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.
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 Do-right 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.
"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.
Continue on to Act 4