Novation Productions Season Five Episode
Blair paused in front of the shelves holding herbal teas. Reaching out, he took down a box of chamomile, one of peppermint, and a blend of Eleuthro ginseng root, cinnamon, catnip leaves, and other herbs and vitamins he knew was especially useful for soothing cranky sentinels with tension headaches. He dropped them into the basket slung over his arm where they joined the ingredients for his famous cold remedy. The winter cold and flu season was coming up, and he knew he could count on Jim to pick up a cold sometime in the next few months and pass it along to him.
After checking through the basket, he decided he had everything he'd come in for, and headed for the checkout counter. He waited patiently in line behind a group of giggling teenagers, watching the owner of the shop, Skylark Kullien, as she chatted with the teens. The three girls and two boys were asking her about a sign sitting on the counter advertising "All-Natural XTC". Sky was patiently explaining that it was a combination of natural and herbal ingredients designed to give the user the same feelings of energy and emotional uplift as the party drug Ecstasy. Finally they paid for their purchases and left. Stepping up to the counter, Blair set his basket down. "Hello, Sky, how's it going?" The two of them had been flirting ever since Blair had started frequenting her store, but he couldn't seem to get beyond that stage with her. Today was the day though; he could feel it. He turned on his most disarming smile.
Sky, an attractive strawberry blonde about Blair's age, smiled back at him. "Just fine, Blair. Run out of tea again?" She began to ring up his items.
A vision flashed through his mind of the kitchen cupboard in his apartment that was crowded with multiple boxes of tea. "Oh, yeah, Jim and I are really big tea drinkers." She raised what appeared to Blair to be a skeptical eyebrow. "You remember Jim, my old roommate? He's really into healthy living, all natural foods. He just loves your peppermint tea--" Her other eyebrow began crawling toward her hairline. Blair changed the subject, picking up the sign on XTC. "So, this stuff really mimics Ecstasy?"
She shrugged. "It's supposed to. Or at least that's what the brochure says."
Blair frowned as he put the sign down. "Are you sure it's safe? There's a lot of copycat drugs out there now, not all of them necessarily safe. People are just wanting to make a quick buck."
"It's safe, Blair. You know I don't sell anything here that isn't all natural. It's a combination of herbs, vitamins and minerals that'll give you a little euphoric kick, that's all."
"Okay, just wondering." He swallowed nervously, and began his prepared speech, determined to get it out before she cut him off the way she did every week. "So, Sky, are you free tonight? Because I have these passes to the new Mesoamerican exhibit at the natural history museum and I was thinking we could go check it out, and then have dinner--"
Used to hearing 'no' from her, Blair continued right on without pause. "Then how about tomorrow night, or next week?"
Reaching over the counter between them, Sky put her hand over Blair's mouth. "Try closing this a little more often and opening your ears. I said yes."
His eyes widened, then he impulsively kissed her palm. She snatched her hand back as her cheeks turned scarlet. "Blair!"
He grinned at her. "Cool! This is going to be so fun! Where should I pick you up? And what time?"
Sky went back to ringing up his purchases. "The store's open until 7, so you should probably pick me up here, then." Her face was still tinged pink. "That'll be $27.95."
After paying for his items, Blair left the shop practically skipping. Yes! I can't believe she said yes! Hopping into his Volvo, he headed toward the police station and an afternoon of working with Jim.
Blair jiggled his knee up and down impatiently as he stared out the side window of Jim's truck at the deepening twilight. "Come on, man, can't you go any faster?" Jim's chuckle only frustrated the anthropologist further.
"Hey, it's not my fault you never got that leaky tire fixed, Chief."
Running his hand through his curls in frustration, Blair replied, "I know, I know. And I really appreciate you not killing me when I asked you to chauffeur, but if you don't hurry it up, I'm gonna be late for my first date with Sky. And you know how important first impressions are. I've been trying to get a date with her forever, and if I'm late, I might not get another one."
Jim made a left turn. "Fine, Sandburg, I'm taking a shortcut. Are you happy now? And by the way, paybacks are a bitch." He shot the younger man an evil grin.
"I'll scrub 'Sweetheart' with a toothbrush if you want me to, just get me to Sky's by seven." He glanced out the window again, noticing the scenery was gradually changing from storefronts to warehouses. "Jim?"
Ellison's tone was that of the ever-patient. "Yes, Chief?"
"Where are you going? This is the warehouse district. This is your shortcut? Oh, God, you're going to hear something and have to stop to investigate! You've got to drive faster, get us out of here!"
But even as the words left his mouth, Blair knew it was a lost cause. Jim was rolling down his window and cocking his head to the side in a classic listening pose. The truck slowed for a moment, then sped up. Jim must have gotten a lock on whatever he was hearing. "Sorry, you're going to be late. I hear voices, lots of voices, and music. And screaming!"
With a muttered oath, Blair pulled out his cell phone, intending to call Sky, but Jim suddenly accelerated around a corner, throwing Blair into the door. The phone flew out of his hands to land on the floor, and Blair decided to hang on rather than try and retrieve it. Several hair-raising turns later, Jim pulled to a stop outside a dilapidated warehouse from which the pounding beat of techno music emanated. Dozens of cars surrounded it, and people were wandering around outside, some of them dancing, drinking what appeared to be alcohol, and generally partying.
Jim was reaching for the door handle when Blair grabbed his arm. "Relax, Jim, it's just a rave. Yeah, they probably don't have a permit, but they aren't hurting anybody. And I have a date, remember?"
Ellison hesitated for a moment, then put his keys back in the ignition. "Yeah, you're probably right."
A scream split the night air. Blair glanced at Jim, shrugged, then popped his seatbelt. Grabbing his cell phone from the floor, he jumped out of the truck. He ran through the crowd behind his bigger partner, trusting Jim to find whoever was in trouble. For several long seconds he lost sight of him, then Blair pushed through a tight circle of teens to find Jim kneeling over a young girl. Her body was thrashing and contorting in a series of violent seizures as Jim attempted to keep her from hurting herself.
"Sandburg! Call it in!" Jim ordered. Blair was already punching 9-1-1 into his cell, asking for an ambulance, and giving their location, all the while unable to tear his eyes away from the girl's pale, sweat-soaked face. Her back arched high off the ground in one final convulsion, then she collapsed and lay still.
Jim's fingertips probed her throat. "I need your help; she's not breathing and I'm not getting a pulse!"
Dropping to his knees next to Jim, Blair tilted the girl's head back, checking her mouth for obstructions before pinching her nose closed and blowing into her mouth. He sat back, counting quietly as Jim did chest compressions, then breathed for her again. The surroundings seemed to fade into the background as Blair's world narrowed to himself, Jim, and the teenager they were frantically trying to help. He didn't hear the sirens as the ambulance pulled up, or the paramedics until one of them grasped him by the arm and pulled him away.
"Sir! Sir, let us do our job!"
Blair backed up then, sitting on his ass on the crumbling asphalt for a long moment, watching as the EMT's began working on the girl. He brushed his hair out of his face with a shaking hand. Shit. She's just a kid. Just a kid out on a Friday night to have some fun, and now....
He felt Jim's hand on his shoulder. "Come on, Chief. Let them do their job and we'll do ours. Let's see if we can find out what happened."
Grasping the hand Jim held out to him, Blair let himself be pulled to his feet. Glancing around, he was amazed at the change that had come over the area. The blaring music was gone, as were most of the kids and cars. "What happened?"
"When the squad cars and the ambulance pulled up, everyone ran. Must have thought the place was being raided." Jim zeroed in on the small group of kids remaining. "Anyone here see what happened?" A chorus of 'no's' answered him.
Moving in front of Jim, Blair asked quietly, "Does anyone know her? Know anyone she came with, or what school she goes to?"
There was a minor commotion as an olive skinned girl was pushed to the front of the group. "She goes to Cascade Prep School. Her name's Amy something."
"Okay, that's good. Anyone know her last name?" Shrugged shoulders and head shakes answered Blair's question.
"Anyone see her around earlier? Do you know if she had anything to drink, or took any drugs?" Jim asked.
Again there was silence. And again Blair pleaded with the teens to help them. "Look, we just want to help her. You're not in any kind of trouble. The more we know about Amy, about what she was doing before she started having seizures, the better the paramedics can help her. So if any of you saw her earlier, saw who she was with or what she was doing, please tell us." He looked at each kid in turn, but they all shook their heads. "Okay, thanks for your help. If you think of anything, call the Cascade PD and ask for me, Blair Sandburg. Someone will be able to get a message to me, okay?"
He sighed as the kids walked off. "Damn. I wish we could have gotten more out of them."
"So do I, Chief. Come on, let's find out where the paramedics are taking her." Jim headed back toward the ambulance. Blair followed him.
While Jim spoke with the driver, Blair watched the paramedics load the girl into the ambulance. They must have gotten her heart started again, because they were no longer performing CPR, and she had an oxygen mask covering her face. For the first time, Blair noticed the long, blonde hair, now stringy with sweat. He studied her features, feeling there was something familiar about her, but not quite able to place where he might have seen her before. She was so damn young, maybe sixteen. She shouldn't have been here. This shouldn't have happened.
He felt Jim's solid presence behind him. "They're taking her to Cas-Gen. I said we'd tag along."
Blair gazed up at his friend. "You don't want to check out the warehouse?"
Jim shook his head. "It's empty now. We can do more good trying to track down her parents. Hopefully they'll find some ID on her at the hospital." Placing a hand between Blair's shoulder blades, he steered him in the direction of the truck.
As they approached the entrance to Cas-Gen's emergency room, Jim automatically dialed his senses back. He knew from experience that Friday nights were the worst. Weaving through the throng in the waiting room, he approached the admitting desk, showing his badge to the clerk. "Detective Ellison, Cascade PD. There was a young girl brought in a few minutes ago. Can you tell me how she's doing?"
The woman flipped through some files. "I'm sorry. I don't have any information."
Just then a doctor both Jim and Blair knew entered the waiting area. "Detective Ellison, Blair, Mike said you would be along shortly. Can you come with me?"
Jim and Blair followed her through the double doors, past the treatment cubicles and into a doctor-family conference room. Dr. Sheila Abrams leaned against the edge of a table. "She coded as soon as she got here. There was nothing we could do."
Out of the corner of his eye, Jim saw Blair pale, and heard him swallow loudly. "You okay, Chief?"
"Yeah, yeah, just give me a minute." Dropping into a chair, he covered his face with his hands.
Satisfied Sandburg wasn't going to freak on him, Jim asked the doctor, "Do you have any idea what killed her? When we found her, she was having some kind of seizure, and when I touched her, she was burning up."
Abrams shook her head. "We'll need an autopsy to know for sure, but I'm thinking some kind of drug reaction. Her body temp when she arrived was 108 degrees, and she was hemorrhaging internally."
"Jesus," Blair whispered. "What kind of drug could cause that?"
She shrugged. "I don't have a clue. I've never seen anything like it." She turned her gaze on Jim. "Mike said she was found at a rave?"
"Damn. If she got the drug there, there's no telling how many other kids got hold of it, too." An expression of pain crossed her face. "I don't want to see any more cases like this." A shudder ran through her thin frame.
Jim patted the woman awkwardly on the shoulder. "We'll find out where she got the drug, if that's what it was. Did you find any ID on her?"
"Yes." She produced a plastic bag holding a student ID. "We found this on her. I was just going to contact her parents when you showed up."
Jim read the card. "Amy Kettering, 501 Mountain Valley Drive."
"That's in the Cascade Rapids subdivision," Blair supplied helpfully. "Very expensive neighborhood." He paused for a moment, then snapped his fingers. "Kettering! That's why she looked so familiar. She looks like her mother, Councilwoman Kettering."
Jim ran a hand over his face. This had just gotten a hundred times more complicated. "Look, Sheila, Blair and I will stick around and talk to her mother once she gets here and makes an ID. It's possible she might know who her daughter was with tonight."
Abrams nodded. "Right. Let me go make that phone call, and then when she gets here, we can all talk to her." She left the room.
Jim crossed to where Blair was still sitting and squatted down in front of him. "How are you doing, Chief?"
Blair shrugged nervously. "Okay, I guess. Stunned. It was just so fast, you know? And she was so young...." Tilting his head back, he closed his eyes.
"I'm going to go get us some coffee. I'll be right back." Slapping his friend on the knee, Jim got to his feet and headed to the cafeteria. It was going to be a long night.
"Night, Jim," Blair said as he exited the stairwell at the second floor. "Simon's office at 0800 hours. Yeah, I got it. Six hours from now." He wove down the hallway and tried to fit his key in the lock, exhaustion making his fingers fumble. Man, what a horrible night. Councilwoman Kettering had gone to pieces after identifying her daughter and had picked Blair's shoulder to cry on. He shook his head. He still didn't understand why people looked to him for support and sympathy. Jim said it was because he projected empathy, but what did old 'stone face' know?
Finally getting the lock open, he dropped his backpack just inside the door as his stomach growled loudly. Too much black coffee and nothing solid with it. He detoured into the kitchen and grabbed a banana from the counter. Anything else was too much work. As he wrestled with the banana peel, the flashing light on his answering machine caught his eye. Pushing the 'play' button, he bit off half the fruit.
"Blair? This is Sky. Are you running late? It's seven-thirty and I'm still at the store."
"Oh, shplahht!" he cursed around a mouthful of banana.
"Um, Blair, this is Sky again. You did mean this Friday, tonight, right? It's eight o'clock, and I'm going home. Call me there. 555-5479."
The machine beeped again. "Okay, I've tried all the hospitals, and you weren't in an accident. I'm assuming maybe car trouble, and you're in the middle of the Sahara with a dead battery in your cell phone. I'm still at home."
Blair beat his head slowly against the refrigerator door. Stupid, stupid, stupid, Sandburg! The vile machine beeped one last time. "It's midnight. You'd better be dead, Blair Sandburg. Otherwise don't bother showing your face around my store again!"
Sliding down the fridge to sit on the floor, Blair scrubbed his hands over his face. "What a perfect end to a perfect evening," he muttered sarcastically. He'd have to call Sky in the morning. It was way too late now.
He sat there for several minutes, his mind replaying the images from earlier that night, of blond, beautiful Amy thrashing on the broken asphalt outside an abandoned warehouse while her friends watched. He got to his feet and crossed to his desk. Flipping on his computer, he settled in for a long night of surfing. Someone out there had to know what had happened to Amy Kettering.
Jim walked into Simon's office the next morning and held out his coffee cup without a word. Simon raised an eyebrow at him, but filled the mug from the pot sitting behind his desk. Dropping into a chair, Jim inhaled the aroma, then took a long, slow sip, savoring the dark bitter flavor on his tongue. "Ahhhh..."
"Didn't get your morning shot of caffeine, Jim?"
The detective shook his head. "I had to go downstairs and pry Blair away from his computer. I don't know what he was doing last night, but I found him asleep at his desk. Between rousing him and throwing him in the shower, I didn't get breakfast, let alone coffee." He took another drink, closing his eyes in pleasure.
"So, if you're finished making love to your coffee, where is Sandburg?"
"He'll be along. Something he had to print off in the bullpen."
Blair chose that moment to breeze into the office, computer paper sailing behind him. "Sorry, I'm late, Sim--sir." He set his own mug of tea down on the conference table and struggled to fold the printout into a neat pile.
"Well, while you're doing that, Sandburg, let me just apprise you of what my morning's been like. I got a call from the mayor around 6 am. Apparently she and Councilwoman Kettering are sorority sisters. She's insisting I put my 'best detectives' on the case. That would be you. So what do you have for me?"
Jim glanced at Blair, who was still fighting with the printout. "Not much so far. Autopsy's scheduled for today, but Dr. Abrams is thinking it could be a drug reaction. A tox screen is going to take a couple days, but if it's something new, it could take even longer."
Blair took a seat with a final rustle of paper. "I can give them a good place to start. Paramethoxymethamphetamine."
Both men stared at him. "What in the hell is that?" Simon finally asked.
Slouching in his chair and rubbing his eyes, Blair settled into what Jim called his lecture mode. "Paramethoxymethamphetamine, or PMA, is being substituted for MDMA, or Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, common street name Ecstasy, by unscrupulous dealers."
"That's an oxymoron, Sandburg," Banks interrupted. "Unscrupulous drug dealers, my ass."
Blair tapped the tabletop impatiently. "Do you want to hear this or not?" At the other men's nods, he continued. "I spent most of last night searching the internet for any other instances of Amy's symptoms in connection with raves. I found some. In 1995 and '96, at least six Australians were killed after ingesting PMA, which they thought was Ecstasy. Their symptoms matched Amy's."
"If this PMA is so deadly, why haven't we heard more about it?" Jim asked.
"Because up until this point in time, most of the Ecstasy coming into the US has been pretty pure. The major manufacturers are headquartered in Europe. However, the DEA has been cracking down on the drug recently. Their dogs are catching most of the stuff being smuggled in. The result is that the better-quality drugs are being taken off the market, increasing the ratio of contaminated pills to clean ones, which leaves dealers with little product and high demand." He flipped to another page in his printout. "And with hits of ecstasy going anywhere from $20 to $50 dollars a tablet, they're getting creative. A lot of what's being called Ecstasy out there isn't MDMA at all. It's everything from caffeine, to dextromethorphan, to PCP, and Valium. About the only thing MDMA and PMA have in common is that they affect the body's ability to regulate its temperature, but PMA to a much higher degree." Pausing, Blair took a breath. "Unfortunately, unless we can find out where this variant is coming from, we will be seeing more cases like Amy's."
Simon pulled a cigar out of his desk. "Good work, Sandburg. Fax that info on PMA over to the medical examiner's office. Maybe we can cut down the time on the tox screen with it." He clipped the end off his smoke. "Now we need to find out who she got the drug from. Any leads on that?"
Jim started to shake his head, but Blair jumped in. "No leads yet, but Mrs. Kettering gave me the names of the kids Amy was with last night. I thought we could start with interviewing them."
"Sounds good to me. Anything else?"
A knock on the door interrupted them, and Rafe stuck his head in. "Blair? There's a girl here to see you. Said something about meeting you last night?" He opened the door a little further, and the men in the office could see a young Hindi woman standing nervously in the middle of the bullpen.
"Isn't that the girl from the rave, Chief?"
Blair got to his feet. "Yeah, yeah it is. Look, Jim, why don't you let me handle this?"
"Sure, knock yourself out." Blair exited the office and Jim handed his empty mug to Simon for a refill.
Blair crossed the bullpen toward the young woman. "Hi," he said, giving her a reassuring smile.
She twisted her hands together. "I heard on the news this morning that Amy died. Is that true?"
The anthropologist guided her to a chair next to Jim's desk. "Yes, she did. Can you tell me your name?"
The teenager bit her lip. "Manju Usman."
"Okay, Manju. I want to thank you for coming down here. Did you remember anything from last night?"
She nodded slowly. "I heard Amy talking with her friends about some Ecstasy. Only it was supposed to be safe, because it wasn't really Ecstasy."
"Was it some kind of substitute?"
"That's what Ron said. He said it was just herbs and vitamins and stuff. Harmless, but it made you feel good."
"And Ron is?"
"He's from Cascade Prep. He's a senior. Ron Wilson."
He wrote the name down. "Did he say where he got the drugs?"
She shook her head. "But he took the pills out of this bag that had a weird word on it. A-n-a-m. Do you know what that means?"
Blair felt like he'd been punched in the gut. That was the name of Sky's shop, Celtic Anam. "It's Gaelic for soul," he told her. He pulled open the bottom drawer of Jim's desk and lifted out the bag of items he'd bought the day before and forgotten to take home in his rush to get to his date. "Did the bag look like this?" He showed her the white plastic sack with a Celtic knot logo and the word Anam in script on the side.
Manju's eyes widened. "Yeah, that's it!"
"Thank you, Manju. You've been a big help. Can I get you to give me your address and phone number in case I have any more questions?" He automatically took down the numbers, after telling her to warn her friends that any Ecstasy, real or not, could be dangerous. He gave her his card. "If any of your friends want to turn their pills in, have them call me. I'll make sure they don't get in any trouble, and the more information they can give me about where they got them, the better. I don't want to see any more of your friends die the way Amy did, okay?"
"Okay, Mr. Sandburg. If I hear anything more, I'll let you know." Getting to her feet, she left the bullpen.
Blair ran a hand over his face. Shit. The stuff could have come from Sky's store. She'd said it was harmless, and he'd believed her. Damn it, this was a big mess. With a resigned sigh, he picked up the phone. "Hello, Sky? This is Blair Sandburg. Yeah, I know I'm on your shit list, but I can explain. Are you going to be there for the next couple hours? I'd like to talk to you in person."
Jim pulled the Ford into the parking lot of a small strip mall that had seen better days. Out of the seven stores, only five were occupied, and most of the sign advertising the shops was taken up by a large 'Space for Lease' notice. "This is where you've been getting all those teas?" he asked his partner. "It's not the best neighborhood."
Blair shrugged. "Sky's store has what I need at the lowest prices in town. And the neighborhood isn't so bad."
Jim climbed out of the driver's side and looked at the signage on the storefronts. Sky's shop advertised herbs, vitamins, new age materials, candles, and Celtic-themed books, music and gifts on a hand-painted sign. The store next door trumpeted its name, The Toy Box, in large neon letters, with small neon signs listing its wares as XXX videos, fetish clothing and accessories, and sex toys.
He sighed. "I don't know, Chief. Usually by the time the sex shops move in, the neighborhood is on its final downslide." He watched his friend bristle.
"What? Just because a shop sells items related to sexual activity, it's automatically sleazy and a detriment to the neighborhood?"
"That's been my experience, yes. Once one of these stores moves in, strip bars and prostitutes follow. Not to mention drug dealers."
Blair's eyes flashed dangerously. "Sky is not a drug dealer!"
Jim rolled his eyes in exasperation. "I never said she was. I'm just stating that in my experience, that's the way it happens. I saw some decent neighborhoods go under while I was in Vice."
His friend muttered something Jim didn't catch, then said, "When we go in, let me handle talking to Sky, okay?"
"Sure. I'll just browse."
As Blair opened the door, setting a pair of handmade bells tinkling, he cautioned, "Might want to turn down your sense of smell, man. Some of the stuff in here is pretty potent."
Jim did as he was told, and was glad of the warning. Even with scent turned down, his nose was itching. He wandered through the cramped aisles, keeping an ear tuned to Sandburg's conversation with the store's owner.
"Hey, Sky. Sorry about last night. I was on my way here when we stopped to help some kids at a rave. One of them was having seizures."
"Oh, Blair, I had no idea! I'm so sorry for those phone messages. I just didn't know whether I should be scared because something had happened to you, or angry because you stood me up. I'm glad you're okay. Is the kid all right?"
"No. She died in the emergency room. The doctor thinks it was some kind of drug that killed her, but we won't know for sure until we get the autopsy results back." There was a pause in the conversation, and Jim walked up to the counter to find Blair chewing his lip nervously.
"That's kind of why we're here, Ms. Kullien. I'm Jim Ellison, Blair's partner." He reached over and shook the woman's hand, feeling Blair glaring at him.
"Nice to meet you, Jim. And please, call me Sky." She gave him a warm smile. "So why exactly are you here, other than for Blair to apologize?"
Blair jumped in with the answer first. "One of the kids at the rave last night saw someone give the girl who died something they said was a substitute for Ecstasy. The witness described it as coming from a bag with your store logo on it." He picked up the sign for 'All Natural XTC'. "I couldn't help but be reminded of this sign, and was wondering if maybe there was something in these herbal pills that could have caused a bad reaction."
Jim, who still had hold of Sky's hand, surreptitiously checked her pulse at Blair's announcement. Despite Sandburg's insistence that the shop owner wasn't a drug dealer, he wasn't entirely convinced. Her heartrate jumped slightly at the news a product from her shop could have killed someone, but not the big leap the sentinel would have expected from a guilty person.
"Ohmigod!" Sky gasped and retrieved her hand, pressing it to her mouth. "I had no idea! The salesperson assured me it was perfectly safe, and we haven't had any complaints before this." She dug around under the counter and came up with a brochure. "Here's the list of ingredients. There's nothing here that you won't find in its natural form on my shelves."
Blair took the list from her as Jim said, "What we'd like to do is take the supply of XTC you have on hand in for testing, make sure that it is what the label says, and that it hasn't been contaminated in any way. We'll also need the name of your supplier, so we can contact them."
"Sure, sure." She came around the counter and grabbed a shopping basket. "It's on these shelves over here. Once we get these bottles, I'll look in the stock room for any others. The supplier's address is in my Rolodex."
Sky watched as Blair finished filling out a form regarding the removal of the pills from her store. His friend Jim had already taken the confiscated bottles out to his truck. The sound of a car horn penetrated the store.
Blair looked out through the glass door and made a rude gesture at his friend. She laughed, and he turned his attention back to her. "I'm really sorry about all this, Sky."
"That's okay, Blair. If there's something dangerous on my shelves, I want to know about it."
His cheeks colored a little bit, then he said, "Look, I know last night didn't work out like I'd planned, and I wouldn't blame you if you didn't want to give it another try, but--the museum's open today, and I kind of thought we maybe could give it a go tonight."
His head lifted, and his eyes met hers. She felt a grin spreading across her face. He was so damn cute, and he had that shy uncertain thing down pat. "Sure. Think you can manage to be here by five tonight?"
His whole face lit up. "Promise. Cross my heart. Five o'clock." He fairly bounced as he left the store.
Sky shook her head. What was she getting herself into? The door opened and her part-time helper came in.
"Hi, Pepper. I'm glad you're here. I need to ask you about that XTC stuff."
Pepper, a tall, lanky college student with short, dyed black hair and a ring in her nose, dropped her backpack under the counter. "What about it?"
"Didn't you say we just got a new shipment in the other day? Because I thought we were out of it."
Pepper nodded. "Yeah, it came after you left on Thursday night. Some delivery guy brought it. He was kind of skanky looking."
The other woman shook her head. "No, it wasn't Frank. Some kind of private service, I think. He had a uniform, but I don't remember the name."
"Okay. You put it out before you left that night, then?"
"Yeah. I put it on the shelves."
Sky turned that over in her head. The whole thing sounded really strange. She trusted Pepper, and knew the girl was probably telling her the truth as far as she knew it, but.... "Watch the counter for me for a little while, will you?"
Sky walked into the stock room, straight to the trashbag sitting next to the back door. Trash pickup wasn't until Monday, so whatever packaging those XTC bottles had come in still had to be there. Ten minutes of digging later, she was rewarded with a plain brown box. On one of the flaps it read "725 Pine Street, Cascade WA." The address of Celtic Anam was *723* Pine Street. There were no other identifying marks on or in the box, save for a few packing peanuts. The box had to have been delivered to the wrong address; it was supposed to go next door.
Sighing, Sky got to her feet and put the rest of the trash back into the bag. She was not looking forward to a talk with the owner of the Toy Box.
Blair pulled the Volvo into a parking space in front of Celtic Anam, next to a silver Porsche. After dropping the pills off at the station, Jim had taken him to get his tire fixed. Then it had been back to the PD to put the repaired tire on the Volvo and he'd been on his way to Sky's store. He glanced at his watch. In fact, he was about ten minutes early.
Sky was already waiting for him. With a wave at someone inside the store, she jumped into the passenger seat as Blair held the door open for her. "Hi again. You can leave early?"
She climbed in and shut the door, giving him a smile. "Yeah, Pepper's going to close up for me."
"That was nice of her." Blair gave her a grin back and started the car. He turned to look at Sky again just as her smile faded. He followed her troubled gaze to the entrance to the Toy Box. A tall, stocky man with close-cropped silver hair was standing in the doorway. Letting go of the open door, he crossed the narrow sidewalk and climbed into the Porsche.
Why had seeing this guy wiped the smile off Sky's face? "What's the matter?"
"Him. He makes me so mad. I went to talk to him this afternoon, about the pills--"
"What!? What does he have to do with the bottles we confiscated?"
"It's a long story. I asked Pepper about the last delivery of XTC we got. She said it didn't come UPS, that some delivery service brought it. I went looking for the packaging, and found the address on the box was for the Toy Box, not my store. I tried to ask him about the package, but he got a phone call and blew me off, didn't even let me say what was in it."
The Porsche started up, then with a squeal of tires, peeled out of the lot. "Do you have a pen, something to write on?" Blair asked.
Her expression puzzled, she dug in her purse, then handed the requested items to him. "CFD 573," Blair muttered as he wrote the license number down. He handed the pen back to her. "Let's go see that box."
Ninety minutes later, Blair and Sky were finally on the way to their date. After getting the shipping carton the XTC pills had come in, Blair had run it by the station and dropped it off at forensics. Jim hadn't been there, but Blair had left a voice mail for him to check out the license number he'd gotten off the Porsche, as well as the employees and owners of the Toy Box.
It was almost 6:30 when he pulled into the nearly deserted parking lot of the Natural History Museum. Getting out of the car, he waited for her to join him, then they walked up the stairs to the entrance together.
"Blair, um, I hate to point this out to you, but the sign says the hours are until 6 p.m. on Saturday."
He gave her a grin. "That's okay. I called Dr. Matthews from the station. She's agreed to let us go through after hours. One of the few perks that come with being an anthropologist."
Laughing, Sky linked her arm through his. "Really? Are there other perks?"
Blair's smile grew broader. "I haven't really thought about it, but you're here, so I'd say beautiful women are a perk."
She jostled him with her shoulder as he opened the door for her. "If you think I'm here because I'm impressed by your brains, you're mistaken. I'm much shallower than that. I was drawn to your physical beauty." She winked broadly at him, then skipped ahead into the museum.
Blair shook his head, still grinning. This was going to be a fun evening.
Jim walked into the bullpen, having gone for a late lunch with Rafe after helping Sandburg change the tire on his car. Henri looked up from his desk. "You just missed Sandburg, Jim. He dropped off some more evidence regarding that drug case."
When in the hell did Sandburg have time to come up with more evidence? He'd just left for his date a little over an hour ago. "Did he say what it was?"
H shook his head. "Not really. He had something for forensics. Said he'd leave you a note."
"Okay." He turned his attention to Rafe. "Let me know when you're ready to go, Brian, and I'll tag along to that rave with you." He'd had a long talk with the other detective about raves over lunch. It turned out that Rafe had worked a number of them as a DJ.
There was a rave going down tonight, and Jim thought it might be good if he attended, just to get a feel for the scene, and to possibly stop anyone else from taking any of the bad Ecstasy. Rafe had told him about a group called DanceSafe, which offered free testing of pills kids purchased at raves. They might have some info on whether the PMA was widespread, or perhaps be able to test for it, if they knew what they were looking for.
"Sure, Jim. I just have a little paperwork to finish up, then I'm gone."
As Rafe walked off, Jim looked through the stack of files on his desk for the note from his partner. Not finding one, he thought about it for a moment, then noticed the message light blinking on his phone. Picking up the handset, he punched in his access code and listened as Blair gave him a rundown on the box Sky had found in her trash, and the suspicious behavior of the guy from the Toy Box. Hanging up the phone, Jim punched the license number from the silver Porsche into the computer and found himself looking at the DMV records for a Lars Thorvald, Swedish citizen. Great. Now he was going to have to deal with Interpol.
Sighing, Jim picked up his Rolodex and began looking for Interpol's phone number.
Blair strolled through the darkened exhibits hand in hand with Sky. Dr. Matthews had pointed them in the right direction, and told them to let the security guard know when they were done. The display of artifacts from both Aztec and Mayan cultures was a little different than what Blair had seen before. Instead of the urns and stone carvings being inside glass cases, they were part of large dioramas of Mesoamerican life.
He found himself drawn to a striking figure of a warrior, dressed in the garb of the god Tezcatlipoca, carrying the dart and shield associated with the deity. As Blair approached the exhibit, his presence triggered a motion detector, and the pounding of drums and an eerie whistling sound echoed in the empty room. The figure was posed as if running, the ceiling above him dark with twinkling pinpoints of light. On his wrists and ankles, he wore bracelets of bells, and around his neck hung a whistle or flute.
Fascinated by the image, Blair jumped as Sky came up behind him and touched his shoulder. "Hey, Blair, you're awfully quiet all of a sudden."
He shook himself. "Yeah, yeah, I'm fine. Just not very often you see this kind of detail."
She peered at the mannequin, and the smaller figures of people some distance behind the warrior. "What's this supposed to represent?"
Ah, lecturing, Blair could do that. "This is a representation of the festival of Toxcatl. A year prior to the festival, a victim was chosen among the best war captives of the year. For the year, he lived as an earthly representative of the god Tezcatlipoca, treated with reverence and awe by the people. He rested by day, and traveled the roads as the god of the night winds at night. Over the course of the year he was mated to four high born women, and lived a life of luxury. Then during the festival, he was sacrificed to Tezcatlipoca."
"Sounds like a cushy job, but the severance pay is a killer." Giggling, Sky tugged him by the arm toward another scene. "That must be what this represents, then."
Blair stared at the second diorama, his laughter fading. At the top of a teocalli, or temple, the warrior from the first scene was laid out on a chac mool, a statue of a reclining god the Mayans used as an altar, his arms and legs outstretched. Swirls of colorful paint covered his body, and at the base of the altar were the broken shards of the bells and flute he had worn before. A priest stood over him, an obsidian blade raised high overhead.
The stone of the steps was cool against his heated skin. It had been a long climb to the top of the pyramid, but he was a young, strong warrior, the bravest of the brave. Tezcatlipoca had chosen him for this honor, and he went willingly, knowing the sons he had fathered would be raised with the respect due the children of a god.
As the priest chanted, he removed the bells and whistle that had marked him as the chosen one and smashed them against the sides of the teocalli. A bowl was pressed to his lips, and he tasted the strong sweet fire that was pulque burning his throat. His thirst quenched, he was helped upon the chac mool, lying down on his back, gazing up at the jewels shining in the night sky.
Acolytes held down his arms and legs; as if he would struggle, would disgrace himself in front of his god and the faithful gathered at the base of the teocalli. The priest raised the dark, mirrored blade in the air, torchlight reflecting from its polished surfaces, much as light reflected from the smoking mirror that was the face of Tezcatlipoca.
A streak of black flashed through the air, then he screamed the name of his god in praise as the knife tore his heart from his body---
"Blair! Blair!" He came back to himself with a start to find Sky's face in front of his, her hands on his shoulders. "Are you okay?"
"I--uh, yeah, I think so." Blair ran a hand over his face, and turned away from the diorama of the sacrifice. "That was really, really weird."
"What happened? You were like a million miles away." Her expression was worried.
"You ever have one of those moments when--" he paused, knowing how flaky he was about to sound. "Just forget it."
Sky pulled him over to a bench and pushed him to sit, then sat down next to him. "A moment when--what? Deja vu? I've had plenty of those."
He glanced up at her, more confused than before. "Yeah, like I was someone else, somewhere else. For a moment, I was there." He pointed toward the scene and shuddered. "I was lying on that chac mool."
Reaching up, Sky rubbed the back of his neck. "Creepy. But not unusual, not for someone with your talents."
Now he was seriously freaking out. Jumping to his feet, Blair paced away from her. "Whoa, whoa, whoa! What in the hell are you talking about? What talents?" He whirled back around to face her.
Sky's brow was furrowed in concentration and she seemed to be staring at some point behind him. Finally her eyes raised to meet his. "I would have thought someone would have told you, you being an anthropologist and all. I mean, I'm assuming you've lived among, or at least studied primitive cultures, Native American even. I'm getting a really strong 'vibe' off of you, a strong connection to the earth, to the mother of all things."
"Can you speak English? I'm like, totally lost here." He knew he was being rude, but he was suddenly scared, both of what had happened, of the little 'trip' he'd taken, and whatever she was hinting at.
"You know I'm a practicing druid, right? And I sense some of the same gifts in you. No one's ever told you that you had shamanistic leanings?"
He shook his head vehemently, feeling a chill run through him, the same chill he'd felt when Incacha had laid his bloody hand on his arm and spoken the words Jim had translated as passing the way of the Shaman to him. "I'm not a shaman," he replied sharply, his intensity surprising him.
Shrugging, she got to her feet. "Okay. You're not a shaman." Reaching out, she rubbed his tight bicep. "But don't tell me you haven't had any brushes with the mysterious. Wasn't it Einstein who said something like the most fascinating experiences of our lives are the ones with the unknown--"
Blair swallowed tightly, surprised to have his own words, the ones he'd uttered to Jim after the fountain incident, tossed back at him. Why was he so freaked by this? He'd wanted it then.
"--And shamanism can be an enriching and fulfilling life choice." Changing the subject, she said, "You ready to go, or you want to look around some more?"
He took a final glance at the sacrifice diorama and suppressed a shudder. "I think I'm ready for dinner."
Sky slid her arm around his waist as they headed for the exit, and he felt relief wash over him. At least she didn't think he was mental, and she didn't show any more interest in his little 'moment', obviously sensing how uncomfortable he was with what had happened. Maybe some day he would be ready to talk about his experiences with the unknown, but it wasn't today.
Jim climbed out of Rafe's Toyota and stretched. It wasn't quite as cramped as the Volvo, but it had already been a long, frustrating day. Forensics was down to a bare bones crew in the lab, basically there just to flag stuff for the people coming in on Monday. Same thing with the medical examiner's office. He'd hoped Dan Wolf would have been able to do Amy Kettering's autopsy that day, but Dan's daughter's wedding had been that afternoon. And on top of that, he hadn't gotten anywhere with Interpol. Someone would call him back on Monday. He hated when crime happened on the weekend. Nothing got done in what he considered a timely matter. Of course for him, timely was yesterday. He snorted at his own joke. Now he was beginning to sound like Sandburg.
"Private joke?" Rafe asked.
Jim gave him a tight smile. "You could say that. I just had a Sandburgian thought." Rafe quickly crossed himself, and Jim laughed out loud. "Funny, very funny."
The younger man shrugged. "Better safe than sorry. It could be contagious."
Jim looked around at the scenery. They were in the middle of the woods outside Cascade proper. He estimated at least a hundred cars were parked among the trees. "So this is a rave."
"Well, it's the parking area. This is the largest outdoor rave in the Pacific Northwest. It's on private property, and not a part of the Cascade National Forest. This rave isn't too bad, actually. They frown on alcohol use, and that cuts down on a lot of the problems." Rafe was talking over his shoulder as he walked through the trees into a huge, semi-cleared area.
Dozens of makeshift booths lined the edges of the clearing, hawking everything from CDs and T-shirts to bottled water and soda. A large lighting rig had been set up, and colored lights and strobes were bouncing off the foliage. At one end of the area was a raised stage, and Jim could see several DJs manning the turntables. The smell of pot wafted by his nose, and he sneezed.
"Let me get this straight. Alcohol is taboo, but drugs are okay?"
"Well, within reason. It's mostly marijuana and Ecstasy around here. Coke's a little much for this crowd."
Jim looked at the sea of sweaty, gyrating bodies. Most of them did seem to be college age or younger. "Come on, I'll introduce you to the DanceSafe people."
Jim followed Rafe around the edge of the area, to a simple folding table with a banner draped over it. A couple of college kids were manning the very low-tech testing facility. It consisted of a small ceramic plate, an exacto knife, some paper towels and a small bottle of liquid. A large sign was lying on the top of the table. It read:
This test produced a normal reaction.
That means this pill does contain some Ecstasy.
(either MDMA, MDA, MDE or a combination)
It does NOT mean the pill is "pure".
(There could be something else in it.)
It does NOT mean the pill is "safe".
(No drug is completely safe, even if it is pure.)
It does NOT tell you how much is in the pill.
(There could be a little or a lot. You never know.)
As he watched, a boy who couldn't have been more than 15 offered up a pink pill with a Playboy bunny logo pressed into it for testing. The girl behind the table instructed him to read the sign as she took the pill, wrote down a description of it on a form, measured it with calipers, then placed it on the plate and scraped a small amount off of it with the exacto knife. Handing the pill back to the boy, she then added a drop of the liquid to the scraping. The liquid quickly turned a black-purplish color. She carefully explained that meant that the pill contained some form of Ecstasy, but that it did not mean it didn't contain anything harmful. Once he had left, the next person in line stepped up and, wiping off the plate, she began the process all over again.
Ellison shook his head. He didn't understand it. To him, it looked like the DanceSafe people were condoning drug use. He said as much to Rafe.
"Look, Jim, the kids are going to take the drugs anyway. This is just a way of giving them more information about what they're taking, more information with which they can decide whether or not they want to take the risk. These people aren't condoning drug use; they're making kids at least think before they pop the pill." Rafe was nearly shouting to be heard over the loud music.
It still didn't make sense to Jim. Kids shouldn't be taking drugs in the first place. Their lives shouldn't be so horrible or so boring that they needed drugs to lift their spirits. The Sentinel within growled. This was his city, his kids were putting themselves in danger, and he couldn't see a way to effectively stop it. Jim rubbed his temples. He was going to have one hell of a headache before this night, and this case, were over.
"Headache?" Rafe yelled in his ear.
"Yeah!" he yelled back. The thumping bass was making his fillings vibrate.
"Here!" The other detective pressed something into his hand. "You'll be okay for a little bit? I'm going to go talk to the DJs."
Nodding in response, Jim opened his fingers to find a pair of foam earplugs. He quickly inserted them, and turned his hearing down, giving him some relief. He cut in front of the next kid in line and leaned over the table. "Can someone take your place for a few minutes? I need to talk to you." He discreetly raised the bottom of his jacket and flashed his badge at her.
"Yeah, just a second. Jorge! Take over will you?" The girl got up from her seat and followed Jim a few paces away, under the boughs of a tall fir. "What's this about? We already got permission to set up our booth."
"I understand that. I just wanted to make you aware that there is a new drug out there." He gestured at the crowd. "A girl who took it last night died."
The young woman nodded slowly. "I'd heard something about that. Do you know what the drug looked like?"
Jim clenched his jaw. There was so much he wanted to be able to tell this woman, to help her protect the kids, and yet he didn't have all the answers himself. Forensics probably wouldn't be done with their chemical analysis until later in the week, and he had no way of really knowing if what Amy had taken had come from the pills confiscated from Celtic Anam. "No. It was some kind of tablet, probably white, and is supposed to be an herbal substitute for Ecstasy. Instead, it makes a person's temperature rise so high that convulsions and internal bleeding can result."
She ran a hand through her loose blond hair. "Shit. PMA? DanceSafe made sure all the local chapters knew about it after those people in Australia died. But I haven't seen any of it here. And it doesn't react with our testing kit. It gives no reaction, just like a dozen other chemicals." She stuck out her hand. "I'm Janice Tartovsky, by the way. I head up the chapter here, Officer--?"
He gripped her extended hand firmly. "Ellison, Detective Jim Ellison."
Even in the dim light under the trees he could see the blush that crept across her cheeks. "Oh, wow! You're that guy!"
Puzzled, Jim shook his head. "Uh, what guy?"
"That guy with the eagle eyes and the super nose. From TV. Professor Sandburg's friend." She made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a squeal. "Sorry, sorry! I'm probably embarrassing you. It's just I've never met a celebrity before."
Jim wasn't quite sure how to handle the sudden fawning. "Um, I'm not really a celebrity. I'm just a cop who doesn't want to see any more kids get hurt."
"Right, right. So we're on the same side then." There was awkward silence for a moment, then Janice seemed to realize she'd been holding onto his hand for longer than necessary. She snatched it back, and Jim had a vision of her never washing it again.
"Hey! I just had an idea!" She fairly beamed and did a good imitation of the Sandburg bounce. "You've got a really good sense of smell, right? As good as a dog's?"
Jim grimaced. Only last week Simon had called him a 'human bloodhound'. "Probably," he answered warily.
"You ought to be able to learn to identify drugs by their scent, the way dogs do. I'll bet with some practice, you could probably separate out and identify all the different ingredients that go into some of the pills we get here for testing. You'd be amazed at what people will put into a pill and call Ecstasy."
The Sentinel felt his headache increasing. Wonder if Sandburg knew he had a twin? "I'll just bet you're studying anthropology, right?"
She did a double take. "I'm in my senior year. How did you know?"
He gave her a world-weary smile. "I'm familiar with the species. How about I hang out here for a while, and you can teach me what you know about the different variations on Ecstasy?"
"Sure. That would be great." She bounced again, then headed back toward the table, Jim following.
The clock on the sign for Cascade Bank was flashing 11:14 when Blair pulled into the parking lot outside Celtic Anam. He parked next to Sky's Cavalier and turned off the engine. Staring out the windshield at the neon lights of the Toy Box, he tried to gather his thoughts. Sky had been great. Bright, witty, fun--and he felt like he'd been a disappointment. The thing at the museum had stayed with him, bothering him all through dinner. What did it mean? Did it mean anything? Had he just been daydreaming, or had it been something more? Was it a spirit vision? He didn't particularly want to have spirit visions; that was Jim's area.
"Blair--" Sky's voice interrupted his turbulent thoughts.
"I'm sorry. This date has pretty much been a bust. I know I haven't been very good company tonight, and I was kind of hoping that--"
Leaning across the space between them, Sky cupped his face in her hands, then her lips captured his in a gentle kiss that built slowly to searing. When she pulled away, Blair inhaled deeply, feeling his eyes widen, then squeaked out the rest of his request, "--I might get a do-over."
She simply smiled at him and grazed her thumb over his lower lip. He felt like he'd just landed on the sun.
"Tomorrow's Sunday, and my shop is closed--"
At the mention of Celtic Anam, Blair's gaze automatically flicked to the entrance to the store. What he saw instantly broke the mood. "I think the store's been broken into."
"What?" Letting go of him, she turned in the seat to stare out the windshield. When she flinched, he knew she'd seen the same thing he had; the glass in the door was shattered. "Pepper!" Sky started to get out of the car, but his hand on her arm stopped her.
"I know you're worried about your friend, but stay put for a minute, okay? Let me call it in and get some cops out here." Grabbing his cell phone from the glovebox, Blair called 911 and reported the break-in. He tried to contact Jim as well, with no luck. Reaching under the seat, he pulled out a heavy-duty flashlight. "Okay, now we go look around. Pepper's car isn't still here, is it?"
Sky shook her head as she got out of the car. "No."
He tossed her the cell phone. "See if you can reach her." While Sky was dialing, Blair approached the broken door and shined the light inside. The place had been trashed. All the shelves had been pulled down, and the merchandise was scattered everywhere. Deciding it would be better to wait for backup, he walked back to the Volvo.
Sky was leaning against the hood, talking into the phone. "Yeah, someone smashed the door. No, I don't know if anything was taken. I'm just glad you're okay, Pepper. I'll call you when I know something." Snapping the phone shut, she looked up at Blair. "How bad is it?"
He grimaced. "Bad. Everything's been smashed."
"Everything?" Her voice quavered on the word.
"Looks like it." He slid his arm around her shoulders. He could feel her shaking against him as she pressed her face against his chest. Blair was still holding her when the squad car pulled up.
Sky sat in the relative quiet of her car, watching the flashing lights reflect off the raindrops rolling down the windshield. Sometime in the preceding hour the beautiful clear skies had clouded over, and rain had begun to fall. The weather was in harmony with her life.
It's just things, Sky. Things can be replaced. People can't. How very, very lucky she had been, then. Pepper had been long gone before the vandals arrived, and she and Blair had probably just missed them. A knock on the window interrupted her thoughts. A young woman with dark auburn hair was peering in at her, holding up a badge.
Getting out of the car, she stood under the umbrella the female detective held. "Yes?"
"Ms. Kullien, I'm Inspector Connor. Sandy called me in when he couldn't get hold of Ellison. He seems to think this might be related to some drugs that were confiscated from your store today."
Sandy? That was different. So was the Australian accent. "I don't know. I took a brief look around in there after the other officers arrived, and it doesn't look like anything of value is missing. We keep the drawer to the register locked up in the storeroom, and it was still there. I don't know what to think."
The taller woman looked back at the shop. "I think I'm going to agree with Sandy, that this is personal. Do you live alone?"
Sky shivered. "Yes, why?"
"Might be in your best interest to stay with some friends tonight, if at all possible."
Nodding, she asked, "Do you think you'll find who did this?"
"I've got officers going door to door now, but not much is open this late. We'll probably have better luck finding any witnesses tomorrow." One of the forensic technicians waved at the inspector from just inside the building. "Sandy went to find some plywood to patch the door with. He should be back soon. Please wait for him before you go home."
As the woman walked off, Sky climbed slowly back into her car. Shutting the door, she watched as a uniformed officer tried the door to the Toy Box. It was obviously locked, and no amount of knocking brought anyone to the front. That was strange. Normally they were open until 4 a.m. on Saturday night, and--she checked her watch--it was a little past midnight now. She filed that peculiarity away for Blair's return.
Sky shifted her overnight bag higher on her shoulder. "I really appreciate this, " she said to Blair as he unlocked the door to his apartment.
He looked at her as he opened the door. "No problem. And I feel better knowing you're here with me instead of alone at your place."
Blair took her bag from her as they entered, and disappeared down the hallway just past the kitchen. Returning with an armful of clothes, he said, "Make yourself at home. I'm just going to grab a shower and change."
Smiling at him, Sky walked into the large living area of the apartment. "I'll be fine. Go get out of those wet clothes." They had both gotten soaked by the rain while putting up the plywood over the door of Celtic Anam. She'd dried off and changed when they stopped by her place to pick up her stuff, but Blair had been shivering and miserable for nearly an hour.
He padded down the hallway. She heard the bathroom door close, then the shower start.
She slowly wandered around the apartment. It was a little bare, but Blair had told her he'd just moved in a few weeks ago. To her left, French doors opened onto a balcony. Crossing the room toward the doors, she examined the object that had drawn her eye. A wood and metal spiral staircase led up to, and through, the ceiling. Weird. She'd have to ask Blair where it went.
To the left of the front door, four dining room chairs sat in a circle around a nonexistent dining table, and she chuckled at the sight. Most of the room was taken up by a futon couch and a long, dark red sofa. The two couches outlined an "L" shaped living area in the center of the room, flanked at either end by one blue and one green beanbag chair. Opposite the front door, under several high windows, sat what looked to be the beginning of a large bookcase/entertainment center. The bare frame was completed, and pieces of shelving and cabinet doors leaned haphazardly against it. A cardboard box sat on the floor in front of it, the picture on the side showing a TV set.
Her tour finished, Sky entered the open kitchen, and spied the teakettle sitting on the range top. Filling it with water from the tap, she set it back on the stove to boil. Starting with the cupboard closest to her, she began opening them until she found some tea. She blinked in astonishment. Lots and lots of tea. Nearly a whole cabinet full, and all of it from her shop. He liked her. He really *liked* her.
Blair chose that moment to reappear, wrapped in a terry cloth robe. "Sky, you--"
She pounced at him, wrapping her arms around him in a tight hug. She pressed her face against his neck, inhaling the fresh scent of Tropical Seas shower gel, a line of products she knew she was the only supplier for in Cascade.
Blair's arms went around her hesitantly as he asked, "Sky, what's the matter?"
She pulled away just enough to look at him, not ready to let go. "You have tea. And you smell good." Leaning in again, she took a big whiff of his still damp hair. It smelled like the rainforest after a storm. Her eyes met his soulful blue ones, reading confusion, and interest. Definitely interest.
This time Blair initiated the kiss, his lips meeting hers tentatively at first, then deepening the kiss until she could feel the sparks all the way to her toes. The shrill whistle of the teakettle broke the spell. "What the--?"
She brushed her lips against his lightly. "Tea. You were cold, so I was making you tea." Letting go with one hand, Sky reached behind her, fumbling along the edge of the stove until she found the burner knob and turned off the flame. The whistling faded. Her hand returned, this time going around his neck instead of his waist. "Where were we?" He blinked at her, and suddenly she wasn't quite so sure of the signals she thought he was sending. Releasing Blair, she stepped back. Turning away from him, she opened a cupboard. "Where do you keep the mugs?" She felt his hand on her shoulder, and she didn't resist as he spun her slowly around to face him.
"Sky, what the heck is going on?"
Running a hand over her hair nervously, Sky seemed to be pondering her reply, as if saying the wrong thing now could kill whatever future they had. "Chemistry," she finally said.
Blair shook his head, damp curls softly flying. "I'm still lost."
"Chemistry. You know, that thing that two people have together that makes them electric, that draws everyone's eyes to them. Simpatico, karma, body heat--"
"Ah, pheromones." He smiled, visions of Jim in a coatroom flashing through his mind.
She frowned. "Uh, well, sorta. But not exactly. I mean, you have tea, and Tropical Seas Rainforest shower gel, and---" she flushed "--you have lots of tea," she finished lamely. She moved away, opening another cupboard and taking down two large cups. Grabbing the closest box of tea from the still open cabinet, she pulled out two teabags, dropped them in the mugs and poured hot water over them.
Blair's gaze followed her hand to the cabinet, noting the chipped polish on one nail, the result of struggling with plywood in the dark. He finally noticed the brightly colored packages cramming the shelves. Oh! Tea!
Pleasant warmth suffused his whole body, a smile tugging at his lips until it spread across his face. He stared at her, entranced. Her head was bent in concentration, a tendril of hair that had escaped her ponytail lying along her cheek. He was reaching out to touch it when a clatter made him look down. Water was puddled on the countertop, dripping onto the floor.
"Sorry, sorry. It slipped," Sky apologized.
Blair relieved her of the kettle gently. Setting it down on the range top, he took her hand. "Sky, it's okay, really. I know just what you mean. About the tea. About chemistry." He leaned in closer, his free hand reaching up to lightly stroke her cheek.
She closed her eyes at his touch, and he moved closer still, sensing the warmth of her breath against his skin. His lips brushed over her cheek, then his mouth covered hers, and as her arms went around his neck, he knew they understood each other perfectly.
Jim tossed his keys in the basket by the door as he entered the loft. A glance at the clock in the kitchen showed the time as 3:23 AM. He ran a hand over his face, then shrugged out of his damp jacket, hanging it on a peg. He toed off his muddy shoes as well, then walked down the hall to the bathroom, where he deposited his wet clothes in the hamper.
Jim and Rafe had left the rave when it had started to look like it was going to rain. Rafe had driven him back to the station where Jim picked up his truck. From there, he'd intended to go home, but had found himself driving sometime later along the back roads of Cascade County. He guessed he'd just needed time to think, to turn over the facts of the case in his mind. He hadn't come to any conclusions. They had pieces of the puzzle, but as yet no idea of how they fit together. Once again, he cursed the fact that it was the weekend. Come Monday morning, he would be camped on Forensics doorstep.
Pulling on his bathrobe, he tied the belt securely around his waist, then walked back out to the living area. Crossing to the spiral staircase, Jim descended quietly to his partner's darkened apartment. The thought briefly crossed his mind that maybe he could tone down the protective bit now that Blair had his own place. Smiling to himself, Jim shook his head. Nah.
Checking the deadbolt on the front door, the sentinel nudged his hearing up a notch. He picked up the sound of two people breathing in the slow, even pattern of sleep. Now he was seriously curious. He crept down the hallway to the open bedroom door and looked inside.
The room was dark, the shades on the windows shut, the scent of candles long snuffed out lingering in the air. Blair lay on his side on the queen-size bed, facing the doorway. Tucked under his arm was Sky, her cheek pressed against his shoulder.
Slightly embarrassed, Ellison headed back toward the stairs, grinning ruefully. Whatever the kid had, Jim wished Sandburg would figure out a way to bottle and sell it. He'd be first in line to buy a bottle.
Jim pulled the truck to a stop in the gravel parking lot. He couldn't believe he had agreed to come along. It was Sunday morning, the one day he allowed himself to sleep in. Yet, here he was in the middle of nowhere with only a couple hours of sleep under his belt. Climbing out of the Ford, he stretched and gazed up at the tall trees he could glimpse through the thin fog. "Why did I let you talk me into this, Sandburg?"
Blair grinned at him over the hood of the truck as he gave Sky a hand out of the cab. "Because I promised I'd buy breakfast. And we can go from there straight to Celtic Anam. You said you wanted to have a look at the crime scene before Sky starts cleaning up." The two of them walked around the vehicle to join Jim.
"I appreciate you giving me a ride out here, Jim, but you don't have to participate in the ritual. I'm only here because I'm Bard today. Otherwise, with everything that happened last night, I'd be home in bed with the covers over my head," Sky said.
Jim smiled at her. "No, I'm here. I might as well join you in your walk in the woods. Unless this is for druids only?"
The young woman shook her head. "No, we welcome anyone who respectfully wishes to attend our ceremonies."
He glanced around at the other people and cars in the parking area. "How many of you are there?"
Sky zipped up her jacket. "Probably about twenty or so today. It's not a High Holy Day, so only the diehards show up when the weather's not perfect." She waved at someone. "I've got to go prepare. If you get bored during the rites, or feel uncomfortable, it's perfectly okay to leave. We don't draw a circle, so people can come and go as they please. When everyone starts heading into the woods, just follow."
"I think we can handle it," Blair told her with a grin.
Jim watched as Sky moved closer to Blair, her hand finding his. "You okay with this?" she asked in a low voice.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm good. I'm always interested in observing different religious ceremonies. Why do you ask?"
Sky shrugged. "I just thought you might be a little leery, after the museum last night."
Blair kissed her lips lightly. "I'm fine. It was just a little weirdness, and my life is always weird, so I'm okay, really."
A small line of worry creased her smooth brow. "Okay, but like I said, you don't have to stay for the whole thing." Giving him a peck on the cheek, Sky walked off.
Jim leaned against the front of the pickup, pondering the exchange between the new lovers. "Sorry for eavesdropping, but what, exactly, was that all about?"
Blair turned his gaze from Sky's retreating form to Jim. "Huh? Oh, about the museum. Nothing, nothing. I just had a strong reaction to an exhibit on human sacrifice."
"Human sacrifice? I can't imagine you *not* having a reaction. That's the kind of person you are." Jim clapped his friend on the shoulder. "Come on. Looks like they're starting."
Jim and Blair joined the group of druids, and listened as Sky outlined which chants and songs and type of ritual would be performed that day. Sky asked Jim if he would like to do something called an offering, and he shook his head, as did Blair when she asked the same of him. Once instructions were given, the group began the procession to the grove, chanting in unison, Jim and Blair bringing up the rear.
They reached a small stand of trees and circled it several times, then came to a stop. A prayer was given to mother earth, and Jim obediently closed his eyes as the group meditated together. He let his mind shut off and his senses wander through the forest, feeling Blair's hand on his arm as an anchor against zoning. The damp, loamy smell of wet leaves and earth filled his nostrils, and he inhaled the pleasant scent deeply. Birdcalls echoed among the treetops, and he could hear the scratch of squirrels' claws against tree bark. A feeling of peace settled over him.
The voice of the leader flowed through the grove, giving offering to something he called "the outsiders, the negative forces in the universe and in our lives", recognizing their power, but making it clear that the ritual participants wanted nothing to do with them.
The calm Jim felt inside was shattered. He opened his eyes and glanced around wildly. His chest felt tight, as though he couldn't breathe, and there was a smell irritating his nose. "Aaaachooo!" He sneezed violently a second time. Sage! Through watery eyes, he saw one of the participants waving a smoking stick in the air.
Leaning toward Blair, Jim choked out, "Sandburg. Sage--"
"Oh, sh--" Blair hissed under his breath. Taking Jim's arm, he led him away from the ceremony. "Sorry, man. I didn't think. I should have known they'd use sage to purify the grove."
Using the edge of his sleeve, Jim wiped at his eyes, then coughed. "S'okay. I'll be all right, just give me a few." He walked a little further down the path, glad the grove was downwind from him. He turned to look at Blair. "Chief, you go ahead and go on back. I'm just going to wait in the truck."
Blair glanced back through the trees for a moment, then shook his head. "I think Sky was right. I'm not ready for this yet. Not until I have a better understanding of druidism, so I know the purpose behind the rituals."
Together they hiked back to the parking lot and climbed into the truck. Reaching behind the seat, Jim pulled out the Sunday paper, a thermos and a couple of mugs.
"Hey! What's that?" Blair asked as the rolled up paper landed in his lap.
"Coffee. And reading material. We could be here a while." Jim poured coffee for them both, then stared out the window. He could still hear the druids singing, the language unfamiliar. It made the hair on the back of his neck stand up, and he twitched.
Blair raised an eyebrow at him. "Sage still bothering you?"
Jim shook his head. "Singing. Off key or something."
"Tune it out, man." He took a sip of his coffee and began separating the paper. "Sports?"
Ellison took the proffered section, then settled in for a long wait.
"So, where were you *really* last night when I tried to call you? There has to be more to it than just 'Out'."
Jim took a sip of his drink. "I went to a rave with Rafe. He introduced me to some people there who test pills for kids. I'm not sure I agree with what they're doing, but they know a hell of a lot about Ecstasy. One of your former students was running it, a Janet Tartovsky?"
"Janet? Cool, haven't seen her in a while. Knowing her, she'll end up writing a paper about it. Rave didn't bother your senses?"
"Not too much. Rafe gave me some earplugs, and I turned my sense of smell down." Ellison hesitated before asking his question, knowing he was going to be ribbed something fierce by the anthropologist. "Uh, Chief, Janet had this idea...."
"Oh? What kind of idea? About finding the source of the bad drugs?" Blair set the newspaper in his lap and turned his full attention on the sentinel.
"No, about my sense of smell." Blair's eyebrows shot up toward his hairline, and Jim waved a hand to forestall the questions he could see on his lips. "Being an anthropologist, she remembered me and my senses from all the publicity. She wondered if I could be taught to use my sense of smell like a drug dog does, and seeing that I'm officially 'out' about that, it could be used in court. Do you think I could learn to sniff out this PMA stuff?"
He dared a glance at Blair. The anthropologist's eyes were wide and his mouth gaped. He opened and closed it a few times, then said slyly, "Well, Jim, yes, you could learn to do that, and identify hundreds of other drugs, too. But that would require...tests!"
Jim flinched. "I know. But it would be a useful skill to have, especially on this case."
"Okay. If any of those pills we got from Sky's store test positive for PMA, then I'll set up some tests for you. Shouldn't take you too long to learn to identify it."
"Okay." Jim opened his paper, and silence descended inside the truck for almost ten minutes.
"Weather's supposed to be nice most of next week," Blair commented.
Jim grunted non-committally. A few minutes later he growled, "Those idiots. The Cascade Effect's letting Jean Arquette go to the Maple Leafs for a draft pick and two minor leaguers."
Sandburg pushed his glasses back up on his nose. "He did sit out most of last season on the disabled list."
Jim turned to the next page. "So? According to his doc, he's healthy now. Everyone wants the young guys nowadays. Doesn't experience count for anything anymore?"
Blair's grin was almost evil. "You'd know more about that than I would, old timer." Unfortunately, in the confines of the Ford's cab, there was nowhere he could go to avoid the swat Jim aimed at his head. "Ow! Okay, okay, I take it back!"
Companionable quiet resumed for a few more minutes, then Blair's low curse broke the silence. "Damn. They found another body in Cascade County."
The detective looked over at the anthropologist. "Same as the others?"
His friend nodded, reading from the article, "A badly decomposed body was found in a wooded area off Rural Route 3. The sheriff's department isn't releasing any other information until the identity of the body and cause of death have been determined. When asked if this body was related to the other two found in the past several weeks, Sheriff Grant's answer was 'No comment'."
Jim folded the sports section neatly and got out of the truck. He rubbed his hands against the rough fabric of his jeans, then pushed the brim of his Jags cap back and stared up at the gray sky. He heard the door close as Sandburg exited the truck as well. Gravel crunched under the younger man's feet as he came around to stand at his partner's side.
"You okay, Jim?"
Taking his cap off, Jim ran a hand over his face, then put his hat back on. "Yeah, just thinking. Hoping, actually. The city of Cascade has enough problems without a serial killer stalking around the outskirts." He looked down at Sandburg. "How far do you think this Sentinel thing goes? I mean, I'm obligated by my job to protect the citizens of Cascade, but does that extend to the county too?"
Blair took his time before he answered. "I don't know, man. I think that's up to you and your conscience. If you're asked to help, you'll help. But there are some good detectives at the sheriff's department, and we don't know what's going on with their investigation. They could have a suspect. Hell, Jim, no one's even said these people died of foul play."
Sighing, Jim shrugged his shoulders. "You're right, Chief. We've got an important case to solve right now. No sense in courting any more trouble, is there?" The guide shook his head. Jim looked up the trail toward the druids' grove. "Sounds like they're breaking up. So where do you want to go to breakfast? I have a craving for an everything omelet from Denny's, with hash browns smothered in cheese and covered in gravy."
"Denny's is fine with me, man. It's not my arteries we're talking about." This time Blair managed to duck the swat and trotted off to meet Sky.
Monday morning found Jim camped in the hallway outside Forensics, waiting for Serena Chang. He pushed himself away from the wall when he spied her getting off the elevator. She shook her head as she approached, keys in hand. "What is it this time, Detective?" She unlocked the door.
Jim followed her into the lab. "Sandburg and I both dropped off evidence relating to the Kettering girl's death. We need a rush put on it."
Slipping into a lab coat, Serena picked up a clipboard. After checking the list, she said, "You have some pills for testing, and a box you want checked for fingerprints."
"That's the ones. If you could put a rush on the pills, that would be great." Jim gave her one of his best smiles.
The technician chuckled. "I'll handle the drugs, and put Sam on the box when she comes in. Any idea of what the pills might contain?"
Jim dug in his pocket and pulled out a slip of paper. "Sandburg thinks it might be something called Paramethoxymethamphetamine. I made him spell it out for me." He handed her the paper.
"Okay, I'll see what I can come up with. You going to be around?"
"For a little while at least. I'm waiting to hear from Interpol. Try me at my desk first, and if you get my voice mail, page me."
"You got it, Jim. Now let me get to work."
Thanking her again, Jim headed upstairs to Major Crime.
At a little after 1 p.m. Blair dropped into the chair next to Jim's desk, plopping his backpack on the floor, then bending over to dig inside. The usually fairly tidy anthropologist sported a dusty black stain on the white T-shirt he wore under an unbuttoned jean shirt, he had a streak of grease across his forehead, and his hair was flying in thirty different directions. Sitting back up, he pulled his unruly hair back into a ponytail and fastened it with the tie he'd taken out of his bag. That done, he scrubbed at his face vigorously with his hand, succeeding in only smearing the grease, then let out a long sigh.
Jim closed the folder he'd been looking through before Blair made his entrance and raised an eyebrow at his partner. "All that was about what?"
Yawning, Blair slumped lower in the chair, stretching his legs out in front of him. "I hate Mondays. I hate teaching 8 a.m. classes. Half the students are still asleep."
"Knowing you, so's the professor."
Blair shot him a dirty look, but continued with his story. "Then I had an interminable staff meeting, an accident with the copying machine, my computer ate the disc Denise gave me with this semester's grades on it, and that tire we got fixed on Saturday went flat again."
"Well, would it make you feel any better to know I've been making headway on the Kettering case?" Jim handed a folder to the other man. "Autopsy report. Dan came in early this morning to do it."
Pulling his glasses out of his pocket, Blair slipped them on, then opened the file. After a few minutes silence, he looked back up at Jim. "That's horrible. Her organ cells broke down and she bled out internally." He shuddered, and Jim rested his hand on Blair's shoulder. Sandburg gave him a slight smile, and turned to the next page. "Tox screens won't be back for a couple days?"
Jim shook his head. "No, they won't, but Dan consulted with some medical examiner who's seen this kind of reaction before. He's nearly a hundred percent sure we're looking at PMA." He waved a second folder at the younger man. "Which, according to Serena's tests, is what was in those pills we confiscated from Sky's store. There were prints on the box the pills came in, but chances are they belong to Sky, her helper, and the delivery guy. We'll have to get their prints for comparison." He picked up a third folder. "And, I had a nice talk with someone named Sharise at Interpol. She was very helpful, and faxed us a large file on one Lars Thorvald, alleged drug dealer. He's been associated with the European manufacturers of Ecstasy for a long time, though he's never been convicted, always managed to get off on a technicality. She was wondering where he'd disappeared to."
"Did you tell her here?"
"Yes. If we can catch him, Interpol has some questions they want to ask him, about his friends he probably ordered the PMA from. I also checked out Sky's story and called the manufacturer who supplies that herbal XTC stuff to Celtic Anam. They said she had placed an order two weeks ago to replenish her stock, but they're behind in filling the orders and haven't shipped hers yet. I asked for the names of any other businesses they sell to in Cascade, but she's the only one."
"So what do you think?" Blair set the autopsy report back on the desk. "That whoever sent that package to Thorvald deliberately mimicked another company's product to fool the authorities?"
"Seems like a sound theory to me. The maker of the herbal XTC is overnighting us a sample of their packaging so we can compare it to the bottles we confiscated. Any differences between the two might help us track down where the fake came from. I also called our friends at the DEA and asked what kind of Ecstasy traffic they're seeing into and out of Cascade. They told me most of the supply seems to be coming from California or the East Coast," Jim told him.
"But if Thorvald can find some way of getting shipments directly into Cascade from Europe, he cuts out the middleman and sets himself up as the big source of Ecstasy here. What I don't get is why PMA? Why go to all this trouble for a substitute for E that kills the customer?" Blair looked at his partner.
"I don't know. Maybe his suppliers gypped him. Maybe he planned on slipping the fake Ecstasy into the market, and once people started getting sick, he could set himself up as the only dealer who could be trusted to have the real stuff. Whatever the reason is, isn't important. Getting this shit off the streets is. We have to make a connection between him and any kind of drugs, PMA, or MDMA."
Blair chewed his thumb. "So we're back trying to connect him to the package of PMA."
Jim gave him a wide grin. "I've been working on that, too. I spent part of my morning calling all the private couriers in Cascade. I found the one that delivered the package to Celtic Anam. We're supposed to drop by there this afternoon to look at their records. I thought we could swing by the Wilson boy's house as well. I spoke with his mother, and they've been out of town since Saturday morning. That's why we couldn't get hold of them before. He should be home from school after 2. I want to make sure the pill Amy Kettering took came from the batch at Sky's store, and that we don't have two supplies of this crap floating around."
"I won't argue with that." Both men looked up as Megan Connor approached. "Hey, Megan, what's up?"
"What happened to you, Sandy?" she asked, running her gaze over him.
"Huh? Oh, just your typical Monday. Why?"
"You have a big streak of something right here." She pointed to her forehead.
Blair lightly punched Jim in the shoulder. "Why didn't you tell me, man?" Getting to his feet, he left the bullpen, headed presumably for the restroom.
Megan perched on the corner of Ellison's desk. "So, where were you Saturday night, Jimbo? How come I got the pleasure of responding to Sandy's call in the pouring rain?"
"I was at a rave with Rafe."
She giggled. "Now that I would have liked to have seen."
Jim stacked the folders from the Kettering case neatly on his desk. "How's the investigation on the break in at Celtic Anam coming?"
The Australian shook her head. "It's not. Nothing was taken, or at least Ms. Kullien hasn't found anything missing yet. The place was thoroughly trashed, yet no one seems to have seen or heard anything."
Jim raised an eyebrow. "Not even the people next door? Sandburg told me the Toy Box is supposed to be open until 4 a.m. on Saturdays."
"I had a couple of uniforms go by there this morning. The manager claims his Saturday night employee called in sick, and he had to close early. No one was there after 10 p.m."
"Awfully convenient if you ask me," Jim replied.
"That's what I thought. I was going to drop by this afternoon--"
The door to Simon's office opened and the captain stuck his head out. "Connor! My office!"
"--uh, guess I'm not going to check it out." She hopped off the desk.
"Mind if Sandburg and I do? I want to ask the owner some questions about the Kettering case."
"Be my guest," she shot back over her shoulder as she disappeared into Banks' office.
Blair returned at that moment, his face clean. "So what's the plan?"
Getting to his feet, Jim grabbed his jacket from the coat rack. "Lunch, a visit to Ron Wilson, then we go check out the Toy Box."
Ellison waited for Sandburg to climb out of the Ford before he began walking up the drive toward the Wilson home. Like the Ketterings, they lived in one of Cascade's pricier subdivisions in a huge two-story house similar to the one Jim had grown up in.
Blair trotted up beside him as they approached the front door. "How do you want to handle this?"
Jim shrugged. "Play it by ear, I guess." He rang the bell.
A woman of Hispanic heritage dressed in a starched black and white maid's uniform opened the door. "Can I help you?"
The detective held up his badge. "Detective Ellison, Cascade PD. Mrs. Wilson is expecting me."
The woman frowned, but opened the door wider so they could enter. "Right this way." She showed them to a room off the main hallway. "You can wait in here. I'll let Mrs. Wilson know you've arrived." She vanished deeper into the house.
Blair wandered around the sitting room, examining the photos lining the mantel over a large fireplace. "This must be Ron," he commented, holding up a photo of a lanky young man with a shock of dark hair. He was dressed in some kind of sports uniform.
"Looks like he plays lacrosse," Jim replied.
"Captain of the team three years running." A thin, dark-haired woman dressed in a stylish suit entered the room. Switching her cigarette to her left hand, she held out her right to Jim. "I'm Anita Wilson. Though I'm not sure how I can help you, Detective."
Jim shook her hand, then reached into his pocket for his notebook as Blair appeared at his side.
Blair made to shake her hand also, but she pointedly ignored his gesture. "Blair Sandburg, consultant with the Cascade Police," he finally said to get her attention. "What we'd really like is to talk with your son about where he was Friday night."
Anita Wilson made a moue of distaste, but whether it was over Blair's unorthodox appearance or his request, Jim wasn't sure. "Ron's not home from school yet, but I can answer your question. He was at a ball game."
"That's interesting," Blair said pointedly, and Jim decided to let him continue. Mrs. Wilson was getting off on the wrong foot as far as the detective was concerned. If she wanted to dig herself a hole, and Blair wanted to point it out to her, who was he to stop them?
She interrupted a drag on her cigarette to ask, "What's interesting?"
"Interesting that Ron was at a ball game, when I have several witnesses that place him at an illegal rave in the warehouse district Friday night." Jim would have sworn the smile the anthropologist gave her was self-satisfied.
Mrs. Wilson was saved from answering by the sound of the front door opening and closing, and the pounding of feet in the hall. A male voice yelled, "Mom, I'm home!"
The woman stiffened, but called to her son. "Ron, can you come in here?"
The boy from the photo appeared in the doorway. "What is it? I'm on my way to Jeff's to play basketball."
She gestured for him to come in. "These men are from the police. They want to talk to you about where you were Friday night."
Jim could see a moment of fear in the boy's eyes as he looked them over, but Ron stood his ground. "We have a couple witnesses who saw you with Amy Kettering at the rave--"
Ron's mother jumped in before Jim could finish. "Oh no! You're not going to blame that little troublemaker's death on my son!"
"Mrs. Wilson, we're not accusing your son of anything. We just want to ask him about what happened," Blair said placatingly.
The woman headed for the telephone on the bar at the end of the room. "Not another word, Ron, not until you talk to a lawyer."
"I really don't think a lawyer is necessary, Mrs. Wilson. If Ron answers our questions, we'll be on our way," Jim said.
She hesitated, phone in hand. "Mother, put the phone down and go upstairs." Ron looked at Jim. "I'm eighteen. She doesn't have to be here, does she?"
Jim shook his head. "No, legally you're an adult."
"I'll tell them what they want to know, and they'll leave." Ron waited until his mother left the room, then he sank into one of the plush chairs and buried his face in his hands. "It's my fault, isn't it? That herbal stuff I gave Amy killed her, didn't it?"
Blair sat down on the footstool opposite the teenager. "Unfortunately, that's the way it looks. But it wasn't your fault, Ron. The pills in the bottle you bought weren't the safe Ecstasy substitute you thought they were. They were something much more dangerous, an illegal drug called PMA."
The teen gave Blair a blank look. "I don't know anything about that. Some of the kids I went with wanted to try Ecstasy, but I didn't trust those jerks who sell the stuff at raves. So I bought it from the store."
"No, no, of course you don't," Blair soothed. "We just want to know if you still have any of the pills left. It's very important that we find all the pills, so someone else doesn't get hurt."
Wiping at his eyes, Ron nodded. "The bottle's in my backpack." Getting to his feet, he went out to the hallway and returned with a blue backpack. Opening the front pocket, he took out a white plastic bag with the Celtic knot logo and the word Anam on it. "Here. I bought them at that herbal shop on Pine Street. There were four pills in the bottle. Amy took one. She was always the youngest in our group and, well, I think she kind of felt she had to try harder to fit in, to be fly. So she was the only who took it. When she started to have seizures, we all ran. I feel really awful about that. I should have stayed--"
The anthropologist patted Ron's shoulder as he handed the sack to Jim. "You were scared, man. What you did was perfectly understandable. And there wasn't anything you could have done, that anyone could have done."
The teen sniffed loudly. "But I should have stayed. That would have been the right thing to do." He twisted his hands in the backpack's strap.
"Has your school set up any kind of counseling to help the students deal with Amy's death?" At Ron's nod, Blair said, "You should go talk to them. They can help you get through this." Pulling out a business card, he pressed it into the young man's hand. "If you need to talk to someone else, give me a call, okay? I'm Blair Sandburg."
"Okay, Mr. Sandburg." Ron leaned back in the chair and threw his arm over his eyes.
Blair looked over his shoulder at Jim. "We need anything else?"
"I don't think so, Chief. You sure you're going to be all right, Ron?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'll be okay. You guys know how to get out, right?"
"Yes," Jim answered as Blair got to his feet.
As they left the house, Blair kicked at a stone lying on the sidewalk. "That sucked. That poor kid's going to blame himself for Amy's death the rest of his life, and in a way, he's right. If they hadn't been at the rave, if he hadn't bought the drugs, if they hadn't wanted to be cool...." His voice trailed off.
Yeah, life sucked sometimes. Jim rested his hand on Blair's shoulder for the short trip to the truck.
Jim strode out of the Toy Box, shaking his head, Blair hot on his heels. "What? What did I do?"
"Only you, Sandburg. Only you could walk into a sex store and within two minutes have both genders offering you their phone numbers, among other things."
Blair bounced and grinned up at him. "Can I help it I'm adored equally by everyone?"
The sentinel cuffed the back of his partner's head lightly. "Better watch your libido, Chief, or you'll find your new relationship over before it starts." He gestured with his shoulder toward Celtic Anam.
"Nope, not gonna happen. I'm going to take my time and see where this thing with Sky goes. Speaking of which, I'm going to go see if she's there. She said she might be in today to meet the insurance adjuster."
"I'll wait by the truck. My sinuses about exploded from all those scents mixed together when I was inside yesterday."
"Hey, speaking of scents, you didn't smell any PMA in the Toy Box did you?"
The anthropologist had let Jim smell the PMA tablets they'd confiscated from the Wilson kid in the hope he would pick up the same scent inside the sex shop. Sandburg looked so hopeful that Jim hated to disappoint him. "Sorry, but no. I didn't have any trouble filtering out everything else though, so the theory seems sound. And I can smell the PMA in the truck."
Blair rubbed his hands together eagerly. "Good, good, that's really good. We'll have to set aside some time to really acquaint you with the scent of different drugs and their components, then run some exercises to see how quickly you can find them, even if their smell is masked. Hey! I know! We could get Monica and her K-9 Rudy to help us out. She probably knows some good teaching methods--"
Jim laughed. "Okay, but if you're going to use the reward method, I'm not going to work for dog biscuits. Now Wonderburgers are another story."
"Ha, ha. Very funny. See you in a few." Blair walked over to the newly repaired entrance to Celtic Anam and knocked. A few minutes later Sky unlocked the door and let him in, waving to Jim. He returned the wave, then leaned against the hood of the Ford.
The owner of the Toy Box, Lars Thorvald, had been unavailable, and the interview with the manager proved unproductive. He stuck to his story about the sick employee on Saturday night, and claimed no knowledge of any expected package gone astray. As far as the sentinel could tell, the man hadn't been lying. As for drug odors in the store, aside from the stale scent of marijuana, there was nothing. They'd stopped by the delivery company on the way to the strip mall, but hadn't turned up much there. The company had picked up the package at an address in Cascade, but Jim had a sneaking suspicion it would turn out clean and that no one there would know anything about it.
"Well, well, if it isn't Dudley Doright Ellison." Jim turned around to see one of his old snitches from his Vice days just exiting the Toy Box. "You get busted back down to Vice, Jimmy?"
Ellison flexed his jaw, rapidly reminded of how much he'd hated working Vice. "Hello, Coco."
The scantily clad woman sashayed toward him, licking her lips. Pressing herself up against him, she fingered a button on his shirt. "So what're you doing in this neighborhood, Jimmy? Finally come by to take me up on my offer?"
Jim ignored her pawing and asked, "You hang out here often?"
She pressed a long, lacquered nail into his chest. "Oooh, still pumping iron."
"Yeah, I come here often enough. Gotta keep up with all the latest gadgets and gimmicks. Wanna see?" She lifted the sack she was carrying and began to rummage inside.
"Some other time. Right now I'm interested in anything you know about the owner of the Toy Box." She hesitated. "I'll make it worth your while."
Sighing, the prostitute leaned up beside him against the truck. "Ah, yes, you always were a man of your word, and I've still got a soft spot for you. So you want to know about old Lars, hmm? He's new. Not new, new, but only been here about ten months. From one of those cold countries in Europe."
"Is the place legit? Does he have a side business going on?"
"The Toy Box is squeaky clean, a member of the BBB. Now you want action, you need to go to Lars' place on the north side. You heard of Rage?" Jim nodded. Rage was a dance club that had opened nearly six months ago. "That's where Lars does all his business. Pretty little setup. He charges them a cover to get in, makes 'em buy drinks, and then he's selling Clarity like it's candy."
She raised a penciled eyebrow at him. "You have been out of Vice for a while, haven't you? Clarity, E, Adam, the love drug. Ecstasy, baby."
Jim's lips curled in a thin smile. Got you, you child-killing bastard.
"But if that's what you're in the market for, you're going to stand out like the cop you are at Rage. Though if you had the right accessories it could work for you."
Jim scowled at her. "What 'accessories'?"
She winked at him. "Oh, something along the lines of that delicious piece you had tagging along with you in the store."
He could feel the flush creeping up his face. Ducking his head, Jim reached in his pocket and took out his wallet. Handing the woman a couple bills, he said, "Thanks, Coco. You've been a big help."
She tucked the money into her cleavage, obviously enjoying the fact that his eyes couldn't help but follow her hand. "Any time, Jimmy. And don't be such a stranger."
As she walked off, Jim made a mental note to contact his old colleagues in Vice to get the scoop on Rage.
Sky closed and locked the door of Celtic Anam, then turned to face Blair. He reached up to run his fingers over her cheek, tucking an errant lock of hair behind her ear. His hand slid behind her neck, and he held her in place as his lips met hers. For the next few minutes, Sky was in heaven. Never in her life had she been quite so thoroughly kissed. When he let her up for air, she stared into his eyes for a long moment, then said, "Hello to you, too." She stepped back, hoping a bit of space between them would cool the incredible heat coursing through her. "What brings you by here? I thought you were going to come over to my place for dinner later."
"I was. I mean, I am. We were just next door talking to the Toy Box's manager about the drugs, and the vandalism."
She put her hands on her hips. "He have anything to say?"
Blair shook his head. "Let's just say he was less than helpful. And Jim didn't pick up any trace of drugs in the store." He glanced around. "How's the cleanup coming?"
"Slowly. The insurance guy was here this morning taking photos. He's supposed to get back to me." Sky ran a hand through her hair. "I've been cleaning ever since he left, and trying really hard not to cry. I still don't understand why someone would do this."
"Oh, baby, I'm so sorry." Blair wrapped his arms around her again, and she leaned into the tight hug. "Look, it's nearly five o'clock, and you've been here all day. Why don't you quit now, forget about cooking, and go out to dinner with Jim and me?"
She was about to answer when there was a knock on the door. Looking over Blair's shoulder, she could see Jim gesturing for her to open the door. Releasing Blair, she went to let him in.
"Sorry to make you cut this short, Chief, but I got a lead on the drugs I think we should check out."
Blair glanced back and forth between Sky and his partner. She could see he was torn between going and staying to comfort her. "Blair, go. I'll be fine. I'm just going to finish up a few things then head home."
"Okay. Call me when you get home, all right?"
She crossed her heart with her finger. "Promise."
Giving her a kiss, Blair headed out the door behind Jim. "Lock this, okay?"
"Got it." She turned the deadbolt as she watched him get into the passenger side of Jim's truck. A few seconds later, they drove away.
Long after the sun had set, Sky was nearly through restoring order to the stock room. Grabbing two large bags of trash, she unlocked the back door and stepped into the alley. Walking over to the dumpster, she tossed the bags into the bin, then headed back toward Celtic Anam, her mind on Blair.
She had just entered the store when something solid was pressed into her ribs, and an arm tightened around her throat. Kicking hard backwards, Sky yanked down on the arm around her neck as she shoved up on the elbow. Slipping under her assailant's grasp, she sprinted out the door. A black van blocked the alley, the side door open. A muscular man with close-cropped blond hair stood next to the van, a gun in his hand.
For a moment, Sky entertained the notion of making a run for it, but the man who'd attacked her in the store came up behind her. A hard shove between the shoulder blades sent her sprawling into the van, the door slamming shut behind her.
Simon Banks put his signature on the last file from his in-box, closed the folder, and tossed it into his out-box with a sigh of satisfaction. Taking a cigar out of his desk drawer, he rolled it between his fingers for a moment, considering his options. It was four-thirty p.m. on a Monday, his paperwork was done, and he hadn't heard a peep out of the bullpen for the past hour. He pressed the button on his intercom. "Rhonda, I'm going to cut out early today--" he began. Blair Sandburg burst into his office. "Sandburg! What did I tell you about knocking?"
Blair grinned cheekily at him. "Sorry, sir." He rapped on the doorframe next to him as Ellison appeared behind his partner.
"We have a break in the Kettering case, Simon," Jim announced as he followed Blair into the room and shut the door.
Banks nipped the end off his cigar and lit it as Sandburg perched himself cross-legged on the conference table while Jim remained standing. "So what is this lead?"
"While we were checking out the Toy Box, I ran into an old informant of mine. They clued me to the fact that Thorvald owns that new club, Rage, and he's working a drug operation out of there."
"You're sure of this?"
Blair spoke up. "Yes, I did a quick city records search and the same dummy corporation owns both the Toy Box and Rage, though you have to dig to get that information."
Simon digested that bit of news. "You don't have any hard evidence of the drug operation, other than this informant's word?"
"That's true, sir, but we feel it's enough to go check it out," Jim answered.
"What do Vice and Narcotics have to say about the place?"
"That they've been keeping an eye on it, but haven't turned up anything suspicious. I'm not asking for much, Captain. Blair and I will go in and check it out. We'd like Rafe and Brown to back us up."
"Pardon me for asking, but what makes you so sure you'll turn up evidence of illegal activity when Vice and Narcotics haven't found anything?" Simon wasn't deliberately giving his men a hard time, but with the Mayor breathing down his neck, he didn't want them pursuing a questionable lead that could take days or even weeks to pan out, if it ever did.
Waving his hands to punctuate his words, Blair leaned forward so far he was in danger of falling off the table. "That's the beauty of having Jim and me go in, Simon. Jim can identify PMA by scent. If it's there, he'll find it. We can set up a raid based on his information."
The captain raised an eyebrow. That was a new one. "Just when were you planning to spring this new Sentinel ability on me, Jim?"
The detective shrugged. "It's not a big deal, sir--"
Blair interrupted him. "He's always had the ability to learn to identify drugs by scent, we've just never used it."
Simon bit down on his cigar. "And why is that?"
Jim shifted his feet uncomfortably. "Until now that ability hasn't been strictly 'legal' so to speak. But now that I'm out in the open about my enhanced vision and smell, I can use them to their fullest extent."
"And testify to what he finds using them in a courtroom. Of course, we want everything to be strictly by the book the first couple of times he goes to court. He'll have to demonstrate his abilities a few times, but once he's shown the court system he's for real, then they should treat his senses as just another forensic tool," Blair explained.
"All right. Get Rafe and Brown in here and we'll go over this in detail. Both of you will be wearing a wire. With the two of you, something is bound to go wrong, and I want your backup to be on top of it."
"Whatever you say, sir," Jim agreed as he opened the door to call the other detectives into the office.
Sky blinked as the door to the van slid open, light flooding the interior. The blond man who'd kept a watchful eye on her for the short trip gestured toward the open door with his gun. As she climbed out, she took careful note of her surroundings.
The van stood in an alley under a security light that shone over the unmarked entrance to a large, warehouse-sized, structure. The driver of the van opened the door to the building. The guy with the gun grasped her by the arm and hustled her inside.
They walked through a maze of corridors before coming to a stop outside a door marked "Office". Sky could hear the muffled sound of music coming from somewhere inside the building. It had to be extremely loud for the thumping bass to penetrate the cinder block walls.
Her escort rapped on the door, then entered, dragging Sky with him. He pushed her roughly into a chair, then stood behind her. Fuming, she glared at the man seated behind the desk, Lars Thorvald. When he showed no sign of looking up from whatever he was working on, she snapped, "If you wanted to talk to me, all you had to do was pick up the damn phone!"
His ice blue eyes lifted, his gaze running contemptuously over her. Thorvald rested his elbows on the arms of his chair and steepled his fingers together. "I was afraid a phone call wouldn't express my request strongly enough, Ms. Kullien." He got straight to the point. "Where are the herbal XTC pills that were mistakenly delivered to your store?"
"I don't have them. I turned them over to the police." She folded her arms across her chest. Thorvald's face turned bright red and she half expected to see steam come rolling out of his ears. "But you should have figured that out, since you destroyed my store looking for them."
"I did no such thing! Why would I, when all I have to do is ask you where they are?" He seemed genuinely offended, his expression puzzled.
"You know the stuff in that package wasn't any good, don't you? It killed a girl Friday night. So I did you a favor by getting rid of it. I mean, no one would buy from you if word got around that your stuff made people sick."
Again, he looked surprised. "You're lying! My suppliers are the most reliable--health product manufacturers--in Europe."
Sky shook her head, knowing they were dancing all around the real subject by pretending they were talking about harmless herbs instead of illegal drugs. "Maybe it was just a mistake. Look, if you let me go, I can get the police report from my friend that says exactly what was in them."
"Do you really think I'm that stupid? I have my own sources." He reached for the phone just as there was a knock on the door. At his "Come in", a man entered. Sky recognized him as the manager of the Toy Box.
"Boss, some more cops were in the store this afternoon, asking about the robbery next door." Belatedly, he noticed Sky. "What's she doing here?"
"We're discussing the break-in at her store. What did you tell the police?" Lars asked.
"The truth, man. That Ringo called in sick Saturday and we had to close early. Nobody was there when her store was robbed."
Thorvald smiled at Sky. "There, you see? I didn't have anything to do with it."
"Fine. I'll be going then." Sky started to get to her feet, but the goon behind her shoved her back into the chair.
"Now, now, Ms. Kullien. Before I let you walk out of here, I have to confirm your story, and that may take some time." He gestured to his henchman. "Find some place to put her where she won't get into trouble."
Once again, Sky was yanked to her feet and dragged from the room.
"Testing, testing," Blair said as he walked across the parking lot outside Rage. The headlights of Brown's and Rafe's sedan flashed.
"The wire works just fine, Chief. You don't have to keep checking."
Blair trotted a few steps to catch up with the sentinel. "Yeah, yeah, I know. I just have this bad feeling, that's all." He shivered slightly as they approached the entrance.
"Well, if you were wearing a little more in the way of clothes...."
"I need to blend in, man." He was dressed in a pair of very tight leather pants he hadn't worn in years and a sheer silk tee that didn't leave much to the imagination. "Though you surprised me. I didn't know you did biker chic so well, Jim." Blair glanced at his friend, who was clad in black jeans, formfitting black t-shirt and a leather motorcycle jacket.
Jim held the door open for the other man. "Did you ever get hold of Sky?"
Blair shook his head. "No, and I'm a little worried. She promised me she'd call me when she got home."
"Well, maybe she called your place and left a message on the machine." Jim slipped the doorman the cover charge for the both of them, then strolled into the club, Blair right behind him.
Blinking a couple of times, Blair let his eyes get used to the low lighting, then gazed around the large room. It being a Monday night, the crowd was sparse. The club appeared to have three levels, the dance floor at the bottom, surrounded by a tier of small tables. On the top level, booths were set back in the shadows, and he could imagine the patrons using the privacy to get to know each other better. Or to spy on the people on the dance floor and at the tables. A shiver ran down his spine. He had been in these kinds of places before, but Rage gave him the creeps. He could only imagine what the atmosphere would be like if the place was packed. Wall to wall decadent sensuality was the image that came to mind.
Turning his attention from the booths to the dance floor, he could make out the thrashing, gyrating figures in between flashes of the strobe lighting. Most of the patrons were dressed similarly to Blair and Jim, leather, skin, or some variation thereof. He was a bit surprised to note that some of the dancers were women, though the male couples outnumbered them two to one.
Blair moved closer to Jim. "How do you want to do this? Start at the top and work our way down?"
"Sure." They moved off, making their way slowly through the club. Blair directed Jim in a systematic search pattern as Jim concentrated on separating the myriad of scents.
As they wove through a throng of people clustered around the bar, Blair jumped. "Ow!" Jim looked at him strangely. "Someone just goosed me!" Blair hissed.
His partner snorted in laughter. "I told you you needed to be wearing more clothes."
Blair muttered something rude under his breath, then hurried to catch up with Jim.
The door slammed shut behind Sky. Swearing loudly, she immediately tried the handle, but it was securely locked. She let out a frustrated screech.
Why in the hell had this happened to her? She really, really wanted to throw something. Deep, cleansing breaths, girl. Let the anger go. It won't help you think your way out of this. Several minutes passed before she felt calm enough to examine her make-shift cell.
Thorvald's goon seemed to have stuck her in some kind of janitor's closet. There was a sink at one end of the 10 foot by 8 foot space, and the shelves lining the walls were filled with cleaning supplies and toilet paper. A mop and bucket stood next to the sink.
Sky took a closer look at the door. The handle was all one piece, no lock she could pick--if she knew how to pick a lock. A smile spread slowly across her face. The door opened in. Now if she could just find some kind of tools& .
A thorough search of the shelves turned up a rusty, paint flecked screwdriver behind some cans of paint. Things were looking better and better. An ear pressed to the door didn't detect any sounds of a guard outside. She set to work.
Taking hold of Blair's arm, Jim led him to one of the tables on the second level of the club. "Sit down, Chief."
"What? Did I do something?" he protested, though he sank into a chair, his expression relieved.
"You're a bigger distraction than you are a help. If I had to hear you say 'ouch' one more time, I was gonna slug someone." Jim sat down, rubbing his temples.
"Sorry, I didn't realize my outfit was going to be such a problem." He scooted closer toward his friend. "This place getting to you?"
The sentinel rubbed his eyes. "Yeah. And it's not your appearance, it's the whole atmosphere here. The strobe lights, the noise, the dry ice smoke, and the pheromones. It smells like one big orgy in here."
"And you would know what an orgy smells like?" Blair grinned at him, but his eyes showed concern.
"I can imagine, Darwin." Jim let out a long sigh as his guide rubbed his shoulder.
"Just turn everything down, man. I'm sorry. This was a pretty stupid idea, and it'll be my fault if you end up with a migraine. Were you able to pick up anything at all?"
Jim shook his head. "Did I smell any PMA? No, damn it. The marijuana smoke in here would choke a horse, but that's about it."
Blair chewed at his lip, his gaze flicking around the club. "You want to call it a night then?"
The detective leaned back in his chair. "No, let's not give up so easily. We can hang out for a couple hours, just looking and listening."
"Okay." Blair got to his feet. "I gotta make a pit stop. I'll get us something to drink on the way back."
Jim watched as his partner wove through the club toward the hallway marked 'Restrooms'. A hand snaked out from the crowd and unerringly found its target. Blair jumped, then whirled on the person. A few choice words and a glare, and he traveled the rest of the way unmolested. Jim felt a smile on his lips. Blair could take care of himself. He turned his attention to the dance floor.
"Hey, Jimmy, buy a working girl a drink?" Coco slid into the seat next to him, crossing her legs seductively as her skirt crept up her thighs. "I see you took my advice." She jerked her head in the direction Blair had disappeared to.
Jim flagged a waitperson and let the prostitute order, shaking his head when asked for his selection. "I ought to ask for my money back, Coco. There's nothing going on here as far as I can tell."
She thrust her lower lip out in a crimson pout. "I told you Lars was slick. He's dealing, he's just careful about it. And why are you asking me to do your job anyway? I gave you the dish, now it's up to you."
"Have you actually seen anyone buy the stuff here?"
She shrugged, one shoulder strap on her dress slipping down her arm. "I haven't purchased anything myself, but some of the other girls say Lars' stuff is high grade."
The waiter returned, setting a Singapore Sling before Coco, and a draft beer in front of Jim. "Uh, I didn't order this," he complained.
"Compliments of an admirer," the man said. "And it's not for you. It's for your friend in the tight pants."
Scowling, Jim paid for Coco's drink, then glanced toward the bar. No sign of his partner, and his head was killing him. Reaching in his pocket, he pulled out a small bottle of aspirin and shook two out into his palm. He downed them with a swallow of Blair's beer. What Sandburg didn't know wouldn't hurt him.
Blair washed his hands at the sink, studying his reflection in the mirror, noticing the lines around his eyes, and the tiny furrows across his forehead. Jim wasn't the only one getting a headache. The thought of spending even another hour in the club was painful.
Exiting the restroom, Blair headed down the dim hallway toward the phones he'd spied earlier. Fortunately, one was free, and he punched in Sky's home number. After three rings, her answering machine picked up. Leaving a brief message, he hung up and dialed his phone, then listened to his messages. There was one from Denise reminding him of a meeting in the morning, and another from a vinyl siding company, but none from Sky. He glanced at his watch. It was only a little after 9. Maybe she'd gone out to dinner, or to the grocery. He'd give it another hour, then try to reach her again.
Hanging up the receiver, Blair turned to walk back to his table, bumping into a man coming the other way. The man stared down at him, his eyes narrowing. Recognizing him as the manager of the Toy Box, Tony something or other, Sandburg mumbled "Sorry," and pushed past him into the club. Hoping Tony didn't remember him from his visit to the sex shop that afternoon, Blair got in line at the bar. Fifteen minutes later, he headed back to where he'd left Jim, balancing two glasses of mineral water.
Ellison was sitting at the table with a scantily-clad woman. She had her arm resting on his shoulder, and as Blair watched, she leaned over and blew in Jim's ear. What really shocked Blair was that Jim didn't seem to mind.
Catching sight of Blair, Jim waved a hand at him. "Over here, Chief."
Blair took a seat on the sentinel's right at the circular table, setting the glasses he held on the flat surface. He took in the other drinks on the table. "Who's your friend, Jim?"
Jim looked at the woman, as if seeing her for the first time. "Oh. This is Coco, an old snitch from my vice days. She's the one who gave me the tip about this place. Coco, this is my partner, Blair. " He grinned at her. She smiled at Blair and licked her lips.
Uh-oh. He didn't know what was going through Jim's mind, but Coco's was an open book. In French, no less. "Um, Jim, we're supposed to be working here--"
The woman giggled. "I'm supposed to be working, too."
Blair could imagine at what. Ignoring her, he addressed Jim. "I told you I was getting us something to drink. How come you ordered a beer?"
"I didn't. It's from an admirer." Picking up the glass, Ellison drained what little was left.
"Your admirer," Coco added, pointing at Blair with one red claw.
Blair rubbed the bridge of his nose. He could feel his headache pressing against the back of his eyes. The last thing he needed was some strange guy buying him drinks. "My admirer?"
"Someone besides me thinks you're hot," the prostitute informed him. "And they sent you a drink."
"And Jim is drinking my beer why?"
"I was thirsty." Jim got to his feet and extended his hand to the woman. "Let's dance."
"Oooh, Jimmy. How'd you know they're playing my song?" Taking his hand, she followed him down the stairs and onto the dance floor.
Blair pushed his hair out of his face. What in the hell was Jim doing? Maybe this was some kind of plan. God, I hope it's a plan. Settling back in his chair, he kept his eyes on the unlikely couple, and wished he had an aspirin.
Sky stepped back from the door in the cramped room and surveyed her handiwork. Some liquid soap, the screwdriver, and a lot of muscle and cursing had managed to pry one of the pins holding the door hinges together out.
One down, one to go. She just hoped Thorvald wouldn't decide he had an urgent need to speak with her again in the next few minutes. Picking up the bottle of soap, she sat down on the floor and squirted it over the bottom hinge pin, making sure it hit all the nooks and crannies.
Leaning her back against the door, Sky gave it some time to penetrate, and thought about Blair. She wondered if he'd been worried when she hadn't called. She wondered if she'd ever see him again. No. I can't think that way. No negative thoughts. I will get out of here. I will see Blair again. "And when I do, I'll tell him to have his cop friends arrest that son of a bitch."
Getting to her knees, Sky worked the screwdriver into the hinge and began to pry at the pin.
His arm around Coco's waist, Jim steered her toward where they'd left Sandburg holding down a table. He picked out his guide's glum face easily in the dim light. Jim knew just how to cheer him up.
Sneaking up on Blair from behind, Ellison wrapped an arm around the younger man's shoulders and rubbed his knuckles over his scalp in a vigorous 'noogie'.
"Yah!" Blair yelped and tipped off the tall chair, landing in an ungraceful tangle with it on the floor. "What in the hell are you doing, man? You damn near gave me a heart attack!"
"Get with the program, Chief! You're not smiling! You should be having a great time like we are!" Reaching down, he gave Sandburg a hand up. "What happened to your secret admirer?" he teased.
Sandburg batted Jim's hands away. "Don't know; don't care. What's gotten in to you? We're supposed to be working here!" he hissed in a low voice.
"I am working." Jim grabbed up a glass of mineral water and chugged it. He belched, then said, "I'm getting a feel for the place--whoops!" Coco's hand had come to rest on his ass.
"More like getting felt," Blair groused. "I'm going to try and call Sky again. Stay here until I get back, okay?"
"Whatever you say, Blairsy." Coco batted her eyelashes at him and pinched his cheek as he left.
"God damn it! Why does everyone here think I'm public property?" Jim heard him mutter as he headed for the phones.
Coco slid onto a chair. "How about another drink, Jimmy?"
"Whatever the lady wants, the lady gets." Catching the eye of a waiter, he gave their order, then leaned over Coco as he sat down. Damn, she smelled good. He buried his nose in her neck, feeling her fingers ruffling his hair as she laughed.
Vaguely Jim realized that something was wrong, but Coco's perfume was incredibly distracting. Finding out how she tasted was much more important than any serious thought.
Just as things were getting interesting, Coco squealed, "Oh, I'm vibrating!"
Stepping back, Ellison stared at her. "What?"
"My pager, silly." She produced the beeper from somewhere within her tight dress. "Drat it. It's been fun, but I gotta run." Giggling at her rhyme, Coco got to her feet. "Important client, and I have to get back to work. We'll have to make it another time, Jimmy." She patted Jim's face, kissed him on the lips, then sashayed off through the club.
Blair returned to the table a few minutes after he'd left. Sky still wasn't home, and he was beginning to get worried. He climbed onto the chair next to Jim's. "What happened to your 'date'?" he asked.
"She got paged."
"Great! Can we leave now?" Blair implored.
Jim set down his drink. "What time is it?"
Blair looked at his watch. "10:45."
"How about we stay to midnight, and if nothing's happened by then, we can go."
Letting out a long sigh, Blair nodded. "Okay. I'm worried about Sky though. She's still not home."
Jim shot him a glare. "She's a big girl, Sandburg. I think she's capable of taking care of herself. And I don't know if I'm totally convinced she's not involved in this Ecstasy, XTC thing in some way."
Blair bit his tongue to keep back the angry words. He was tired and irritable, and Jim must be too. They both wanted the same thing, for this case to be over. Taking a deep breath, then releasing it, he said, "Fine. You want to stay, get to work. See if you can't pick up something." Conscious of the wire he still wore, Blair touched his ear, indicating he meant for Jim to listen for anything out of the ordinary. Jim nodded curtly.
A few minutes later, Blair felt Jim's hand on his back. Figuring the sentinel just wanted an anchor, he didn't think anything of it, until Jim's fingers started to lightly rub over the fabric of his shirt in a repetitive motion. "Jim?" No response. Blair swiveled in his chair to look at his friend.
Jim's eyes were staring out at the dance floor, but Blair got the oddest feeling his mind was elsewhere. "Jim, man, talk to me. You're freaking me out here."
Just as he was beginning to think Jim had zoned, Ellison spoke. "Your shirt--it's so silky. I could touch it all night."
Blair was starting to get seriously alarmed. "That's because it is silk, Jim."
Jim's fingers ran through the curls lying on Blair's shoulders. "Feels like your hair. Or is it your hair that feels like your shirt? Either way, it just feels so good to touch it." Lifting a handful of hair, he inhaled deeply. "Smells really good too, like orchids..." His eyes glazed over.
Frantically disentangling his hair from Jim's hold, Blair grabbed his partner by the shoulders and shook him. "Jim! Snap out of it!" What in the hell was wrong with Jim? If Blair hadn't known Jim had only one beer and a couple glasses of water, he'd have sworn his partner was drunk. Only Jim was never this mellow when he was drunk. In fact, he was acting like he was stoned, or--Oh, god, Ecstasy! But how? In the beer, you dope. The drink that was meant for you. But what if it wasn't? What if it was PMA? Jim could start having convulsions any minute, just like Amy Kettering!
Blair laid a shaking hand on Jim's forehead. "How do you feel, Jim? Are you hot? Do you feel sick?"
Jim grinned at him. "I feel great, Chief. On top of the world. I wish Coco hadn't had to leave. I really want to dance some more."
Blair chewed his lip. Jim was warm, but nowhere near as hot as Amy had been. He knew from his research that PMA lacked the euphoric effects of Ecstasy. And Jim was definitely euphoric. But there was no telling how his sentinel physiology would react to the drug.
"Brown, Rafe, I hope you're listening. We've got a big problem. Jim's been exposed to some kind of drug. I need to get him to a doctor." Blair got to his feet, lifting Jim bodily out of his seat. "We're heading out of here."
Jim blinked slowly, and threw his arm around Blair's shoulders. "Where are we going, Chief? Are we gonna go dance? I want to dance again." He twirled Blair away from him, singing, "I should be dancing, yeaaaah!" in a falsetto voice as he struck a pose.
Locking his hand around Jim's wrist, Blair began to tow him toward the exit. "Nope, sorry. No more dancing for you, Mr. Travolta. We need to get you to the hospital." They were almost to the front door when Blair saw Tony What's-his-name heading toward them, a couple of really big, muscular blonds behind him, and they didn't look like they just wanted to say 'hello'. "Oh, shit. Guys, we've got trouble with a capital 'T' here. We can't get out the front, going to try the back."
Reversing course, Blair headed for the doorway marked 'Restrooms'. There'd been an exit door at the end of the hallway if he remembered correctly. Jim was singing "Stayin' Alive" off-key as he attempted to do the electric slide.
Spotting the restroom sign, Jim said, "I appreciate the thought, Chief, but I don't have to go right now."
Hustling them down the hallway, Blair hit the release bar on the door, setting off an ear piercing alarm. Jim staggered in pain, his hands going to his ears as he stumbled under the sensory onslaught. "Sorry, Jim, sorry!" Wrapping an arm around Jim's waist, Blair half carried him through the door and down the cement block hallway toward the exit he could see at the end.
A door on the left side of the hall began to move as Blair and Jim approached. It tilted precariously out into the corridor, then with a huge crash fell across the hall to lean against the opposite wall. Both men instinctively jumped back to avoid being struck. "Shit!" Blair swore.
A familiar face peered around the doorjamb. "Blair? Oh, God, Blair!" Sky climbed over the door and threw her arms around his neck.
"Sky?" Truly shocked to see her, he nearly dropped Jim as he tried to juggle the two of them.
"Thorvald kidnapped me at gunpoint! He thinks I have his damn drugs! What are you doing here?"
Jim tapped Sky on the shoulder. "Dancing. Only Blair's not being any fun. Will you dance with me?" Sky looked at him as if Jim had grown two heads.
Blair sighed and began moving the three of them toward the exit. "Investigating Thorvald, only Jim accidentally took some Ecstasy." He glanced back the way they'd come. The door from the club was starting to open. "We can compare notes later. Right now we need to get out of here. Come on, Jim." Scrambling over the fallen door, he helped Sky over, then Jim. He began to run toward the exit, one hand gripping Sky's, the other firmly attached to Jim's elbow.
"Hey, you! Stop!"
Blair didn't even look over his shoulder. "H and Rafe, I hope you're outside the back of this place! We've got some bad guys on our asses!"
Jim hit the door first, pushing it open, and dashing out into an alley, Blair and Sky following. Thorvald's muscle was right behind them. Blair dragged Sky toward the cover of a dumpster, shoving Jim to the ground in front of him. "Keep your heads down, both of you!" he yelled, fearing imminent gunfire.
The blond bodyguards burst through the doorway to the sound of wailing sirens and "Cascade PD! Freeze!" The muscle hesitated for a moment, then they scattered in all directions.
"Shit!" Blair heard Brown curse as he picked one and dashed after him. Sandburg looked up to see Rafe running in the other direction.
Sky slipped out from under Blair's arm and dashed after a third. "Sky! Wait! What are you--" Blair began to yell as Jim took off the opposite way. "Aw, damn it!" He hesitated for a moment, then went after Sky, figuring that even extremely mellow, Jim was more than a match for a muscle-bound Swede.
When he caught up to Sky, she had her man on the ground. Every time he tried to get up, she hit him with a trashcan lid.
Several black and whites pulled into the alley, sirens screaming and lights flashing. As the officers approached, Blair dug in his pants pockets for his consultant's ID, managing to extricate it as he was being asked to assume the position. He quickly explained the situation while he pulled Sky off her kidnapper. Once he was satisfied she was safe and the cops had the thug under control, he went looking for Jim.
Blair discovered him at the other end of the alley. The man Jim had been chasing was sprawled on the pavement, a garbage bin on his head, Jim beating on it like a bongo. Sandburg shook his head. He was never going to be able to explain this to Simon.
He was prying Jim away from his new toy as two uniforms trotted up and swiftly took the perp into custody. "Come on, Jim. Party's over."
"So soon? But I like playing the drums--"
"I know, man, I know, but later,okay? We need to go see Dr. Abrams." He led Jim toward the parking lot where he could see the boxy shape of an ambulance just pulling in.
Sky caught up with him as Blair was trying unsuccessfully to coax Jim into lying down on the gurney. "One of your friends said I need to get checked out since I'm a victim of a violent crime."
He could see she was trying to hide the fact she was trembling. Blair knew that feeling, when everything you've been through catches up and hits you like a freight train. "Oh, God, Sky, I'm so sorry about all this--"
"Uh, Chief, I don't feel so good, feel really dizzy--" Both Blair and Sky reached out toward Jim as he sagged, guiding him toward the stretcher.
Once he was down, the paramedics stepped in to check him over. "Looks like mild dehydration. We'll start him on a saline drip on the way to Cas Gen."
"We're coming with you," Blair announced, giving Sky a boost into the ambulance, then scrambling up after her. "And could you call ahead and let Dr. Abrams know Jim Ellison is on the way in?"
"You got it." The doors closed and the ambulance drove off.
Blair leaned his back against the kitchen counter and rubbed his hands over his face. God, what a night. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been so tired. He peered out of the kitchen into the living area. Jim was lying on the red sofa, his eyes closed, Blair's silk shirt in his grasp. Touching it had seemed to keep him calm while Sheila examined him, and Blair thought there wasn't any harm in letting him keep it when they got home.
He let out a breath slowly. So many, many things could have gone wrong--well, they had gone wrong, but it could have been much, much worse. Jim's reaction to the Ecstasy he'd ingested had been mild compared to what it could have done to his heightened senses. Blair figured whatever had been slipped to him hadn't been very pure, and he'd only received a small fraction of a normal dose. Dr. Abrams had wanted to keep him overnight, but by the time she was through examining him, the peak effects of the drug had worn off, and though Jim was still feeling very relaxed, he'd had enough backbone to state he wanted to go home. At which, Blair had insisted Jim spend the night in his apartment, where he could keep an eye on the sentinel.
The teakettle whistled and Blair snatched it off the flame, setting it on a cold burner, as he turned the gas off. Getting down two mugs, he dropped a bag of Bedtime tea in each and poured the water over them just as he heard the shower turn off in the bathroom. He'd insisted Sky spend the night as well, when she told him she'd been unable to get a hold of her friend Rowan to come stay with her.
A smile crossed his face as he remembered the door falling across the corridor inside Rage, then Sky cautiously peeking out. She was definitely an intelligent and resilient woman. And he liked that--a lot.
She quietly slipped into the kitchen, bundled up in his bathrobe. He handed her the cup of tea. "Thanks." She took a sip, her eyes closing as she swallowed. When she opened them again, she said, "I'm not going to break, you know. You're not going to spot any bits flaking off by staring at me when you think I'm not looking."
Blair felt his face burning. "Sorry, it's not that. Well, yes, it is that, a little, but more like I can't believe you're here. I shouldn't have left you alone at the store--"
"Blair, what happened to me wasn't your fault. You didn't know Thorvald would go after me. It's over. He's in jail, and I get to give a statement in the morning that'll make sure he stays there. All the bad drugs are off the street, Jim's going to be okay, and I still think you're wonderful." She reached out to run her fingers over the stubble on his cheek.
"I do." Sky moved in close, kissing him gently. When she pulled back, she said, "I'm going to take this," she lifted the cup of tea, "and go to bed."
"Okay. I'm going to stay out here with Jim, in case he needs anything."
She caught his hand as she left, giving it a squeeze. "You get some rest, too, okay?"
"Okay," he breathed, then she was gone down the hall. Blair shook himself a few seconds later and, pulling the teabag out of his mug and tossing it in the sink, he took his tea into the living room.
Jim lay on the comfortable sofa, his eyes closed, listening to Blair and Sky talking quietly in the kitchen. He wasn't really paying attention to the words, but the cadence was nice, warm, calming. He stroked his hand over the smooth material of Blair's shirt, but it was losing its appeal. It no longer felt like his fingertips were having an orgasmic experience as he rubbed the fibers.
Now that he knew what had happened to him, knew he'd been drugged, things were beginning to make sense. A good deal of the evening was still fuzzy, but he trusted Sandburg would let him know if he'd made a complete ass of himself.
The light in the kitchen switched off, and Jim heard Blair padding quietly toward him. There was some rustling and squeaking as his friend moved one of the beanbag chairs next to the couch and dropped into it.
Rolling onto his side, Jim rested his head on his arm, regarding his guide silently. Blair was sunk deep in the beanbag, his head resting against the back, his legs stretched out in front of him. He held a mug in both hands, but didn't drink from it, just stared out the patio doors at the night. His sentinel sight automatically adjusting to the gray light, Jim could make out the tired lines on his partner's face and dark circles under his eyes. And yet, he seemed at peace.
Jim felt strangely calm himself. Normally a night after a big bust he would be too keyed up to sleep, his mind going over every last detail, making sure every 'T' had been crossed and every 'I' dotted so the bad guys couldn't wiggle their way out. But not tonight. All he could think of tonight was how lucky he was, how lucky the world was, to have Blair Sandburg in it. Might want to tell him that sometime.
And now is as good a time as any. "Chief?"
"Hmm, yeah, Jim? You need something?" Blair set the tea mug down on the floor and started to get up.
"No, no, I'm okay. I just--" Jim didn't know quite how to say it. "I just wanted to say 'thank you'. Once again, you saved my ass, the way you always do, and I'm sorry I never tell you how much I appreciate that, about how much I appreciate you."
"Jim, you don't--"
"Yes, I do. You're my best friend, Blair. The best guide, the best partner any guy could have. I don't know what came over me with the whole dissertation thing--"
"That's all water under the bridge, Jim. You fixed it." Despite Blair's words, Jim could hear his heartrate speed up. Talking about the fiasco still upset him.
"It shouldn't have needed fixing, Chief. I should have trusted you. I should have trusted you right from the beginning, talked to you about my fears, about my doubts. The whole thing could have been avoided if I'd just said what I felt."
"No, Blair, let me finish. I need to say this, okay? It may be the only time I'm capable of saying it." At Blair's slow nod, Jim continued. "I treated you like shit. Hell, I'd been treating you badly for a long time, starting, I guess, when I read the introductory chapter to your diss when you asked me not to. I treated like you crap when Alex showed up."
Blair opened his mouth to protest, but Jim held up a finger. "Please, Chief. I don't want to hear any theories about territorial prerogatives. I know you. I knew in my heart that you wouldn't betray me, yet I listened to my head, listened to my own lies, instead of what I knew in my soul. You helped Alex because you couldn't not help her. It's who you are. And I wouldn't want you to be any other way."
"Jim, I--I don't know what to say, man. I just--" He was silent for a moment, just breathing. "I--thanks. I think I've needed to hear that for a long time."
There was silence between them for a few minutes, then Blair spoke up. "You're my best friend, too, man. Didn't want you to feel left out." His grin was blinding even in the dark.
Reaching out, Jim ruffled his curls. "Are you going to sit in that bean bag all night?"
"Go. Sleep in your own bed. I don't need a damn nursemaid, and I'm sure Sky would appreciate it."
Blair shook his head. "She's cool, Jim. She gets it. Unlike certain past girlfriends who shall remain nameless."
"All right, I won't argue with you, then. But I better not hear you complaining in the morning." Jim rested his hand on his friend's shoulder, feeling Blair's fingers wrap around his wrist.
Blair stood back, surveying the entertainment unit that stretched the wholelength of the living area's back wall. It looked pretty good. He reached out and tested its sturdiness with a firm grip at the television and VCR ledges. Jim pushed at the bookcases and artefact nooks. They were rock steady too. The two exchanged a grin of satisfaction.
"Good job," Jim assessed, "if I do say it myself." He
"Yeah, well you had help, don't forget," Blair prodded his friend. "And you don't have to say it. I'll say it's a damned good job!"
He began scouring the floor for the detritus from their carpentry project.
"Hey, Jim, wanna give me a hand down here?" Blair asked with a little impatience.
"Yeah, sure, Chief. There's a bolt over in the corner there," a finger pointed to a dark corner, "otherwise, you got everything except sawdust. I'll get the vacuum from upstairs."
Blair straightened up to find his sentinel disappearing up the circular staircase. "Thanks, man," he yelled toward the ceiling. "I'll get started on the staining as soon as the sawdust is gone."
He had tidied up and put away the tools before Jim reappeared. "Thought you'd gotten lost up there, buddy," Blair joked. He clambered about halfway up to take the vacuum from Jim. Then both arrived at the bottom and the whirr of the machine blocked out any conversation.
"There, done," Blair pronounced. "Hey, thanks for the help, man. I couldn't have done it without you."
Jim reached out and swatted the curly hair, now a little haphazard from his partner's exertions. "You couldn't have found the hammer without me." He ducked a mock-swing, laughing. "I don't think you ever saw one of those before, did you?"
Blair's eyes were bright with the call to battle. "I could write a dissertation on hammers through the ages, Jim. In fact, since you're so interested...." He took a deep breath and Jim caught him at the waist, clamping a firm hand over the lecture about to pour forth. They vied back and forth for dominance until they bumped into the stair railing and fell apart, laughing.
"I figure a coat of stain and some varnish, and this will be something...beautiful," Blair said, half under his breath.
Jim stopped for a moment, then whacked him in the shoulder for good measure. "No stain, no varnish, not today," Jim announced, ignoring the pro forma 'Ouch!'.
"How come?" Blair rubbed at his arm, flexing to work out the kinks. "I can get the stain done today, and it should be dry enough to do the varnish tomorrow." He scanned his best friend's face for clues. "That was the plan. To finish it this weekend." There was a question in his last sentence.
"Yeah, well, the plans got changed," Jim told him. "I'm hungry."
"So we eat dinner -- I'll send out for pizza or Chinese, whatever you want -- and then I'll stain the unit tonight," Blair decided.
"Don't think you'll have enough time tonight," Jim said wisely.
A knock at his door interrupted their conversation.
"Sky!" Blair exclaimed with delight. "What are you doing here? Saturday's your biggest sales. Now that you're back in business, I figured you'd be tied up and tired out by now."
Sky accepted his exuberant kiss and swept into the apartment. "Hi, Jim," she said, tossing a gaily wrapped package over to the sentinel. "Pepper can handle the rest of the crowd from now till closing. Lovely job on this, Blair." She ran a hand over the smoothly-sanded surface of a bookshelf.
Blair closed the door behind her. "So what gives, guys?" he asked. "Is that for me?"
"No, that's Jim's gift," Sky teased.
"Oh, yeah, Chief. It's got my name on it," Jim reported. He picked out a tag. "B. L. A. I. R.," he read, then tauntingly held it over his head when his guide bounced up to grab it. The package went sailing across to Sky, who mimed dribbling and tried to fake a pass back to Jim, which Blair intercepted. He whirled Sky around until they both collapsed on the futon. Jim lay his lanky body on the red couch and sprawled himself at home.
"So what is this?" Blair asked, rattling the package, poking it, and doing anything but opening it.
Sky burbled. "No fair opening it now. You have to wait for the others."
"What others?" Blair demanded warily. Jim was looking far too smug. "Jim? What others!"
That was the signal. People started to pour into Blair's apartment, coming down the spiral staircase, spilling through the door.
"Yo, Hairboy! Surprise!"
"Hey, Blair, m'man!"
"Sandburg. Nice place!"
"Yeah. What do you call one of these, huh? A sub-Loft?"
And there was a gust of friends blowing through Apartment 207, all of Major Crime, come to pay a visit.
"Whoa!" Blair got up and started laughing and couldn't quite stop. "Where'd you all come from? What is this?" He stared from Rhonda to Joel to Daryl to Simon and thence throughout the crowd.
"Sandburg, don't you know what this is?" Simon Banks growled forbiddingly. "And here I thought you were a social anthropologist!"
"Wait, wait, wait," Blair protested, barely taking in the bright parcels of every size and shape, and something amazingly bulky that Rafe was trying to manhandle through the door alone. "No fair making fun of the guy you left out of the loop. Rafe, you need a hand?"
Rafe puffed, "Not from you. HENRI!"
Brown snapped to and they managed to get the thing into the apartment together, slammed the door behind them, and heaved it up to lean against the wall next to it.
"It's from both of us," Rafe said.
"And me, too," Joel inserted, indignantly.
"Yeah," H added. "Hope you like it, Hairboy."
Blair stood in the middle of a room invaded by his closest friends and suddenly realized what was happening. The grin on his face couldn't have been removed with plastic surgery. "Oh, man, oh, man," he kept saying until Daryl went up and pummelled him on the back, thrusting him toward the blue beanbag chair.
"Hey, dude," the teenager said briskly, "like, open the gifts so we can move on to the next stage. Pizza!"
Amid the cackle from the rest of the crowd, Blair did as told. Jim just tossed him the old red Tupperware from the loft, and Blair blew a raspberry back. He opened a set of Tweety Bird kitchen items, apron and gloves and potholders, which Sky had judged appropriate, and blushed as a new nickname began floating around the room. Daryl and Simon had chipped in with a toaster-oven, very useful, Rhonda with a multi-colored salad bowl set and glasses to match, and Megan's package held a warm, soft afghan woven in burgundy, navy and forest green. These gifts weren't cheap.
Blair looked up, overwhelmed. Everyone noticed.
"Hey, don't stop now!" H chided.
"Yeah, you haven't gotten to ours yet!" Rafe coaxed his friends. Together, he and Henri hauled Blair out of his beanbag chair and dragged him, unresisting, to the doorway where the weirdly shaped gift waited to be unwrapped. Joel came up behind, beaming.
Blair put out slightly shaky hands and Henri, with a look of disgusted pity, placed one of his own overtop Blair's and ripped.
"Oh, my God," Blair breathed.
He was looking at a beautiful drop leaf table, in the heavy Victorian style, cherry by the looks of it, waiting to be unfolded. He couldn't take his eyes off it. "Where did you find it and what did it cost?" he whispered.
"You don't ask the cost of a gift, Blair," Joel said gently. "Besides, it wasn't that much anyway."
"Yeah," H put in. "Rafe found it. He's got a real eye for value, Rafe does."
Rafe blushed as everyone stared at him. "Ah, I just read the weekly ads for forfeiture sales. This sounded like a heckuva a deal. So we, Henri and Rafe and me, we all went out to look at it this morning."
"Perfect timing," Joel said contentedly.
"Yeah, and the chairs that shoulda gone with, were destroyed in some kind of all-out brawl the old owners had. It was the table and nothing else."
"It's gorgeous," Blair said. He ran his hand along a scar marring the finish, and thought, 'It's gorgeous.' "Thank you, everyone," Blair choked out at last. "I, I love it all."
He was shaking hands and kissing cheeks and patting backs when the doorbell rang.
"Pizza!" Daryl crowed.
But the door opened to admit a tallish man with regular features in his late twenties, dressed in a cream cashmere sweater, fine tan slacks and Italian loafers. He did bear a couple of pizza cartons, however. "Hello, everyone. I got this from the delivery boy downstairs. Cute kid. It's forty-four fifty."
Everyone made way for the newcomer, although gazes ran around the room wondering who the man with the delicate features was.
"Hi," Blair said weakly at last. "Um, forty-four...."
"Got it, Chief," Jim said, and held out two twenties and a ten. The man pocketed the bills.
"Jim! How nice to see you again! Blairsy, you're looking smashing!"
The room was hushed and Jim was looking hunted. But Blair wore the lit-bulb expression of the newly enlightened. And a smirk.
"Nice to see you again, too, uh," Jim started.
The man began to laugh. "I knew you were a little gone when you invited me, Jimmy, but I didn't know you were that far gone!" He tittered into his hand.
"Jim?" Blair poked his sentinel in the back mercilessly.
Jim was a deer in the headlights. Without the aid of his guide taking him through a lengthy meditation, there was no question at all in Blair's mind but that Jim would never have any idea who this person was.
"We met Monday," the man said at last, holding out his hand for a shake from first Blair, then Jim. "I'm Coco."
At the expression on Jim's face, all of Major Crime cracked up. They all knew the name of Jim's snitch, but not her, or his, gender preference, and Jim obviously had had no idea what Coco looked like when she wasn't working.
"Happy housewarming!" Coco offered. He held out a glitzy box that revealed a salad-shooter. "Everyone should have one. I swear by mine!"
Then there was pizza to consume, and beer Jim had hauled down from the loft, and people fell into conversation in small groups. Simon was glaring as Daryl listened to tips from Coco on what ladies liked in their gentlemen friends, but everyone else was having a fine time.
Jim and Blair slipped away to the back of the kitchen. "You organized this, huh?" Blair asked.
"Guilty as charged. You, like, you don't...." Jim was stuttering.
"I'm touched, man," Blair said with overdone sincerity. "And where's my *real* present from you? Thought I'd fall for the Tupperware?" He dug his partner in the ribs.
Jim bopped his head hard. "Greedy little punk. For that I shouldn't give it to you."
"Cough it up, cough it up, laughing boy!"
Jim reached into a back pocket, hitherto hidden beneath his sweatshirt. "I didn't wrap it," he said almost shyly. "But here it is."
Blair was holding a mezuzah, scroll and scrollcase both, ready for mounting at his door. "Oh, Jim," was all he could say. His eyes were gleaming bright as he looked from his hands to his best friend's face.
"I know you don't go to temple, and that you're a shaman, like Incacha said, but, well, I wanted something *right* for you. So I asked Naomi...."
"You asked Naomi?" Blair was astonished that anyone had managed to reach his peripatetic mother, even the top cop of Cascade.
"Yeah, I did, Chief. She said to say she's gonna come Feng Shui you one of these days. Anyway, she said this would mean more to you than, say, a salad-shooter." Jim fell silent.
Blair put out his hand and grasped Jim hard at the left biceps. "Yeah, it does. It means...everything. Thank you."
At that, all of Jim's awkwardness visibly fell away and he put both his hands on his guide's shoulders. "You're welcome, Chief. I hope you always have a happy home."
Blair looked out over the throng of friends crowding his place. Megan and Coco were line-dancing while Henri chanted a country-western song. Under Sky's direction, Simon and Joel were getting the drop-leaf table into place, inspecting hinges, discussing the finish. Rafe and Rhonda had kicked their shoes off and were chattering with Daryl about whether Blair now lived in a pad, or a den, or a flop, or a subloft, all of them stuffing themselves full of pizza as they debated the merits of the right name for his place. And Jim was just being Jim, right there with him, right where he should be, and Blair being Blair where he should be too.
"Something beautiful," was all he said.