The dark clouds filling the late morning sky matched the mood of the hundreds of uniformed officers and family members. A field of somber colors, silently they listened to the final notes of 'Amazing Grace' played on a lonely set of bagpipes. Jim stood sandwiched between Blair and Simon, with Sky snugged up close to her boyfriend. They stood next to the elderly woman Jim knew only as Li Xiong's mother-in-law, Ming.
Mai-Ling Xiong wasn't there. She'd been admitted to Cascade's Women's Hospital shortly after the private ceremony the night before which had, according to what Jim had been able to gather, freed Li's soul to fly into heaven. This morning, however, his widow was fighting to hang on the life she and Li had created. She'd begun having contractions after the family gathering, and the doctors were doing their best to prevent Mai-Ling from going into premature labor. She was only seven months along and Jim knew that a child born too early had less than a fifty percent chance of survival.
Four months into Mai-Ling's pregnancy, Li had approached Jim and asked him to be kind of an unofficial godfather to the unborn child, to mentor him or her as he had Li. Jim had agreed, and now he might lose that precious little life, as he'd lost Li. His heart ached for all those he had lost, Li, Danny, Jack, Lila....
The Commander of the Honor Guard accepted the flag, which had draped the coffin of Corporal Xiong, but was now neatly folded, and brought it over to Terry Anderson. As the commander of Li Xiong, Anderson had requested the honor of presenting the flag to Li's family -- in this case, Ming, who accepted it with great serenity as tears spilled down her cheeks.
The public rite over, most of the officers paraded by the coffin while the piper played Taps quietly in the background, dropping either clods of moist dirt or flowers into the gaping hole. Only a few hung back, waiting for a more private moment with their fallen comrade-in-arms. Jim waited patiently as the last of the stragglers concluded their business before he, too, approached the graveside.
Aware that Simon, Blair and most of the Task force members watched him from a distance, Jim knelt beside the open grave and finally let the tears of regret, despair and sorrow fall. "Li, I am so sorry." He stopped to clear his tightened throat. "If only we had worked faster, harder, without stopping--maybe you wouldn't be here and Mai-Ling in the hospital."
Sounds of soft footfalls on grass grabbed his attention, and looking over his shoulder, Jim saw Blair slowly approaching him. "Time for me to go, Li. Sandburg's watching me and looking at his watch, so I've probably been here longer than I thought." Jim rose to his feet. "I've got a killer to catch and a death to avenge. Bye, my friend. You will be sorely missed."
After brushing the worst of the wet dirt from his knees, Jim walked over to where the members of the task force waited for him.
"Captain, I know this really isn't the place to have this conversation, but..." Jim halted, not sure of his theory, until Blair spoke the words for him.
"You're thinking that Li was chosen because he was on the task force, as well as being a strong follower of Buddhist doctrine, aren't you, Jim?"
"Yeah. I just need to know if I'm the only one who's had that thought since we found Li's body?" Jim winced, the headache -- which had returned with Xiong's murder -- was pounding the back of his eyeballs into mush.
"Did you bring your meds with you?" The concerned voice, the gentle hand on his arm, placed there to get his attention, belonged to his best friend.
"Yeah, Blair, I've got them." Proving his point, Jim dug into his dress blues pocket and pulled out the brown plastic bottle.
"Sandburg, drive Ellison home, and make sure he gets some rest." Simon's voice was gruff with emotions he was holding back. "Jim, you've had a rough week, and don't tell me you haven't been spending time with Xiong's family, preparing for whatever it was that happened last night. I know you have."
Jim didn't bother to deny the allegation. How could he when it was true?
"Thought so. Let Blair take you home, and you just vegetate for about 24 hours. Get rid of that headache, make an appointment with that doctor you saw, do what ever you have to but I need you back on your feet and ready to run as soon as possible."
"I know, Simon. I've kinda dropped the ball the last few days..."
"Jim, you've been grieving over the loss of a friend. It's understandable." Blair, jumping to his defense. Not that he had to. "Let's do as Simon requested, before it becomes a command and get you home, okay?"
"Sounds like a plan, Chief." He handed over the keys to his truck to the anthropologist and, with a sad smile and a wave, took his leave of the gathered personnel.
Sky approached them as they neared the pickup. "I just want you to know how sorry I am, Jim. If you ever need to talk, need someone to listen who knows what you're going through, call me."
Jim managed a slight smile. "Thank you, Sky, that means a lot to me." He let the druidess hug him, then he climbed into the Ford as Sandburg and she said their good-byes. While he waited, he took one of his Fiorinal capsules, welcoming the medically induced haze as it took the edge off his grief.
Blair had dropped Jim off at the loft and made sure he was comfortable before heading to the station. Despite the pill he'd taken, Jim had no desire to rest. He pulled out his copies of the case files and went over them for what seemed like the thousandth time. Once again, Jim came up with nothing new, no insights as to who the killer could be except....The night Rowan MacLauryn had vanished stuck out in his mind. He had been right at the start of that fake Ecstasy case, and had gone to the rave with Brian.
What else had happened that night? Blair had been on a date with Sky, and when he'd brought her back to her store, they'd found Celtic Anam had been broken into and trashed. Jim had always assumed the vandalism had been the work of the drug importer, Thorvald, searching for his misplaced drugs. But what if it hadn't been? What if it was connected to these Aztec Axeman deaths? Rowan had been a frequent visitor to the new age store, and Sky stocked the items needed to create the vegetable dye used to paint the victims. Had the murderer been the thief as well? Nothing of any value had been missing, but who would miss small amounts of dried leaves and flowers?
Jim shook his head, maybe it was the medications and the stress he'd been under lately, but his mind had started to revolve around remote possibilities. Like the nightmares, which seemed to coincide with the dates of the murders, or the fact that after Brian had dropped him at the PD that night, Jim had found himself driving aimlessly on a back road of Cascade County hours later. That thought brought up another coincidence, the hours of missing time from his memories. Nothing he'd normally worry about, but with the headaches and the 'anomalous' reading from his CAT scan...Jim forcibly shoved away from that line of thinking, going back to analyzing his behavior and his visions, or nightmares.
The night of Rabbi Rabinovich's murder, he'd been awakened by a horrible dream. It had been so real that Jim had felt the blood on his hands and even recalled smelling the vile, sweetish metallic odor of it all around him. The resulting headache had plagued him off and on for weeks, affecting his work and his duties, until the murder of Father Gibson. By then, Simon had had enough of the piss-poor detective work Jim had been doing that he'd ordered Sandburg to take him to see Dr. Abrams.
Jim ran his hands over his face, forcing himself to think harder. He'd had visions, dreams, or nightmares before that were related in some way to his sentinel abilities. But he'd always been able to remember them, always been able to puzzle out their meaning, even if it had been after the fact.
What if they aren't dreams? He shuddered. What if they're memories so horrible I'm repressing them? I've done it before. There are still things about Peru, about my past as a sentinel in the jungle, I can't remember.
Getting to his feet, Jim prowled the apartment, turning the confusing facts and vague impressions over and over in his mind. Finally he came to a decision. He had to know where he'd been the night Rowan had disappeared, and why his coat had been damp and smelled of the ocean before he'd gone to Father Gibson's. And he didn't need a warrant to search his own place.
The atmosphere of the bullpen was subdued when Blair walked in around 2 P.M. As he'd come upstairs, almost everyone he'd run into had been wearing a black armband in support of their fallen brother. Finally reaching his desk, Blair slid out of his winter coat and then his suit jacket, hanging them both on the coat tree. Loosening his tie, he pulled it off and threw it in his desk drawer, then sat down in his chair and leaned his head in his hands. For a moment he felt like crying.
Li's family had been torn apart by his murder. His wife was in the hospital; his unborn child, if he or she survived, would grow up without a father.
In approximately fifteen days, they would be going through this all again, if the killer held to his pattern. Someone else would die who had a family and friends that loved him or her. God, when was it going to end?
And what about Jim? His friend was dead, the investigation was going nowhere, and Jim's headaches were getting worse, not better, despite what the doctors said. What if there was something really wrong with Jim, something the doctors had never heard of? What if there was some unknown cost to having enhanced senses? What if the tradeoff was pain, or even death? God, Sandburg, just don't go there, okay? Just don't.
He looked up to see a familiar face and eyes full of concern. "Corinna?" Pushing back his chair, Blair got to his feet and hugged the Cuban woman. "Man, I haven't seen you in like forever! How have you been? You still working for the mayor's office?"
Corinna Santiago stepped back as he released her, and Blair felt her quick, dark eyes running over him. "No, no, I took a leave of absence to go care for my mother in Miami. She had surgery in July. I stayed through Christmas, and just got back in town yesterday. May I?" She gestured at the chair next to his desk.
"Oh, of course. Please, sit down." Blair resumed his seat. "I hope your mother is doing well."
"Oh, yes, she's fine. But the reason I'm here is because of the murders that have been going on. I read about them in the paper yesterday. I knew Maria Alvarez," the Santerian priestess told him.
Blair ran a hand through his hair, pushing it behind his ears. "I'm not sure I know what to begin to ask you. How much do you know about what's been going on?"
"I dreamt last night of you, of someone you care about in danger. I prayed to Oshun after I awoke, and she directed me to come here, to warn you."
Blair felt his eyebrows raise in surprise. "Oshun communicated with you about this? Why? Because of Maria?"
The woman shrugged. "Oshun does not always make her motives clear, but the loa know that there's an ancient, powerful evil at work here."
Shaking his head, Sandburg replied, "I don't know, Corinna. I'm not sure I believe in the concept of a cosmic evil. The evil humans do, I see that every day. I think that's what's going on here, some sick, disturbed person is acting out their fantasies."
Corinna looked unconvinced. "You can't tell me you haven't felt it, the darkness, the sickness that destroys everything it touches. Why do you wear protection against it, if you don't believe in it?" She pointed at the bracelet on his wrist.
"Listen to your heart, Blair. It knows the truth. It knows that the only way for evil to be defeated is for good to unite against it. And sometimes even a god wears a human mask to hide itself."
"A god? What do you mean a god? I know this guy is making sacrifices to Tezcatlipoca, but are you saying he thinks he is a god?"
Smiling at him, Corinna squeezed his hand, then got to her feet. "Your heart knows the answer to your questions, shaman. Listen to it." With a swirl of flower-scented air, she was gone.
Leaning back in his chair, Blair chewed his lip, pondering her words, as the fingers of his left hand unconsciously played with the bracelet on his wrist.
Jim started upstairs in his bedroom, not sure what he was looking for nor what he'd do if he did find evidence that might connect him to the murders. He'd settle for just knowing where he'd been on the nights in question.
Treating his possessions as if they belonged to a suspect, Jim continued his search in a widening circle and worked his way down the stairs. Using the micro-recorder he carried when casing a suspect's house or place of business, Jim kept strict tabs on his quest. But it didn't stop him from trying to recall where he'd been on the days the victims had died. The only thing he could clearly recall from those dates was suffering pretty severe, but not migraine level, headaches. You probably have an inoperable brain tumor, just too small to be picked up by modern medical advances, but your sentinel abilities know it's there and causing you to react strangely to the invasion of your body.
Switching mental gears to avoid obsessing over the idea of a brain malady, Jim asked himself another question. "So, where were you the night Li was murdered, eh, Jimmy?" He didn't have an answer and that bothered him. He ought to know where he'd been the night his friend was killed.
Two hours of careful, meticulous searching yielded nothing. Nothing was out of place, no wood shavings from carving handmade flutes, no obsidian knives, or the flowers, herbs and bark used in the paint. And apparently jaguar spirit guides didn't shed.
Frustrated, Jim sank into the depths of his couch and let his mind wander freely, allowing thoughts to flicker past his mind's-eye like darting koi in a Japanese garden pool, until one surfaced that drew his attention. It was the memory of one of his Academy instructors as he guided the cadets through investigation techniques. "Okay, you've searched your suspect's main residence, place of business and the usual haunts, yet nothing turned up but you're nearly positive you've got the right man. Now what do you do, Ellison?"
Even as he finished repeating the words of Captain Shrum,, Jim found himself looking at the spiral staircase leading down to Sandburg's place. His answer to Shrum's question spilled from his mouth, validating itself by its simplicity. "What if your main suspect isn't who you think it is?"
But then, who could it be? Was it someone he knew or was already close to? "Not Blair; kid can't stand the sight of blood and death, usually." But he's been able to handle the crime scenes related to this case just fine. "Skylark? No, she adamantly denied any involvement of herself or her druid group in blood-letting." Maybe it is a ruse? She did get awfully chummy with Sandburg right about the time Rowan MacLauryn was killed. What if Sky killed Rowan, who'd been assisting her in the murders up to that point, and now is using Blair? "That's possible. Maybe. But I doubt it."
He shook his head, trying to dislodge the insidious voice that kept nagging him. But he couldn't shake the idea that it made more sense for there to be two killers involved in the Aztec Axeman Murders. One person would have a hard time dealing with the victim, but two....
Getting up from the couch, Jim walked over to the staircase and peered deep into the gloom of Blair's apartment. He was a quarter of the way down the spiral when his sensitive ears picked up the sound of Blair's Volvo on the street below. "Another time, perhaps."
Briefings had become a nearly daily ritual for the people involved with the task force. This morning was no different, except the whole team was still reeling from the loss of one of their own. Many of the officers present still wore black armbands, or had black silk strapped across their badges, honoring the memory of Li Xiong. All in all, it was a very subdued group of men and women that piled into the large conference room where Simon Banks awaited them. Looking up from the notes he'd been reading, Simon noticed that Brian Rafe hadn't joined the group.
"Where's your partner, Brown?"
"Last minute phone call, sir. He promised to hurry along as soon as he confirmed something."
"Okay. Let's get this show on the road then and you can update Rafe when we're through." Simon stood up and walked over to the white board, his back twitching as he felt the many eyes in the room turning their attention to him. "All right, we've had almost a full week since Xiong's murder, let's see what we've got. Brown, you're first up."
Brown gave his update on leads gleaned from interviews with family and friends of Rabbi Rabinovich. Nothing new had been discovered. Simon turned to the next officer. "Anderson?" The sergeant gave a brief report on finding a couple of local suppliers of the type of herbs needed to concoct the paint the perpetrator used on his victims, but was having trouble finding any records of purchases of said herbs in large quantities. He had copies of all receipts and was planning on going through them that afternoon, looking for connections. Simon didn't say anything, just pointed to Megan Connor who gave yet another sketchy report. She'd been given the assignment to track down members of McLauryn's Wiccan group. The only thing she had to report was that McLauryn was to have met a group of friends on the night she vanished, but all of the friends had alibis that checked out. She was back to square one and frustrated as hell. Just as Simon was about to ask Sydoriak for his update on the investigation into Father Gibson, Rafe burst into the room.
"Sorry I'm late, but I found an supplier of unique knives on the Internet and discovered they had records of shipping a replica of an Aztec tecpatl to Cascade." Simon looked at the young detective expectantly, causing him to obviously squirm under the tight scrutiny. "I contacted the new owner of the knife, an art dealer, yesterday and found she still had the knife in her possession. She cooperated and let me have the knife for testing. The phone call I just hung up on was Serena in the lab. There was nothing on the knife blade. No cells, no traces of any DNA. Sorry."
Simon tried not to let his disappointment show. "It's all right. This case seems to be full of leads that go nowhere. Sydoriak, you're next."
The county detective's report was longer than the others, but his case was more recent. He spoke of how he had talked with a number of Gibson's friends and former congregation members and made a remark about the Father being one of the few Catholic Priests in the area that still preformed exorcisms. But the Father had no known enemies.
Joel had been assigned the wooden flutes. Forensics had come to the conclusion that they were hand-carved, and the wood was commonly found in Mexico and South America, common being the operative word. Many lumberyards and specialty wood shops carried it. The merchants were going through all their sales records, but there was no way to track the wood if the suspect had bought it with cash.
Simon noticed Blair and Jim, heads together, talking quietly to each other as Sandburg's hand flew across the notepad in front of him. "Ellison, Sandburg. You two have something to add here?" Both men had the grace to blush, like errant schoolboys caught by their instructor, before Blair nodded.
"I think so, Simon. I had a conversation earlier this week with Corinna Santiago, she knew our first victim, Maria Alvarez. Remember how I told you that our perp is killing on the day of the Aztec calendar that's sacred to Tezcatlipoca? Anyway, something Corinna said has been bugging me. She said even a god can wear a human face."
Simon looked at Blair, then over to Jim. "What is he saying?"
Jim shrugged. "I don't know. He was trying to explain it to me just now."
"What I'm saying is that we all agree this killer has an obsession with the Aztec, with sacrifice, with Tezcatlipoca. But what if he thinks he is Tezcatlipoca, that he's a god?"
The meeting became lively after that revelation as officers went back over their notes to see what Sandburg had been talking about. Simon hated calling the briefing to an end, but they didn't have long to try to find the killer before he struck again, if he held to his twenty-day cycle. Handing out assignments, mostly for officers to start looking for suspects among former mental patients, figuring someone who thought he was a god would have had at least a couple brushes with social service, Simon dismissed the gathering.
The briefing was finally over and Jim used the confusion of people leaving the room to duck away from an overprotective guide, aiming to slip down the hall and into the stairwell before anyone could stop him. Well, almost anyone. Frank had caught up with him, noted the lines around his eyes and told him to go find a quiet place to rest for a few. Jim was grateful, knowing Sydoriak would cover for him with Blair or anyone else who asked after him. Sandburg always seemed to be home the same time Jim was, and the sentinel suspected Blair was keeping tabs on him. The flurry of activity and interviews surrounding Li's death had kept him busy at the station as well.
Finally Jim managed to slip into the Information Access office and found a free computer to work at. He quickly typed in his request for a criminal history and background check on Skylark Kullien. He knew Frank couldn't cover for him for long, so he didn't waste any time -- just pulled up the requested information on the screen and hit the print key without looking. He did notice that the only thing Sky had in the Washington State Information Center was her active driver's license, with a few minor traffic violations and a State Criminal ID Number. The FBI's response from the National Crimes Information Center was less than that. Shutting down the terminal, he grabbed the printouts off the tray and hurried back to the bullpen.
In the relative privacy of the elevator, Jim looked over the paperwork he'd generated on Sky. The State CID Number was from a charge of criminal trespass, dismissed, back in 1995. Nothing worth noting. NCIC's criminal history return showed only that she had a valid driver's license in Washington state and a fuzzy 'possible' return on a woman named Skyler Kunnan in Colorado, but the age was completely wrong. There was no way that Skylark Kullien and Skyler Kunnan were the same person, unless Blair's lady friend was much older than she appeared.
Crushing the papers into a tight wad, Jim leaned back against the wall of the elevator. What are you doing, Jimmy? Suspecting both Blair and Sky of being possible serial murderers? You're betraying their trust in you, not to mention Li's and the rest of the group's! Get a grip on yourself! The door opened and he pushed off, but instead of heading directly for his desk, he detoured past the men's room where he hand shredded the WSIC/NCIC paperwork and flushed it down the commode.
Returning to his desk, he placed a phone call, trying to schedule himself an appointment with Doctor Wiesenhunt for the next day. With the way he'd been thinking, not to mention holding full conversations with a 'voice' in his head, Jim Ellison was positive that there was something seriously, biologically wrong with him. Maybe Wiesenhunt would be able to find it; after all, if he did have a brain tumor or lesion, the damn thing would have had the opportunity to grow larger in the weeks since the original CAT scan. It was the only reasonable explanation he had at the moment for his actions and attitudes of late. Either that, or he was going insane.
It had been nearly another week, but finally Blair was gone from his place while Jim was at home. He was off tending to some kind of emergency at Sky's apartment, something to do with pipes freezing and the maintenance guy disappearing. Jim had offered to help, but Blair assured him he could handle it, which only raised the detective's suspicions. Why didn't Sky want Jim at her apartment?
To be honest, the sentinel was glad to be alone to put his plan in motion. He felt guilty about invading the younger man's privacy on a whim that the man he'd known for over four years was involved with a killer. But he had to do something! The case was going nowhere and the few kernels of possible leads had all played out to dead ends.
He was searching through Blair's closet when he was startled by the sound of a key turning in the lock of the main door. "Shit." Getting to his feet, Jim looked up to see a familiar green sweater hanging in the closet, HIS green sweater. "Found it!"
"Jim?" He turned to see Blair staring at him from the doorway of the bedroom. "What are you doing in here?"
Holding up the garment, Jim replied, "I wanted to wear this tomorrow, and, since I couldn't find it in my place, I thought I'd try yours. Lo and behold, look what I found."
Blair nodded as he brushed by Jim, closing the closet door.
What was Sandburg hiding?
"Yeah, well, I guess I must have gotten it mixed up with mine or something. Sorry about that." Denim blue eyes looked up at Jim from a face framed in dark hair. "Were you searching for something else while you were down here?"
"What makes you say that, Chief?"
Blair didn't answer, just lead the way back out towards the living area, where Jim saw the disorder he'd left behind in his searching.
"Why, Jim? What were you hoping to find?"
Dropping the sweater across the back of a chair, Jim collapsed on the couch, scrubbed his face with his hands and tried to push the pain from yet another blasted headache back. "Everything is so screwed up, Blair." He felt the cushion beside him dip down as Sandburg sat next to him.
"What's going on with you? More headaches? I thought the doctor told you that it's all stress-related. You gotta relax, man. Or is it your senses? I can't help you if I don't know what's wrong, Jim."
The genuine concern in his friend's voice struck a chord in Jim's mind, causing his recent fears to come surging to the forefront. "It's not my senses. It's my head. The headaches are back, stronger than ever and the drugs Doc Abrams gave me are no longer working." Before the young man could respond, Jim looked him in the eyes and finally stated his real fear. "Despite what Dr. Wiesenhunt said, that I'm okay, I know there's something wrong with me and, well, there's no easy way to say this...."
"Jim, tell me, what is it?"
"I realized the other day, after Li's funeral, that I'm missing chunks of my memories, not large pieces, just a few hours here and there. I seem to have been functioning okay during that time, but I can't recall where I was or what I did." Jim dropped his head into hands. "And the days that I can't recall seem to coincide with the dates of the murders."
"No." Blair's voice was a bare whisper.
"It's true. I can't even recall what I was doing the night that Li was killed. I've been trying, but it's like there's nothing there to recall."
"Maybe it's a form of zone out. You've been under a great deal of pressure recently and Li's death only added to the load." Blair was perched on the edge of the sofa, his expression intense, when Jim finally looked up at him.
"I don't think it's a zone out, Blair."
"But you don't know." The anthropologist stood up, crossed to his desk in the corner, grabbed something from the CD rack then paused by the entertainment center to put the disc in the player. "Let's see if we can get you to regress back to one of the dates you can't seem to access."
The music spilling forth from the speakers of the stereo system was soothing, relaxing and, most importantly, the same music that Blair used on occasion when helping Jim walk back through his memories. Jim felt his body automatically responding to the auditory stimulus, muscles slowly going slack as he leaned back into the couch cushions. He was fully aware of his surroundings, but at peace as he listened to the music. Blair's voice was low and calm as he slowly took Jim back through the halls of his memories. First stop, Wednesday the 22nd of December, one day before finding Li Xiong's body in the temple gardens.
"Where are you now, Jim?" The soft, coaxing voice intruded into the warm cocoon of his mind.
"Station. Talking with Frank, he's concerned that there may just be some logic behind Sandburg's calendar theory."
"What time is it?"
He moved as if to check his watch, never opening his eyes, before giving his answer. "Just before 1700 hours. Frank's wanting a copy of the Aztec calendar, to double check something. Li's there too."
"Good, Jim. Real good. Come forward just a bit. It's now close to seven in the evening. Where are you now?"
"Home. The headache just spiked. I'm breaking down and taking both meds Doc Abrams gave me." His jaw clenched, his brow creasing as he felt the pain of that headache again.
"What do you recall next?"
"Going up the stairs to my bed. Falling asleep. Waking up with another horrid dream plaguing me...no, the images are fading. Just like the others..." Panic! Frustration! Why did these damn dreams scare him so badly and why couldn't he recall them once he woke up?
"What time is it now?"
"Just after six. I needed to be up half an hour ago--"
"Okay. Jim, come on back."
He opened his eyes to see Blair sitting on the coffee table across from him. "Didn't remember much, did I?"
"No, you didn't. I've got a theory, but I'm more concerned about you right now. Do you mind if I make you an appointment with Dr. Wiesenhunt? Maybe even go with you?"
"Gonna hold my hand while the doc tells me I'm going to die, Chief?" Jim quirked a half-hearted smile at his friend, a smile that faded when he saw how Blair's color blanched. "I'm joking. And I tried to get through to Wiesenhunt's office earlier. Line was busy. But if you have better luck...I wouldn't mind a little moral support." The last words came out of his mouth so softly, Jim doubted he was heard.
"I'll be there, Jim. Now," Blair rose from the table and, extending a hand, assisted Jim to his feet, "let's get you back upstairs. I can tell just by looking at your eyes that you're busting another headache and the regression exercise probably didn't help, huh?" His friend was already halfway up the spiral staircase and couldn't see the grimace that Jim allowed to cross his face. "So, we get you all squared away for evening, maybe even try to get some food down you before you take your meds and in the morning I'll start calling the doctor's office."
Jim looked back at his friend, feeling relief wash over him. "Thanks, Sandburg."
"Look, Jim, why don't you lie down on the couch for a little bit, and I'll make you some soup or something." Blair headed for the kitchen.
Jim did as he was told, stretching out and kicking his shoes off. "Hey, Chief, did you ever get Sky's pipe problem fixed?"
There was a clatter as Blair dropped the saucepan on the counter. "Shit! That's why I came back, to borrow the truck! The pipes under her sink burst and flooded the whole place. She's going to stay with me until her building management gets the place cleaned up. We were going to try and salvage what we can." He picked up the phone.
"Blair, you don't have to baby-sit me. I'll be fine. Go, help her get things packed up. Or better yet, I'll go with you." Sitting up, he reached for his shoes.
"I thought you had a headache."
"If you think you're going to be hauling stuff around in my truck without me, think again. I'll take my pill and you and Sky can do the heavy lifting. I'll supervise." He gave his friend a grin. "Besides, wouldn't you rather have me where you can keep an eye on me?"
Blair harumphed but hung up the phone. "Fine, but you don't lift a finger, got it?"
Crossing to the door, Jim grabbed his jacket and tossed Sandburg the keys. It seemed he'd been doing that a lot lately. "What are we waiting for then?"
At 7 P.M. on January 12th, the night the Aztec Axeman was due to strike again, Blair walked into Celtic Anam. He'd made Sky promise that morning to wait for him after work before heading home. Home. That was a nice, warm, comfortable word, and Sky's constant presence at his place the past week had been the same. He hoped they took a long time fixing her apartment. He hoped they never finished. Another week or two of going to bed with her every night and waking next to her every morning, and he would probably be asking her to move in. He felt a silly, giddy grin spread across his face.
So caught up in his fantasy, Blair didn't notice until he was standing at the counter that Pepper was working the register. He glanced at his watch. For once, he was right on time. Just as he was about to ask where Sky was, Pepper said, "What are you doing here?"
Blair blinked. "I'm here to pick up Sky. Where is she?"
The dark haired student stated, "She left over an hour ago to meet you."
"What? I made her promise she'd wait for me." A ragged pit of dread began to form in his stomach. "Did she say where she was going to meet me?"
Pepper raised a pierced eyebrow at him. "You called and said you wanted to meet her at the druids' sacred grove. Something about the case you're working on."
The pit widened into a bottomless chasm. "Oh God. I need to use your phone."
Placing it on the counter, Pepper pushed it toward him. Blair stared at the last number displayed on the built in caller ID. 555-2327. His number. Fighting back panic, Blair called Sky's cell phone, then his apartment. Unanswered ringing was all he heard at either number. Hanging up, he dialed the PD. When Brown answered, Blair snapped, "Let me talk to Jim."
"No can do, Hairboy. He ain't here. Simon's having a fit because he blew off some meeting with that detective from Bellingham."
Swearing, Blair punched the disconnect button and called his partner's cell number. The exultant 'yes' on his lips became a curse as the ringing in his ear was replaced by 'the cell user you are trying to reach is out of the service area.' He hung up the phone.
"What's wrong? Is Sky in some kind of trouble?"
Blair bit his lip. "I don't know. I'm going to go to the druid grove. If Sky calls here, tell her to go some place public and call Inspector Connor at the PD. Have her wait there until Connor shows up." Exiting Celtic Anam, he climbed into the Volvo and peeled out of the parking lot.
Damn it! I can't believe this traffic! Blair slapped his palm against the steering wheel. How could I have been so stupid? I shouldn't have left her alone. I should have stuck to her like glue today; I shouldn't have let her out of my sight! He flipped on the windshield wipers as the mist that had been falling all day became a steady rain.
Picking up his cell phone, he hit the redial button. Still no answer on Sky's end. Please God, let her be okay. Let me get there in time. Time....Blair felt tears stinging his eyes. We should have had more time.
A cold shudder ran through him. Sky had said those very words to him a few months ago, the night he'd been shot while helping protect an FBI witness.
Blair lay on an examination table, a cold compress over his mace-burned eyes, thankful for the peace and quiet of a small, county hospital, emergency room. Or maybe his hearing was still on the fritz. Whatever the reason, the blessed lack of noise kept the pain in his skull to just this side of excruciating. The nurse had left him alone nearly fifteen minutes ago when she'd gone to check on his x-rays.
Jim had left before the trip to radiology. Reassured that Blair wasn't going to croak any minute, he'd headed off to help Mulroney with the transfer and interrogation of the bad guys. Simon, Rafe and Dills had gone with him, leaving Megan as his ride home.
"Hey, Sandy, you up for a visitor?"
He gingerly lifted one corner of the compress and squinted in the direction of Connor's voice. "Sky!? What are you doing here?" Blair scrambled to sit up, grabbing onto the edge of the table with both hands as the room tilted around him. "Whoaaaaa...." Strong hands grasped his shoulders and kept him from sliding to the floor. When the earth stopped moving, Blair opened his eyes to find Sky's worried visage inches from his.
"Megan called me," she said, pushing him gently back into a reclining position. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'll be fine." He shot a glare in Connor's direction.
She pushed herself away from the wall she was leaning against. "I'll let you two chat amongst yourselves. I need to make some calls." She left the small room.
"What happened to you? I thought you said you were going camping this weekend." Blair flinched as she brought her fingers up to stroke his cheek. She snatched her hand back at his reaction, her expression horrified at the thought that she might have hurt him.
Catching her hand in his to reassure her, Blair said, "I got maced. A little redness, a little irritation, I'll be fine in a couple days."
She didn't look convinced. "Inspector Connor said you'd been shot." Her free hand headed toward the bandage at his temple.
He ducked his head as he answered. "It's nothing. Just a graze." He straightened as the doctor entered the room. "Right, doc? I'm fine and can go home."
"Well, yes and no, Mr. Sandburg. The mace burns are superficial and the redness should fade in 24 hours. You have suffered a mild concussion. I'll release you to go home as long as you have someone there to keep an eye on you tonight."
Blair felt Sky's grip on his hand tighten as she said, "That won't be a problem, Doctor."
"Good." The physician went over the things Sky would need to watch for in Blair. Once the release papers were signed, she took him back to his apartment and settled him in bed.
A few hours later, Blair awoke to find her side of the bed empty. Worried, he got up and padded out of the bedroom. The bathroom was empty, as was the kitchen. He finally found Sky curled up on the big red sofa, crying.
"Sky, honey, what's wrong?" Rounding the end of the couch, he sat down next to her as she hastily wiped her at her eyes.
"You're supposed to be asleep. Does your head hurt? I know the doctor said no pain killers, but I can make some tea--"
As she started to rise, Blair grabbed hold of her arm and pulled her back down on the cushion. "Later. After you tell me why you're out here crying. What's going on?"
Her eyes darted away from him as he tried to catch her gaze, and he could hear her swallow. "I didn't want you to hear me. It's stupid really, nothing for you to worry about."
Putting his arm around her shoulders, Blair pulled her close to his chest, feeling her resist at first, then clutch at him. "I care about you, Skylark. If I've upset you in any way--"
"No, no, its not you. I just--I just never realized. I thought you being a consultant to the police meant you sat behind a desk and advised them on stuff. I never thought you would be someplace where people would be shooting at you."
Blair could feel her trembling, and he stroked her back, knowing it probably wasn't much comfort. "I'm sorry. I should have told you I help Jim in the field."
Her grip tightened on his shirt. "Well, yeah, it would have been nice to have some warning before getting that phone call from Inspector Connor. You know, the one that starts out 'Can you come to the hospital? Blair's been shot.'" She pushed away from him, her tear-filled eyes shining in the darkness. "I drove the whole way there not knowing if you were okay, or if you were going to die. And I realized it wasn't fair. I shouldn't have to be thinking about these things yet." Her voice was pained, and colored slightly by anger.
"What things?" he asked gently.
"About what I would do if anything happened to you. About what my life would be like without you. I've only known you a few weeks, Blair. I thought we'd have a couple more, maybe a month or two, before I had to think about that. We should have had more time!"
She broke into hard sobs, and Blair hugged her to him once again, stroking her hair, kissing her damp face. "Sky--" he began.
Pressing her fingertips to his lips, she silenced him. "Please, let me finish. I need to say this. I don't expect a response from you. In fact, I don't want one, I don't want you to say something you're not ready to say yet. But after tonight, after finding out how close I came to losing you..." A sob shook her, but she waved off his attempt to comfort her again. "I had a lot of time to think on that drive to the hospital. I saw how much you've become a part of my life in just the short time I've known you. And I saw how dark my life would be without you."
Her hand cupped his cheek gently, her thumb stroking his skin. "Before tonight, the thought of saying these words never crossed my mind. It was too soon. I wasn't done just having fun, just enjoying being with you, enjoying learning about who you are, about who we are together. I wasn't ready; we hadn't had enough time. But what happened to you made it crystal clear to me; there's never enough time, ever. And if we're not prepared, if we don't grab the chance, the opportunity, today, then tomorrow may be too late."
She brushed at the wetness on her cheeks, and Blair almost spoke, but held his tongue. Smiling at him through her tears, Sky whispered, "I love you. I don't care if you love me too, or if tomorrow you decide our relationship isn't going to work out. I just need you to know that there's someone in your life who will always care, no matter what happens." Sky gazed at him for a moment, then got to her feet, sniffling.
Blair was so stunned he couldn't move for several long seconds, his brain replaying her words over and over. She loved him...she loved him! Springing to his feet, he found her in the bathroom bent over the sink washing her face. He handed her a towel, and she dried off, eyes peering at him over the cotton cloth. When she finally set the towel down, Blair gathered her to him, hugging her until his arms ached, but he didn't say a word.
The Volvo slid sideways on the loose, wet gravel of the parking lot, its headlights picking out the dark form of a solitary car, Sky's Chevy Cavalier. Skidding to a stop next to it, Blair didn't even bother to turn the engine off, simply grabbing the flashlight from under the seat and jumping out into the rain. The sensation of darkness, of evil, rocked him like a physical blow. He staggered over to her car, a quick look inside confirmed it was empty.
"SKY!" He started up the path to the druid grove at a dead run, screaming her name. The rain was blinding, coming down in cold sheets that turned the dirt trail into mud. He slipped once, twice, but somehow kept his feet each time.
Almost missing the fork that led to the grove, Blair quickly discovered his mistake. As he turned off the main path, the heavy cover cut the downpour to steady drips, but the sound multiplied until it became angry hissing. Flashlight beam bobbing in front of him, Blair burst into the sacred clearing.
Her beautiful green eyes stared at him sightlessly, her nude body stretched taut over the natural rock altar in the center of the grove. Blood ran down the sides of the stone, glistening and black in the dim light.
"Sky...oh god...oh god...Sky..." Blair collapsed to his knees on the wet ground, his sobs drowned out by the roar of the storm.
Continue on to Act 3