterior, looking for another way in.
Blair's headlong freefall ended up an abruptand painfulthud as he rolled off the couch and onto the hardwood floor. He groaned and waited for the room to stop spinning before he sat up, warily examining his right side. There were no tears in the flannel shirt. No blood. Yet he could still 'feel' the sharp edges of the mirrors sinking into his skin. He shuddered and decided his subconscious had a good imagination after all. Too good. It had felt so real...
"That was NOT a fun trip," he muttered as he clambered shakily to his feet. He closed his eyes, felt the room tilt dangerously and immediately blinked them open. He still felt wasted, but the fear that any attempt at sleep would drop him back inside the mirror-filled nightmare kept him from sinking down on the couch.
He bent over to check his laptop instead. The files Rhonda had sent had downloaded successfully and there was a new message in his mailbox from Patrick. It was short and to the point. "Get your butt off-line. I need to talk to you."
Blair frowned and glanced at the clock, eyes widening in surprise. He had inadvertently tied up the phone line for nearly an hour. Patrick had been trying to reach him. What other calls had he missed? Jim's? Cursing himself roundly in one of the more colorful dialects he had learned in his travels, Blair logged off the Net. The phone rang and he lunged for it.
//"Wrong guess, Blair."//
Blair shook his head at the sardonic tone in the other grad student's voice. "Sorry, Patrick. I must have dozed off while I was downloading some files from the station. The last couple nights have been kind of light in the sleep department."
//"I figured as much, based on the time-coding on that email you sent me. At least it sounds like you made some progress. I agree with your conclusions, by the way."//
"Thanks," Blair admitted. "But I'm still a long way from putting all the pieces together and we're running out of time."
//"Has there been another murder?"//
"Not that I know of, but one of our suspects dropped out of sight last night, so it's distinctly possible."
Blair could empathize with the horror Patrick was obviously feeling. Giving the other grad student a moment to regroup, he snatched his glasses off the kitchen table and shuffled back to the couch. Cradling the phone against his shoulder, he sat down in front of his laptop and tapped away at the keyboard. Pulling up the first of the files Rhonda had sentArnie Klerk's 1996 income tax returnhe scanned it as Patrick began speaking again.
//"I managed to dig up some additional information on Dr. Marjorie Stahl. Pretty accomplished lady. I've got a copy of her obituary and her vitae. What do you want first?"//
"Give me the highlights from the obituary."
//"Dr. Marjorie Stahl... born Marjorie Ricks... age 68... died January 19, 1998, from injuries sustained in a car accident... Respected physician, researcher, educator... a pioneer in the field of alternative medicine..."//
Blair tuned out his friend for a moment as he studied the tax return. There were sizable amounts listed for earned and investment income. Whatever Klerk had been doing three years earlier had been more profitable than his current venture. He paged forward in the file, looking for copies of Klerk's W2 forms.
//"... survived by her husband "//
"Whoa, back up," Blair ordered, his attention caught by Patrick's words. "She was married?"
//"Yeah. For forty years. To a thoracic surgeon. Apparently they were childhood sweethearts. Married right out of high school. She credited him in several articles for his support and for his efforts in getting her research accepted by the conservative medical community."//
On impulse, Blair zoomed up to the top of Klerk's tax form and checked the filing status box. "Married," he murmured in surprise. "The other reports listed him as single..."
//"Listed who as single?"//
"One of our suspects," Blair muttered, barely realizing he had answered. He was busy hammering at the down arrow on his keyboard. He really needed to see those W2 forms.
Blair froze and shifted the phone back to his left hand, clenching it tightly. He was certain he had never given Patrick the names of any of their suspects.
//"Blair, are you still there?"//
"Uh, yeah... You just... How did you know his name?"
//"Because it's right here in the obituary. 'Dr. Stahl is survived by her husband, Dr. Arnold Klerk.'"//
Blair blinked twice and stared at his computer screen. The income tax forms confirmed what Patrick was telling him. The anthropologist shook his head in wonder. The most he'd been hoping for was some kind of tenuous connection between the researcher and one of their suspects. He'd never dreamed he'd find this. "Husband and wife... It's a good bet that Klerk was intimately familiar with her research. Hell, he probably proofread her manuscripts. That's how he knew about the obscure rituals."
//"And probably explains why there was no funeral service held,"// Patrick added grimly.
//"The last line of the obituary states that 'per the express direction of her husband, there will be no funeral service for the deceased.'"//
Blair's eyes widened. "The second ritual... it gave the person making the sacrifice the ability to grant 'life' to someone of their choosing. You don't really think "
//"I do. As insane as it sounds, I think Klerk's trying to use the ritual to bring his soulmate of forty years back to life."//
"Wouldn't he need her body to do that?"
//"According to the ritual, yes."//
Blair sat back, stunned. "But she's been dead for almost... oh, man... the timing... The first murders started the month after she died. The same month Klerk joined the carnival and purchased the funhouse." He shook his head to clear it and then launched himself off the couch, looking around wildly for his shoes. "Patrick, I owe you," he vowed, snagging the sneakers from underneath the kitchen table and jamming his feet into them. "Big time. This is the break we needed. We still need proof to tie Klerk to the actual murders "
//"But you already have it. Remember the marks on the victims' bodies? The interlocked 'CC' shapes? Your email message said you suspected that they were the killer's initials. This proves you're right."//
Blair hesitated, confused. "But that doesn't make any sense. Klerk's initials are AK not CC. That's why we thought the killer was one of the other carnies. An ex-Seal named Calvin Chambers."
//"Is he the one that disappeared last night?"//
"Yeah. Jim's down at the grounds checking out his trailer now, looking for a lead."
//"He's after the wrong man, Blair. Klerk's following an occult ritual very precisely, right?"//
//"'CC' in the occult alphabet represents the letter 'K'."//
Blair cursed and cut the connection. Grabbing his cell phone and his keys, he bolted from the apartment. Before he reached the stairwell's second landing, he was already dialing his partner.
The Sentinel rapped softly on a painted black panel on the side of the funhouse. Unlike the other panels he had tested, this one gave off a faintly hollow sound, suggesting there was an opening behind it. Even with his enhanced senses, finding the access door hadn't been easy. It had been cleverly disguised to blend in with the rest of the facade; no exterior hinges, no knob or handle. Ellison placed the palm of his hand against the left side of the panel and pushed inward. A grim smile of satisfaction curved his lips when he heard a click and the door swung open.
He peered into a dark, narrow passageway, his vision compensating automatically for the low light conditions. The rough wooden boards of the floor were scuffed and littered with mud and clumps of dew-speckled grass. The Sentinel crouched down and studied the area outside the doorway. The grass was torn and muddied, but he could discern two sets of prints made by heavy boots; one leading to the opening and one leading away. Jim took a quick look around, noting the position of the nearest food and game booths.
The other tents and trailers obscure the view of this side of the attraction. While Brown and Rafe were watching the front entrance last night, Klerk could have slipped out and back in without being observed.
Jim turned his attention to the ground again. Within seconds he found what appeared to be narrow tire tracks. His eyes narrowed as he recalled the small wheeled dumpster the carnie kids had been using to collect the trash. Klerk could have used one to haul away the corpses. Under the cover of darkness, it wouldn't have been difficult for the old man to reach the parking lot unobserved and load his victim into a vehicle for transport.
Ellison mentally kicked himself for missing the obvious 'opportunity' they had overlooked in the course of the investigation. The lack of blood at the sites where the bodies were found had suggested that the murders had been done elsewhere. The funhouse, which only Klerk had access to, made the perfect killing ground.
In his mind's eye, Jim could see his partner and Klerk standing at the entrance, the old man innocently inviting Sandburg in for a 'tour'. If the grad student's nerves hadn't been rattled by Chambers' menacing surveillence, if his instincts hadn't kicked in...
Blair might have been the next victim. That's probably what happened to the others. Klerk lured them inside and killed them.
Klerk's 'harmless' facade was a ploy... an act as false as the distorted mirrors he hid behind. Appearances were deceiving and in this case the deception was deadly.
Ellison straightened, a low, dangerous growl vibrating in his throat. It was time to put an end to Klerk's murderous insanity. He started to reach for his gun, but before he could retrieve it from its holster, the cell phone in his jacket pocket began to vibrate. He pulled it out and answered the incoming call with a soft, "Yeah," before it rang aloud.
Ellison frowned, silently vowing that he was going to subject his partner to a few 'sixth sense' tests when the case was over. Depending on your point of view, Sandburg's timing was either impeccable or atrocious. The detective moved a few feet away from the open doorway and tried to keep his own anxiety out of his voice. "It's me, Chief. What's up?"
//"Plenty, man. Are you still at the carnival grounds?"//
//"Good. Stay put. I'm headed your way."//
Jim eyed the dark passageway into the funhouse uneasily. "You don't have to do that, Chief. Chambers' trailer checked out clean. I didn't even fill one evidence bag."
//"Well, we're gonna need a truckload of 'em for the funhouse. A body bag, toofor a two-year old corpse."//
//"Klerk's the murderer, Jim. The background check and the stuff Patrick dug up all but confirms it. I know it sounds crazy, but it looks like he's been killing people in an attempt to bring his wife back to life."//
//"His dead wife, Jim. He was married to the woman who wrote the book on those rituals."//
Ellison's jaw muscles spasmed, and his eyes took on a deadly gleam as he pulled his gun from his holster and thumbed off the safety. The connection between Klerk and Stahl wasn't enough to convict the funhouse operator of the murders, but added to the rest of the evidence, it gave the detective probable cause to go into the attraction without a warrant.
"I'm outside the funhouse, now," Jim reported tersely. "I found a second way ina side door on the end of the exhibit. Call Simon and have him organize some backup. There's a uniformed unit stationed at the waterfront's upper parking lot keeping an eye out for Chambers. They're the closest. Make sure they cover both entrances to the funhouse. I don't want Klerk slipping through our fingers if he gets by me."
//"Wait! Don't go in there alone! I'm already in my car. I'll be there in less than ten minutes."//
"I've got to act now, Chief. I'm not letting this psycho get away."
//"Jim, listen "//
Blair sounded desperate, but Jim was determined. His Guide had an uncanny ability to sense when his Sentinel was heading into something dangerous, but was clueless when it came to his own well-being. Despite Jim's best efforts to keep his partner safely on the sidelines, the observer usually ended up right along side himin the middle of whatever trouble was brewing.
It's not going to happen this time, Ellison decided firmly. Blair wasn't going to set foot in the funhouse and he wasn't getting anywhere near Klerk before the old man was in custody.
"No, you listen, Sandburg," Jim growled. "You call in the troops and stay out of the action. Now, get a hold of Simon. I'm going in."
"Damn it, Jim, you can't "
The Sentinel snapped the phone shut, decisively cutting off his Guide's heated objections. He stuffed it in his pocket, dialed up his senses, raised his gun and stepped warily into the dark passageway.
The Volvo fishtailed and sent a wave of loose gravel spewing in several directions as Blair stomped on the brakes and executed a sharp right turn into the lower parking lot of the waterfront festival park. The anthropologist clenched the wheel, corrected the skid, and floored the gas pedal. He screeched to a stop behind Jim's truck and leaped out of the car. A glance at the marked patrol car parked near the pavilion revealed that it was empty. His hope that the uniformed cops were already providing backup for his partner died when he caught sight of them near Packard's office camper. The officers were engaged in what appeared to be a heated argument with the carnival owner and a rapidly growing crowd of carnies.
Blair hesitated, shot a worried glance toward the carnival grounds, then ran toward the assembled group. Their loud voices carried clearly on the crisp morning air. The cops were claiming they'd seen Chambers sneaking onto the grounds. The carnies were belligerently challenging their assertion. Packard was trying to keep things calm, but failing miserably. Tempers were flaring on both sides and the anthropologist feared the shouted insults were a prelude to more drastic action.
Blair had no time for any of it. He elbowed his way through the crowd and lurched to a gasping stop in front of the two police officers. "What are you doing?" he demanded, fixing them with a glare. "You're supposed to be backing up my partner, not trying to start a riot."
The younger of the two officers glared back and started to grab for his nightstick. The older cop's face registered surprise and then recognition. He quickly laid a hand on his partner's arm. "Hold on, Pete. I think I know this guy" He took a step closer to Blair, studying him intently. "You're Sandburg, right? Ellison's observer?"
Blair glanced at the officer's name tag and breathed a sigh of relief. Ralph Jenkins. He'd met the man six months earlier. Jenkins had been one of the beat cops at the scene of a nasty armed robbery he and Jim had responded to off hours. Ellison's opinion of the older cop's attitude and aptitude had been extremely positive. Blair had been gratified at the officer's quick acceptance of his presence at the detective's side. "Yeah. Jim's here. He's gone into the fun house after the killer. You're supposed to be there, covering the exits to make sure he doesn't escape."
"We didn't get a call for backup," responded the younger cop, turning to his partner in confusion.
"It must have come in while we were searching the grounds," the older man murmured, his gaze fixed on Blair. "Pete thought he saw someone matching Chambers' description. We started to take a look around, but ran into some... resistance." The cop's gaze shifted to Packard.
"I told Detective Ellison I'd cooperate with his investigation," the carnival owner replied testily. "But that doesn't mean I'm going to let you run rough-shod "
"Enough!" Blair said sharply. "We don't have time for this. Jim's gone after Klerk "
"Klerk?" It was Jenkins' turn to look puzzled. "I thought Chambers was our man."
Blair shook his head adamantly. "It's Klerk. We've got proof." He caught the harsh exhale from Packard and shot the carnival owner a sympathetic glance. "I'm sorry, but it's true."
Packard stared at him for a moment, then nodded abruptly. "What can we do to help?"
"Jim said there was a side entrance to the fun house," Blair said quickly. "Is there any other way in or out besides that one and the tunnel in the front?"
"Not that I'm aware of," Packard said grimly.
"What about the layout inside?" Blair pressed. "Can you tell me anything about how the attraction's set up? Any ideas about where Klerk might be hiding in there?"
"I haven't been inside since Klerk bought the operating rights. He's run his own safety checks; done all the maintenance," Packard admitted with a rueful scowl. "I probably should have kept a closer eye on things, but the fun house has consistently been a popular attractionno complaints from the customers..."
"No reason to suspect anything was amiss."
Packard grimaced and nodded. The anthropologist scanned the faces of the carnies clustered around him, hoping someone else might have something to add, but all he saw was a lot of head shaking and anxious, puzzled expressions. The one familiar face in the crowd, Kevin's, was pale, the boy's eyes wide with dread. Blair forced a quick, reassuring smile. He didn't dare take time for more.
"Guess I'll just have to improvise," he murmured. As if that thought had conjured it into existence, he caught sight of a heavy, wide-beam flashlight tucked into the waistband of the boy's jeans. "Hey, Kevin, can I borrow that?" He gestured to the device. The teen immediately pulled it free and pressed it into his hand. Blair nodded his thanks and turned to face Packard once more. "If you really want to help, pass the word among your people to clear the area. Let the police handle the rest."
Packard glanced uncertainly at the two uniformed cops, then nodded and gathered his employees around him. His voice dropped to a bare whisper as he began issuing directions and dispersing the crowd.
"Thanks for the assist," Jenkins murmured appreciatively, stepping closer to the civilian observer. "How long before the rest of the cavalry gets here?"
"I'm not sure," Blair admitted. "I called in the request to Captain Banks about ten minutes ago."
"We'd better get a move on then." Jenkins gestured for Blair to accompany him as he turned toward the parking lot and tapped his partner on the arm. "We'll need the vests and the shotguns, Pete."
Blair intentionally fell behind as the officers hurried toward their squad car. Now that the issue of proper backup had been attended to, he was free to follow his own instinctsthe ones which were at that very moment screaming at him to find his Sentinel as soon as possible. Gripping the flashlight tightly, the determined Guide peeled off to the left and broke into a dead run. He was nearly halfway to the outer ring of gleaming carnival rides when he heard Jenkins' surprised shout.
"Hey, Sandburg! Where are you going?"
"Where do you think?" Blair yelled over his shoulder, never breaking stride.
The Sentinel slipped stealthily through the warren of corridors which comprised the working interior of the fun house, pausing occasionally to open up his sense of smell to confirm he was on the right track. The sparsely spaced low-wattage bulbs hanging from the ceiling cast enough light to alert him to the placement of connecting passageways and short flights of steps, but he kept the vision dial cranked several notches above normal to prevent himself from being overwhelmed by the stomach-twisting stench which surrounded him.
The fun house reeked of death and the odors he had come to identify with insanity.
Jim took a deep breath, wiped the beaded sweat off his forehead with back of his free hand and forced the familiar sensation of terror he associated with his nightmare to the back of his mind. He was grateful that the plywood walls were painted a flat black. If they had been mirrored like the public areas of the attraction, he would have been hard pressed to keep from losing it.
With an angry shake of his head, he moved forward, determined to find the monster who had transformed the fanciful playland into a slaughterhouse.
Blair pelted through the grounds, barely avoiding several collisions with the carnies who streamed out of the midway. He took as direct a path toward the fun house as he could manage, but the row of concession stands dividing one side of the grounds from the other created an almost impenetrable barrier. He eyed the gaps between the tightly packed booths anxiously, searching for a place to squeeze through. When he spotted a space which looked wide enough, he practically dove through it.
He fell forward, sprawling face first on the ground. The impact drove the breath from his lungs, but he managed to hold onto the flashlight. Black and white spots danced in his vision as he struggled to push himself to his knees. A none-too-gentle shove from a booted foot sent him tumbling again. Dazed, he looked up into Calvin Chambers' sneering face.
"You should learn to watch where you're going, punk," the carnie hissed.
A surge of anger propelled Blair to his feet, hefting the heavy flashlight like a club.
Unimpressed, the ex-Seal crossed his arms over his chest and leaned casually against the side of the game booth he'd been hiding behind. "Tough guy, huh?" Chambers observed sarcastically.
"When I need to be," Blair answered coldly, lowering his make-shift weapon. "What the hell was that for?"
"Just a little payback for the trouble you and your hard-ass partner have caused me."
"You're wrong. We haven't "
Chambers was suddenly in Blair's face, his snide grin replaced by an angry snarl. "I come back from a fairly profitable night spent fleecing some of your local cardsharps, to find that the cops are lookin' to haul me in. Last pig I talked to was your partner and as you'll recall, he and I didn't hit it off too well. I figure he got pissed off because I came down on his boy-toy and decided to get even by framing me for some murder rap."
"No one's trying to frame you for anything," Blair retorted, standing his ground. "If you hadn't pulled a disappearing act last night, the worst that would have happened was that Jim would've hauled you downtown for questioning." The observer shook his head sadly. "Any trouble you've got, you caused yourself, man. You're your own worst enemy."
Chambers' eyes narrowed dangerously. "Yeah, right. That's the same thing the shrink said right before they booted me out of the service. It's pretty funny, considering that for the eight years I was serving my country, I was the other side's worst enemy." The ex-Seal shook his head in disgust and for a moment, the bitterness in his eyes was replaced with an expression of painful betrayal. "The Navy trained me to be the best. The elite of the elite. They don't care if you're an arrogant ass-hole as long as you follow orders, but start questioning things and WHAM... they slap a 'psycho' label on your forehead and dump you in the gutter with the trash."
Blair stared at the man in open-mouthed surprise, suddenly seeing him in a whole new light. Chambers scowled at the anthropologist and gave him a shove backward. "Ah, why am wasting my breath? You wouldn't understand."
He started to turn away, but Blair reached out and grabbed the carnie by the arm, stopping him. "You're right. I don't have the background to understand what you've been through, but Jim does. He's been through some serious shit with the military himself."
Chambers' shook off Blair's hold. "Mister Clean-cut? Mr. All American Hero? His kind's got boot-licking down to an art. They never question authority. They just follow orders like sheep."
If the situation hadn't been so desperate, Blair would have laughed. "After three-plus years as Jim Ellison's partner, I can definitely assure you that he's not a 'follow the crowd' kind of guy," he replied firmly. "In fact he has a disturbing propensity to dive into trouble without waiting for backup."
Like he's doing now. With a start, Blair realized he was wasting time his partner might not have. He took a good look at the ex-Seal and made a quick decision. It would be better to have the man in his corner, instead of at his throat.
"Instead of blaming everyone for the raw deal you got, why don't you try proving they were wrong?" Chambers' black glare intensified, but Blair didn't let it deter him. "That story we fed you last night about the missing kid was a smoke-screen. We're tracking a murderer. We've got proof it's Arnie Klerk. Jim didn't want to take the chance that Klerk might escape, so he went in after him."
"So? He's a cop. That's his job."
"And he's damn good at it, but Klerk's particular brand of insanity makes him unpredictable. Dangerous. I'm going in to back up my partner. If you really are the 'best of the best', I could use your help."
For an instant, Chambers' eyes glimmered eagerly in response to the challenge Blair had thrown out, but the light died abruptly as if dark shutters had slammed into place. "I'm not puttin' my neck on the line for some pig," he sneered. "He's your 'partner'; your problem. Not mine."
Chambers' spun around and stalked away. Berating himself for wasting precious time on a lost cause, Blair sprinted toward the fun house.
The rank sensory trail led the Sentinel to a short dead end corridor on the second floor. Jim eyed the innocuous black walls suspiciously and took a cautious sniff. The odor was stronger to his right.
A hidden room?
He stepped closer and rapped his knuckles lightly against the wood. The hollow echo confirmed his theory. He cranked up his hearing. There was an odd, sizzling sound which he couldn't immediately identify, but no signs of life on the other side of the wall. He holstered his gun and bought touch into play, tracing sensitive fingertips over the plywood panels. Within seconds he found what appeared to be another cleverly disguised door.
He pushed and the panel swung inward, revealing a small glowing chamber. Jim stepped inside, quickly scanning the interior. The walls were covered with the same square, mirrored tiles which decorated the exterior of the attraction. The painted black wooden floor and ceiling amplified the strange spatial distortion created by the mirrors.
The most surreal element of the room, however, was the glass coffin which rested upon a raised dais in the center of the enclosed space. Banks of lit candles surrounded it like a shrine. The flames flickered and danced, shimmering on the mirrored surfaces of the walls, stinging the Sentinel's eyes with thousands of brilliant pinpricks of light.
The scene was like something out of a fairy taleexcept that the decomposing corpse inside the glass case bore no resemblance to the mythical Sleeping Beauty.
Swallowing his revulsion, Jim approached the coffin and studied the remains of Dr. Marjorie Stahl. Whatever techniques Klerk had employed in an attempt to preserve his wife's corpse had failed. Scraps of flesh, wisps of hair, the dull gleam of a gold necklace, and the soiled shreds of a sea-green satin evening dress were the only clues to suggest that the decay ravaged skeleton had once been a living, breathing human being.
Although the coffin appeared to be sealed, a sickly sweet odor emanated from it. Mixed with the fumes from the burning scented candles and the metallic smell of blood, the stench was overpowering. Jim dialed back his sense of smell and taste and turned his attention to a further examination of the room.
Next to the base of the platform lay a folded plastic tarp. The blood trapped in the creases was still a deep red. The telltale brownish stains and splatters which the Sentinel found on the painted floor surrounding the dais painted a horrifying picture of the kind of madness which had been done there.
Recalling his partner's explanation about the ritual the killer had been conducting, Jim glanced up toward the ceiling, looking for an opening through which moonlight could enter the chamber. Directly above the coffin he found the faint lines which defined the shape of a small trap door.
Jaw spasming in anger, the detective moved to the small table which had been placed near one end of the coffin and studied the items laying on its surface. There was an ornate dagger which matched the description of the murder weapon precisely. There were also two bunches of fresh herbs. Jim crushed a leaf of each between his fingers, releasing their pungent aroma. The thyme was a familiar scenthe recognized it's distinct fragrance from one of Sandburg's early sensory tests. He couldn't identify the second herb, but he knew it was the same one he had smelled on the victim's bodies. There was also a tall glass decanter filled with a gold colored liquid. A cautious sniff revealed a hint of sesame.
He picked up the small, leather bound book which lay beside the dagger and quickly thumbed through it. As if the rest of the evidence weren't damning enough, the handwritten journal chronicled every gruesome detail of Klerk's killing spree. Sickened beyond belief, Jim tucked the book into his jacket pocket.
A discordant blast of music suddenly hammered against his eardrums and his senses abruptly flared out of control. Wincing under the unexpected sensory assault, he shook his head, trying to clear it. He looked up, blinking furiously and found himself staring at his own reflection in one of the mirrors. His breath caught in his throat. He blinked again and suddenly there was another face in the mirror. A gnarled hand. A flicker of something bright. Transfixed, he stood unmoving as the hand emerged from the silvery surface and reached toward him...
"Knowledge is power... It illuminates the dark... lets you see what's really there."
The memory of his Guide's words freed him from his nightmare-induced stasis. With a gasp the Sentinel wrenched his senses back under control and he saw what was really there. Not someone in front of him, reaching out of the mirror, but someone behind him. Jim started to turn, reaching for his gun at t he same time. Pain exploded at the base of his skull and he toppled forward onto the coffin. The box and its grisly contents slid to the floor. The sounds of breaking glass and a scream of pure rage were the last things Ellison heard before consciousness fled.
Assuming Jim had entered the fun house through the side entrance, Blair opted for the front. He charged up the narrow metal steps and slid to an abrupt stop at the mouth of the tunnel. The power to the attraction appeared to be shut downthe string of lights around the outside of the entrance were off and the interior of the passageway was dark. Blair wasn't taking any chances, though. If the Sentinel's senses were on-line, Jim would know the moment he stepped inside, but he didn't want to alert Klerk to his presence.
Stepping carefully over the pressure strip he had tripped on his first visit, Blair flicked the switch on the flashlight and aimed the beam at the floor. The distorted mirrored surface refracted the light in a hundred different directions, weakening its brilliance. He pointed the flashlight toward the end of the tunnel. The light barely penetrated the darkness. He swallowed hard, reminded himself why he was there and began his cautious journey inward.
His strategy, such as it was, was simple: find his partner and keep Klerk from getting awaypreferably in that order.
After a quick glance, he ignored the mirrors positioned along each side of the walkway. He cast only a blurred, insubstantial reflection in the tall panelsas if he weren't really there. He told himself it was merely the lack of lighta trick of the oddly contoured surfacesbut the feeling of deja vu was disturbing.
This is not a dream or a vision, he reminded himself as he edged forward. This is real.
When he reached the point where the hallway bent to the right, he found the second activation strip. He paused, studying the floor beyond it. In a narrow section of the center, the mirrored tiles had been replaced by a black, rubbery surface. It looked like a small scale version of the moving walkways at the airport. Unlike those constantly flowing people-movers, this one was inactive. He let the flashlight beam play along its length. It sloped upward at a fairly sharp angle for about fifteen feet. Something shiny stood at the end. Blair frowned and placed his foot on the grooved surface, breathing out a sigh of relief when it remained motionless. He scurried up the incline. At the top, two side-by-side mirrors blocked his path.
He refrained from touching them, sweeping the panes with the beam of the flashlight instead. The mirrors seemed to float in the darkness. Just like the mirrors from his dream. He ruthlessly squelched the memory and examined each one carefully.
No hinges, so they don't swing inward... maybe they're supposed to slide apart like elevator doors...
Blair stuffed the flashlight into the back waistband of his jeans. In the absence of the torch's feeble light the darkness seemed to take on a greater malevolence, prompting him to work quickly. Sliding his fingers into the crevice dividing the mirrors, he tried to pry them apart. There was resistance, then suddenly they slid free on their invisible tracks. He froze, staring into the darkness in front of him, waiting breathlessly to see if he had triggered anything. There was nothing but black void and absolute stillness.
His dream again.
He fumbled for the flashlight and directed the beam forward. Another hallway of mirrors lay ahead of him. Tightlipped with resolve, Blair stepped over the threshold.
The passageway erupted in a explosion of light and sound which nearly drove Blair to his knees. The flashlight dropped, forgotten, from his grasp. He gasped in pain and screwed his eyes shut as the mirror-enhanced brilliance assaulted his dilated pupils. He clapped his hands over his ears, trying to shut out the blaring organ musicaptly sounding like something out of a 1950s horror filmwhich reverberated through the hallway.
The sense of urgency he'd felt during his dream filled him and he broke into a staggering run, finally understanding the significance of his visions. A section of floor rolled and undulated beneath his feet. He skittered across it. Two short flights of stairs jolted into motion, each step zig-zagging crazily left and then right. He leapfrogged from one platform to the next. In his mad dash, he tripped other unseen triggers. Fanciful rooms filled with strobing lights, revolving barrels and bizarrely contoured mirrors sprang to life along the maze. He ignored them, continually bearing right, following the spiraling passageway.
He had to find the centerhad to find his partner before the Sentinel became the killer's next victim.
He shouted Jim's name as he ran, no longer concerned about alerting Klerk to his presence. Suddenly there was a loud crash to his right, followed by a chilling scream of rage. Blair pulled to a stop, facing a flat section of mirrors. Inspired by the memories of what had happened in his dreams, he placed both hands on the silvery surface and shoved. He fell forward as the mirrored panel pivoted on an unseen hinge and swung inward, revealing a vision from hell.
Dozens of overturned candles guttered and clogged the air of the small mirrored chamber with their foul smoke. Tongues of flame licked greedily at the floor and crawled up the strips of dry wood between the glittering tiles mounted on the walls. Blair swiped at his tearing eyes and froze, mesmerized by a deadly tableau.
Jim lay crumpled amidst the splintered wreckage of some kind of glass case. Beneath his left arm was a grinning human skull. Face contorted with rage and grief, Arnie Klerk loomed over his motionless partner.
"YOU RUINED IT! YOU RUINED EVERYTHING!" the old man shrieked.
The sight of the glittering dagger in Klerk's hands galvanized Blair to action. With an anguished cry, he launched himself at the old man. The force of his impact knocked Klerk away from Jim, but dropped Blair to his knees. Dazed, the observer's gaze blearily swept the room for some kind of weapon. A heavy wrench lay only a few feet away, but he knew that retrieving it would mean leaving Jim open to attack. In a desperate attempt to keep the killer away from his partner, Blair shoved himself to his feet again and grabbed the old man's arm. With surprising strength, Klerk wrenched free and swiped at the younger man with the knife. Blair turned, trying to avoid the thrust. The blade sliced effortlessly through Blair's flannel shirt and skittered across his ribs, carving a burning gash across his right side before sinking deeper into the tender flesh of his abdomen.
A choked scream escaped Blair's lips. His knees buckled and he sank to the floor, draped across Jim's legs. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he pressed his right arm against the wound and looked up, trying to locate his assailant. He didn't have to look far. Klerk stood over him, the knife raised high above his head. Blair started to raise a hand in supplication, but the madness he saw in the old man's eyes told him it was no use.
A groan of black despair issued from his smoke-choked throat. The truth had been hidden within his dreamsthe spirals, the mirrors. If only he'd seen it, understood it in time. He'd been blind to the import of his visions and it was going to cost him not only his life, but the life of his Sentinel as well.
Blair whispered a prayer for forgiveness and sucked in a last painful breath as the blade began to descend.
A dark shape suddenly flowed out of the smoke and flames wreathing the room. Klerk staggered backward as an arm wrapped around his throat and suddenly his head snapped sideways with a sickening crunch. The dagger clattered to the floor and the old man's lifeless body followed a second later. Wide eyed with shock, Blair looked up to meet Calvin Chambers' black, penetrating gaze. He expected to find the same madness in the ex-Seal's eyes which had filled Klerk's, but to his surprise what he saw was determination tinged with regret.
Chambers dropped to one knee in front of Blair and reached forward to check the knife wound. "How bad is it?"
Feeling his partner starting to stir beneath him, Blair swatted the carnie's hand away. "I just need a second... to catch my breath." He fought off a wave of dizziness as he shifted his weight off of Jim's legs.
"We may not have that much time." Chambers hooked an arm around Blair and hauled him to his feet. Before the startled Guide could protest, the carnie half-carried, half-pushed him out of the chamber and propped him against the mirrored wall of the outer corridor. "Stay put," he ordered.
"I'm... all right... Just get Jim... out of there," Blair gasped.
Chambers' shot him a disbelieving glare, but to Blair's relief, the ex-Seal turned and disappeared into the flaming chamber of horrors
The hallway was rapidly filling with smoke. Blair ducked his chin and pulled the collar of his shirt over his nose and mouth, but the acrid fumes seeped through the make-shift filter, triggering a coughing fit. Searing pain ripped through him and he doubled over. He crumpled against the wall and slid to a gasping heap on the cold floor.
"Come on, Army. Time to move your sorry ass."
Ellison winced away from the caustic voice and the strong fingers probing the aching lump on the back of his head. He opened his eyes to find a shadowy figure hovering over him. Awareness returned in a rush of painful sensations and confusing imagesall of which screamed 'danger'. Instinct took over and Jim came up swinging.
"Whoa! Back off! I'm here to help!"
Stunned by the outcry, the Sentinel wrenched at his sensory controls, forcing the blurred shape of his adversary into focus.
"Chambers," he rasped, rocking back on his heels in surprise.
The ex-Seal rubbed his jaw and glared at the stunned detective. "If you're done playin' Rambo, I suggest scrub this mission. This place is a tinderbox. It's gonna go up fast."
Chambers' words broke the Sentinel out of his groggy daze. Sharp eyes swept the room, assessing the situation and cataloging the damage. He dialed down taste and smell and cranked up his hearing, filtering past the crackling sound of the fire. There was no heartbeat emanating from Klerk's motionless form, but there was a familiar throbbing pulse close by.
Jim's blood ran cold. His head snapped around and he lunged for the doorway. The flashing lights and music blaring in the corridor hit him like a physical blow, but it didn't stop him from reaching his partner's side.
Dropping to one knee, he carefully pulled the observer into the shelter of his embrace. "What part of 'stay out' didn't you understand, Sandburg?" he growled, masking his concern with false annoyance.
Blair's head lolled back against Jim's shoulder. Pain-clouded blue eyes blinked and tried to focus. "Just doin'... my job..." he gasped.
Ellison shook his head in dismay, quickly evaluating the younger man's condition. It wasn't good. He snaked an arm around his partner and lifted Blair to his feet. Nudging the anthropologist's arm aside, the Sentinel tucked his Guide close to his side, pressing his own hand and upper arm against the freely bleeding wound.
He glanced up and down the corridor. The lights strobed and pulsed within the swirling smoke. Flames danced on the mirrored surfaces beneath their feet and over their heads. It was almost impossible to tell which were reflections and which were the real thing.
"Which way out?" Jim demanded, turning to Chambers.
The ex-Seal turned carnie looked around in confusion, his eyes widening in alarm. "I don't know. I came in the back way. I'm all turned around."
The Sentinel scanned the hallway again, angrily blinking away the tears blurring his burning eyes. Not even his enhanced vision could penetrate the thick blanket of smoke. He tried reaching out with his hearing, but the fire's growing screams of destruction deafened him to everything except his Guide's urgent whisper.
Ellison looked down into his partner's wide blue eyes. Blair nodded his head and made a feeble motion with his right hand, indicating they should move forward.
"Spiral... stay... to the left..."
"Got it," Jim murmured, hugging Blair tightly to his side as another coughing fit shook the younger man's body. "Just hang on, Chief."
"I'll take point," Chambers volunteered, his uncertainty vanishing as he strode briskly ahead.
The detective urged his wounded partner into motion, following in the ex-Seal's wake. The flashing lights reflecting off the mirrored walls and the rising stench threatened to overwhelm the Sentinel, but he kept his attention focused firmly on his Guide. As they wound their way toward the main entrance, fighting the suffocating effects of the noxious fumes and the attraction's dangerously playful antics, Chambers alternated between scouting ahead and darting back to the partners to check their progress. When Jim stumbled at the end of the moving ramp, the carnie latched onto both men and dragged them toward daylight.
The trio emerged from the mouth of the tunnel mere seconds before the fun house roof collapsed inward, shooting a plume of fire and sparks high into the clear morning sky. Coughing and gasping for breath, Jim felt another set of hands close on his arm, dragging him and his semi-conscious burden down the steps. He jerked away from that hold when insistent fingers pried at the arm he had wrapped around his partner.
"Come on, Army, let go," Chambers' voice hissed in his ear. "Let the medics earn their pay."
"Listen to him, Jim. Sandburg looks like he could use some help."
Ellison looked up through streaming eyes into Simon's worried face. It took several seconds for the words to penetrate the detective's exhaustion-fogged daze, but he was finally persuaded to relinquished his charge into other capable hands. He watched anxiously as the EMTs eased Blair onto a stretcher and wrapped a pressure bandage around his abdomen. The Sentinel's fears eased slightly when his Guide's dark blue eyes fluttered open. Their gazes locked for a moment as they sought to assure themselves that the other was all right. Jim dropped to one knee beside his partner, gripped the younger man's hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. Blair's gaze shifted slightly and from behind the oxygen mask the paramedics had strapped over his lower face he murmured a raspy, 'Thank you.'
Jim glanced over his shoulder. Chambers stood behind him, looming protectively over the detective and his observer. The ex-Ranger rose to his feet and the carnie backed off a step.
"I'll second that," Ellison said gruffly, extending his hand to underscore his words.
Chambers' expression morphed from suspicion to surprise. He started to reach out to take the offered handshake, then suddenly snapped to attention and delivered a crisp salute.
"Glad to be of assistance, Sir," he replied, his eyes lighting with pride.
Jim returned the salute without hesitation and glanced down at his partner who, despite his obvious pain, was grinning in delight. The Sentinel flashed his Guide a relieved smile of his own, grateful that their joint nightmares were finally over.
Jim Ellison shouldered open the door to the loft juggling his keys, a bag of Chinese carry-out, a stack of case files and an armload of books he'd picked up for Blair at the university.
"Hey, honey, I'm home," he warbled in a weak falsetto.
The annoyed grunt which floated out of the living room in response to his greeting wasn't unexpected. Five and a half days of severely restricted activity had turned his normally good-natured partner sullen and snappish.
Jim nudged the door shut with his foot and dropped his keys into the basket, surreptitiously studying his loft mate as he carried their dinner into the kitchen.
Blair sat lengthwise on the couch, a blanket draped over his legs. On the coffee table were the remains of what had apparently passed for the young man's luncha cup of tea and a half-eaten bagel. Piles of books, dog-eared anthropology journals, papers and blue exam booklets were stacked within arm's reach. The remote control for the television perched on top of the tallest stack of eclectic clutter.
It was a familiar scene, yet there were clear signs that things weren't quite back to normal. Blair's hair was limp and stringy, hanging in lank waves around his face. In order to keep the dressings on his wound dry, he had been forced to take sponge baths instead of showers and the gymnastics required to attempt washing his hair in the sink or tub were still beyond him. The glasses which he shoved impatiently up on his nose were his backup pair. The new wire rim's which had been ordered to replace the ones he had lost at some point during the confrontation with Arnie Klerk were in Jim's jacket pocket, their retrieval the last errand the detective had run on his way home. The stiff set of Blair's shoulders and the lines of strain around the dark blue eyes and frowning mouth suggested the anthropologist was still hurting.
He probably overdid it again. If he doesn't stop pushing himself, he's going to tear out those stitches.
Jim swallowed the rebuke before it could escape his lips and slipped the carry-out containers into the oven. His Guide's physical pain was only part of what concerned the Sentinel. When pressed, Blair had admitted to the strange dreams which had foreshadowed the events at the fun house, but he was oddly reluctant to discuss them, pleading the need to process all that had happened before sharing the details.
It seemed ironic that the spirit world his Shaman had been so desperately trying to find had somehow reached out to envelop him instead. Jim knew Blair wanted answers to why and how it had happened. Ellison would have preferred to take the victory they had been granted and move on, but he was determined not to repeat the mistake he had made three months earlier. While he might be uncomfortable with the implied ramifications of Blair's emerging shamanistic talents, he had made a pledge to his partner and he was determined to keep it.
After all, Blair kept his side of the bargain. He stayed in my world, working at my side, searching for the answers to my sensory and personal nightmares. He risked his life for mine and for the lives of the innocent people Klerk would have targeted if he had managed to slip through our fingers. The least I can do is listen with an open mind when Blair's ready to talk.
Jim had a plan for moving that moment along. The first step was to get his young friend out of his sour mood. Turning the dial on the oven to its lowest setting, he picked up the stack of books he had dropped on the counter and headed for the living room.
"Cranky, are we?" Ellison teased gently, shifting a pile of books aside to make room for the new batch.
Blair glowered up at him. "Don't even start, man."
Jim ignored the warning and moved around to the end of the couch, laying his palm on the younger man's forehead. "Yep, just as I thought," he murmured, nodding sagely.
Blair batted Jim's hand away, "What?" he demanded, scowling and wincing at the same time as the abrupt movement pulled at still tender skin and tissue.
"Someone's got a bad case of cabin fever," Ellison responded.
Jim grinned at his partner's petulant expression. He understood Blair's frustration at being house bound and his impatience with the healing process. Neither of them would ever win any awards for being 'patient' patients. He had been more than a little surly himself after delivering his partner into the hands of the awaiting emergency room staff. While the doctors had been busy stitching and stapling his Guide back together, the Sentinel had nearly taken off the head of the attending physician who had drawn the onerous duty of dealing with the detective's own injuries.
After cleaning and dressing the minor lacerations Jim had received when he'd collapsed onto the glass coffin, and concluding that the whack he'd taken on the back of the head hadn't resulted in a concussion, Ellison's doctor had practically fled the room. Within moments of signing the last of the unending series of forms which always accompanied a visit to the ER, the Sentinel had tracked down his Guide. Once Blair was settled into a private room, he had planted himself in a chair at the young man's side, shooting baleful glares at anyone who dared to suggest that he might be more comfortable elsewhere.
Sandburg's hospital stay had been mercifully shortless than 24 hoursbut the nature of the knife-wound had dictated almost complete bed rest once he'd gotten home. Dosed with pain killers and antibiotics, Blair had essentially slept through the first three days of his convalescence, rising only to weave his way unsteadily to the bathroom, pick at the light meals Jim had prepared, drink some tea and down another dose of medication.
By the fourth day, Sandburg wanted to be up and doing, but his body wasn't cooperating and the meds made him too groggy to concentrate for any period of time. Jim had refrained from arguing when Blair announced he was dumping the pain pills in favor of one of his herbal remedies, but he kept a close eye on his friend and tucked the medication in the medicine cabinet in case the anthropologist changed his mind.
Thanks to the cooperative efforts of Simon and the other members of the task force, Jim had managed to handle most of the paperwork wrap-up on the case from home. On the few occasions when he had needed to venture down to the station, there had been no lack of volunteers to keep Blair company. Not that Sandburg had accepted their offers. He graciously turned them down and shooed Jim out of the loft, muttering darkly that what he needed was peace and quiet, not a baby-sitter. Ellison conceded the battle, but not the war, substituting regularly placed phone calls to the loft for on-site sensory surveillance.
The Sentinel knew his Guide had seen through his ploy. He also knew it was just a matter of time before Blair called him on it. Fortunately their silent truce had held until the younger man was truly on the road to recovery. The quick sensory scan Jim had just run when he'd touched his partner revealed that boredom was the main culprit behind the anthropologist's current bad mood.
"Maybe this will help," Jim replied. He dug a plain white envelope out of the pocket of his jeans and dropped it in the younger man's lap.
Blair fingered the envelope suspiciously and muttered something that sounded vaguely like 'Beware grinning Sentinels bearing gifts', before asking, "What is it?"
"Open it and find out, Sherlock." Jim handed Blair his new glasses and walked over to hang his jacket on the rack next to the door. He heard the distinctive sound of ripping paper as his friend tore open the mystery envelope and held his breath waiting for Blair's reaction to the surprise it contained.
"A lifetime pass for Packard's carnival?"
The knotted tension between the Sentinel's shoulders eased immediately at the genuine enthusiasm and pleased astonishment in his Guide's voice. "Packard was extremely grateful that we managed to downplay Klerk's connection to the amusement company," Jim explained. The media coverage of the murders had been intense, but surprisingly short-lived. With Klerk dead and the fun house reduced to a smoking ruin, interest in the story had waned quickly.
Ellison detoured into the kitchen to grab some drinks and a thick, bound stack of papers from the pile of casework he'd brought home. "Packard also volunteered the carnival's services, free of charge, for the next department fund-raiser."
Blair grinned. "I'll bet that made the commissioner happy."
Ellison handed his partner a cold bottle of water and perched himself on the arm of the couch near the younger man's feet. "So ecstatic that he actually graced Major Crimes with his presence."
"Gee, I'm sorry I missed that momentous occasion," Blair said dryly.
"I'll get you a copy of the tape from the bull pen's surveillance camera," Jim replied in the same tone. "The commissioner was in top form. Shaking hands and doling out compliments like a true politician. Actually it's probably a good thing you weren't there. He looked like he was in the mood to be kissing babies."
Blair rolled his eyes at the standing joke about his age.
"Supposedly we're all up for commendations," Jim added. "You're the only one who got a free pass to the carnival though. Packard also asked me to tell you that if you ever need a job, you should look him up."
Blair's eyes widened in surprise and a soft smile played on his lips. "I'll keep that in mind." He stared down at the pass for a moment, then glanced up at Jim. "Are you sure it's all right for me to keep this? I know there are departmental rules about accepting gifts "
"Simon cleared it," Jim assured him. He took a sip from the beer he'd selected for himself and then leaned forward to place the finished report of the investigation in Blair's lap.
The anthropologist eyed the cover and hefted the heavy document thoughtfully. "A little light reading?"
"I wouldn't recommend it as a bedtime story," Ellison said gravely, "but I figured you'd be interested in seeing a copy before it gets buried in the files."
Blair nodded and flipped the report open to the first page. He scanned it and looked up in surprise. "This can't be the final draft."
"But Jim, my name's listed among the members of the task force."
"You were a member of the task force," Ellison pointed out.
"Yeah, but "
"When you make a significant contribution to one of your professor's pet projects, your name gets published in the credits, right? This is no different."
"But it is different," Blair responded, shaking his head in amazement. "This is official stuff, Jim. You guys are the detectives. You deserve the recognition. I'm just an observer."
"You're not just anything, Chief."
Blair blinked, obviously caught off-guard by Jim's heartfelt statement. "Thanks, man," he said softly, his warm smile saying much more than the simple words.
Jim nodded in acknowledgment and took another sip of his beer. He gestured toward the report. "Outside of the excerpts from Klerk's journal and the follow-up interviews with some of his prior associates, there's not much in there you haven't already seen."
Blair's gaze shifted to the document in his hands. "I think I'll skip reading Klerk's diary of death, if it's all the same to you. Patrick would probably be interested in it though." He glanced up at Jim curiously. "Do you think we could get him a copy? I'd like to do something to pay him back for his help."
"I'll talk to Simon about it."
The anthropologist set the report aside and slowly shifted position until he was sitting upright with his feet on the floor. "Did the follow-up interviews reveal anything which would explain why Klerk went off the deep end? Outside of his wife's death, that is?" he asked softly.
"Not really. From all reports, Klerk was an excellent surgeon and an accomplished administrator; well respected by his peers. They were all pretty stunned when they found out he was a serial killer, but every one of them confirmed that he was devastated by his wife's death. He resigned the morning after the accident and left town less than a week later. None of them ever heard from him again."
"Any idea why he resurfaced with the carnival?"
Jim nodded. "Forensics discovered a couple of old photo albums and scrap books when they tore Klerk's trailer apart. Briggs and Rankin followed up on some of the newspaper clippings. It turns out Klerk's paternal grandfather was a lot man for an amusement company out of the midwest. Klerk spent a number of summers working the circuit with him."
"That explains why he managed to fit in so well with Packard's people," Blair murmured. "Once a carnie, always a carnie."
"Apparently. We're still not sure why he chose Packard's group." Klerk had carried that secret to the grave with him.
"Well at least we know why he killed all those people. Granted, that's not much consolation for the families of the victims, but maybe it will help them find some closure." Blair sighed and shook his head. "And maybe, now that it's all over, even Arnie Klerk will find some measure of peace."
Jim answered Blair's searching gaze with a non-committal shrug. While it was in keeping with his Shaman's nature to worry about Klerk's well-being in the afterlifeassuming there was such a thingthe Sentinel wasn't inclined to be quite so charitable.
"The DA decided not to press charges against Calvin Chambers," Jim said quietly, changing topics adroitly.
"And that required how much arm twisting?"
Ellison shrugged again. "I just made sure they had all the facts."
In truth, he had gone out of his way to make sure the ex-Seal wasn't prosecuted for his use of deadly force. Klerk had killed 36 people and if Chambers hadn't interceded, the detective and his observer would have been victims 37 and 38. In Ellison's book, murdereven in the name of lovewas still murder. Stopping a crazed serial killer before he could take another life, especially when one of those lives was Sandburg's, was another matter altogether
"R-i-g-h-t," Blair drawled softly as the telephone began to ring. "Just the facts. James Ellison. Master of understatement, strikes again." The gentle jibe was accompanied by a warm, broad smile, filled with gratitude and approval.
The Sentinel shot his Guide a mock glare and snagged the phone from the coffee table. His good mood vanished abruptly when the caller identified himself.
"Just a moment," he said, struggling to keep his expression and tone neutral. Jim lowered the receiver, his eyes locked with Blair's. "It's for you. Jason Edwards."
Ellison handed the phone to his partner and walked across the room. He let himself out onto the balcony, pulling the door shut behind him. Sagging against the railing, he took a long pull from his bottle of beer and stared glumly at the ships dancing on the waves of the bay. He firmly dialed down his senses, determined not to eavesdrop on his friend's conversation with the Pharmacology grad, although he desperately wanted to know what the young men were talking about. Had Blair changed his mind about experimenting with drugs to reach the world of his visions? Or was he telling Edwards to take a hike?
The Sentinel prayed it was the latter.
Ten long, nerve-wracking minutes went by before he heard the 'shuss' of the glass door as it slid aside. Despite his best intentions, the Sentinel's senses automatically shifted into high gear. Over the thundering of his own racing pulse, his Guide's heart beat a strong, steady rhythm.
Whatever decision he's reached, he's at peace with it, Jim realized.
Blair moved stiffly to his side, sighing softly as he leaned his arms on the railing. "Sorry that took so long. Jason's even more long-winded than I am when he's excited about something."
The muscles in Jim's jaw spasmed as he ground his teeth together. He kept his gaze firmly fixed on the horizon as Blair rambled on.
"Jason called to apologize for not getting back to me last week. Turns out he was in Vancouver for a conference and stayed on a couple of days to do some sight-seeing. He brought back some stuff he thought I'd be interested in and wanted to know when we could get together to make some plans."
"'Plans'," said the Sentinel flatly.
A hard poke in the arm made him turn toward his partner, who rolled his eyes in exasperation.
"Travel plans, Jim. The conventional kind." Blair raised his closed fists and pantomimed hands on a steering wheel. "Jason enjoyed the trip so much, he's planning to go back at the end of the month. He invited me to go with him."
A rush of relief washed over the Sentinel, sweeping away his fears. "That sounds good, Chief."
"Yeah, it does, but I'm not going."
"Because I'd rather be here, where I'm needed," Blair murmured. The Sentinel reached out and gripped his Shaman's shoulder, silently reaffirming their covenant.
Blair flashed Jim a tremulous smile, which abruptly turned mischievous. "Besides, as much as I hate to admit it, I'm not up for an excursion of any kind right now. Getting sliced nearly in half has kind of put me off my game. And since it's going to take some time to get back up to speed, I've decided to take advantage of the opportunity fate has provided and allow you to wait on me hand and foot."
"In your dreams, Sandburg," Jim growled, pretending to be annoyed.
"I'm sure that can be arranged as well," Blair assured him impishly.
"I assume this plan of yours includes the continued flagrant violation of the house rules?"
"Yep. I intend to spend the next week or so doing my best impression of a couch potato."
Jim frowned, although his eyes were sparkling. "I guess we'll be skipping the all-expenses-paid trip to the bookstore, then. That's a shame. I know I was looking forward to it." He shook his head sadly and turned to head back inside, but Blair grabbed his arm.
"Whoa," Blair exclaimed, grabbing his arm. "What was that about a trip to the bookstore?"
Jim patted him on the arm solicitously and slipped free of his grip. "It was nothing, Chief. Don't concern yourself. I'm sure I can find other ways to spend my bonus." Smiling wickedly, he stepped into the loft, leaving his stunned partner standing alone on the balcony.
"Spend your... bonus? Hey, you mean you actually got one? That's great, man. Congratulations." Blair's eyes widened in alarm and he started moving as quickly as he could after his escaping partner. "Wait a minute. What do you mean you can find other ways to... That money is mine, man... You promised... JIM!"
~ End ~
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