Lights flashing, siren blaring, Jim fishtailed the Ford into the national forest parking area, jerking the wheel sharply to the left to avoid hitting one of the dozen emergency vehicles scattered across the gravel lot. Parking as close to the trailhead as he could, the sentinel leapt from his truck, senses on full alert, scanning for any sign of his guide.
His ears picked up the sound of low voices from a nearby ambulance, and he headed in that direction. The back door was open, and Joel stood next to Connor, who was seated on the low bench inside the van, her arm around Blair. A blanket lay across his friend's shoulders, his head bowed, rivulets of water dripping from his soaked curls onto the floor.
"Blair?" Rain-and-tear washed blue eyes peered at him from a haunted face. "Chief, I'm so sorry...." His words ended as his throat closed up.
"Where were you?" The anger in Sandburg's voice made Jim take a step backwards. "I tried calling you! When I found someone pretending to be me had lured her away, using my phone, I knew she was in danger! I needed you, and you weren't there!" Blair lurched out of Connor's arms, launching his body off the tailgate and rushing Jim as if to tackle him.
"Blair!" Joel Taggart moved to intercept the distraught anthropologist, wrapping the smaller man in a fierce but gentle bear hug. "It was too late. Even if you had gotten hold of Jim, it was too late. Let this anger go, son, before it eats you alive."
"Come on, Sandy. Let me take you home. You already gave your statement to Frank. He knows where to reach you, and you don't need to see Sky like this. Not anymore." Megan approached the two men and carefully pulled Blair away from Joel's supporting comfort. Jim watched as his friend turned toward the Australian, a low cry of agony escaping him. Leaning heavily against her, he let Connor escort him to her car. She only looked back toward Jim once, but he heard the words she softly uttered, "I'll take care of him, Jimbo. He'll be safe until you can get home."
Silence reigned in the old growth forest as the two detectives watched their friends slowly walk away. Joel broke the moment, pulling Jim's attention back to the crime at hand. "Frank's working this case as lead, Jim, county jurisdiction. But the Sheriff's office has already turned the whole thing over to the task force."
Jim started walking toward the direction of the grove. "Tell me what happened, Joel."
The setting for this killing, like others before it, brought a strange sense of déjà vu. Of course, Jim had been here once before, when he and Blair had brought Skylark to her druid services back during the Ecstasy case, but what he felt was much more than memories could explain. It seemed more recent, which was ridiculous, because he knew he hadn't returned to the grove since that day with Sky.
Jim approached Frank, who was taking notes while Brian Rafe worked a camera, and nodded a greeting towards Anderson and Brown, who were slowly moving over the grounds near one of the small monoliths, using their flashlights to look for clues.
"Ellison." Sydoriak's greeting was terse. "Hell of a mess. Have you seen Sandburg? He was really out of it when one of our deputies found him."
"Yeah, I saw him. Connor's taking him home. I appreciate you waiting until tomorrow to question him in depth." He moved away from the county officer, intent on looking over the crime scene in detail.
The rain, which had been pouring heavily earlier, had slowed to an annoying mist as the temperature started to drop. The downpour had done plenty of damage to the scene. The marks were faint, but Jim could make out the blue, painted symbols on Sky's white flesh.
His shoes squelched loudly through the mud as he moved around the natural altar, trying to disassociate the cold body before him from the warm, caring person he knew in life. The toe of his right shoe tapped against something half-buried in the bloody muck. Squatting down on his haunches, Jim turned his small flashlight on the object he'd kicked free: a broken, wooden flute. "Damn it."
Rising back to his feet, Jim made the mistake of looking at Sky's face. Her green eyes, open in death, stared at him accusingly. Wincing against a sudden spike of pain lancing through his skull, Jim turned away from the scene and bolted towards the nearest bush outside the taped off area. He gagged and choked, but barely managed not to vomit. He could hear Sky's voice inside his head, chanting "Why?" over and over until he thought he would have to scream to drown it out. A touch on his arm shut it off like the flick of a switch.
"I thought I told you to go home, Sandburg--" Jim looked over his shoulder, surprised to see Daryl Banks staring at him.
"Jim? Are you all right? Man, you sure don't look it."
"Daryl!" Simon's voice cut through the darkness, the volume of his roar sending a fresh stab of torment through Jim's head. The captain appeared from the shadows. "There you are. I thought I told you to stay away from the tape line, son."
"I did, but I saw Jim and, well, he looked like he needed help." Daryl's hand left its place on Jim's arm.
"That's all right, son." Simon threw an arm over the tall teen's shoulder and looked at Ellison. "Jim, did you find anything?" He caught sight of the evidence bag with the muddy flute. "Oh hell. Another one, Ellison?"
"Yeah, I found something. North side of the stone, by the base." A clap of thunder rolled overhead, just before the rain started coming back down in a torrent. "Damn it, just what we don't need."
"Daryl, go back to the car. Your mother will kill me if you catch cold the week before you go back to college." Simon waited until his son was out of earshot before turning his attention back to Ellison. "We've already got enough men out here risking illness, and I can tell by your expression you're getting another headache. Why don't you head home?"
"No, Simon, I need to be here."
"You need to be home taking care of yourself and your partner. Let Frank run this one. Brown, Rafe and Taggart will assist. I've already got Anderson and a few others working on a phone trace based on what Blair managed to tell us." Simon slipped his hands into the pockets of his long trench coat. "And frankly, Jim, you look like hell. Did you ever get back to see Dr. Wiesenhunt?"
Avoiding Simon's question, Jim prowled back towards the crime scene, just in time to see the paramedics loading Sky's corpse into a black body bag. Sydoriak was already coordinating a grid search; directing several deputies as well as the few Cascade PD members present to use the altar as a center point and widen the grid to a diameter of 30 feet. To Jim's experienced eyes, the county detective had things well in hand. While he skirted the scene, he was fully aware of Simon's presence by his side. "I can handle this, Captain. Why don't you take Daryl home before he gets hypothermic?"
"You didn't answer my question, Jim. And Daryl's not the only one we need to worry about getting hypothermic, or have you forgotten Blair?"
"I'm sure Megan's taking good care of him." He moved back towards the altar, now free of the body that had been draped across it. "Someone needs to tell Sky's Grove that this site's been desecrated." He was jerked to a stop by a hard hand on his upper arm and spun around to face a pissed off Simon Banks.
"Damn it, Jim! Answer the goddamn question! Did you or did you not see that doctor again?"
"I saw him." Sensing that wasn't going to be enough for Simon, Jim dropped his head towards his chest and updated his superior. "According to Wiesenhunt, I'm fine. Absolutely nothing to worry about. He's probably right, but there IS something wrong with me. Something that maybe my sentinel abilities are reacting to. I don't know, and despite analyzing everything I eat, drink and come in contact with on a daily basis, Sandburg seems to be as much in the dark as I am. All I *do* know is that I'm sick of all these headaches and I'm sick of this damn case."
"That's it. You're off this part of the investigation -- starting now. Go home, Jim. Do what you can for Sandburg and get some rest." Simon gave him a gentle push toward the parking area and then escorted him the entire way there. "I'll explain to Sydoriak and the others that you've gone home to help your partner. There isn't a man or woman here that would think any less of you for that."
Jim climbed behind the wheel of his truck. "All right, I'll go home, but call me the minute you get anything on Sky's death. I need something to tell Sandburg besides 'I don't know'."
"In the morning, Jim. I'll call you in the morning. Now get out of here."
Turning the truck around as best he could in the crowded parking area, Jim noticed Sydoriak and a uniformed deputy taking inventory of Sky's Cavalier. Knowing how long it would take to fully process the crime scene, Jim didn't hold out much hope for more than a sketchy report in the morning. There were just too many possible leads to track down, not to mention the ones lost to the darkness and the rain. Slowly he drove away from the scene, passing the impound wrecker as he pulled back out onto the highway. Going home wasn't something he was looking forward to.
Blair leaned against the wall of the corridor outside his doorway, watching Megan fumble for the right key. He knew which one it was, and thought he ought to tell her, but it was too much effort to form the words.
Finally, the door sprang open and, putting a hand on his arm, she guided him inside. "Come on, Sandy, let's get you in the shower and warmed up." She turned on the lights and steered him down the hallway to the bathroom, flipping the switch there, watching him as he peeled off his soaked jacket.
"I can get undressed without an audience, Connor," he said sharply. It was an effort not to think about what he'd seen, about what he'd lost, and picking a fight with her was a welcome distraction.
She stiffened a bit, then replied, "I need your clothes, Blair. All of them."
His temper flared. "So you can use them as evidence against me? I know what Frank was thinking, what you all were thinking! I didn't kill her!"
Megan flinched and looked at her feet, then back up at him a moment later. "I need them so we can rule you out as a suspect."
"That's a double-edged sword and you know it." He shut the bathroom door in her face and quickly stripped, then tossed the wet things into the hallway. He heard her picking them up as he turned on the shower.
Stepping under the stream of nearly scalding water, Blair reached blindly for the soap, and encountered the tupperware container of sea salt, rosemary, and thyme Sky had made up for him after Father Gibson's murder. He nearly lost control then, but blinked back the tears, pouring the mixture over a washcloth and scrubbing until his skin stung.
Finished with his shower, Blair pulled on a T-shirt and a pair of sweats he found in the hamper, then walked out into the living area to find Connor letting Serena Chang into his apartment. "What the fuck do you think you're doing?"
"You said someone called Sky from your phone here. Serena's just going to do a quick sweep--"
Blair felt overwhelmed. He couldn't deal with this right now, he couldn't. His gaze fell on the boxes of belongings he and Sky had salvaged from her apartment a little over a week ago. He forced the words past the emotions choking him. "No. Not tonight, not without a warrant."
"Sandy, you know this is necessary--"
"I said no! Get out, both of you, just get out!" Striding over to the front door, he flung it open.
Serena wisely left without a word, but Megan stopped just inside the entrance. "Jim asked me to stay with you. I can't--"
"I don't care. I need to be alone right now. Please, just go!"
Shaking her head, the Australian left, clutching a trash bag holding the anthropologist's clothes. Blair shut the door behind her and locked it. He leaned against it for a few moments, taking in all the bits of Sky scattered throughout his home: the cartons to the left of the door; the framed photos on the book shelves; the Tweety apron hanging on a hook in the kitchen, next to the Sylvester one he'd given her for solstice. God, had it only been a few weeks ago they'd heralded the start of a new millennium with a bottle of champagne and a private party for two?
Pushing off from the door, Blair wandered into the kitchen, pulling open the door to the tea cupboard. The colors of the boxes ran together in his blurred vision, and he swallowed a whimper, remembering the magic moment they'd come together, when they'd both felt the spark between them.
Shutting the cabinet, he turned around, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. His gaze landed on the answering machine, its red message light frantically flashing. Crossing the few steps to it, Blair pushed play, listening to the squeal of the tape rewinding, clinging to the slim thread of hope that maybe it was all a mistake, that he'd just woken from a very bad dream and Jim was calling to tell him it wasn't Sky lying in the morgue, it was someone else, a doppleganger.
The machine beeped. "Blair, this is Sky. I'm here, where are you? Why did you want me to meet you here in the first place? There's nothing here, it's cold, and it's starting to rain. Just once, could you be on time? It's not like the world's gonna end if you are, ya know. Anyway, it's like 6:30 now, and I'm freezing. If you don't show up in the next 15 minutes, you'd better be dead." The tape clicked off.
Blair slid slowly down the cabinets to the floor, arms wrapped around his waist, wanting desperately for it to be her arms holding him. Huge sobs wracked him, and the tears he'd held back in front of his friends finally spilled down his cheeks. Pain. Everything was pain. Blair's world would never be right again.
The drive home was long and, thanks to the headache and the oncoming traffic's headlights, torturous for Jim. Both Connor and Chang had called him on the cell phone, letting him know that Blair had adamantly refused to let Serena do what she needed to do, invoking his right to have a search warrant presented before the Forensic Lieutenant did a damned thing. And, worst of all, Sandburg had kicked both women out and locked the door behind them. He was home alone, grieving and despondent. That had been an hour ago; now Jim was pulling up to the building where he and Sandburg made their more-or-less separate homes. He was not surprised to see Megan Connor, sitting in her car, as if she were watching out for Blair as best she could from a distance.
Getting out of his truck, Jim approached her. "Connor, how's it going?" He cast a worried glance towards the windows of Sandburg's apartment, concerned that there were no obvious signs of habitation. The lights were out.
"Been better. Serena took what she could, Sandy's clothing, and last I heard was going to talk with Simon and Frank about possibly obtaining a search warrant."
"I really don't think it'll be necessary, Connor. I'll talk with Sandburg, try to make him see reason, that we don't think he had anything to do with her death, but we need to clear him of any possible motive or connection."
"Luck to you, Jim. I don't envy you this night's duty or the days to follow." Megan turned over the engine of her car and, as soon as Jim stepped back, pulled away. One last glance towards Blair's place, then the sentinel crossed the street, splashing through mini-rivers of run-off, and made his way to his own apartment.
After the short amount of time it took to slip out of his wet clothing, dry off, and change into a pair of cozy sweats, Jim moved towards the spiral staircase and called down, "Chief? You still awake?" No answer.
Wanting, no -- needing-- to check on his friend, Jim slipped silently down the staircase into the darkened apartment. Thinking he knew where Sandburg had to be, he crept down the small hallway towards the single bedroom, carefully avoiding all possible obstacles by upping the 'gain' on his sentinel vision. The door was slightly ajar, and a steady but soundless push opened it and he peeked in. Blair wasn't in bed. Connor hadn't mentioned seeing him leave, so where could Sandburg be?
He hadn't been in the living area (Jim would've noticed him), but there weren't many places the upset man could've gone. Risking a possible zone-out, Jim extended his senses, concentrating on locating the one person he knew he could track by sight, sound and smell. There -- in the kitchen.
Blair was sitting on the floor, tucked into as small a space as he could fold his body, arms wrapped around his bent knees as if his very survival depended on him keeping a hold of himself. The young anthropologist didn't even flinch when Jim flipped on the hood light above the stove. "Chief? What are you doing on the kitchen floor?"
He didn't answer for a long time, and then when he did, Jim had to strain to hear him. "I was going to ask her to move in with me."
Dropping to his knees beside Blair, Jim reached out to clasp him on the shoulder. "I wondered if you were going to do that. I liked Sky, a lot, and I'm going to miss her, too."
One hand came off a knee and waved, weakly, at the items gathered in the apartment; boxes which Jim had helped move from Sky's place to Blair's; the Looney Tune aprons, hung close together in the kitchen, and a few photos of Sky and Blair taken before the holidays. "All I have left of her, a few mementos and my memories." Blair's voice cracked and soon he was crying shamelessly as the weight of his loss pulled him back down into despair.
Not knowing what else to do, Jim pulled the grieving man close, holding his friend while he cried. He soon found himself fighting back tears of his own as he mourned right alongside Blair over the brutal loss of Skylark Kullien.
Long after Jim's legs started to cramp from the position he'd been sitting in, Blair pulled away from Jim's embrace, muttering something like "Sorry, I soaked your shirt." The sentinel couldn't quite stretch his legs out across the kitchen floor, so once Blair had extracted himself, Jim stood up, trying to ignore the pins and needles sensation that tingled up his legs into his buttocks. "Don't worry about my shirt, Chief. It'll dry quick enough."
Jim watched as Blair made a slow tour around his apartment, touching everything that was Sky's as if imprinting their texture, their essence on his brain. Knowing that there was a good chance that Blair had neither eaten nor drunk anything warm and nourishing since getting home, Jim filled up the teakettle and started heating up some water. Recalling where Blair had stashed his collection of teas, Jim opened up the cabinet and came face to face with a ton of different cartons. Searching his memories for the flavor Blair seemed to enjoy the most, he reached up and pulled down the chamomile. Before he could open the box, a hand reached out and grabbed it from him.
"Not that one. It's Sky's." Blair placed the carton back in its place and pulled down another unopened but identical package and placed it in Jim's still open palm. "That one. Use that." Blair gathered up a couple of large mugs, ones the sentinel hadn't recalled seeing before, and placed them on the counter near the stove. "I can make my own tea, you know that, right?"
"Yeah, I know that, Chief." Jim sent a sad smile towards his friend. "But just once, let me take care of you like you've taken care of me in the past." He twitched his head towards the living area. "Go sit down, Blair. I'll bring it out when it's ready."
Silence followed, but he noticed that Sandburg moved out towards the couch, and soon, Jim joined him there. They drank their tea in quiet solitude, each wrapped up in their own grieving process; Blair fresh in his grief, while Jim added yet another person to the long list of those he'd cared about and lost to violent ends.
"When do you think Frank will want to talk to me at the station?" Blair broke the silence as he placed his empty mug on the low table in front of the couch.
"As soon as you feel ready, and not a moment before." Jim shrugged when Blair turned to stare at him. "I asked and Frank said that he'd be in whenever you're ready. But it really needs to be tomorrow, Blair. While the memories, painful as they are, are still fresh in your mind." Jim finished off the lukewarm liquid in his mug, stood up, gathered Blair's cup from the table and headed out to the kitchen. "Want another?"
Listening to Blair move about, Jim wasn't surprised to see the younger man heading for his bedroom.
"I'm going to bed. Would you tell Serena that she doesn't need a warrant and she can come do whatever she needs to once I'm at the station?"
"Sure, buddy. I can do that," he answered as he rinsed out the cups in the sink.
The door to the bedroom closed behind Blair, and Jim managed to waste a half hour going through the apartment, making sure all the windows and doors were locked before heading up to his own place. His headache, which had abated somewhat while tending to Blair's needs, returned in force the moment he laid his head down on his pillow, causing him to reach blindly for the Fiorinal and amitriptyline tablets he kept on the bedside table and dry swallow them. Willing away the pain, Jim fell asleep, hoping for at least one night, he wouldn't dream. He didn't want to see Sky's sightless green eyes staring at him again so accusingly.
Blair flopped down on his mattress, feeling the tears sting his eyes again. He hadn't turned on the light in his bedroom because he knew he couldn't handle seeing Sky's things scattered across the dresser and her clothes in the closet. But the bed was just as bad. Her scent still clung to the sheets, bringing back the most intimate of memories. They were in sharp contrast with his mind's last image of her, her desecrated body displayed for the world to see.
Curling into a ball, Blair clutched her pillow, breathing in her perfume, crying for her one last time. Finally, exhausted, his body gave up its hold on consciousness, and he slept.
Tall coniferous pines loomed like black shadows in the light of the moon. An owl hooted, then a flash of white fluttered overhead. Following the bird, winding through the forest, he reached a temple. Pausing at the base of the steps, he looked up, gasping in awe at the huge, brilliantly plumed serpent, its body wrapped around a jaguar chac-mool, a reclining statue made for presenting sacrifices to the gods.
The owl landed on a pillar close to the serpent's large head, seemingly unafraid of the snake. A silver wolf appeared from the forest, bounding up the steps of the temple to sit amidst the snake's coils. It showed no fear, lifting one paw and resting it on the feathery scales. Raising its muzzle to the sky, the wolf howled mournfully.
Blair awoke with a start, his heart thudding in his chest, his ears still ringing from the wolf's anguished cry. Pain washed over him as he remembered Sky was gone. Sitting up slowly, Blair rubbed the dried remains of tears from his eyes, then looked down at the bedclothes. Lying on top of the blanket, squarely in his lap, was a long emerald green feather. What in the hell?
A knock at his bedroom door made him jump. "Sandburg, you up? Sydoriak needs to see you down at the sheriff's office."
Pushing his tangled hair out of his face, Blair called out, "Yeah, yeah, I just woke up. Be out in a minute." He picked up the feather, running its soft tip over his fingers. This mystery would have to wait. Opening a drawer in the bedside table, he placed the feather inside, then got out of bed.
Frank Sydoriak felt miserable, not only because he had yet another murder to
investigate, but because of the thoughts churning in his mind. After stopping by
his home to see his wife for a few minutes, take a shower and change into dry
clothing, he'd found his way to his office at the Sheriff's Department. He
needed time away from the rest of his fellow deputies and from the task force to
think over everything Sandburg had blurted out to him when Frank had arrived on
the scene last night.
According to Blair, someone had called Skylark Kullien at her shop, Celtic Anam, and somehow lured her to the grove. Frank had called the young assistant who had been on duty with Sky. Pepper confirmed that Miss Kullien had indeed gotten a phone call. But Pepper had never heard the voice on the phone and therefore could neither confirm nor deny that the caller had been Blair Sandburg. Both Pepper and Sandburg had reported that the caller-ID had displayed the anthropologist's home phone number, but Blair couldn't explain to Frank why he hadn't been the one to call Sky.
Sorting through the paperwork already generated by the latest murder, Frank was pleased to note that the forensic techs had managed to get hard drive downloads from Celtic Anam's store computer and a phone trace on the incoming calls to the shop. Kullien's place had also been searched, with consent of the building manager, but nothing he saw on the list jumped out at Frank as out-of-place. He'd have to wait to see what Serena Chang and her team turned up when they tossed Sandburg's home.
"Frank! What are you doing here this early?" He looked up to see Gerald Howe stepping into the Criminal Investigations office. "Oh! You're working that task force thing, right? I heard you guys got another body last night."
"Yeah, Gerry, we did." Frank got up and made his way over to the coffeepot, draining the last of his old cup before pouring a new one and heading back to his desk. "Messy, like the others, only this time the vic was a woman. Girlfriend of one of the task force members."
"Ouch! That's got to hurt." Gerry's face turned speculative. "Hey, wasn't the previous vic a member of the TF? And a close friend of the lead investigator?"
Frank absently brushed his fingers across the black banded badge on his belt. "Yeah. Li Xiong. Just over two weeks ago, why?"
Gerry sat on Sydoriak's desk, bracing one hip on the edge. "Seems to me like your killer is targeting members of the task force, trying to shake you all up, throw you off course. Did that occur to you?"
"Yes, and I think"-- he was interrupted by his cell phone ringing-- "excuse me a sec, will ya, Ger?" The phone trilled twice more before Frank answered it, after he was sure Gerry was out of earshot. "Sydoriak. Yes, Captain Banks. No, just got in to my office at the Sheriff's department. I really need to organize my notes and try to find something solid in them. Would it be okay with you if I conducted my interview with Sandburg here? I know, I know, but I think it would be best if I did it away from the PD. Yes, sir. I'll be here and thanks." Frank disconnected the call and sat back in his chair, arms crossed over his chest, and contemplated what he needed to do.
"Gerry!" he called out to his fellow detective. "I'm going to need the interview room in about two hours. You know of anyone with plans for using it?"
"Nope. It's all yours."
"Good." Frank started gathering his notes up, taking everything to the interview room he might need, including his laptop computer with the Voice-Stress Analysis Program, and started to work on his game plan for his talk with Sandburg.
Just before Frank entered the interview room where Blair was
waiting patiently for him, Deputy Elizabeth Oakhurst reported to him no one at
Rainier University could recall seeing Professor Sandburg all day yesterday,
outside of his classes. Those students recalled he'd seemed uncharacteristically
nervous during his lectures. "According to his aide, Denise, he kept checking
his watch or asking what time it was, like he was on a schedule she didn't know
"No one remembered seeing him at the library or in his office yesterday afternoon?"
"Thanks, Oakhurst." Filing away the information, adding it to his strategy, the county detective squared his shoulders and walked into the room. "Sorry about the delay, Doc. Getting a last minute update on the investigation." Sandburg didn't respond. "Hey, can I get you anything before we start? Glass of water, coffee maybe?"
Frank nodded as he sat down across the table from Blair, turned on his laptop, and started running the VSA program. The microphone pick up was shaped like a stylus, and he carefully placed it on the keyboard so that it would pick up Sandburg's voice clearly. "Okay, Doc, I'm sure you know how one of these goes, but humor me while I explain it to you for the record." He gestured to the obvious tape recorder and microphone sitting on the table.
At the anthropologist's nod, Frank turned on the recorder and started the interview. "Detective Francis Sydoriak, badge number 704, witness interview with Dr. Blair Sandburg, January 14th, 2000. Dr. Sandburg, you have been apprised of your rights and waived them, is this correct?"
"Do you understand that at anytime during this interview you can stop and request counsel and one will be provided for you if you cannot afford one?"
"Dr. Sandburg, we're here this morning to establish events, as you know them, leading up to the death of Skylark Kullien. I need to know where you were on January 13th between the hours of noon and the time you called Ms. Kullien at Celtic Anam."
Blair blanched, looking at Frank with a puzzled expression. "I didn't call her. I went there and found she'd already left."
Sydoriak looked down at his notes. "I'm sorry. I misspoke. Tell me where you were between the hours of noon until you placed the 9-1-1 call to report finding Ms. Kullien's body."
As Sandburg went over the past day's events, Frank studied the Voice-Stress Analysis display. He noted as the young man got closer to the time he'd found his girlfriend's body, the tonal qualities changed to almost match the reading Frank had gotten off him with the misdirected question about calling Kullien at her store.
Blair admitted to teaching his Anthropology 101 class at 1300hrs, then going
to his office to research more into the significance the Aztec calendar might be
playing in the mind of the Aztec Axeman murderer. Not finding what he needed in
his office, the Aztecs not being his specialty, he'd gone to the campus library.
He'd gotten caught up in his studies and didn't realize how late it was until
his watch had alerted him that it was 6 P.M. He'd gathered up his notes, books
and laptop computer. He'd arrived at Celtic Anam just before 7 and found Skylark
had left. The rest of the tale Frank knew and blotted out as he watched the
'waterfall' display on his computer screen.
"Dr. Sandburg, there's a few questions I'd like to ask you to clarify a few things you've said. Your class that you teach at Rainier University, Anthropology 101, how long does that class usually take?"
Blair shrugged. "About an hour. Sometimes less, sometimes more."
"And yesterday's class?"
"I ran a little over. We're just starting to study the native cultures of Africa."
"And you went right to your office after dismissing your class?"
"Uh, no. I stopped by the snack bar to get some juice. Is that important?" The puzzled expression had returned to Sandburg's face.
"Probably not. How long would you say you were in your office before you crossed the campus grounds to the library?"
"I'm not too sure, maybe two hours."
"Did you talk to anyone in the library? An assistant perhaps, someone who might have helped you find the resource materials you were looking for?"
"No, I know the library by heart, went straight back to the research section, found what I needed, and closed myself in a private study room to work."
"Why private? Wouldn't it have been easier to read your materials in the research section?" Frank felt his pager vibrate on his belt, but didn't react to it as he knew what that signal meant.
"I didn't want to risk anyone seeing my notes on the crime scenes. And I work better if I'm alone with no one to bother me."
"Okay. I guess I can see that. You didn't want to be bothered by any students with questions that might have thrown you off your own course of study."
Frank placed a smile on his face, finished making his notes on the legal pad before posing his next question. "I'm getting a little confused here, Doc. Looking over my notes I don't see where you mentioned going back to your apartment before going over to Celtic Anam."
"That's because I didn't go there. I went straight from Rainier to the store."
"Then how did you place the call to Ms. Kullien from your home if you didn't stop by there?"
Sandburg's face flushed with anger. "Haven't you been listening, Frank? I didn't call Sky from my place, or my office or even my cell phone! Someone else did!"
"My mistake. Sorry, it's been a long night for both of us, Blair. Are you sure I can't get you something to drink?" Frank stood up, walked over to the door and waited for the man's answer.
The anthropologist was scrubbing his face with his fists, then raked his hands through his long hair before nodding. "Maybe a cup of coffee is what I need. I'm just not awake yet, Frank. This whole thing seems like a nightmare."
"No problem. Straight or do you dilute it with stuff?" Sydoriak smiled as he listened to Sandburg's preferred way of drinking coffee, then left the room to gather what he needed. Two coffees, one straight and one diluted with cream and two sugars, and the file containing the preliminary results from Lieutenant Chang's sweep of Blair's apartment.
Taking a few moments to read the notes Serena
had faxed from her labs, Frank wasn't surprised to see the results of the
fingerprint search. Tucking the file under his arm, he picked up the two coffee
mugs and returned to the interview room.
"Sorry it took so long, Doc." He placed the polluted coffee cup on the table in front of Sandburg before returning to his own seat. "Hope the coffee didn't cool too much, but I needed to pick up this file." He slipped the manila folder onto the table and pretended to read it while the young man sipped gingerly at his still-hot coffee.
"It's fine, thanks."
"Mmm, hmm. Sure, Doc. No big deal." He continued reading the file until he was sure Blair had drunk about half of the coffee Frank had brought in to him. "Now, this is interesting--"
"Oh, this is Lieutenant Chang's report on her check of your apartment. By the way, thanks for not pushing on the warrant issue."
Blair quirked an odd, distracted smile, his fingers tracing nervously over the stones in a bracelet on his right arm. "Jim made me realize this morning that I had nothing to hide and that by insisting on a warrant, it only made it look like maybe I did have something to conceal."
"Or maybe you hoped that by cooperating, we'd overlook something you didn't want us to find?"
"Oh, the lack of fingerprints on the phone, perhaps?"
"Pretty clever of you, staging it so you looked too upset to put up with any company after getting home. You kicked Inspector Connor and Lieutenant Chang out so you could destroy any evidence that you had placed the call to Ms. Kullien's store before Ellison got home and could check on you." Frank slid the open file across the table so that Blair could read Chang's report for himself. "Third paragraph, Professor. 'Technicians found absolutely no fingerprints on the phone, as if it had been wiped clean, and all other fingerprints found in the home have been tentatively identified as belonging to...' and she lists not only yourself and Ms. Kullien, but Ellison and Inspector Connor as well."
Blair closed the file and pushed it back across the table. "Frank, what's going on? You know me; we've worked together on this case for a couple of months. You know I've worked just as hard as you to help the task force find this killer, and yet, man, it seems like you're suspecting me of being the perp."
"No, I don't know you, Doc. All I know is that every break we've gotten on this case has come from something you pointed us to. You're not a cop, and yet you've managed to place yourself right where you needed to be to misdirect our investigations almost right from the start. You spoon-fed us the Aztec angle, then you got us all excited by telling us that maybe the perpetrator was someone who thought he was this Tezcat-whatever god. That proved useful--to you. Got us looking in the other direction while the killer continued planning his next murder, Sky's murder. Hell! You even gave me the break I needed to identify the bodies my department found! For all I know you are the killer." Frank stood up and reached behind him to pull out his cuffs and lay them on the table. "Why don't you just admit it, Doc? Admit you killed Sky, Li, and the others for some sick reason, and we can all go home?"
The door of the interview room slammed open and Sydoriak looked up from his careful study of the emotions passing over Blair's face to see Ellison standing there, looking like he was going to erupt.
"Don't answer that, Sandburg!" Jim stalked into the room,
slamming the door behind him as he crossed to where Sydoriak stood, leaning over
the table towards his friend. His voice lowered to an angry rumble, "You are
way out of line, Frank."
"Just like you were about a month ago? In Wolf's office?" The county detective's tone was sarcastic, "Isn't that the pot calling the kettle black, Ellison?"
"Tell me, Frank, is it just my imagination running wild or are you about to arrest my partner, our coworker on the task force, based on questionable evidence?" The two detectives were now face-to-face, toe-to-toe. Jim could feel his pent up anger curled in the pit of his stomach, waiting to explode outward, consequences be damned.
"I've done my homework, Ellison! Your 'partner' doesn't have an alibi for his whereabouts last night when Ms. Kullien was butchered, and not one person at Rainier recalled seeing him there after his one o'clock class yesterday afternoon."
Jim stared at Sydoriak.
The man slowly backed away from him. "I have a right to hold Sandburg here, as a material witness if nothing else. If you or anyone else can find a solid alibi for him, I'll let him go and not book him into our system for murder."
"Murder? I didn't kill her! I loved her!" Pushing back his chair Blair began to rise to his feet, his face flushed.
Frank made the mistake of pushing him back down. In the blink of an eye, Jim had the blond sheriff pinned against the wall, his bare forearm pressed against Sydoriak's throat. "You do not touch him." Jim growled, his lips contorting into an animalistic snarl.
"Jim! Jim, man, let go! You're choking him!"
The sentinel felt Blair's arms locking through his, pulling him away from the county detective. Sydoriak doubled over as he was released, coughing and sputtering.
"I ought to throw the both of you in a cell and leave you to rot overnight," he rasped. "You're probably both in this together. Where in the hell were you last night, Ellison?"
Before Jim could reply, Blair spoke up excitedly, "The message! Oh, man! I completely blocked it out!"
"What are you talking about, Chief?"
Sandburg gripped Jim's arm tightly. "The tape in my answering machine. Sky
left me a message, Jim!"
The sentinel grabbed his friend's hand and removed it from his arm. "What message, Chief? When did she leave it?"
Blair sank back into his chair, shoulders slumped as he told Jim and Frank about the call. "Time stamp was about 6:28, Sky said it was 6:30, and that it was cold and raining and where the hell was I? That she didn't understand why I'd wanted to meet her there and that I'd better be dead if I wasn't there in fifteen minutes. There's no way I could have driven the 30 miles between the grove and her store and been there by 7. It took me almost an hour to get there after I left Celtic Anam, and I called you on the way to the park. I didn't kill her." Silent tears started to roll down his face. "God, those are the last words I ever heard her speak. The last thoughts she had of me were in anger...." His emotions overcame him, and Blair leaned his head in his hands, trying to hide his grief from Jim and Frank.
Jim was already on the phone as Frank was practically running out of the interview room. "Rafe! Sandburg and I need a favor...."
It had taken the combined efforts of Rafe and
Connor to break into Jim's apartment, then gain access to Sandburg's and
retrieve the tape. Sydoriak had sent Deputy Oakhurst to Celtic Anam to gather
the tape from the answering machine there and run it over to the Forensic labs
at Cascade PD where the two voices on the recordings could be voice-matched. It
took well over four hours for the technician to copy a few like words off each
tape and run them through the comparison program. By then the County's
Prosecuting Attorney had gotten wind of a possible arrest in the murder cases,
as had the Sheriff, and the two men decided that they couldn't release Sandburg
from their 'protective custody' until they had listened to the comparisons
When Jim was finally allowed to escort Blair home, under implicit instructions from the PA that he not let Sandburg out of his sight, day was slowly turning to night.
Skylark Kullien's last wishes had been to be cremated and have her ashes spread over one of the druids' sacred places on a high holy day, the next one being spring equinox. The news had come as something of a shock to Blair, whom Jim could see desperately needed closure. Over the week following her death, Sandburg retreated more and more deeply into himself, asking Denise to find someone to teach his classes, and staying away from the station. He wasn't quite shutting Jim out of his life, but he holed up in his apartment and refused to see anyone while he slowly started to pack some of Sky's stuff for shipment back to her parents.
Jim hadn't wasted any time, diving back into working with the task force,
trying to locate the murderer. In an effort to help his friend, he found time to
do some further digging into the Druid belief system and Celtic mythology.
Finally he found something he hoped would be the perfect way to bring Blair out
of his depression.
Padding down the stairs to the apartment below, Jim found Blair still in the clothes he'd been wearing for the past few days. He sat on the couch, holding one of Sky's stuffed animals -- a white owl -- as he stared off into space.
"Chief, I've got an idea." Jim sat down next to his friend and opened the book he'd been reading. "I've done some research and, well, I realized that one of the names I recall Sky's Grove calling out to that time we went to a ceremony was," he looked at the page to make sure he got it right, "...Arianrhod? That sound about right to you?"
"Yeah, close enough anyway. Why?"
"Did you know that Arianrhod was the patron goddess of most female druidic priests? And when the goddess chose to manifest herself, it was usually in the form of the aurora borealis?"
Blair let out a saddened sigh, "Jim, where are you going with all this?"
"There's supposed to be a lunar eclipse tonight and, well, I did some checking with the Mount Baker Observatory." Jim closed the book and placed a hand on Sandburg's shoulder. "We've had a lot of solar activity recently and the experts there tell me that we should be able to see a pretty spectacular display. I know you didn't have a chance to say good-bye, maybe you could tell her while the Caer Arianrhod is visible tonight. From what I've read, this Caer is supposed to be where the Priestesses could go to find refuge. Maybe Sky will hear you."
"Maybe." Blair set aside the stuffed owl and shuffled off to his bedroom.
Jim sank back into the cushions of the couch, knowing his efforts to please his friend had failed. He was at a loss as to what to do next.
"Jim?" He turned around to see the younger man changing into warmer clothes. "If we're going to go pay tribute to Sky, don't you think you ought to be getting dressed?"
The sentinel smiled at his guide, relieved to see his suggestion had been accepted. Bounding up the stairs, Jim changed into a pair of flannel-lined jeans, and a heavy sweater. He packed up some supplies in a backpack, and grabbed his coat and hat before joining Blair back in his apartment. "Hey, Chief, we probably need to hurry. The eclipse is supposed to start in about two hours, and it'll take nearly that long to drive away from the city's light pollution."
They walked side by side out to Jim's truck, friends on a mission to honor their fallen dead before worrying about another ritual murder. It was January 21st, nine days after Sky's death and, if the Aztec Axeman held to his pattern, they didn't have to worry about finding another body until around February 8th.
Blair leaned against the door of the truck, trying to control his shivering.
Taking his eyes off the narrow road for a moment, Jim glanced over at him. "Sorry, about the heater, Chief. It was working earlier today. There's a thermos of coffee in that bag behind the seat."
"Now you tell me." Reaching behind the seat, Blair pulled the tall container out and unscrewed the caps. He poured some of the hot liquid into the cup, then put the top lid back on. He cradled the cup in his hands for a minute, feeling warmth returning to his fingers. Finally he took a large mouthful, then nearly spit it out. He swallowed, trying not to choke on the bitter taste.
"Something wrong?" Jim asked as Blair coughed and sputtered.
"Man, what did you do? Keep it in the pot overnight and reheat it? That's some nasty stuff." He stuck his tongue out and wiped at it futilely with his glove. "Bleh."
"Sorry, didn't realize it was that old. It's hot at least."
"Yeah." Blair held onto the cup, but didn't drink any more. A short time later, he began to feel light-headed, almost nauseous. "Jim?"
The sentinel glanced over at him, a blurry, shifting shape in the lights from the dashboard. "Yes?"
"I don't feel so good." Blair's eyes slipped shut and he forced them open.
"We're almost there," Jim purred.
Purred? Blinking, he took another look at his friend, just as Jim turned his face toward Blair. Only it wasn't the face of a friend. Yellow, slitted eyes stared at him intently, and the lips pulled back in a grotesque smile, revealing sharp fangs.
Continue on to Act 4