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."
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Page last updated 8/15/03.