Shaman's Heart

Part One

By Suisan and CarolROI

Act 1

Tall dark tree trunks stretching toward a black velvet sky. Heavy scent of pine needles filling the air, replacing a memory of orchids. Primeval energy swirling about, like a mist in the dappled light of the full moon, creeping along the woodland floor. Ancient power become corporeal, rising up to silently caress the body lying on the altar lovingly, sensually...

It is time.

Knife, dark blade, flashing in the moonlight. Striking like a snake, pulling back, then plunging into the soft flesh and ripping apart the chest. Large, furred hand, claws extending from stubby fingers, reaching out, then into the gaping wound to pull forth the beating heart....

Jim Ellison awoke with a start, a scream of denial lodged in his throat, making it hard for him to breathe. Pain flared in his chest as he started to slowly drag precious air into his starved lungs. He pulled himself to the edge of his bed, rubbing his hands trying to rid himself of the ghostly sensation of warm, silky blood coating them. Nightmare. Had to be. But it seemed so fucking real. Glancing at the clock on the bedside table, he realized it was too late for him to try to get back to sleep. He threw on his robe and padded barefoot down the stairs to grab a glass of water as he started the coffee maker.

Pulling a small juice glass down from the cabinet, he noticed his hands weren't as steady as they normally would be. You're losing it, Ellison. After all these years, you're finally losing it. Gripping the glass tightly, so as not to drop it, he filled it with water and tried to get rid of the awful taste in his mouth. Bringing the glass to his mouth, the coppery scent of blood assaulted his nose, making him gag. He stared at the clear liquid for a moment, then forced himself to swallow some of the water. And that's all it was, water. Setting his glass back on the counter, he flipped on the coffee maker. Something wasn't right, but he couldn't put his finger on it. The squeak of a tap being turned on drew his attention, just before the sound of water running sounded through the loft.

Jim prowled with cat-like stealth over to where he kept his service gun as splashing rent the stillness of the loft. His ears pricked up; the sound had come from the bathroom, and he didn't recall inviting anyone to stay overnight. You picked the wrong house to burgle, whoever you are. Snatching the cold steel weapon up, he worked the safety and made ready to fire at the intruder if need be.

Knife slashing, moonlight, blue, gray fog. Screaming. Blood flowing. Heart held in hand, still warm and beating. Warm flesh, pulsing. Odor of blood permeating the air, mixing with the smells of the forest...

"Jim! Whoa, whoa, whoa! Point that thing in the other direction, man! I just came up to use the blender and had to take a leak. They didn't pass a law against that between yesterday and today, did they?"

The frightened squeak in the familiar voice penetrated the fog surrounding Jim. Warmth on his upper arm was pulling Jim back from the surreal vision and putting everything into perspective. He lowered the Sig-Sauer to his side, his hand shaking so badly he could barely keep hold of it. What in the hell is wrong with me? I should know Blair's presence, his essence, as well as I do my own. He's here just as often as he ever was, even though he lives downstairs now. Yet, this morning, he had somehow forgotten that fact and that bothered him. A lot. Fighting back the wave of fear that washed over him, he shrugged and said, "Yeah, I'm fine, Chief."

Jim watched as the younger man moved around the kitchen while he reengaged the safety on his weapon and placed it back in its holster on the table by the door. Blair didn't make mention of the gun, merely went about getting everything together for whatever it was he was planning on fixing for breakfast, but Jim could clearly hear the younger man's heart beating wildly in his chest.

Shadowed, deformed paw slowly bringing the quivering, bloody organ closer and closer, the taste sharply metallic as the heart is devoured...

Jim barely made it to the bathroom in time.

Breathe, Sandburg, breathe.  This is just one of those weird things that happen sometimes.  Sometimes sentinels get wonky.  You know that.  He didn't mean it, didn't mean it, didn't mean it.  Can't throw you out now.  Not like the last time.  He tightened his grip on the dishes he held.  Don't go there, man.  Bad memories.  All behind us now.  Not going to happen again.  We won't let it.

He set a plate down on the kitchen table while he stole a glance at Jim.  Walking out of the bathroom to find Jim in some kind of zone out with his gun pointed right at Blair had scared the shit out of the anthropologist.  But he was able to bring the sentinel back from the edge of the abyss. The confused look on Jim's face when the detective weakly assured him he was 'fine' told the story.  He'd have to pry the information out of his friend, to find out what Jim had focused on so intently that he zoned.  He hadn't done that for months.

Theories started to tumble around in his head as Blair moved about the kitchen, pouring the ingredients for his algae shake into the blender, pretending nothing was wrong.  A little distance before broaching the subject would be good.

"Hey, before I get too far into this, do you want eggs this morning?"  Looking back over his shoulder, Blair caught a glimpse of a too pale face as the Sentinel quickly moved from the kitchen and down the hall.  The door to the bathroom slammed shut. "Jim?" Quickly turning the blender off, he followed his friend's path, the violent heaving barely muffled by the door.

"Oh, man."  He tried to open the door, intending to check on his friend, but found it locked. Leaning his forehead against the closed door, he asked, "Jim?  You okay in there?"  The mumbled response was followed quickly by more sickening sounds.  "Guess that answers that."  Knowing that Jim wouldn't be ready to talk for a while, Blair moved back into the kitchen to wait for the detective to emerge from his refuge.  

"Okay, we both ate the same things last night, so it can't be food poisoning.  Maybe something in the coffee?"  Blair picked up the newly opened can of ground coffee, inspecting the label carefully, then setting it back on the counter.  "Same brand, same blend.  No go there, Sandburg."  Closer inspection of the counter space revealed the glass Jim had been using.  Picking that up, Blair saw that it had contained only water.  "Maybe Jim didn't rinse it enough?"  There was about half a glass left and he carefully sampled the remains.  "Nope.  No soap residue, that I can detect anyway."

His mental musings were disturbed by the sound of the shower coming to life in the bathroom.  He'd have to wait to question Jim about his health. In the meantime, there was no sense in letting food go to waste, and he did have one class to teach this morning, so Blair quickly poured his shake into a glass, and gulped it down.  

Jim had never felt so rotten in his life. Not even when he'd gotten a severe case of food poisoning as a child. And he couldn't seem to get rid of the god-awful taste in his mouth. Every time he tried to brush his teeth, his stomach would send up a rolling rumble of warning and Jim would find himself hunched over the toilet again. He was expelling mostly bile, since everything else had come up earlier, and shivering in the coolness of the tiled bathroom. Slowly, the shivering and the heaving upset of his stomach settled down, and Jim was able to stand back up and look at his reflection in the mirror.

I look like shit. I should probably call in today, but I've got to go to court. Leaning his forehead against the cool glass, Jim made his choice. Shower, dress, act normal and go to work.

As the hot water pounded his body, Jim realized the elusive images that had plagued him since waking were fading, until he could recall nothing of them, other than the vague sense of unease which had permeated his mind. The squeal of the faucet handle turning in his right hand sliced through his ears and Jim had to fight to bring his hearing back down to 'normal' range. Then touch went out of whack as he tried to dry off with the Egyptian cotton towel he normally used. It raked across his skin, feeling like thousands of tiny, sharp nails. Jim dragged the dial back on his sense of touch, only to have his eyesight go bonkers.

Clenching his teeth, Jim finished drying off, then forced himself to regain control over his senses. He didn't want to bug Blair about this right now. The kid was too busy at the university and sure as hell didn't need to be bothered with this shit. Besides, he'd been doing just fine handling his senses for over a year now and, with just a little concentration.... There. Everything back where it needed to be. Locating his robe on the hook and unlocking the door, Jim slowly emerged from the torture chamber known as his bathroom and walked out into the hall.  "Sandburg?"  Damn, did he yell?  His voice sounded extremely loud to his ears so he yanked on the old dial to pull his hearing back down to 'normal.' 

"Jim, you doing all right now?"  Blair turned away from the counter to look at the sentinel, and Jim smiled at him. 

"Yeah.  Must've been something I ate last night. I'm fine now."  Jim crossed over to the stairs leading up to his lofty bedroom. "You going to be at Rainier all day?"

"Yeah. I have class this morning, then I'll be getting tests ready for my students. But if you need me, call. Okay?"

"Sure thing." Glancing over at the clock on his bedside table, he called, "Hey! Sandburg! You're going to be late!" It was already nearing eight o'clock and he knew Blair's first class was at nine.

"SHIT!" The sound of the younger man scrambling down the spiral staircase and rummaging through his apartment below floated up to Jim's ears.  There wasn't even a need to crank up the dials on his auditory sense.  The last thing Jim heard was the slamming of the door below. 

"Note to self -- check to make sure Sandburg locked his door before leaving."

The sun broke through the gray clouds just as Jim pulled into the garage at Police Headquarters. He gunned the powerful motor just a touch to get inside the darkened parking area before the glare could blind him. Without needing Blair's help earlier, he'd been able to regain control over most of his senses, but his eyesight was still acting a bit flaky. Going from complete and total darkness to, what seemed to him at the time, the overly bright loft had sent him into a tailspin, and that proceeded to escalate into a major headache. Just what he needed to start his day.

The fluorescent bulbs humming off pitch on the elevator ride up to Major Crime's floor had Jim snarling before he ever stepped off the conveyance. What the hell is wrong with you, Ellison? He hadn't had this much trouble out of his senses in well over two years. Schooling his expression into one of complete determination and trying his best to look like he wasn't in a hurry, he made his way towards his desk, hoping to down a few Tylenol caplets before anyone could notice.


Captain Banks' voice rolled across the noise level of the bullpen much like thunder rolled across the open plains and echoed around in Jim's head as he fought to regain control of his still buzzing ears. Looking up towards the man as Simon strode across the room, Jim managed to palm the three caplets and dry-swallow them before his boss approached him. "Captain?"

"Don't get comfortable. You just got a new case. Homicide, possible ritual murder, over at Forest Grove Park." Simon spun away from him to call out to a few of the other detectives in the office, "Rafe, Connor, Joel, you're in on this as well."

Jim moved aside as Rafe joined the growing circle of officers while Banks began to give the sketchy details. "Patrol got the call about 40 minutes ago. One of the city's Parks and Recreation groundskeepers found the DB in the old amphitheater deep inside Forest Grove. Patrol's already cordoned off the area, forensics has their Crime Scene team getting their gear assembled and, due to the nature of the scene, the police chief has asked that Ellison be the lead on the case."

Jim looked up from the notes he was taking, only a little surprised that the Chief had requested his services. Ever since he, Blair and Simon had let the jaguar out of the bag, so to speak, he'd found himself and Major Crime being handed all sorts of cases that they normally wouldn't see at all. "Let me guess, the Chief figures I'll see or smell something that might get past Serena's team?"

"Oh, don't feel so rotten, Jimbo." Connor gave him a wicked grin. "It's not everyone who gets likened to a bloodhound. You just happen to BE one." Muffled snickers could be heard coming from the group of detectives.

"Okay, that's enough to get you started. Ellison, you need to meet with Sergeant Anderson when you get to the scene; he was the first responding officer. The rest of you follow Ellison's lead and let's hope that this is an isolated case." Simon headed toward his office, stopped and turned around. "Jim, call me if you see anything there that seems out of place."

"Other than the DB?" He grinned at his Captain before shooing the others out of the bullpen ahead of him. Once they hit the garage level, Jim doled out the assignments. "Rafe, you and Connor team up and canvass the area once we get there. Look for any possible witnesses that Patrol might have missed. Joel?" He turned towards the former EOD specialist. "You still have the department's camcorder in your car? Good. We may need it. Okay, who wants a ride out there?"

Jim arrived at the park well before the others. For some reason, no one had taken him up on his offer to ride with him. He pulled his Ford truck in behind the Coroner's van. Stepping out of the truck, he was hailed by a familiar voice, "Ellison! Over this way!" Turning to see Sergeant Terrance Anderson waving at him, Jim trotted over to the man's side.

"Terry, what'cha got?"

"A really nasty DB over on the stage of the amphitheater, and I mean nasty. A few of my guys damn near queered the crime scene for you... "


Anderson chuckled, "Oh, don't worry, they moved fast enough. Just watch where you step."

"Got'cha." Jim heard the sound of the rest of his team pulling up and turned to signal them in the right direction. "Okay, now that we're all here--" he gestured towards the Sergeant "--lead the way."

Ducking under the bright yellow crime scene tape about 40 yards from the 'stage,' Jim's steps faltered as he surveyed the scene for the first time. It seemed oddly familiar to him, yet he couldn't recall ever having visited Forest Grove Park before. His slow pace came to a complete halt as something tickled at the back of his upper sinus cavities, irritating him and threatening to explode-- "aaaa-CHOOOOO!" <sniffle>

"Whoa! That damn near ruptured my eardrums! You all right, Ellison?"

Pinching the bridge of his nose, trying to stave off another sneeze, Jim had to settle for a 'negative' shake of his head to answer Connor's question. She moved in closer to his side, placing her hand on the small of his back and lowering her voice to the level Sandburg had trained her and Simon to use so they could help Jim when he wasn't able to be there. "Okay, filter out whatever it is that is bugging you, block it and try to lower the sensitivity level down to about a two."

Working with anyone other than Sandburg while trying to regain control of his senses usually took a bit longer than usual. He waved Rafe and Taggart on toward the site while he hung back with Connor and worked on his sense of smell.

"Finally! Thanks, Connor." He relaxed a little more as he realized he could no longer smell the wet, earthy, almost moldy scent of freshly cut weeds and grass that had sent him on the sneezing jag which had lasted over five minutes.

"No worries. Allergies, right?" She looked up at him, a knowing, almost conspiratorial gleam shining in her eyes.

"Right. Hayfever, actually." He pointed to the huge tractor-like mower parked close to the stage, where Joel and a paler than normal Brian Rafe stood, examining the body that was awaiting Jim and Megan's arrival. "The groundskeeper must have gotten out here early to mow the park and found the body."

"Probably. Let's go, shall we?"

Puzzling over his reaction to the whole thing, Jim followed the Inspector as she walked down the slight incline. He'd never had allergies to grass or weeds before, just sage and flowers, and he couldn't shake the idea that this park was someplace he'd never come to, yet it all seemed so-- He looked down at the body and his heart damn near thudded to a stop.

The scene was like something out of a nightmare. Four heavy wooden stakes had been hammered into the hard-packed soil of the natural stage area. Ropes stretched from the stakes to the limbs of the victim. The body was arched backwards over a large stone, hands stretched over his head and almost touching the ground. The pale pink bones of the victim's rib cage glistened in the morning light while flies and other members of the insect world buzzed around the gaping, open wound. From where Jim stood, it looked as if the victim's heart had been forcefully ripped from his chest. The edges of the wound were jagged, cut with something with a less uniform edge than a knife, but what really caught Jim's attention was the painted markings on the man's exposed, nearly naked flesh.

"Uh, excuse me, gents--" Megan Connor quietly announced before turning away and running for the nearest edge of the cordoned off area. Jim had to shut down his hearing to 'normal' levels to avoid the sounds of the tough-as-nails Australian retching up her morning tea.

Joel Taggart shook his head as he lifted up the camcorder to begin taping the scene. "She'll be fine. I nearly tossed my cookies when Rafe and I got down here. You ready to roll, Jim?"

"Yeah. Rafe? Go check on Connor and then get with Anderson and see if his uniforms came up with any witnesses for us. Then ask the Sergeant to sit on the groundskeeper a little longer for me, will ya?"

"You got it, Jim."

He waited until Brian had trotted out of earshot then pulled his cell phone from his pocket. He looked over at Joel, who had the camcorder already working and trained on him, and shrugged. "Might as well update Captain Banks while I do the commentary for the record."

"It's your show. I'm just the camera operator on this one."

Jim placed the call, waving for Joel to point the camera in another direction.


Jim winced as Simon practically roared into his end of the phone hook up. "Captain, Ellison. You wanted out of place? I'd say we've got it."

"Hang on... " Jim could hear his boss rummaging for a pen or pencil before he came back on the line. "Okay, shoot."

Nodding towards Joel, who had turned the focus of the video camera back onto the victim, Jim catalogued what he was seeing for the video record and for his Captain. "Victim appears to be a Caucasian male, maybe between 50 and 65 years of age. We'll have to wait for Dr. Wolf to confirm that. He's wearing what appears to be a breechcloth and is covered with what looks to be some kind of thick, blue paint in symbols that *almost* remind me of some of the ones I saw in ruins in South America during my stay in the La Montana region of Peru... "

Blair Sandburg stood at the blackboard, chalk in hand. "Okay, who can give some areas where the Aztec and Mayan cultures were similar?" A girl with short blonde hair raised her hand. "Yes, Linda?"

"They worshipped the same gods."

The professor wrote 'similarities' on the board and underneath it, 'religious beliefs'. "Good start. Anyone else?" When everyone's gaze shifted to the door, he turned around. His teaching assistant, Denise Breton, stood there, a tall, imposing black man behind her. "Think about that for a moment," Blair told his class.

Setting down his chalk, Blair crossed to the doorway. "Simon, what are you doing here? It's Jim, isn't it? Something's happened to Jim!" He could feel his heart beginning to race.

"Calm down, Sandburg. Jim's fine. I just need your anthropological expertise at a crime scene."

Blair's eyebrows crawled toward his hairline. "Now? Uh, okay." He turned toward his assistant. "Denise, can you cover for me the rest of the day? My notes are on the podium."

"Sure, Blair." She stepped up to the board as Blair left with Simon.

"I have to stop by my office first," Blair told the captain as they strode quickly through the corridors of Hargrove Hall. "What's this all about?"

Simon shook his head. "I'm not entirely sure. A Patrol unit found a body in Forest Grove Park. From their description, it sounds like some kind of ritual murder. And you're the closest thing we have to an expert in cults and rituals, so you're getting the call. Jim's already at the scene."

Reaching his office, Blair unlocked the door and ducked inside. He grabbed his backpack, then rejoined Simon in the hall. "Okay, let's go."

Blair shivered as he stepped out of Simon's car. He felt the hair rise on the back of his neck, and nausea knotted his stomach. Usually he didn't start to feel sick until after he'd seen a dead body. His strange reaction startled Blair enough that he didn't immediately follow Banks toward the amphitheater.

"You coming?" the captain called over his shoulder.

"Uh, yeah, just getting a first impression." He broke into a trot to catch up to the taller man.

The preliminary inspection of the body over, Jim waved Joel back and took a look at the overall scene again. His eyes skirted away from the stage and the body and looked back to where he could see Rafe and Connor conferring with Sergeant Anderson about something. Beyond them, movement caught Jim's eye and he focused past them to see Blair getting out of the passenger side of Captain Banks' sedan. "Damn it! Why did Simon bring Sandburg here?"

Taggart looked startled at his tone, and Jim shook his head. "Sorry, didn't mean for that to come out like it did, Joel. It's just that I know Sandburg had a pretty heavy schedule at the University today and he sure as hell doesn't need to see this." He waved at the body, now covered with a space blanket.

"The kid's pretty tough, Jim. And the body painting and the symbols would seem to be his area. Maybe Simon's hoping Blair can shed some light on a possible motive." Joel pointed towards the others who were still talking with Anderson. "Come on, maybe Rafe and Connor found something worthwhile."

Jim grimaced as he followed Joel over to where the Sergeant and the other detectives were standing, noting how agitated Connor seemed to be. "Looks like they found something, the way Connor's waving that evidence bag around."

Jim picked up his pace as he approached the three, and came to a halt in a hurry as Connor turned to face him. She held the plastic bag up towards him. "Ellison! One of the officers found this stack of clothing not too far from here. Might belong to the victim."

Taking the bag from Megan, he looked over the contents. "Looks like some sort of uniform." He flipped the pouch over to view the other side. "This is a yarmulke. Where exactly was this found?" He glanced over at Anderson, who nodded his head back towards the path that they'd all followed down to the amphitheater.

"I had the men form up a grid search. Here's the map," Anderson handed Jim the folded paper in his hand, "The clothing was found about five yards away from the stage, and before you ask, yes."

Jim grinned at the Sergeant. Terry had all the markings of making a good detective one day, if he would just take the tests. "Film's enroute to the labs?"

"Damn straight. My people learned a good lesson from the screw-ups of the past. They marked, tagged, photographed and bagged anything and everything that *might* possibly be related to your murder." Terrance Anderson shrugged, "Of course, that means you'll get a lot of trash and crap, but at least the park's been cleaned."

"I appreciate that, Terry." Jim nodded then found his attention drawn to a smaller bag handled by Brian Rafe. "Rafe, is that a wallet in your hands?"

"Yeah, I pulled the contents and if the photo on the driver's license is accurate," Rafe handed the bag over and Jim looked at the photo ID that his fellow detective had displayed on top of the leather wallet, "I think this was the victim's stuff."

"I think you're right, Rafe. Joel, what do you think?" He handed the bag over to the captain.

Joel took a moment to carefully study the photo. "It's him. Stan Rabinovich, 2442 West Maple, Cascade." He handed the evidence back to Jim. "That address sounds really familiar."

"We'll look it up when we get back to the station. Terry? Where's that groundskeeper who found the body?" Jim asked of Anderson, who gestured to where a Patrolwoman stood with a young Asian-looking man dressed in khaki coveralls. "Okay, I need to go talk to him." He moved to block Simon and Blair from continuing their way towards the crime scene, holding up a hand to stop them, while he continued handing out assignments. "Can the rest of you make sure our 'evidence' makes it back to the department and start tracking down Mr. Rabinovich's stats?"

Joel nodded. "We can do that. You want one of us to wait for you?"

"Nah, I think Terry and I can handle the groundskeeper." Jim jerked his head at Anderson, who was walking over to where the witness waited. Then he turned his attention to Simon and Blair. "Captain, Blair. What are you two doing here?"

"I called Sandburg in on this one, Ellison. He *is* on the payroll as a consultant and, from what you told me over the phone, he might be able to help."

"Jim? You still don't look so hot. You sure you're feeling okay?" Blair reached out an arm to clasp Jim on the shoulder, but Jim moved back a step.

"I'm fine, Chief. Just a little edgy, okay?" Jim paused to shake his head; the buzzing noise of the local insect population seemed to have intensified again. Seeing the concerned looks on his friends' faces, he gave them a rueful grin. "Sorry, slight headache." He grabbed Blair's arm as the anthropologist peered past him toward the crime site. "Chief, I'm not going to lie to you. It's a really nasty scene. As much as I'm sure your help will prove to be valuable, you don't have to do this right now. Joel and I got everything on tape--"

Blair interrupted him and shook off his grip. "I'll be okay, Jim. And not to burst your bubble or anything, but a videotape can't catch everything that an up close and personal inspection by a trained observer can."

"I'll stay right by his side, Jim. If he looks like he's going to toss cookies, I'll make sure he doesn't hurl on the victim." Simon assured him.

"Just watch your own stomach, sir. I wasn't kidding; it's pretty gruesome." Jim turned on his heel, leaving the two men alone to do what ever they wanted. He waved the Coroner's Office assistants over, advising them that it would be a bit longer before they could have the body. That done, he caught up to Anderson, nodding a greeting towards the Patrolwoman as the Sergeant introduced Jim to the witness.

"Detective Ellison? This is Mr. Sun Yat Yu. Mr.Yu, this is Detective Ellison. Please tell him what you told me when I arrived, will you?"

Blair followed Simon down the path toward the amphitheater, feeling more and more uneasy the closer he came to the crime scene. The very air was heavy and oppressive, and he had the grotesque image come to mind of lifeless fingers tracing over his skin. Intent on his internal observations, Blair didn't notice when Simon came to a stop until he ran into the tall man's back. "Sorry."

Banks looked down at him. "Sandburg, you stay here. I'll check it out, and decide if you need to see--"

"I've seen dead bodies before, Simon," he bristled, then pushed past the other man. Almost immediately Blair regretted it. A forensics tech had just pulled the space blanket away from the corpse.

Arms and legs held fast by priests, back bowed over the sacred stone, hair nearly touching the ground. Prayers rising through the clear night, calling on their god, on the dark one. Smoky blade reflecting starlight, slashing through flesh and bone as easily as it cut the air ....

Blair staggered back, his hand going to his mouth. He wasn't going to be sick, he wasn't. Closing his eyes, he turned away for a moment, struggling to control his runaway thoughts and stomach. I can do this. I have to do this.

Shoving away the strange images, Blair forced himself to think like an anthropologist, to pretend this was an excavation. Pulling his notebook and pen from his pocket, he began to write. The stone, the hyperextension of the chest--that was Mayan or Aztec, or even Mixtec. The gaping wound ran horizontally across the chest between the second and third ribs, fracturing the breastbone. The technique was known as a transverse thoracotomy, one of several methods employed by those cultures for sacrifice. It was quicker, and perhaps more humane for the victim than the midaxial thoracotomy, in which the breastbone was cut vertically down its length using a serrated blade or a hammer and chisel. He paused, staring at the word he'd written, then circled it. Sacrifice. But why?

He shook his head. Impressions first, analysis later, Sandburg. He circled the body, peering at the paint marks. They looked familiar, but the rain they'd had the night before had caused them to run a bit, and he wasn't certain. He drew a couple of the clearest ones in his notebook. He'd have Dan Wolf make sure to get good photos of them before the autopsy.

Blair turned his attention to the ropes encircling the ankles and wrists. Now that was odd. There was only minor chafing of the skin, indicating that either the man had been unconscious or he'd had no fear of death.

He climbs the steps of the teocalli, the bells on his ankles gaily ringing. There is no fear in his heart. He is the chosen one.

"Sandburg, you okay?" A hand descended on Blair's shoulder.

Blair nearly jumped out of his skin. "Geez! Simon! Don't do that!"

The captain covered his nose and mouth with his hand. "God, how can you stand to be this close? The smell is horrible."

"Mouth breathing," Sandburg automatically answered, though now that Simon mentioned it--"I think I've had a good enough look for now." He headed back toward the parking lot, Banks following him.

"What the hell is all this junk?" Jim threw yet another clear-bagged soda can into the trashcan near his feet as he, Connor, and Rafe sorted through the 'evidence' that had been bagged, tagged and sent in from the Forest Grove Park crime scene. The boxes of stuff found within a twenty-yard radius of the 'death scene' covered the entire top of the large conference table and the three of them had been digging through the detritus for well over an hour.

"Well, Anderson told you that his people cleaned the park... " Brian Rafe grimaced as he tossed a thankfully bagged, and obviously used, prophylactic into the trashcan by his chair. "I just wish they'd used a little more discretion. Gross!"

Megan Connor stood up to start digging through a new box of goodies, one that had been hand labeled as 'toys and other suspect stuff' and started tossing out old, worn out baseballs, a thoroughly chewed up yellow Frisbee and a few other items. Then she let out a low whistle through clenched teeth. "Well, this is odd. Look at this." She pulled up the bag and handed it over to Jim. "Looks like someone broke their recorder and one of the boys in blue picked it up for them."

Jim looked at the item, feeling oddly queasy but put it down to having to deal with the myriad of odors filling the room. "It's a wooden flute, Connor. Not a recorder. Probably some kid's toy that got tossed. I don't see a connection to our case, do you?"

"Nope," she announced as the bag made the trip from her hand to the trash, only to bounce out onto the floor. "Damn it." She bent over to pick the flute up and placed it back on the tabletop. "Looks like we need to have the janitors haul out more trash. I'll call them this time."

"Thanks, Connor. And see if you can get them to bring up a can of freshener this time!" Rafe called out as the Inspector left the room. "I think this shirt is going in the trash when I go home for lunch."

"Might not be a bad idea, Rafe. You're beginning to reek just a bit... " Jim teased the normally fastidious man.

"Oh great! If you can smell it over the rest of the odors in here, it's GOT to be bad."

"Well... " Jim shrugged. "Look at it this way; you live pretty close, you have an hour for lunch and I'm willing to bet that you can find the time to shower and eat while you're at home. Please, find the time." Tossing the latest Wonderburger sandwich wrapper to join the overflowing trash pile, Jim stood up and reached for anther box of 'evidence' to sort through. "In fact, I'm planning on hitting the showers downstairs as soon as we get through with all this sorting."

"Please do, Ellison. And I really don't care if you work the rest of the day in your sweatpants and a tee-shirt." Captain Banks entered the conference room, a pale-faced Blair Sandburg on his tail, and handed Jim the pink 'while you were out' form in his hand. "Looks like you have all week to spend on this case. The defense attorney in the Jeff Campbell case entered a plea of 'no contest' -- case is over except for the deal making by the Prosecutor's Office."

"Good. I didn't want to go to court over that case anyway." Jim wadded up the note and tossed it towards the nearest, least full trashcan and watched as it still managed to bounce out when it landed. "Damn, guess the Jags aren't going to want me after all." For his feeble attempt at humor, all he got was a snort from Simon, a moan from Brian and absolutely no response from Blair. "You doing okay, Sandburg?"

He watched as the consultant looked up from his inspection of the items gathered on the tabletop, his face flushing bright red. "Yeah. I'm okay. A little queasy, but I just came back from Dan's office where I took another look at the body of Mr. Rabinovich."

"Why?" Jim clenched his jaw shut when he heard the tone of his voice and pinched the bridge of his nose. The headache, which had abated somewhat, was making a comeback. "Sorry, didn't mean to snap."

Blair waved off his apology absently, his eyes glued to something on the table that Jim couldn't see from where he sat. "I wanted to make sure he was missing his heart. He was." Sandburg held up the broken wooden flute that had escaped the trash earlier. "Was this found at the scene?"

"Yeah, it's junk. Not pertinent to the murder." Jim shrugged.

"It might be, Jim. There are several ceremonies from South America that employ musical instruments before, during, and after a sacrifice is performed. And those marks that were painted on the body? Sometimes that was done to change the appearance of the victim, to make them more pleasing to the gods before they were killed--"

"It's probably just junk, Sandburg, pure and simple. Some kid probably broke it, then tossed it into the woods so he or she could tell the parents that they'd lost it." Jim stood up and started to pace the conference room. "Look, I think this is going to turn out to be committed by some sicko who saw a show about your 'sacrifices' on the Discovery Channel or The History Channel and tried to stage the scene in order to throw the investigation off track." Looking at his friend's face, Jim decided to recant a little. "But I'll keep your suggestion in mind, okay?" Before he could continue, there was a polite knock on the door and Brian Rafe stood up to answer it. The person on the other side of the door handed a sheaf of papers to the younger detective, who in turn handed them to Jim.

"Now this is more like it." He read the material quickly and thought out loud while doing it. "Stan Rabinovich was a Rabbi at a small synagogue located at 2442 West Maple and, get this, he's in our databanks." He saw the silent question in Simon's eyes and handed the paperwork to the Captain.

"Interesting. Says here that he filed several complaints with Patrol about harassment of his temple members." Simon handed the papers back to Jim. "Go check it out. Maybe someone at Rabinovich's synagogue can shed some light on the man himself. Sandburg, you're the closest thing we have to an expert in all things Jewish, so stick with Ellison. I'll pull Joel in here to help Connor and Rafe finish going through this stuff and help them myself."

Ellison nodded, grabbing his jacket from the back of his chair and heading out the door. Blair caught up to him by the elevator. "You're thinking this is going to be a hate crime, aren't you, Jim?"

"Yeah, I am. It's a starting place at least, and a better theory than that 'sacrifice' thing you spouted off back there." Jim entered the elevator and punched the button that would take them to the parking level with more force than was really needed.

"Chill, man. I was just thinking out loud...."


The blue and white Ford pickup pulled up to the curb outside of the small synagogue located at 2442 West Maple and the driver nearly exploded out from behind the wheel, slamming the door shut as he stalked around to the passenger side and the sidewalk. "Chief, not another word on the subject, please?"

Blair watched as Jim unconsciously rubbed the back of his neck, as if trying to ease tension there. He carefully closed the door on his side of the truck, not wanting to add any more stimuli to Jim's obvious headache even if Jim had slammed his door. He'd pretended not to notice when Jim had sucked down a couple of Tylenol as they got into the truck back at the station, but from the way the detective's brow was lined he could tell the sentinel was still in pain. "Sorry, man. It's been a long, ugly day for both of us. I'll shut up now, and we can discuss our theories later. Okay?"

"Sounds good to me. Thank you." Turning his back on Blair, Jim walked up the steps to the entrance of the small building. Yanking open the door, Jim stepped into the darkened interior.

Lunging forward, Blair barely caught the door before it slammed shut in his face. Now what in the hell was wrong with Jim? He'd been sick to his stomach that morning and obviously was working on a killer headache. Maybe he was coming down with the flu. A sick, grouchy Jim was all they needed on a messy case like this. He wondered if he had any of his all-natural cold remedy in his desk at the station. Maybe he could convince Jim to take some once they got back. Sighing, Blair followed the sentinel into the temple.

Jim waited just inside the doorway, trying to will away the pain from his headache while allowing time for his eyes to adjust from the bright sunshine to the dimness inside the place. Blair had insisted on talking about the various types of sacrifices practiced by the tribes of South America, adding in tidbits of information about other sacrificial practices from all over the world. Jim had barely been able to keep the coffee he'd had that morning down as the anthropologist had presented the pros and cons of the transverse thoracotomy versus the midaxial thoracotomy as the most efficient way of removing the heart from a living victim.



Blair picked up a black yarmulke from a basket on a table just inside the door, and settled it on his head somewhat hesitantly, mumbling something about needing a hairpin. "Uh, maybe I should do the talking here?"

Jim couldn't see a reason why Blair shouldn't do the talking. After all, the kid knew more about Judaic practices than Jim did and hopefully wouldn't step on anyone's toes. Jim looked around the interior again, still not seeing anyone. "Sure. You seem to be in a talkative mood anyway." He waved Blair forward then followed the younger man deeper into the building, perching one of the yarmulkes carefully on his short hair.

It wasn't until the old man was right behind them, gently clearing his throat, before Jim realized he and Blair weren't alone. He practically jumped out of his skin when the man's sandpaper and smoke voice cut through the silence of the room.

"Can I be of assistance, gentlemen?" The man, who had to be in his late sixties, or early seventies, was wearing clothing similar to the ones found at the crime scene that morning; a white shirt and black jacket, over equally black pants, with a white yarmulke trimmed in blue.

"Shalom, Rabbi. Please excuse our intrusion." Blair smiled lightly, directing Jim out of his way as he approached the darkly attired man. "My name is Blair Sandburg. This is Detective Jim Ellison of the Cascade PD. We're looking for someone who can tell us a little bit about Stan Rabinovich. We found he'd listed the synagogue as his address."

The man smiled at his partner. "He's my new administrative assistant. Moved here from New Jersey about four months ago. Oh! Where are my manners? I'm Rabbi Abraham Gottlieb, shalom." He nodded his head in greeting, his dark eyes twinkling in humor as he looked at Blair. "You wouldn't happen to be Jewish, would you, Mr. Sandburg?"

"I've not practiced any faith in quite a while, but I'm open-minded about all that I've come into contact with," Blair explained as he handed the man a business card from his pocket. "I'm a teacher of Anthropology at Rainier and a consultant with Cascade PD. Detective Ellison is leading the investigation into Rabbi Rabinovich's--"

The old man snorted. "Stan is forever complaining about the way some of the members of his study group are 'harassed' by the neighborhood children. Is that what this is about, Detective?" The rabbi looked Jim directly in the eyes, and Ellison flinched from his gaze.

"Uh, not exactly, sir. When was the last time you saw Rabbi Rabinovich?"

"Oh, sometime last night. After eight, I think. He received a call about then, seemed very concerned about the caller and left. I don't think he's made it back, or if he has, he's out again. Probably still counseling the caller from last night. Why?"

Jim nodded to Blair, who carefully approached the man's side, ready to catch him should the news shock the old man that much. "Rabbi Goetlieb, there's no easy way to tell you this," Jim started to explain but the rabbi interrupted him.

"Something's happened to Stan, hasn't it, Detective?"

"Yes, sir. I'm afraid so." Jim hated this part of any murder investigation, telling the survivors that someone they knew, loved, or worked with, was gone. "His body was found early this morning, over at Forest Grove Park."

The older man seemed to age ten years in a few seconds as he leaned against Blair, who helped the gentleman into a nearby seat. After a few moments of silence, he said, "How--what happened to Stan? Was it a heart attack?"

Blair shook his head. "I'm sorry, but no." He glanced up at Jim, who could see the question of how much to tell the man in his eyes.

"We're pretty sure he was murdered. Was there anyone you know of who disliked Rabbi Rabinovich? Perhaps one of these people he complained was harassing him?" Jim asked.

The man studied his hands for a moment, muttering under his breath. "I knew no good would come of his studies.... Warned him, time and again, the cost that he'd pay in the end for delving into the Mysteries before he was ready...." His voice trailed off.

"Sir?" Blair drew the rabbi's attention back to him. "You said earlier that Rabbi Rabinovich ran a study group?" Rabbi Gottlieb nodded. "Was he studying or maybe even teaching Kabbalah?" Blair asked quietly, concern crossing his face as he and Jim watched the old man rock back and forth on the seat.

"Yes, but he had yet to reach his mastery. I don't support the idea of learning the Kabbalah, not until the student is fully and well versed in the way of all things Judaic, but Stan was persistent." The rabbi's faced tightened with outrage. "He even sought to teach those not of the Faith! Gentiles and New Agers who were only interested in the Kabbalah Mysteries for their own use, not for enlightenment!"

Jim stepped back, the fire of the older man's anger at odds with his gentle appearance.

"Foolishness! Stan knew better! He'd read the warnings! Knew how others who taught outside the Faith had faltered, ending up dead and lost forever to Zion! I warned him, time and again, that he was on the path to ruin, but he wouldn't listen to me!" The rabbi gathered himself, settling down and visibly swallowing his anger. "Forgive me, I shouldn't speak ill of Stan. I need to make arrangements. The body must be buried within twenty-four hours. Where can I find him?"

Reaching into his back pocket, Jim pulled out his wallet and withdrew a business card, which he handed to the now quiet man. "Once the autopsy is complete, you can find Rabbi Rabinovich at the City Morgue, sir. Just ask for Doctor Dan Wolf when you get there."

Rabbi Gottlieb took the card, looked it over before shoving into a pocket, and then stood up. "Gentlemen, thank you for coming in person to tell me of Stan's death. Now, if you'll excuse me?" He shuffled off, shambling down the path between the rows of benches and disappearing behind a door. Soon after the door closed behind the rabbi, the sound of a woman wailing broke the silence of the synagogue.

Walking back out into the bright sunshine of a nearly perfect afternoon, Jim realized he felt like shit. His headache hadn't eased up at all, he'd just managed to piss off a holy man, and no matter what he did, Jim couldn't help but wonder if Rabbi Gottlieb was a possible suspect in Rabinovich's murder. The anger and the fear he'd seen in the older man were surely questionable. "Chief? Was it just me or did the Rabbi seem a little upset over Stan's studies?"

"You mean in his learning the Kabbalah?"

Jim nodded.

"It's not all that uncommon, Jim. Rabbi Gottlieb strikes me as a more traditional Kesoch, and the more conservative Rabbis don't like Kabbalahism. Smacks of new age crap to them, even if it is a practice that goes back many thousands of years."

Opening the driver's side of his truck, then reaching over to unlock Blair's side, Jim pondered his friend's words for a minute. "What exactly is Kabbalah?"

"It's the study of the mysteries of the Torah, about the occult wisdom of the ages. I remember reading somewhere that a Kabbalah Master could do things similar to what we've seen Tibetan monks do."

"Yeah, right." Looking over his shoulder to make sure the way was clear before pulling into traffic, Jim couldn't shut off his thoughts on the subject. "What if this *was* a hate crime? Maybe Rabbi Rabinovich was murdered because he was studying this Kabbalah stuff?"

He felt the bench seat shudder and shake as Blair's whole body seemed to shiver. "Oh, man. Don't EVEN go there, Jim! Bad enough that you're thinking this is a hate crime, but now I get the idea you're looking at Rabbi Gottlieb as a possible suspect!"

"Sandburg-- He IS a suspect."

Blair stared at Jim for a moment, his eyes wide, then he deliberately looked away. He didn't say another word on the way to Rainier.

After dropping Blair off at the university, Jim returned to the station to find that Taggart, Rafe and Connor had finished going through all the crap from the park and were out doing follow-ups with witnesses from that morning. Sinking into the chair at his desk, he booted up his computer, intent on checking the backgrounds of Stan Rabinovich and Rabbi Abraham Goetlieb. There wasn't much. Rabinovich had a minor traffic record back in New Jersey, nothing spectacular, and Gottlieb had a completely clean driving record. Both men were in the police database as complainants, mostly for vandalism calls and the more recent 'harassment' complaints filed by Rabinovich.

"Jim?" Henri Brown's voice cut through his thoughts and he looked up at the detective. "Desk duty sergeant from downstairs just called, said she was sending up a woman to talk with you." His confusion must have shown on his face for Brown's next words were clarifying. "The woman claims to have some information on Rabbi Rabinovich."

The woman that wandered into the bullpen was around 45 years old with strongly chiseled facial features that hinted at the beauty she must have been in her youth. 'Probably will age as well as that woman from that TV series about a nosey novelist who solved crimes,' Jim thought as he stood up from his desk and walked over towards the brunette. "Can I help you, ma'am?"

Bloodshot, swollen gray eyes looked up at him from a height of about five-foot nothing. "I hope so. I'm looking for a Detective Elson?"

"Ellison, ma'am. And you found me. Sergeant downstairs send you up?"

"Yes, she did. I heard about Rabbi Rabinovich's death this morning and I wanted to talk to you about it."

Seeing that she seemed to be a little nervous, Jim nodded as he motioned for her to follow him. "Maybe you'd feel more at ease if we talked in private, Ms... ?"

"Oh! Esther Rosen. Thank you very much, Detective." She followed him into the break room where he offered her coffee, which she declined. "No, thank you, but I really can't stay too long. Rabbi Gottlieb will start to panic if I'm not back at the synagogue before too long. Poor man, he's a fine Rabbi, but no sense of organization." She sat down at a table, placing the small structure between herself and Jim.

"I take it you work at the synagogue, Ms. Rosen?"

"Yes, I'm the secretary."

"I'm sorry for your loss. You said you might have information for me?"

"Abraham said that Stan died last night?" Jim nodded in confirmation. "I'm not sure it's connected, but we received a call at the synagogue, well, the office really, I didn't recognize the voice but since the man asked for Stan by name I handed the phone to him."

Recalling the interview with Gottlieb, Jim ventured forth with a question. "Would that have been around eight or so?"

"Just after. I was working late, correcting a few things in the newsletter before sending it off to the printers. Anyway, I really couldn't help but overhear a few things and, the more I thought about it, the more I became sure that you might need to know about the nature of the call."

Years of working the job had taught Jim to be resourceful and, since he hadn't thought to grab his notebook from his desk before coming in here to talk with Ms. Rosen, he grabbed a couple of napkins and pulled his pen from his pocket. "It could help us narrow down the field of suspects. Please tell me what you can recall of the conversation."

"I'm afraid it won't be all that much. Like I said, I didn't recognize the voice so I doubt it was one of the synagogue's members, but from Stan's reaction I think he knew the man." Esther Rosen bit her lower lip in an unconscious gesture before continuing, "He got a little antsy, waving his free hand around so much that I was afraid he'd knock the stacks for the newsletter out of order, so I moved them beyond Stan's reach. Stan asked the caller where he should meet with him, that he wanted to talk with him face to face and, after a few minutes of silence on Stan's part, he said he knew the area well and he'd be there in about an hour."

"Do you have any idea where Rabinovich and this caller were to have met?"

"No. He never wrote it down and, when I asked, he told me not to worry so much and that the caller was a good man, just a little lost, spiritually speaking, and he'd been taking care of himself for years." A sad smile crossed her face. "He said it jokingly, with that nice smile of his, and within a few minutes, he'd left the grounds and... " She took a deep breath, wiping her eyes clear of the tears which Jim could see building up, before she spoke again. "That was the last time I saw Stan, Detective."

Jim escorted Mrs. Rosen down to her car, using the trip to stretch his legs and grab some fresh air. He also used the time away from the bullpen to think about the Rabinovich case. With what little she'd given him, he now had the idea that the killer had lured the rabbi from the synagogue. Armed with that fact, and the corroborating testimony by Rabbi Gottlieb, Jim was sure he now had the time frame for the phone record pull, provided he could get an attorney from the DA's office to sign off on a warrant and persuade a judge to sign the thing. Everything they had turned up so far pointed to the idea that Rabinovich knew his killer, which could take this case straight to premeditated murder and a possible death penalty for the perp. Providing he could catch the guy first.

Stepping off the elevator, back on the floor which housed his unit, Jim heard Blair's excited voice and followed it to the Captain's office. "Mind if I join you?" he asked as he poked his head in the door.

"Come on in, Jim." Simon Banks said as he waved him in. "Was your latest interview on the Rabinovich case productive?"

"Yeah, I just need to run the info by the DA's office and see if I can get a warrant to pull phone records for the synagogue. According to Mrs. Rosen, the rabbi may have been lured out by whoever killed him."

"That's a start. Blair, tell Jim what you turned up on your end." Ellison followed the captain's gaze to where his guide sat on the couch, laptop computer balanced on his crossed legs, and at least three books opened to various places scattered on the seats he wasn't sitting in. The idea that Sandburg was pursuing his own investigation of the Rabinovich case irritated him and Jim bit his tongue to keep from saying something he would regret. Even as he quashed his irrational response, Jim wondered why he felt so damn agitated over this case. The anthropologist had proven himself time and time again as a good investigator. Why was he getting uptight about Blair's involvement?

Pushing his glasses up on his nose, Blair looked up from his seat on the couch as Jim entered. The flicker of anger that crossed the sentinel's face didn't escape his notice. "Uh, Simon, this is just a half-formed theory based on some similarities. I don't have anything conclusive at this time."

The captain glared at the anthropologist over the rim of his coffee cup, and Jim perched himself on the corner of the conference table, folding his arms across his chest. Blair brushed his hair back with both hands and cleared his throat. "Well, uh, when I saw Rabbi Rabinovich's body this morning, I knew I'd seen it somewhere else. Not the rabbi himself, but the positioning, the stone, the angle of the wound--" Jim's eyes were starting to roam the room and Blair knew he was losing his audience. "And, uh, so when I went back to school I picked up some books that were helpful, but I found what I really wanted on the Internet, on a site about the Aztecs. I downloaded the graphics to my computer."

He flipped the laptop around so that Jim could see the image on the screen, a drawing of a figure in an awkward, bent backwards pose, as another figure used a knife to cut out the victim's heart. "This is from the Codex Nuttall, a translation of a Mixtec screen-fold book by an anthropologist named Zenia Nuttall in the early 1900s. There are a number of other codices dealing with the Aztecs, dating from the 1500s, most of which were transcribed by Franciscan monks--" Now Simon's eyes were beginning to glaze over. "Anyway, to make a long story short, the various codices all contain descriptions of human sacrifice." He opened up another graphic. "This illustration is from a paper presented in the 1970's on the sacrificial methods employed by the Mayans and Aztecs. As you can see, it's quite similar to the wound on our victim." He glanced at both men, waiting for a response.

Jim finally said, "And this means what? That our guy knows how to use a search engine? Or surfed by the Discovery Channel? Or maybe has taken Anthropology 101? I think you've just widened the field, Sandburg, not narrowed it."

Blair slumped back against the sofa cushions, Jim's words stinging even though they made sense. He began to shut down his computer. "Sorry, I just thought--"

"It was a good thought, Chief. But it's a little early to say this is the work of a guy with an Aztec fetish. It could just be somebody really pissed off at the rabbi, for whatever reason, and he happened to watch 'Pyramid Cultures of the World' last night."

"Well, I think it's worth pursuing, Jim. We still don't know if there's any significance to the painting on the body. You keep after it from this angle, Blair, just keep an open mind." Banks looked at his watch. "It's six o'clock, gentlemen. Anyone interested in joining me for dinner?"

Blair finished tucking everything away in his backpack and got to his feet. "I'll pass, Simon. I've got papers to grade."

Jim caught up with him as Blair was picking up a notebook at his desk. "Look, Chief--"

"It's okay, Jim. You've had plenty of ridiculous ideas that didn't pan out, too." He pulled a small cloth pouch out of his desk drawer. "Hey, if you're still feeling bad, try some of this. It's my all-natural cold cure."

The sentinel took the proffered pouch with a grimace. "This stuff is nasty."

Blair grinned at him. "But it works. You might be getting the flu. Take some."

Jim gave him a one-fingered salute and a smile. "Yes, Dr. Sandburg. I'll see you at home later."

Laughing, Blair saluted back, then shouldering his backpack, he headed for home.

Blair entered his apartment to find the lights on and his girlfriend, Sky Kullien, in the kitchen. He'd given her a key about a month after they'd started dating, but usually she called before she dropped by. She glanced up at him, a smile lighting up her face. "Hey, baby. I'm running a little behind, but dinner should be ready soon."

He felt his brow furrow in confusion. "Um, not that I'm not glad to see you, but what are you doing here?"

She raised an eyebrow at him as she wiped her hands on the apron. "We have a date, remember? Me, you, blackened tuna?"

Setting his backpack down and hanging his jacket up, Blair walked into the kitchen. "I'm sorry. It's been a shitty day and I completely forgot."

Sky slid her arms around his waist and pulled him into a hug. Closing his eyes, Blair leaned into the embrace, feeling some of his tension leave him. Finally, he pulled back a bit, kissing her tenderly. "You don't know how much I needed that," Blair said as he released her.

"Day that bad, hmm?" She returned to seasoning the fish.

"Awful." He peered over her shoulder, watching her work. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

Turning her head, Sky kissed him on the cheek. "You can make a salad." As he opened up the refrigerator door, she asked, "You want to talk about it?"

He looked back at her as he reached for the lettuce. "What?"

"Your day. Do you want to talk about it?"

Blair thought about that for a few moments, filling his arms with vegetables, and carrying them over to the cutting board on the counter. He rummaged in a drawer for a knife, then said, "Simon came to the university to get me this morning. He needed me to come look at a crime scene." He paused, setting the knife down and running a hand through his hair as he tried to stop the memories from rushing back. Closing his eyes only made it worse, the image of the old man bent over the stone growing sharper as the scent of blood and the sickly sweet odor of decay filled his nostrils. He shivered, recalling the strange feeling he'd gotten as he approached the scene. Only this time he remembered when he'd sensed it before, as he sat chained to a dentist's chair in an abandoned warehouse. Lash!

"Blair? You okay?" He opened his eyes to find Sky's anxious gaze on him, her hand resting lightly on his chest. "Your heart's going a mile a minute. Do you need to sit down?"

He shook his head, still trying to make sense of the jumbled images and sensations. "No, no, I'm okay, just a little off kilter. Man, I haven't had a dead body affect me like this in a long time." He shuddered, and she hugged him, her hands running up and down his back.

"How do you feel?" Sky asked him.


"What do you feel, right now?"

Blair hesitated, unsure of where she was going with her question, but he answered as best he could. "I feel---dirty, filthy." He moved away from her, the feeling that he would somehow contaminate her overwhelming. "Shower. I need a shower--" He started in the direction of the bathroom.

He was stripping out of his clothes when Sky appeared in the doorway. "Scrub with this." She held out a container of sea salt to him. He recognized it as the one he kept next to the stove.


"Humor me, okay? If you don't feel better, you can say 'I told you so'."

When Blair took it from her, she left the bathroom. He stared at the container for a moment, recalling that sea salt and running water were a potent spiritual cleanser. He set the salt on the back of the toilet and turned on the shower. Once Blair had stepped under the stream of water, he picked up a washcloth poured salt into it, then began to bathe.

As he scrubbed, his mind returned to the thought he'd had in the kitchen, his memory of being held captive by David Lash. He forced himself to examine his feelings, looking for the common denominator between then and now. Lash was dead, of that Blair had no doubt. So what was the same? The fact that Lash had bound and drugged his victims, as Blair suspected the rabbi's killer had? Was it the obvious attention to detail, to the ritual itself? Or was it something more primeval than that?

He stopped washing and stood under the hot spray of water, closing his eyes and concentrating on his breathing, taking himself through the self-relaxation techniques he used with Jim. When he felt completely calm, he let his memories of Lash come to the surface.

Susan Frasier. When he'd followed Jim into her bathroom, he hadn't been prepared for the sight of her still, cold body. At first he thought it wasn't real, that some weirdo had posed a mannequin in the water. Then it dawned on him he was looking at a dead woman, and that somehow made the scene even more bizarre. He'd rushed out of the room thinking no sane person could have done this. Turned out he had been right.

Was that what was going on here? Did a psychopath kill Rabbi Rabinovich? The more he turned it over in his mind, the more the similarities jumped out at him. The ritual, the display of the body, the obvious pride the killer had in his work--

The water temperature suddenly dropped to freezing, and Blair realized he'd been in the shower too long. Shutting off the tap, he got out and dried off, then put on his bathrobe. As he entered the hallway, he felt a prickling sensation akin to static electricity pass over his skin.

"What the... ?" Blair exclaimed as he walked into the living room. The furniture in the dining area had been pushed back against the wall. In the now open space were candles, a large circle of nine votives surrounding five more.

Sky looked up from lighting the final candle. Smiling at him, she said, "I figured if we were going to do a cleansing, we'd do it right. I had most of the stuff we need still in my trunk from last week's druid meeting."

Blair hesitated for a moment, then shrugged. "Sure, why not? What do you need me to do?"

"Take off your robe, and enter the circle between these two candles." She indicated the ones closest to her. Once he'd done so, Sky followed him in, spoke a few words in Gaelic, and said, "The circle is now complete." Bending down, she picked up a small bundle of dried leaves from a pile of items on the floor. Blair recognized it as a sage smudge stick.

As Sky prepared to light it, Blair said, "Wait a minute, what about the smoke detector?"

She flashed him a grin as she ignited the smudge. "Way ahead of you. Yanked the battery out. Remind me to put it back in when we're done." She blew gently on the smoldering leaves until white smoke began to rise in the air. Holding the stick in her left hand, she pulled a bundle of feathers from the pocket of the Tweety apron. Using the feathers, she fanned the smoke over him in a downward motion.

She moved around him, working from his head down, the feathers wafting cool air across his skin. "That tickles," he protested.

"Sorry." Sky continued to speak, switching to the Gaelic she normally used for rituals. Blair's knowledge of the language was only rudimentary, but he recognized her words as a variation on the normal purification ritual the druids used in the grove.

Blair closed his eyes against the strongly aromatic smoke, visualizing it bonding with the darkness he felt surrounding him, then being swept away. He opened his eyes as she brushed the smoke down his body. Reaching his feet, she fanned the last of the smoke away, then snuffed out the smudge stick. Putting both the feathers and the sage down, she picked up a bottle of Cobb Mountain Spring Water and poured it onto a white washcloth. Sky began to wipe him down, starting with his face.

He felt relaxed, peaceful and not at all tense. The bad 'vibes' he'd been feeling all day had dissipated, leaving him renewed, re-energized and-- Blair looked down at the top of her head as Sky knelt to run the cloth over his legs. His breath caught in his chest at an almost overwhelming rush of emotion. Say it. You know it's true. Just say it. Just tell her.

He blinked rapidly a couple of times, the last vestiges of smoke in the air stinging his eyes. Sky got to her feet, the cleansing done, and he was suddenly staring into those clear green eyes. Over the months they'd been together, he'd discovered that her eyes spoke volumes. Everything in her heart was visible there, if he just looked deep enough. Now all he saw was her tremendous love for him, and for a moment he was scared.

What if it's not enough? What if I say it wrong? What if--Sandburg, just say it!

He brushed his fingers over her cheek. "I love you... " He'd meant it to be strong and confident, but it came out as an emotion-choked whisper.

Blair watched her eyes fill up with tears, then she smiled and kissed him. "You know I love you, too, darlin'." As the words left her mouth, a gust of air blew out the candles.

He heard the door to Jim's apartment close, then the shrill beep of his friend's smoke alarm, followed by a loud sneeze, and a bellow down the staircase. "Sandburg! What in the hell's going on down there?"

"Nothing, man, nothing!" he yelled back as, laughing, Sky spoke the words to open the circle. She tossed his bathrobe at him just as Jim started down the stairs.

Pulling into his normal parking spot outside of his home, Jim turned off the engine and sat there in silence for a few minutes. He and Simon had opted for dinner at the Outback Steakhouse where they had consumed a couple of massive steaks with all the trimmings and quaffed down a few beers. Not too many, since both were driving, but just enough to relax. Only, Jim wasn't fully relaxed. Something was tugging at his mind, something that Sandburg had said earlier about the ritualistic nature of the crime scene. He just wished he could remember what it was.

Letting out a sigh of frustration, Jim crawled out of his truck and, while putting his keys in his pocket, came across the small pouch Blair had tossed him earlier. "Sandburg's All Natural Snake Oil." He let go of a chuckle. "Might as well see if it works, but not tonight. Not sure how it'll react with the beer." Stuffing the pouch back into his pocket, he made his way into the building, stopping only to check his mailbox before using the elevator to reach the third floor.

Keying open his door, Jim automatically sent his senses ranging out, an old reflex action from all the times he'd come home to find Blair cooking something a little too exotic, or trouble waiting for him. Nothing. Now that Blair had his own place, just below Jim's, there was hardly ever any trouble waiting for him. Well, not counting that vegetable bomber guy.


"What the hell?" His smoke alarm started going off, the sound practically piercing his eardrums, then the scent hit him and hit him hard. "Aaaa-CHOO!" Sage.

"Sandburg! What in the hell's going on down there?" He crossed the floor to the staircase that connected the two apartments and started down the spiral just as Blair's voice drifted up to him.

"Nothing, man, nothing!" There was a hint of laughter in his friend's voice and the smothered giggling of a female spoke volumes as did the scene that greeted Jim's eyes.

Sandburg was shrugging back into his robe, but not before Jim saw more of his guide than he wanted to. Sky, wearing that damn Tweety Bird apron she'd gotten for Sandburg, was trying not to laugh as she glanced toward him. Stopping about halfway down the spiral staircase, Jim realized the hair on his arms was standing straight up. "Nothing, Sandburg? Then why do I smell sage, my fire alarm's going off, and you're standing in the middle of what looks to be a ritual circle nearly naked?"

Sky looked up from gathering the candles. "Cleansing ritual." She glanced at Blair. "You do feel better, don't you?"

"Yeah, honey, I do. Thanks." Jim tried not to grimace when his friend pulled Sky into an embrace and kissed her.

Jim sneezed again. "Damn it. You have some explaining to do, Sandburg. But upstairs where I can breathe." He shot a glare in the couple's direction and headed back up the stairs. Once there, he threw open the French doors to the balcony. A few seconds later the shrill tweet of the smoke alarm cut off.

Blair appeared from below, followed by Sky. Rubbing his arms, Jim paced across the loft. "Chief, you're really starting to worry me here. I can understand why you might want someone to do a--what did you call it--a cleansing ritual, Sky?" She nodded, sliding her arm through Blair's. "I mean, your place is a mess but a little elbow grease, soap and water would take care of that."

"Funny, Jim. Real funny," Blair snorted.

"Yeah, well I just call them like I see 'em, Chief." Jim walked over toward the big bay windows and pushed one open. "I just hope I can get rid of that sage smoke so I can sleep tonight." Seeing a puzzled expression on Sky's face, he told her, "I'm allergic."

"Oh! Blair! Why didn't you tell me? I am so sorry, Jim! I could've used something else if I'd known."

"Sorry, Jim. I didn't realize how late it was. I figured we could air the place out before you got home."

"No big deal. Naomi used to use the stuff, too. I'm getting used to it." He opened one more window Looking back at the two younger people, he asked, "So why did you need a cleansing, Sandburg?"

"Long story, Jim."

"He came home feeling a little 'dirty' after whatever he helped you with today." Sky had never been afraid to tell Jim exactly what was what and from her tone, he surmised she wasn't too pleased with him for some reason.

"The case bugging you, Chief? I appreciate your willingness to help me out, but if it's too much--"

"No, I'll be fine. But don't be surprised if you find me meditating quite a bit while we're working on this. It's disturbing."

"Okay. But you'll let me know if it gets to be too much?" Blair nodded and Jim continued, "Good. I'm not too sure about this new age stuff, but if it helps you get through this. ... " Seeing the expression on both faces before him, Jim decided a hasty retreat was in order. "Well, on that note, I'm going to bed. You two have fun down there, but try to keep the sage burning and the noise to a decent level, will ya?"

The two-person chorus of 'good nights' and 'sleep wells' wafted back up the stairs. Once he got into bed, Jim managed to block out most of what was going on in apartment 207, but there was just enough getting though that he rolled over and opened the top drawer of his bedside table. He pulled out a box, took the two small items out, and stuffed them in his ears. The noise stopped. "Ah, bliss." Punching his pillow into a comfortable shape, Jim closed his eyes.

Blair snuggled up closer to Sky on the mattress and slid his arm around her waist. She made a soft little noise, and leaned back against him, but didn't wake up.

After Blair and Sky had gone back downstairs, they'd finally gotten around to making dinner. Or, rather, Sky had. He worked on grading papers until it was ready, and went back to them after eating. She'd cleaned up the kitchen, then relieved him of half the remaining stack of tests. She was a demon with the red pen, and between them, they had the grading done in no time.

Then it had been off to bed. And now here he was, an hour and a half later, still awake, thinking about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He must be getting old. He didn't have that same wanderlust he'd had in his youth. Hell, had four years ago. He had Jim, and the whole sentinel thing, two great jobs, a cool home of his own, with a mortgage, and a steady girlfriend. Oh, God, he was finally a grown-up. He had responsibilities.

But there were perks as well. Blair felt a grin cross his face, and he tilted his head down to plant a soft kiss on Sky's bare shoulder. He'd finally said the words. And instead of the panic he'd felt the last time he'd said them to a woman, he felt--right. This was where he was supposed to be. And maybe, if she felt this was where she was supposed to be too, they could make things a little more permanent. Not permanent, permanent, but maybe he could clean out a drawer in his dresser, and buy some more hangers for the closet.

Yeah, that's what he'd do. Tomorrow. Closing his eyes, Blair drifted off to sleep.


A little over two weeks later the Rabinovich case stalled, not something that Jim or any other detective ever wanted to admit about an investigation, but it didn't change the fact. By November 29th, he'd uncovered no new leads, no mysterious witnesses had come forward in the last week, and the autopsy report from Dan Wolf had been pretty straightforward. Cause of death: heart being ripped from chest while victim still lived. The toxicology report said traces of some sort of hallucinogen and sedatives had been found in the victim's blood, but not enough to identify them clearly. The phone records from the synagogue revealed that the call which had lured the Rabbi out of his home after 8 PM had come from a pay phone. It was in the area of Forest Grove Park, but was well used and no legible fingerprints had been recovered from the phone, the booth, or anywhere around it.

Closing down the desktop computer and throwing the Rabinovich file into his desk drawer, Jim made ready to leave the office for lunch. Maybe he could swing by Rainier and get Blair to go with him.

Grabbing his jacket from the coat rack, Jim exited the bullpen and made his way toward the elevator, only to stop in his tracks as he listened to the conversation filtering up the elevator shaft as the car moved upwards.

" you think this new murder might be related to the Rabinovich case Jim's been working on all week?" Blair! But who was he talking to?

"I'm just saying it's a possibility, Sandburg. I need you and Jim to head out to the site and see if you find anything of significance." Simon, and with another body for him. He gave serious thought to turning away from the approaching doom, heading for the stairwell and escaping. As much as he wanted to do that, Jim knew the Captain would just track him down -- either through his cell phone or his pager -- and hand the case off to him.

The doors to the lift opened up and Jim pasted his best 'surprised-to-see-you-here' look on his face. "Captain. Blair. What's this I've heard about a new murder?"

Simon Banks scowled at him, teeth clenching hard into the cigar in his mouth as he pushed past his detective. "I know better than to ask. Follow me to my office."

"You heard us, didn't you?" Blair asked while falling into step beside Jim.

"Kinda hard not to, Chief. I guess I must have heard one of you mention Rabinovich's name and focused in automatically." He held the door to Simon's office open, then carefully shut it behind his friend as he turned to face the Captain. "Where and how bad is this new case, Simon?"

Jim watched as Simon flipped open the file he'd had in hand when he stepped off the elevator, scanning the contents before he spoke up.

"New construction site over in the Woodlands area. The workers there were doing some earth grading and turned up a partially decomposed body."

"Woodlands?" Jim felt his forehead tighten up as he thought about where that new area was. "Simon, Woodlands hasn't been officially annexed by the city yet. Why isn't County handling this?"

Simon gave out an exasperated sigh. "County IS handling the case; they just want to bring us in before the land gets annexed and they have to get us involved, officially. Think of it as a gesture of goodwill. They're prepared to hang onto the case, even after the land is annexed, so they're just sharing information before that happens." He handed the file over to Blair. "Here, read what they've got and go meet with their detective."


"Where what?"

Jim quirked a little smile. "Where are we to meet the County's detective?"

"Probably the Sheriff's Office; his card is clipped to the file. If he's not there, call him and arrange the meet. Now, get out of my office before I snag our consultant from you and put him to work on helping me with the damn budget."

"Got'cha. Let's go, Chief." He tugged on Sandburg's arm to gain the younger man's attention, then steered him through the office door and the obstacle course of the bullpen while Blair continued to read the file.

"Oh, man! This isn't their first case! Remember that article in the newspaper a couple months ago about the bodies found outside of Cascade? Though there was no mention in the paper of any ritualistic elements to those deaths. I don't even remember seeing them listed as homicides."

"Could be the sheriff's department was keeping those details from the public. And didn't the article say the bodies were badly decomposed? Perhaps they're still waiting for lab results to determine if those people were murdered."

"Maybe Detective Sydoriak can give me, and you, some insight on the whole matter." Blair slapped the file closed just as the elevator opened back up.

"Maybe. Let's go meet him and find out what he's got first."

Detective Francis Sydoriak wasn't in his office when Jim called him on his cell phone, but agreed to meet both Blair and Jim at the site where the latest body had been found. As Jim pulled up to the construction site, he spotted what was obviously an unmarked police unit. The Chevy Caprice had the spotlight still attached to the driver's side. A man standing next to the dark gray car was smoking a cigarette. "Looks like Sydoriak beat us here."

"Yeah, and he doesn't look too happy about being out in the weather either." Blair's comment was very observant. The detective was dressed in a light mackinaw and it had been misting slightly ever since Jim had pulled out of the police garage.

Pulling in next to the other officer's unit, squelching tires through the muddy earth as slowly as possible so as not to splash the waiting man with mud, Jim rolled down his window. "You Sydoriak?"

The man threw his cigarette away and stepped towards the truck. "Yeah, you Ellison and Sandburg?" Jim noticed how the man's fingers slipped unobtrusively under his mack, and knew the officer was just being cautious in putting his hand close to his sidearm.

"Yeah. Come on, Chief, let's get this over with." Jim got out of the truck, slipping his Jags ball cap on, and shook hands with his county counterpart. "Jim Ellison, Major Crime." He nodded towards Blair. "This is Doctor Sandburg from Rainier. He's a consultant to the department and has been helping us out on a number of cases."

"Frank Sydoriak. Nice to meet you both." Frank shook hands with both of them then gestured over his shoulder. "Let's get out of this god damn rain and I'll bring you both up to speed." The county detective led them towards a house that was still under construction, but at least had a roof, before bringing a file out from under his coat. "Here, not sure that this case is related to other two we've found, but some of the stuff we recovered at each scene leads me to believe that they are connected."

The accordion folder he'd handed to Jim was thick and, upon scanning through it under the fading light of day, seemed to contain files on several cases. "And this makes what, number three?"

"Yeah, and to be honest, I'm getting rather sick and tired of it." Frank pulled out a pack of Morley Ultra Lights and lit one up. "I'd damn near quit this habit before these cases landed on my desk; now I can't seem to think without one in my hand." The detective was as tall as Jim, but not as well built, blond hair cut into a longer style than Jim was used to seeing on officers that weren't working undercover, but neatly trimmed anyway. The man's blue eyes seemed to hold all of his heartache in their depths. "Look, not that I'd wish this sick sonuvabitch on anyone, but I heard the news and, well, let's just say if your Rabbi was killed by the same man.... " Frank shrugged. "Misery loves company."

Jim handed the file and a small flashlight off to Blair. "Here Sandburg, read those over. Frank, show me where the body was found." He followed the county detective back out into the rain and tugged his ballcap lower on his forehead to keep the moisture out of his eyes.

Frank led him about fifty yards away, into an area that was just being cleared for a new house. As they rounded a pile of debris, a large squared-off boulder jutted out of the ground. A chill ran down Jim's spine. He'd known the boulder was going to be there. What the hell?

"Yo, Ellison, over here!"

Shaking off his strange sense of deja vu, Jim let the other man point everything out while trying to use his senses on the area in the vain hope of picking up a clue.

"Contractors found the body this afternoon, right over there. The man who'd been operating the dozer didn't notice anything at first, until the body actually dropped out of the scoop. Then, according to his coworkers, he let out a scream loud enough to be heard in Canada." Frank shook his head. "I've seen a number of homicides in my career, and just as many skeletons, but this one was strange."

"How strange?" Blair's voice queried as he came to join Jim and the detective, the accordion folder clenched in his fist.

"Doc!" The county officer nearly jumped straight up in the air. "Jeez! Give a man a heart attack! Do you always sneak up on cops?" Frank asked, as Jim listened to his heart trying to settle back down into a normal rhythm after the start Blair had given him.

"Nah, I didn't think I was sneaking. Jim, you heard me, right?" Blair had one of his mischievous grins on his face, making it hard for Jim not to chuckle.

Jim nodded from where he stood, the ground marked with plastic yellow tape showing where the body had dropped from the bucket on the dozer. "Yeah, I heard you."

Frank snorted. "No fair! Ellison was bound to have at least seen you. After all, he's got those damn hawk eyes of his!"

Jim smiled. "But I didn't see him, Sydoriak, I heard him. Big difference." Something caught his attention and he squatted down to poke at the mud. "Hey, Chief, you got an evidence bag handy?" Bare-handed, he removed his pen from his pocket, using it to pry the shattered bit of wood from the wet soil.

Blair and Frank came over to Jim, the officer holding out a County evidence bag. ""What did you find, Ellison?" Sydoriak asked.

Taking the bag from Frank, Jim pulled the object completely out of the ground, carefully bagged it, and held it up for Blair to see. "Look familiar, 'Doc'?"

"It's another damn flute," Blair ground out.

Jim stood up and glanced over at the county officer. "Frank, was anything like that found at the other crime scenes?"

"Yeah, both of them. Is it significant?"


He watched Blair's reaction closely; the case was now, in Jim's mind, connected firmly to the Rabinovich murder. The young doctor of anthropology was carefully examining the remains of the flute under the beam from the flashlight Jim had given him, color fading as the implications became clearer in his own mind. "It looks like the one the teams found at Forest Grove Park, but I need to clean it up first before I can tell you for certain."

Jim nodded and turned his attention towards Francis Sydoriak. "I guess you've got company on this case."

The detective looked up at the rain heavy clouds. "Let's get out of the weather, unless you see something more we missed, Ellison?" Jim shook his head. "Good, 'cause I need a hot cup of strong coffee and would like to compare notes on our friend who leaves broken flutes as a calling card."

The diner, attached to the large truck stop on the north end of Cascade, had several things going for it; it was dry, warm and the coffee was exactly as Frank had described it: hot and strong enough to remove paint, or to use as ink should they need it. It wasn't all that crowded, so the County Detective had snagged a table in the back of the dining area and soon he, Jim, and Blair had files opened and scattered all over the tabletop.

Jim pulled one of the files over towards him and opened it, nearly spilling the crime scene photos into his lap. "Great." He moved to gather the file up, trying not to notice the actual contents of the photographs. Flipping the photos face down on the table, he started reading the original report. "Frank, about this first body--" He glanced up to see Sydoriak looking at him. "The reporting officer said that he'd been waved down by a couple of hunters?"

"Yeah," Frank snorted while stubbing his cigarette out. "The Dillahunty boys. Had their dogs out, getting ready for the season, trampled all over the damn crime scene, letting their dogs root around for two days before they decided they should report their find."

"They stayed around the body for two days?" Blair's voice was full of surprise and Jim had to agree with him.

"Yep. When I talked with them, I chewed them out royally in front of their father, which could explain why when they found the second body, they reported it immediately."

Jim flipped open the second file. Sure enough, the reporting parties were listed as Roger and Reggie Dillahunty. "Seems odd that the same people who found the first body found the second one as well, and only three days later."

"You've never had a run-in with the boys, Ellison." Frank shook his head. "And you really don't want to, not with your nose. They're pretty much what you'd call 'hills people' and don't believe in taking baths too often." Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out another cigarette but just held it as he finished explaining. "Roger and Reggie know the entire north woods by heart. Great assets to have when we have a manhunt going on, but not too bright. And they're probably the best hunters I've ever seen. When I talked to them the first time, they agreed to move their camp and just had the misfortune to chose an area close to the second body. Again, their dogs found the DB and pretty much tore the scene up before the boys could call them off, but according to the ME's report, I don't think it would've mattered much."

He'd been flipping through the second batch of photos while Frank had talked and, after looking at them, Jim had to agree with the detective. "I think you're right." Blair held his hand out for the file, which Jim handed to him, minus the photographs. "Trust me, Chief. It's not pretty."

"Need I remind you that I am an anthropologist and have seen dead bodies several years into decomposi..." Jim had flipped a photo over, one of the less graphic ones, and watched as Blair's color faded and he turned a little green. "Then again..." The kid covered well enough, grabbing the latest file, one without photos, and buried his nose in it.

"Frank, anything found at these other scenes that might stick out in your mind? Other than the flute or recorder that you've already mentioned." Jim had opened his notebook and was already taking notes on the file in front of him as he asked the question.

"Just one oddity." Sydoriak lit up his cigarette he'd been playing with.


"Yeah, we found a stack of clothing within twenty to thirty yards of each of the bodies. Neatly folded and, at least in DB # 2's case, there was a small leather pouch on top of the stack."

"Hold it. Frank, is there a list of what was inside the pouch?" Blair looked up from his file, almost staring at the county detective.

"I think so." Sydoriak slipped the file out from in front of Jim and leafed through it for a minute then handed Blair a sheet of paper. "Here you go, one evidence list, Doc."

Leaning over to read the list with Blair, Jim noticed what he thought the anthropologist was searching for and pointed to it. "That what you're looking for?"

"Yeah. I think so." Blair hadn't put his reading glasses on earlier, but did so now and Jim couldn't blame him. The evidence record was hand printed and whoever had done it had terrible penmanship. "Yeah, oh man! I think this victim was a Native American. The contents listed are common items for a 'medicine' pouch; pollen, cornmeal, flaked mica, and a 'carved soapstone in the shape of an animal'."

"Back to the real world, Chief. We're not all anthropologists, what the heck is a medicine pouch?"

"Sorry about that. It's a type of leather bag that some Native Americans carry on their person and usually has items used in daily ceremonies. Pollens to bless the dawning of the day, cornmeal to 'feed' the rising spirits or offer up as a greeting to the Sun. The soapstone is usually a representation of their personal spirit guide."

Sydoriak had been writing furiously in his own notebook and once Blair had finished talking, he broke into a smile, one of the few that Jim could recall seeing on the man's face. "You may have just given me my first break in these cases." Blue eyes, glittering in excitement, turned toward Jim. "Ellison, if you boys in Cascade ever tire of the Doc's services, can we steal him away from you?"

"Sure, but I don't think it's going to happen anytime soon, Frank."

"Damn. Hey, Doc, look through the rest of the evidence records and see if you can spot anything else that might help me, will ya?" Jim shook his head as he returned to reading the file on the second victim while Sydoriak started handing Sandburg the records from the other files. It wasn't until Jim opened the third file that he found something out of place.

"Hey, Frank, I think this belongs in the file from today's victim." He handed the evidence record over to Sydoriak who immediately handed it off to Blair.

"Sure does, must have gotten in there by mistake when I dropped the files in the car earlier. Here ya go, Doc."

Jim watched the two men work for a few minutes in mild amusement. It wasn't all that often that someone showed a true appreciation of Blair's talents and he made a mental note to correct that oversight on his part. He'd just returned to his reading of the technical team's findings at the second crime scene when he heard Blair's heartbeat skyrocket. "Chief? You okay?" He reached out and grabbed the younger man, who was rapidly going pale, by the shoulder and shook him gently. "Chief?"

"It can't be... Oh god, what if it is?"

"Blair, what's wrong?"

Blair looked up at Jim and handed him the evidence record. "Line 48."

"Line 48?" He looked at the indicated entry and, reading the description of the item, realized what had sent Blair's heart rate through the roof. "Aw, damn."

One silver filigree pendant. Pentagram design with Celtic scrollwork.

Blair was silent on the ride back to police headquarters, his mind on the past, as he wondered how he was going to break the news to Sky.

On November 3rd, a week after the wrap-up of the fake Ecstasy case, Blair walked into Major Crime to find Skylark Kullien sitting in a chair next to Jim's desk, a troubled expression on her face. The detective was nowhere in sight.

Crossing the room, Blair dropped his backpack at his desk then approached her. "Sky? What's wrong? What are you doing here?"

She jumped to her feet, her gaze haunted. "Blair! I came to talk to Jim, but he's not here right now, and I don't know who else to turn to--"

Reaching out, Blair laid a comforting hand on her shoulder. "What's the matter? Thorvald's people haven't been bothering you, have they?"

She shook her head, her strawberry blonde locks flying. "No, no, not a peep out of them. In fact the Toy Box has been closed since he was arrested. It's my friend Rowan MacLauryn. She's missing!"

"Missing? Are you sure she didn't just go on vacation, or out of town for a few days?"

Sky nodded, her fingers tightening on the strap of her purse. "Yes, I'm sure. I've called all her friends, and no one's seen her since she left my store last Saturday."

Blair considered the options. "Okay, we need to go talk to Patrol then. They handle welfare checks and missing persons reports." Placing his hand at the small of her back, he guided Sky toward the elevators. Once there, he turned her over to Corporal Li Xiong, but stayed to help her get through the difficult task of recalling the details of where, when and what clothing her friend had been wearing the last time Sky had seen her.

The anthropologist glanced down at his clenched fists. That had been nearly two months ago. Patrol hadn't turned up much in the way of leads, even though Xiong had made finding MacLauryn a personal goal . He wondered who would tell Li that his search had been in vain. He looked over at his partner. Probably Jim. Li had been a pet project of his, in much the same way as Danny Choi. Jim would make sure Li knew he hadn't failed.

How am I going to tell Sky her best friend's been murdered? Blair worried the inside of his lip with his teeth, then made a decision. He wouldn't say anything until after the autopsy, which was scheduled for the next morning, and ask Jim to do the same. If a match were made using dental and medical records, then he would find some gentle way of breaking the news to his girlfriend.

Day slowly crept towards night. Jim parted company with Blair in the precinct's garage, while Frank Sydoriak tagged along with the detective into Major Crime. If they were to work together on what now appeared to be related crimes, then Frank needed to see the files and evidence on the rabbi's murder. While the sheriff's detective pored over the Rabinovich case file, Jim was formulating a plan to confirm his suspicions that the body found earlier was, indeed, Rowan MacLauryn.

The autopsy wouldn't start until the morning, but a few phone calls down to the basement provided information he needed. Dan Wolf was staying late, awaiting the arrival of a 'floater' dredged up by CPD's Harbor Patrol, and Serena Chang was staying late as well. Something about doing an "inventory control check" of the evidence lockup, which meant he should be able to access what he needed.

Just after turning the Rabinovich folder over to Frank to read in the security of the bullpen, Jim headed down to the morgue, and requested a look at the county's body. He nearly gagged when the corpse was rolled out and he saw its mangled condition. Choking out a polite 'thank you' to the forensic tech who had assisted him, Jim returned to the bullpen, his thoughts in rapid motion.

The itemized list of evidence found at the Woodlands crime scene had Jim convinced he knew whose body it was. Now to get the confirmation from the one person who knew the victim the best -- Skylark Kullien.

Frank excused himself to go grab some coffee and Jim took the opportunity to place a phone call, only looking at his watch after completing his dialing. Damn, it was later than he thought, nearly 10 PM. Oh well....

"--ello?" The woman's voice was muzzy, as if he'd woken her up. Good. Served her right, since he couldn't get any decent sleep the night after all that sage burning she and Blair had done.

"Ms. Kullien? It's Detective Ellison."

"Jim! What is it, is something wrong with Blair?" He listened as her heart thudded in her chest, then started racing.

"No, this isn't about Sandburg, Sky. You filed a missing person's report a few weeks ago on Rowan MacLauryn?" He toyed with a pen as he spoke, his hands itching to do something.

"Uh, yeah. I mean, yes, I did. Has she been found?" The hope in her voice was genuinely heartbreaking.

"Yes, she has. And I really need a favor from you." He waved towards Frank Sydoriak, who'd just walked back into the bullpen. "I need you to come down to the station and take a look at a few things." He nodded in appreciation as the county detective set a cup full of coffee on the desk in front of him.

"Of course, when do you need me there?"

Jim glanced at his watch again. "I realize it's late, Sky, but could you be here in an hour or less?" He waved off the questioning look Frank tossed his way as the man sipped on his own cup of coffee.

Sheets rustled in the background on her end of the line. "Uh, yeah, I guess so. Just let me grab a quick 'wake-up' shower, then I'll come over."

"I appreciate this, Sky. I'm sure we can handle our business fast enough for you to get some sleep before you have to get up to open your store."

"I'll be there, Jim. And thanks for calling me -- even as late as it is."

He hung up the phone to see the detective still staring at him. "What's up with the look, Sydoriak?" Jim queried as he sipped the strong brew Frank had brought back with him. Obviously someone had made a fresh pot, for it wasn't the normal late-night sludge.

"I couldn't help but overhear a little bit of your conversation, Jim. Would that happen to have been the 'Skylark' who filled out the MP report on her friend you think is the body we found in the county?"

"It was. I'm pretty sure after reading your reports and her MP file that the body will turn out to be this Rowan woman." He held up a hand as Frank started to open his mouth. "Hang on, I said 'pretty sure,' not 100% positive. Dan's going to do the autopsy in the morning, and before he does that, I figured we could have Ms. Kullien go over the personal effects your teams found out at the Woodlands. Saves us time, and time, in this case, is a valuable commodity. Don't you agree?"

Frank's face creased into well-worn worry-lines as he pondered over what Jim had said. "Maybe. But don't you think having a woman, whose best friend *might* be in a morgue drawer downstairs, looking over evidence gathered at a crime scene is a little harsh?"

"No. In fact, Sky's reactions to my questions will tell me if I need to look into her as a possible suspect in her friend's murder, and the other murders as well."

Frank spluttered into his coffee, effectively managing to splash his light colored dress shirt and tie with dark droplets of fluid. He stared at Jim, his jaw hanging open. "What? Why in the hell would you suspect her?"

"Frank, there's things about Skylark that I think you should know...." Jim gestured for the man to follow him and led the county detective into the briefing room where they could have a little privacy from the few officers and detectives currently on duty in Major Crime.

Jim told Frank about her 'curious' religion, making sure to include all the horrific details he'd found on the Internet after the Clarity case. The stories were, by the authors' own admission, pure conjecture, based only on a few writings still legible in some ancient Roman scrolls. They said Druids of old had practiced human sacrifice on a regular basis, up to, and including, the ritualistic 'spilling of the King's blood' on drought-parched soil to assure the harvests the following year would be bountiful. But just because they might not have been true didn't mean people didn't believe them.

Frank shook his head. "I find that hard to swallow, Ellison. I know there are some sick people in this world but that's really a stretch. Now if it's a satanic cult you're talking about, that's something else. But these druids sound like a bunch of tree-huggers to me."

Ellison shrugged. "We'll never know unless we ask the question."

Jim and the county detective met Sky at the elevators when she showed up. As the attractive druidess stepped out of the car, the sentinel heard Sydoriak mumbling something about the woman not looking like a killer. Introductions were made, then all three of them headed down to the basement where Dan Wolf kept his office, next to the autopsy bays and, conveniently, the evidence lockup.

"Frank, would you take Ms. Kullien into Dan's office? I'll be right there. I just need to get Serena to unlock the evidence room." Sydoriak nodded sharply, placing a gentle hand on Sky's arm as he led her away to the Medical Examiner's office. Jim waited until they had disappeared into the room before heading towards the Forensics lab. Spotting Serena Chang sitting behind her desk, munching on a stale slice of pizza while reading the evening's collection of reports, he sauntered over towards her. "Serena."

"Ellison!" She jumped a little as she dropped the last quarter of the greasy slice onto the file she had open on her desk. "Damnit! Oh, hell. I didn't need that anyway." She picked up the stained report and dumped the remains of her late-night meal into a trash bin. "What are you doing down here so late, Jim?"

He pointed over his shoulder with his thumb towards the evidence cage. "I need to go over the stuff found at the Woodlands crime scene. I have a possible lead on who the victim might be and someone who knows her tucked away in Dan's office. I just want to see if she can confirm the body's identity from her clothing."

Serena's countenance dropped the pretense of good cheer as she looked up at him. "You know you can't use an ID from clothing alone. You saw the body earlier; it was in my tech's reports. So you know there's nothing left to identify her without using medical and dental records." She stood up, pulled a set of keys from her lab coat and walked over to the caged-in locker room. "But if your witness can positively identify the clothing or the jewelry as belonging to her friend, it would go a great way towards changing the status of Jane Doe number 127 to a real person."

"I know. And I have a feeling time is of the essence here. The sooner we can identify the victim, the sooner we can catch the sick son of a bitch that killed her before he kills anyone else." Jim followed her into the cage and over to a large locker. Serena opened it and started handing him sealed evidence bags.

"There, that's the last of it. Unusual piece of jewelry. Pure silver and, unless the techs that looked it over missed the mark, it's handmade, sand-cast silver. Nice knot work too." He looked at the pendant, which was the last item the woman handed him, then tucked it into his shirt pocket.

"Thanks, Serena. I'll get this stuff back to you as soon as possible." He started to walk out of the room.

"Hold up one moment, Ellison. If you think I'm going to let you break the chain of evidence, you've got another thought coming. I'm going with you." She pulled the gate closed behind her with a solid 'clang' and pocketed the keys again.

Jim shrugged and nodded. "I was going to sign them out, all nice and neat for the record. Honest I was, Serena. But if you want to tag along...."

Sky looked up as Jim entered Dan's office, Serena Chang on his heels. He juggled the packages in his hands, carefully arranging it so Kullien would see the deep blue, tie-dyed shirt with the Celtic knot design on the front, gauging her reaction. He didn't have long to wait as he set the packages on the low table in front of the chair she sat in.

"Oh my Gods!" Sky shot up from her chair, obviously recognizing the shirt encased in plastic and grabbing it up from where it sat. "This is Rowan's favorite shirt! Where did you find it? Oh Gods, she's dead, isn't she?"

Ellison felt a grim satisfaction as the woman's already pale coloring faded even further. "Yes, she is, Sky. I'm sorry to tell you this, but she was murdered. Weeks ago, if the condition of her body is any indication." Jim ignored the shocked looks aimed at him by Dan, Frank, and Serena. He had Sky right where he wanted her -- off balance, upset and more likely to slip up and reveal herself and her group of druids as the killers. And she was upset, her whole body starting to shake with tiny tremors as she bravely held her tears and emotions in check. Time to break down that control. "Sky, there's one more thing I'd like you to look at, to confirm that the body the County Sheriff's office found is, in fact, Rowan's." He pulled the unique pendant from his pocket and tossed it at her. "Recognize it?"

The distraught woman caught the item, pulled it close to examine it, and then dropped it onto the table as if it had scorched her through the protective covering. Sky collapsed back into her seat as Frank put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "It's Rowan's. She made that over five years ago, never took it off. Oh, great Dagda. She really is dead." Strawberry blonde hair fell forward to cover her face as she dropped her head into her hands and started crying, her sobs racking her body with great shudders.

Jim intentionally ignored the subtle by-play going on in the room, but took note of it anyway. Dan and Serena nodded at each other, then the lead Forensic tech bolted out of the office. Ellison crossed over to sit on the table, pulling Sky's hands down and forcing her to look at him. "Tell me, Sky, how long did you think you would get away with it, huh? How long were you and your druid buddies sacrificing animals before you stepped up to humans? To Rowan?"

"What!" Sky yanked her hands away from his and sat back in the chair, a look of utter horror crossing her face. "We never--I couldn't! No! My grove never, ever, spills blood! You've been to the ceremonies, you know that!"

"Jim? What are you doing?" Dan crossed the office to pull Jim to his feet and spun him around to get his attention.

"I'm doing my job. What about you, Dan? You haven't started the autopsy on MacLauryn, so do you think this is the time for me to drag Ms. Kullien in there and show her the body of her friend, lying on your table?"

"Ellison! That's uncalled for!" Frank exploded from where he stood beside the still crying and seething Sky.

"No, it's starting to make sense to me. Every murder we've had in this case, the rabbi and Rowan just to name two, have clearly been of a ritualistic nature, and Ms. Kullien's 'grove,' or whatever she calls her coven, dabbles in the occult. Remember what I told you upstairs, Frank." Sydoriak's face turned hard as he stiffly nodded, clearly recalling what Jim had told him about ancient druidic practices.

"You. Are. Insane, Ellison!" The harsh voice snarled through the office. Sky had regained some of her composure, and now stood to face him, fists clenched at her sides, fire fairly leaping from her blue-green eyes. "I did not kill my best friend! My grove isn't and has never practiced blood-letting and, if this is how you do your job, I'm sick to think that Blair ever got involved in your world!"

"What in the hell is going on?" Blair stood in the doorway, his expression black.

Serena's phone call had reached Blair as he drove back to his apartment from an evening of research at the university library. He'd been only a few blocks from the police station when his cell phone rang. Now, he bounced nervously in the elevator car on his way to the morgue, his thoughts and emotions colliding. Concern for Sky warred with anger at Jim. Had his friend lost his mind?

The car dinged as it reached the basement, the steel doors sliding open. He was wondering which direction to go when Sky's raised voice reached his ears. He burst into Dan's office in time to hear "--I'm sick to think that Blair ever got involved in your world!"

"What in the hell is going on?" All eyes turned toward him, but his immediately found Sky. Her face was flushed and streaked with tears, and even from across the room Blair could see her shaking in outrage and grief. She dashed to his side, and Blair instinctively put his arms protectively around her as he sought out Jim.

The sentinel's face was hard, his eyes chips of sky-blue ice as he said, "I asked Sky down here to look at the clothing and other items found at the Woodlands. She's managed to identify them as belonging to Rowan." His tone softened slightly, almost condescendingly, "She's obviously upset, Chief. Why don't you make sure she goes home and gets some rest?"

Blair glanced down at Sky, who had her face buried in his shoulder, tears dampening his shirt. Tightening his hold on her, he looked back at Jim. "What in the world possessed you to call her down here? I thought we agreed to wait until after the autopsy to tell her, and then you go behind my back and just spring it on her without me here? That's cold, man, way cold."

"He thinks I killed her," Sky choked out.

For a moment Blair was simply numb, too stunned by her words to say anything. Then the fury rolled over him. "You son of a bitch! You know that's not true! I was with her the day Rowan disappeared. You wanna accuse me of murder, too?"

Jim's stony expression never wavered.

"Go to hell, Jim." Blair guided Sky in front of them as they left the room. He soothed her with kind words and gentle touches while they waited for the elevator, all the while wondering when his friend had turned into such a bastard.

Jim watched as Blair gathered his girlfriend closer into his arms and turned sharply to walk down the hall towards the elevators. He sensed it when Frank and Dan joined him, but kept his eyes on the departing couple until the doors of the elevator closed on them. He opened his mouth to comment, but the two men returned to the Medical Examiner's office and shut the door. He snorted. "Whatever."

Jim shrugged, turning down the hallway and heading for the stairs, when Serena blew by him in a flurry of white coat, mumbling under her breath, "What an asshole."

The impact of what he'd just done finally hit him. The sentinel leaned against the wall, running a shaking hand over his face. He should go apologize to Sandburg, and his girlfriend. His guide was right, what had he been thinking? He hadn't been. It was this fucking case. They had nothing. Nothing! He was grasping at straws, becoming what he had so long despised--a cop who would go to any lengths to make an arrest. Including alienating his best friend.


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 cubbyhole 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.

"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 pieces, 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."

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 Sky." 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, dedicatingit, 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

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