(See Page 1 for Disclaimer, Warning, and Author's Notes)
False Mirrors (Page 2 of 3)
by K. Ryn
Jim and Blair followed Jameson back into the hallway. "This is a terrific sanctuary you've created, Father," Blair remarked. "There's a real sense of peace and safety inside these walls. Energy, too. All positive."
The priest stopped in front of his office door and turned, favoring Blair with a genuine smile which lit his eyes once again. "Thank you. That's precisely the atmosphere we strive to maintain. The people who come here need help in one form or another. Sometimes just a roof over their heads and a hot meal in their stomachs gives them the strength to keep going. All we ask is that they leave their drugs and liquor outside and contribute in some way to the upkeep or the housekeeping as payment. Believe me, we need all the hands we can put to the task. It's hard work keeping a place this size running. There's always something that needs fixing, which is why I opt for less 'official' attire." He gestured at his casual clothes. "I've become sort of a jack-of-all-tradesplumber, roofer, spiritual counselor "
"Pearl diver," Blair offered. Jameson chuckled. "In case you didn't know, that's a manual dishwasher, Jim," the anthropologist explained with an innocent grin.
"We called it something less glamorous in the army, Chief," Ellison replied dryly.
The priest smiled at their exchange and then grew serious. "I spoke at some length with two of your associates yesterday, Detective. I'm not certain what else you might require, but my time is yours."
"We appreciate that, Father," Jim said. "I read the statement you gave to Detective Brown. It mentioned that the victim lived here."
"Yes, he did. Chuckles was one of our semi-permanent residents."
"Semi-permanent?" Blair asked.
"Chuckles suffered from schizophrenia. He was fine when he was on his medicationa joy with the children and with the young adults like Mary. When he ran out or if he forgot to take it, he would disappearsometimes for days. He was never dangerous to others, but he tended to retreat from the real world during those phases. I always managed to track him down, or one of the other visitors to the shelter found him and brought him home."
"Was he in one of those 'phases' as you put it, last weekend?"
"No, Detective. He was quite well." The priest shook his head sadly. "He helped out here all day and headed out after supper."
"His body was found down near the waterfront. Was that a place he frequented?"
"Chuckles had a number of favorite spots around the city and friends he would go to see, Detective. Like most of the homeless, he was somewhat secretive about some of his activities. I'm afraid I don't have an answer for you."
"I understand. I'd like your permission to examine his room and its contents."
"Certainly. His room is on the third floor."
The priest led them to an ornate, bannistered staircase and began to climb the steps. They passed several people on the stairs, all of whom greeted Jameson fondly and eyed the detective warily. They seemed to accept Blair's presence without question.
Innocence recognizing innocence, Jim mused.
Blair stopped abruptly when they reached the third floor. The Sentinel slid past him, then stopped and turned to stare at his Guide. The younger man's heartbeat had suddenly skyrocketed and his eyes were wide, but unfocused.
Jim glanced behind him, down the long hallway which led to the sleeping quarters, but saw nothing to explain his partner's behavior. A patterned carpet stretched the length of the corridor and numerous wooden doors marked the individual rooms. There was no one present except the three of them.
"Blair?" The Sentinel reached out and touched his Guide lightly on the arm.
The anthropologist blinked several times and shook his head as if to clear it.
"Is something wrong?" the priest asked, eyeing them both in concern. "Are you ill, Mr. Sandburg?"
Blair blinked again and his eyes lost their dazed glaze. He blushed slightly and offered a rueful grin. "No. I'm fine. I just needed to catch my breath. Lead on."
Jim frowned at the obvious lie, but Blair brushed past him and immediately ushered the priest forward. The Sentinel trailed behind them, dialing up his senses to monitor his evasive Guide.
"Do you have any idea what his real name was?" the grad student asked, as Jameson stopped at one of the doors. "Or why he used the street name Chuckles?"
"I think his first name was George, but I never did learn his last name," Jameson answered. "As to why he chose Chuckles, well, see for yourself."
The priest turned the knob and pushed the door open. Blair's eyes widened in surprise. "This is incredible," the anthropologist murmured, stepping across the threshold. Jim was right behind him, as startled by what the room contained as his partner.
Every square inch of the wallspace was covered with circus posters and carnival playbills. Ticket stubs were thumbtacked along the top of wall near the ceiling, forming a colorful, ragged-edged border around the room. Atop the small four-drawer dresser sat a wig stand draped with a riotously curled neon-yellow wig. A collection of bottles and tubes of facepaint and makeup nestled next to the hairpiece. Draped carefully across one end of the twin bed was a boldly striped clown suit.
"As you can see, Chuckles was fond of the circus," Father Jameson said quietly. "He often dressed up as a clown to entertain the children here." Blair had wandered over to one of the walls and was running his fingers over the playbills, his expression one of wonder.
The Sentinel scanned the ticket stubs, reading the printing on each easily. "Did he attend all of these performances?"
"Oh, yes," the priest answered. "If a circus or carnival was in town, nothing could keep him away. Sometimes he asked me for a loan to pay for the tickets, but usually he volunteered to help the amusement company with odd jobs in exchange for free admission. He kept a scrap book filled with newspaper
"See if you can find that, Chief," Jim requested. Blair nodded, moved over to the dresser, and began carefully searching the contents of the drawers.
Ellison pulled a photo out of his inner jacket pocket and turned to the priest. "We suspect that whoever murdered your friend Chuckles has killed several other people."
"I gathered that when the detectives who were here yesterday showed me a group of photos," Jameson said softly. "I didn't recognize any of the other victims."
"We found another body yesterday," Jim explained, offering the photo of the fifth victim to the priest. Jameson took the picture and immediately stiffened. He closed his eyes and shook his head in dismay. "I take it you recognize this man, Father?"
"Yes." The priest's voice was a bare breath of sound. He swallowed, whispered a blessing and regained his composure enough to raise his eyes to meet Jim's. "His name is Leo. He was a friend of Chuckle's."
"Was he a resident here as well?"
"No. I'm not sure where he lived. Chuckles brought him by for dinner one night several months ago. Leo stopped in for meals occasionally and he'd often spend the night here, sleeping on the floor in this room."
"Do you recall the last time you saw him?"
Jameson frowned. "Last week... Friday, I believe. He was here for lunch and he helped me fix the railing on the back porch. Yes, it was Friday. He stayed the night, but left early Saturday morning."
"Jim, I think this is what you wanted," Blair called softly.
Ellison moved to his partner's side. The anthropologist eased a thick scrapbook out of the bottom drawer and handed it to Jim. The detective paged through the book which was filled with newspaper clippings about circuses and clowns. The most recent additions were several months old.
"Are there any recent clippings in the drawer, Chief?" he asked. When there was no immediate response, he glanced down at his partner. Blair was staring into the depths of the drawer, a puzzled frown on his face. The detective's gaze shifted to the contents. The drawer was filled with cheap toys and
trinkets, colorful balloons and gaudily dyed feathers. "Sandburg?"
"Yeah?" Blair's tone was distant, preoccupied, matching his expression. His gaze never left the odd assortment of paraphernalia in the drawer until Jim touched him on the shoulder. He looked up, still frowning. "What?"
"Did you find something?" the Sentinel said quietly, eyeing his Guide worriedly.
Blair glanced back at the drawer and shook his head. "No, not really. There's something nagging at me, but I can't quite get a handle on it."
The faint shrilling of Jim's cell phone startled them both. The Sentinel's gaze locked with his Guide's as he extracted the phone from his jacket pocket and answered it. Ellison's jaw muscles clenched when he recognized his captain's voice and Blair looked away, closing his eyes and shaking his head. The detective listened as Simon delivered the news they had been dreading.
"We're on our way, sir," Jim murmured after a few moments. He shut down the phone and tucked it back into his pocket. He reached out a hand and pulled his partner to his feet, meeting the anguished gaze of his young friend with a terse nod. "Another one," he said softly, confirming what Blair already obviously knew.
The detective turned and faced the priest. "Father, thank you for your time. We may need some additional information on Leo "
"I'll be happy to help in any way I can," Jameson assured them. "The victims are in my prayers, as are you two."
"Thank you, Father," Jim said quietly, gently ushering his silent partner toward the door. The way this case is going, we can use all the help we can get.
They made it to the newest crime scene in under fifteen minutes, bubble light flashing and tires squealing as Jim took several corners at faster than suggested speeds. Blair spent the trip with one hand braced against the dash, stomach lurching with each shift of the truck. Bleakly, he wondered what the rush was. It's not like we're going to be able to do anything for the victim. Whoever the killer took out last night is way beyond our help.
He tired to curb his cynicism, but immersed as he was in the case, his partner's problems and his own, it was difficult to fend off his morbid mood. They were racing to another bloody crime sceneone that would test his Sentinel's control over his senses and his sanity. To top it all off, Blair still felt shaken by the little detour to 'deja vu land' he'd taken on the third floor of the rooming house. One glimpse of the carpeted hallway filled with doors and he'd been thrust into the middle of the frightening memories of his dreamwalk once again.
And reminded of my failure...
He chewed on his lower lip and kept quiet. Jim didn't seem inclined to talk which wasn't a good sign. The detective hadn't shared any of the details of the call he'd taken from Simon, which meant whatever awaited them was probably worse than anything they'd seen so far. Not a happy thought. Yet a part of Blair was grateful for his partner's silence. His own thoughts were whirling around in his head so fast he was certain if he opened his mouth a string of absolute nonsense would emerge.
Either prefaced or followed by an ear-shattering scream, he mused darkly, swallowing hard against the one which was lodged in his throat. Breathe, he ordered himself, promising his shaken psyche that he would find a nice quiet padded room to do some primal scream therapy in laterafter the case was solved.
He stole a quick look at his partner. Jim had donned his sunglasses again, but Blair could easily imagine the guilt and remorse filling the pale blue eyes behind the dark lenses. The Sentinel was taking this newest death hard.
Because he couldn't prevent it. He feels like he's failed the tribe he's sworn to protect...
Blair understood. He felt the same way.
Ellison pulled the Ford to a hard stop behind a cluster of squad cars. Blair crawled wearily from the truck and followed his partner, his soul as leaden as the rapidly clouding skies. They threaded their way through a small gathering of curious onlookers, Jim nodding absently to the uniformed officers who were working crowd control. The detective paused at a yellow tape barrier and scanned the scene before them. Blair moved out of his partner's shadow to make his own observations.
They stood at one side of a tiny parka narrow sliver of green-space tucked between several multi-story office buildings. At lunch time the scattering of wooden benches and the single picnic table would be occupied with frazzled secretaries and perhaps a handful of harried executivesmunching on sandwiches, reading a chapter of the latest best-seller, or simply absorbing whatever rays of sunlight were available before returning to the confines of their offices. Now the peaceful ambiance was broken by a dozen uniformed and plain-clothed officers and members of the forensic team, scurrying to complete their assigned tasks and secure the crime scene. Despite their caution, their heavy boots and shoes had churned up muddy furrows in the soggy grass, turning the lawn into a pocketed battlefield.
"I want you to stay behind the tape on this one, Chief," Jim murmured, turning toward the younger man. "It's ugly," he continued, placing a hand on Blair's shoulder to ward off his objection. "The victim is a young boy. No more than twelve years old. When our killer finished with him, he stuffed the body in a garbage can."
Blair's gaze automatically swept over the scene, unerringly coming to rest on the sole trash can in the area. He caught sight of a small hand hanging limply over the lip of the metal container and looked away. He stared down at the muddy ground under his sneakers, swallowed hard and leaned slightly into his partner's reassuring grasp.
"Just promise me you'll take it easy," Blair rasped out hoarsely, finally raising his head. He could see his own reflection in Jim's glasses and knew that the greenish cast to his complexion wasn't all due to the tinted lenses. He felt sick at heart. "Keep the dials locked down."
The Sentinel gave him a terse nod and dropped his hand from the Guide's shoulder. Blair expected Jim to move away, but the detective hesitated. The observer eyed his partner with a curious sense of dread. Ellison pulled off his sunglasses and pocketed them, pinching at the bridge of his nose.
"There's one other thing, Chief," Jim said quietly. "We're going to have to run an in-depth check on Father Jameson."
Blair's face went slack with surprise. "You've got to be kidding," he said, incredulously.
Jim shook his head, his expression grim. "We have to consider him a suspect. He fits the general physical profile, he was acquainted with at least two of the victims and we know he wasn't at the mission last night. He didn't return my message until early this morning."
"That doesn't mean he killed this kid," Blair objected. "Or any of the others."
"Sandburg, I know you respect what Jameson is doing "
"You're right. I do. He's making a difference, Jim. If you drag him down to the station and some over-zealous media type gets wind of it, Father Jameson's reputation will be ruined. No matter if he's cleared or not, he'll lose his credibilityand his funding. The people he's trying to help will be the ones to suffer."
"We'll keep the investigation as quiet as we can, Chief," Jim assured him. "But it's got to be done. We need to know his whereabouts on the nights of the other murders."
Blair looked away, shaking his head in disgust, biting back the angry, ugly words which seethed within him. His hands balled into tightly clenched fists, but he resisted the urge to lash out either verbally or physically at the nearest target. Jim didn't deserve his rage. He was doing his job; following procedure.
"This sucks," the anthropologist announced in a low hiss.
"You're right," Ellison answered softly. "It does." The compassionate understanding in the Sentinel's voice cooled the Guide's rage. Blair glanced at his partner and realized that Jim regretted the necessity of investigating the priest as much as he did. "We can conduct the interview at the mission," the detective offered. "That way there's less chance of anything leaking to the press."
Blair nodded gratefully. "Who's going to handle it?"
"Who would you suggest?" Jim countered.
The observer considered the options for a moment. "What about Joel?"
"Taggert would be a good choice." Ellison pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. "Do you want to call him, or should I?" he asked gently.
Blair stared at the device like it was a poisonous snake, but finally reached for it. "I'll do it. You go ahead." He jerked his head in the direction of the trash can. "I'll stay on the perimeter so you can find me if you need me."
Jim gave him a pat on the back and then ducked under the tape. Blair watched him walk carefully across the muddy ground toward the officers grouped around the body. The observer inched his way around the flimsy yellow barrier, keeping an eye on his partner, Guide instincts at full alert. He held his breath as Jim reached the trash can. His own nerves were stretched to the breaking point and he could see the same signs of strain in the detective as Ellison bent over the metal container to examine the body.
Blair released the pent breath in a relieved gasp when Jim straightened and glanced over to where he was standing. The expression on the detective's face was grim, but it was obvious the Sentinel was in control. Ellison tapped the side of his nose with one finger and nodded, then turned to answer a question from one of the uniformed officers.
The observer immediately understood the gesture. The smell's there, but he's not reacting to it. Maybe the rain washed the worst of it away... Immensely gratified that there had been no new 'freak-out' episode, Blair flipped open the cell phone and dialed up the station.
His partner had completed his examination of the scene by the time Blair completed his own onerous task. "Joel's on it," the observer reported as Jim slipped under the tape. "Are you all right?"
The detective nodded, but Blair noted the lines of strain around his friend's eyes. It was obvious to the Guide that the headache which had plagued the Sentinel all week had resurfaced. Ellison seemed intent on ignoring the discomfort, so Blair played along, silently vowing to keep a sharp eye on his friend.
"The storm last night didn't stop our man from killing again, but it might have given us a break. We've got some partial boot prints near the trash can and something else." He gestured for Blair to accompany him around the perimeter to the opposite side of the miniature park. Deep ruts gouged the grass, muddy parallel tracks marking the passage of some kind of car or truck. "Looks like the killer drove right up over the grass," Jim explained. "He must have come off one of the main streets and down the alley behind one of the buildings."
Blair's eyes traced the direction of the tracks and nodded his agreement, stooping to examine one of the impressions. The wet grass had been churned and torn, nearly obliterating the tread pattern. "Is there enough detail here to get a make on the vehicle?" he asked, as eager for some definitive evidence as his partner.
"If we're lucky we'll find enough tread mark to identify the make and model of the tires," the detective answered. "That'll help narrow down the type of vehicle." Jim gazed at the tracks for a moment, then glanced at Blair. "I want to take a good look before forensics starts making their casts."
Jim oblique reference to using his enhanced visual abilities pulled Blair to his feet. "Let's do it," he responded, his voice pitching into the lower tones he used when guiding.
They walked the thirty-odd feet of track, the Sentinel's gaze fixed on the ground, the Guide's fixed on his partner, murmuring a soft cadence of instructions to keep the older man from zoning. When Jim stopped abruptly, Blair immediately reached out and placed his hand on the detective's back, physically grounding him. Ellison knelt next to the tire marks and extracted something from the mud. The observer leaned forward, eager to see what Jim had found.
It was an inch-long fragment of feather, most of it stained dark brown and clumped with dirt. It would have been easy to assume the broken plume had come from one of the hundreds of birds indigenous to the Pacific Northwest, if it hadn't been for the tip, which had surprisingly escaped the mudbath unscathed. It was a garish bright purple. A rare bird indeed.
Unfortunately, not rare enough.
"Look familiar, Chief?" Jim asked softly.
Blair nodded numbly. There had been handfuls of similar feathers in Chuckles' dresser drawer. He had pawed through a rainbow of the gaudy plumage hunting for the man's scrapbook. Some of the feathers had been loose, others had still been attached to the cheap bead and leather hairclips which were a common game prize at any carnival concession.
The odd sense that he was missing somethingsome vital clue which he already had, but didn't recognizenagged at the anthropologist just as it had back at the mission. Thoughts focused on following the elusive teasing thread to its source, Blair only dimly heard Jim calling for one of the forensic techs to collect the new evidence.
Feathers... here and in the drawer... mixed among Chuckles' other treasures... cheap carnival trinets... carnival...
A memory flashed behind his eyes and the connection he'd been seeking surged to life. "Mr. Donnello," he gasped.
The detective's eyes narrowed, filled with confusion and uneasiness as he met Blair's wide-eyed stare. "What about him?"
"He was late putting it up, but I bet other people who had them didn't forget," Blair rambled excitedly. "The notice could have been posted for weeks. He would have seen it. They all could have seen it. We'll have to check, but that should be simple, right? That's got to be it. That's where it came from. That's where we'll find him."
"Speak English, Sandburg," Jim growled softly. "Full sentences."
Blair rolled his eyes, but complied. "The poster Mr. Donnello had in his hand yesterday morning. It was for a church festival. I don't remember which one, but organizations like that often bring in an amusement company, like a carnival, as part of the fundraising effort. You find feathers like that," Blair pointed to the fragment in the detective's hand, "littering the ground wherever they set up the carnival midway concessions and games."
The detective's eyes lit with interest. "A carnival would be the perfect cover for our killer," he said softly.
Blair nodded. "The smaller companies are on the road a good portion of the year, traveling from one location to another. They get into a town, set up for a couple of days, then they're off to the next venue."
"Out of sight, out of mind," Jim murmured.
"Mr. Donnello said he'd intended to put the poster announcing the festival up last week," Blair added. "He'd forgotten to do it, but other store owners around the city might not have. We know Chuckles loved circuses and carnivals. Father Jameson said he never missed one that came to town. I bet he saw the poster and went to check things out. That could be how he met whoever murdered him. The other victims, too, if they share the same interests."
"Whoa, slow down, Chief," the detective admonished gently. "I can see where you're going with this, but the time frame's off. If I remember correctly, Mr. Donnello said the festival starts today. The murders started last weekend."
"Jim, even a small carnival takes a few days to set up," Blair countered quickly. "It wouldn't be unusual for some of the crew to arrive up to a week early to scope out the site and get the front end stuff done before the rest of the company arrived."
The detective tapped the cell phone Blair still held in his hands. "Call Mr. Donnello. Get as much information on the festival as you can. I'll contact the station and have them check the interviews Henri and Rafe did with the other victims... see if any of them shared Chuckles' love of carnivals and circuses."
Jim hurried off to use a radio in one the squad cars. Blair punched in the number for directory assistance as he made his way to the truck. Within moments he was talking to the friendly shopkeeper, jotting down the information they needed in one of his notebooks. By the time his partner slipped behind the wheel, Blair had a destination for them.
"It's St. Delvan's annual festival and it does include a carnivalfull midway, games and concessions," he reported. "They're setting up down near Waldrop Pier."
Ellison eagerly cranked the truck to life.
We're definitely in the right place, Jim noted, turning onto the access road which led to Waldrop Pier. The overflow parking lots situated at the top of the hill overlooking the city's waterfront festival grounds were filled with the incontrovertible evidence of the carnival's presence. Long, empty flatbed trailers, some still attached to their huge diesel cabs, were crammed into the paved lots. Numerous small covered trailers and equipment trucks were tucked in alongside the larger vehicles. Ellison drove slowly past a group of cherry-red semi-cabs snugged bumper to hitch like some bizarre, segmented mechanical insect. Each bore an artfully painted sign on their door, proclaiming them the property of 'J.J. Packard & Sons, Amusements.'
The detective pulled the Ford alongside the metal guard-rail on the right side of the road. Shifting into park, he killed the engine and leaned toward his partner, gazing past the observer at the scene below. Blair's attention was riveted on the grounds and the ant-like antics of the carnival workers as they scurried to set up their wares and rides. Satisfied that his Guide seemed to be oblivious to the fact they were only a few feet from a fairly steep drop-off, the Sentinel cranked up the dial on his enhanced vision and spent several minutes familiarizing himself with the layout of the area.
Below and to his left was the breakwater, an immense stone barrier constructed at considerable taxpayer expense during a burst of urban revitalization. Fortunately the expenditure had a practical side as well as a politically correct onethe wall of rock kept Mother Nature from reclaiming the precious, read 'valuable', shoreline. Its granite boulders took the brunt of the force generated by the waves dancing in the bay, providing a sheltered, calmer harbor where wet-suited sailboarders cruised and performed their watery acrobatics.
Waldrop Pier stretched out in a straight line before them, shamelessly challenging the waters of the bay. A fleet of fishing trawlers had once moored at its sides, but over the years the wooden structure had fallen into disrepair. The rotting jumble of planks and eroded metal pilings had been restored to its former glory when Cascade's city council designated the surrounding area as a festival park. The forty-foot wide walkway now hosted an eclectic collection of vendor stalls offering trinkets, food and refreshments. Ancient, craggy-looking fishermen still dropped their lines over the railinged sides of the pier while strolling couples and parents with frolicking children took in the breathtaking sights.
Immediately to the right of the pier were the main parking areas. At mid-morning, only a smattering of cars decorated the lots, but by nightfall they would be filled to capacity. A sizable pavilion built from native stone and timber graced the far end of the gravel lots, offering shelter from Cascade's fickle climate. Behind it lay a smaller parking area, normally used by the maintenance staff. Today it was stuffed to capacity with small mobile homes and campersthe 'residences' of the amusement company's transient employees.
A sea of green grass, roughly the size of three professional football fields, lay adjacent to the parking lots. Most of the area had been claimed by the amusement company. The largest rides, twenty of them, formed a horseshoe shaped perimeter. A double-sided row of concession booths with gaily striped awnings ran straight up the center, dividing the inverted 'U' shape into symmetrical halves. Paralleling the booths on either side was a row of rectangular shaped tents; additional games of chance. A flock of brightly colored feathers danced erratically in the wind, tethered to the tents by their leather cords and clips. A low growl vibrated in the Sentinel's throat at the sight of the tell-tale evidence which appeared to match what he had found at the morning's crime scene.
Smaller rides, obviously designed for children were sandwiched into the remaining space between the tents and the outer ring. Scattered throughout the inner area were ticket booths and refreshment stands. A wooden snow-fence had been erected to the right of the open end of the horseshoe, enclosing a beverage truck and a handful of picnic tablespresumably a beer garden.
Jim scanned the grounds convinced they were on the right trail. During the short drive from the crime scene, he'd received a call from Henri Brown. Gloria Danen's parents had confirmed their runaway daughter had loved the circus as a child and Mandy Vincent's co-workers remembered her enthusing over the news a carnival was coming to town. Assuming Leo shared Chuckles' obsession, that gave four of the dead something in commona reason which could easily have led them to the killer's doorstep. Henri was still digging into the background of the third victim, Robert Jefferies, and had assured Ellison he would follow up the lead as soon as they had an ID on the young boy who had been found that morning. The detective's instincts were telling him they'd match six for six.
Brown had also checked with the city clerk and determined that the necessary permits and insurance bond had been filed by the amusement company four days earlier. Although the time-frame still didn't match up exactly to the first death which had occurred late Saturday night, it validated Blair's suggestion that someone from the carnival might have been in town doing advance work. If the killer had been that person, then it was conceivable he had arrived over the weekend, putting him in a perfect position to commit two murders while waiting for the clerk's office to open on Monday morning. Jim dialed his vision up another notch and swept the area again. A warning born of ancient instincts prickled his skin and raised the hairs on the back of the Sentinel's neck. Instead of distracting him, the sensation strengthened his resolve. Other instincts, those honed by training and experience kicked in. Ellison committed each detail he was seeing to memoryplotting his approach strategy as though he were planning a dangerous covert mission.
He watched the frenetic activity of the workers intently, sensing a curious sense of order in the chaos. Men and women in blue t-shirts hurried from one booth to another, arms laden with supplies or crawled in and out of the rides. A small platoon of older children supplemented their efforts. Swinging baskets were adjusted, fitful sounding engines were tested, tracks were oiled, balloons were inflated and prizes hung as the crew raced to prepare their wonderland. The festival's supposed to start today. I wonder if they're going to make it, Jim mused silently. Looks like they still have four big rides to erect and test.
"Oh, man. They've got a Zipper and a Yo-Yo. I haven't been on either of those for years."
His partner's exclamation abruptly drew the detective's attention back to the interior of the cab. Blair was practically bouncing in his seat, his features alight with more animation than Jim had seen on the younger man's face in months. As pleased as Ellison was with that development, the vibrations pouring off the anthropologist were jolting their way through the truck's seats, aggravating the headache throbbing behind the Sentinel's eyes and setting already taut nerves jangling with a discordant rhythm.
"Sandburg..." Jim growled, clamping a hand on his partner's shoulder to still him.
The action startled the younger man, but he recovered his composure quickly. "Sorry, man," Blair grinned sheepishly. "I can't help it. I've had this overwhelming fascination with carnivals since I was a kid. There's something magical about them."
Ellison shot him a doubtful frown.
"It's true, Jim. I'll grant you it doesn't look like much now, but at night, when the lights come up and the music starts, all the dinginess and the paint scrapes disappear. It becomes a whole different world." The younger man peered out the window again and his expression turned wistful. "I always thought it would be so cool to travel with a carnival, but Naomi was adamantly against it." Ellison stared at his partner in surprise and Blair chuckled. "Hard to believe, I know, but it's the truth. Mom was never comfortable around carnies."
"Didn't like their aura?"
"Something like that. The closest I got to this lifestyle as a kid, outside of the few times I managed to con one of Naomi's boyfriends into taking me for a quick outing, were the two summers we spent traveling with a band of gypsies. Now that was an experience. Talk about your closed societies."
"So gypsies were okay, but carnies were anathema," Jim interjected, hoping to redirect his partner back to the subject at hand.
Blair nodded, his eyes twinkling with mischief. "I suspect Naomi's distrust was partly due to the crass ploys of the carnival concessionaires to part unsuspecting souls from their hard earned cash with games of chance. She always claimed the games were rigged."
Jim snorted. "Half of those games are rigged, Chief."
"Not the ones I ran."
"I thought you said you never traveled with a carnival."
"I didn't. Travel with one, that is. I worked a couple, though, while I was an undergrad. Most carnivals have a fixed crew that travels with them all the time, but they usually hire some locals for set-up and tear-down. You can make some fairly good money doing the grunt work and it's usually cash. Helped pay my book fees one semester." Blair grinned. "The summer after my sophomore year, I pulled a week-long stint with a small mom and pop company. One of the regular crew was laid up so they hired me on as a floater. I worked the food booths and ran some of the games. Never got to be a ride-jock," he added with a twinge of regret, "although I did get to test out all the rides. They had a multi-looper, which was pretty unusual for a show that size. Man, was that a headrush when it got rolling."
"It's a rollercoaster with more than one inversion. That's where the track curls over in a loop and turns the riders upside down." The anthropologist demonstrated the action with a series of rapid hand gestures. "It wasn't quite a hyper-coaster, because the highest drop was less than 200 feet, but it sure felt like you were falling a few stories when you came down."
Ellison eyed his partner in surprise. "And you went on this ride? Voluntarily?"
"Yeah. I logged fifty-seven trips before the week ended," Blair answered with pride.
"I thought you had a thing about heights, Chief."
Blair shrugged. "Actually, heights don't bother me. It's the possibility of falling from them that I have a 'thing' about," he explained blandly.
"Wouldn't hanging upside down from a car which is attached to a narrow metal set of rails only by the grace of centrifugal force fall into that category?" Jim asked in the same tone.
"Nah, it's different. Screaming your lungs out in terror is acceptable on a ride like that. You're supposed to be scared that you'll fall out. That's part of the fun." Jim scowled, feeling like he'd once more inadvertently planted a foot inside the 'Sandburg Zone,' where a convoluted or obtuse answer to a reasonable question was the norm. Not wanting to tread any further into his partner's detour-ridden domain, Ellison turned the key in the ignition and eased the truck out onto the road.
"Well plan on keeping your feet on the ground on this trip, Chief," Jim ordered. "We're here on business, not pleasure."
Blair nodded, sobering immediately. "I got it. So, what's the plan?"
"Brown got us the name of the owner. Randy Packard. He's apparently one of the 'Sons' in the business name. We'll hunt him down first."
"Are you going to tell him why we're here?"
"Depends," Jim answered, steering the Ford around a tight descending curve. "We'll see what he looks like. If he doesn't fit our tentative physical profile, we'll risk it. Packard's got information we need and we don't have time to be subtle."
Blair fell silent as Ellison rounded the last curve and pulled the Ford into one of the parking lots. "I hope the killer is here," he finally murmured as Jim turned off the engine. "Not just because it might mean the chance to catch him before he takes another life, but if we can prove it's someone else, it would clear Father Jameson."
Jim didn't bother to comment. He understood his partner's concern for the priest and would be just as happy himself if Jameson were off the hook. He shoved the truck door open and climbed out, stiffening abruptly as a gust of wind seasoned with the smells of the carnival slapped him in the face.
"Hops, yeast, stale beer, some kind of fermented drink gone bad... Oil... the kind used on heavy machinery... axle grease... sugar... the refined kind... not the brown crystals. It smelled hotcooked or something..." The Sentinel's own description of the complex odor he'd sensed on the bodies of the victims thundered in his ears. "Can you smell that?" he asked quickly, his nose wrinkling in distaste as he glanced anxiously toward his Guide.
Blair paused in the process of shutting his own door and drew in a deep breath. His eyes widened in surprise and he immediately turned to Jim. "Stale beer... that was one of the smells, wasn't it?" Jim nodded. "What about the rest?" the Guide demanded.
The Sentinel automatically rattled off what he'd identified.
"That's not everything," Blair murmured, moving to his partner's side. "What about the odor of sickness, or the scent of the herbs?"
Ellison shook his head, hesitantly. "I'm not sure..." He flashed on the images and smellsand the terrorof his own personal nightmare and shook his head angrily. "I can't "
"Take it easy, man," Blair murmured, grounding Jim with a touch. "Just relax. Don't let it overwhelm you."
Jim swallowed hard and nodded, jaw muscles clenching. "I'm not getting the rest, but I pretty much dialed down automatically after the first whiff," he explained apologetically.
"That's good," Blair assured him. "That means you're controlling your senses instead of the other way around." He glanced toward the carnival grounds and then looked back at Jim. "There's lots of heavy machinery... motors, gears, generators. That could explain the oil and the axle grease. They've probably got cotton candy for sale in most of the refreshment and food booths, which would account for the smell of burned sugar. That stuff has a nasty reek if the cookers get too hot. What you've accounted for so far are all environment-relatedodors which over a long period of exposure would attach themselves to the killer... to his clothing for example. I'm betting the others are unique to the murderer himself."
"I can't go up to every person here and sniff them, Sandburg," Jim objected. "And I can't arrest someone just because of his smell. It'll never hold up."
"I understand that," Blair responded. "We've faced this problem before, remember? And I'm not asking you to use your senses. I think you should keep them locked down until we figure out what we're dealing with here and why you've got such a personal reaction to it." The Guide met the Sentinel's disgruntled gaze with a determined, compassionate one of his own. "I know this weirdness is freaking you out. It's freaking me out, too. I wish I had the answers you need, but I don't. What I do know is that you're a good cop. The best detective on the force. Your hyperactive senses might have gotten us here, man, but it's going to be solid policework that puts this psycho away. You're smarter than this guy. If anyone is going to find and stop him, it's you." The anthropologist took a deep breath and tightened his hold on Jim's arm. "The killer's here. He has to be. What you smelled confirms it. Trust your instincts. Trust yourself."
Awed at the absolute, bottomless faith shining in the younger man's eyes, the Sentinel slowly nodded, resolutely pushing away the fears which gibbered at the back of his mind. "All right. Let's find Packard and catch ourselves a murderer."
As they passed the fenced beer garden, Blair's caught another whiff of the rank smell which clung to the beverage truck and found himself hoping Jim had taken his suggestion about dialing everything back to heart. He stole a glance at his partner and let himself relax a bit. The older man seemed fine. Focused, but that was to be expected. Ellison in cop mode was nearly as daunting as Ellison in Sentinel mode.
I hope he loses that clenched jaw and the laser beam glare before we start questioning anyone as to Packard's whereabouts, though, Blair mused. Carnies tend to get uncooperative when someone tries to intimidate them.
Jim angled to the left at the first booth, heading toward a blue-shirted figure hunched over a diesel generator. Blair lengthened his stride to keep up, eyeing the man his partner had targeted for interrogation. The crewman looked to be in his late thirties. Lank dark hair hung limply to his shoulders, held back from his face by the red and black bandanna which was doing double-duty as a sweatband. Streaks of grease decorated the man's arms and clothing, his worn jeans stained and torn at the knees.
The detective ground to a halt only a foot or so in front of the man and Blair shifted slightly to Jim's left, moving out of his partner's shadow to stand beside him. Even with Ellison towering over him, the carnie seemed oblivious to their presence. His attention was focused on the uncooperative device under his hands. He gave the generator a frustrated whack with a wrench and let loose a string of obscenities, the harsh litany unhindered by the cigarette drooping from the corner of his mouth.
The ex-ranger was apparently unimpressed by the verbal tirade and in no mood for small talk. "Where can we find Randy Packard?" he asked brusquely.
The crewman ignored the question and yanked at a set of wires, pulling them free of the housing. Blair glanced at his partner and grimaced inwardly as the detective's eyes narrowed. The observer knew the look. The patented 'Ellison Glare' had seldom failed to provoke a suspect or witness into spilling their guts, but the anthropologist suspected it wasn't going to work on the carnie.
Blair dropped into a crouch, bringing himself down to eye level with the man. Dark brown eyes flicked toward him. The intensity of the gaze would have been enough to make the younger man flinch if he hadn't been prepared for it. Instead, the anthropologist met the man's searching stare calmly, aware he was being weighed and measuredassessed in the way that all carnies appraised anyone who wasn't part of their 'family'.
"Those things can be pain in the ass when they're not working right," Blair offered sympathetically.
The man grunted noncommittally and drew a pliers out of the tool-belt hanging from his waist. He deftly stripped the wires and reattached the leads, working with an ease which suggested that coaxing the aging equipment to do his bidding was a familiar ritual.
"Damn wires should be replaced," the carnie muttered in a low baritone.
"We'll bring it up to the owner. When you tell us where we can find him," Jim interjected tersely.
The carnie slowly raised his head and stared up at Ellison. He gave the detective an insolently slow head-to-toe once-over. Eyes filled with disdain, he shook his head and returned his attention to the generator. "Try the spin and barf," he answered dismissively.
"The Tilt-a-Whirl or the Scrambler," Blair asked quickly.
The man's head jerked up and he glared at the anthropologist. Blair struggled to keep his expression wide-eyed and unchallenging, but he couldn't resist a slightly raised eyebrow. The carnie slowly smiled, obviously surprised, but grudgingly pleased by Blair's familiarity with the slang terminology. "Tilt-a-whirl," he replied waving them in the appropriate direction.
"Thanks," Blair rose to his feet and tugged on his partner's arm to get them moving.
"The 'spin and barf'?" Jim grumbled softly when they were out of earshot.
"That's a carnival enthusiast's term for a flat ride with spinning cars," Blair explained, fighting to suppress a grin. "I would have thought it would have been obvious, Detective."
"What's obvious, Chief, is that we need to sit down and have a long talk about your past and what you were doing all those years before I met you."
"Hey, a man's got to have some secrets, Jim," Blair objected.
"This from the man who knows my PIN number," Ellison grumbled, picking up the pace again.
Blair strode alongside the detective, keen eyes roving, sharp mind recording every detail, confident his partner was doing the same thing. It would be interesting to compare notes later. Sentinel senses notwithstanding, Blair knew his friend had the edge when it came to pure policework. When it came to observation skills, however, they were closely matched with the anthropologist often having an advantage due to his eclectic background. It was something Blair prided himself onhis contribution to the more 'mundane' side of their partnership.
He people watched unabashedly as they walked, being careful not to trip over the thick, black- and gray-coated power lines which snaked across the ground. Before the carnival opened, those cables lying in the main walkways would be covered with sheets of plywood, but that was a last minute detail. The first order of business would be to get all of the rides up and make certain they were in working order. From what he'd seen, they still had a ways to go before that goal was accomplished, although he knew from experience that a crack crew could set up a show this size in a remarkably short timefour hours for setup, two for tear-down, per ride, was pretty standard.
The crew members, men and women of varying ages, hurried by. Intent on their own business they seemed oblivious to the two partners. Blair knew that was far from the truth. Carnies were a naturally curious group and they made their living by being able to 'read' people. He had no doubt that news of their presence was spreading like wild-fire, carried from one worker to another through their own intricate system of hand-signals and subtle looks.
He realized Jim had probably been tagged as a cop the moment they stepped on the grounds and mentally kicked himself for having forgotten how perceptive carnies could be. Well, it's not like I haven't warned him about the aura he broadcasts, he thought grimly. I just hope we don't spook our killer.
He wondered if he should warn his partner, but one look at the slightly annoyed expression on the detective's face told him the Sentinel was already aware of the mute conversation going on around themand its potential ramifications.
"They're speculating, man," Blair said softly. "It's what they do."
Ellison nodded and the anthropologist was pleased to see him relax slightly, the tension easing from the Sentinel's shoulders as accepted the situation. Blair tried to quiet his own growing nervousness by shifting back into observer mode.
Steering clear of the food stands and game booths'grabs' and 'joints' in the carnie lingoas much as possible, they threaded their way through the carnival's kiddieland, which hosted attractions geared to children under 12 years of age. There were at least a dozen rides, most of them already set up and waiting for the hordes of eager children who would descend upon them when the carnival opened. Two workers were still in the process of inflating the Moonwalk, however, and another was testing the rotating seats of the Spinning Apples. A middle-aged woman with a cane and only one leg was hobbling the length of a small train track, awkwardly bending to check the safety belts on each of the miniature cars. A girl of roughly nine, who bore a striking resemblance to the older woman, crawled along the track itself, checking the connections. The youngster wasn't the only child he saw assisting in the preparations.
Blair nodded absently. Carnies were a societya tribeunto themselves. The nomadic lifestyle was surprising family-oriented, with several generations living and working side by side. Bloodlines, a common purposeand a shared distrust of outsidersmade them extremely protective of one another. Finding the killer among them was going to be a challenge.
The sight of purple feathers drifting in the wind made Blair shudder as the memory of the dead child they had found hours earlier flashed through his mind. Daunting as it might be, they had to find a way to breach the walls of this closed society and get the information they needed.
Preoccupied with how to accomplish that act, Blair barely noticed when they walked past the rides which had caught his attention earlier. Nor did his eyes light with pleasure when they passed other spectacularsthe Flying Bobs, the Rocking Ship and the Turbo. His concentration was fixed on the carnies themselves. He found himself comparing each man and woman with the vague physical description they had pieced together, nearly groaning in frustration when he realized that more than half of the people he observed could easily be a match.
He was so busy watching another long-haired man of about his own height hanging huge stuffed animals in one of the game booths that he almost collided with Jim when the detective came to an abrupt stop. He recovered his balance and once again moved to his partner's side, eyeing the half-erected Tilt-a-Whirl. Three crewmen were wrestling one of the spinning cars into position on the tilted trackbed. The detective called out, asking whether one of them was the owner. One of the men glanced toward Jim, graced the Sentinel with the same scathing look the first carnie had used and stabbed a pointed finger downward.
Blair saw the open panels on the side of the ride. He tapped Jim on the arm and nodded toward them. Ellison crossed to the gaping hole and bent to peer inside. The fitful chugging and gasping of a heavy-duty motor emanated from the darkened depths. The detective had to shout to make himself heard.
"Randy Packard?" The noise abruptly died and a deep, disembodied voice rumbled in annoyed response. "Who wants him?"
"The name's Ellison."
"I don't know any Ellison and unless you're here to fix this damn motor, go away."
Blair stepped closer to the hole and leaned casually against the side. "Hey, Jim," he said, speaking loud enough for the man underneath the ride to hear him clearly. "Did the clerk say which permit hadn't been filed properly?"
From the interior came a loud thud followed by a resounding curse. Blair shot his partner a grin. A moment later a blonde-haired head emerged from the opening, followed by a broad set of shoulders. As he straightened, the anthropologist realized that unless their profile was way off base, there was no way this man could be their killer. Randy Packard towered over Jim by a good four inches and he was obviously in superb physical shape, muscled biceps a match for Ellison's.
Blair noted the irritated expression on the man's face and the heavy wrench gripped in Packard's right hand. He fought the instinctive urge to put some space between himself and the carnival owner.
Jim, true to form, didn't flinch. "Good of you to join us, Mr. Packard," he drawled dryly.
"What's this about one of our permits being screwed up?" Packard demanded. "We filed everything at the beginning of the week and I had a handful of city inspectors here earlier this morning. They didn't say anything about a problem."
"As far as I know there is no problem with your permits," Jim answered quietly. "I do have some questions for you, however. Is there somewhere private where we can talk?"
"Look, I don't have time for "
"I suggest you make the time," Ellison hissed, stepping forward into the man's space. "Unless you want to be charged with obstruction of justice and as an accessory to a felony." The Sentinel's icy gaze locked with that of the carnival owner. "My questions will only take a few minutes," Jim said softly. "Your choice."
Packard held his ground for a few seconds longer, apparently weighing his options. Finally, with a resigned, "Oh, hell," he tossed the wrench onto the ride bed and wiped his grimy hands on a filthy rag which looked no cleaner than his soiled jeans. He turned to shout at the men working on the cars. "Cal, take over here. I'll be back in a few minutes." A red-headed man acknowledged the order with a grunt. The carnival owner shot another glare at Jim. "We can talk in my office." He stalked off without a backward glance.
Trailing a few feet behind him, the partners found themselves retracing their steps through the grounds. Snatches of muttered grumblings drifted back to them. Blair glanced at Jim, recognizing the slight cocking of the older man's head as the Sentinel's 'listening' pose.
"What's he saying?" Blair whispered, not at all pleased that Jim had cranked up the volume on his hearing, but accepting the necessity.
"He's less than enthused with our request," Ellison answered blandly. Blair rolled his eyes, but remained silent, waiting for the details he knew would follow. "They're supposed to open today at 4:00 pm and he's worried they're not going to make it," Jim continued softly. "Apparently the only big attractions that are fully operational are those which arrived early."
"How early?" Blair pressed. "And which ones were they?"
Jim frowned, his brow creasing as he concentrated on following Packard's comments. "He didn't say," the Sentinel finally answered with a shake of his head. "But you can be sure we're going to find out."
Packard exited the main grounds and headed toward the cluster of trailers behind the pavilion. He stopped at the rear door of a small camper, his face a mask of impatience as he spun around to face them.
"You're a cop aren't you?" he said, fixing Jim with a hard stare. Ellison's eyes swept left and right in what appeared to be a casual glance, but Blair knew what the Sentinel was doingusing his enhanced senses to determine whether they were alone.
"Detective, actually," Jim answered. He withdrew his badge and held it up to Packard. "Major Crimes." He nodded toward Blair. "This is my partner, Blair Sandburg. We're investigating a series of murders." "What does that have to do with me and my carnival?"
"We're following up a lead," Ellison explained. "We need some information on your crew and your itinerary." Packard blanched, his eyes widening as the import of Jim's words sunk in. "We'd appreciate your cooperation."
"And if you don't get it?"
Jim's eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched. "Then I'll do whatever I have to do to shut you down and keep you stuck here in Cascade until we complete our investigation."
"But you can't do that!" Packard objected. "We're supposed to be in Portland next Saturday."
"Then help us out, man," Blair pleaded. Packard turned to the younger man in surprise. The observer's gaze met the detective's; permission asked and granted in the blink of an eye. "The person we're after has killed six people in Cascade within the past week. One of them a twelve year old boy," Blair said softly. "It's possible he, or she, is also responsible for an additional 29 unsolved deaths, all of which took place over the past year and a half."
The carnival owner's eyes widened in shock. "And you think this murderer is connected to my carnival. That it's one of my people?"
"Like I said," Jim interjected. "We're following up a lead." He took another quick look around and stiffened as several crew members passed within hearing. "If we could speak privately?"
The softly spoken request seemed to shake Packard out of his daze. He nodded and turned around. Grabbing the camper's door handle, he tugged it open and gestured to the interior. "My office... such as it is..."
Blair glanced inside and saw that the tiny space was going to be too cramped for all three of them. "Go ahead, Jim. I'll wait out here."
"Keep your eyes open, Chief," Ellison murmured as he followed Packard up the three metal steps.
"Oh, I will, Jim," Blair promised, settling himself on the lowest step as the door closed behind his Sentinel.
Doubling as storage space and office, the interior of the small camper was a claustrophobic's worst nightmare. There was barely a square foot of surface or floor space which wasn't occupied. Cardboard boxes filled with lights, circuits, and spare parts were stacked floor to ceiling. Towering stacks of playbills wobbled precariously as Packard edged around them to take a seat at a small table which served as his makeshift desk. A laptop computer and printer were the only sign of modern technology amidst the clutter.
"Your partner's not really a cop, is he?"
"Anthropologist," Jim answered after a moment's hesitation.
Surprisingly, Packard didn't ask the standard follow-up question. He simply nodded, as if he were expecting the unusual reply. He turned a grim gaze on the detective. "All right, Detective, you've got my attention. What makes you think I've got a killer on my payroll?
Jim sidestepped the question. "I'm not at liberty to reveal the details of our investigation, Mr. Packard."
"I'm not asking for details," Packard hissed angrily. "I want to know if you're on a witch-hunt or if you're convinced the killer is here. I'll be blunt with you, Detective. I'm a carnie. I don't like cops. I don't trust them. They swagger in here, harass my crew and then, when they don't find anything, they leave without one word of apology. I still find it hard to believe one of my people is this mass murderer you're looking for, but I'm not willing to take the chance that you're right and I'm wrong. I'll cooperate, but I want something in return."
Ellison's eyes narrowed. "And that would be?"
"I want you to be straight with me. I want your word that if you find this killer on the premises, that you'll take him down without a blood bath. This is a business, but it's also my life. The men and women who work for me are like family. As the nominal head of the clan, it's my job to protect them."
"You admit you don't trust cops," Jim said quietly. "Why would you trust me?"
Packard shrugged. "Maybe because you're willing to claim a long-haired anthropologist as a partner. That puts you in a different category from the 'boys in blue' who've graced my threshold in the past. Maybe it's because of the expression I saw in your eyes when your partner was talking about the number of victims the killer has already claimed. Maybe it's because you look like the kind of man who would keep his word, once he's given it."
The Sentinel stared at the carnival owner intently for a few seconds. "I'll do my best to protect your people. There won't be any bloodshed if there's any way to avoid it," he vowed softly.
Packard's measuring stare held Jim's for a several heartbeats, then he nodded abruptly. "Good enough. What do you want to know?"
Ellison reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a stack of Polaroids, laying them one by one on the desktop. "These are the six people our psycho's already murdered. Do you recognize any of them?"
Packard stared at the grisly crime-scene shots. He shook his head, clearing his throat several times before murmuring a quiet, "No."
The Sentinel watched him intently, cautiously dialing up his hearing for a moment to assess the man's pounding pulse and harsh breathing. Packard seemed genuinely distressed, not guilty or evasive. "The first victim was killed last Saturday," Jim informed him. "I need to know who on your staff might have been in Cascade at that point." "My lot man, Pete Barrows, and his crew did the advance work as usual," the carnival owner answered. "They would have been in town by then, along with a dozen or so of the ride-jocks and drivers. Our last show was in a small town outside of Seattle. A local American Legion post hired us to do a fund-raiser. They underestimated how much space we'd need when they booked us. We didn't have room to set up the Fun House or five of the other big rides, so we sent them on ahead to Cascade."
"Is that standard practice?"
"What about the rest of your group? When did you arrive?"
"We finished tear-down on Sunday night just before midnight. About half of the crew hit the road then, the rest stayed over until Monday. I didn't arrive in Cascade until Wednesday night."
"So Barrows was in charge? Is he here, now?"
"He's somewhere on the grounds," Packard answered, frowning. He gathered up the photos. "Pete might recognize the... victims. He has a good memory for faces. Most carnies do."
Packard flipped open the laptop and booted the computer, powering up the printer as well. "I'm afraid our personnel records are pretty sketchy, but I'll give you what I've got. My father bought the business back in the late sixties. He wasn't much for paperwork. Neither was my brother. I've only been running the show for the last six months, but I've tried to modernize us a bit." He tapped away at the keyboard as he spoke. "My wife Carolyn worked as an administrative assistant for one of the big computer firms before we got married, so she's gotten us pretty well organized. She has the last six months of payroll and business records on the computer. Anything older than that is still hard copy. I'm assuming from what your partner said, you want to go back 18 to 24 months?"
Ellison nodded. The printer hummed to life, disgorging a stack of printouts within seconds. Packard typed in a few more commands and grabbed the pile. He handed the top three sheets to Jim. "This is a list of our permanent crew. Twenty-five in all, some married with families, some single. The rest of the names on the sheet are the independent concessionaires. We have a shared revenue agreement with each of them."
"I'll need to know how long each of these individuals have been with the company," Jim said, scanning the list. "And which were in the advance group."
Packard nodded and reached for the papers, handing another printout to Ellison in exchange. He tapped the keyboard again, opening another set of files and started jotting notes in the margins of the first sheets while the detective reviewed the new information. It was a list of the amusement company's contacts at each of the dates they had played over the prior six months.
"How long will it take you to put together complete records for the last two years?" Packard grimaced. "A few hours. Carolyn could do it faster."
The Sentinel hesitated, debating whether the information was worth bringing another unknown participant into the loop. The ticking clock in his head, decided him. He pulled a card out of his pocket and laid it on the desk. "Have her contact me when it's ready. My cell phone number is on the back."
"She'll keep this confidential, Detective," the carnival owner assured him. "Why don't you make a list of what you want while I print out another copy of everything I've got on the system."
When the voices inside the camper dropped to a murmur, Blair released the breath he'd been holding and sat forward on the step, shifting his attention to his surroundings once more. He'd been expecting the confrontation between the carnival owner and his partner. It was one of the reasons he'd elected to remain outside. He'd had no desire to play referee, but he'd been ready to do so if the situation hadn't resolved itself so quickly.
Confident his partner had things well in hand, Blair let his gaze rove, keeping his eyes open as he'd promised the Sentinel. His ears, too. The sounds of the carnival carried on the breeze, singing a discordant song of frantic activity. Several members of the crew hurried by his perch, some favoring him with a quick smile, others too preoccupied to even glance in his direction. A pack of children, too young to be drafted into work details stormed past in a screaming mob, chasing a kickball.
The sight brought a genuine grin of pleasure to the weary anthropologist's face. He followed their erratic progressthe open space between two of the larger rides on the perimeter of the grounds appeared to be their 'goal'until they disappeared from view. A flash of color and movement at the edge of his peripheral vision pulled his gaze to the left. Staggering out from between two of the campers was a teenager dressed in the standard blue crew t-shirt. The tow-headed youth was valiantly trying to balance several huge stuffed animals on top of a load of boxesand failing badly. Blair was on his feet and heading toward the youngster before he even realized it. He reached the boy's side and managed to grab a bright red bull and a hairy brown gorilla before they toppled into a mud puddle.
The dark-eyed youth eyed his benefactor in surprise and then flashed a grin. "Good catch. Thanks. My dad woulda had my head if those got full of mud."
Blair grinned back. "No problem." The teen shifted the boxes in his arms and the anthropologist noticed a gleaming white cast around the boy's right wrist and forearm. "That looks new. Are you sure you should be carrying such a heavy load?"
The teen's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What's it to you?"
Blair ignored the belligerent tone. "I've worn one of those before. Broken arm, not wrist, but I remember that it hurt like hell for the first few days. Itched like mad, too."
The wariness faded from the youth's expression and the grin resurfaced. "Yeah, it does itch. Doesn't hurt much though. Uncle Arnie said it was a clean break. Should be good as new in a few months."
"He's not really my uncle. He operates the fun house. He fixed me up so's dad wouldn't have to take me to the hospital. How'd you break your arm?"
Blair chuckled. "The truth? I fell out of a tree. I was pretending to be this great explorer. Lost my balance and took a nose dive. How about you?"
The boy flushed, dropping his gaze. "Same story, 'cept it's more embarrassing. I took a header off one of the carousel horses. I was pretending to be a world class jockey" he muttered.
"I take it someone else won the race," Blair deadpanned. The boy looked up, his smile back full force. "Where do these need to go?" the anthropologist asked, hefting the game prizes.
"My dad's joints. He's one of the concessionaires. He's a Barker. I'm his assistant," the teen said proudly. "Usually I run the ring toss or 'tip'em over coke', but this gig I'm stuck on the dunk the ducks."
Blair nodded sympathetically and glanced toward Packard's trailer. There was no sign of his partner. He debated with himself for a moment. It wouldn't hurt to get some 'inside' information to go along with the official line which Packard would be dishing out, and would only take a few minutes to help the boy. He'd be back before Jim even knew he had been gone. "I'll give you a hand with these," he volunteered, turning back to the teen. "My name's Blair, by the way."
"Thanks. I'm Kevin," the boy answered as he nodded in the direction they needed to head.
As they threaded their way through the grounds, the two chatted amiably. When Blair admitted that he'd worked a carnival or two, the boy opened up even more; one carnie accepting another as long-lost kin.
The youth had grown up with the carnival. His father had started with Packard's father twenty years earlier as green help and worked his way up through the ranks. The family had run the gamut on game joints. They had set up milk cans, pottery pitches, stand up the bottle, fool the guesser, smash the can, rat joints, red circles, and a variety of basket games. Blair learned that Kevin's mother had died two years earlier and that he had an older sister who was 'doing the straight gig' as a computer programmer.
Kevin segued from tales of his own family to observations about the inner workings of the carnival and its crew. The teen eagerly indicated several of the grabs which he claimed had the best foodand which ones to stay away from. His tone was filled with disdain when he pointed out a concession which he claimed was a 'flat store'a game that can't be wonand another joint which ran an 'alibi'a game which was rigged, but could be beaten anywayclaiming his family only ran legit games for the 'marks'.
By the time they reached Kevin's father's booths, which were on the far side of the grounds, the observer found himself wishing for one of his notebooks. The teen's candid comments had given him a great deal of information. Now he needed to rejoin his partner so that they could compare notes. He gave Kevin a hand hanging the stuffed animals at one of the booths then they parted company, Blair promising to stop by and visit again if he had the chance.
The anthropologist walked briskly toward the entrance to the grounds, following the inner curve of the horseshoe. A small motorized cart carrying a load of ice for the grabs cut across his path. Blair jerked backward, barely avoiding a collision. The driver, a girl in her late teens, braked to a lurching stop and the engine died a sputtering death. Good-naturedly waving off the apology the young woman offered, Blair glanced around as she restarted the vehicle and pulled away.
A flashing rainbow of lights caught his attention. He turned and found himself in front of the fun house. No ordinary fun house, according to the glittering sign proclaiming the two-story attraction to be the 'Wonderous Mirror Maze'. The entire front facade was covered with hundreds of square mirrored tiles. While some of the tiles were cracked and broken, the overall effect was still impressive, even in the stark light of day.
Blair grinned, remembering another midwayanother 'dark ride' filled with rolling floors, revolving barrels and sparkling mirrors. A precociously energetic six year old, he had managed to persuade his mother's then-current boyfriend into taking him to the carnival which had come to town. It had meant dealing with Naomi's disapproval when she found out, but Blair had considered the tantalizing adventure well worth the price of a scolding. The way the mirrors had distorted his shape had delighted himone had made him incredibly tall.
Entranced by the fond memory, he drifted toward the entrance, an open arched doorway framed in twinkling lights, fronted by a set of five narrow metal steps. Impish curiosity prompted him to climb the stairs. Blair paused at the threshold, peering inside. The interior was pitch-black. Disappointed, he started to turn away and halted abruptly, certain that he had seen movement inside. He took a cautious step forward.
A shrieking blast of cold air burst from beneath his feet, lifting his hair several inches off his shoulders as light flared all around him. Blair held his ground, grinning delightedly.
An army of Blair Sandburgs grinned back.
Tall, vertical standing mirrors paraded down each side of the corridor in front of him. Set in a slight overlap pattern, the reflective surfaces threw back multiple images of the entranceway where he stood. The floor and ceiling were covered with the same square mirrored tiles which he'd seen on the exterior, enhancing the illusion of spatial distortion. Bright colored lights danced among the mirrors, adding to the visual chaos. Blair glanced down at his feet and found the pressure plate he'd activateda slightly raised strip of metaland nodded absently, realizing that there were probably similar triggers planted along the convoluted course of the maze.
He eyed the far end of the corridor intently. The walkway appear to stretch into the distance, taking a sharp bend to the right at infinity. As he stood absently pondering whether it was the position of the mirrors or something in the contour of the reflective surfaces which created the illusion, the feeling of being watched hit him between his shoulder blades like a physical blow.
He turned slowly, scanning the outer grounds, trying to see if he could find his 'watcher.' Several carnies hurried past, but none even glanced in his direction. A laughing rainbow of colors streaked by, but it was only the children of the carnival workers, playing an innocent game of tag. Still, he couldn't shake the feeling that he was under surveillance. A shiver ran up his spine followed by a full-body shudder. "By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes," he muttered.
He swept his gaze over the surrounding area once again. His brain registered the man-shaped shadow tucked close to one of the food booths only a fraction of a second after his eyes had slid over it. His head jerked to the left and he found his searching stare captured by a pair of dark, angry eyes. He had only a moment to register the barest of detailsmale, roughly his height and build, wearing the blue t-shirt of the carnival crew, a mark or tattoo of some type on the left upper armwhen bony fingers closed over his right shoulder and a gravelly voice murmured in his ear.
"Can I help you, son?"
Blair spun around, wrenching out of the vice-like grasp which held him. He found himself eye to eye with a wiry, ancient old man. The expression in the pale hazel eyes which drilled into his was curious, not menacing, but Blair backpedaled a step anyway, grabbing for the metal railing to keep from falling down the short flight of stairs.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you," the old man explained. "I was working inside and heard someone activate the tunnel, so I came up to investigate. The ride's not open yet, you know."
It took Blair a few seconds to re-order his whirling thoughts into some kind of intelligible response. "Umm... yeah, I know," he admitted, slightly embarrassed at his reaction and the fact that he'd gotten caught 'peeking'.
The old man grinned and glanced back over his shoulder at the lit tunnel. "You should come back after nightfall," he said softly, turning back to face Blair once again. "The attraction is really spectacular in the dark."
A shiver zipped its way up Blair's spine, abruptly reminding him of the malevolent presence he'd glimpsed just before the old man had come up behind him. He turned his head and stared at the spot next to the food booth, but there was no one there. His 'watcher' was gone.
"Is there something wrong?"
Blair glanced back at the old man. A grizzled stubble peppered the craggy face and a shaggy head of graying hair made him appear dissheveled, but the hazel eyes were clear and he held himself with a air of command or superiority which made the grad student revise his first impression of the man's age. Late 50's, early 60s, at the most... The man wore the obligatory blue t-shirt tucked into khaki-colored trousers, but he seemed oddly uncomfortable in the casual clothes. As if he's used to wearing something else? Not a uniform, but something just as authoritative...
"Son? Are you all right?"
Blair's eyes flicked upward, away from his examination of the man's well-worn workboots to meet the carnie's concerned, questioning gaze. He looks like someone's grandfather... or uncle... this is probably the 'Uncle Arnie' Kevin was talking about. He's a harmless old man... He managed a wan smile, a bare shadow of his normal self-effacing grin and wondered, if that was true, why all the hairs on the back of his neck were standing at attention and his flight instinct was screaming for him to run.
"Yeah... I'm... I'm fine," he finally managed to stammer. "I've always been fond of fun houses. Curiosity got the best of me, I guess. I didn't mean to interrupt your work. You probably have a lot to do before the carnival opens."
The old man shrugged. "I've got things pretty well in hand, although," he cocked his head to the side and eyed Blair speculatively, "it never hurts to do a final run through with a live subject to make sure everything's working properly. Would you like to volunteer for a trip through the maze?"
Impulsive he might be, but Blair Sandburg was nobody's fool. He had no intention of playing lab rat for anyoneat least not until he knew for sure who had been watching him from the shadows. The memory of the malice in those dark eyes unnerved him. He released his hold on the railing and took a step backward, dropping down on the first step below the platform hard enough to rattle his teeth. "Uh, no, thanks all the same. I've got to go. Meet a friend. He's probably wondering where I've wandered off to," he murmured as he eased his way down the remaining steps.
The old man stepped toward the edge of the platform. "Are you sure you won't change your mind?"
The questionand the intensity of the man's gazestopped Blair in his tracks and caused his heart to try to climb into his throat. "I'm sure," he managed to gasp, backing even further away.
The carnie shrugged again. "As you wish." With a nod, the old man turned and walked back into the glowing tunnel.
Blair stared at the gaping maw of brilliance, stunned by his reactions to the man. I'm losing it. All he did was invite me to walk through the attraction. Why am I trying to read between the lines and find something sinister in what he was proposing? It's the other guy... the one whose glare could write a whole new definition to the cliche, 'If looks could kill,' that I should be worrying about.
The one-sided argument made sense, yet when he started moving, it was in reverse. He took several steps backward, strangely reluctant to turn his back on the glittering attraction. For the second time in less than ten minutes, he nearly jumped out of his skin as a hand closed around his right shoulder. He whirled around to find his partner standing behind him.
"Easy, Chief," Jim admonished.
"Man, don't DO that! Warn a guy next time you're going to sneak up on him, will you?"
Jim managed a weak grin. "A warning would negate the whole purpose, wouldn't it?"
"Yeah, probably," Blair muttered. He glanced around nervously, working hard to regain his composure.
"What's got you spooked, Sandburg?"
"Yeah, spooked. Your heart's working overtime. I didn't even have to turn up the dials to find you. Not that I expected to have to go looking." Blair looked up and met his partner's worried stare. He could see the pain reflected in the dulled blue depths and knew that the Sentinel's headache was back full force. And I didn't help matters any. His Blessed Protector instincts probably went into overdrive when he came out of the trailer and found me gone. What was I thinking? Wandering around when there's a good chance our killer's right on the grounds this very minute.
Angry with himself for adding to his partner's stress level, Blair pushed his own irrational fears aside. "Sorry, man. While you were giving Packard the 'Third Degree' I did a little fact finding on my own. I got some good background from one of the kids on the crew. I was on my way back to join you when I ran into something creepysomeone was watching me from the shadows over there." He nodded toward the foodstand.
Jim turned to study the area Blair had indicated. "Did you get a good look at him?"
The anthropologist shook his head. "Just a glimpse. Whoever he was, he was pretty pissed off."
"You weren't flirting with any young women at the time, were you, Chief? His girlfriend, maybe?"
Jim's clenching jaw muscles and the icy blue gaze which swept their surroundings told Blair the Sentinel wasn't taking the situation as lightly as his words suggested. Determined to keep things light until they found somewhere more private to talk, the observer rolled his eyes in mock dismay and started strolling toward the entrance. The detective's longer stride put him at the younger man's side immediately. Neither said another word until they were seated in the truck.
"Did you get what we needed from Packard?" Blair asked anxiously.
Jim's expression was grim as he pulled a sheaf of papers from out of his jacket and handed them to the observer. "I got enough to get us started. Packard gave me the files on his employees and a copy of the carnival's itinerary for the last six months. We should have the rest in a few hours. The documentation on the employees and concessionaires looks pretty sketchy. We'll just have to dig into each of their backgrounds and hope we find something more to work with. Simon might buy our theory that the killer's here based on the feather and the smell I picked up, but no judge in his right mind is going to give us a search warrant based on that kind of evidence. We need something more concrete."
"We'll find it," Blair said, putting all the confidence he had in his partner and his Sentinel's abilities into that declaration.
Jim gave him a weary, grateful smile. "Let's head back to the station."
"You won't get any arguments from me, man," Blair answered. When Jim shot him a surprised look, the younger man shook his head grimly. "This place gives me the heebie-jeebies. I think, after all these years, I've finally lost my taste for carnivals."
Simon intercepted the partners in the hallway outside of Major Crimes and directed them to the Operations Room which had been commandeered for their hastily assembled task force. Stepping across the threshold, Blair whistled softly under his breath, amazed at the transformation the conference room had undergone. Jim refrained from making any comments, but nodded in approval as he scanned the room.
It was buzzing with activity. Technicians from the station's Information Systems department were in the final stages of setting up a state-of-the-art computer system on one of the extra desks which had been sandwiched into the room to provide additional working space. Another tech from Building Services was checking the connections on the half dozen new phones scattered about the room, trying to tame the dull gray cords which snaked like tendrils of some exotic plant across the carpeted floor. Rhonda was making a circuit of the interior, placing stacks of yellow legal pads and handfuls of pens, pencils and highlighters on every flat surface. One of the support staff from the clerical pool trailed at her elbow, jotting down notes as Simon's assistant reeled off instructions.
Piles of case jackets and computer printouts covered half of the huge conference table. Three large, wheeled bulletin boards were strung the length of the room. One of them already held photos of the Cascade victims, including a Polaroid of the young boy who had been that morning's victim. Below each picture was tacked a pale green sheet of paper, detailing the specifics of each crime scene.
"You've been busy," Jim observed.
"I figured the paper trail this mess was going to generate was going to flood the bullpen," Banks explained. "We've got six hours to get a handle on where things stand. I've called a full meeting of the task force for 5:00 pm." He glanced at Blair and gestured to the computer setup. "You've got a secure line and authorization to tap into practically any data base you need, Sandburg. You can link in your laptop, but make sure there's a copy of everything, including anything your friend Crawford comes up with, on this system. I want proper procedure followed at all times. If we have to submit the computer records as evidence, I don't want any room for a defense attorney to raise issues of tampering. Is that clear?" "Perfectly," Blair answered quickly.
The captain turned to his detective. "If I'm going to go to bat for this theory of yours, I want the full story, Jim," he said, stressing the adjective meaningfully. "Not the vague generalities Sandburg fed me over the phone."
Blair grimaced. Once they had left the breakwater, the observer had contacted Simon via cell phone, filling the captain in on their progress. He hadn't divulged many details, nor had he dwelled on the questionable admissibility of the evidence which had led them to the carnival, choosing to stress the point that Ellison felt their lead was solid. Simon knew them too well to accept the delaying tactics for long, but Blair had hoped to buy a little more time. If they had hard evidence to support the clues which the Sentinel's enhanced senses had unearthed, they might avoid the issue of 'how' they'd discovered them altogether.
And there was no way he wanted to get into a discussion about Jim's senses right now. Outside of the aggravating headache which was obviously plaguing the Sentinel, Ellison seemed to be back to his normal assertive, confident self. The day had been blessedly free of any new 'freak-out' episodes and Blair preferred to keep it that wayespecially since he had no new answers or solutions to offer from either a Guide's perspective or the shamanistic angle. Their whirlwind morning had given him no chance to contact his friend Jason and he seriously doubted that the afternoon would be any different, given the deadline Simon had set for them.
Instinctively, Blair shifted closer to Jim, moving into a protective stance in front of his partner. Before he could open his mouth to offer an objection to the captain's demand, a warm hand closed over his shoulder, squeezing gently.
"Simon's right, Chief," Ellison said quietly. "He's the one who has to justify things upstairs."
Blair glanced up and saw the determination filling Jim's blue eyes. As hard as it was to back off from his hovering, the Guide knew that was precisely what the situation demandedand what his Sentinel required. He sighed and nodded. He slipped his backpack off his shoulder and dug out the sheaf of papers Randy Packard had given them. "I'll get started then while you two sort out the details." Blair shifted his gaze to Simon and fixed the captain with a glare. "I'm in full agreement on the tampering issue, Captain," he murmured cryptically. "Things have been a little complicated, but we seem to be on track right now. We still need some time to work out all the particulars though. I'd hate to see us have a problem because we made a mistake and pushed too hard at this point."
Banks raised one eyebrow at the anthropologist's comments. "I agree," he responded, just as enigmatically. Simon glanced at Jimwho bore a thunderous expression as a result of the little dance which was going on around himand nodded toward the corridor. "Let's discuss this in my office, Detective."
Ellison followed Simon out the door, bestowing a baleful glare upon his partner before he disappeared from view. Blair shrugged it off, knowing Jim's irritation would be short-lived. It was difficult for the Sentinel to accept being in the role of the 'protectee'. He was much more comfortable as the 'protector.'
He's just going to have to deal with it. I made a vow to keep him safe and I intend to keep that promise, Blair thought grimly. He deftly tied his hair back to keep the unruly strands out of his face and settled himself in front of the computer to map out a plan of attack.
Time flowed in spurts over the course of the afternoon, speeding by like a runaway freight train at one moment, reduced to a snail's pace the next. Jim spent less than an hour in Simon's office, returning to the tasks which faced them with focused determination, and without the anger and annoyance which had accompanied his departure. He'd given Blair's pony tail a teasing tug before seating himself at the table and digging into the files. Blair accepted the action for the peace offering it was, flashed the older man a reassuring grin and returned to his own efforts with a renewed sense of purpose.
In Jim's absence, Blair had managed to make good headway entering the information they ad into the data base he'd constructed and had sent out requests to various city, state and federal agencies for more. By incorporating the locations and dates of each deathincluding the 29 which had occurred before the first killing in Cascadehe created a structure which the entire team could use as they began the monumental task of correlating the information they had on the victims, the carnival's itinerary, and its crew.
In his own mind, Blair envisioned the database as the border of a complicated picture puzzle. It took time to sort out the edge pieces and connect them, but once the overall shape and size was established, finishing the puzzle was simply a matter of filling in the resteven if you no longer had the cover to tell you what kind of picture you were building. Working the sections of the puzzle which were the simplest to identifysky or grass or blocks of uniform coloroften produced a fairly accurate view of the completed image well before the last pieces were locked into place. If the analogy held, they'd be able to build enough of a case to identify a solid suspect.
Jim focused his efforts on the carnival employees, beginning with a background check on those who had arrived ahead of the rest of the company. Blair's fingers danced across the keyboard as he strove to supply the supplemental data his partner requested.
A search in the DMV mainframe supplied physical dataheight, weight, eye coloron each of their possible suspects. File photos of the employees who matched the tentative physical profile they had established were quickly tacked to one of the open bulletin boards. Addresses were checked for accuracy and phone interviews of known associates and relatives were conducted by other members of the Major Crimes unit and by the additional Homicide support staff Captain Sterns had assigned to the effort.
Rafe and Henri Brown joined Jim and Blair by early afternoon, adding their own energy and ideas to the mix, pursing specific directions which Ellison and Sandburg dictated. Simon rolled up his sleeves and jumped on the phone himself, smoothing the way for his detectives' calls to the police departments in the other cities where the killer had struck, using his superior rank and gruff 'don't give me any crap' tone when subtlety and good manners failed to produce immediate results.
The answers to their inquiries began to pour in. The fax machine spit out page after page of case files and autopsy photos, employment records and credit reports. The printer hummed as it translated binary data into readable characters, disgorging the flood of paperwork which Simon had envisioned.
A second computer was brought in and networked to the first when Blair began to get so overloaded with incoming e-mail that he was spending all his time downloading and printing files. Simon asked Rhonda for a staff recommendation to take over the onerous chore and she immediately volunteered. While she was busy shifting files from one system to the other, Blair grabbed a telephone and contacted Patrick Crawford, eager to know what progress his colleague was making.
Unfortunately, the news wasn't what he had hoped for. Crawford's research had generated more dead ends and false trails than answers. He had found documentation on over a dozen different sacrificial rituals which involved mutilation of the corpse and suggested the use of special herbs within the ceremony, but he hadn't come up with an exact match. Blair asked Patrick to send over the information he had and urged the other grad student to keep digging.
Interdepartmental courtesy was strained and the morale of the entire group started to suffer when Detectives Rankin and Briggs arrived on the scene. Once apprised of the developments, the Homicide cops began to question the direction the investigation was heading. Banks was faced with the challenge of trying to moderate the situation and keep tempers from flaring. Simon didn't believe that Rankin and Briggs' comments were intended to be obstructivethe two cops seemed genuinely concerned that the carnival angle was a wild goose chase, insisting that the best suspect to date had to be Father Jameson, given his known relationship with at least two of the victimsbut they were creating a problem, nevertheless.
Their assertions grated on the rest of the team. In just a few minutes, Simon watched Blair go from focused and calm to distracted and distressed. Ellison, reacting to his partner's agitation, physically placed himself between the civilian and the Homicide officers, pacing a protective path behind the anthropologist's chair. The palpable tension in the room ensnared Rafe and Brown as they glanced worriedly from one face to the next, trying to gauge what was happening and who would lose their cool first.
Joel Taggert's unexpected arrival with the news that Father Jameson had a concrete alibi for each of the murders doused the fires, but Banks knew that the embers of discord were still smoldering. Putting Rankin and Briggs back out on the street was the best solution. Simon charged them with the responsibility of retrieving the hard copies of whatever records couldn't be downloaded and handed them a list which Blair had generated. Briggs grumbled about being demoted to 'go-fer' status, but Rankin immediately agreed, and urged his partner out the door, reminding him that the important thing was to catch the killer before he struck again.
They got an unexpected break when Randy Packard's lot man, Pete Barrows, delivered the documentation the carnival owner had promised. As his boss had suggested, the carnie proved to have an exceptional memory for faces. When Henri Brown showed him the photos of the Cascade victims, Barrows recognized them all. The second victim, Robert Jeffries, had approached him looking for a temporary job. Barrows had hired him to help with setup. Jeffries had put in a full day of work both Sunday and Monday, but had not returned on Tuesday. Barrows made a written statement which placed each victim on the carnival grounds prior to their deaths.
As the clock ticked down to the 6:00 pm deadline, the picture Blair had been hoping for began to take shape. What they were still lacking was a motive and an explanation for killer's erratic murder spree. The 29 homicides the NCIC database had flagged had occurred in only 19 of the 57 cities the carnival had played. The number of killings in each city varied from as few as three, to as many as seven. Making it even more of a puzzle was the fact that the time between murders varied as well. In several instances there was a full month between one group of killings. The shortest span was three days.
Blair was still pondering the variablesand the possible reasons for themwhen Captain Sterns and his Homicide detectives joined them for the scheduled meeting. Passing on the sandwiches which had been delivered in lieu of a dinner break, the tired observer snagged a cup of coffee and slid into a seat next to Jim. He sipped at the hot beverage, wishing he could have an intravenous dose of caffeine instead of the oral variety. The burn of stiff and cramped muscles and the scratchiness dryness of his eyes testified to the number of hours he'd spent staring at the computer screen. He would have liked nothing better than to curl up on the couch in Simon's office and let Jim wake him when after the meeting was overor better yet, in a weekbut he simply settled deeper in his chair as Banks called the group to order.
While Jim summarized their findings, Blair idly thumbed through the stack of printouts which represented the tangible results of their afternoon's efforts. His gaze kept straying to a group of photos pinned to one of the bulletin boards. Based on the physical profile they had established and the background checks they had run, they had identified three members of the carnival's advance crew as their best suspects. One of them was the man who had been watching Blair from the shadows of the food booth. DMV records had confirmed his identityCalvin Chambers. Blair struggled to repress a shudder at the memory of the angry dark eyes which had bored into him from across the grounds.
He shifted in his chair and focused his gaze on the tabletop to avoid looking at another photo which hung nearby the target group. The grandfatherly image of Arnie Klerk, the fun house operator, made him as uneasy as the picture of Chambers, but for less definable reasons. Klerk had also been a part of the advance group and he fit the physical profile, but they were still awaiting the results of the old man's background check, so his status as a prime suspect was still up in the air.
Blair's thoughts returned to his partner as Jim concluded his portion of the briefing. The observer glanced at his friend and met the inquisitive, concerned expression which told him that the Sentinel had picked up on his Guide's distress. Before Blair could do more than shrug, Captain Sterns' bass voice broke the silence, capturing everyone's attention.
"We still don't have a solid suspect. Or motive."
"We've narrowed the field," Rafe objected. "We've identified three possible matchesCalvin Chambers, Nick Armstrong and Monica Bradford."
"Chambers was a Seal," Jim interjected. "That's the Navy's version of the Rangers. His military background is comparable to mine and would have included some fairly intensive medic training. He received a dishonorable discharge for disciplinary infractions two years ago and joined the amusement company a month after he received his walking papers. His superiors describe him as a hot-head. A loner with a chip on his shoulder. The Navy psychologist who interviewed him at the time of discharge categorized him as borderline psychotic."
"Armstrong was a fifth year med student, employed at a hospital in Seattle before he flunked out of their surgical residency program," Henri Brown added. "I talked to the hospital's chief surgeon who was in charge of the review board. He said that Armstrong was furious when he was told he no longer had a place within the program and that he vowed he was going to prove that his surgical skills were as good or better than anyone on their staff. Could be the killings are his way of carrying through on that promise."
"Bradford has training as an EMT," Rafe explained. "She spent two years working for the fire department in Portland. She left the department shortly after her twin brother was murdered. His body was found in a dumpster. He'd been stabbed to death."
Sterns raised an eyebrow. "That sounds too much like our cases to be coincidental. Did the department have a psychological workup of Bradford on file?"
Rafe nodded. "There was one done just prior to her exit interview. She was described as depressed and extremely bitter over the way the cops had handled the investigation into her brother's death. The case is still open, by the way."
"Maybe she's looking for the justice that she feels she's been denied," Rankin speculated.
"Our killer's not looking for justice," Blair objected. "He's making sacrifices."
"So we're back to the vampires and ghouls theory," Sterns muttered sarcastically.
"Actually 'ghoul' is more accurate," Blair commented dryly. "A ghoul is a person who is morbidly interested in death. I'd say that describes our killer." The Homicide captain shook his head in disgust, but Blair ignored him. "Look, these are ritual killings. Each one follows the same pattern. The killer disables the victim, dispatches them with a single knife thrust and then mutilates the body. Then he disposes of the corpse as if it has no further value. He's focused on the act of killing. Why? Because he hopes to gain something."
"What?" Jim prompted softly.
"Power, most likely," the anthropologist replied. "Sacrifice is a ritual act of worship, in which an offeringa plant, an animal or even a human beingis made to some higher being. Usually it's a means of honoring or appeasing said deity. Sometimes a sacrifice is made in the hope of claiming some of the 'being's' power or abilities for the participants.
"In pre-Columbian America thousands of human victims, many of them war captives, were offered annually in accordance with the complex Aztec ritual calendar. Human sacrifice also occurred on a lesser scale among the Maya and various Andean and North American Indian groups. Among cultures of Africa, the Far East, Southeast Asia, and Oceania, sacrifice is still commonly offered in connection with ancestor worship. Human sacrifice was formerly practiced by certain groups in all of those areas.
"You can even find evidence in the Old Testament of the Bible. The first mention of sacrifice is God's rejection of Cain's offering and his acceptance of Abel's. The principal sacrifices of ancient Hebrew worship were the Paschal Lamb and the scapegoat."
"You're talking ancient history and organized religion, Sandburg. That's a far cry from what we're dealing with here," Simon pointed out.
"Not really," the anthropologist countered. "There are mystery cults still in existence today whose members believe that by means of the performance of particular secret rituals they would gain knowledge not available to the uninitiated and thus effect a mystical union with the divine. In contrast to traditional religion, which emphasized the gulf between God and humankind, the mystery cults promised a share in the life of the gods, most importantly in their immortality."
"Secret rituals... immortality... What's next? Magic potions and spells?" Sterns scoffed. He turned to Simon, his expression grim. "This nonsense isn't getting us anywhere. We need hard facts, not wild speculation."
Stunned speechless by the abrupt dismissal, Blair sank back in his chair. The Homicide captain's words had the opposite effect on Ellison, whose anger exploded, lifting him to his feet.
"You want facts?" Jim shoved his copy of the report across the table toward Sterns. "We have six Cascade victims, all of whom we can place on the carnival grounds prior to their murders. We've confirmed that the advance crew for the carnival was in town prior to the first murder. We've ascertained that three of the crew members fit the physical profile forensics has established and that they have the medical background or training to deliver the knife wound which the ME has established as the cause of death. We've confirmed that the three suspects were a part of the advance crew which was present in each of cities and towns where the 29 prior murders took place. We have physical evidence found at the sixth Cascade crime scene which connects the murders to the carnival."
Jim's eyes narrowed dangerously as he fixed Sterns with an icy stare. "We have suspects, we have opportunity and, although you're too close-minded to understand it, my partner has supplied a motive. Now, do we sit here all night and debate the difference between fact and speculation, or do we purse the course of action that the evidence suggests?"
For a full thirty seconds, the room was deathly silent while Sterns and Ellison glared at one another. Blair crossed his arms over his chest and struggled to control a triumphant grin. It was no surprise to the anthropologist when the Homicide captain caved in, grudgingly throwing his support behind their findings.
Fifteen minutes later, Blair was no longer feeling so smug. Eager to get a closer look at their suspects, Jim was determined to make a return trip to the carnival grounds. It was the last place Blair wanted to gothe loft and bed being foremost on his listbut one look at his partner's clenched jaw suggested that arguing the advisability of such a move would be an exercise in futility, so he kept his opinions to himself. He followed Jim to the elevator and spent the ride down to the garage trying to convince himself that the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach was due to gravity, not fear.
It was nearly 7:30 p.m. by the time Jim pulled the truck into one of the few empty spaces remaining in the lower breakwater parking lot. The last fifteen minutes of stop and 'inch-forward' traffic generated by the crowds descending on the waterfront area had strained Ellison's patience and aggravated his headache even further. With more force than was necessary, he turned the keys in the ignition and killed the engine. Sitting back in his seat, he slowly turned his head to study his partner. Sandburg had been unusually quiet since they left the station, replying in short, clipped sentences to Ellison's comments or questions instead of instigating or directing the conversation. He hadn't even lifted an eyebrow when Jim had called Packard on his cell phone, asking the carnival owner to meet them at his trailer.
Blair had spent most of the trip staring out the window, his expression pensive, his brow furrowed in concentration. To the casual observer, it would appear that he was holding up well, despite the stress of the case, but Jim knew better than anyone that with Sandburg, appearances were often deceiving. The nervous bouncing of the younger man's knees, the lines of strain around his mouth and the darkening shadows under his eyes revealed a much different picture to the Sentinel.
Jim frowned, still irked at the slam the Homicide captain had delivered to his partner during the meeting. Ellison knew that Sterns' sarcasm had hit a raw nerve, but he was proud of how quickly the observer had regained his composure. Early in their partnership, Ellison had warned the grad student that he would have to learn to 'step back' and keep his emotions in check if he were going to hold his own in the detective's world. It had been a difficult challenge for the younger man, but somehow Blair had managed to adapt without becoming jaded. Sandburg still held to the fundamental belief that people were inherently gooda conviction which a case like their current one severely tested.
"You still with me, Chief?" he asked.
Blair nodded, but his gaze remained fixed on something beyond even the Sentinel's ability to see. "Yeah, just thinking."
"Anything you want to share? The condensed version, that is."
He expected Blair to roll his eyes or shoot him one of his trademark grins, but when the anthropologist turned to look at him, the expression on his face was grim, his eyes dulled by something Jim couldn't quite place.
"I was thinking about Lash."
Now why is that not a surprise, Ellison mused darkly, his frown deepening in concern.
"The yellow scarves," Blair continued. "They were his trademark. Kind of like his signature, right?"
The detective nodded. "Most serial killers leave an identifying clue for the police to find. It's their way of staking their claim and taunting whoever's hunting them. Our killer hasn't been following that pattern, though."
"Maybe he has and we just haven't seen it," Blair said quietly. "When you examined the bodies you said that the secondary slashes appeared to be random... slightly different on each corpse. All except one set of marks."
Jim's eyes widened, suddenly realizing where his partner's line of thought was leading him. "The interlocked 'C' shapes."
It was Blair's turn to nod. "The killer carved the same set of shapes into each body. I know it sounds kind of farfetched, but what if that's it? What if that's his signature? Or, more literally, his initials?"
"CC. Calvin Chambers," Jim said tersely, his jaw muscles clenching. "Damn. How could I have missed that?"
"Cut yourself some slack, man," Blair said firmly. "We didn't have the list of carnival employees until a few hours ago. Besides, it's just a guess on my part. I could be way off base. I admit Chambers really gave me the creeps this morning. Maybe it's just my overactive imagination trying to come up with a reason for his behavior."
"You've got good instincts about people, Chief," Jim said quietly. "And the background we've got on Chambers has him high on the suspect list anyway. Did your buddy Patrick mention anything about a signature element in the rituals he's researching?"
"Not specifically. I didn't say anything about the consistency of that particular set of marks either. I didn't want to prejudice his findings. Maybe I should have..."
"You just told me to go easy on myself, Sandburg," Jim growled. "Take your own advice."
Blair nodded tersely and glanced out the window toward the carnival grounds. "So what's the plan? Do we go in there and confront Chambers?"
"As much as I'd like to, I think we'd better take this one step at a time, Chief. Chambers certainly looks like our best bet, but we can't afford to be wrong. I want to get a closer look at all three of our suspects before we drag anyone downtown for questioning."
"How are we going to do that? The word's got to have circulated among the carnies that you're a cop, Jim. Even those that aren't on our suspect list are going to be less than enthused about talking to us." "I know. I'm hoping Packard can help us with that."
Ellison opened his door and climbed out of the truck. Blair slid out the passenger side and worked his way between the pickup's bumper and the car parked in front of them to join his partner.
"Jim, this place is going to be a sensory nightmare," the younger man cautioned. "You sure you're up for this?"
"I'm fine, Sandburg," the Sentinel snapped. His Guide's sharp intake of breath told him it was the wrong response. He glanced quickly at Blair, seeing the genuine concern in the younger man's eyes. "I'll keep things dialed down," Jim said softly. As usual, his Guide accepted his oblique apology without pressing for more. Blair simply nodded and gestured for Jim to lead the way.
When they met Randy Packard at his trailer, the carnival owner ushered them inside. This time the detective made sure the observer joined them. He had no intention of letting his partner out of his sight, especially given the dangerous interest Calvin Chambers had already exhibited in the younger man.
True to his word, Ellison told Packard as much as he could about the results of their investigation, but he withheld the names of their three main suspects. The carnival owner appeared shocked, but grimly agreed to help them.
"I usually make a tour of the grounds every couple of hours. I like to keep an eye on how things are going," Packard explained, glancing at his watch. "I'm due to start a circuit now. Why don't you join me? That will give you a chance to check everyone out. I figured you'd be back for a return visit, so I started the rumor that you were here earlier looking for a runaway. We've had cops on the grounds for that reason in the past."
"At least one of the Cascade victims was a runaway," Blair observed quietly, his eyes locking with Jim's. "We might get some reaction out of our suspects on that point alone."
Jim nodded his appreciation of both men's suggestions, the obvious and the implied. "Let's get started," he urged.
Packard led them from the trailer and strode quickly through the crowds streaming through the entrance to the grounds. The early evening attendees were mainly young couples pushing strollers or shepherding toddlers past the tantalizing food and game stands. Older children tugged at their parent's hands urging them toward the glittering rides. The Sentinel kept a firm grip on his imaginary audio dial and tried to ignore the high-pitched shrieks of delight which surrounded him.
The carnival owner stopped at the beer garden first, introducing the partners to the middle-aged woman who was supervising the area. It wasn't difficult for Jim to come up with a description of the run-away they were supposedly seekingthe image of the young boy they had found that morning was burned into his memory.
Their first stop set the pattern for each booth and ride. They spent the same amount of time at each grab and joint, describing their fictitious runaway, receiving the same suspicious glare and shake of the head from each carnie. Blair glided like a shadow at Jim's side, letting the detective carry the conversations.
They had interviewed a dozen carnies before they reached their first suspect. Nick Armstrong was ride-jocking the Zipper, the first of the spectacular's along the left side of the horseshoe shaped grounds. They had to wait until the carnie had a new group of passengers loaded before approaching him.
Armstrong was just an inch or so taller than Sandburg, with nearly the same body mass. His light blonde hair was buzzed so close to the scalp that at first glance he appeared bald. He had a pack of cigarettes rolled up in the left sleeve of his t-shirtred was now the color of the crew's casual uniformand he quickly dropped a lit butt in the dirt in deference to Packard's unhappy glare.
The Sentinel cautiously dialed up his senses, focusing them on the young man as the carnival owner explained the reason for their presence. He flinched slightly as the onslaught of sound, lights and smells that he'd been only marginally aware of, hit him full force. His Guide's familiar touch grounded him immediately. He breathed a silent 'thanks' for his companion's stabilizing presence and blithely rattled off the description of their runaway to the waiting carnie. "Haven't seen anyone like that," Armstrong answered with a shake of his head. "'Course the older kids don't usually show 'til later, once the stroller brigade heads for home."
The Sentinel had been carefully monitoring Armstrong's heartbeat and respiration, but the carnie had shown no marked signs of distress at the mention of a runaway. With some trepidation, Jim dialed down his hearing and mentally nudged the sensory control for smell up several notches. Armstrong stood only a few feet away; definitely close enough for the Sentinel to pick up what he was looking for if it existed. Concentrating on the sense memory of the smells he had detected on the bodies of the victims, Jim inhaled deeply. Filtering past the cloying odor of cigarette smoke took only a moment, cataloging the remaining smells which emanated from the carnie took even less time.
Sweat, cheap aftershave... grease, that's a match, but not conclusive... he had something to eat... a taco or burrito not too long ago... no herbal smells...
"We'd appreciate your keeping your eyes open and notifying us if you see anyone fitting the description," Jim said, exhaling softly.
"Yeah, sure," Armstrong replied. "Always willing to help out the cops," he muttered. The carnie glanced at his boss. "Can I get back to work now?"
Packard nodded. "Just keep the cigarettes in their pack until you're on your break. You know the rules."
Armstrong's expression turned sullen, but he remained silent, spinning on his heel and returning to his station at the controls of the ride. Jim caught Blair's inquiring look and gave a minute shake of his head before gesturing to Packard that they continue their tour.
Their face-to-face with Monica Bradford, who was running the spinning apple ride in the kiddie area, produced the same lack of sensory results, although ex-emergency medical technician was friendlier and seemed genuinely distressed when told the reason for their visit.
"I know it's tough for some kids to stay at home," she said, shaking her head. "But with the drugs and the pimps, the streets aren't safe. No one's safe out there..." Her voice trailed off and an expression of immense sorrow clouded her eyes.
Packard patted her on the arm sympathetically and gestured with a lift of his chin to the long line of children waiting for their turn on the ride. "You look like you've got your hands full tonight. Do you want me to send over some help?"
Bradford nodded gratefully. "I'd appreciate it, boss. Even if it's just a couple of the older kids. They do a great job of entertaining the little ones while they're waiting."
"You've got it," Packard answered, pulling a cell phone out of his pocket. Out of habit, the Sentinel tuned in to the conversation, pulling Blair aside when he confirmed that the carnival owner was passing on the request to his wife.
"She might fit the profile, but you're going to have a hard time convincing me she's the one we're after," the anthropologist said, leaning in close to Jim in order to be heard over the noise of the crowd which surged past them.
"I agree. I didn't pick up any of that strange odor around her, either," the Sentinel commented quickly. Turning his attention to the carnival owner as Packard joined them once more, he missed the worried frown which surfaced for an instant on his Guide's expressive face.
It took nearly forty minutes for the trio to work their way to the game booth where Calvin Chambers was stationed for the night and with each tick of the clock, Blair grew more worried about his partner. Jim was as tense as a coiled spring, his head jerking minutely from one direction to another as the cacophony of sound and light which surrounded them battled for his attention. Blair had been yearning for a set of earplugs since they'd set foot on the grounds and berated himself for not having thought to bring a pair for his Sentinel. He watched Jim flinch as a burst of riotous, off-key music exploded from the loud speakers of the ride they were passing and pressed a hand to his partner's back in silent support, wishing he could do more.
His concern for his Sentinel took a back seat for a split second when Chambers looked up from the toppled bottles he was arranging. The carnie's dark gaze locked with Blair's for an instant before shifting away. The anthropologist's breath caught in his throat, but he resisted the urge to retreat behind Jim's solid, protective form, even though the particle board counter and canvas walls of the booth which separated him from the carnie suddenly seemed far too flimsy a barrier.
"Calvin, this is Detective Ellison and his partner, Blair Sandburg," Packard said, handling the introductions adroitly. "They're with the Cascade Police Department. You might have heard that they were on the grounds earlier.
They're looking for a runaway. A boy of about thirteen."
Chambers' glare tracked from Jim to Blair and then resettled on Packard. "We get lots of kids that age at this booth, boss. Boys and girls."
Blair stiffened as Jim stepped closer to the counter, the Sentinel's pale blue eyes flashing their own icy glare. "Maybe a description would jog your memory," Ellison said coolly.
Chambers rose to his feet and approached the counter with an arrogant swagger. "You think you can manage one?" he asked belligerently.
Blair sucked in a surprised breath. Very few people dared to challenge his partner when the detective's laser beam stare was targeted on them. Chambers, however, seemed immune to the effect. Maybe it's a Seal thing. Jim equated the Navy's elite training program to the Rangers and I know that's where some of Jim's 'take no crap from anyone' attitude came from. Either that or Chambers is just plain stupid, Blair decided.
Ellison rolled through the spiel he'd been giving each of the carnies without batting an eye. Chambers' sneer deepened as he shook his head. "That description's pretty worthless. It could fit half the kids here. Now if you told me this runaway pitched right handed and he had an inch-long scar down the side of his index finger from where he sliced it open reaching through a broken window for a baseball, that would be something I'd remember. But they don't train you cops to look for that kind of detail, do they?"
Ellison leaned across the counter a little further into Chambers' space and Blair had to strain to hear his partner's soft retort.
"Actually, they do. So do the Rangers."
Chambers' eyes reflected his surprise, widening for a fraction of a second before arrogance narrowed them again. "Army. I should have known," he muttered in disgust. He glanced at Blair and shook his head disdainfully. "Bet none of your old boot-shine buddies know you're partnered with a long-haired fag."
"That's enough, Chambers," Packard snarled, echoing Jim's growl of rage.
Blair grabbed Jim's arm and pulled the detective away from the counter. "He's taunting you, man," he hissed. "Don't let him get to you. Remember why we're here." The muscles under his fingers thrummed with barely contained fury, but to his relief, the Sentinel didn't make a move toward the booth.
"Since your observational skills are so keen, you can be certain we'll be talking again, Chambers," Ellison promised, his quiet, controlled voice cutting like a knife through the surrounding noise. He gently disengaged his arm from Blair's hold and nodded to Packard. "We still have the rest of the grounds to cover. Perhaps your other employees will be more cooperative."
"You and I will be talking again, too, Chambers," Packard said, shooting a glare toward the carnie. "About whether you're going to have a job come morning." Chambers shrugged carelessly and turned his back on them, returning to the task of setting up his game for the next group of marks. Packard glanced nervously at Jim and Blair before leading them into the churning crowds toward their next stop. Blair stuck close to Jim's side, watching the detective's spasming jaw muscles closely.
"You okay, man?" he asked when they were out of Chambers' view.
The corded muscles in Jim's neck were tight with tension. "The Navy's reports were right. Chambers definitely has a chip on his shoulder," he murmured evasively.
"But is he our killer?" Blair pressed.
"I don't know, Chief. But you can bet I'm going to have Dan check the body of the boy we found this morning. If he finds a scar on one of the kid's index fingers, Chambers and I are going to do more than talk." The Sentinel glanced over his shoulder toward Chambers' booth. "I played into his game instead of running mine," Ellison admitted, shaking his head in disgust. "I let him push me off balance."
"You were off balance before we got to him, Jim. I told you this place was going to be a sensory nightmare, man. The noise level alone is enough to make my head spin and my ears aren't nearly as sensitive as yours."
"That's no excuse"
"No, but it's a reasonable explanation for why you lost your cool," Blair countered. "It happened. You have to get past it and stay focused, or we are going to have a problem."
Ellison stopped abruptly, obviously struggling to regain both his temper and his control. Blair motioned for Packard to go ahead and stood with his Sentinel, positioning himself in front of his partner in order to buffer him from the jostling movement of the crowd.
When Jim finally refocused his gaze on his partner, Blair shivered. He didn't like what he saw in the Sentinel's blue eyespain, uncertainty, self-castigating angerbut he turned and led the way to the next stand where the carnival owner was waiting. In order to give his partner more time to regain his equilibrium, the observer handled their next six interviews with the carnival staff. They were headed toward one of the few remaining booths when Packard's cell phone rang. Holding up one hand to halt them, he pulled the phone from his pocket. "Packard... Already? Where's Carolyn?... Okay, hold on." Packard lowered the phone and cast them an apologetic look. "Several of the grabs are running low on change. I need to get back to my office and open the safe."
"Go ahead," Jim said quickly. "We can handle the rest of the interviews."
"There are only a couple more booths left on this stretch." The carnival owner quickly rattled off several of his employees names for their reference. "Then there's the fun house. The man you'll want to talk to there is Arnie Klerk." Packard rose up on the balls of his feet and peered over the heads of the crowd toward the attraction he had just mentioned. "I don't see him out front," he said, when he turned back to face them. "He's probably inside tinkering with the lights. Arnie's kind of a character"
"I've met him," Blair interjected. He glanced at his partner, struggling to hide his sudden nervousness. "This morning," he added quickly, hoping the Sentinel would hold off asking any further questions about that meeting until they were free of Packard's company.
Packard seemed surprised, but he turned to Jim, his expression grim. "You'll keep me apprised, detective."
It was a statement, not a question. Ellison nodded. Packard turned to Blair. "I should apologize for Chambers' comments, Mr. Sandburg. Calvin's been warned about his attitude in the past. He has a quick temper, but he's always been a dependable employee. Believe it or not, he's really good with the teenage crowd. It's just"
"Authority figures that he has a problem with, right?" Blair flashed a wry grin at his partner. "First time I've been mistaken for one of those," he added dryly.
The carnival owner studied the anthropologist for a moment. "I heard a rumor that you've worked a carnival or two," Packard said. Blair nodded, not really surprised that Kevin had passed that information along to his boss. "You should have stuck with it," the carnie stated. "You have the eye." With an unfathomable smile, he nodded to each partner and turned away. He was lost within the churning crowd within seconds.
"Something you neglected to tell me, Chief?"
Blair looked up at his partner, still slightly stunned by Packard's comment. "What do you mean?"
Ellison frowned. "Arnie Klerk?"
"Oh. Him." Blair dropped his gaze, his pulse racing.
"You said you met him this morning," Jim pressed.
Blair felt the heat of embarrassment rising in his face and kept his gaze firmly fixed on the tips of his sneakers. "I was on my way back to catch up with you at Packard's trailer."
"I almost got run over by one of those golf-cart things."
"And I stopped to peek into the fun house." Blair raised his head and met Jim's grim stare. "I know, I know. I shouldn't have done it. I didn't plan to. It was just that I turned around and it was there and I started remembering a different fun house I'd been in when I was a little kid and"
"And before you knew it you were inside."
"Well, no. I didn't go inside," Blair hastened to correct him. "Not really. I told you, I just peeked. Arnie invited me in for a private tour, but that was right after I realized Chambers was watching me. I was feeling pretty rattled by the glare Mr. Angry Eyes was sending my way and I'll admit I wasn't feeling real comfortable about Arnie at that point either since he'd scared me out of about ten years of my life when he came sneaking out of the tunnel behind me, and"
"Stop." Jim held up both hands in a gesture of surrender.
Blair closed his mouth with a snap. His partner sighed and closed his eyes. Ellison pinched at the bridge of his nose, rubbed his fingers against his furrowed forehead and muttered something under his breath that Blair didn't catch, although the observer thought he heard the words 'Sandburg Zone.'
"Just tell me this, Chief," Jim said finally, his blue eyes opening, his gaze settling on Blair once again. "Who was it that had you so spooked when I caught up with you? Chambers or Klerk?"
Blair shifted uneasily. "I don't know. Like I said, Chambers watching me from the shadows really rattled me. Arnie didn't do anything threatening, he just made me... uneasy."
"Uneasy," the Sentinel said flatly.
"Okay, really uneasy," Blair admitted.
"Why didn't you say something before this?" Ellison demanded angrily.
"What was I supposed to say, Jim?" Blair retorted. He glanced at the people streaming past and lowered his voice. "Sterns practically laughed me out of the room when I volunteered the information on ritual killings and I can document that with tons of published research. Can you imagine what would have happened if I'd suggested we investigate Arnie just because I picked up some bad vibes from the guy?"
"You could have told me, " Jim said firmly. "You should have told me."
Blair looked away again. "I know, but everything we've discovered seems to point to Chambers as our killer. I figured my reaction to Arnie was just... I don't know... frayed nerves or something."
Jim frowned and pinned the anthropologist with a piercing stare which Blair did his best to meet without flinching. The detective's eyes narrowed suddenly and he spun on his heel. Without a word, he stalked offstraight toward the fun house. Blair scrambled after him, flinging apologies left and right as he forced his way through the congested midway.
Damn it, Jim, this is not the time to go into Blessed Protector mode or Pissed-off Detective overdrive, or whatever this is...
Elbows flying, the anthropologist emerged from the crowd just in time to see his partner step into the entrance of the fun houseand freeze as the lights sprang to life within the tunnel. Blair was up the steps and at Jim's side in a heartbeat. One glimpse of the frozen expression of terror in his Sentinel's eyes told the Guide all he needed to know.
Jim was caught in another 'freak-out' episode.
Gotta get him out of here, NOW!
Desperation gave Blair the strength manhandle the bigger man down the stairs. And he didn't stop when he reached bottom. Ignoring the startled looks from the people he shoved out of the way, Blair propelled his unresisting, spell-bound partner through the crowd and out of the grounds. A low groan and a sideways stagger told him that Jim was coming out of his waking nightmare, but the observer didn't release the deathgrip he had on the detective's arm. He kept them moving, murmuring a continuous litany of encouragement.
When they reached the truck Ellison muttered a curse, pulled out of his grasp and leaned heavily against the passenger-side door. "What... happened?" he demanded.
"You had another... episode," Blair answered, choking out the words through a mouth dry with fear.
Jim leaned forward, bracing his hands on his knees. "We have to go back."
The Sentinel raised his head. Most of his face was hidden in shadow, but his eyes burned with angry determination. "You're not calling the shots here, Sandburg."
"Yes, I am," Blair answered defiantly. "I'm the Guide. Your welfare is my responsibility. You've done enough. I'm calling a stop to this madness before we reach the point of no return."
"This is my case!"
"You're the lead investigator but you are not the only one on the team this time," Blair retorted harshly. Jim flinched and he immediately softened his tone. "Look, we can call Simon. Ask him to send in Rafe or Henri to run surveillance for the rest of the night. They haven't been down here, yet. With the crowds, chances are no one's going to pay much attention to them if they keep a low profile."
"I need to talk to Klerk and I want another shot at Chambers."
"Not tonight. Tomorrow. After you've gotten some rest."
"Forget it, Sandburg," Jim growled. "I'm going back. With or without you." He pushed himself upright and took a wavering step away from the Ford. Blair planted a hand in the middle of his friend's chest and with surprisingly little effort, pushed him back against the vehicle. He reached into Ellison's jacket pocket and snatched the keys.
"No. You're not." The anthropologist crossed his arms over his chest and widened his stance. "You're going to get in the truck and I'm going to drive you back to the loft."
"Sandburg, one of those men is the killer," Jim protested. "If we don't stop him tonight, he's going to take another life."
"I know that," Blair said flatly. "I'm not prepared for that life to be yours." He took a deep breath and played his last card, praying he held the winning hand. "I'll make you a deal, Jim. If you really believe it's imperative that someone interview Klerk tonight, then I'll do it."
The Sentinel's eyes widened and he shook his head adamantly. "No."
"Why not? I may not be a Sentinel, but you said yourself I have good instincts about people." Blair cocked his head and eyed his partner grimly. "Or was that just some bullshit you made up to make me feel better about getting my ass kicked during the meeting today?"
"I meant what I said," Jim said quietly.
"Then you shouldn't have any objections to my talking to Klerk."
"No. It's too dangerous."
Blair took a step closer to his partner. "Too dangerous for me, but not for you?"
"It's my job."
Blair sighed and shook his head. "You have my offer, Jim. Take it or leave it."
The Sentinel glared at him for a full minute and then shoved himself away from the truck. He jerked his cell phone from his jacket pocket and stabbed at the buttons. Blair stood his ground, waiting until the detective finished his call to Simon and climbed into the passenger seat before scooting around to the driver's door.
The drive home was made in silence, a tense void which held until Jim slammed his keys into the basket on the table inside the loft's front door. "This can't keep happening," he hissed. He stalked over to the glass balcony doors and then whirled around. "I can't do my job this way."
Blair took a deep breath, sent a silent prayer to the deity he often petitioned when he needed an extra dose of patience to deal with his stubborn sentinel and dropped his heavy backpack to the floor, closing the door with a practiced nudge of his foot.
"I thought you were going to find a way to fix this... problem," Ellison snarled.
The anthropologist covered the flinch the biting words caused by shrugging out of his jacket and hanging it on the rack before facing his friend. "I'm trying man," he said quietly. "But I can't do anything until you talk to me about what's happening. All I've gotten out of you so far are bits and pieces. I need the whole picture."
Blair grabbed his pack and lugged it over to the kitchen table. He dug out the notebook he wanted and held it out to Jim. "I spent some time last night drawing up those lists we talked about. I need you to go over them and add anything I might have missed."
Blue eyes met blue in a fierce battle of wills, but once again, Blair refused to back down. The Sentinel's angry glare slowly softened. He walked over to the table and took the spiral bound book from his Guide's hand.
"I'll make some tea while you look those over," Blair murmured. He laid a pen on the table and headed for the kitchen. He stretched the familiar ritual as long as he could, giving his partner some well-deserved space. When he decided he'd given Jim enough time to make some good progress, he emerged from his temporary sanctuary bearing two steaming mugs. He slid into a chair across from the detective and placed one cup within easy reach of his friend. He sipped carefully at his own drink, waitingwith what he hoped appeared to be endless patience.
When Jim finished reviewing the lists, he quietly set the pen on the tabletop and nudged the notebook toward the anthropologist. Blair spun the pad around and quickly scanned the entries his partner had made. There were less than a dozen additions, and to his disappointment, no ready answers to the Sentinel's dilemma.
"You did a pretty thorough job, Chief."
Blair looked up and met Jim's steady gaze. There was no trace of the anger which had flared earlier, for which the grad student was immensely grateful, but the utter weariness which dulled the pale blue eyes made his heart ache.
Ellison slumped back in his chair and reached for the mug of tea Blair had given him. "The only thing that's missing is the nightmare," he murmured, staring into the depths of the cup.
Blair tensed. Blinked. Blinked again. "What nightmare?"
Jim looked up in surprise. "The one I've been waking up to nearly every morning. The one I keep flashing on every time I have one of these... episodes. I told you about it."
The anthropologist carefully searched his memory for any reference his partner might have made to a dream. He didn't find one. He shook his head slowly. "No, Jim. You didn't."
Ellison shrugged. "It's just a dream, Sandburg. It doesn't mean anything."
Blair rolled his eyes. "This from the man who regularly chats with his Spirit Guide while he's in la-la land," he muttered.
"I wouldn't call them regular chats, Chief," Jim objected. "Besides, this dream is nothing like the ones the panther shows up in. It's a nightmare, pure and simple. Probably brought on by something I ate. You dragged me to that new Thai place late Sunday night."
The grad student let loose an exasperated sigh. "Contrary to popular belief, man, dreaming is not caused by eating too much spicy food before bedtime, or by environmental stimuli during sleepingalthough almost everyone has one of those weird phone dreams"
"You mean the kind where you're dreaming that the telephone is ringing and you wake up to find it actually is ringing?"
Blair nodded. "That's the one. Dreaming is caused by internal biological processes. Some researchers have proposed the activation-synthesis hypothesis. Their neurological research indicates that large brain cells in the primitive brain stem spontaneously fire about every 90 minutes, sending random stimuli to cortical areas of the brain. As a consequence, memory, sensory, muscle-control and cognitive areas of the brain are randomly stimulated, resulting in the higher cortical brain attempting to make some sense of it, i.e., the dream experience.
"As to whether dreams have intentional or actual personal meaning, well, there are essentially two schools of thought. The 'top-down' theory holds that the content or meaningful representations in dreams are caused by the nonconscious needs, wishes, desires, and the everyday concerns of the dreamer. The 'bottom-up' theory maintains that dreams are simply a neurological 'hic-up'. In between those two positions is an approach called content analysis. Content analysis simply describes and classifies the various representations in dreamssuch as people, houses, cars, trees, animals, and colorthough no deep interpretation is attributed to the content."
Blair leaned forward, resting his forearms against the table as he blazed onward. "Do you realize that only a small percentage of the population can remember their dreams? And that artists tend to recall more dreams than scientists? And then there's the whole issue of lucid dreamingthe ability of dreamers to become aware of and to control their dreams while dreaming. Some lucid dreamers can even learn to communicate with researchers through nonverbal signals."
Jim groaned and shook his head. "I assume this lecture has a point, Professor?"
"Yes, and I made it on page one. Check your notes," Blair replied glibly. "The dream experience stimulates the sensory areas of the brain. You've got five enhanced senses, Jim. They're constantly feeding you details about what you see, hear, feel, taste and smell. That information goes into memory storage. When that 'storage' gets tapped during the dream state, it creates very vivid, 'real' images."
"But it's still just a dream," Ellison countered.
'You're discounting the cognitive aspect. And the instinctual."
"Which means 'what', exactly?"
Blair paused, gathering his thoughts before he answered. "Numerous accounts exist of scientific problems being resolved, and literary works being developed in dreams after dreamers had consciously immersed themselves in a problem for an extended time. Some recent research seems to indicate that dream content reflects problems that the dreamer experiences in life, and that the function of such dreams is to facilitate the resolution of the problems."
"This dream isn't solving problems, If anything, it's creating them."
"It has to be connected to the sensory attacks. We've ruled out just about everything else. Maybe if we analyze the dream... pick it apart..."
Ellison frowned and shifted uneasily in his chair. "I don't know if I remember enough about it to do us any good. The nightmare is very vivid while I'm in the midst of it, but the details always slip away as soon as I wake up."
"Tell me what you do remember," Blair urged softly. "Are you in the dreamparticipating in what's going onor do you have the feeling you're standing outside of itwatching what's happening?"
Jim stared down at the tabletop, his eyes slowly losing their focus. When he spoke his voice was a hoarse, bare whisper. "In it, I think. I'm somewhere dark. Damp. Smelly. There's a face. Old. Wrinkled. Something bright. Shiny. Like a mirror. And something sharp. Deadly. A heartbeat. It's fast. A scream." The Sentinel shook his head abruptly and looked up. "That's how it always ends. I hear the scream and I wake up."
Blair felt like screaming himself. Shit, Jim, no wonder you're close to freaking out... He wrapped his hands tightly around his mug to hide their trembling. "And you've had this dream every night?" he asked, surprised at how calm his voice sounded in his own ears.
Ellison shook his head. "Not at night. In the morning. Just before I wake up."
"When did it start?"
"Monday. It's been as regular as clockwork since then. Except for today. I didn't have the dream this morning."
What was different about this morning? Blair wondered. "You were up before I was today," he offered suggestively.
Jim nodded. "Before six."
"You were dead to the world again last night," Blair murmured, still thinking hard. "I took a cup of tea up for you just a few minutes after you'd headed upstairs, but you were already out. I checked on you a couple of times during the night. You never moved even though the storm was noisy. Lots of lightning and thunder. I was surprised to see you looking so chipper this morning." He paused, letting his gaze drift around the loft for a few moments, before meeting the Sentinel's intense gaze once again. "Think back to this morning when you first woke up, Jim. How did you feel?"
Ellison pushed his chair away from the table, rose to his feet and paced over to the balcony doors. He leaned against the frame, staring out into the night. "I felt fine. The loft was quiet except for your snoring. I remember feeling stiff and a little irked that I'd fallen asleep in my clothes. When I realized I hadn't had the nightmare, I felt... relieved."
"What about the headache? Was it gone when you woke up?"
Jim turned his head in Blair's direction and nodded.
"How about the flashes of brightness at the edge of your peripheral vision that you told me about yesterday? Did you have any of those?"
Ellison scowled and glanced away. "Yeah," he admitted quietly. "In the bathroom. The light reflecting off the fixtures threatened to start the damn headache up again."
"No. I turned down the dial."
"Seemed to." Jim rubbed at his forehead.
"But it's not working now," Blair observed softly.
The older man started to shake his head and winced. "No. Not really."
Blair drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Enough was enough. His Sentinel was in pain. It was time to end this discussion. "Okay. Sleep worked as good as anything last night. Why don't you take some aspirin and hit the sack. If you're not out the second your head hits the pillow, try some of those breathing and relaxation exercises I taught you."
"Sandburg, we've got a murderer running loose out there"
"And you've got to be at the top of your game to catch him, Jim," Blair responded firmly. "You're not close to 100% right now, and you know it. Do I have to remind you again that you're not the only one working this case? Henri and Rafe will call the second anything happens."
"And if I do a repeat performance of last night, I'll never hear the phone," the detective grumbled.
"Not to worry. I'll hear it," Blair assured him. "I'm going to be up for a while."
Jim's scowl deepened. "Doing what?" he asked suspiciously.
"What I do best, man. Research."
"On the case? Or on me?"
"Both," Blair answered as nonchalantly as he could manage. "I need some processing time. And I want to take another look at the case files and the research that Patrick dug up... see if I can get anything to match."
"You don't get paid for overtime, Chief."
"The department doesn't pay me at all, detective," Blair managed a weak grin. "So if you get a bonus for solving this mess, I expect you to share."
A tiny grin flickered at the corner of the Sentinel's mouth. "You have something in mind?"
"Oh, nothing elaborate. Maybe a trip to the bookstore."
"I'd need more than one bonus to keep you in books, Sandburg," Jim retorted.
Blair chuckled, pleased at the familiar banter. If his partner was in the mood to tease him, that meant he was already more relaxed than he had been a few minutes ago. "Get some rest, Jim. I'll man the fort."
And hopefully I'll have some answers for you when you awake.
"This is getting me nowhere," Blair grumbled an hour later.
He glared at the legal pad in his hands. Jim's revelation about the nightmare had given him a whole new set of variables to try to work into an already mystifying equation. He'd filled several pages of the pad with notes and diagrams, painstakingly trying to put the seemingly random and disparate facts he had into some kind of organized structure. The attempt had failed. What had begun as clearly defined boxes, circles and arrows had degenerated into doodles. Most of the last page was filled with circles and spirals.
With a disgusted sigh, Blair tossed the legal pad onto the coffee table and pried himself off the couch. Hoping a natural sugar rush and a snack would boost his flagging energy levels, he walked stiffly into the kitchen, poured himself a glass of cranberry juice and popped a bagel into the toaster. Taking a deep breath, he released it slowly, concentrating on the sensation of the air expanding and contracting his lungs. He kept up the breathing exercise as he prepared his simple meal, resolutely ignoring the troubling, half-formed theories which swirled like wind-blown scraps of paper through his head.
He leaned against the counter as he munched on the bagel and sipped the cold, tart juice. As his gaze drifted around the dimly lit apartment, he shifted uneasily. It took several minutes to identify what he was reacting to.
There was something wrong in the loft.
The atmosphere which normally exuded a sense of peace and safety seemed charged with tension. Dropping the half-eaten bagel to the plate, Blair set his glass of juice on the counter and stepped cautiously out of the kitchen, eyes darting from side to side as he made his way to light switch near the door. He took a deep breath and then flicked the switch, flooding the interior with light. He scanned the lower loft quickly, a frown darkening his face.
There was nothing amiss. Nothing out of place. No one hiding in the shadows.
Yet something felt very, very wrong.
What the hell is it?
Back pressed against the door, the sound of his own pounding heart thundered in the silence.
His eyes widened abruptly.
The loft was quiet.
He was up the stairs and at his partner's bedside within seconds. Chest heaving as he gasped for breath, he stared down at his friend and for a split second he thought he was looking at a corpse. Jim was laying on top of the blankets, on his back, arms folded across his chest. His face was half hidden in shadow, but Blair could see that the older man's eyes were closed.
The whisper caught in Blair's fear-tightened throat. His hand shook as he reached out and laid it palm down on the Sentinel's chest.
The almost imperceptible lift and fall of Jim's chest as he drew one breath...
And then another.
Blair sank down on the bed next to his friend and released the breath he'd been holding, berating himself for his overactive imagination.
Jim's okay, so quit shaking. He's just in another one of those weird, deep sleeps. That's why he's so still. He did that last night too, and he woke up feeling fine.
The rationalization seemed plausible, but the troubled Guide remained unconvinced. Brow furrowed and eyes darkened with concern, he continued to stare at his eerily somnolent Sentinel.
Something is seriously wrong here. Jim's sleep patterns are totally off. Is that what's throwing his senses out of whack? Is that why he's having the nightmare? Blair's frown deepened. He wouldn't dream in this kind of state, though. He's completely zonked. Totally unaware of anything. It's like he's completely shut down. What would cause that?
The Guide's eyes widened abruptly. An overload could cause that... too much data... too much sensory input. The lecture about dreaming which he'd delivered to his partner earlier abruptly replayed itself in his head. Not an overload... overstimulation!
Blair shot to his feet and began to pace next to Jim's bed, matching physical action to his racing train of thought. That damn dream he 'thought' he told me about is the key to what's been happening. Overstimulation of the sensory areas of the brain could explain why his senses are all pushed to the limits... why everything seems more intense.
The anthropologist stopped in his tracks and stared at his partner once more. The altered sleep pattern Jim's been experiencing could be a natural Sentinel behavioral responsean instinctive means of trying to avoid intense sensory stimulation. In this case, he's trying to avoid dreaming because that's where the danger exists, but whatever is triggering and creating the nightmare is more powerful than the automatic defenses which are trying to prevent it. Jim said the dream was vivid. 'Vivid' in Sentinel terms probably equates to mind-blowing for the average person. No wonder he's feeling so out of control. His sensory nodes have been getting a new jolt each time he has the nightmare. That's probably why the 'shut down' isn't completely effectivethere's too much input to cancel out. I bet some of it stays in his system... a sensory 'charge' which continues to build until it reaches a point where it has to be released. That would explain why it took four days before
Blair's mouth dropped open in surprise as the answer he had been searching for abruptly presented itself. That's what the 'freak-out' episodes are... a discharge of that sensory overload.
He turned and scrambled down the stairs, taking the steps two at a time, no longer concerned about disturbing his sleeping partner. He zigged into the living room, snatched the yellow legal pad from the coffee table and zagged to the kitchen table. Like the prior evening, the tabletop was littered with case jackets, file folders stuffed with research, computer printouts and books. He unearthed the 'freak-out' notebook and flipped it open to the pages where he had listed the sensory problems which had been plaguing his Sentinel.
His gaze flickered eagerly from one pad to another as he scanned his notes, testing each symptom and item against his theory. "... the near-constant headache, Jim's lack of control over the dials, the flashes of brightness, the heightening of some senses and the dulling of others. Man, it all fits," he whispered, eyes wide with excitement. "And it explains why I couldn't find an external cause. It's internal!"
Blair turned a page in the notebook and found the entries he'd made describing the strange smell which Jim had identified on the bodies. The delighted grin which had begun to fill his face changed to a scowl and he raked his fingers through his tangled curls in puzzled frustration. If all of his senses have been affected, then why is that weird combination of odors the trigger? Why do the episodes appear to be linked to his sense of smell?
He stared down at lined pages without really seeing them as his mind struggled to fit the incongruity into place. Maybe it's cognitive association, he mused. The smell is the common denominator. We've established that it's connected to the case and Jim admitted that he recognizes it, or at least components of it, from his dream. He's certainly been exposed to that odor enough times in the course of the investigation to generate a higher level of sensitivity to it. It's either that, or the smell is tied to an actual memory.
Blair shuddered to think of what kind of memory could scare his ex-ranger partner so thoroughly. He sank down on one of the kitchen chairs, his legs suddenly feeling too rubbery to support his weight. He propped his elbows on the table, closed his eyes and cradled his head in his hands. The loft's pervasive silence was still oppressivean invisible pressure which weighed heavily on the weary Guide's soul.
He only had half of the answer he'd promised his partner. Until they understood why the overstimulation was occurring and figured out a way to stop it, the episodesthe dischargewould continue to occur.
And Jim will continue to suffer... losing confidence in his abilities... growing more doubtful about his sanity.
An image of his Sentinel, eyes filled with terror, locked in the grip of one of the bizarre sensory episodes flashed through Blair's mind. He shook his head, fighting off the wave of despair which accompanied the vision.
We have to get to the bottom of this. Jim said it himself. He can't do his job with this hanging over him. We have to figure out what the nightmare means.
Unfortunately, since his friend's recollection of the dream was so vague, getting to the bottom of the problem was going to mean putting the Sentinel into another trance state and walking him through it. If whatever was behind the nightmare was memory driven, the trance would have to be a deep oneand after barely avoiding disaster in their last session, Blair was leery of tempting fate again.
Man, I wish Incacha was here. He would know what to do. How to guide Jim safely...
The worried Guide opened his eyes and stared bleakly across the table. His gaze touched on the ancient book of Shamanistic practices which sat just inches away. He flushed guiltily. He'd never found time to call Jason and ask for the pharmacy student's help in securing what he needed to find his way into the Shaman's dream world again. The only time he had touched the book all day was when he'd pulled it from his backpack along with the rest of the paperwork he'd brought home from the station. "Damn it, my Sentinel needs a Shaman," he hissed. "I don't care if it's dangerous or if Jim catches me ingesting illegal substances. I'm not putting this off any longer."
Shoving the chair backward, he rose to his feet and headed purposely for the telephone in the kitchen. He stabbed at the buttons angrily, dialing in Jason's home number. "Come on, man. Be home." His plea went unanswered as the other grad student's answering machine kicked in. Blair snarled a curse while the inane recorded message suggested he wait for the beep. When it came, his message was terse and to the point. "Jason. It's Blair Sandburg. I need your help. Call me when you get in, no matter how late it is." He rattled off the phone number for the loft and repeated his message once more before hanging up.
He stood glaring at the phone for several minutes, willing it to ring, before he allowed himself to admit it was a futile gesture. His anger abated abruptly and he sagged against the refrigerator, the roller coaster ride from one emotional state to another leaving him feeling totally wrung out. The clock on the microwave caught his eye and he groaned aloud.
"11:45 p.m. Fifteen more minutes and the carnival shuts down for the night. That's when the killer will be free to strike again." Blair scrubbed at his burning eyes, lips compressed in a hard line as visions of mutilated corpses danced in his head. They taunted him with the knowledge that another victim would quite probably join their ranks within a few short hours.
Simon's got other members of the task force watching all of the suspects, he reminded himself. Including Arnie Klerk.
When Jim had called requesting the surveillance, he had asked that the old man be added to their list of prime suspects. Blair was grateful the captain had agreed so readily to the suggestion. Just knowing someone was keeping tabs on the fun house operator was reassuring.
We'll catch the killer before he strikes again. One of the others will call if they observe anything suspicious.
He straightened, rolling his shoulders to relieve some of the tension and ache which sat between his shoulder blades. Exhaustion sang its siren song, but Blair was determined to ignore the lullaby for at least a couple more hours, fearing if he did fall asleep, he wouldn't hear the telephone. He had no intention of missing either Jason's call or one from the surveillance team. He picked up the glass of juice he'd left sitting on the counter and drained it. With very precise, deliberate motions, he placed the glass back on the counter, pivoted on his heel and walked over to the kitchen table. He settled onto a chair and started reviewing the information Patrick had sent him.
Blair spent the next ninety minutes paging through the printouts and alternating between anxious glances at the phone and the clock. He didn't expect to learn anything of value. He was too tired and distracted to really concentrate on the information even though the data was fascinating.
Patrick hadn't managed to pinpoint the specific sacrifice or passage ritual their killer was trying to emulate, but he had made progress. Among the documents he had sent Blair was a list of twelve ceremoniesranging from archaic to modernwhich supposedly utilized thyme, sesame or tansy in some way. Patrick had also forwarded a wealth of general background information. Most of the data dealt with the medicinal uses of herbs and spices in folk medicine, but there were also several pages which referenced their use in black and white 'magic'. Patrick had referenced the author of the book he'd copied the information froma Dr. Marjorie Stahlas a respected expert in the field. Blair scribbled her name on a note pad and kept reading.
When he found himself nodding off and realized he had read the same paragraph at least a dozen times, Blair pushed himself away from the table and wandered out to the balcony. A gust of cold wind slapped his face. A second lifted the hair from his shoulders and produced a head-to-toe shiver, but he chose not to retreat into the warmth of the loft. He leaned against the railing and let the cleansing caress of the chilly, moisture-laden air work its magic. Within moments, the worst of the fatigue which had been fogging his mind was washed away, leaving him slightly light-headed, but more alert.
A pale, unearthly glow illuminated the city. Blair's gaze tracked upward to the source. Given the craziness they were currently facing, the observer wasn't at all surprised to find a nearly full moon hanging overhead. He had seen the notice posted on the station's bulletin board the previous week, alerting everyone to the upcoming phase change. The first time he had seen what was jokingly referred to as 'the werewolf' warning, Blair had been surprised. The anthropologist had a healthy respect for the beliefs which had spawned the various myths associated with the arrival of the full moon, but he hadn't expected normally no-nonsense cops to take the superstitions seriously. They did. Even the most hardened veterans on the force admitted that strange things happened under the light of a full moon and patrolled the eerily lit streets cautiously.
Blair found it ironic that modern man had come to fear what primitive man had welcomed. To the ancients, a full moon had meant safety. When the night sky was bright, their enemieshuman and animalcould not surprise them so easily. When hunters were far from home, the moonlight helped them find their way. The tribes regarded the full moon as a natural part of their world, their lives, their songs, their tales. A new moon, on the other hand, had been viewed as a time of danger. The tribe stayed close to the village, held the young ones close and kept the darkness at bay with bonfires which burned from dusk to dawn.
Modern man feared the night and the violence it too often concealed. He found no security in the illumination which bathed the city, whether it was of his own making, or the reflected brilliance of the sun. He had learned that civilization did not necessarily engender civilized behavior. When he took the time to look up at the moon, he did it from behind locked doors and barred windows.
The grad student loosed a sigh. Blair understood why, culturally, the shift had occurred, but he refused to become one of the cowering masses. There was. ugliness in the worldhe had seen more than his fair share of it working with the policebut there was also beauty and it was found as often in the dark as in the light.
Blair leaned against the railing and cocked his head to the side, absently studying the brightly lit sphere overhead. As a child, he had loved being outside at night. He had spent countless hours staring at the sky; watching the moon play hide and seek with the clouds; counting the stars; trying to decipher the mysteries of the universe. He'd been barely four years old when Naomi had told him the legend behind the Jack and Jill rhyme, her sing-song voice holding him spell-bound as she spun the tale of the brother and sister who had been carried away by the moon to live in the sky. He still sought out their shapes in the craters which patterned the lunar surfaceJill on the left, Jack on the right, carrying a pail hung from a pole between them.
His studies of other cultures had unearthed other tales. Myth and legend surrounded the moon; stories which morphed from fiction to fact from one generation to the next as mankind invented explanations for what lay beyond its reach and ken. Some perceptions were born of fear and ignorance. One tale held that a dragon lived in the sky, chomping off pieces of the moon to assuage its hunger and then spewing them out in an endless cycle of renewal. Others were based in ageless knowledge. Many farmers still faithfully followed those ancient beliefs; planting crops which grew above ground when the moon was full, and those which grew below ground when it was new.
The mysterious power which controlled the tides had inspired poets and baffled scientists. It wasn't surprising that the moon had also been worshipped and deifieda benevolent goddess in its waxing phase; an angry god as it waned. The fickle gods had been honored or appeased by their devotees by gifts of the harvest or solemn vows of devotion.
And if that failed, the spilling of blood.
Blair shivered again, chilled not by the night air, but by the direction his thoughts had taken. The blood which had stained crude stone altars was no different from that which was now staining Cascade's streets. Innocents were still dying under a glowing moon, their lives ended by a murderer whose motives were hidden in shadow.
"All we know is that he kills," Blair hissed in frustration. "We don't know why. We don't know what makes him decide to act at one time and not at another." The anthropologist glared at the bright disk overhead. "What does he do? Wait until the moon is in perfect phase or something?"
The sarcastic comment was barely out of his mouth before he realized how fitting it was.
The moon... perfect phase... Damn. What if that's it?
Heart pounding, he slipped back into the apartment, grabbed the case files and pulled out the sheets which listed the date of each murder. Retrieving his laptop from his room, he plugged it in and logged onto the net, seeking an astronomy site he'd run across before in his surfing. His fingers tapped an impatient rhythm on the mousepad as a starfield graphic appeared. He scanned the index as it generated and hit the link he wanted before the page had a chance to fully load. As the data on the dates of the moon's phases over the past 24 months filled the screen, the grad student's excitement grew.
The first night of the current full moon had been Saturdaythe night of the first murder in Cascade. Blair quickly checked the dates of the other 29 murders against the website's data. There was a correlation. The start of each killing spree matched the first night of a full moon. Blair dug out the carnival's itinerary and compared it to the list of full moon dates and frowned when he found an inconsistency which threatened to trash his theory. The carnival had played five venues where no murders had been committed, despite the fact that a full moon had hung overhead.
Inspiration struck and Blair tapped in a new URL to connect to the National Weather Service's website. Within minutes he was practically grinning again. The historic data archived on the site had given him the answer he was looking for.
It rained the first night of the full moon in each of those cities. He couldn't see the moon through the cloud cover, so he didn't kill. That would suggest that moonlight is crucial to his ceremony. The sacrifice has to be made in the light of a full moon.
Blair snatched up the list of rituals Patrick had supplied, scanning the brief description of each again, looking for any reference to the moon or moonlight. Within short order he reduced the twelve possibilities to two. The anthropologist eagerly concentrated on those, his efforts fueled by the adrenaline surge which had accompanied his discoveries.
Both rituals included sacrifices of blood and mutilation of the 'offering'. Both required the presence of a full moon. Both used tansy, sesame oil and thyme within the ceremony. Both ceremonies, if successful, granted some kind of 'divine' power although the nature of the gift differed. The first ritual granted personal power and immortality. The second empowered the person making the sacrificegiving them the ability to grant 'life' to someone of their choosing
Both were ceremonies of ancient, obscure cultures.
"The last practitioners of these rituals died centuries ago," Blair muttered, slumping back in his chair. "How the hell did the killer get his hands on this information? It's not like it's published on the best seller's list. Wait a minute... published "
Blair dug through the pile on the tabletop until he found the notepad he'd been using earlier. Dr. Marjorie Stahl... she's the expert, or so Patrick claims. The anthropologist tapped a new series of commands into the computer, connecting with Rainier's Library mainframe. His search for published works by Dr. Marjorie Stahl generated a list of over 300 articles and twelve books. Most of the subject matter dealt with alternative medicine and several were highlighted as textbooks being held in the Medical College's private library. The book Patrick had referenced was listed as well.
Blair eagerly followed the link to Dr. Stahl's most recently published work. The introductory paragraphs added by the publication's editor caused him to hiss in disappointment. He had been hoping to contact her, but he was nearly three years too late. Dr. Marjorie Stahl wasn't going to be answering any of his questions. She was deadthe victim of a fatal car accident. Discouraged, Blair jotted down a few quick notes, then shifted over to his mail program. He composed an e-mail to Patrick, quickly outlining his various theories. He included his speculations about Stahl's connection to their killer and asked the other grad student to check the files for an obituary. He also requested more documentation on the two rituals which he felt were most pertinent to the case.
Blair typed URGENT in the subject line and sent the message flying off into cyberspace. Then he attacked the pile of papers and folders on the tabletop again, this time plucking out the report the task force had prepared. He flipped to the pages of information on their prime suspects.
Nick Armstrong had been an aspiring surgeon and Monica Bradford an EMT. It was possible they could have run across Dr. Stahl's research in the course of their studies, but Blair only gave their information a cursory glance. Jim had found no trace of the strange smell on either of them and the Guide had faith in his Sentinel's sensory abilities.
Which left Calvin Chambers and Arnie Klerk.
Calvin Chambers looked like their man. He fit the physical profile; he had the medical training; the covert skills necessary to take down his victims; the opportunity; and, assuming they were right about the meaning behind the interlocked 'CC' marks on the victim's bodies, he had the right initials.
What they didn't haveoutside of the Navy's assessment that Chambers was borderline psychoticwas motive. Blair pictured Chambers' face in his mind. Cold, intense, hatred-filled eyes glared back at him and the man's venomous, challenging comments echoed in his skull. The anthropologist shuddered. The ex-Seal obviously believed he was superior to everyoneBlair could easily envision the man seeking immortality as a way of proving it.
Blair studied Chambers' background information carefully, looking for any clue which might connect him to Dr. Stahl or her research, but found nothing. The lack of evidence didn't really surprise himChambers hadn't struck him as the academic typecertainly not the kind to spend his time reading anything which hadn't been on his required curriculum list. Blair was determined not to overlook anything at this point, however. Chambers might be a crude, arrogant asshole with an attitude, but he wasn't stupid. He wouldn't have become a Seal if he hadn't been able to make the grade both physically and intellectually. Blair decided he'd run the theory past his partner. If nothing else, Jim's military contacts might be able to tell them what Chambers' medical training might have entailed.
Blair set the task force report on the table and picked up the file he had started on Arnie Klerk. The old man had joined the amusement company about a month before the first murder. Unlike the other suspects, he wasn't really an employee. Packard's notes indicated that Klerk had purchased the operating rights for the fun house attraction. He had negotiated a joint ownership agreement with the amusement company a week after he'd drawn his first paycheck. The arrangement itself wasn't unusual, but the business records indicated it had been a cash transaction in the amount of $275,000. Curious, Blair had decided to see if he could trace the money trail back to its source. The observer had requested additional records, including tax returns, going back five more years, but the information hadn't come in by the time he and Jim had left the station.
Blair shook his head in frustration. Once again he was trying to complete a complicated puzzle without all the pieces. He made a note to call the station first thing in the morning to have someone to download the files to his laptop and shuffled another paper to the top of the stack. His hands began to sweat as he studied the photo of the fun house operator they had pulled from DMV records.
He still had no proof Klerk was anything other than the harmless old man he appeared to be. True, Klerk fit the physical description they had established, but he had no prior record with any law enforcement agency in the country. No military background. Klerk held an Oregon driver's license, although Packard's files listed his permanent address as a post office box in a small town in western Washington. It wasn't unusual for a carnie to have a 'floating' address, so that discrepancy was hardly damning.
Even without an established motive, Chambers fit the killer's profile better than Klerk. Still, there was something about the man...
"What is it about you that sets my nerves on edge?" Blair whispered. He stared at the grainy picture until his eyes watered, but all he saw was a kindly old face with solemn eyes. "You don't look like a murderer. You look like someone's grandfather, or uncle..."
"Uncle Arnie said it was a clean break... He fixed me up so's dad wouldn't have to take me to the hospital."
Blair groaned as he recalled the young carnie's words. How could I have missed that? Klerk set Kevin's wrist. Expertly. I've got to let Simon and the others know.
Without bothering to log off the Internet, Blair powered down his computer and launched himself out of the chair toward the telephone. He glanced at the clock while punching in Simon's cell phone number and grimaced. Waking the police captain at 2:00 a.m. wasn't advisable under the best of circumstances and these hardly fit that category. Banks had already given them considerable leeway in the investigation, supporting Jim's sensory findings even though it was clear the captain suspected something screwy was happening with the Sentinel's senses. Blair struggled to get his thoughts into some kind of coherent order. He was going to have to present his suspicions quickly and concisely, or find himself on the hotseat facing questions he had no intention of answering.
He would have been closer to his goal if Simon hadn't answered the phone on the first ring with an angry snarl.
Blair gulped and charged breathlessly ahead. "Simon. It's Blair. I know it's late. Or, rather, it's early, but I've got some information on Arnie Klerk that I thought "
//"Klerk?"// Simon interrupted.
"The fun house operator. I'm still waiting for the rest of the background info, but
//"Forget it, Sandburg. Klerk's not our man."//
Blair's stomach did a fast, nervous roll. It wasn't like Simon to just blow him off. Not without a good reason. "How do you know that?"
//"Calvin Chambers has disappeared."//
Continue on to the Conclusion...
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Page last updated 8/15/03.