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Early the following morning found Jim, Frank Sydoriak, and a sullen Blair Sandburg back in the area of the morgue waiting for Dr. Daniel Wolf to finish up an autopsy. Blair hadn't spoken more than two words to Jim, but the sentinel hadn't exactly invited conversation with the professor either. Instead, he concentrated on reading the autopsy reports on the County's previous victims, Frank adding a brusque comment here and there as Jim questioned minor discrepancies he'd found between the written reports of the investigating officers and Dan's final overall review of each postmortem.

Blair avoided looking at any of the pre- and postmortem photographs. He wouldn't take any reports directly from Jim's hand, accepting them only if Frank passed them to him. It wasn't subtle, it wasn't pretty, and the chill in the office was colder than the storage facilities Dan Wolf and the other Medical Examiners used to store bodies in.

One consistent finding in all the reports was the blunt force chest trauma, done with some sort of sharp, roughly serrated object, but it could not have been made of metal. The score marks on the 3rd and 2nd left ribs showed a total lack of metal filings. Usually microscopic shavings were found in the wounds or bones. There was even a noted lack of debris in the wound of Rabbi Rabinovich, clear testimony that the man had been shirtless at the time of his attack and subsequent death. Dan had made addenda to each case file, notes that offered no conjecture as to the nature of the death instrument. That, Jim figured, would probably be the lynchpin the whole case would rest on. Find the weapon, find the killer.

The door to the office opened and Jim looked up from the file in his hands to see Dan walking in while stripping off his lab coat. "Sandburg. Sydoriak. Ellison, why am I not surprised to see you have the audacity to show your face down here so early?" The doctor placed his white coat, surprisingly devoid of any stains, on a metal coat rack as he slipped into the chair behind his desk. "So, what is it this morning, Jim? You going to question your partner in front of me now?"

Jim's jaw clenched. He deserved that. His tactics last night had been totally and decidedly unprofessional. "No. We just came down here to see if you'd started the MacLauryn autopsy and to read over your notes on the previous victims."

Dan glanced at his watch. "I should be starting that autopsy in a few minutes. I've got one of my assistants doing the wash-down and will begin my part of the procedure as soon as she's done."

Sydoriak spoke up from his corner of the office. "Doc? I normally wouldn't ask this, but would you mind if I stay and observe?"

Jim didn't miss how Dan smiled at Frank, saving all his glares for Jim. "Fine by me, Frank. Unless you're a fainter?" His tone was light and teasing, like it usually had been with Jim when discussing such things in the past.

"Nah. I can handle just about anything. Haven't dropped during an autopsy in years." The county detective smiled and Jim recalled his own first exposure to a professionally done postmortem. It wasn't the sight or sounds that had finally driven him to the floor, but the smell of the offal bucket when one of the assistants at the time had spilled a little on the clean white tiles. Tiles that he'd gotten a good, hard, close look at -- after fainting.

"Good. Blair? You or Jim want to observe as well?"


Jim grimaced at Blair's curt reply. "Uh, no thanks, Dan. Sandburg and I have some records to dig up. We've got to find the original missing person's report on MacLauryn, as well as search for any others that might match the unidentified victims."

"Which you should have done last night instead of dragging Sky down here and accusing her of murder."

"Chief--" The inflection in Jim's voice was patronizing.

"Don't you 'Chief' me!" Blair jumped up from his seat, pacing the small office as he spoke in heated tones. "That was totally uncalled for! You know Sky would never do anything like that! It took me hours to get her to calm down and sleep, then I had to call Pepper in to open Celtic Anam this morning so Sky could rest!" The young man looked around the room, dragging his hands through his loose hair before heading for the door. "I'm going to my office. Do what you need to, Ellison. I've got research to do for this afternoon."

The door slammed behind the departing anthropologist, and Jim flinched away from the noise. Turning back to face Dan and Frank, his expression confused, he offered sheepishly, "That's the most he's said to me all morning. I don't blame him, not really. Look, I want to apologize to you both. What I did last night was way off base--"

"So why did you do it, Ellison?" Frank's harsh blue eyes bored into his own.

"I'm clinging to threads, Frank. This case has me so twisted up inside that I'm not sleeping well, having outlandish nightmares nearly every night, and the stress has started to trigger daily headaches." He held up a hand to stop Dan before the man could speak. "I know, Dan. It's no excuse. And I'll apologize to both Sky and Blair later. In the meantime, I have to go dig through the records archive. Anything I should send to down to you?"

Dan's expression had softened a little while Jim had tried to explain away his behavior of the previous night. "I've never seen you so worked up about a case before, Jim. But if you happen to find a photo of MacLauryn in the files, send it down to me, will you? It'll help if I can match what little is left to photographic evidence."

"Sure, Dan. Call me upstairs when you're done with the autopsy and your report."

"You'll have it the same time as the rest of the crew, Jim."

Ellison nodded and turned to leave the office. Once in the hallway, heading for the elevators, he heard Dan speaking to Sydoriak. "Frank?  If you're going to watch, let's get you changed into some scrubs and shoe covers."

Jim watched as Dan escorted Sydoriak down the hall into the private lounge, then turned to enter the waiting elevator. It was going to be a long morning and digging through dusty record archives wasn't his idea of a good time. If only he hadn't been such a prick the night before, maybe Sandburg would've stayed to help him find the files.

Patrol Corporal Li Xiong stepped out of the stairwell to see a glum Jim Ellison enter the elevator at the end of the hallway. The man looked as though he'd lost his best friend, or maybe wrecked his truck again. But no, that couldn't be the case. Every time Jim "Crashman" Ellison wound up in a traffic accident, it was the top story on the PD's grapevine. Li sighed and he pushed open the door to the Forensics and Medical Examiner's Department. If his new assignment was the result of what ever had Jim looking so down, maybe it wouldn't be such a bad thing after all. Xiong's boss had told him there was word that a task force was being set up, possibly involving the murder at Forest Grove Park, and if that were true.... Jim had handled that case and that meant trips to the morgue for the Detective Lieutenant.

"Can I help you, Corporal?"

Li turned around to see Serena Chang looking at him expectantly.  "I hope so.  Li Xiong, I was told to report here after roll call this morning."  He handed over the file his boss, Sergeant Anderson, had handed him forty minutes earlier.

"Oh!  You must be the officer we're getting as liaison with the task force!  I just got the word we're setting one up. Things are so hectic around here--" She looked around the room, a puzzled expression on her face. "Let's see if we can find a cubby hole for you and start getting you familiarized with our routine down here."  She moved towards a large desk, his file in her hand, only to stop when someone else walked into the room.  Looking up from the file, she greeted the visitor.  "Connor, what brings you down here this morning?"

"G'day, Serena.  I've come to check on Dan's progress on this morning's autopsy.  The captain wants to know if he'll be done before the task force meets this afternoon."

"He's still working on it.  I'll let him know Captain Banks is in a hurry."  Serena disappeared into the autopsy bay, leaving Li alone with the infamous Inspector Connor.

Connor turned to face him, and Li decided that if his tastes ran towards tall, beautiful brunettes and he wasn't married, he'd have asked her out right then and there.  "Don't I know you from somewhere?"

"Sort of, Inspector.  Corporal Li Xiong. I was part of the team that did the sweep of Forest Grove Park."  He held out his hand, surprised by the woman's gentle strength when she shook it.

"Just call me Connor, Xiong.  You're one of Sergeant Anderson's people, right?  What are you doing down here?"

"Please, call me Li.  Liaison work, or so I've been told."

Serena came out of the bay. "He's working as fast as he can."

"Got it."  Connor left the room, leaving Li alone with Serena.

"Before the storm of work from the task force hits, let's find you a hole and get you a phone line run in here, Xiong.  I have the feeling that things are going to start jumping like crazy once the task force gets organized and running. And you, my dear Corporal, are going to be right in the middle of it, I'm afraid."

The group assembled in the large conference room was certainly diverse; the detectives from Major Crime were there, along with a few men from Homicide, Patrol members such as Terry Anderson, and Detective Sydoriak from Cascade County. And I get to coordinate this bunch, Captain Banks thought to himself as he sorted his notes before rapping the long table in front of him to get the attention of the new task force.

"Okay, okay, people. Let's settle down while I introduce a few of us to those of you that are just now coming on board." He nodded towards Anderson. "Sergeant Anderson is from Cascade's Patrol Division and has the distinction of having discovered the first positively identified victim." Simon pointed to the County officer. "Detective Frank Sydoriak from Cascade County has more experience with this case than I'm sure he wanted, as his department has found three previous victims that might be part of a pattern."

The captain's speech was interrupted by the late arrival of Li Xiong, who walked into the room with a handful of folders and passed them out to the group. "Thank you Li, grab a wall and sit in on the rest of the briefing. You're a part of this team as well." He waited until Xiong had settled, naturally finding a seat close to his Patrol Sergeant, before continuing.

"Let me finish with the introductions." He rattled off the last of his division's members; Joel Taggart, Brian Rafe, Henri Brown, Megan Connor and "Jim Ellison, who will be the lead investigator and will coordinate with our department's consultant, Doctor Blair Sandburg of Rainier University. Sandburg isn't here at the moment; he had some last minute research to finish before presenting it to the group." He opened the folder Xiong had given him. "Let's start with the first victim, shall we?"

Blair walked into the conference room late, his arms loaded down with a projector to hook up to his laptop and a stack of notes from his research of the night before. Connor stood at the big white board at the end of the room, and he stole her chair, as it was the only one unoccupied at the table. "Sorry, I'm late. Don't stop on my account."

Captain Banks looked at his watch. "No, this is a good time for a break. Everyone back here in five minutes." As the assorted members of the task force headed for the coffee maker, Banks handed Blair a folder. "These are the latest updates from forensics. The body found at the Woodlands has been positively identified as Ms. MacLauryn. I'm sorry, Blair."

The young man shrugged unhappily as he pulled his hair back and fastened it into a ponytail. "It's what we expected." He glanced at the white board, noticing it had been divided into four sections, one for each of the victims. "Who's Maria Alvarez?"

Megan dropped into the seat next to him. "The first victim. I sent out a message yesterday to the police departments across the state asking for info on any missing persons who are possible matches for the unidentified bodies. We had a hit from Bellingham PD. Maria Alvarez has been missing since August."

Opening the folder Simon had given him, Blair paged through it until he came across the report from Bellingham. One line in particular struck him. "She was a Santerian priestess?"

Banks nodded. "That mean anything to you?"

Blair's brow furrowed in thought. "Maybe, I don't know. Have you found any connections between the victims?"

"Other than the fact they were all killed the same way?" Jim's voice was right behind Blair. "No. All different ages, genders, and races. For the three we've positively ID'd, they appear to have no friends in common. Didn't frequent the same restaurants or other places of business and were from different geographic areas. This guy is picking people at random." He sat down next to his partner.

Still uncomfortable with Jim after the debacle of the night before, Blair rose and began setting up his projector. "This wasn't random. Everything is too meticulous, too planned out. The victims would follow that plan."

"Well, maybe it's just me, Chief, but I don't see it."

"Jim, we're here to work together on this." Simon rose to Blair's defense. "I got quite an earful about last night from Serena and Dan. If this case is bothering you enough that you can't get along with Sandburg, then maybe I should think about replacing you as lead investigator."

"Simon, this case is getting on everyone's nerves, mine as well," Blair said. "Jim and I will work whatever it is out, right, Jim?"

The detective grunted something that might have been a yes. Blair bit back anything he was tempted to say in reply as the rest of the task force returned to the room.

Once everyone was resettled, Banks pointed at Blair. "For those of you who haven't met him, this is Dr. Sandburg. Blair, why don't you spell Connor at the white board?" As the anthropologist walked to the board and picked up a marker, the captain said, "Where were we?"

Li Xiong spoke up. "Times of death, sir."

"Right. All right, according to the forensic entomology reports on victim number one, she was killed approximately ninety days ago, putting her death near the end of August. We have nothing to indicate she wasn't killed as soon as she was abducted, so put down the date of her disappearance, August 25, as the tentative date of death."

Blair did as requested. For the second victim, the unidentified man who Blair had hypothesized the day before was possibly Native American, he wrote down "early October" in response to Simon's reading of the forensic evidence. Under Rowan's name, he put "October 24", and Rabbi Rabinovich's time of death had been determined to be 36 hours before he'd been found, or November 13th.

Walking over to the table, Blair picked up the folder containing the case files. While everyone else was discussing the medical details, he made additions to the lists under the victims' names on the board. Under the 'unidentified male' he put down 'Native American/shaman?'. Under Alvarez was written 'Hispanic/Santerian'. He paused when he came to Rowan's name, trying to recall what Sky had told him about her. Making a decision, he scribbled 'lesbian/Wiccan', and finally, under Rabbi Rabinovich, he wrote 'Jewish/Kabbalah'.

Turning around, he cleared his throat loudly. All eyes in the room focused on him, and Blair was suddenly nervous. He fidgeted with the marker as he began to speak. "You were thinking there weren't any connections. There are. Every victim is a member of a minority group, either by race or sexual orientation. They're also all followers of non-mainstream or non-Christian religions or religious practices. We don't know for sure about the guy we haven't ID'd, but we can make a guess based on the medicine pouch found near the body."

"So this guy's a bigot and these are hate crimes?" Sydoriak asked.

Blair sighed. "Possibly. There could be something else, but on the surface it looks like he's targeting minorities."

"That's what I said when we found the Rabbi," Jim interjected.

Blair couldn't help but notice the look of self-satisfaction that crossed Jim's face.

Captain Banks once again jumped in to forestall any trouble. "That's good. We have a tenuous connection where we didn't have one before. How about evidence? Anything found at the crime scenes that could point to our killer?" He focused his gaze on Li Xiong, who rifled through his notes.

"According to Lieutenant Chang, no fingerprints were found at any of the scenes, either on the body or the victims' clothing. The killer might have left evidence behind, but most of the victims were found weeks after they were killed and exposure to the elements seriously degraded the crime scenes. She's looking into the broken flutes found at each scene, but so far, nothing. They were possibly handmade by the suspect, which will make them even harder to trace. The last victim, Rabinovich, had trace amounts of drugs in his system, possibly sedatives and hallucinogens. Forensics is sending samples to the FBI to see if they can identify them."

Megan Connor spoke up. "Do we think this guy is escalating in his crimes? The first bodies were all found in remote areas, whereas the rabbi was killed where it was certain he'd be found."

"That's a good point, Connor. He could be getting bolder, and perhaps careless. I'll ask Serena to focus a little more closely on the rabbi's death. The evidence we have from that scene is better than the little we have from the others." Banks turned his attention to Blair. "Sandburg, you have a presentation on the killer's methods?"

"Yes, sir. Just let me get my computer booted up, and the projection screen pulled down." Once that was done, he asked for the lights to be dimmed. He tapped his keypad, and a crude drawing of a temple came up on the screen. A figure at the top of the temple was having his heart cut out, while several people held his arms and legs. At the base of the temple and on the stairs were drawn broken flutes.

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"This is a drawing of an Aztec sacrifice. The method employed here is basically what we saw at the rabbi's crime scene, and what can be inferred happened to the other victims. However, the evidence all points to the fact that this person probably works alone. He's drugging and tying down the victims to make them easier for one person to handle. Also in Aztec sacrifices, being chosen honored the victim. They wouldn't resist the ritual unless they were prisoners of war, and even then, they understood the ceremony and what it stood for."

"What did it stand for?" Brown asked. "It just seems sick to me."

Blair leaned his hip against the table his computer and projector rested on and began to lecture. "In the Aztec theory of creation, the gods were responsible for the creation of the world when Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca tore the earth monster in half, creating the sky and the earth. Quetzalcoatl is known as the Feathered Serpent and the Creator God among other things. Tezcatlipoca was his opposite or rival, and called by many names, such as the Sower of Discord on Both Sides, and He Whose Slaves We Are. The Aztec believed the gods lived, breathed and responded directly to the actions of man. In order for life on earth to exist, they had to appease the gods. The way they did that was with constant ceremonies and sacrifices. The gods required blood and hearts, and plenty of them. Tens of thousands of people were sacrificed in their names. If not enough blood was spilled, the sun would cease to rise, rain wouldn't fall, and they would be trapped in a world of eternal darkness and drought. Despite its violence, the Aztec world was a very orderly and regimented one. Everyone knew what was expected of their roles in society, and pretty much conformed to them."

"So is this guy honoring the victims, or trying to keep the world from ending? Or maybe he read about the Aztecs and just thought it would be cool to kill someone that way," one of the detectives from Homicide interjected.

Blair shrugged. "No one other than the killer himself can answer that. All we can do is take what we know and try to make sense of it. Which brings me to a couple of things. If the killer is following the Aztec ritual, then the weapon he's using is a Tecpatl, a stone or obsidian blade with a decorated ceramic handle. That's why there have been no metal shavings in the wounds. What forensics might find is small obsidian flakes or stone dust, or nothing at all."

While he was waiting for them to add that to their notes, Blair brought another picture up on the screen. It was a photograph of one of the markings found on the rabbi's corpse. "Our killer also has knowledge of the Aztec language. This appears to be Nahuatl, but I'm not proficient in that language. I've sent copies of these markings off to a friend of mine who is. They may tell us something once he's translated them." He looked at Simon. "I think that's all I have for the moment."

"Any questions for Dr. Sandburg? No? Okay, let's recap what we know, and where we need to go from here. We have a killer who is targeting minorities, who seems to have some kind of loose timetable, and who is using an ancient ritual to carry out his crimes. Comments? Jim."

The sentinel straightened in his chair. "I think we need to focus on finding some witnesses. We need to know down to the last detail what the victims were doing the day they disappeared. Someone has to have seen him with his victims."

"Joel, we haven't heard from you. Any ideas?"

The former bomb squad captain looked slightly uncomfortable, then said, "I know there's a lot of information on these Aztecs out there. I saw a TV show on the Discovery channel a couple weeks ago on them. But what I saw wasn't this detailed. This guy seems to have really studied them, maybe in school--"

"What you're saying is he might be an anthropologist, right, Joel?" Blair gave the big man a smile. "That's crossed my mind, too. But he could also just be a history junkie. In fact, there was a really good exhibit of Mesoamerican artifacts and Aztec culture at the natural history museum last month. It had a diorama of a sacrifice to the god Tezcatlipoca." An involuntary shudder ran through him as he remembered the weird vision he'd had at the museum, and at the Rabinovich crime scene. Were they connected to this case? But how? He hadn't known about any of the deaths the night he and Sky had visited the exhibit. Blair jerked himself back to the present as Rafe spoke up.

"About those flutes, and the knife. If he didn't make them, he had to buy them somewhere. We can look into places that sell Aztec artifacts, or reproductions of them."

"Good idea." Simon got to his feet. "I think that about does it for today. Jim, work out assignments for everyone here and get them out on the street. I'll expect an update from you in the next day or two. Meeting adjourned."

The members of the task force gathered up their things and left the room. Jim stayed behind as Blair shut down his computer. "Chief, I want to apologize for last night. I was out of line."

Blair glanced up at him quickly, then back down at the cables he was disconnecting. "Damn straight."

Jim was about to say more, but Joel stuck his head back in the room. "Hate to interrupt, but the guys from homicide want their assignments."

Jim's jaw flexed, then he nodded. "Be right there." He waited until Joel left before saying, "We need to talk. You have time tonight?"

"I don't know. I have to go check on Sky, and then work on preparing finals for my classes." He really wasn't ready to be over being mad at Jim yet.

"Okay, well, if you're home when I'm home, we'll talk." He headed for the bullpen as Blair finished packing up.

After the meeting broke up, and Jim had worked out an assignment roster, he sat at his desk, flipping through the crime scene photos. The gaping wound in the rabbi's chest bothered him. Why the sacrifice thing? Why the hearts? Was the killer keeping them as trophies? Or was it more along the lines of stealing the hearts they couldn't win in life? What was the motivation behind taking people's hearts from them? Was there a reason or was this just some sick person's idea of a signature?

Jim was also bothered by the way he'd treated Skylark Kullien the night before. He'd been such an ass and Blair had made it apparent he wasn't ready to accept Jim's apology yet. He really couldn't blame the young man, he was sick about it himself, and the good working relationship Jim had built up with Sydoriak had taken a beating after that interview. Not to mention he'd fallen considerably in Serena and Dan's eyes as well.

"Hey, Jim." He turned to see Corporal Li Xiong walking into the bullpen.

"Li, what'cha got on? Your mind?"

Li smiled at the old joke between them. "Nothing much. I was just wondering if I could bounce a few ideas off you, not related to the case we're working on. Maybe over a few brews?"

Jim liked that idea. It would give him a chance to catch up on the life of the man he'd sponsored through the academy. Xiong had left a Buddhist monastery to become a cop and, later, a married man, a few years ago. Jim had made it a point to shepherd the man's police career. Giving the ritual murder case a rest for one evening was very tempting. "Sure. Just let me finish working up this coming week's schedule for Captain Banks and I'll be ready to go. Meet you downstairs or over at the Fraternal Order of Police?"

Li shuddered, feigning disgust. "Oooh, neither. I remember how you drive and the beer they serve at the FOP is best described as cow flop. There's a new brew club close to my home, Brewski's, and I hear they have over 70 beers on tap. They're also not busy on Tuesday nights. Why don't we meet there?"

"Okay, I know where that is. In about an hour?"

"Sounds good to me. See you then. Grab a booth if you get there before me." With a jaunty wave, the Asian man strutted out of the bullpen, leaving Jim to wonder what his protégé might want to talk about.

The interior of Brewski's was dimly lit, the noise level was comfortable, and the beers proved to be excellent. Jim and Li had arrived at the same moment, exactly one hour after the uniformed officer had departed from Major Crime. The corporal had taken the time to change out of his blues into everyday civilian wear, so as not to stand out in the loosely packed pub. They managed to find a medium-sized booth, away from the doors, that offered them near total privacy. Only a large booth nearby, full of giggling young college girls, was close enough to hear anything he and Li might discuss, and the ladies were too busy talking, or maybe gossiping, about their instructors over at Rainier to eavesdrop.

Jim and Li spent a half-hour catching up on each other's careers, Li accepting the idea that Jim was 'gifted' with heightened senses and Jim finding out that Li still attended Temple services on a regular basis and helped out in the Asian District. Then talk turned to family updates on Xiong's part.

"Mai-ling said to tell you that the remedy your friend Sandburg recommended is working," Li said as he sipped on his first beer.

Jim, already working on his second, nodded. "So, was it the crystallized or the candied ginger that is working best for her?"

"The candied. She hasn't had a severe bout of morning sickness since she first tried it." Li and his wife were expecting their first child, and Mai-ling, in her first trimester, had been having trouble even keeping down water until Blair had heard about the problem and recommended the ginger.

"Good. I'm sure she's relieved." Jim couldn't help but hear one of the college girls mention Sandburg's name, followed by squeals and high-pitched giggles from the other women at the table. "Guess they're having a good time," he muttered under his breath. Even when he wasn't present, Sandburg's charm still seemed to work on the ladies.

"What was that, Jim? I couldn't hear you over the laughter."

Raising his voice just a tad, Jim switched subjects. "What did you want to talk to me about, Li? You having problems over in Patrol or maybe dealing with the task force? Serena running you ragged yet?"

"No, nothing like that. Well, sorta...." Li took another sip of his beer before placing the glass firmly on the table and looking up at Jim. "Sergeant Anderson took the detective's exam last month. Ranked somewhere in the top ten; we're going to lose him to another division."

"About time Terry took the exam, but how does that affect you, Li?"

"Uh, I took the sergeant's exam that same week and, well... "

Jim reached out and tapped his friend on the arm. "Come on, spit it out, Li. I know you, you passed with flying colors, didn't you?"

"Yeah. So well that I've been told I have my choice of divisions and shift. But I don't want to leave Patrol or the shift I'm working."

Jim leaned back, contemplating the problem facing his friend. "You want me to see if I can pull a few strings? Maybe get you assigned as Terry's replacement?"

Li Xiong's face lit up. "Could you? I mean, I don't want to impose. I'd take any position the Assignment Boards gave me, but I really like the people I work with and Terry runs a tight ship, so it'd be no hassle to take over from him... " Li blushed and ducked his head towards his chest. "I'm rambling. Sorry about that."

Jim let out a gleeful laugh. "You've not been around Sandburg long enough to know what a true 'ramble' is. And as for me talking to people -- it's not a problem, Li. In fact, I'll talk to Terry first. I think, with the two of us working together, we can make sure that you get the assignment you want."

"That'd be really great, Jim! I know Mai-ling wouldn't like it if I ended up on another shift in another division, and neither would I." The corporal was beaming, the smile breaking his face nearly in two, it was so wide. "So, now that that's settled? Wanna shoot a game of pool?"

"Oh? You sound a little confident there, Li. You been practicing on the sly?"

Li nodded, as he got up from the table. "Damn straight. How else am I ever going to have a chance against the great pool shark known as 'Elegant Ellison'?"

Jim let out a laugh so loud that he drew the attention of every patron in Brewski's. But he didn't care. It felt good to relax and spend time with an old friend, forgetting about the troubling case he was working. "Go rack 'em, buddy. I'll go grab a couple more beers and meet you at the table."

The bells on the door jingled as Blair walked into Celtic Anam. No one was behind the counter. "Pepper?" he called. "It's Blair."

Sky's voice wafted back to him from somewhere between the shelves. "She's not here. I'm in the tea aisle."

Blair found her stocking the shelves. "What are you doing here? I thought you were going to stay at home today."

She shrugged, her back to him. "I couldn't. Pepper had class this afternoon. Besides, I couldn't stop thinking about Rowan. Here I can keep my mind and hands busy."

Moving closer, Blair grasped her by the arm and spun her slowly around to face him. Her face was pale under her makeup, her eyes red-rimmed. "Oh, honey, I'm so sorry." He pulled her into a hug, holding her tightly.

She leaned her head against his shoulder for a minute, then straightened, sniffling. "I don't know why I keep crying. It's not like I wasn't expecting this...expecting her to be...."

Blair wiped her tears away, and kissed her forehead. "I know, baby, I know. But no one's ever prepared to lose someone they love." He brushed his lips lightly over hers. "Come on, it's almost seven. I think you can close early for once and let me take you home."

"Okay." Grabbing the box of teas she'd been shelving, she carried it into the back room, Blair right behind her. Setting the carton down, she picked up a small box from her desk. "I almost forgot. I have a present for you." She handed the package to him.

"A present? What for?"

"Do I have to have a reason? Let's see, it's November 30th. An early solstice gift, then. Just open it."

Blair lifted the lid to find a silver and polished stone bracelet nestled in cotton. "Sky, this is beautiful." He slid it onto his wrist, then looked up at her. She had her hand over her mouth, and her eyes were glistening with tears again. "Sky, what's the matter, what's wrong?" As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he realized what was troubling her. "This is one of Rowan's works, isn't it? Sky, I can't take this, not if it means so much to you."

She shook her head, wiping at her eyes. "No, no. I want you to have it. It's a protection charm." Reaching out, she grabbed his hand and held it so they could both see the stones. "See, it's got fluorite, iron pyrite, jade, agate, black onyx and the shaman's stone, jasper."

Blair frowned. "Shaman's stone?"

She grinned at him. "Jasper is the patron stone of counselors and healers. A shaman wore it for protection. It brings healing and balance into one's life, and reminds us of our duty to protect others, to bring joy and freedom to them. The other stones all offer protection as well. Black onyx absorbs emotional intensity and is a defense against negativity."

Blair smiled back at her, brushing a strand of hair out of her face. "Are you saying there's too much negativity in my life?"

Moving in closer, she kissed him. "Maybe," she answered when they parted. "Or maybe I just feel like you need all the help you can get to find Rowan's killer, and keep you safe." She blinked, and a tear rolled down her cheek. "I love you, Blair. I don't want to lose you, too."

He hugged her, pressing his cheek against her soft hair. "You won't lose me. I promise."

Returning to Major Crimes Friday night after a meeting with the Chief of Police, Simon was surprised to see Ellison and Sydoriak still working. Glancing at his watch, then the clock on the wall to make sure he wasn't seeing things, he shook his head. That made it three days in a row since the task force meeting they'd been burning the midnight oil. Crossing the room to where the two task force members sat at Ellison's desk, he cleared his throat. "Not that I don't like to see dedication, but it's late, gentlemen."

"Ev'ning, Capt'n," Sydoriak greeted him, then yawned.

"Captain." Jim's answer was polite, and he seemed relaxed, but Simon could see the pain lines gathered around the detective's eyes.

Motioning for the two men to follow him, Simon made his way into his office. "Is something new developing in the case I should know about, Jim?" Simon took the chair at his desk as the two men found seats, Sydoriak on the couch, Ellison on his favorite perch -- the conference table.

"Not really. Frank and I have been going over everyone's notes on the interviews with the friends and families of the victims." Jim pinched the bridge of his nose, obviously fighting off yet another headache, before he shrugged and continued. "Everything seems to confirm Sandburg's idea, that we're dealing with someone targeting minorities, but beyond that? I haven't a single clue as to why."

Simon noticed how Sydoriak was shaking his head. "You got a theory, Frank?"

"Connor's right, our killer is escalating. Each victim was killed closer and closer to an area where they would be found -- the Rabbi actually being placed in a public park. He's working out some plan that only he knows, killing by rules, or a schedule, we haven't figured out yet."

"He's teasing us, daring us to catch him and thumbing his nose at us." Jim's voice was quiet, as if the revelation Sydoriak had just stated out loud made some kind of sense to him. "It's been almost six weeks since MacLauryn was killed on October 24, and three weeks between her and the rabbi. If he keeps to the pattern, we're due to find another body soon."

Simon's office was deadly silent for a few minutes as each man thought about the implications of a killer who was escalating his crimes. It brought back painful memories for Simon, recollections of another serial killer who'd once roamed the streets of Cascade -- David Lash.

He could see he wasn't the only one re-experiencing those anguished times. Jim's color had faded a bit and the detective was rubbing the back of his neck. Tension. It was so damn thick around this case that Simon felt it in his bones every time he got home in the evening. Due to his being lead investigator, Ellison was probably feeling the stress more than anyone. Time to cut the man a little slack. "Jim, you've been on duty since early this morning, why don't you head home and get some rest?" Before Ellison could respond, Simon turned his attention to Sydoriak, "Frank, has the Sheriff agreed to let you work with the task force full time?"

"Yes, sir. I'm all yours until this case is put down."

"Good." Simon stood up, reaching for his coat. "Go home, both of you, and sleep. We'll pick up where we left off on Monday at eight A.M."

Sydoriak left with a slight smile on his face, but Jim lagged behind, closing the door behind the other man.

Simon leaned back in his chair and lit a cigar. "So what do you have to tell me that needs to be said in private?"

Jim sat on the edge of the couch and scrubbed his face.  Another pounding headache was on the verge of exploding and his sinus cavities felt as though they were stuffed with a thick gel.  "I think Frank's right. The killer has been stepping up his crimes, but I've been so sick and tired here recently that it never occurred to me he's probably going to strike again soon."

"You are looking a bit haggard.  Look, Jim, we're not mind readers. We don't know when this murderer is going to kill again, even if we have narrowed some of the possibilities down. We've had enough press coverage on the task force that it might scare our guy into hiding. Chances are that even if our killer strikes again soon, we won't know about it until after the fact. And I need you rested, sharp, and totally focused when that happens. I don't want to see your face in here this weekend at all. Spend some time with Sandburg and get whatever the hell's going on with you two fixed. That's an order."

"Planning on it, Simon, and I know Sandburg is, too. He's just been tied up at Rainier and with helping Sky through her grief." Jim stood and crossed over to the office door. "I'm finally breaking down and planning on taking that natural remedy Sandburg gave me a while back. I've tried just about everything else, including SenQuil, and I still feel like crap."

"Fine.  Take it when you get home and sleep yourself out."  Simon rose from his chair and escorted Jim out into the nearly empty bullpen. "We need you at the top of your game if we're to catch this SOB.  Consider yourself on notice, Jim.  Get better and get back to work or I'll find some way to get your butt thrown in the hospital for 'observation'."

Jim let out a sharp bark of a laugh. "You know how long that would last, don't you?"

"Just long enough for you to harass a doctor into getting you the AMA forms."  Simon clasped him on the shoulder. "I mean it, Jim.  Sleep yourself out over the weekend. The case will still be here when you get back."  Leaving Jim in the bullpen, Banks returned to his office.

Gathering up his copies of the county files Sydoriak had left for the task force, plus the duplicates of Dan's preliminary autopsy report on the latest victim, Jim grabbed his jacket and headed for home.  A quick stop by Wonderburger provided his dinner, and two hours later, he was poring over the files until he decided to take them upstairs with him.  Remembering where he had placed the cloth pouch of herbs Blair had given him, Jim stopped by the kitchen to swallow a small portion of the herbal mixture before heading up to his room.  

He spread the files out on top of his comforter and read over them until he could no longer keep his eyes open.  Lying back on the bed, intending only to rest for a minute, Jim soon dropped into a deep sleep.

Gentle rain, caressing the body lovingly even as the softened, frayed stick dips into the stone bowl, then brushes against the supine form. Marking it, dedicating it, honoring the act. So lovely, so full of power, so willing to participate.

Chanting in the ancient tongue, rising up as the clouds above break, starlight bathing the scene as if giving the benediction of the heavens. Mist slowly forming, curling around the giver and the taker, creeping up to envelop both in its gentle touch.

It is time...

Dark knife slashing downward, ripping into the tender flesh, pulling outward. The giver silent, accepting this fate, this destiny, this honor. Claws pulling forth the still-beating heart, raising it towards the heavens.

Sharp metallic taste of blood, the sweetness of the meat...

"Jim. Come on, man, wake up!" Concerned words and a firm shake of his shoulder brought the ghastly terror to an end.

The sentinel lurched out of bed, tangling his feet in the bedclothes but managing to land upright and not on Sandburg. Sweat-drenched clothing clung to his skin, his breathing ragged and harsh in the quiet of his room.

"Man, didn't you hear the phone ring?" Blair was looking at him, concern in his denim blue eyes. "What's wrong, Jim?"

He'd been glancing around his room, trying to figure out what had triggered the horrific dream. His eyes landed on the files he'd brought home. A nervous laugh escaped Jim's lips, only to be halted by nausea, and he pushed past Blair to rush down the stairs into the bathroom. He nearly didn't make it.

Once he was sure the upheaval was over, Jim leaned back against the tub, his butt firmly planted on chilly floor tiles while his fingers kneaded his temples in an effort to stave off yet another massive headache. "Damn, that's the last time I'll ever read crime reports in bed after swallowing some of Blair's witch doctor potions. Must have had that peyote crap in it." Glaring down at the tile floor, he voiced his appreciation, "Next time, Sandburg, I'll just overdose on SenQuil, or some other over the counter medication, and put up with the damn side effects. At least that shit doesn't cause nightmares."

Jim came out of the bathroom to find Blair standing in the loft's kitchen, their coats draped over the back of a nearby chair. "Why are you here at four in the morning, Chief?"

"Why weren't you here at midnight? I came up earlier to see if you were home. You were gone, so I went back downstairs to do some more research. I heard you come in about two hours ago, but figured you needed your rest."

That simple statement caused Jim to fumble with the glass he'd pulled down from the cabinet. He recalled the previous evening pretty clearly. Meeting with Simon and Sydoriak, stopping by Wonderburger, coming home to finally take the herbal potion...nothing else. Even what he knew was rapidly fading, just like the visions from the dream. But if Sandburg was right, and he'd not gotten home until, he glanced at the clock, two in the morning -- he'd lost track of time. Again.

"I couldn't think straight last night, thought the sea breeze might help clear my head so I went for a walk." Why did he feel the need to lie to Blair?

"In the early morning hours? With as cold as it is? Jim, are you sure you're okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. You said something about a phone call I missed?" Jim escaped the kitchen and bounded up the stairs to his room, peeling out of his shirt as he ran. Blair's voice drifted up from below as he changed clothing. He never fell asleep in his clothes.

"Simon called me after he couldn't reach you on your cell phone or here. There's been another murder."

Jim shuddered. He pulled on his dark blue mock-turtleneck sweater and tucked it into his jeans. He picked up his belt and was threading it through the loops while he held his sidearm under his armpit. "Where? Is Simon sure it's the same as the others?"

"Pretty sure. Same paint markings, tying of the victim, and a few other things that never made it into the press coverage. It all matches, including the wound to the chest."

Heading down the stairs, Jim placed his Galco holster in its customary spot, the small of his back, and thought about what Blair had said. "Sounds about right then. Where's this one, Chief? Did Simon tell you?" Grabbing up their coats from where Blair had placed them earlier, he tossed one to his friend and pulled on the heavy leather one that he loved so much. Noticing it was slightly damp, he took a sniff at the sleeve, covering his action as an attempt to wipe off his face. Sea spray. Okay, maybe he had gone for a walk near the seawall.

"Body was found by a home health nurse about," Sandburg glanced at his watch, "an hour ago. She called it in immediately and once the uniforms got there, they called the task force."

"What? Our latest victim was found in his own home?" That didn't fit the pattern.

"Yeah, looks like our killer is still escalating."

Jim hurried toward the front door, stopping by the table to seize his wallet and keys. His keys weren't in the basket on the table. What the hell? Not when I'm dead on my ass tired or blind drunk have I ever missed the basket.... "Where are my keys?" That brought Sandburg to his side, and together they found the missing keys on the floor under the table, tossed in a dark corner.

"Never known you to miss, Jim," Blair teased as he handed the sought-after items to him.

"I never have before. I must have really been tired when I got back from my walk." Opening the door, he nodded for Sandburg to precede him into the hallway. As he pulled the heavy door to, he thought he heard laughter, and quickly looked over his shoulder at Blair.


"You don't hear that?" Jim looked around the landing, to the ceiling and down the building stairs.

"No, what?"

"Nothing. Just.... Nothing." Jim followed Blair into the elevator, glancing back at the deserted hallway one more time, all his senses extended. The doors slid shut on...nothing.

Something was wrong.

To Be Continued In Part 2

Part 2 Act 1