(See Page 1 for Disclaimer, Warning, and Author's Notes)
False Mirrors (Page 3 of 3)
by K. Ryn
The anthropologist's gaze automatically shifted toward the upper loft. Jim was going to be pissed. "I thought he was under surveillance. What happened?"
//"Chambers left the carnival grounds shortly after closing,"// Simon explained tersely. //"Headed to the northeast side of the city. Looked like he was going bar hopping on King Street. Rankin and Briggs managed to keep track of him through the first three dives, but lost him at the fourth. We don't know if Chambers sneaked out a side door or hid in the crowds at bar time. Bottom line is, he's gone."//
Blair nodded absently. He was familiar with the area Simon had mentioned - lots of smelly little hole-in-the-wall bars; dark narrow streets; and a warren of interconnected alleys. Lots of places to hide. Even if Jim were in top form, It would be difficult for him to pick up the fugitive's trail there. In his current condition it would be downright dangerous.
"Do you need Jim down there?" he asked, desperately hoping that Simon would say 'no'.
The brief silence on the other end told him the captain had picked up the unspoken plea. //"How is he?"// Banks countered softly.
The Guide's first instinct was to protect his Sentinel by keeping him out of the fray, but he knew it wasn't his decision to make. "He's sleeping. But you know Jim. He'll want to be in on this and I did promise to wake him if anything happened."
//"But you'd rather let him sleep."//
"It's not my call to make."
//"But if it were?"// Banks pressed.
Blair's protective instincts flared again, but he refused to give the answer they dictated. Jim would never forgive him. Ellison was a proud man. One unwilling to admit to any weakness. He would resent the implication he needed to be coddled. "It's not my call, Simon," he repeated flatly. "Do you need him?"
The thudding of his own rapid heartbeat filled the tense silence until Simon spoke again. //"Let him sleep. You and I both know he needs it. I've got units combing the area and we've issued a state-wide APB. Have Jim call me in the morning. I've requested a search warrant for Chambers' trailer. If we don't have Chambers in custody by then, maybe Jim can pick up a lead there."//
Blair breathed a sigh of relief at Simon's directive, but he still felt uneasy about the unexpected turn the case had taken. Something didn't feel quite right. Suddenly he remembered the reason for his call. His suspicions about Klerk. They seemed moot now, in the light of Chambers disappearing act, but -
"Simon, what about the other suspects? Are they still under surveillance?"
//"Rafe and Brown are still on stake-out at the carnival, along with another set of detectives from Homicide,"// Banks assured him. //Armstrong and Bradford retired to their trailers shortly after the carnival closed and haven't budged."//
//"Rafe reported seeing him entering the fun house shortly before closing. He never came out. Brown checked with Packard and he said that's not unusual. Apparently Klerk frequently does some after hours tinkering to keep the attraction running and often sleeps there. Probably has a cot to crash on."//
"Probably," Blair murmured, frowning at the shiver which zipped up his spine. "I guess that means Chambers is the guy we're after. It's strange that he would have taken off like that, though. He didn't seem like the kind who'd run."
//"Your visit must have spooked him."//
"Yeah, I guess..." Blair voice trailed off as a wave of fatigue washed over him.
//"Sandburg, you sound ready to drop. Why don't you follow your partner's example and get some sleep,"// Simon urged. When Blair didn't respond immediately, Banks' tone changed to a low growl. //"On second thought, consider that an order. Sleep. Now."//
"Aye aye, sir," Blair replied. The flippant tone he'd been striving for fell flat - a sure sign he had passed his limits. "I'll have Jim contact you first thing in the morning, Simon. Good luck."
Blair hung up the phone and leaned against the counter for a moment, trying to marshal enough energy to clean up the mess on the kitchen table. He quickly realized there wasn't enough left for even that mundane task so he left the piles where they were. He made a stumbling circuit of the loft, checking the locks on the doors and windows as he turned off lights. Pausing at the foot of the stairs which led to the upper loft, he listened for any sound which might indicate a change in his partner's sleep, but heard nothing.
Jim's still dead to the world, he muttered, immediately regretting the cliche.
He shook his head to rid it of that horrifying thought and wobbled to his bedroom. Shedding his overshirt and jeans he dropped into bed. He started to reach for the bedside light to turn it off and then realized it wasn't on - it was moonlight illuminating the room, not his reading lamp. He shuddered and shut his eyes, firmly banishing the gruesome visions of the case which the pale light evoked to the far corners of his mind. He replaced them with the image of a lit candle and concentrated on its flickering flame.
~~ The flame burned, strong and fierce. Mesmerizing. It beckoned and Blair followed, immersing himself in its incandescence. The flame flickered, its beat a living pulse. Bathed in brilliance he danced in the heart of the flame, moving to an elemental rhythm which called to his soul. Entranced, he closed his eyes and let himself become one with the song, giving himself up to its power and beauty. The tempo increased and he matched his pace to it, flinging his arms out and spinning in place. Faster and faster he whirled, delighted laughter spilling from his lips. ~~
~~ And then laughter changed to screams. ~~
~~ He was caught in a sucking whirlpool of blackness which pulled him away from the light. He struggled to free himself from the current, to keep his head above the foul smelling murk, but it was too strong. He managed one last gulp of air before he sank below the surface. ~~
~~ When he opened his eyes, Blair found himself staring at his own reflection in a full-length mirror. He blinked in surprise and took a step backward. A cold chill touched his spine and he spun around, confronted with yet another mirror. A glance to his left confirmed the presence of a third, and to his right, a fourth. He was boxed in. Frowning, he stared into the gaps between their silvered surfaces, but there was nothing but darkness. A black void. ~~
~~ He turned slowly, tracking his mirrored self as his double mimicked his movements. Facing the first mirror, he tentatively reached out to touch its surface. It was cold to the touch - a cold which made his skin crawl. He jerked his hand back and frantically rubbed his fingertips to work the feeling back into them. ~~
~~ Unwilling to try the experiment with the other mirrors, he stared at his disheveled reflection. Dark blue eyes stared back, filled with doubt and fear. Mocking him. Anger flared, hot and fierce, burning away defeat and replacing it with determination. Blair stepped forward, placed both palms against the shining surface, and pushed. ~~
~~ Bone chilling cold seared his palms, swept up his arms to his shoulders and arrowed its way toward his heart. He ignored it and pushed again, putting every ounce of strength he had into the effort. The mirror toppled backward and Blair fell forward into the void which had opened beyond it. Amid the ear-splitting clamor of breaking glass, he tumbled head over heels into the darkness, rolling to a jarring stop against something hard and unyielding. ~~
~~ Gasping, he lurched to his feet, using the wall which had halted his fall for support. As in his other 'dreamwalk', a carpeted hallway stretched before him. Only this time, instead of closed doors, there were mirrors. Dazed, but determined, Blair started walking the corridor. He stopped before the first mirror and sucked in a startled breath. He'd been expecting to see his own anxious reflection, but the mirror was empty of his image. It was as if he wasn't there. ~~
~~ He moved to the next mirror and found the same thing. The surface accurately reflected the opposite side of the hall, but not him. He looked down at his body and patted at it nervously, distinctly grateful to find that he was indeed substance and not just spirit. He started walking the corridor again, following its curving path. He glanced at the mirrors as he passed them, determined to keep going until he discovered one which would show his reflection. ~~
~~ He found it a few minutes later. Rounding a curve, he saw it standing in the middle of the corridor, blocking his path. Blair stopped within arm's reach, and, as if compelled, put his hand out to touch the silvery surface. ~~
~~ His hand went straight through it. ~~
~~ Alarmed, he began to pull back. Suddenly bony, gnarled fingers reached out from within the mirror. They wrapped around his wrist like a vise and pulled him forward. Insane laughter accompanied the shattering sounds of breaking glass as he plunged downward in a rapidly tightening spiral. ~~
~~ He screamed... ~~
And found himself sitting bolt-upright in bed, drenched with sweat.
Blair scrambled out of bed, shoved his way through the French doors and staggered into the living room. He collapsed on the couch and dropped his head into his hands.
He held onto that whispered mantra until the last screaming echoes of the dream faded away. When his breathing had changed from gulping hiccups to a more regular pattern, he raised his head and knuckled the last vestiges of sleep from his eyes. Blair glanced around nervously, but the tension and chill which had he had felt during the night was gone. The first rays of the rising sun had replaced the pale beams of moonlight with a warm glow. The loft thrummed with a peaceful ambiance again.
He, on the other hand, was a wreck.
Sagging against the back of the couch, he tilted his head and stared at the ceiling, willing the remaining dream-induced shakes to be vanish as well. His attention shifted to the upper loft. Gentle snores floated down. Sometime during the night, his partner had slipped into a more natural, healing sleep.
The sleep of the innocent. I'd love a dose of that. But no. Not only do I have my own nightmare images to contend with, but now I've got Jim's haunting my subconscious.
Muttering under his breath about bad Karma, he pushed himself off the couch and wobbled into the kitchen to make himself a cup of tea to settle his nerves. As he waited for the water to boil, he pondered the visions from the dream turned nightmare, wondering if it was the case haunting him, or his own failures.
He reminded himself that he didn't put much faith in coincidence as he plopped a teabag into a mug and filled the cup with boiling water. Carrying the steaming brew, he wandered over to the balcony doors and stared out over the city. Another day, dawning bright with promise. What would it bring? Chambers arrest...
Or another mutilated corpse.
Grimacing, he turned away from the windows and threaded his way across the room to the stairs. He hesitated for a moment, then climbed to the upper loft. Jim had shifted position slightly. He still lay on his back, but his arms were no longer crossed over his chest. They lay limply at his sides. Blair padded to the side of the bed, a smile filling his face at the sight of his friend's peaceful countenance.
The smile faded as he remembered the news he had to deliver. Given a choice, he would much rather face the Sentinel's snarling spirit animal than an angry Jim Ellison. Despite the fact that it had been Simon's decision to keep Jim out of the search for the suspect turned fugitive, Blair knew he'd catch some of the fallout when the detective awoke.
And there was still the sensory puzzle to finish untangling. Once he heard about Chambers, Jim would be in no mood to sit still for another trance session. Blair knew he had to find a way to make his partner agree to it, even though he still feared his own ability to guide his friend through it safely.
It's got to be done. If he won't sit still on his own, I'll sit on him, Blair vowed silently.
Jim's bedside clock read 6:53 a.m. Blair decided to wait a little longer before disrupting his partner's slumber and settled gingerly onto the foot of the bed. As he sipped his cooling tea and watched over his sleeping Sentinel, he found himself thinking about Chambers' disappearing act. Was Chambers really their killer? Simon had seemed so certain. Had their visit really spooked the ex-Seal? Blair still found that hard to believe. It seemed more likely that Chambers had caught on to the fact he was being tailed and decided to show his superior covert skills by shaking his tag-alongs.
But if Chambers isn't the killer, then who is? Simon said none of the other suspects left the carnival grounds last night. Not even Klerk.
Blair felt the now-familiar shiver down his spine which happened every time he thought of the fun house operator. Images from his nightmare popped into his mind and he shook his head in disgust.
I can't get that guy out of my head awake or asleep. Guess that explains why I'm dreaming about mirrors.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, intending to call up some of his meditation exercises to settle his nerves. He had just managed the second exhale when a high-pitched scream cut the air. His eyes flew open and he scanned the room desperately, seeking the source. He located it.
A groan from the bed drew his attention back to his friend. Forgetting about the noise he had just identified, Blair watched in open-mouthed shock as Jim's body stiffened and arched. The Sentinel's mouth opened as if he were screaming, but no sound accompanied the contorted effort. Before Blair could react, Jim rolled to the side and sat up, his outflung right arm sweeping the dazed grad student from the bed.
The nightmare engulfed him again... reflections... fragments... dark... cold... the smell of mildew and stale beer... an ancient face glimpsed only for a fraction of a second... a bony, gnarled hand clenching a sliver of deadly brilliance... the panicked beating of a heart... the knife-edged echo of a scream... a boy's face... his face in the mirror...
And then the reflection shifted, the image blurring surreally into another face, one he knew as well as his own. The panicked heartbeat was one he had heard too often in times of danger...
Two sets of blue eyes met, locked, and widened.
Confusion reigned in one pair; surprise in the other.
Ellison blinked first. "Sandburg?"
The anthropologist's startled expression changed to a frown. "You know, Jim, this is getting old," he muttered from his sprawled position on the floor.
Jim groaned and tried to dial down the screech of the ban saw and the disjointed hammering coming from the work crew on the building next door. He managed to reduce his perception of the noise to a point where it was merely aggravating and shifted positions so he was sitting on the edge of the bed. "It's too early for riddles, Chief," he rasped, rubbing his throbbing temples.
"Sorry. It's just that this is the second time I've ended up on my butt during this case. I'm starting to wonder if I need to rig some additional protection down there."
Jim raised his head and stared at partner. The younger man was obviously struggling to keep a grin from marring his sardonic expression. "I don't think they make Kevlar for that portion of your anatomy, Sandburg," Ellison responded dryly.
"Hey, I'll have you know that they're making full body armor, now," Blair retorted, his eyes twinkling with humor. "I already have a set on order. I'm just trying to figure out which form to submit to get the department to pay for it."
Jim snorted and reached forward to help his partner sit up. Blair grabbed his wrist and squeezed it gently.
"Are you okay, man?" he asked softly as he settled cross-legged on the floor.
The merriment was gone from the Guide's blue eyes, replaced with concern. The Sentinel answered his companion's searching gaze with a nod.
The younger man raised an eyebrow, indicating his skeptical assessment of that response. "The nightmare. You had it again, didn't you? Right before you woke."
Jim carefully dislodged Blair's fingers and sat back, running his fingers through his sleep-mussed hair. He studied the floor for a moment before meeting his partner's intent gaze. "Yeah. Same dream, but with a new twist at the end. You were in it."
Blair's eyes widened. "I was?"
"It was your face in the mirror. Your heart pounding in panic."
The anthropologist paled and immediately dropped his gaze to study his nervously twining hands. No sensory probe was need to see that the Sentinel's words had upset his Guide. It had to be unsettling to find yourself inside someone else's nightmare. Still, there had been a flash of something else in the younger man's gaze before he'd looked away. Jim frowned and started to reach out to touch his partner, but Sandburg scrambled to his feet before he could connect.
"Time to grab a shower, man. We've got stuff to do."
Jim frowned at his partner's evasive tactic and came to his feet as well. "Blair -"
The anthropologist held up both hands, palms out. A non-verbal stop sign. "Please, Jim. Just get a shower and get dressed. I'll make us some coffee and then we'll talk, okay?"
It wasn't 'okay', but the pleading tone of his Guide's voice strongly suggested the Sentinel agree. "Make it strong and go easy on the milk," he responded.
With a relieved nod, Blair turned and quickly thudded down the stairs. Jim grabbed some clothes and followed. He kept the sensory dials firmly tuned to their lowest level as he hurried through his morning routine. When he emerged from the bathroom, he cranked them up a notch. The coffee pot burbled as it approached the end of the brewing cycle, but there were no other sounds emanating from the kitchen. He glanced toward the lower bedroom, but the familiar noises which typically accompanied his partner's frantic search for something clean to wear were absent as well. He dialed up his hearing one more level. No heartbeat. His Guide was not in the loft.
Before his protective mode could kick in completely, the front door flew open and Blair breezed in. The anthropologist came to an abrupt stop just inside the entryway, an ear-to-ear grin splitting his face. "Hey, Jim. You're dressed already. That's great."
"Since when did you take up jogging?" Ellison asked dryly, noting the rapid rise and fall of the younger man's chest.
"Jogging?" Blair's excited grin slipped for a second, then it came back full force. "Oh. The gasping, half-out of breath thing. Just a quick trip up the stairs. I didn't want to wait for the elevator."
Blair reached back with one foot and kicked the door shut, then zoomed into the kitchen. Muttering under his breath, the younger man immediately began digging through cupboards and drawers, pulling out mugs and spoons for their coffee. Bemused by his partner's more-erratic-than-normal morning behavior, the detective wandered over to the cluttered kitchen table and began the task of imposing order on the chaos, assuming an explanation of some sort would shortly follow.
Not before I have at least one cup of coffee, Jim vowed. He bent over to retrieve a legal pad which had found its way to the floor and stifled a curse, deciding to add a handful of aspirin to that order as his headache flared again. Straightening, he tossed the pad onto the neat stack he'd already created, nudged the grad student's laptop out of the way and picked up a heavy, old book which had been hidden under the debris. Vaguely aware that it was the same book his partner had been carrying around for several weeks, he absently scanned the cover as he laid it to the side.
What the hell?
He bobbled the book as he snatched it back up and it fell open in his hands. The scrap of paper which had been used as a bookmark fluttered to the table, but Jim was barely aware of it. His eyes were riveted on the chapter heading.
The path to visions: Ayahuasca... the rope of the dead.
The Sentinel's eyes widened in stunned disbelief as recalled his Guide's strange comment about Incacha from the morning before. Suddenly the uneasiness and furtive distraction he'd sensed building in the younger man over the past few months made perfect sense. A cold fist of fear clenched his heart as he read the chapter heading again and he shook his head in fervent denial.
No. Blair wouldn't go to this extreme. He's too smart for that.
Ellison's fingers tightened on the book as he realized that his otherwise brilliant partner could very well have abandoned logic in this particular situation and followed a course dictated by desperation. Self-preservation always took a back seat to Sandburg's quest for knowledge, especially if his Guide thought the end result would benefit his Sentinel.
Damn it, I should have seen this coming. I remember how he was after I brought him home from the hospital. He was sure he'd started on some mystic journey as a Shaman. I scoffed at it, but he was convinced. A smothered groan slipped from Jim's lips as it occurred to him that his unwillingness to believe his partner had forced the younger man to tempt fate once again.
"Coffee'll be ready in a minute," Blair called from the kitchen. "Do you want any toast?."
Held frozen in the grip of a horrifying memory, the Sentinel couldn't even manage a grunted reply. The ghastly specter of his Guide's pain contorted face which had sent him flying home from Denver three months earlier filled his mind.
Ellison slowly raised his head and met the worried gaze of his partner. "Hey, man, what is it? What's " The rest of Blair's question died unspoken as his gaze shifted to the book in Jim's hands.
"I thought we had a deal." Jim's voice was brittle and faint to his own ears. "I thought we'd agreed to take the next trip together."
Blair paled and took an unsteady step backward. His hands cut nervous slashes in the air as if he were warding off the chill emanating from his partner. "We... we did. We will."
Jim plucked the scrap of paper from the tabletop and studied it for a moment. "Then who's Jason Edwards?" he asked icily. "Our tour guide?"
"He's... a friend," Blair stammered. He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and widened his stance slightly as if preparing for a battle. When he spoke again, his voice was calmer, more controlled and his eyes were filled with grim determination. "He's a grad student in Pharmacology."
"I see." Jim tucked the slip of paper into the book, closed the heavy tome and placed it on the table between them. "Make sure you give me his number. Wouldn't want to miss out on the trip just because you forgot to let me know when the ship sails."
"That assumes of course we're going by boat. If we're flying, then I should probably pack a parachute along with my toothbrush."
"Quick mocking me!" Blair hissed angrily.
"Beats pounding some sense into you, Sandburg," Jim retorted. "Which I swear is going to happen unless you stop playing games and start talking to me." The younger man's tightlipped expression told him the threat of bodily harm wasn't having any impact. Not surprising, since the younger man understood him well enough to know that it would never happen. "Blair, ayahuasca is a poison," Jim said firmly, changing his approach to one he hoped would have more affect. "Messing around with it could get you killed."
"Give me some credit here, Jim," the anthropologist answered heatedly. "I wasn't intending to 'mess around' with ayahuasca or whatever I decided to use. I planned to take precautions. Make sure the necessary controls were in place. "
Jim breathed a sigh of relief. 'Planned' meant his head-strong partner hadn't tried anything yet. "And when you were ready to do this... experiment... were you going to tell me? Or were you going to keep me in the dark until I got a call asking me identify some braindead shell at the hospital, or to claim your body at the morgue?"
"That's a worst case scenario," Blair protested. "Look, this isn't some wild idea I cooked up like some herbal remedy, Jim. Shaman have been using psychotropic drugs for centuries in order to touch the spirit plane. I'm just following in their footsteps."
"Damn it, Jim, I've run out of other options. I've tried fasting. Meditation. Purification. Research. That's how I stumbled across that book. I'm not crazy about taking this risk either "
"I have to!" Blair held his head high and looked Jim squarely in the eye. "Whether you like it or not, I'm going to do what I have to do. I'm supposed to be a Shaman. Your Shaman."
"You're my Guide. My friend. My partner," Jim said softly. "Isn't that enough?"
Blair shrugged. A sad, wan smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, but there was no humor in his eyes. "Incacha apparently didn't think so."
Only the respect he held for the Chopec beliefs kept Ellison from cursing the departed Medicine Man to the deepest depths of hell. Afraid of what he might say if he did open his mouth, Jim turned away from the table and stalked across the loft. He shoved the balcony doors open and stepped out onto the platform. Arms crossed over his chest, he stood at the railing and stared out over his slowly awakening city trying to fathom how Incacha's legacywhich should have been a blessinghad become such a fearsome burden.
The Sentinel understood why Incacha had been so desperate to pass on his gifts before he crossed to the spirit world and Ellison harbored no doubts that Sandburg was worthy of the bequest. But the circumstances of Incacha's death had dropped the mantle of the Shaman upon the younger man's shoulders without any warningcertainly without the years of study and preparation which would have normally been required.
That's where the real trouble began, Ellison thought grimly.
Jim believed that Blair knew instinctively what to do as a Shamanthat he had an innate understanding of the gifts, and the heart and spirit to use them wisely. But with Incacha dead, there was no one to light the way along the intricate pathways a Shaman traveled. No one to guide his Guide. Sandburg had done his best to honor the Medicine Man's memory and intent, but he had been forced to chart his own course. He was stumbling along without any idea of the dangers which lurked in the dark.
A whisper of sound behind him alerted the Sentinel to his Guide's approach and he turned slowly to face the younger man. Blair stood in the open doorway, hesitant, but resolutely meeting Jim's searching stare. The anthropologist's face was drawn and lined with fatigue, and the dark circles under his eyes bespoke a significant lack of sleep and an overabundance of stress.
He looks so tired. So worn, Jim thought sadly. He's given so much to me. To our partnership. Why does he feel he needs to do more... be more? Why is he trying so hard to be something he already is?
"Jim, I... I know you're angry," Blair said softly, breaking the painful silence which lay between them. "I know you probably feel like I've betrayed your trust. I swear I never intended to hurt you, but I knew you'd try to stop me if you found out what I had planned. And I can't let you do that." Blair stepped forward until he was standing only inches away. His eyes held a desperate entreaty; a plea for understanding and respect. "This is my cliff edge, Jim," he whispered. "My turn to decide whether to go forward or go back. And I've made my choice."
"To be a Shaman, " Jim murmured. "No matter what it takes... no matter what risks it entails."
"Yes." Silent, Ellison held his friend's steady gaze for several moments before he reached out to place his hand on the younger man's shoulder. He turned toward the balcony railing, gently pulling Blair to stand beside him.
"You've said before that a Shaman walks in more than one world," Jim said softly. "And I respect your need... your right... to travel those paths. But this," he gestured outward with a sweep of his hand, "this is my world. Concrete and steel. Flesh and blood. I'm sworn to protect it. To do that, I need you here. Beside me." The Sentinel turned to look down into his Guide's upturned face. "Delay your journey. Stay in my world," he urged. "Tread my path for a while longer. Keep to your oath, Shaman, and when the Way is no longer dark, I will willingly follow wherever you lead."
Blair's eyes widened slightly before he looked away. Faint tremors coursed through the younger man's body as he stared out at the city. Jim gently squeezed his friend's shoulder in silent understanding, and waited for his partner to reach a decision. The pale morning sky deepened several tones to a richer blue before Blair finally relaxed and straightened his slumped shoulders.
"It would be a lonely journey without you," he murmured. He leaned into the Sentinel's grasp for the space of a heartbeat, then turned to face Jim once again. "I'll keep looking for that doorway into those other worlds, but I promise not to do anything rash. I'll warn you though. You may regret that promise you just made, man. Once I get the hang of it, I intend to visit some pretty wild places."
Blair's tone was solemn, but the grin twitching the corner of his mouth told a different story. "Probably no wilder than your usual haunts, Sandburg," Jim responded dryly. He patted his partner on the back and nodded toward the open doorway. "I think I hear the coffee calling."
"I'm surprised it hasn't walked out here on its own," Blair replied. Jim shot him a puzzled glance and the younger man chuckled. "Hey, you said to make it strong so I doubled the ratio of grounds to water." He dodged a step to the right to avoid the mock punch Jim threw his way and then suddenly stood stock-still, his expression deadly serious. "Don't worry, man. I didn't tamper with the approved recipe, but I probably should have."
Blair's dark blue eyes were clouded with worry and a touch of fear as he turned away. The only explanation the Sentinel received for the cryptic response was the softly voiced comment his Guide threw over his shoulder as he slipped into the loft.
"I have a feeling you're going to wishing for something stronger than coffee by the time I finish bringing you up to speed."
It turned out Blair was correct in his assessment about the coffee. After a short, but intense briefing covering his partner's late night efforts pertaining to the case, and a somewhat heated telephone conversation with his captain, Ellison stalked into the bathroom. He emerged with aspirin in hand.
The headache he had managed to ignore during his confrontation with his Guide was hammering against the inside of his skull. His stomach was on the verge of rebelling, threatening to disgorge the milk-laced coffee he had managed to consume. The bright flashes at the edge of his vision were back; his control over the sensory dials erratic.
And he was angry enough to punch a hole through one of the loft's brick walls.
He brushed past Blair and wrenched the refrigerator door open, grabbing a bottle of water. Downing three tablets in one gulp, he slammed the plastic bottle down on the counter, wincing as the explosive sound hit his sensitive eardrums.
"I take it Chambers is still missing."
Jim's head swiveled toward his hovering Guide and the scathing tirade he had been about to unleash died unspoken. The younger man's face was pinched with worry and his tired eyes held the same expression the Sentinel had glimpsed earlier. This time he identified it.
Sandburg didn't deserve to take the brunt of his rage. It happened far too often as it wasprimarily because Blair was one of the few who dared to stay in close proximity even when Jim's 'Warning, Explosion Imminent' lights were flashing. It wasn't his Guide's fault Chambers was still at large, and his Sentinel was operating at less than 100 percent.
Although Blair probably thinks it is. He's forgetting he's come up with more answers on this case than I have, and that if it weren't for his forcing me to come back to the loft last night, I would have done something stupid which would have blown the caseand my careerright out of the water. Another temper tantrum isn't going to help matters any.
Ellison leaned sideways into the counter, took a deep breath and released it slowly. "Sounds like Simon had most of the department out searching last night," he said quietly. "Our presence probably wouldn't have made any difference."
Blair raised a skeptical eyebrow. "What about the search warrant for Chambers' trailer? Is it ready?"
Jim scowled and took another drink of water before answering. "Simon's tap-dancing before Judge Reynolds even as we speak. Apparently Reynolds wasn't too receptive to being dragged out of bed in the middle of the night. He demanded a full review of the evidence before granting the papers."
"You've got to be kidding! Doesn't he realize what the delay could mean?"
"Reynolds can be a tough sell, but you never have to worry about a defense attorney arguing the legitimacy of a warrant issued from his bench. Simon didn't think it would take much longer. Anyway, the delay on the search warrant doesn't mean we stop looking. The APB's still valid," Jim assured his distraught partner. "There's an unmarked unit stationed at the carnival grounds keeping an eye on things and Packard's been informed about Chambers' disappearance. If he shows, we'll get a call."
"So, we've got a little time then," Blair said quietly, a hint of nervousness tingeing his tone. "Before we have to be anywhere, I mean."
Ellison eyed his rumpled partner suspiciously. Blair was still wearing the paint-splattered sweat shirt and the threadbare pair of jeans he had donned prior to his own vanishing act, but Jim knew that the anthropologist's question had nothing to do with whether there was time for him to grab a shower and change into something more respectable.
"What's on your mind, Chief? And just where did you disappear to earlier?"
The younger studiously examined the inside of his coffee mug, a flurry of conflicting emotions chasing across his expressive face. He was silent for a few moments, then he squared his shoulders, set the cup on the counter and lifted his eyes to meet Jim's questioning gaze.
"I went down to talk to the work crew who've been doing the renovations on the building next door. I needed to confirm that they started the project Monday morning "
Jim grunted in annoyance. "I could have told you that, Chief."
"The same morning you started having the nightmare."
Ellison's eyes widened at the import of his friend's softly spoken statement. "You're suggesting the two are connected."
Blair nodded. "You were sleeping peacefully before they started working this morning, Jim, but you reacted almost violently when they cranked up the band saw. You admitted you were having the nightmare when you woke up. I'd say the two are connected, yeah. I bet it's been happening all week, except for yesterday when you woke up early and we were out of here before they started."
Jim rubbed at his still throbbing temples. "I'll admit the racket they've been making has given me a headache, Chief, but I thought you said dreams weren't caused by outside influences."
"You're the exception to the rule in more ways than one, Jim," Blair answered with a small smile. "I've theorized for a while that your sentinel abilities are working at some level even when you're asleep. Hearing is one of your strongest senses. I think in this case you're picking up on a sound, or, more specifically, a specific frequency of vibrations which has extremely negative associations for you. It's stimulating a kind of 'knee-jerk' reflex reaction which is overriding any protective defaults hardwired into your genetic programming and triggering the dream."
"Assuming you're right, so what? It explains why I'm having the nightmare, but it doesn't explain the problems with my senses."
"Actually, I think it does. See, if I am right, the dream is the key..."
In short, terse sentences Blair outlined his overstimulation theory and went on to explain how it related to the 'freak-out' episodes. Most of the explanation sounded plausible to Jim, but not all of it.
"You know more about how these senses of mine work than I do, Chief," Jim said quietly, pleased to see a tinge of embarrassed gratitude coloring the younger man's face at the off-hand compliment. "But I think you're forgetting something. It's that strange smell which has been setting off the sensory episodes. You proved that the other night in the morgue."
Blair paled a bit at the reference and shook his head. "I think I jumped to the wrong conclusion," he replied apologetically. "After what I witnessed this morning, I'm betting sound is the real culprit. It kind of 'primes the pump', so to speak, making you more susceptible to an episode when you're exposed to that set of smells, or a component of it."
"A sound which is also in the dream and which I've heard before," Jim murmured thoughtfully.
"We can test the theory," Blair offered hesitantly. "But it's going to mean putting you under and walking you back through each episode. And then "
"And then we're going to have to pick apart the nightmare. We figure out what it means, I stop having it, and the episodes go bye-bye, right?"
"That's the general idea, yeah."
Ellison pushed away from the counter and nodded. "Then let's do it." He started to walk past his friend to the living room, but Blair grabbed his arm, stopping him in his tracks.
The Sentinel was surprised by the alarm in his Guide's tone and the fear in his eyes. What is it, Blair? What are you so afraid of? he wondered. It's not like we haven't done this... ah... that's the problem...
He patted Blair on the shoulder, recognizing the reason for his friend's distress. "Relax, Chief. This is old hat. You start babbling in my ear, I drop into a trance and we thumb through the highly organized drawers of my memory until we find the answers. You guide and I follow." He smiled reassuringly and added gently, "I promise to listen and not get side-tracked this time."
"Can I get that in writing?" Blair responded with forced lightness.
Jim put both hands on his partner's shoulders and looked him straight in the eye. "I trust you to watch my back on the street, Blair. This is no different."
"Yes it is," Blair responded anxiously. "What if we go traipsing around in your subconscious and find that the dream is more than just a result of random sensory stimulation? What if it is an actual memory? Something you repressed... like Bud's murder. You said the smell was 'old'. That could mean it's something you were exposed to years ago, when you were just a kid. I hate to remind you, Jim, but it's an established fact that your emotional state has a hell of an impact on your sensory controls. Whatever occurs in the nightmare is obviously frightening. Terrifying. Fear is an emotional reaction, man. One of the strongest. If we bring this dream to the surface, you're going to have to face that fear. We could create more problems than we solve."
"Now who's the one talking worst case scenarios?" Ellison countered.
"Jim, it's risky. If I screw up... if something goes wrong, you could end up with less control than you have now."
"Blair, we've got a murderer to find and as you so correctly pointed out, I need to be at the top of my game to catch him. I don't want to sit on the sidelines any longer. If there's even a slight chance that confronting this memory, or whatever's causing the nightmare will mean an end to my sensory problems, then I'm willing to take the risk." He squeezed Blair's shoulders. "Besides. You're not going to screw up."
Blair's eyes narrowed, but he didn't look away. "Okay," he whispered finally. "Go get comfortable on the couch. I want to grab a couple of things from my room before we start."
Blair shifted the coffee table aside with a judicious nudge of his knee and placed several tall white candles on the wooden surface. Jim watched intently as the younger man knelt beside the table and fussed over their arrangement. Murmuring a softly chanted litany, his novitiate Shaman lit each candle, striking a new match for each. The faint, familiar fragrance of vanilla teased at the Sentinel's nostrils as the heat of the flaming wicks began to soften the scented wax. Blair sat back on his heels, eyes closed for a minute of silence, then settled cross-legged on the floor at Jim's feet.
"The candles are a nice touch, Chief. Kind of romantic," Jim teased, trying to ease the tension. "But what's with the sage?" He nodded toward the string-wrapped bundle of herbs the younger man placed on the floor between them.
"Precautionary measures," Blair responded, his expression far from amused. "I'm hoping the fragrance of the candles will occupy your sense of smell and keep you from getting blind-sided by that other odor if you run across it. This," he picked up the thick, gray-green purification stick, "is in case of an emergency. If you go too deep or we unintentionally trigger another discharge episode, I'm going to light it and wave it under your nose."
Ellison glared at the herbs. A whiff of their two-day-old pungent smoke was enough to make his eyes water. A fresh lungful would start a sneezing fit of epic proportions. Which, he realized abruptly, was exactly the reaction his partner intended to provoke.
"One knee-jerk reaction to offset another," Jim murmured appreciatively.
"Exactly," Blair flashed him a quick grin. "Think of it as herbal smelling salts." The younger man patted Ellison's knee reassuringly. "You ready?"
Jim nodded and leaned against the back of the couch, closing his eyes.
"Where are your dials?"
"Let them settle just above sentinel-normal and try to keep them that way." Blair's voice dropped in both timbre and volume, leading by example. "You're not going to have to go very deep for this first part. The memories we're looking for are pretty recent."
The Sentinel nodded, relaxing further as he followed his Guide's instructions.
"Okay... We'll start with the first episode. Two mornings ago. We left the diner and we were taking the long way back to the loft. Picture yourself on the sidewalk and think about the sounds you heard."
Jim frowned, his closed eyes squeezing even tighter as the memory began to take shape in his mind. "There are too many noises," he complained. "Cars, trucks... people... How am I going to know which sound I'm looking for?"
"Trust me, man, you'll know," Blair assured him.
And suddenly a shiver rippled down the Sentinel's spine and he did know. "The shopkeeper... he was lowering an awning... one of those old fashioned hand-crank kind... the gears were grinding on one another... they made a high pitched squeal..."
"What color was the awning?"
"Striped... green and white..."
"Johanson's Clock Shop is just a few feet from Mr. Donnello's store," Blair whispered excitedly. "He's got an awning just like that. Now switch your focus and go to smell." The Sentinel stiffened and he immediately felt the pressure of his partner's hand on his knee. "Relax, Jim. Just reach out for it. You know what we're looking for.
Jim took a deep breath and concentrated on the scents buried within the memory. He detected exhaust, oil and hot metal exuded by the passing cars and trucks; the conflicting fragrances of Old English and Halston from a strolling couple; the mouth-watering smell of donuts wafting from the bakery down the street; the sweet perfume of freshly cut flowers sold by the vendor on the cornereverything except the complex smell he'd come to associate with death and insanity.
"It's not there," he murmured in surprise.
"That's okay. Don't worry about it. I wasn't expecting it to be there. Go forward now," Blair urged, eagerly. "Next stop is the crime scene we visited that afternoon. We know the smell is there, so ignore it. Focus on sound again..."
"Got it," Jim announced almost immediately. "The dumpster... one of the uniformed cops raised the lid while I was examining the corpse..."
"You're right. The hinges were rusty. Even I heard the screech when he lifted it," Blair murmured. "Now in the morgue "
"It was the buzzer on the door leading from the reception area," the Sentinel interjected before his Guide had a chance to finish his sentence. "The high end frequency of the sound is in the same tonal range as the others!"
"Slow down, man! Don't get ahead of yourself."
Heeding his partner's warning Ellison curbed his own eagerness, repressing the urge to skip ahead to the next episode.
"Okay, that's better... The sixth crime scene, Jim. Same drill. Listen for it..."
"I am... it's not there," Jim responded after a few moments of silence.
"Yes!" Blair hissed exultantly. "We're on target, man. No sound, no episodeeven though the smell was present. Last one, now. The carnival. It was incredibly noisy there, so it's going to be tricky to pinpoint exactly which sound triggered the discharge. Be careful."
'Noisy' was an understatement, Jim thought grimly as he immersed himself in memory of the sensory chaos which had permeated the carnival grounds. The discordant music fought for dominance over the grinding engines and thunderous clamor of the rides, The screams of children tangled with the shouts of the barkers. The very air throbbed and pulsed with sounds which ranged from one end of the aural spectrum to the other. It all mixed together into one roaring tide of sound. Louder... louder... pounding...
"Uggghhh!" Jim gasped, rocking forward and clapping his hands over his ears.
"It's okay. It's okay..."
The Guide's soothing whisper was a lifeline pulling him back from the brink; the strong hands gripping his shoulders anchoring him to reality.
"Relax, man. Breathe. Listen to my voice and let the rest of it go."
And as always, it was just that simple. Drained, but back in control, Ellison dropped his hands to his lap. He opened his eyes and found himself practically nose to nose with his partner. "Sorry, Chief," he murmured. "Too much input."
"Don't beat yourself up over it, man." Blair's face glowed with the first genuine smile Jim had seen on the younger man's face in weeks. "You did great."
"We're on a roll. Let's finish this."
The anthropologist sank back on his heels, shaking his head slowly. "Jim "
"Now, Blair." The Sentinel's eyes burned with determination. "Time for phase two."
Blair scrubbed his palms nervously on his jeans. While he was overjoyed by their success so far, the next step was inherently more dangerous.
And as usual, Jim's ready to dive in head first.
"Okay, okay!" Blair acquiessed to his partner's demand with an exasperated sigh. "Just give me a minute."
The anthropologist dragged his fingers through his hair, pushing it away from his face and settled himself on the floor again. He gripped his knees for balance and sent a silent prayer winging upward.
"Abracadabra," he added for good measure.
"We're not opening a sealed cave, Sandburg. Just my head."
Blair opened one eye and glared at his partner. "I'll have you know that 'abracadabra' was originally a magical incantation intended to ward off evil spirits. While it was first employed in the Middle East in the occult ceremonies of the 2nd-century Gnostics, I'm not above calling in whatever favors I can garner at this point. I will, however, refrain from commenting on the appropriateness of the analogy you just offered beyond pointing out that those hypothetical treasure caves were usually made of impenetrable stone, just like the head of a certain detective I know."
"Point taken," Jim responded, struggling to control a grin. "Whenever you're ready, oh Wise One."
Blair grimaced at his partner's choice of nickname and dropped his gaze to the floor struggling with a fresh surge of self-doubt. Warm fingers wrapped under his chin, tipping his face upward.
"Trust yourself, Blair," Jim murmured as their gazes locked. "All the knowledge... all the guidance you need is here," the Sentinel's fingers slid upward to tap lightly against his temple. "And here." Jim's hand dropped to rest palm down over Blair's heart.
Blair managed a nod, his throat thick with emotion.
Jim smiled and sat back. Resting his head on the back of the sofa, he closed his eyes. Faced with such absolute faith and trust, the young Shaman found his voice. Resting one hand on each of Jim's knees, he began to utter the quiet words which would lead his Sentinel into the trance.
Trusting to the invisible safety net woven by his Guide's words, the Sentinel surrendered control. The initial stages of the trance were familiara leaden heaviness in his limbs which pressed him deeper into the soft cushions of the couch; the sensation of falling backward as his center of balance shifted; a moment of stomach-twisting vertigo; weightlessness.
He 'opened' his eyes to a twilight-lit void and squelched the impatient impulse which prodded him to take the next step on his own. He wasn't in charge of this expedition. Until he received instructions to the contraryuntil his Guide felt it was safehe would go no further.
"Looking good, Jim." Blair's voice was quiet; strained with nervous tension. "When I give the word, I want you to find the memory of the dream that's been troubling you. The instant you lock onto it, take a mental step backward and freeze the first images. Don't go any further and don't drop your guard. This sucker is tricky. It's going to pull at you... try to suck you in. Don't let it. Keep everything but sight dialed way back for now."
Jim managed a grunted reply which surprisingly seemed to satisfy his partner.
Like a notched arrow released from a drawn bow, the Sentinel felt his consciousness winging toward the specified target. Per his Guide's instructions, he managed to halt his headlong flight just inside the leading edge of a dark, menacing fog bank. He took a figurative step backward and fought to hold his ground against the grasping black tendrils which billowed outward, threatening to ensnare him.
"What do you see, Jim?"
"Darkness," he managed to reply. "I can't see through it."
"You don't have to," Blair's soft voice intoned. "The horrors lurking within that darkness aren't real, Jim, but the darkness itself might be based on a real place, generated by an actual memory. Each moment of time, each location in the real world has a unique sensory signature. We're going to try to use the dark place of your dreams as a point of departure to find its real world counterpart. I want you to keep sight on line and turn up touch. Let those two senses work in tandem. Imprint the exact nature of the darkness upon your mind. Identify its distinct shades of gray... feel its texture... its density... its temperature..."
The Sentinel steeled himself and stepped forward, holding onto his awareness of his Guide's presence like a lifeline. An icy chill enveloped him the instant he breached the perimeter of the inky darkness and gravity abruptly reasserted its hold, threatening to drag him downward into nothingness. He held firm, fearing that if he fell, he would pull his companion into the abyss with him. It took only a moment to engrave the 'look' of the dark on his sense memory. He extended touch, sampling the fabric of the cloying darkness. His other senses automatically tried to come on line, but he kept their dials locked down. When he had catalogued the dark's preternatural damp stillness, he gave a verbal tug to his tether.
"Step back. Breathe," his Guide ordered. The power in the younger man's voice effortlessly drew the Sentinel back into the safe zone once more. "We're ready, man, but let's be clear on what we're trying to achieve here," Blair said firmly, his tone brooking no argument. "This is not a search and destroy mission, Jim. It's recon only. You go in, take a look around, and report back to me. Is that understood?"
"Yes, sir." Ellison's voice sounded flat and toneless to his own ears, bereft of the gentle, teasing humor the response should have contained.
"Observer rules, man. Remember that," Blair cautioned. Jim felt his friend's finger's tighten almost painfully on his knees. "Whenever you're ready..."
There was no outward signno clenching of the jaw, no sudden scowl creasing the smooth forehead, no sign of increased tension in the relaxed muscles of the older man's bodyyet Blair 'felt' the precise instant Jim set off on his quest. He eased his grip on his friend's knees and whispered a warrior's blessing to speed his partner on his way. "May fortune favor the hunt, Sentinel."
Blair continued to murmur a constant stream of reassuring words, but as the silent seconds ticked by his anxiety grew. The tightness in his chest made it hard to breathe much less speak, and his soothing litany quickly degenerated into short choppy fragments interspersed with choked gasps. Knowing his own lack of control would affect his partner's concentration, the worried Guide struggled to alter his own breathing pattern to match the Sentinel's steady rhythm. He felt a surge of relief as they fell into sync and then a moment of disorientation. His vision blurred and he had the surreal sense of being displaced from his body; of being propelled forward at an incredible speed and abruptly slammed to a dead stop. An astonished gasp echoed in his ears. Blair blinked to clear his vision, glanced up at his partner's face, and froze.
The Sentinel's eyes were wide open.
The incredulous, wonder-filled response snapped the Guide out of his daze. Without releasing his hold on the Sentinel's knees, he rose to his feet, leaned in and searched Jim's eyes. Ellison's blank stare revealed nothing.
"What's real? Where are you?" Blair asked softly.
"A small room... damp... enclosed... a cellar, maybe..." Jim responded immediately. His eyes moved down, up, then left and right, as though he were scanning his environment. "Dirt floor... wooden doors set on a slant... light coming through the crack between them... shelves on one side of the room, filled with bottlesno, canning jars... mildew "
"Keep smell dialed down, Jim," Blair ordered tersely. "Stay with sight and touch." The Sentinel acknowledged his Guide's directions with an almost imperceptible nod. "Do you recognize the room?" the younger man prompted. "Have you been there before?"
There was a long pause, and then a hesitant reply. "It... it seems... familiar..."
"Is there anyone else there?"
"No... I'm alone." Ellison's brow suddenly creased in confusion. "But I shouldn't be... There were... others..."
"I... don't... I can't "
"Easy," Blair murmured, responding to the frustration in his friend's voice. "We'll come back to it. What else do you see?"
"Cardboard boxes... scraps of wood... bundles of something hanging from nails on one wall... dried herbs, maybe... There's something else... in the far corner... One of those old standing mirrors..."
Blair's mouth dropped open in alarm as images from his own nightmare flashed through his mind. "Jim, I don't think it's a good idea to "
"It's covered by a sheet..."
"Jim, listen "
"It shouldn't be covered "
"It wasn't "
Panicked, the anthropologist shifted his grip to the older man's shoulders. In his mind's eye, Blair envisioned the Sentinel reaching forward, removing the draped covering, gazing at his own reflectionor something infinitely more dangerous.
"Jim, listen to me," he hissed urgently. "Don't look in the mirror. Back away from it!!" Blair pulled his partner forward and shook him, desperately trying to break the Sentinel free from the trance. "Jim, do you hear me? Come back! Come back now!"
Mesmerized by the distorted reflections which flickered across the mirror's mottled surface, the Sentinel was oblivious to his Guide's urgent pleas. He stepped closer, swept the side of his hand over the glass and stared at the face reflected there. Pale blue eyes, identical to his own met his gaze and held it.
And held it...
Until someone called his name.
"Jimmy! Come on. Help me out."
Nine year-old Jim Ellison glanced over his shoulder at his best friend, Charlie Evans and grinned. "I already saved your life three times today, Charlie. What more do you want?"
He and his 'squad'which consisted of Charlie and three other school mateshad spent the day waging 'war' against another group of fourth graders. The backyards and alleys of Charlie's neighborhood had been their battlefield, a handful of plastic squirt guns their armament. An unexpected mid-summer storm had sent them scurrying for shelter. The old root cellar below Charlie's house had seemed an ideal location to wait out the rain and plan their next series of skirmishes against the 'enemy.' The only drawback was that there was no electricity in the dirt-floored room, and therefore, no source of light other than the narrow sliver of gray daylight shining through the crack in the closed wooden doors. Charlie was busy rummaging through the cardboard boxes stacked haphazardly along the wall on the opposite side of the dark cellar looking for something to rectify that situation.
"I know, I know. I owe you," Charlie muttered. "But I can't find the candles I left down here."
"So you're the one with the super hero 'see-in-the-dark' eyesight. Help me look for them."
"Yeah, come on, Jimmy. Help him out. It's dark in here," piped up another one of his 'team'.
Harry Saunders' freckled face was paler than normal when Jimmy glanced his way. Bob 'don't you dare call me Robert' Hansen, who had fearlessly run point for their afternoon's adventures stood next to Harry looking nervously left and right as if he expected something to leap out of the shadows. Only Brian Smith, the fifth member of their group seemed unconcerned with the lack of light. He had seated himself on the lowest plank of the short flight of wooden steps which led to the closed doors and was busy pulling a book of matches and a crumpled pack of cigarettes out of his shirt pocket.
"Put 'em away, Brian," Jim growled in annoyance. "Those things'll stink up the place."
"Brian, did you steal some more of your dad's smokes?" Bob called out. "I thought you said he threatened to ground you for the rest of the summer if you did that again."
"What he doesn't know "
"Forget about the cigarettes, for a minute, will you?" Charlie hissed. "The candles, Jimmy?"
While the others were obviously fumbling in the dark, Jim had no such problem. He could clearly see the objects in question. "They're on a box to your left. About level with your shoulder," he answered. As his friend located the candles and struck a match to light them, Jim turned his attention back to the old standing mirror in front of him, frowning slightly as he studied his reflection in its mottled surface.
He was tall for his nine yearsa good five inches taller than Harryand was better muscled than his friends, although much of that development was due to long hours of football practice. While the others wore their hair long enough to touch the back collar of their shirts, his dark hair was cropped shorthis father's preference, not his. The pale blue eyes which stared back from the mirror held a trace of wariness which was also absent from his friends'. Overall, he guessed that he was 'okay' lookingsupposedly Kelli, a girl in his class had told Charlie that she though Jim was 'cute'but it was something he hardly ever thought about. The differences he could see on the surface and the ones which lay hidden occupied enough of his time.
"Hey, Jimmy. Stop playin' kissy face with yourself and get over here," Charlie demanded.
Flushing with embarrassment, Jim turned around. His four friends were seated on an old tattered blanket which had been spread on the damp dirt floor and the lit candles flickered atop an upended wooden crate. Jim walked over and took his place in the circle, eyeing the dark brown bottle in Charlie's hands uneasily.
"Is that what I think it is?"
"Yep!" Charlie grinned, raising the beer bottle to his lips and taking a quick drink before handing it to Brian. Jim watched as the second boy wiped off the top and took a longer pull before handing it to Harry whose green eyes shifted to Jim's uncertainly.
"I'm not sure this is a good idea, guys," Jim said quietly. "If we get caught "
"We're not gonna get caught, Jimmy," Bob interjected, prodding Harry with his elbow. Harry shot a mortified look at Jim, took a quick sip and released the bottle into Bob's eager hands.
"Come on, Jimmy," Charlie chimed in. "I've been sampling my dad's stock for months and he hasn't caught on yet. I just stuff the empties back into the case."
Jim frowned at the bottle Bob was holding out to him. Charlie's dad might not mind, but his father would have a fit if he came home and found beer on his oldest son's breath. Jim could easily imagine the lecture he'd receiveand the disciplinary actions which would undoubtedly follow. He glanced around the circle, noting the challenging, judgmental expressions in his friends' eyes. This was a testthey wanted to know if he was one of them.
The need to belongto be accepted by his peersprompted him to reach out and take the bottle. As he raised the bottle to his lips, he resolutely ignored the image of his father's angry face which flashed through his mind. He would deal with the consequences of his actions later. His father's current work schedule had kept him at the office until well past his sons' bedtime for the past several weeks, so as long as he didn't get falling-down drunkunlikely on a few sipshis dad would never find out what his oldest son had been up to. And if he did, well, it wouldn't be the first time Jim had felt the sting of his father's disappointment.
The tepid beer tasted like the nectar of the gods as it slid across his tongue and down his throat. Jim grinned and passed the bottle off to Charlie who raised it in a salute before taking his next drink. Warmed by the sense of camaraderie and emboldened by his sortie into dangerous, 'rebellious' waters, Jim relaxed and decided to go with the flow. The first bottle of beer was quickly consumed amidst conspiratorial grins and whispered challenges. A second bottle started to make the rounds and Brian pulled out his cigarettes again. Jim frowned but offered no challenge as his friend lit up and passed the pack around. While only Charlie took Brian up on his offer, the enclosed space quickly filled with the smoky haze, making Jim's eyes water and bringing on the first signs of a headache.
Seeing Jim's discomfort, Harry popped up the steps to see if they could risk opening the doors, but returned with a regretful shake of his head. The rain was still falling. Jim nodded his thanks and refrained from commenting that he could have saved Harry the trip. He had been monitoring the heavy thud of the rain drops against the wooden doors for some time. They beat a rhythmic counterpoint to the hammering which was going on overhead.
The sudden realization that there was someone in the house besides Charlie's eighty year-old grandmother set a swarm of nervous butterflies loose in Jim's stomach. "Hey, Charlie. What's going on upstairs?"
Charlie calmly swallowed a mouthful of beer and passed the bottle before answering. "My dad's tearing out a couple of walls on the lower level to make a new bedroom for Grams. Since she fell and broke her hip last winter, she's been having problems getting up and down the stairs to the second floor. Don't worry, Jimmy. He doesn't know we're down here and with all the racket he's making he's certainly not gonna hear us." The screaming wine of a power saw cut the air underscoring his point. "Besides, where's your sense of adventure? The risk of getting caught is part of the fun, right?"
Jim rolled his eyes, but found himself nodding and grinning along with his school mate.
"Since we're going to be stuck down here a while," Bob interjected, "how about a couple rounds of 'Truth or Dare'?"
His suggestion was immediately seconded by Brian. A third bottle of beer and a portion of a fourth were quickly draineda measurable drink of the fermented brew the assessed penalty in the game. By the time they lost interest in razzing and testing one another, all but one of the candles had melted to fat sizzling blobs. The remaining flame flickered and danced each time a gust of wind beat against the outer doors, it's faint light barely penetrating beyond the blanket where the boys were seated. The increasingly spooky atmosphere of the cellar provided the perfect segue to a new topic of entertainment. Ghost stories.
As their official 'host', Charlie had the honor of going first. He scrambled awkwardly to his feet, wobbled over to the mirror which Jim had been looking at earlier and dragged it closer. He flopped down on the blanket and struck a dramatic pose.
"It was a dark and stormy night..."
Jim leaned forward as Charlie's voice dropped to a theatric whisper and found himself blinking furiously to clear his suddenly blurry vision. He sat up straight and immediately regretted it as his stomach rolled queasily. He swallowed hard, blinked a couple more times and, as casually as he could manage, wiped his sweaty face with his shirt sleeve. When had the room gotten so hot? He glanced around the circle, but none of the others appeared the least bit uncomfortable. Their gazes were all locked on Charlie, transfixed by his tale.
Jim tried to concentrate on his friend's words, but his hearing seemed to be fading in and out. He caught something about an old woman, a needle and a mirror, and glanced at the reflective panel in confusion. His vision blurred again, then sharpened until he could see each minute imperfection in the glass. He squeezed his eyes closed and stifled a groan.
He was miserable. His clothes scraped painfully against his skin. His head hurt and his lungs felt like they were on fire. The odors which assaulted him were the worst. The rank smell of stale beer from the case of bottles in the corner fought with the mildewed odor emanating from the blanket. The cloying pungency of the herbs which Charlie's grandmother had hung in bundles for drying made him want to retch. He would have sworn it was impossible, but he was certain that he could identify every ingredient the old lady had used to can the preserves which filled the wooden shelves.
He felt woozy. Disoriented. Jim shook his head, trying to clear it. For a few moments, his senses seemed to be working normally.
Then someone screamed.
Jim's eyes flew open and he lurched unsteadily to his feet, his gaze sweeping the room for danger. A flicker of light at the edge of his vision sent him whirling to his right. Face to face with the mirror. He stared at it, transfixed by the distorted reflections chasing across the surface, only dimly aware of his companions' frantic movements and terror-filled screams.
"I hear her!"
The heavy thud of approaching footsteps pounded against Jim's ears, drowning out the sound of his own racing pulse. Someone jostled him aside, almost knocking him to his knees. An ear-splitting screech jolted the room and he caught one brief glimpse of Harry's frightened face before the room exploded with white light. A knife-like pain stabbed at his eyeballs and tore the breath from his throat. Gasping for air, he inhaled a lungful of sage-drenched smoke...
And curled forward, coughing and sneezing into a pair of strong arms.
At the first glint of recognition in Jim's eyes, Blair hauled him off the couch and across the room to the balcony. He pinned the miserable, gasping Sentinel against the wall with his shoulder and fumbled with the doors, trying to flip the locking latch without dropping the still smoking purification stick. His second attempt was successful. He shoved the glass door aside and pulled his partner out into the fresh morning air. Positioning Jim so he could lean against the railing, Blair dumped the sage bundle into a rainwater-filled flower pot.
He took a good look at his friend, decided Jim was holding his own and ducked back inside the loft. Seconds later he was back at the Sentinel's side, rubbing and patting his partner's back with one hand, clutching a bottle of water and tissues in the other. In full hover mode, Blair murmured a continuous stream of reassuring words which shifted to anxious questions when the older man's breathing started to even out.
"Are you with me, Jim? Are you all right?"
Ellison grabbed one of the tissues, swiped at his still tearing eyes and nodded.
"Good. Because I want you to be fully conscious when I throttle you to within an inch of your life!" The frosty blue glare Jim shot him was no match for the inferno burning in Blair's as concern crescendoed to rage in the blink of an eye. The grad student stood toe-to-toe with the ex-ranger, prepared to give him the dressing down of his life. "You promised me, Jim! You promised you'd listen. You swore you wouldn't go too deep."
"You stopped breathing!" Blair hissed.
"How " Ellison coughed and cleared his throat, "How long?"
"Too long," Blair spat back. The terror he had felt when he hadn't been able to get a response out of his Sentinel returned, threatening to buckle his knees. He pushed it aside, ran his fingers through his hair in agitated exasperation and started to pace a tight circle in the confined space. "You were doing fine until you got fixated on that damn mirror." He turned and glared at Jim. "You stopped breathing. I could barely find a pulse." Blair shuddered and shook his head. "And then things got really freaky. You started talking to someone named Charlie. Said something about saving his life. I thought maybe you were channeling the dead, man. It was your voice, but different... younger. You sounded like a kid."
Physical and mental gears seized and pulled Blair to an abrupt stop. He blinked. "What?"
Jim opened the bottle of water and took a sip before answering. "The nightmare's the result of something that happened when I was nine years' old."
Blair blinked again, tried to process what he had just heard, failed. He took an unsteady step backward, collided with the edge of one of the deck chairs and dropped heavily onto the seat. "You mean it worked?" he squeaked.
"Not quite the way we expected," Jim acknowledged ruefully, "but I've got a lot to report." He glanced through the open door to the hazy loft and then back at Blair. "I'd volunteer to fetch one of your notebooks, but I think I'd prefer to let the air clear a bit first."
Blair's gaze shifted briefly to the sodden lump of sage sitting in the flower pot. "You can't say I didn't warn you, Jim," he retorted, rapidly regaining his composure.
Ellison snorted softly and pulled a second chair closer to Blair's. When he sat down, their knees were almost touching. The younger man found their close proximity immensely comforting. He listened intently as Jim recounted his experience, determined to hold his questions until the older man finished, despite his growing excitement.
"All hell broke loose when I heard that scream," Ellison admitted. "I found myself staring into the mirror. I could have sworn I saw something... beneath the surface... An old woman's face... a gnarled hand clutching a sliver of something bright..." Jim frowned and shook his head. "I know I heard footsteps. Then there was a screech and the whole room exploded in white light. I keeled over."
"Sensory spike?" Blair asked softly.
Jim paused as if considering the suggestion and finally nodded. "Could have been."
"What happened next?"
The Sentinel shrugged and sat back in his chair. "I woke up with a nose full of sage smoke."
Blair rolled his eyes and swatted his partner's leg. "Not now. Then. When you were nine."
Jim's gaze grew softer, distant. "The rest of the memory is a little vague on details, but I remember the highlights... if you want to call them that. When I opened my eyes, Charlie's dad was hovering over me, asking if I was all right. Apparently there was some kind of vent from the cellar to the first floor. He smelled smoke and came down to check it out."
"So they were his footsteps you heard," Blair murmured. "When he opened the door, he flooded the cellar with light. I'll bet the screech you heard were the hinges binding."
"You're three-for-three, Chief. Want to go for the bonus points and tell me whose scream I heard?"
Blair answered immediately. "Most likely Charlie, adding a little dramatic flair to his story."
"I knew there was a good reason I let you keep dogging my heels, Chief," Jim grinned.
Blair waved off the compliment. "You tossed me an easy one. If you ask me though, the scream was kind of overkill. The tale of 'Bloody Mary' is frightening enough without the sound effects thrown in."
"Bloody Mary. That's the ghost story Charlie was telling. It's a folktale about a wrinkled old crone who lives in the mirror. Any mirror. I can't remember the tale's exact origins, but it's pretty sinister. I suspect it was invented by some cranky parent to keep wandering children in their beds at night. Bloody Mary is supposed to be harmless during the day, but in the dead of night, she can reach out of the mirror. She's armed with a sharp pointed knife or needledepends on which version of the story you subscribe to, I guess. She stabs the unsuspecting and drags them back into the world behind the mirror, never to be seen again."
The images from Blair's own nightmare once again made an abrupt appearance in his head. He felt his face grow hot as his heart thudded against his ribcage. It was hard to ignore the similarities between his own dream and the ghost story, and between the ghost story and...
"They're the same," he gasped abruptly. Blair looked up to meet his partner's surprised gaze. "The images in your nightmare... they match almost exactly with what you thought you saw in the mirror that afternoon. The nightmare within the nightmare... Bloody Mary."
Jim scowled. "Sandburg, are you trying to tell me my senses are out of whack because of some ghost story I heard when I was a kid?"
"You didn't just hear it, Jim. You experienced it!"
Ellison muttered a curse and shot to his feet. The abrupt movement sent his deck chair skittering backward several feet. He ignored it, whirling toward the open balcony door. Blair shoved himself out of his own chair and grabbed his partner's arm, preventing the older man's retreat.
"Stomping out of here all pissed-off at yourself isn't going to solve anything, Jim. Do you think you're the only one to ever have a childhood memory show up out of nowhere and bite them on the ass?"
Ellison's jaw muscles spasmed, and his eyes flashed fire as he glared at the hand on his arm, but he didn't try to shake it off. Blair took advantage of the opening.
"Look Jim, memory is a complicated process which involves the storage and retrieval of information. Sensory information. The vividness of a memory is based on the amount of detail which is perceived and accumulated during an experience. A person with average senses can identify and store the detail necessary to call up an accurate memory of the sound of a violin, the taste of an apple or the color of a sunset. You're blessed with enhanced senses. Your awareness of every aspect of your environment is greater than anyone else's. Your senses were on-line that day "
"They were out of control, Chief. I was out of control."
"You didn't start experiencing problems until you started drinking the beer," Blair countered. "You saw the candles in the darkened cellar when no one else could. You monitored the sound of the rain and heard Charlie's dad working upstairs. You drank practically a full bottle of beer in a short period of timeprobably on a pretty empty stomach since you'd been running around playing soldier all day. In addition to affecting your motor reflexes and giving you a nice 'buzz', the alcohol adversely affected your innate sensory control. But it didn't turn your senses off. They were still receiving input and your brain was still cataloging it. You heard every word, every nuance of Charlie's story, even if you weren't consciously aware of it. You also picked up on the reactions of the other boys. When they freaked, you freaked."
"Over nothing," the detective argued.
Blair shook his head emphatically. "The monster under the bed might be imaginary, Jim, but the fear that it's going to grab you sometime during the night is very real. It didn't matter then that it was Charlie's dad who burst in instead of Bloody Mary and it doesn't matter now. You thought it was her. Your mind associated the fear you felt with the visual descriptions Charlie used to describe her, and it automatically connected the sounds and smells you were being bombarded with to the memory.
"There was a lot going down in the cellar that day, Jim. The five of you were treading the line between childhood and manhood. You were testing each other. Daring each other. Drinking Charlie's dad's beer on the sly, even though you knew there would be hell to pay if you got caught, lent a sense of reckless excitement to the situation. Given the setting and the whole male-bonding, passage ritual thing you guys had going, it's no wonder the dramatic conclusion to the days events left such an impression. I'd bet that even if Charlie hadn't been telling the story about Bloody Mary, you would have been scared shitless by his father's abrupt arrival."
Ellison stood silent, considering his friend's words. He still felt foolish. And angry. He'd gotten thrown off stride by a simple childhood memory. Sideswiped by another incident he'd repressed. How many more ticking time-bombs from his past were hidden in the dark, waiting to explode at the least opportune moment?
He felt the subtle change of pressure as Blair's fingers tightened on his arm; the gesture reassuring and demanding at the same time. Waves of strength, resilience and pure stubbornness emanated from his Guide. Blair pled his case with an empathic touch and an intense gazemute arguments which were just as powerful as his words. His partner wanted him to accept what had happened and move on. What Ellison perceived as weakness, Sandburg saw as a normal, completely understandable human reaction. Where Jim expected to find ridicule and scorn, he found compassion and genuine concern.
The expression in the dark blue eyes also suggested that Jim was not going anywhere until he embraced Blair's point of view. Ellison had no desire to butt heads with the immovable wall which Sandburg could become once he took a stand. Especially when there was no reason to do so. Shaman and Guide abilities aside, Blair was a student of humanity. He understood people, but, more importantly, he understood James Ellison.
Jim quit stonewalling. Warmth born of friendship, respect and trust flowed from Guide to Sentinel, easing the tension which had knotted Jim's muscles, wiping away the self-doubt which had clouded his mind. He felt an immense weight lift from his shoulders as the last remnants of humiliation and anger were swept away.
"You're probably right," he acknowledged, finally breaking his silence. Ellison glanced out over the city for a few moments. When he turned back to look at Blair, a wry smile lifted the corner of his mouth. "So, what you're saying, Chief, is that this is another one of my classic 'fear-based' reactions."
"'Classic' being the operative word, Jim," Blair quickly assured him, releasing his hold on the Sentinel's arm. "Bottom line is, you had a hell of a scare as a kid. You've run into something as an adult which has triggered the memory of the event and the negative associations tied to it. Everyone faces something like this at one point or another. The fallout is just affecting you a little differently "
"Because I'm a Sentinel."
"And because nothing with you is ever simple, Jim." Blair grinned as Ellison glared at him. "Hey, it's the truth, man. I just call 'em as I see 'em."
"Then take another look in your crystal ball, Swami. Do you see me having this nightmare again any time soon? Or any more episodes?"
"I'm afraid neither one of us is going to be free of bad dreams until this case is over," Blair responded softly. "But unless you're planning to change careers and become an accountant, they kind of go with the territory." The weak attempt at humor fell flat.
"That doesn't answer my question, Chief."
"Knowledge is power, man," Blair answered solemnly. "It illuminates the dark... lets you see what's really there. If Bloody Mary does raise her ugly head again, you and your senses will be ready for herand for whatever emotional baggage she's packing."
Blair suddenly yawned hugely and shot Jim an apologetic grin. "Sorry man. Guess I could use another cup of coffee." He glanced into the loft, made a show of sniffing the air and then looked at Jim. "Is it safe to enter the temple?"
Ellison chuckled at the 'innocent' expression on the anthropologist's face. "Just don't defile it again, Sandburg," he growled in mock annoyance. He stepped inside and headed toward the kitchen, the younger man trailing in his wake.
"Just out of curiosity, what happened when your father found out what you'd been up to that afternoon?" The concern in his Guide's voice was evident.
"Nothing," Jim replied. He poured two fresh cups of coffee and handed one to Blair. "Mr. Evans never reported the incident to any of our parents. Guess he figured the scare he'd given us had taught us a lesson. Once he was sure I was okay, he fixed all of us with a glare some of my old drill sergeants would have given their eye-teeth to possess, and verbally reamed us up one side and down the other. We were a pretty sorry sight before he started and by the time he was done."
Jim paused and shook his head sheepishly. "Before he sent us home, he strongly suggested that since we all obviously had extra time on our hands, we report to him each morning for the next two weeks. He promised to find something to 'keep us busy'. Which, he did. The renovations on Charlie's grandmother's house were finished in record time."
"Is that where you picked up your carpentry skills?"
"A good portion of them."
"You guys were lucky," Blair pointed out.
"Yeah, we were," Jim acknowledged. "Charlie's father was a great guy. A lot like Bud. Tough, but willing to cut you some slack if he thought you were trying to do your best. Unfortunately, that summer the job market for carpenters grew tight and he had to look elsewhere for work. The whole family moved to Texas a few months after school started. Charlie and I kept in touch for a while, but neither of us were great letter writers." A hint of sadness dulled the Sentinel's eyes. "I looked them up after I got back from Peru. Mr. Evans died in a car accident while I was stranded there."
"And Charlie?" Blair asked quietly.
"He's living in LA. Ended up as an accountant." Jim's suddenly grinned and his eyes glittered with amusement. "Last time I talked to him he was grousing about what a handful his nine year-old son had become."
"Like father, like son, huh?"
The shrill trilling of the telephone sobered both men immediately. Jim saw the lightning-like flicker of dread in his partner's eyes before the younger man looked away. The Sentinel's own expression was grim as he answered the call.
//"Jim, it's Simon..."//
The detective listened intently to his captain's terse report. The search warrant for Chambers' trailer had been approved and while there had been two homicides during the night, neither matched the serial killer's M.O. Their prime suspect was still at large. Jim glanced over at his partner, eager to let him know that the good news outweighed the bad. The Sentinel's eyes narrowed in concern and automatically tuned out Simon's voice, targeting his enhanced senses on his Guide.
The younger man was leaning against the kitchen counter, staring down into his coffee cup as if it held the answers to the universe. Yet Jim realized that what appeared to be focused concentration was actually utter weariness. The eager enthusiasm and determination which had animated Blair a few minutes earlier was gone. It was as if someone had flipped a switch, cutting the anthropologist off from his normally boundless energy supply. Blair seemed lost in a world of his own, completely unaware of Jim's scrutiny. Stringy strands of curls hid the expressive beard-stubbled face and eyes. The white-knuckled grip on the mug, the slumped shoulders, and the heavy pounding of a heart as it valiantly pumped blood to the younger man's trembling extremities spoke of mental and physical exhaustion. Ellison berated himself for not seeing the obvious signs sooner.
//"Jim? You still with me?"//
The detective responded to the mixture of annoyance and concern in his captain's voice with a brusque, "Yes, sir." He took a quick look at his watch. "I'll be there in about thirty minutes."
Jim hung up the phone and stepped further into the kitchen, placing his half-filled cup of coffee next to the sink before he turned to face his partner. "The papers are ready, Chief," he said quietly.
Blair slowly raised his head. His eyes were dull, his expression confused. "Papers?"
"The search warrant," Ellison explained patiently. "Judge Reynolds approved it."
"Oh. Yeah." Blair gave his head a quick shake as if to clear it, then nodded. "Just give me a couple minutes to shave and change and I'll be good to go." Blair pushed himself away from the counter, almost dropping the coffee cup in the process.
Jim plucked the mug from his partner's hands and set it next to his own. "The only place you're going, is to bed," he said firmly.
"No way, man," Blair responded with a defiant lift of his chin.
"Sandburg, you're practically asleep on your feet," Jim countered, grabbing Blair's arm to keep him from edging past.
"I'm fine," Blair retorted, the deep shadows under his eyes and his pale, lined face putting the lie to his words. "The caffeine's just taking a little longer than usual to kick in. I'll grab a few 'z's' in the truck, if I need to."
"You've done more than your fair share on this case already, Chief. I can take it from here."
"I told you I was going to stick with you "
"Until we figured out what was going on with my senses," Jim interjected. "Which we just did."
"Yeah, but "
"I'm not pulling you off the investigation, Blair. I just want you to take a couple of hours of downtime while there's a lull in the action. I'll swing by and pick up the search warrant, then head down to the carnival grounds. I'm not really expecting to find much of anything in Chambers' trailer, but if I do, I'll give you a call. You can meet me down there."
Blair looked like he was going to object again, but his expression abruptly changed from irritated to puzzled. "What do you mean you don't expect to find anything?"
"The killer we're after is too smart to leave anything incriminating lying around. If Chambers is our man, he would have had ample time to dispose of any evidence last night before he pulled his disappearing act."
Blair's eyes widened in surprise. "If? Are you saying you don't think Chambers is the murderer?"
Jim hesitated, trying to find the words to explain the feeling that they were chasing the wrong man. The evidence all seemed to point to Chambers, yet the Sentinel was still bothered by his partner's odd reaction to Arnie Klerk.
"Let's just say I'm glad Simon didn't pull the surveillance on the other suspects last night," he said finally. "Until we get the results of that background check you requested, I'm not willing to cross Klerk's name off the list."
Seeing Blair tense at the mere mention of the old man's name, Jim silently vowed that his first order of business after searching Chambers' trailer was going to be a 'face-to-face' with the funhouse owner. It was time to meet the man who had rattled his partner so badly.
Blair peered anxiously over the balcony railing, watching intently as Jim eased the blue and white Ford into the last remnants of morning rush-hour traffic. Despite the breakthrough they'd made, he was worried about his friend and desperately wished he'd been able to change his partner's mind about heading out alone. But Ellison had been adamant and Blair had finally acquiescedafter extracting a promise from the Sentinel that he wouldn't push himself or his abilities too hard.
"Not that he'll necessarily keep it if things get 'interesting', but it was good to hear him say it," the tired Guide grumbled as he strained to follow the pickup's progress down Prospect. "He thinks he's fine now. He's sure we've solved the problem with his senses. The 'fix' is in." Blair wished he was as confident. It seemed like they were on the right track, but like always he was charting a course through deadly terrain without a map, his only compass the dictates of his heart and instincts. If he was wrong about what was causing the freakout episodes, the consequences could be disastrous.
Especially now that Jim's out there on his own.
His gaze flickered to the Volvo, parked below. He had his own wheels. He could follow Jimfrom a distance, of course. The anthropologist quickly rejected the idea. The potential fallout wasn't worth the risk. Still, he couldn't help wishing he was at his partner's side. Having spent most of the last 48 hours as Jim's personal shadow, it felt decidedly odd to suddenly be separated. Odd and dangerous. "Be careful, man," he whispered as the truck disappeared from view.
Chiding himself for hoveringafter all, Jim had been taking care of himself for years before Blair arrived on the scenehe turned and slipped into the loft, locking the door behind him. He paused, giving the silent loft a bleary-eyed scan. The atmosphere lacked the strange tension of the night before, but the empty silence was almost as unnerving.
He scrubbed his face, barely stifling another yawn. Jim had been right about one thinghe was wiped. Fatigue was skewing his perceptions and playing havoc with his already frazzled nerves. A few hours of sleep would improve his outlook immensely.
After I take care of one small detail.
Jim's hesitant admission that he wasn't certain Chambers was the killer had fueled Blair's resolve to put his enforced downtime to good use. If the search of the carnie's trailer did come up dry, the observer wanted to be ready with a new lead for his partner.
Blair took a deep breath and headed toward the phone. He punched in the station's number and in short order was on the line with Rhonda, asking her to forward any new information which had come in to his university email account. After setting up his laptop on the coffee table, he stumbled to the bathroom. The promised files were waiting in his mailbox when he emerged fifteen minutes later, toweling his wet hair and wiping the last dabs of shaving creme from his face. He glanced at the screen and groaned. There were only six messages, but the attachments were huge. He marked them all to download and detoured to his bedroom. When he plopped down on the couch wearing a relatively clean pair of jeans and his favorite a burgundy flannel shirt, the transfer was still in progress.
He sagged against the back of the couch, struggling to stay awake despite the growing sense of uneasiness which was twisting his stomach into knots. The shower had cleansed the sweat and stink of fear from his skin, but his mind was still fogged; his thoughts and emotions dark and muddied. Staging a private rebellion of their own, his eyes drifted shut. He forced them open and knew exactly how Dorothy had felt when she realized she wasn't in Kansas anymore.
Wherever he was, it certainly didn't feel like home.
Nor look like it.
Not that he could actually see anything at the moment, because wherever he was, it was dark.
A sensory wasteland comprised of nothingness.
Even the laws of physics seemed to have taken a holiday. There was nothing but empty blackness beneath his feet. His head told him that he should be fallingplummeting downwardbut there was no sense of motion. No gut-twisting feeling of vertigo either, for which he was grateful. He rocked back on his heels, warily testing the unseen surface beneath his feet. No change. He widened his stance a bit, but decided not to press his luck any further. All evidence to the contrary, he was standing 'on' something. What that 'something' consisted of, and whether it would hold his weight if he went charging further into the dark were still unknowns.
He turned his head cautiously to the left and then to the right. For good measure he took a quick peek behind him. The view was the same on all sides. A black void.
He closed his eyes and took a deep centering breath before opening them again. Nothing had changed. He frowned, perversely irritated. If this was a dream, the lack of details proved his subconscious had a pretty poor imagination. If it was a vision, it was less than illuminating. In either case, he needed more to work with.
"Okay," he muttered impatiently. "Let's get this show on the "
Blair's words died in his throat as a full-length mirror materialized directly in front of him.
He eyed the reflective panel suspiciously. The mirror hovered in midair without any visible means of support. The silvered surface was smooth and unblemished, his reflection clear and sharply defined against a jet black background.
Remembering his last run-in with a similar device, Blair decided to avoid a head-on confrontation. He leaned to the left, craning his neck to peer around the edge of the mirror. Another glittering pane stood behind it. And another behind that. Cautiously testing each inch of the darkness before fully committing himself, he slid his feet across the invisible 'floor' until he stood beside the first mirror. What he saw from his new position confused him. The first three panels were only the beginning of a long line of mirrors. An army of reflective rectangles, each positioned roughly two feet directly behind the other, marched into the distance.
Leading where? he wondered.
He took a hesitant step forward and then another. When he was abreast of the fifth mirror he paused, glancing nervously over his right shoulder. For a moment, he had been certain he was being watched, but there was no one there. Nothing had emerged from the mirrors to sneak up on him. He forced himself to ignore the itchy tension between his shoulder blades, took a deep breath and another step.
His pace increased with each mirror that he passed. Tentative shuffles became long strides and then a slow jog. The mirrored column continued to outpace him, stretching endlessly onward. Driven by an urgency that he didn't understand, he broke into a full run. His path curved to the right and suddenly there were mirrors on both sides. He blasted full-throttle down the tight corridor they formed, spiraling deeper and deeper, drawncompelledtoward the core. He needed to reach the center. That's where he'd find the answers he sought. That's where he would find
The image of a bloodied, mutilated body suddenly slammed into his mind. Blair stumbled and lurched sideways. He fought to regain his balance, but his momentum carried him into the row of mirrors on his right. Pain tore through his side as he collided with their knife-sharp edges. His grunting gasp was lost amidst the ear-splitting sound of shattering glass and a keening wailthe echoes of which followed him as gravity abruptly reasserted itself and he fell, dropping like a stone into the darkness.
Randy Packard was busy directing the activities of a youthful cleanup crew as Jim climbed out of his truck at the waterfront grounds. When the carnival owner caught sight of the detective, he ushered the children off to their duties and gestured for Ellison to join him.
"No sign of Calvin yet this morning," Packard announced, confirming the report the detective had already received from the uniformed cops running surveillance from the waterfront's upper parking lot. The carnie eyed the folded papers Jim pulled from his jacket pocket. "I assume you're here to check out his trailer."
Ellison nodded and extended the warrant to the carnival owner. Packard frowned and accepted the document, but didn't bother to read it. He simply turned and led the detective to a small red and white trailer parked at the edge of the lot. His expression was skeptical as he handed Jim a small, gold-colored key to unlock the door.
"I know his dropping out of sight looks suspicious, detective, but I'm still not convinced Calvin's the man you're after." Jim remained silent. He had his own doubts about Chamber's guilt, but they conflicted with the news Simon had delivered less than fifteen minutes earlier. Banks' phone call had reached him as he was leaving Judge Reynolds' chambers with the search warrant. There had been another murder. A young woman. Killed the same way as the other victims. Chambers was the only suspect whose presence was unaccounted for. If he does resurface, he'd better have a hell of an alibi, Ellison thought grimly.
Unaware of the dark thoughts running through the detective's mind, Packard glared at Jim, muttered a reminder that Ellison had promised to keep him updated on the investigation and turned away, leaving the detective to his search. Cautiously dialing up his sense of smell, the Sentinel unlocked the trailer door and pulled it open. The air which wafted outward was stale, scented with cheap cologne and the rank smell of cigarette smoke. There was no trace of the odd odor he'd found on the bodies of the victims and no telltale reek of blood.
Ellison climbed the trailer's narrow metal steps and paused just inside the threshold, scanning the shadowy interior once before flipping on the lights. He frowned as he prowled through the cramped living space. Chambers lived simply, his quarters nearly as spartan as Jim's loft had been before Sandburg and his eclectic stream of clutter had taken over. There was an empty coffee mug upended in the sink of the galley-style kitchen, but no other signs that the occupant spent muchif anytime using the cramped cooking facilities. The narrow built-in bunk was pulled down and the covers thrown back in disarray. The Sentinel found no residual warmth lingering on the pillow or the balled sheets. The tiny bathroom showed signs of age, but outside of the beard stubble in the sink and the lime buildup in the toilet bowl, it was nearly as clean as the one in the loft. Jeans, t-shirts, several jackets and a pair of heavy boots filled the single closet.
Jim quickly checked the contents of the built-in cabinets which lined the walls. He found nothing out of the ordinary, very little in the way of personal belongings, and no weapons of any kind.
Prudence and a significant body of evidence dictated that they consider Chambers their number one suspect, but Jim was growing more certain the ex-Seal had nothing to do with the murders. He'd been a cop long enough to know that appearances could be deceiving. Chambers might have rabbited because he was guilty, or, as his partner had speculated, he might simply have been thumbing his nose at them. Personally, Jim thought the latter option was more likely. He had known men like Chambers in the service. They got off on making their competition look bad. They loved playing games. Except when it came to killing. That was business. They generally didn't resort to a lot of ritual hocus pocus when it came down to getting the job done, either.
Ellison took one last look around the interior before exiting the trailer, locking the door behind him. Packard was nowhere in sight, so he pocketed the key. He hesitated and glanced at his watch, debating whether to call his partner and bring him up to speed. Blair has enough nightmare material to work with as it is, he decided. The newest crime scene was being held secure until their arrival. After he concluded his business here, he'd swing by the loft to check on his partner. If Sandburg was up to it, they'd head out together and Jim could fill him in on the way. Satisfied with that rationalization, Ellison strode toward the main entrance to the carnival grounds. The funhouse was his next destination, an overdue meeting with Arnie Klerk the next thing on his agenda.
A group of laughing children toting bulging black plastic garbage bags passed him as he threaded his way between the silent food and game booths. An older youth, sporting a cast on his wrist, trailed behind them pushing a small two-wheeled dumpster filled with more trash. That must be the kid Sandburg talked to... Kevin... Jim realized. He made a mental note to talk to the boy before he left the grounds. The teen might have some interesting insights to offer on both of their suspects.
As the funhouse came into view, Ellison's thoughts focused on what he knew about 'Uncle Arnie'. Klerk appeared to be a harmless old man who had chosen to live the carnie life instead of sitting out his retirement in an old age home. However the slowly accumulating facts were beginning to suggest that there was more to the old man than met the eye. There was no mention of it in the information Packard had given them, but Klerk obviously had some medical training if he'd been playing doctor for the carnies. Setting broken bones wasn't like slapping on a bandaid. It required appropriate supplies and the training in how to use them.
And then there was the whole issue of how he had purchased the funhouse. Ellison was as eager as Sandburg to know why Klerk paid cash instead of using a certified check or bank draft. It was as though the old man didn't want anyone to know where the money came from.
Why? What's he trying to hide? Jim wondered. He stopped at the base of the steps which led to the funhouse entrance and eyed the dark tunnel suspiciously. It suddenly occurred to him that Klerk might be trying to hide something besides the money trail. Klerk's joint operating agreement with Packard gives him ownership of the building. That makes it his private little haunt. His own little world. He's got his own trailer, but he often spends the night in the funhouselike he did last nightsupposedly working on the attraction. But what if he's doing more than adjusting a few mirrors?
Sentinel senses dialed up to the max, he jogged to the near end of the building and started a careful circuit around the exterior, looking for another way in.
Blair's headlong freefall ended up an abruptand painfulthud as he rolled off the couch and onto the hardwood floor. He groaned and waited for the room to stop spinning before he sat up, warily examining his right side. There were no tears in the flannel shirt. No blood. Yet he could still 'feel' the sharp edges of the mirrors sinking into his skin. He shuddered and decided his subconscious had a good imagination after all. Too good. It had felt so real...
"That was NOT a fun trip," he muttered as he clambered shakily to his feet. He closed his eyes, felt the room tilt dangerously and immediately blinked them open. He still felt wasted, but the fear that any attempt at sleep would drop him back inside the mirror-filled nightmare kept him from sinking down on the couch.
He bent over to check his laptop instead. The files Rhonda had sent had downloaded successfully and there was a new message in his mailbox from Patrick. It was short and to the point. "Get your butt off-line. I need to talk to you."
Blair frowned and glanced at the clock, eyes widening in surprise. He had inadvertently tied up the phone line for nearly an hour. Patrick had been trying to reach him. What other calls had he missed? Jim's? Cursing himself roundly in one of the more colorful dialects he had learned in his travels, Blair logged off the Net. The phone rang and he lunged for it.
//"Wrong guess, Blair."//
Blair shook his head at the sardonic tone in the other grad student's voice. "Sorry, Patrick. I must have dozed off while I was downloading some files from the station. The last couple nights have been kind of light in the sleep department."
//"I figured as much, based on the time-coding on that email you sent me. At least it sounds like you made some progress. I agree with your conclusions, by the way."//
"Thanks," Blair admitted. "But I'm still a long way from putting all the pieces together and we're running out of time."
//"Has there been another murder?"//
"Not that I know of, but one of our suspects dropped out of sight last night, so it's distinctly possible."
Blair could empathize with the horror Patrick was obviously feeling. Giving the other grad student a moment to regroup, he snatched his glasses off the kitchen table and shuffled back to the couch. Cradling the phone against his shoulder, he sat down in front of his laptop and tapped away at the keyboard. Pulling up the first of the files Rhonda had sentArnie Klerk's 1996 income tax returnhe scanned it as Patrick began speaking again.
//"I managed to dig up some additional information on Dr. Marjorie Stahl. Pretty accomplished lady. I've got a copy of her obituary and her vitae. What do you want first?"//
"Give me the highlights from the obituary."
//"Dr. Marjorie Stahl... born Marjorie Ricks... age 68... died January 19, 1998, from injuries sustained in a car accident... Respected physician, researcher, educator... a pioneer in the field of alternative medicine..."//
Blair tuned out his friend for a moment as he studied the tax return. There were sizable amounts listed for earned and investment income. Whatever Klerk had been doing three years earlier had been more profitable than his current venture. He paged forward in the file, looking for copies of Klerk's W2 forms.
//"... survived by her husband "//
"Whoa, back up," Blair ordered, his attention caught by Patrick's words. "She was married?"
//"Yeah. For forty years. To a thoracic surgeon. Apparently they were childhood sweethearts. Married right out of high school. She credited him in several articles for his support and for his efforts in getting her research accepted by the conservative medical community."//
On impulse, Blair zoomed up to the top of Klerk's tax form and checked the filing status box. "Married," he murmured in surprise. "The other reports listed him as single..."
//"Listed who as single?"//
"One of our suspects," Blair muttered, barely realizing he had answered. He was busy hammering at the down arrow on his keyboard. He really needed to see those W2 forms.
Blair froze and shifted the phone back to his left hand, clenching it tightly. He was certain he had never given Patrick the names of any of their suspects.
//"Blair, are you still there?"//
"Uh, yeah... You just... How did you know his name?"
//"Because it's right here in the obituary. 'Dr. Stahl is survived by her husband, Dr. Arnold Klerk.'"//
Blair blinked twice and stared at his computer screen. The income tax forms confirmed what Patrick was telling him. The anthropologist shook his head in wonder. The most he'd been hoping for was some kind of tenuous connection between the researcher and one of their suspects. He'd never dreamed he'd find this. "Husband and wife... It's a good bet that Klerk was intimately familiar with her research. Hell, he probably proofread her manuscripts. That's how he knew about the obscure rituals."
//"And probably explains why there was no funeral service held,"// Patrick added grimly.
//"The last line of the obituary states that 'per the express direction of her husband, there will be no funeral service for the deceased.'"//
Blair's eyes widened. "The second ritual... it gave the person making the sacrifice the ability to grant 'life' to someone of their choosing. You don't really think "
//"I do. As insane as it sounds, I think Klerk's trying to use the ritual to bring his soulmate of forty years back to life."//
"Wouldn't he need her body to do that?"
//"According to the ritual, yes."//
Blair sat back, stunned. "But she's been dead for almost... oh, man... the timing... The first murders started the month after she died. The same month Klerk joined the carnival and purchased the funhouse." He shook his head to clear it and then launched himself off the couch, looking around wildly for his shoes. "Patrick, I owe you," he vowed, snagging the sneakers from underneath the kitchen table and jamming his feet into them. "Big time. This is the break we needed. We still need proof to tie Klerk to the actual murders "
//"But you already have it. Remember the marks on the victims' bodies? The interlocked 'CC' shapes? Your email message said you suspected that they were the killer's initials. This proves you're right."//
Blair hesitated, confused. "But that doesn't make any sense. Klerk's initials are AK not CC. That's why we thought the killer was one of the other carnies. An ex-Seal named Calvin Chambers."
//"Is he the one that disappeared last night?"//
"Yeah. Jim's down at the grounds checking out his trailer now, looking for a lead."
//"He's after the wrong man, Blair. Klerk's following an occult ritual very precisely, right?"//
//"'CC' in the occult alphabet represents the letter 'K'."//
Blair cursed and cut the connection. Grabbing his cell phone and his keys, he bolted from the apartment. Before he reached the stairwell's second landing, he was already dialing his partner.
The Sentinel rapped softly on a painted black panel on the side of the funhouse. Unlike the other panels he had tested, this one gave off a faintly hollow sound, suggesting there was an opening behind it. Even with his enhanced senses, finding the access door hadn't been easy. It had been cleverly disguised to blend in with the rest of the facade; no exterior hinges, no knob or handle. Ellison placed the palm of his hand against the left side of the panel and pushed inward. A grim smile of satisfaction curved his lips when he heard a click and the door swung open.
He peered into a dark, narrow passageway, his vision compensating automatically for the low light conditions. The rough wooden boards of the floor were scuffed and littered with mud and clumps of dew-speckled grass. The Sentinel crouched down and studied the area outside the doorway. The grass was torn and muddied, but he could discern two sets of prints made by heavy boots; one leading to the opening and one leading away. Jim took a quick look around, noting the position of the nearest food and game booths.
The other tents and trailers obscure the view of this side of the attraction. While Brown and Rafe were watching the front entrance last night, Klerk could have slipped out and back in without being observed.
Jim turned his attention to the ground again. Within seconds he found what appeared to be narrow tire tracks. His eyes narrowed as he recalled the small wheeled dumpster the carnie kids had been using to collect the trash. Klerk could have used one to haul away the corpses. Under the cover of darkness, it wouldn't have been difficult for the old man to reach the parking lot unobserved and load his victim into a vehicle for transport.
Ellison mentally kicked himself for missing the obvious 'opportunity' they had overlooked in the course of the investigation. The lack of blood at the sites where the bodies were found had suggested that the murders had been done elsewhere. The funhouse, which only Klerk had access to, made the perfect killing ground.
In his mind's eye, Jim could see his partner and Klerk standing at the entrance, the old man innocently inviting Sandburg in for a 'tour'. If the grad student's nerves hadn't been rattled by Chambers' menacing surveillence, if his instincts hadn't kicked in...
Blair might have been the next victim. That's probably what happened to the others. Klerk lured them inside and killed them.
Klerk's 'harmless' facade was a ploy... an act as false as the distorted mirrors he hid behind. Appearances were deceiving and in this case the deception was deadly.
Ellison straightened, a low, dangerous growl vibrating in his throat. It was time to put an end to Klerk's murderous insanity. He started to reach for his gun, but before he could retrieve it from its holster, the cell phone in his jacket pocket began to vibrate. He pulled it out and answered the incoming call with a soft, "Yeah," before it rang aloud.
Ellison frowned, silently vowing that he was going to subject his partner to a few 'sixth sense' tests when the case was over. Depending on your point of view, Sandburg's timing was either impeccable or atrocious. The detective moved a few feet away from the open doorway and tried to keep his own anxiety out of his voice. "It's me, Chief. What's up?"
//"Plenty, man. Are you still at the carnival grounds?"//
//"Good. Stay put. I'm headed your way."//
Jim eyed the dark passageway into the funhouse uneasily. "You don't have to do that, Chief. Chambers' trailer checked out clean. I didn't even fill one evidence bag."
//"Well, we're gonna need a truckload of 'em for the funhouse. A body bag, toofor a two-year old corpse."//
//"Klerk's the murderer, Jim. The background check and the stuff Patrick dug up all but confirms it. I know it sounds crazy, but it looks like he's been killing people in an attempt to bring his wife back to life."//
//"His dead wife, Jim. He was married to the woman who wrote the book on those rituals."//
Ellison's jaw muscles spasmed, and his eyes took on a deadly gleam as he pulled his gun from his holster and thumbed off the safety. The connection between Klerk and Stahl wasn't enough to convict the funhouse operator of the murders, but added to the rest of the evidence, it gave the detective probable cause to go into the attraction without a warrant.
"I'm outside the funhouse, now," Jim reported tersely. "I found a second way ina side door on the end of the exhibit. Call Simon and have him organize some backup. There's a uniformed unit stationed at the waterfront's upper parking lot keeping an eye out for Chambers. They're the closest. Make sure they cover both entrances to the funhouse. I don't want Klerk slipping through our fingers if he gets by me."
//"Wait! Don't go in there alone! I'm already in my car. I'll be there in less than ten minutes."//
"I've got to act now, Chief. I'm not letting this psycho get away."
//"Jim, listen "//
Blair sounded desperate, but Jim was determined. His Guide had an uncanny ability to sense when his Sentinel was heading into something dangerous, but was clueless when it came to his own well-being. Despite Jim's best efforts to keep his partner safely on the sidelines, the observer usually ended up right along side himin the middle of whatever trouble was brewing.
It's not going to happen this time, Ellison decided firmly. Blair wasn't going to set foot in the funhouse and he wasn't getting anywhere near Klerk before the old man was in custody.
"No, you listen, Sandburg," Jim growled. "You call in the troops and stay out of the action. Now, get a hold of Simon. I'm going in."
"Damn it, Jim, you can't "
The Sentinel snapped the phone shut, decisively cutting off his Guide's heated objections. He stuffed it in his pocket, dialed up his senses, raised his gun and stepped warily into the dark passageway.
The Volvo fishtailed and sent a wave of loose gravel spewing in several directions as Blair stomped on the brakes and executed a sharp right turn into the lower parking lot of the waterfront festival park. The anthropologist clenched the wheel, corrected the skid, and floored the gas pedal. He screeched to a stop behind Jim's truck and leaped out of the car. A glance at the marked patrol car parked near the pavilion revealed that it was empty. His hope that the uniformed cops were already providing backup for his partner died when he caught sight of them near Packard's office camper. The officers were engaged in what appeared to be a heated argument with the carnival owner and a rapidly growing crowd of carnies.
Blair hesitated, shot a worried glance toward the carnival grounds, then ran toward the assembled group. Their loud voices carried clearly on the crisp morning air. The cops were claiming they'd seen Chambers sneaking onto the grounds. The carnies were belligerently challenging their assertion. Packard was trying to keep things calm, but failing miserably. Tempers were flaring on both sides and the anthropologist feared the shouted insults were a prelude to more drastic action.
Blair had no time for any of it. He elbowed his way through the crowd and lurched to a gasping stop in front of the two police officers. "What are you doing?" he demanded, fixing them with a glare. "You're supposed to be backing up my partner, not trying to start a riot."
The younger of the two officers glared back and started to grab for his nightstick. The older cop's face registered surprise and then recognition. He quickly laid a hand on his partner's arm. "Hold on, Pete. I think I know this guy" He took a step closer to Blair, studying him intently. "You're Sandburg, right? Ellison's observer?"
Blair glanced at the officer's name tag and breathed a sigh of relief. Ralph Jenkins. He'd met the man six months earlier. Jenkins had been one of the beat cops at the scene of a nasty armed robbery he and Jim had responded to off hours. Ellison's opinion of the older cop's attitude and aptitude had been extremely positive. Blair had been gratified at the officer's quick acceptance of his presence at the detective's side. "Yeah. Jim's here. He's gone into the fun house after the killer. You're supposed to be there, covering the exits to make sure he doesn't escape."
"We didn't get a call for backup," responded the younger cop, turning to his partner in confusion.
"It must have come in while we were searching the grounds," the older man murmured, his gaze fixed on Blair. "Pete thought he saw someone matching Chambers' description. We started to take a look around, but ran into some... resistance." The cop's gaze shifted to Packard.
"I told Detective Ellison I'd cooperate with his investigation," the carnival owner replied testily. "But that doesn't mean I'm going to let you run rough-shod "
"Enough!" Blair said sharply. "We don't have time for this. Jim's gone after Klerk "
"Klerk?" It was Jenkins' turn to look puzzled. "I thought Chambers was our man."
Blair shook his head adamantly. "It's Klerk. We've got proof." He caught the harsh exhale from Packard and shot the carnival owner a sympathetic glance. "I'm sorry, but it's true."
Packard stared at him for a moment, then nodded abruptly. "What can we do to help?"
"Jim said there was a side entrance to the fun house," Blair said quickly. "Is there any other way in or out besides that one and the tunnel in the front?"
"Not that I'm aware of," Packard said grimly.
"What about the layout inside?" Blair pressed. "Can you tell me anything about how the attraction's set up? Any ideas about where Klerk might be hiding in there?"
"I haven't been inside since Klerk bought the operating rights. He's run his own safety checks; done all the maintenance," Packard admitted with a rueful scowl. "I probably should have kept a closer eye on things, but the fun house has consistently been a popular attractionno complaints from the customers..."
"No reason to suspect anything was amiss."
Packard grimaced and nodded. The anthropologist scanned the faces of the carnies clustered around him, hoping someone else might have something to add, but all he saw was a lot of head shaking and anxious, puzzled expressions. The one familiar face in the crowd, Kevin's, was pale, the boy's eyes wide with dread. Blair forced a quick, reassuring smile. He didn't dare take time for more.
"Guess I'll just have to improvise," he murmured. As if that thought had conjured it into existence, he caught sight of a heavy, wide-beam flashlight tucked into the waistband of the boy's jeans. "Hey, Kevin, can I borrow that?" He gestured to the device. The teen immediately pulled it free and pressed it into his hand. Blair nodded his thanks and turned to face Packard once more. "If you really want to help, pass the word among your people to clear the area. Let the police handle the rest."
Packard glanced uncertainly at the two uniformed cops, then nodded and gathered his employees around him. His voice dropped to a bare whisper as he began issuing directions and dispersing the crowd.
"Thanks for the assist," Jenkins murmured appreciatively, stepping closer to the civilian observer. "How long before the rest of the cavalry gets here?"
"I'm not sure," Blair admitted. "I called in the request to Captain Banks about ten minutes ago."
"We'd better get a move on then." Jenkins gestured for Blair to accompany him as he turned toward the parking lot and tapped his partner on the arm. "We'll need the vests and the shotguns, Pete."
Blair intentionally fell behind as the officers hurried toward their squad car. Now that the issue of proper backup had been attended to, he was free to follow his own instinctsthe ones which were at that very moment screaming at him to find his Sentinel as soon as possible. Gripping the flashlight tightly, the determined Guide peeled off to the left and broke into a dead run. He was nearly halfway to the outer ring of gleaming carnival rides when he heard Jenkins' surprised shout.
"Hey, Sandburg! Where are you going?"
"Where do you think?" Blair yelled over his shoulder, never breaking stride.
The Sentinel slipped stealthily through the warren of corridors which comprised the working interior of the fun house, pausing occasionally to open up his sense of smell to confirm he was on the right track. The sparsely spaced low-wattage bulbs hanging from the ceiling cast enough light to alert him to the placement of connecting passageways and short flights of steps, but he kept the vision dial cranked several notches above normal to prevent himself from being overwhelmed by the stomach-twisting stench which surrounded him.
The fun house reeked of death and the odors he had come to identify with insanity.
Jim took a deep breath, wiped the beaded sweat off his forehead with back of his free hand and forced the familiar sensation of terror he associated with his nightmare to the back of his mind. He was grateful that the plywood walls were painted a flat black. If they had been mirrored like the public areas of the attraction, he would have been hard pressed to keep from losing it.
With an angry shake of his head, he moved forward, determined to find the monster who had transformed the fanciful playland into a slaughterhouse.
Blair pelted through the grounds, barely avoiding several collisions with the carnies who streamed out of the midway. He took as direct a path toward the fun house as he could manage, but the row of concession stands dividing one side of the grounds from the other created an almost impenetrable barrier. He eyed the gaps between the tightly packed booths anxiously, searching for a place to squeeze through. When he spotted a space which looked wide enough, he practically dove through it.
He fell forward, sprawling face first on the ground. The impact drove the breath from his lungs, but he managed to hold onto the flashlight. Black and white spots danced in his vision as he struggled to push himself to his knees. A none-too-gentle shove from a booted foot sent him tumbling again. Dazed, he looked up into Calvin Chambers' sneering face.
"You should learn to watch where you're going, punk," the carnie hissed.
A surge of anger propelled Blair to his feet, hefting the heavy flashlight like a club.
Unimpressed, the ex-Seal crossed his arms over his chest and leaned casually against the side of the game booth he'd been hiding behind. "Tough guy, huh?" Chambers observed sarcastically.
"When I need to be," Blair answered coldly, lowering his make-shift weapon. "What the hell was that for?"
"Just a little payback for the trouble you and your hard-ass partner have caused me."
"You're wrong. We haven't "
Chambers was suddenly in Blair's face, his snide grin replaced by an angry snarl. "I come back from a fairly profitable night spent fleecing some of your local cardsharps, to find that the cops are lookin' to haul me in. Last pig I talked to was your partner and as you'll recall, he and I didn't hit it off too well. I figure he got pissed off because I came down on his boy-toy and decided to get even by framing me for some murder rap."
"No one's trying to frame you for anything," Blair retorted, standing his ground. "If you hadn't pulled a disappearing act last night, the worst that would have happened was that Jim would've hauled you downtown for questioning." The observer shook his head sadly. "Any trouble you've got, you caused yourself, man. You're your own worst enemy."
Chambers' eyes narrowed dangerously. "Yeah, right. That's the same thing the shrink said right before they booted me out of the service. It's pretty funny, considering that for the eight years I was serving my country, I was the other side's worst enemy." The ex-Seal shook his head in disgust and for a moment, the bitterness in his eyes was replaced with an expression of painful betrayal. "The Navy trained me to be the best. The elite of the elite. They don't care if you're an arrogant ass-hole as long as you follow orders, but start questioning things and WHAM... they slap a 'psycho' label on your forehead and dump you in the gutter with the trash."
Blair stared at the man in open-mouthed surprise, suddenly seeing him in a whole new light. Chambers scowled at the anthropologist and gave him a shove backward. "Ah, why am wasting my breath? You wouldn't understand."
He started to turn away, but Blair reached out and grabbed the carnie by the arm, stopping him. "You're right. I don't have the background to understand what you've been through, but Jim does. He's been through some serious shit with the military himself."
Chambers' shook off Blair's hold. "Mister Clean-cut? Mr. All American Hero? His kind's got boot-licking down to an art. They never question authority. They just follow orders like sheep."
If the situation hadn't been so desperate, Blair would have laughed. "After three-plus years as Jim Ellison's partner, I can definitely assure you that he's not a 'follow the crowd' kind of guy," he replied firmly. "In fact he has a disturbing propensity to dive into trouble without waiting for backup."
Like he's doing now. With a start, Blair realized he was wasting time his partner might not have. He took a good look at the ex-Seal and made a quick decision. It would be better to have the man in his corner, instead of at his throat.
"Instead of blaming everyone for the raw deal you got, why don't you try proving they were wrong?" Chambers' black glare intensified, but Blair didn't let it deter him. "That story we fed you last night about the missing kid was a smoke-screen. We're tracking a murderer. We've got proof it's Arnie Klerk. Jim didn't want to take the chance that Klerk might escape, so he went in after him."
"So? He's a cop. That's his job."
"And he's damn good at it, but Klerk's particular brand of insanity makes him unpredictable. Dangerous. I'm going in to back up my partner. If you really are the 'best of the best', I could use your help."
For an instant, Chambers' eyes glimmered eagerly in response to the challenge Blair had thrown out, but the light died abruptly as if dark shutters had slammed into place. "I'm not puttin' my neck on the line for some pig," he sneered. "He's your 'partner'; your problem. Not mine."
Chambers' spun around and stalked away. Berating himself for wasting precious time on a lost cause, Blair sprinted toward the fun house.
The rank sensory trail led the Sentinel to a short dead end corridor on the second floor. Jim eyed the innocuous black walls suspiciously and took a cautious sniff. The odor was stronger to his right.
A hidden room?
He stepped closer and rapped his knuckles lightly against the wood. The hollow echo confirmed his theory. He cranked up his hearing. There was an odd, sizzling sound which he couldn't immediately identify, but no signs of life on the other side of the wall. He holstered his gun and bought touch into play, tracing sensitive fingertips over the plywood panels. Within seconds he found what appeared to be another cleverly disguised door.
He pushed and the panel swung inward, revealing a small glowing chamber. Jim stepped inside, quickly scanning the interior. The walls were covered with the same square, mirrored tiles which decorated the exterior of the attraction. The painted black wooden floor and ceiling amplified the strange spatial distortion created by the mirrors.
The most surreal element of the room, however, was the glass coffin which rested upon a raised dais in the center of the enclosed space. Banks of lit candles surrounded it like a shrine. The flames flickered and danced, shimmering on the mirrored surfaces of the walls, stinging the Sentinel's eyes with thousands of brilliant pinpricks of light.
The scene was like something out of a fairy taleexcept that the decomposing corpse inside the glass case bore no resemblance to the mythical Sleeping Beauty.
Swallowing his revulsion, Jim approached the coffin and studied the remains of Dr. Marjorie Stahl. Whatever techniques Klerk had employed in an attempt to preserve his wife's corpse had failed. Scraps of flesh, wisps of hair, the dull gleam of a gold necklace, and the soiled shreds of a sea-green satin evening dress were the only clues to suggest that the decay ravaged skeleton had once been a living, breathing human being.
Although the coffin appeared to be sealed, a sickly sweet odor emanated from it. Mixed with the fumes from the burning scented candles and the metallic smell of blood, the stench was overpowering. Jim dialed back his sense of smell and taste and turned his attention to a further examination of the room.
Next to the base of the platform lay a folded plastic tarp. The blood trapped in the creases was still a deep red. The telltale brownish stains and splatters which the Sentinel found on the painted floor surrounding the dais painted a horrifying picture of the kind of madness which had been done there.
Recalling his partner's explanation about the ritual the killer had been conducting, Jim glanced up toward the ceiling, looking for an opening through which moonlight could enter the chamber. Directly above the coffin he found the faint lines which defined the shape of a small trap door.
Jaw spasming in anger, the detective moved to the small table which had been placed near one end of the coffin and studied the items laying on its surface. There was an ornate dagger which matched the description of the murder weapon precisely. There were also two bunches of fresh herbs. Jim crushed a leaf of each between his fingers, releasing their pungent aroma. The thyme was a familiar scenthe recognized it's distinct fragrance from one of Sandburg's early sensory tests. He couldn't identify the second herb, but he knew it was the same one he had smelled on the victim's bodies. There was also a tall glass decanter filled with a gold colored liquid. A cautious sniff revealed a hint of sesame.
He picked up the small, leather bound book which lay beside the dagger and quickly thumbed through it. As if the rest of the evidence weren't damning enough, the handwritten journal chronicled every gruesome detail of Klerk's killing spree. Sickened beyond belief, Jim tucked the book into his jacket pocket.
A discordant blast of music suddenly hammered against his eardrums and his senses abruptly flared out of control. Wincing under the unexpected sensory assault, he shook his head, trying to clear it. He looked up, blinking furiously and found himself staring at his own reflection in one of the mirrors. His breath caught in his throat. He blinked again and suddenly there was another face in the mirror. A gnarled hand. A flicker of something bright. Transfixed, he stood unmoving as the hand emerged from the silvery surface and reached toward him...
"Knowledge is power... It illuminates the dark... lets you see what's really there."
The memory of his Guide's words freed him from his nightmare-induced stasis. With a gasp the Sentinel wrenched his senses back under control and he saw what was really there. Not someone in front of him, reaching out of the mirror, but someone behind him. Jim started to turn, reaching for his gun at t he same time. Pain exploded at the base of his skull and he toppled forward onto the coffin. The box and its grisly contents slid to the floor. The sounds of breaking glass and a scream of pure rage were the last things Ellison heard before consciousness fled.
Assuming Jim had entered the fun house through the side entrance, Blair opted for the front. He charged up the narrow metal steps and slid to an abrupt stop at the mouth of the tunnel. The power to the attraction appeared to be shut downthe string of lights around the outside of the entrance were off and the interior of the passageway was dark. Blair wasn't taking any chances, though. If the Sentinel's senses were on-line, Jim would know the moment he stepped inside, but he didn't want to alert Klerk to his presence.
Stepping carefully over the pressure strip he had tripped on his first visit, Blair flicked the switch on the flashlight and aimed the beam at the floor. The distorted mirrored surface refracted the light in a hundred different directions, weakening its brilliance. He pointed the flashlight toward the end of the tunnel. The light barely penetrated the darkness. He swallowed hard, reminded himself why he was there and began his cautious journey inward.
His strategy, such as it was, was simple: find his partner and keep Klerk from getting awaypreferably in that order.
After a quick glance, he ignored the mirrors positioned along each side of the walkway. He cast only a blurred, insubstantial reflection in the tall panelsas if he weren't really there. He told himself it was merely the lack of lighta trick of the oddly contoured surfacesbut the feeling of deja vu was disturbing.
This is not a dream or a vision, he reminded himself as he edged forward. This is real.
When he reached the point where the hallway bent to the right, he found the second activation strip. He paused, studying the floor beyond it. In a narrow section of the center, the mirrored tiles had been replaced by a black, rubbery surface. It looked like a small scale version of the moving walkways at the airport. Unlike those constantly flowing people-movers, this one was inactive. He let the flashlight beam play along its length. It sloped upward at a fairly sharp angle for about fifteen feet. Something shiny stood at the end. Blair frowned and placed his foot on the grooved surface, breathing out a sigh of relief when it remained motionless. He scurried up the incline. At the top, two side-by-side mirrors blocked his path.
He refrained from touching them, sweeping the panes with the beam of the flashlight instead. The mirrors seemed to float in the darkness. Just like the mirrors from his dream. He ruthlessly squelched the memory and examined each one carefully.
No hinges, so they don't swing inward... maybe they're supposed to slide apart like elevator doors...
Blair stuffed the flashlight into the back waistband of his jeans. In the absence of the torch's feeble light the darkness seemed to take on a greater malevolence, prompting him to work quickly. Sliding his fingers into the crevice dividing the mirrors, he tried to pry them apart. There was resistance, then suddenly they slid free on their invisible tracks. He froze, staring into the darkness in front of him, waiting breathlessly to see if he had triggered anything. There was nothing but black void and absolute stillness.
His dream again.
He fumbled for the flashlight and directed the beam forward. Another hallway of mirrors lay ahead of him. Tightlipped with resolve, Blair stepped over the threshold.
The passageway erupted in a explosion of light and sound which nearly drove Blair to his knees. The flashlight dropped, forgotten, from his grasp. He gasped in pain and screwed his eyes shut as the mirror-enhanced brilliance assaulted his dilated pupils. He clapped his hands over his ears, trying to shut out the blaring organ musicaptly sounding like something out of a 1950s horror filmwhich reverberated through the hallway.
The sense of urgency he'd felt during his dream filled him and he broke into a staggering run, finally understanding the significance of his visions. A section of floor rolled and undulated beneath his feet. He skittered across it. Two short flights of stairs jolted into motion, each step zig-zagging crazily left and then right. He leapfrogged from one platform to the next. In his mad dash, he tripped other unseen triggers. Fanciful rooms filled with strobing lights, revolving barrels and bizarrely contoured mirrors sprang to life along the maze. He ignored them, continually bearing right, following the spiraling passageway.
He had to find the centerhad to find his partner before the Sentinel became the killer's next victim.
He shouted Jim's name as he ran, no longer concerned about alerting Klerk to his presence. Suddenly there was a loud crash to his right, followed by a chilling scream of rage. Blair pulled to a stop, facing a flat section of mirrors. Inspired by the memories of what had happened in his dreams, he placed both hands on the silvery surface and shoved. He fell forward as the mirrored panel pivoted on an unseen hinge and swung inward, revealing a vision from hell.
Dozens of overturned candles guttered and clogged the air of the small mirrored chamber with their foul smoke. Tongues of flame licked greedily at the floor and crawled up the strips of dry wood between the glittering tiles mounted on the walls. Blair swiped at his tearing eyes and froze, mesmerized by a deadly tableau.
Jim lay crumpled amidst the splintered wreckage of some kind of glass case. Beneath his left arm was a grinning human skull. Face contorted with rage and grief, Arnie Klerk loomed over his motionless partner.
"YOU RUINED IT! YOU RUINED EVERYTHING!" the old man shrieked.
The sight of the glittering dagger in Klerk's hands galvanized Blair to action. With an anguished cry, he launched himself at the old man. The force of his impact knocked Klerk away from Jim, but dropped Blair to his knees. Dazed, the observer's gaze blearily swept the room for some kind of weapon. A heavy wrench lay only a few feet away, but he knew that retrieving it would mean leaving Jim open to attack. In a desperate attempt to keep the killer away from his partner, Blair shoved himself to his feet again and grabbed the old man's arm. With surprising strength, Klerk wrenched free and swiped at the younger man with the knife. Blair turned, trying to avoid the thrust. The blade sliced effortlessly through Blair's flannel shirt and skittered across his ribs, carving a burning gash across his right side before sinking deeper into the tender flesh of his abdomen.
A choked scream escaped Blair's lips. His knees buckled and he sank to the floor, draped across Jim's legs. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he pressed his right arm against the wound and looked up, trying to locate his assailant. He didn't have to look far. Klerk stood over him, the knife raised high above his head. Blair started to raise a hand in supplication, but the madness he saw in the old man's eyes told him it was no use.
A groan of black despair issued from his smoke-choked throat. The truth had been hidden within his dreamsthe spirals, the mirrors. If only he'd seen it, understood it in time. He'd been blind to the import of his visions and it was going to cost him not only his life, but the life of his Sentinel as well.
Blair whispered a prayer for forgiveness and sucked in a last painful breath as the blade began to descend.
A dark shape suddenly flowed out of the smoke and flames wreathing the room. Klerk staggered backward as an arm wrapped around his throat and suddenly his head snapped sideways with a sickening crunch. The dagger clattered to the floor and the old man's lifeless body followed a second later. Wide eyed with shock, Blair looked up to meet Calvin Chambers' black, penetrating gaze. He expected to find the same madness in the ex-Seal's eyes which had filled Klerk's, but to his surprise what he saw was determination tinged with regret.
Chambers dropped to one knee in front of Blair and reached forward to check the knife wound. "How bad is it?"
Feeling his partner starting to stir beneath him, Blair swatted the carnie's hand away. "I just need a second... to catch my breath." He fought off a wave of dizziness as he shifted his weight off of Jim's legs.
"We may not have that much time." Chambers hooked an arm around Blair and hauled him to his feet. Before the startled Guide could protest, the carnie half-carried, half-pushed him out of the chamber and propped him against the mirrored wall of the outer corridor. "Stay put," he ordered.
"I'm... all right... Just get Jim... out of there," Blair gasped.
Chambers' shot him a disbelieving glare, but to Blair's relief, the ex-Seal turned and disappeared into the flaming chamber of horrors
The hallway was rapidly filling with smoke. Blair ducked his chin and pulled the collar of his shirt over his nose and mouth, but the acrid fumes seeped through the make-shift filter, triggering a coughing fit. Searing pain ripped through him and he doubled over. He crumpled against the wall and slid to a gasping heap on the cold floor.
"Come on, Army. Time to move your sorry ass."
Ellison winced away from the caustic voice and the strong fingers probing the aching lump on the back of his head. He opened his eyes to find a shadowy figure hovering over him. Awareness returned in a rush of painful sensations and confusing imagesall of which screamed 'danger'. Instinct took over and Jim came up swinging.
"Whoa! Back off! I'm here to help!"
Stunned by the outcry, the Sentinel wrenched at his sensory controls, forcing the blurred shape of his adversary into focus.
"Chambers," he rasped, rocking back on his heels in surprise.
The ex-Seal rubbed his jaw and glared at the stunned detective. "If you're done playin' Rambo, I suggest scrub this mission. This place is a tinderbox. It's gonna go up fast."
Chambers' words broke the Sentinel out of his groggy daze. Sharp eyes swept the room, assessing the situation and cataloging the damage. He dialed down taste and smell and cranked up his hearing, filtering past the crackling sound of the fire. There was no heartbeat emanating from Klerk's motionless form, but there was a familiar throbbing pulse close by.
Jim's blood ran cold. His head snapped around and he lunged for the doorway. The flashing lights and music blaring in the corridor hit him like a physical blow, but it didn't stop him from reaching his partner's side.
Dropping to one knee, he carefully pulled the observer into the shelter of his embrace. "What part of 'stay out' didn't you understand, Sandburg?" he growled, masking his concern with false annoyance.
Blair's head lolled back against Jim's shoulder. Pain-clouded blue eyes blinked and tried to focus. "Just doin'... my job..." he gasped.
Ellison shook his head in dismay, quickly evaluating the younger man's condition. It wasn't good. He snaked an arm around his partner and lifted Blair to his feet. Nudging the anthropologist's arm aside, the Sentinel tucked his Guide close to his side, pressing his own hand and upper arm against the freely bleeding wound.
He glanced up and down the corridor. The lights strobed and pulsed within the swirling smoke. Flames danced on the mirrored surfaces beneath their feet and over their heads. It was almost impossible to tell which were reflections and which were the real thing.
"Which way out?" Jim demanded, turning to Chambers.
The ex-Seal turned carnie looked around in confusion, his eyes widening in alarm. "I don't know. I came in the back way. I'm all turned around."
The Sentinel scanned the hallway again, angrily blinking away the tears blurring his burning eyes. Not even his enhanced vision could penetrate the thick blanket of smoke. He tried reaching out with his hearing, but the fire's growing screams of destruction deafened him to everything except his Guide's urgent whisper.
Ellison looked down into his partner's wide blue eyes. Blair nodded his head and made a feeble motion with his right hand, indicating they should move forward.
"Spiral... stay... to the left..."
"Got it," Jim murmured, hugging Blair tightly to his side as another coughing fit shook the younger man's body. "Just hang on, Chief."
"I'll take point," Chambers volunteered, his uncertainty vanishing as he strode briskly ahead.
The detective urged his wounded partner into motion, following in the ex-Seal's wake. The flashing lights reflecting off the mirrored walls and the rising stench threatened to overwhelm the Sentinel, but he kept his attention focused firmly on his Guide. As they wound their way toward the main entrance, fighting the suffocating effects of the noxious fumes and the attraction's dangerously playful antics, Chambers alternated between scouting ahead and darting back to the partners to check their progress. When Jim stumbled at the end of the moving ramp, the carnie latched onto both men and dragged them toward daylight.
The trio emerged from the mouth of the tunnel mere seconds before the fun house roof collapsed inward, shooting a plume of fire and sparks high into the clear morning sky. Coughing and gasping for breath, Jim felt another set of hands close on his arm, dragging him and his semi-conscious burden down the steps. He jerked away from that hold when insistent fingers pried at the arm he had wrapped around his partner.
"Come on, Army, let go," Chambers' voice hissed in his ear. "Let the medics earn their pay."
"Listen to him, Jim. Sandburg looks like he could use some help."
Ellison looked up through streaming eyes into Simon's worried face. It took several seconds for the words to penetrate the detective's exhaustion-fogged daze, but he was finally persuaded to relinquished his charge into other capable hands. He watched anxiously as the EMTs eased Blair onto a stretcher and wrapped a pressure bandage around his abdomen. The Sentinel's fears eased slightly when his Guide's dark blue eyes fluttered open. Their gazes locked for a moment as they sought to assure themselves that the other was all right. Jim dropped to one knee beside his partner, gripped the younger man's hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. Blair's gaze shifted slightly and from behind the oxygen mask the paramedics had strapped over his lower face he murmured a raspy, 'Thank you.'
Jim glanced over his shoulder. Chambers stood behind him, looming protectively over the detective and his observer. The ex-Ranger rose to his feet and the carnie backed off a step.
"I'll second that," Ellison said gruffly, extending his hand to underscore his words.
Chambers' expression morphed from suspicion to surprise. He started to reach out to take the offered handshake, then suddenly snapped to attention and delivered a crisp salute.
"Glad to be of assistance, Sir," he replied, his eyes lighting with pride.
Jim returned the salute without hesitation and glanced down at his partner who, despite his obvious pain, was grinning in delight. The Sentinel flashed his Guide a relieved smile of his own, grateful that their joint nightmares were finally over.
Jim Ellison shouldered open the door to the loft juggling his keys, a bag of Chinese carry-out, a stack of case files and an armload of books he'd picked up for Blair at the university.
"Hey, honey, I'm home," he warbled in a weak falsetto.
The annoyed grunt which floated out of the living room in response to his greeting wasn't unexpected. Five and a half days of severely restricted activity had turned his normally good-natured partner sullen and snappish.
Jim nudged the door shut with his foot and dropped his keys into the basket, surreptitiously studying his loft mate as he carried their dinner into the kitchen.
Blair sat lengthwise on the couch, a blanket draped over his legs. On the coffee table were the remains of what had apparently passed for the young man's luncha cup of tea and a half-eaten bagel. Piles of books, dog-eared anthropology journals, papers and blue exam booklets were stacked within arm's reach. The remote control for the television perched on top of the tallest stack of eclectic clutter.
It was a familiar scene, yet there were clear signs that things weren't quite back to normal. Blair's hair was limp and stringy, hanging in lank waves around his face. In order to keep the dressings on his wound dry, he had been forced to take sponge baths instead of showers and the gymnastics required to attempt washing his hair in the sink or tub were still beyond him. The glasses which he shoved impatiently up on his nose were his backup pair. The new wire rim's which had been ordered to replace the ones he had lost at some point during the confrontation with Arnie Klerk were in Jim's jacket pocket, their retrieval the last errand the detective had run on his way home. The stiff set of Blair's shoulders and the lines of strain around the dark blue eyes and frowning mouth suggested the anthropologist was still hurting.
He probably overdid it again. If he doesn't stop pushing himself, he's going to tear out those stitches.
Jim swallowed the rebuke before it could escape his lips and slipped the carry-out containers into the oven. His Guide's physical pain was only part of what concerned the Sentinel. When pressed, Blair had admitted to the strange dreams which had foreshadowed the events at the fun house, but he was oddly reluctant to discuss them, pleading the need to process all that had happened before sharing the details.
It seemed ironic that the spirit world his Shaman had been so desperately trying to find had somehow reached out to envelop him instead. Jim knew Blair wanted answers to why and how it had happened. Ellison would have preferred to take the victory they had been granted and move on, but he was determined not to repeat the mistake he had made three months earlier. While he might be uncomfortable with the implied ramifications of Blair's emerging shamanistic talents, he had made a pledge to his partner and he was determined to keep it.
After all, Blair kept his side of the bargain. He stayed in my world, working at my side, searching for the answers to my sensory and personal nightmares. He risked his life for mine and for the lives of the innocent people Klerk would have targeted if he had managed to slip through our fingers. The least I can do is listen with an open mind when Blair's ready to talk.
Jim had a plan for moving that moment along. The first step was to get his young friend out of his sour mood. Turning the dial on the oven to its lowest setting, he picked up the stack of books he had dropped on the counter and headed for the living room.
"Cranky, are we?" Ellison teased gently, shifting a pile of books aside to make room for the new batch.
Blair glowered up at him. "Don't even start, man."
Jim ignored the warning and moved around to the end of the couch, laying his palm on the younger man's forehead. "Yep, just as I thought," he murmured, nodding sagely.
Blair batted Jim's hand away, "What?" he demanded, scowling and wincing at the same time as the abrupt movement pulled at still tender skin and tissue.
"Someone's got a bad case of cabin fever," Ellison responded.
Jim grinned at his partner's petulant expression. He understood Blair's frustration at being house bound and his impatience with the healing process. Neither of them would ever win any awards for being 'patient' patients. He had been more than a little surly himself after delivering his partner into the hands of the awaiting emergency room staff. While the doctors had been busy stitching and stapling his Guide back together, the Sentinel had nearly taken off the head of the attending physician who had drawn the onerous duty of dealing with the detective's own injuries.
After cleaning and dressing the minor lacerations Jim had received when he'd collapsed onto the glass coffin, and concluding that the whack he'd taken on the back of the head hadn't resulted in a concussion, Ellison's doctor had practically fled the room. Within moments of signing the last of the unending series of forms which always accompanied a visit to the ER, the Sentinel had tracked down his Guide. Once Blair was settled into a private room, he had planted himself in a chair at the young man's side, shooting baleful glares at anyone who dared to suggest that he might be more comfortable elsewhere.
Sandburg's hospital stay had been mercifully shortless than 24 hoursbut the nature of the knife-wound had dictated almost complete bed rest once he'd gotten home. Dosed with pain killers and antibiotics, Blair had essentially slept through the first three days of his convalescence, rising only to weave his way unsteadily to the bathroom, pick at the light meals Jim had prepared, drink some tea and down another dose of medication.
By the fourth day, Sandburg wanted to be up and doing, but his body wasn't cooperating and the meds made him too groggy to concentrate for any period of time. Jim had refrained from arguing when Blair announced he was dumping the pain pills in favor of one of his herbal remedies, but he kept a close eye on his friend and tucked the medication in the medicine cabinet in case the anthropologist changed his mind.
Thanks to the cooperative efforts of Simon and the other members of the task force, Jim had managed to handle most of the paperwork wrap-up on the case from home. On the few occasions when he had needed to venture down to the station, there had been no lack of volunteers to keep Blair company. Not that Sandburg had accepted their offers. He graciously turned them down and shooed Jim out of the loft, muttering darkly that what he needed was peace and quiet, not a baby-sitter. Ellison conceded the battle, but not the war, substituting regularly placed phone calls to the loft for on-site sensory surveillance.
The Sentinel knew his Guide had seen through his ploy. He also knew it was just a matter of time before Blair called him on it. Fortunately their silent truce had held until the younger man was truly on the road to recovery. The quick sensory scan Jim had just run when he'd touched his partner revealed that boredom was the main culprit behind the anthropologist's current bad mood.
"Maybe this will help," Jim replied. He dug a plain white envelope out of the pocket of his jeans and dropped it in the younger man's lap.
Blair fingered the envelope suspiciously and muttered something that sounded vaguely like 'Beware grinning Sentinels bearing gifts', before asking, "What is it?"
"Open it and find out, Sherlock." Jim handed Blair his new glasses and walked over to hang his jacket on the rack next to the door. He heard the distinctive sound of ripping paper as his friend tore open the mystery envelope and held his breath waiting for Blair's reaction to the surprise it contained.
"A lifetime pass for Packard's carnival?"
The knotted tension between the Sentinel's shoulders eased immediately at the genuine enthusiasm and pleased astonishment in his Guide's voice. "Packard was extremely grateful that we managed to downplay Klerk's connection to the amusement company," Jim explained. The media coverage of the murders had been intense, but surprisingly short-lived. With Klerk dead and the fun house reduced to a smoking ruin, interest in the story had waned quickly.
Ellison detoured into the kitchen to grab some drinks and a thick, bound stack of papers from the pile of casework he'd brought home. "Packard also volunteered the carnival's services, free of charge, for the next department fund-raiser."
Blair grinned. "I'll bet that made the commissioner happy."
Ellison handed his partner a cold bottle of water and perched himself on the arm of the couch near the younger man's feet. "So ecstatic that he actually graced Major Crimes with his presence."
"Gee, I'm sorry I missed that momentous occasion," Blair said dryly.
"I'll get you a copy of the tape from the bull pen's surveillance camera," Jim replied in the same tone. "The commissioner was in top form. Shaking hands and doling out compliments like a true politician. Actually it's probably a good thing you weren't there. He looked like he was in the mood to be kissing babies."
Blair rolled his eyes at the standing joke about his age.
"Supposedly we're all up for commendations," Jim added. "You're the only one who got a free pass to the carnival though. Packard also asked me to tell you that if you ever need a job, you should look him up."
Blair's eyes widened in surprise and a soft smile played on his lips. "I'll keep that in mind." He stared down at the pass for a moment, then glanced up at Jim. "Are you sure it's all right for me to keep this? I know there are departmental rules about accepting gifts "
"Simon cleared it," Jim assured him. He took a sip from the beer he'd selected for himself and then leaned forward to place the finished report of the investigation in Blair's lap.
The anthropologist eyed the cover and hefted the heavy document thoughtfully. "A little light reading?"
"I wouldn't recommend it as a bedtime story," Ellison said gravely, "but I figured you'd be interested in seeing a copy before it gets buried in the files."
Blair nodded and flipped the report open to the first page. He scanned it and looked up in surprise. "This can't be the final draft."
"But Jim, my name's listed among the members of the task force."
"You were a member of the task force," Ellison pointed out.
"Yeah, but "
"When you make a significant contribution to one of your professor's pet projects, your name gets published in the credits, right? This is no different."
"But it is different," Blair responded, shaking his head in amazement. "This is official stuff, Jim. You guys are the detectives. You deserve the recognition. I'm just an observer."
"You're not just anything, Chief."
Blair blinked, obviously caught off-guard by Jim's heartfelt statement. "Thanks, man," he said softly, his warm smile saying much more than the simple words.
Jim nodded in acknowledgment and took another sip of his beer. He gestured toward the report. "Outside of the excerpts from Klerk's journal and the follow-up interviews with some of his prior associates, there's not much in there you haven't already seen."
Blair's gaze shifted to the document in his hands. "I think I'll skip reading Klerk's diary of death, if it's all the same to you. Patrick would probably be interested in it though." He glanced up at Jim curiously. "Do you think we could get him a copy? I'd like to do something to pay him back for his help."
"I'll talk to Simon about it."
The anthropologist set the report aside and slowly shifted position until he was sitting upright with his feet on the floor. "Did the follow-up interviews reveal anything which would explain why Klerk went off the deep end? Outside of his wife's death, that is?" he asked softly.
"Not really. From all reports, Klerk was an excellent surgeon and an accomplished administrator; well respected by his peers. They were all pretty stunned when they found out he was a serial killer, but every one of them confirmed that he was devastated by his wife's death. He resigned the morning after the accident and left town less than a week later. None of them ever heard from him again."
"Any idea why he resurfaced with the carnival?"
Jim nodded. "Forensics discovered a couple of old photo albums and scrap books when they tore Klerk's trailer apart. Briggs and Rankin followed up on some of the newspaper clippings. It turns out Klerk's paternal grandfather was a lot man for an amusement company out of the midwest. Klerk spent a number of summers working the circuit with him."
"That explains why he managed to fit in so well with Packard's people," Blair murmured. "Once a carnie, always a carnie."
"Apparently. We're still not sure why he chose Packard's group." Klerk had carried that secret to the grave with him.
"Well at least we know why he killed all those people. Granted, that's not much consolation for the families of the victims, but maybe it will help them find some closure." Blair sighed and shook his head. "And maybe, now that it's all over, even Arnie Klerk will find some measure of peace."
Jim answered Blair's searching gaze with a non-committal shrug. While it was in keeping with his Shaman's nature to worry about Klerk's well-being in the afterlifeassuming there was such a thingthe Sentinel wasn't inclined to be quite so charitable.
"The DA decided not to press charges against Calvin Chambers," Jim said quietly, changing topics adroitly.
"And that required how much arm twisting?"
Ellison shrugged again. "I just made sure they had all the facts."
In truth, he had gone out of his way to make sure the ex-Seal wasn't prosecuted for his use of deadly force. Klerk had killed 36 people and if Chambers hadn't interceded, the detective and his observer would have been victims 37 and 38. In Ellison's book, murdereven in the name of lovewas still murder. Stopping a crazed serial killer before he could take another life, especially when one of those lives was Sandburg's, was another matter altogether
"R-i-g-h-t," Blair drawled softly as the telephone began to ring. "Just the facts. James Ellison. Master of understatement, strikes again." The gentle jibe was accompanied by a warm, broad smile, filled with gratitude and approval.
The Sentinel shot his Guide a mock glare and snagged the phone from the coffee table. His good mood vanished abruptly when the caller identified himself.
"Just a moment," he said, struggling to keep his expression and tone neutral. Jim lowered the receiver, his eyes locked with Blair's. "It's for you. Jason Edwards."
Ellison handed the phone to his partner and walked across the room. He let himself out onto the balcony, pulling the door shut behind him. Sagging against the railing, he took a long pull from his bottle of beer and stared glumly at the ships dancing on the waves of the bay. He firmly dialed down his senses, determined not to eavesdrop on his friend's conversation with the Pharmacology grad, although he desperately wanted to know what the young men were talking about. Had Blair changed his mind about experimenting with drugs to reach the world of his visions? Or was he telling Edwards to take a hike?
The Sentinel prayed it was the latter.
Ten long, nerve-wracking minutes went by before he heard the 'shuss' of the glass door as it slid aside. Despite his best intentions, the Sentinel's senses automatically shifted into high gear. Over the thundering of his own racing pulse, his Guide's heart beat a strong, steady rhythm.
Whatever decision he's reached, he's at peace with it, Jim realized.
Blair moved stiffly to his side, sighing softly as he leaned his arms on the railing. "Sorry that took so long. Jason's even more long-winded than I am when he's excited about something."
The muscles in Jim's jaw spasmed as he ground his teeth together. He kept his gaze firmly fixed on the horizon as Blair rambled on.
"Jason called to apologize for not getting back to me last week. Turns out he was in Vancouver for a conference and stayed on a couple of days to do some sight-seeing. He brought back some stuff he thought I'd be interested in and wanted to know when we could get together to make some plans."
"'Plans'," said the Sentinel flatly.
A hard poke in the arm made him turn toward his partner, who rolled his eyes in exasperation.
"Travel plans, Jim. The conventional kind." Blair raised his closed fists and pantomimed hands on a steering wheel. "Jason enjoyed the trip so much, he's planning to go back at the end of the month. He invited me to go with him."
A rush of relief washed over the Sentinel, sweeping away his fears. "That sounds good, Chief."
"Yeah, it does, but I'm not going."
"Because I'd rather be here, where I'm needed," Blair murmured. The Sentinel reached out and gripped his Shaman's shoulder, silently reaffirming their covenant.
Blair flashed Jim a tremulous smile, which abruptly turned mischievous. "Besides, as much as I hate to admit it, I'm not up for an excursion of any kind right now. Getting sliced nearly in half has kind of put me off my game. And since it's going to take some time to get back up to speed, I've decided to take advantage of the opportunity fate has provided and allow you to wait on me hand and foot."
"In your dreams, Sandburg," Jim growled, pretending to be annoyed.
"I'm sure that can be arranged as well," Blair assured him impishly.
"I assume this plan of yours includes the continued flagrant violation of the house rules?"
"Yep. I intend to spend the next week or so doing my best impression of a couch potato."
Jim frowned, although his eyes were sparkling. "I guess we'll be skipping the all-expenses-paid trip to the bookstore, then. That's a shame. I know I was looking forward to it." He shook his head sadly and turned to head back inside, but Blair grabbed his arm.
"Whoa," Blair exclaimed, grabbing his arm. "What was that about a trip to the bookstore?"
Jim patted him on the arm solicitously and slipped free of his grip. "It was nothing, Chief. Don't concern yourself. I'm sure I can find other ways to spend my bonus." Smiling wickedly, he stepped into the loft, leaving his stunned partner standing alone on the balcony.
"Spend your... bonus? Hey, you mean you actually got one? That's great, man. Congratulations." Blair's eyes widened in alarm and he started moving as quickly as he could after his escaping partner. "Wait a minute. What do you mean you can find other ways to... That money is mine, man... You promised... JIM!"
~ End ~
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Page last updated 8/15/03.