By CarolROI and Suisan
As he pulled the Ford pickup off Prospect onto the main thoroughfare, Jim couldn't shake the feeling that he'd *heard* someone laugh back at the loft. Things felt off-balance, out of place--like his keys had been. He had missed the basket on the table, something he'd never done before. Then the other thought struck him. Why had he lied to Blair? Just because he'd felt uneasy about the missing time, or was there something else involved? Had he gone for a midnight stroll, in the chill damp morning? If so, why?
Mentally shaking off his thoughts and trying not to react outwardly to the tremble that skittered down his spine, Jim turned his attention to the task at hand. He had a crime scene to get to and yet another murder to investigate.
The address Blair had given Jim as they got into his truck led to a nice, single-story brick home a couple of blocks away from Saint Dymphna's Catholic Church, and a block away from the seawall and the ocean. Jim couldn't miss the location if he'd tried. The street, driveway and a few front yards were covered with emergency vehicles, all flashing their lights in the darkness of the early winter morning.
Pulling up behind the silver-colored Buick he knew was issued to Captain Simon Banks, Jim shut down the engine, opened his door and shivered hard enough to shake the truck. The light breeze blowing off the nearby water was unusually chill for this time of year. He glanced toward the eastern sky. It was already showing some faint light from the soon-to-rise sun, and he realized the day was probably going to be dreary, gray and drizzly. The cloud cover was already thick and the sea breeze was pushing more clouds in from an Alaskan cold front.
"I knew it! You're sick, aren't you, Jim?" Blair's words interrupted Jim's musings on the weather.
"I'm fine. Just got a chill, that's all, Chief." Slamming the door shut, he hoped to put an end to Blair's questions about his health. Ellison took in the surrounding scene of rubberneckers, trying to see if any were acting overly interested. He moved toward one of Serena's forensic technicians. "Go find Simon, Sandburg. I'll be right back."
He didn't miss the surly, yet worried, tone of his friend's voice, but he pushed that concern to the back of his mind. "Donnie!" Jim hailed the tech. "You wouldn't happen to have a camcorder in your bag of tricks this morning, would you?" he asked as he walked up beside the tow-headed tech.
"Yeah. You want one of us to tape the crowd?"
"Now I know why Lieutenant Chang has such high hopes for you. You been inside yet?" Jim pointed over his shoulder towards the cream-colored house, already being cordoned off with the yellow crime scene tape.
"Not yet. Captain Banks asked us to wait until you and a few more of the task force members showed up. Give me a heads up if it's really bad, will ya?"
"Squeamish?" Jim asked at he grinned at the technician.
"Not me. Annie." Donnie pointed towards a woman, just now getting out of her car where she'd parked on the edge of the confusion. She was a petite brunette and even under her heavy coat, Jim could see how ungainly the woman's movements looked. "She's about halfway through her pregnancy, and for some strange reason the last few weeks the sight of blood has her tossing. She's not really happy about that since she's one of our better crime scene photographers."
"Gotcha. Have her run the camcorder," the detective suggested as he saw one of the uniformed police officers on perimeter detail stop the pregnant woman from crossing the police barricade.
Jim watched as Donnie left to help his fellow technician get through the police line then turned his full attention on the house and the crime that had brought him here.
The wind started to pick up, bringing with it the unwanted, unmistakable odor of blood. Biting back the sudden urge to empty his stomach again, like he had earlier back at the loft, he climbed the steps leading to the porch. At least I know I can't be pregnant. Maybe it's some form of stomach flu. Lord knows what I've been exposed to over the last few months. He listened carefully before entering the house, and was rewarded with the voices he'd been hunting for. Blair, Simon, and Frank Sydoriak were inside and, from the sound of things, already processing the crime scene. Fighting off another wave of nausea and choking on bile, Jim Ellison entered the residence.
Blair trailed behind Simon and Frank Sydoriak, steeling himself for the gruesome scene to come. The trio came to a stop outside a door guarded by a uniformed cop.
"Sandburg, you wait here," Simon told him, and unlike at the rabbi's crime scene, Blair didn't argue.
He took up a position against one wall of the hallway. Something prickled along the back of his neck, and he shuddered. The feeling he'd gotten at the other crime scene was back. It was like a weight in the house, in the air, an almost suffocating sensation. Trying to ignore it, Blair dug into his backpack for a notebook and pencil. As he pulled them out, the silver and stone bracelet Sky had given him caught on the bag's flap. He ran his fingers over the smooth metal, thinking that if stones could offer protection, he'd take some now, thank you.
Captain Banks stuck his head into the hallway. "Come on in, Blair. Be careful where you walk."
Blair entered the room slowly, taking in everything but the body. It looked like the room was a combination library/study. Bookshelves lined all four walls from floor to ceiling. A leather armchair sat in one corner with a tall reading lamp next to it. Nothing seemed out of place, and Blair could almost imagine this as a quiet retreat on a rainy day, except for the body displayed on the desk, a bloody wound running across its chest, marring the blue symbols painted there.
Frayed stick dipped in bright paint moving closer, tickling as praises to the dark one are written on skin. Drums beating in a thundering rhythm, making the heart pound, making the feet move. Dancing through the crowded city streets, bells on ankles ringing, shrill whistle rising, believers gathering behind. "I am Nahuaque! I am Night Wind! I AM GOD!"
What in the hell?
"Sandburg! You in there, son?"
Blair let out the breath he didn't realize he'd been holding. "Yeah, Simon, I'm okay. Just give me a minute." The other man clasped him on the shoulder briefly, then turned back to directing Sydoriak in photographing the scene.
Following his friends' voices, Jim soon found himself in a back room where the body was grotesquely draped over a large, ornate desk. The cream-colored carpeting around the desk was drenched in blood. Frank was operating a 35mm camera, snapping as many shots of the body as he could while being very careful about where he stepped. Sandburg was pointing something out to Simon.
"--see? Right here, just below the throat. Same marking as was on Rabbi Rabinovich."
"I see it, Sandburg. Have you heard back from your friend about the language thing? Is this that Nuatal stuff you were talking about? Frank, you got a picture of this already?"
"Yes, Captain. One of the first shots I took."
Jim spoke up from where he stood, rooted to the threshold of the doorway. "It's Nahuatl, Simon."
The tall captain turned to look at him. "That's what I meant. I'm sure Sandburg understood me. By the way, it's about time you got here, Ellison. What held you up?"
Pulling on a pair of powder-free latex gloves, Jim nodded as he cautiously walked into the room. Avoiding the large puddles of blood, he stepped over to the desk and bent over the fifth victim. "I'm sure he did too. As for what held me up, I was outside arranging to have one of the Forensic techs record the onlookers we've attracted this morning." He gingerly reached out to touch the elderly victim's bare leg. He voiced his observations. "No rigidity yet, body's still slightly warm. He hasn't been dead long. Maybe three or four hours." He glanced over the mutilated body once more, then looked away. Death, no matter its form, wasn't kind to anyone and he'd seen enough examples to know this by heart. Straightening, he turned towards Simon as Frank finished up one roll of film and noisily rewound the camera. "Any idea who our victim is and who found him?"
Blair answered for Simon. "Father Thomas Gibson, retired. Home Health Nurse from Cascade General found him when she came in this morning to check on her patient." Blair moved back in to take another look at the markings on the body, his fingers tracing, without touching, one of the symbols. "Interesting. I think this is different from the ones found on the Rabbi. Or maybe they were just blurred by the rainfall? I need a good picture of this one..."
"Doc? Could you move just a little to your left?" Frank asked as he stepped in to take more photos of the body, making sure to get a clear one of the symbol Blair had just pointed out.
"Sorry." Jim watched as Blair walked away from the desk and started to examine the bookshelves that filled the room.
Simon's voice drew his attention. "The reporting party was pretty shook up when I got here. I've got Corporal Xiong sitting with her out at the ambulance. You want to interview the witness now or do you want to stay in here and I'll get started on her statement?" Simon's verbal tap-dance was almost amusing. While it had come out that Jim was in possession of two heightened senses, no one other than Megan, Simon and, of course, Blair, knew he was a sentinel. So anytime he needed an excuse to go over a scene with all his senses, Simon had learned to obfuscate -- Sandburg style.
Ellison nodded, gesturing with his eyes towards Sydoriak. "I'd like to get started in here, if Frank's done with the shutter-bug routine?" The nearly constant popping of the other detective's flashbulb and the overwhelming, metallic smell of spilt blood was starting to intensify his headache again.
"Okay. You done yet, Frank?" Simon looked pointedly at Sandburg, a silent command flowing from his eyes as Sydoriak shrugged.
"Yeah, I'm done. Mind if I tag along on the interview, Captain?"
"Not at all. Let's leave these two to their work and inform the crime scene techs." Simon turned back from the doorway. "How long do you think you'll need before I can send the team in?"
Jim looked towards Blair, who was engrossed in the books lining the floor to ceiling shelving, then his watch. "Give us about twenty minutes."
"Fine. Let's go talk to a witness, Sydoriak." The two men left the room.
Examining the body again, Jim noticed how the killer had been forced to adapt his technique to the location of his latest crime. He'd used the large oak desk, stretching the priest across it, ropes going from his wrists and ankles to the legs of the desk. In place of the rounded rock he'd used on Rabinovich to raise the chest, the killer had stacked several books underneath the victim's back. "Escalating, but inventive. This killer is smart and thinks on his feet." Looking under the desk, he spotted the broken flute that seemed to appear at every one of the killer's places of sacrifice. "Flute's here, under the desk." Jim pointed the wooden instrument out for Blair, who looked, nodded and then retreated from the area back towards the bookshelves.
"So he's staying within his pattern. Using the same method for the extraction of the heart and leaving behind the broken instrument. I wonder where we'll find the priest's clothing?" Blair sounded somewhat distracted, as if his mind was already processing some new bit of information and wasn't quite sure what to think of it. Jim looked up from his inspection of the immediate area surrounding the victim to see Blair, hands covered in latex gloves, reaching up to pull down a rather thick book.
"Sandburg? What are you doing?"
"Just speculating here, but judging by the titles I've seen on these books, I think Father Gibson may have been an exorcist." He opened up the book he'd pulled down. "Oh, man. Look."
Crossing to where Blair stood, Jim took the book his partner handed him and read the handwritten passage on the inside cover. "To Father Tom, All the best on your recovery. May the Good Lord protect you and speed your healing -- for there are others who have need of your services." The simple statement was signed with, "The congregation of St. Dymphna's. Cascade, Washington. May 1997." Maybe whatever had happened had required the Priest to hire in-home health care.
"More people to interview. This one's not going to be any easier than Rabbi Rabinovich's case." As he started to hand the book back to Sandburg, he took notice of the title, 'Exorcism and The Catholic Church: Debunking The Myth.' A soul-deep shudder ran through his body, nearly causing him to drop the heavy volume.
Blair lurched forward and caught the book before it could fall to the blood soaked floor and get ruined. "Damn, Jim are you sure you're okay?"
The anthropologist's hand was on his arm, almost searing him through the leather of his coat and the long sleeve of his navy blue turtleneck. Jim shook the grasp off, bothered by the contact, and nearly snarled at Sandburg. "Yeah, I'm fine. There's a slight draft in here, the front door's open, and I just caught another chill." Making sure that Blair had replaced the book back where he'd found it, Jim waved his hand at the surrounding room. "Better do my thing before the team gets in here."
Sliding the book back onto the shelf, Blair approached him, stopping about a foot away. "Okay, I'm here. You know what to do."
The sensory sweep didn't take too long, thankfully. He caught an odd underlying odor, musty, animal almost, just as the pain from his headache flared and he fell to his knees, clutching his head.
"Jim! What is it? What's wrong?"
Blair's touch, both of his hands on Jim's shoulders, didn't irritate him this time and seemed to push the pain in his head away to where he could think again. "I'm fine. Headache just spiked like crazy. Give me a moment." Rising to his feet, staggering like an intoxicated subject, he slowly made his way over towards the desk. Kneeling once he got there, he said, "Tweezers and an evidence bag. I just spotted something out of place."
"Here you go. What did you find?"
Jim glanced towards Blair's face as he took the items he requested from him. The concern from earlier was still there, but now there was a light of curiosity in the blue depths of his friend's eyes as well.
Reaching out with the tweezers to pick up the single, tiny object that had drawn his attention, he carefully placed the thin three-inch long item in the plastic evidence bag, then handed the item to Blair. "What does that look like to you, Chief?"
He watched as the anthropologist peered at the object. "A whisker? Doesn't look like human hair. Some kind of animal, maybe. But Jim, I've not seen any signs that the Father had pets..."
"Neither did I."
Simon Banks looked up from where he, Sydoriak and Xiong were comparing notes
about the interview with Debra Wallingford, the nurse who had found their latest
victim, and spotted Ellison and Sandburg on the porch of the house. "I'll be
right back, gentlemen," he told the two men as he walked toward the residence.
"Jim, what the hell did you do? Kneel in blood?" The detective's jean clad legs
were soaked by blood at the knees and along the cuffs.
"He nearly fainted, Simon." Blair's face was a study in contrasts. He was still clearly upset with his friend over the debacle in Wolf's office, which Simon had yet to call Ellison on the carpet for, but the overlying emotion on the anthropologist's face was concern.
"I did NOT faint."
"Then what the hell would you call it? You clutched your head, dropped to your knees, complained about the pain level--" And Blair was off and running, cataloguing everything that had happened to Ellison since he'd woken the sentinel up. Simon listened as Jim tried to explain away the symptoms, but by the time Sandburg was done chewing the detective out, he'd heard enough.
"Cool it!" He was pleased that he didn't quite raise his voice to a yell, but Simon had their attention now. "Jim, you've been fighting this, whatever it is, for over a month -- that I know of -- and then you take a nose-dive at a crime scene? Enough is enough. Sandburg, drive him over to Cas-Gen and Ellison, you will let a doctor examine you and you will do whatever they tell you. Got it?"
Ellison only nodded his head while handing Sandburg the keys to the Ford pickup. "Good. Now, before you go, did you find anything of interest?"
"Just this, Simon." Jim handed him a clear evidence bag and Simon held it up to inspect the contents.
"What is it?"
"Sandburg and I think it's an animal whisker. But neither of us found a trace of pets in the home."
"I'll make sure it gets to the lab. Sandburg, get him out of here. Now." Simon pocketed the bagged evidence as he watched the two men walk towards the blue and white truck, Jim nearly getting in on the driver's side until he obviously recalled that he'd been ordered to let Blair drive. The slump of the taller man's shoulders was disconcerting. Even in the middle of his worst cases, Simon had never seen Jim Ellison looking so defeated. He turned away, sending up a quick prayer to the skies above, "God, are you listening? If you hear me, please make sure it's just a flu-bug or a sinus infection. I need Ellison on this case." After that tiny bit of self-indulgence, the Captain returned his full attention back towards getting the crime scene processed.
"Donnie! Get your team in there and do a full room to room!
Frank! Xiong! Check the neighborhood, you know the routine. The rest of you know
your jobs as well. Step to it!" The waiting room at Cascade General's Emergency Room wasn't even close to
being at half capacity. In fact, once Sandburg had signed Jim in, George Wyler,
an RN, came from the triage room to escort him back to the ER proper.
"Ellison, I see your main complaint is headaches? And you've got one now?" George's voice soothed over his frazzled aural nerve endings like a balm as Jim barely whispered an affirmative answer. "Okay, let's get your stats, then I'll take you back to an exam room and let Doc Abrams know you're here."
The waiting room at Cascade General's Emergency Room wasn't even close to
being at half capacity. In fact, once Sandburg had signed Jim in, George Wyler,
an RN, came from the triage room to escort him back to the ER proper.
Jim wasn't left alone in the room for long before he heard the
distinctive footfall of someone just outside his room, then a very light tap on
the door opened the portal. "Ellison, what's going on with you this morning?
Headaches?" The doctor, clad in heavy corduroy pants, a tan colored sweatshirt
and her white lab coat, didn't move to turn on the overhead lights, using a
penlight to read his chart.
"Yeah. I've been having some real killers for the past few months, Dr. Abrams. I've tried just about everything I could, but nothing gets rid of them for very long." He moved back on the table as Sheila Abrams stepped in close to him and pulled out the oto-opthalmoscope that most doctors used to look in ears, down throats, and up noses.
"Tilt your head back just a bit. Hmm, no sign of congestion or infection. Sinuses are clear." She had a quick look in his ears before she moved back away from him. "So, where is the pain centered and on a scale of 1-10, ten being the absolute worst, where is your pain level this morning?"
Jim used both hands to encircle his head. "Pain feels like a band, circling my entire head and squeezing tight. Level was at a nine earlier, but it's dropped a little, closer to a seven now." He lowered his hands as the doctor moved around the table to stand behind him, her hands warm and dry on his neck.
"Whoa, that's tight!"
The gentle kneading motion sent waves of nausea through him and he reached for the small emesis basin that George had given him earlier, after Sandburg had ratted on him and told the nurse he'd been having trouble with his stomach as well. He didn't bring much up, but what little he did was foul.
"Okay. Light sensitivity, tension, GI upset. I'm going to call
Radiology and get a CAT scan scheduled for you. I'm also going to call in one of
the neurologists, because while it's less common for men to suffer migraines, I
think that is exactly what's going on here." She picked up his chart from the
stool where she'd laid it earlier and, making notes as she walked, added one
other surprise for him. "Lab tech will be in here in a few minutes to draw
blood. Need to rule out infection and a few other things before I continue." The
door closed behind her and Jim let out a sigh as he reclined back on the exam
"Great, just what I need, to see more blood this morning. Especially mine." He glared towards the ceiling. "If I get slapped in the hospital for this, I'll never forgive you, Simon."
At first, he'd blamed Jim's fickle temperament on the horrific nature of the case. The pressure was always higher to catch the perp when you knew he was going to kill again. Then Blair had blamed it on himself. Though he had always been busy, it seemed as if this semester he had twice as many balls in the air. Or plates. He remembered Jim comparing his life to that of a plate spinner on the Ed Sullivan show. Sooner or later, one of those plates was going to fall.
He stared at the doors to the treatment area. Maybe the plates have been falling and you didn't notice before this. He raked his fingers through his hair, pulling until it hurt. No, no, things have been okay, a little off, maybe, but Jim's been sick. And just what have you been doing about it? Why didn't you insist he see a doctor before this? You're his guide. The words rang accusingly in his head. Arrrrgh! He scrubbed his hands over his face, rubbing his eyes. This was getting him nowhere. He could blame himself until the cows came home, but it wouldn't change the fact that Jim was an adult. If he'd felt he needed Blair's help, Jim would have asked him. He always--well, usually--had before. Especially if it had to do with his senses. And Jim hadn't mentioned any sensory problems, just the headaches, and the nausea, which was most likely the result of the headaches. And round and round we go. Pick a new topic, Blair.
He rolled his head on his shoulders, trying to work the stiffness out of his neck. Damn, he was tired. He hadn't gotten any sleep at all, and it was going on 6 A.M. Should've gone to bed when Sky wanted me to, instead of doing more research. Though he'd studied the Aztec as a student, he'd never delved into their culture in depth. More of a hands-on anthropologist, Blair preferred working with and studying living, breathing cultures, instead of those dead for centuries.
Before Simon's phone call, he'd found a good site on the Internet about the Aztec, and had been reading up on the different reasons for sacrifices. The Aztec nation had been a superstitious people, believing that with out blood sacrifices the world would not exist. Solar and lunar eclipses frightened them terribly, because they believed the evil gods had incredible powers then. He'd come to the conclusion that the killer had some purpose for choosing the victims he did, some greater plan, and perhaps it was based on an actual Aztec ritual, though Blair hadn't figured out which one yet. The friend he'd sent the copies of the paint markings off to had finally emailed him back with a partial translation. The word Titlacahuan, or He whose slaves we are, had been written on the rabbi's body. It was another name for the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca.
Pulling a notebook out of his backpack, Blair wrote down Tezcatlipoca. What did he remember about the deity? He'd been the god to introduce first the Toltec, then the Aztec, to human sacrifice. He was the god of darkness, of war, of the night wind. He determined the destiny of every Aztec when they were born, and sat on their shoulder during their life, whispering in their ear, tempting them to do evil. He was a master of disguise, and the god of sorcerers.
Blair looked at the words he'd written. Nahuaque...night wind...He shuddered. What sacrifice would the killer think might most please Tezcatlipoca? Someone with what the killer thought of as supernatural or occult powers perhaps--a shaman, or priest, or witch. The murderer was killing the people he thought had the most influence with the god. But that still didn't answer the question of why. What did the killer want from Titlacahuan or Tezcatlipoca, -- Ehecatl or Necocyautl, or any of his other names?
Something had been bugging him ever since the task force meeting on Tuesday. Something about the dates....Digging through his bag once again, Blair found his day planner. Starting with yesterday's date of December 3rd, he counted back through the pages until he reached the day of Rabbi Rabinovich's murder. Twenty days. And twenty days before that, Rowan disappeared. Shit! How could I have been so stupid? The twenty day signs in the tonalpohualli! He's using the fucking Aztec calendar!
Three hours! Jim had been in the hospital for three freaking hours. He'd been poked, prodded, tested and inspected like a racehorse before a major race, and he was still waiting for the results of the CAT scan. Doctor Abrams said she'd give him something for the pain as soon as she was sure there wasn't anything seriously wrong with his brain. But what if there WAS a reason, a medical one, behind his headaches? The longer he waited, dreading hearing the results, the more concerned Jim became.
The door opened as
Sheila Abrams walked back into the room. "Good news, Jim. Scan came back pretty
much negative; just a little activity in an area we've learned to associate with
migraines. Doctor Daufleger, the neurologist who saw you earlier?" Jim nodded,
recalling the caustic man and the rather rude examination he'd suffered through.
"Well, Dauf is pretty sure that you're suffering from stress induced
migraine-like tension headaches. No obvious tumors, no abnormal readings on the
scan other than a curious little shadow that Dauf can't explain, but he's pretty
sure it's just stress that's causing your headaches."
'Curious little shadow that a Neurologist can't explain?' Crap! Maybe there IS something wrong with me, despite what Dr. Abrams said? Trying not to let his concern show, Jim hopped off the table. "Then I can leave, right?"
She gave him a gentle shove that placed him back on the table. "Not so fast, Detective. First off, I'm writing orders for you to remain on complete bed rest until Monday. I've already talked with your supervisor and, while he didn't seem too happy about my orders, he understood and told me to tell you to listen to me." A smile graced her face as she pulled a rolling stool closer to the bed and sat down beside Jim's knee. "Secondly, I'm giving you a 'scrip for two items: Amitryptyline and Fiorinal. The first one is to help you relax and should only be taken before going to bed. I think if we can get your neck, shoulder and back muscles to release a little, you'll find your headaches going away. The second one is for those headaches that you don't catch in time and need a little help in defeating. And before I forget, Dauf and I talked it over, and I'm sending the results of your CAT scan to a specialist and I want you to follow up with Dr. Wiesenhunt later this week."
"Do I have a choice?"
"Sure. You can ignore my orders and my advice. But if you intend to do that, I'll throw you in a bed on third floor so fast you'll never know what hit you. At least that way I *know* you'll follow up with Wiesenhunt." She smiled as she stood back up. "Which is it going to be, Jim? Home or here?"
"I'll behave, Doc."
"Good. George will be in here in a few minutes with your prescriptions, just a few pills to tide you over until your normal pharmacy can fill them for you, and your discharge paperwork. Now, take care, make sure you follow up with the specialist and I really hope I never see you in here again, okay?"
She left in a flurry of brown and white as Jim heard the distinctive sound of an ambulance pulling up outside, heralding the arrival of more patients. George Wyler came into the room shortly after he'd managed to change out of the patient gown he'd been wearing and handed Jim the paperwork and a small white bag. "Gee, this is unusual. Regular discharge paperwork for James Ellison. World must be coming to an end. You know the routine, right, Jim?"
He nodded as he took the offered clipboard from George, noticing the appointment card for one Dr. T.L. Wiesenhunt, signed the required forms before handing the board back. The RN gave him the bag and a small piece of paper with the prescription on it. "Thanks, George. Is Sandburg still waiting for me?"
"Like he'd leave? Yeah, he's out in the waiting room, pacing a rut into the carpet. Oh, one more thing for you before you go, Jim." The tall, well-built nurse poked his head out of the room and another male nurse walked in.
"What's going on, George? Why did you call Rob in here?" Then he saw it. Rob was holding a 12cc syringe with the longest damn needle Jim had ever seen. "Oh great..."
Blair pulled the Ford into a parking space outside the loft and glanced at his partner in the passenger seat. "Jim, you awake there?"
The sentinel lifted his head from its position against the window. "Mmmph."
"I'll take that as a 'kind of'." Turning off the engine, Blair climbed out of the truck and walked around to Jim's side to open the door. Dr. Abrams had filled Blair in as Jim signed his release forms. The drugs were kicking in right on schedule.
Blair slung Jim's arm over his shoulder and hauled him out of the truck, then closed the door with a bump of his hip. Pointing them in the direction of the loft, he got them moving and hoped momentum would do the rest, as Jim was fading fast. By the time Blair wrestled them through the building door and saw the "Out of Order" sign on the elevator, he knew it was a lost cause. He managed to get Jim into the stairwell and seated on the stairs.
"Are we home yet?" Jim asked, his words slurring together.
"Just about." Blair pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and dialed his apartment, hoping Sky was still there after staying the night before. Sky answered on the third ring. "Oh, man, am I glad you haven't left for work yet."
"I asked Pepper to open for me today. I wanted to make sure you and Jim were okay after you called me when you got to the hospital. What's up?"
"Well, Jim and I are downstairs, but the elevator's out, and Dr. Abrams gave Jim a biiiiig dose of painkillers and I don't think I can get him up the stairs by myself."
"Okay, stay put. I'll be right down."
A few seconds later Blair heard the clatter of footsteps on the stairs, and Sky appeared around the turn on the landing. She descended to stand beside Blair. "Hey, Jim, how's the headache?"
Ellison gave her a lopsided smile. "Don't have one now. Everything's okie-dokie, pokie."
Sky glanced at Blair. "You weren't kidding. So how do you want to do this?"
He studied Jim for a moment, then suggested, "How about you take an arm and I take an arm?"
Putting actions to words, the couple got Jim to his feet. That done, they tackled the stairs. It was slow going, as the stairwell really wasn't wide enough for three people to walk abreast. Instead, Sky took the lead with Jim slightly behind her, Blair supporting him from one step down, and they inched up the stairs diagonally. There was a slight argument when they reached the second floor as to whether they should let Jim crash at Blair's apartment or continue upwards. The spiral staircase was out of the question. Jim mumbled something about wanting his own bed, so they trekked up the final flight to the loft.
Once inside Jim's apartment, Blair decided that going up one more set of stairs, even narrower than the ones they'd just climbed, was not going to happen. "Okay, Jim, let's get you settled here on the couch." While Blair made Jim comfortable on the cushions, removing his jacket, weapon, and shoes, Sky ran upstairs and came back with the sentinel's pillow and comforter. Blair tucked the pillow under his friend's head, noticing that Jim was already fast asleep. After covering Jim with the blanket, he plopped onto the love seat and patted the space beside him.
Sky sat down next to Blair, and he slid his arm around her shoulders to pull her in close to his side. "I love you, you know that, right?" he said with a smile.
She kissed his cheek. "Love you, too, baby, but you should be thinking about making like Jim and getting some rest. You've been up over 24 hours."
Sighing, Blair leaned his head against the back of the sofa. "Yeah, I know. And I will. I'll crash here with Jim after you go to work."
They sat there in silence for a few minutes, Blair simply enjoying the respite from the horror and worry of earlier that morning. He felt Sky's fingers lightly rubbing his knee and he relaxed even further. "That feels good," he murmured.
"How do you feel?" she asked quietly.
He knew she wasn't asking about his physical state. "Kind of like the last time, only less so. Don't know why. I got the same sensation when I got out of the truck at this scene as I did at the park, like what had happened there was so evil that it permeated even the air I was breathing. But this time I wasn't so affected by it, didn't get so *dirty*."
She grabbed his right hand and pulled it into her lap, turning it so the stones in the bracelet she'd given him faced up. "Think this might have had anything to do with the way you feel?"
Blair shrugged. "It didn't hurt. But I'll use the sea salt when I take a shower in a little bit."
"Add some rosemary and thyme to it. They work as well as sage for a cleansing, and shouldn't bother Jim's allergies." She leaned her head on his shoulder. "And they'll make you smell nice."
Blair laughed, and kissed the top of her head. Then he turned serious. "Sky, while I was waiting for Jim at the hospital, I thought about this case. I think the guy we're after is choosing his victims because of the spiritual or magical powers he thinks they have. So far he's chosen a variety of belief systems, maybe searching for something in particular. I just want you to be careful. You're a druid, and you practice magick, so you fit his pattern."
She sat up and turned to face him. "That's why Rowan was chosen? Because she was wiccan?"
He nodded. "It looks like it. Just be careful, okay? Don't go anywhere with someone you don't know. If you think someone's following you, drive to the police station. Don't take chances."
Her expression solemn, Sky nodded slowly.
"Now that I've said that, I don't think this guy is going to kill again until the twenty-third."
"What makes you think that?" she asked.
"The last three victims have all been twenty days apart. If we project that pattern forward, then the next time he strikes will be the twenty-third. But keep your guard up anyway."
"I will." She glanced at the clock on the VCR. "I have to leave for the store now. Promise me you'll get some rest?"
Getting to her feet, Sky bent over to give Blair a final kiss, then headed out the door.
Blair couldn't make it into the station on Monday. He had to finish grading final exams and turn in the grades for the semester. The process took him most of the day, even with Denise's help.
When he arrived home, he climbed the spiral stair to Jim's. The sentinel was in the kitchen adding what looked like beef strips to a skillet. "Hey, Jim. How did it go today? Any new leads?"
Jim looked up at him. "Task force meeting reports on the table. You want to stay for dinner? I'm making stir-fry and there's plenty."
"Sure," Blair replied absently, already engrossed in the minutes from the meeting.
Not much new on the forensics front. Manner of death was consistent with the previous murders, and the flute of the same type of wood as the rest. Other than the whisker Jim found, there was no physical evidence at the scene.
The whisker was interesting, though. It had come not from a pet, but a big cat, as in lion, tiger, leopard or jaguar. DNA testing might narrow the field to a specific species, but that took time. Rafe and Brown were assigned to get a jump on the search by checking out the zoo and all exotic cats registered with the city.
He reached the end of the minutes and attached files. "Jim, where's the info I gave you this morning on the Aztec calendar?"
Jim's expression was embarrassed as he looked up. "I swear I put the info in the truck when I left this morning, but when I got to the station it was gone. Sorry, Chief. I didn't feel qualified to explain it anyway."
"I kept it pretty simple, Jim. The tonalpohualli is the Aztec sacred calendar, the one they used to mark the celebrations and sacrifices to their different gods. In that calendar, there are two wheels, one with the numbers one to thirteen on it, the other with twenty symbols or day-signs. At the start of the calendar, the number one combines with the first symbol, the number two with the second and so on until the fourteenth day, when the number one combines with the fourteenth symbol. Both wheels progress in this manner until 260 days have passed, and the number one aligns with the first day-sign again. Our killer is committing his crime on the thirteenth of the twenty day-signs, acatl, the one ruled by Tezcatlipoca. In other words, he's killing every twenty days."
The detective looked completely confused. "It's probably better you explain it to everyone tomorrow, then you can answer any questions they have." Jim turned his attention back to cooking.
Blair set the file down on the table wondering, not for the first time, what was going on with Jim. He hadn't been himself since they'd found Rabbi Rabinovich's body and his headaches had started. Perhaps Jim's appointment with the specialist Dr. Abrams had recommended would provide some answers.
Blair was the first person Jim ran into when he returned to the station from his doctor's appointment. "Jim! You're back! What did the doctor say?"
"According to Doc
Wiesenhunt, I'm fine. No brain tumor, no obvious signs of stroke or other
cardiovascular disease, and since I haven't had a headache in over five days,
he's pretty sure that I'm over the stress which caused the problem in the first
place." Removing his jacket, draping it over his chair, Jim moved to take his
seat at his desk.
"So it was just stress, huh?" Blair asked skeptically.
"Yep. Now if you don't mind, I have work to do," Jim replied a little more curtly than he intended. He pointedly opened a file folder.
Blair returned to his own desk, but Jim could feel the younger man's eyes on him every so often. He knew Blair was worried about him, but according to the specialist, there was nothing to worry about.
What was it that
Wiesenhunt had said?
"A minor shadow in the area of the hypothalamus region. Nothing that looks tumorous, nothing to really worry about, unless your headaches return, Detective."
"And if they do? What does it mean?"
"Possible disorder or an organic growth. But I don't see anything that points to either one of those, so don't worry."
Don't worry? Jim shuffled through the files on his desk, trying to catch up on paperwork while his mind rolled over and over the doctor's last words. Don't worry. I'm slowly going insane, have a possible 'organic growth' in my brain...Yeap, better leave a note for Sandburg, just in case, telling him to book me into the room next to Alex at the asylum for the criminally insane.
His hands clutched the file in them, almost tearing it. Why, after being told he was fine did he now think he was 'criminally insane?' He had to pull himself together, and quit worrying over the possibility he was going nutsoid or he'd turn into a basket case before the month was over.
As the days passed, the leads to the killer dwindled. No witnesses had been found in a canvass of Father Gibson's neighborhood. The few anonymous tips the police did get had all led nowhere. In order to generate new leads, Captain Banks had released the info to the press that the killer was obsessed with the Aztec. The press had immediately dubbed him the "Aztec Axeman". This had stirred up the college community. A librarian at Rainier who had noticed his sudden interest in Aztec research had turned in Blair's name.
Frustrations were running high as time slipped through their fingers and acatl drew closer. Would Blair's theory hold true? Would the Axeman kill again on December twenty-third?
Anderson looked up from the report he was going over to see Mai-ling Xiong enter
the massive bullpen of Patrol Division. The petite Asian woman looked calm,
almost serene, but Terry knew her too well ...her hands, wringing the strap of
her shoulder bag, showed her distress. Closing the file, he stood up and walked
over to the distraught woman. "Mai-ling? What's wrong?"
"Terry! Have you seen Li? He didn't come home last night and I hoped to find him here, but everyone I've talked to..." Her voice wavered and she started to cry in earnest.
He grabbed her gently by the shoulders and drew her attention to him. "I've not seen him since he left yesterday afternoon. Are you sure he's not just tied up with one the elders he helps?"
"No! I've already called everyone that he helps and none of them have seen him for three days!" Her voice ended on a plaintive wail as she wrapped her arms around his waist.
Terry felt a chill hand squeeze his heart as tightly as Mai-ling had wrapped herself around him. Slowly he escorted her towards the Lieutenant's office while mouthing towards his corporal, 'Husky! Get Ellison and Banks down here -- now.' Settling his friend's wife on the couch in the cramped office, handing her a tissue to wipe her tears, he held her until the Captain and Ellison showed up ten minutes later.
"Terry? You called...Mai-ling!" Ellison dropped to his knees in front of Xiong's wife. "What's wrong? Why are you so upset?" Terry watched and listened as Mai-ling explained to Jim why she was here and he saw detective's face tighten in concern.
"You said he received a phone call?" Ellison asked to which the woman only nodded. "When, Mai-ling?"
"About nine last night."
"Jim?" Simon looked down at his detective as Terry stood up to let Ellison move to sit beside Mai-ling.
"Terry, can you find someone to give Mai-ling a ride home?"
"Sure. I'll be right back." Terry left the office for a second, calling out to Corporal Husky, then stepped back in to hear Ellison asking one last question of Xiong's wife.
"Mai-ling, do you recall where Li was to meet this person who called him?"
She nodded, taking a deep breath before answering. "Temple Gardens. Zen path for quiet contemplation."
Jim drove like a man possessed, emergency lights
flashing, weaving in and out of traffic, barely pausing to listen for on coming
traffic before blowing through stoplights at 60mph or better. Blair, who'd
showed up shortly after Mai-ling Xiong had left in Corporal Husky's patrol unit,
muttered protests about his driving. Jim ignored them, concentrating on traffic,
worrying that he wouldn't find Li Xiong at the Temple, lost in meditation.
Jim pulled his Ford to a sudden stop in front of the Buddhist Temple, bailing out of the cab before Blair or anyone else could catch up to him, and sprinted towards the path he knew Li loved so much. He hadn't gone more than a few yards down the secluded path before the scent of spilled blood assailed him, causing his headache to spike and his stomach to roll in protest. Jim stopped, bending over a bush on the side of the path and tried to quell his rebellious stomach. He was barely aware when Blair stopped on the path beside him even as Simon, Terry and Sydoriak rushed by, continuing down the trace.
"Jim! What is it? What's wrong?" Sandburg's hand was cool on the back of his neck even as it helped him to center himself.
"Blood. Too much blood."
"What?" Blair sounded startled.
"Blood." Jim rose back to his full height, shut down his sense of smell and pushed off, doggedly determined to find the source of the sour-sweet, metallic odor. Rounding a bend on the gravel-strewn path, he found Terry, pale and sweating, heaving his stomach over a dwarf Japanese maple tree. "Terry?" He stopped to check on the sergeant.
"Oh, God!" Terry choked back a sob and Jim started to move further down the path. "Jim! No! Don't!" the man called out, trying to catch Jim by the sleeve of his coat, but missing as Jim hurried away.
He rounded a huge, gray-granite boulder and froze. His whole world came crashing down in a thunderous roar as he took in the sight. Li Xiong, nearly naked, was strapped down to a meditation bench, his chest unnaturally extended, blue symbols painted on tan flesh, blood pooled on the gravel under the bench -- spilled from the gaping hole in his friend's chest. Jim fell to his knees, roaring out in his pain and anguish.
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 time missing 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, 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. 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's 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 apartment 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 aren't working any more." 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 confirming 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.
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 jaguarchac-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 purple 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
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.
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 themselves.
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
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
"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.
Blair scrabbled at the pickup's door, but his fingers no longer had the dexterity to open it. Drugged! Jim had drugged him! A low moan escaped his lips, and he pressed himself against the side of the truck, putting as much space between himself and the thing in the driver's seat as he could. The thing paid him no attention, acting as if Blair hadn't screamed at all.
A few moments later, the truck came to a stop. Jim hopped out and walked around the front of the cab, opening the passenger door. "Come on, Blair. It's not much further. Just a little walk in the woods."
The young man shook his head, trying to clear it. Jim held out a hand to him. Blair squinted. Jim's features came into blurry focus. Okay, it's okay. It's Jim. What was I thinking? He slid out of the truck, staggering a bit as his legs wobbled.
The other man reached out a hand to steady Blair, his fingers closing over the protection bracelet Sky had given him. With a howl of pain, he snatched his hand back, his form shifting and changing in the dim light. Yellow eyes flashed, and Blair knew what he'd glimpsed before hadn't been a hallucination. Stumbling, he ran into the woods, adrenaline fueling his flight.
Jim watched as Blair fled into the woods. The something that had been bothering him for so long had
suddenly, strikingly become clear. HE was the killer
he'd been hunting and now he was after Sandburg. The voice inside his head, the
one that had plagued him for months, hissed through his ears.
So, you finally know what is happening, Jaguar Warrior. This is good. You left your soul open to evil, and I was able to step into the void where your Shaman should have been.
Holding his hand, which burned as if the bracelet he'd touched had scalded him, Jim responded to the taunting words. "Who are you? When did you enter my mind?"
Laughter-- the same laughter he'd heard the morning of Father Gibson's death--echoed inside of Jim's head. You know my name, though men no longer tremble when they speak it. I am Tezcatlipoca, I am Nahuaque, I am Ipalnermoani, Lord of the Near and High. Many, many trecenas have passed since I became you, Warrior. She was to have been my vessel, the clay form I would use until the moment was right, but she proved to be unworthy. You, however, you were nearly perfect.
Jim shuddered. He couldn't recall ever being aware of an intruder in his own body, and who was this she the voice referred to? He flinched as the image of a spotted jaguar filled his eyes. Alex!
Yes. So young, so full of promise. How strange to find a woman, one unworthy of the gifts, possessing the strengths and abilities of a Jaguar Warrior.
Jim was a killer. He was hunting Blair, possessed by something--a god-- who had driven him to this madness.
Enough! There was only one way to stop this insanity. Jim's hand reached for his sidearm, pulling the weapon free of its holster. He had to do this. He had to save Blair and atone for the crimes he'd committed. He placed the muzzle of the gun against his temple, the steel icy against his skin.
Against his will, his
hand wavered as he tried to pull the trigger. The weapon fell from his hand.
Fool! You cannot stop me! I control you, have for many trecenas and I am not about to lose the Jaguar Warrior that I waited for so long! Your feeble flesh obeys my every demand. You are mine to do with as I wish. I will find the Shaman. I will return to my rightful place as Ruler of this World.
"I cannot allow you to do this. I won't let you harm Sandburg!"
You cannot stop me, Warrior. Now, begone!
Jim felt as if he'd been slapped. His body seemed to fall away as he slipped into darkness, the silence surrounding him so complete not even the sounds of the night-shrouded forest could be heard. The last, coherent thought he had as he descended into the void echoed through his head. What have I done?
Blair's drugged mind struggled to make sense of what was happening. Was the *thing* he'd left behind Jim, or not Jim? If it wasn't Jim, where was Jim? A root caught at his ankle and sent Blair sprawling. His head struck something hard. He lay dazed for a few moments. Then the sound of whatever it was coming after him forced him to his feet.
He began to run again, slower this time, trying to pick out the safest footing in the dark. Something brushed against his legs, and he yelped loudly. A wolf paused on the faint trail, looking over his shoulder at Blair. He remembered the dream he'd had the night Sky died. Follow the wolf. It can't hurt, and at least it can see where it's going.
As he trotted toward it, the wolf took off again. Blair found himself racing to keep up. Branches slapped at him; a pine bough struck him in the face, the needles scratching, blinding him. Careening forward, he tumbled into a meadow. He wiped at his stinging eyes, getting slowly to his feet. The green and blue and purple lights of the aurora came into focus, dancing across the black horizon. For a moment, his plight was forgotten, and his mouth dropped open in awe.
The god's power grew as the shadow crept further across the moon. He licked his lips, anticipating the taste of the Shaman's blood, the rush of power. Soon! Yes, soon, my lovely Prey. You will help me complete the prophecy. I will shed the clay of the Jaguar Warrior and return to rule as rightful Monarch of this World. He watched the final Shaman try to escape, dodging into the woodland.
He'd waited long enough. If the last Shaman wanted to give him the thrill of the Hunt before the final ritual was completed, then so be it. It would actually make it more exalting -- blood spilled in the Hunt was the most potent of magicks. The energy from the Chase would make the transformation, the crossing, that much easier.
With a snarl, he ran
after the fleeing Shaman. All his senses focused on the Prey scuttling through
the woods. Yes!
He is willing after all! He *knows* what his life's blood will accomplish! Oh,
Shaman, you honor me well. Run, little one, run to the place of your body's
death. I will take your heart, adding your essence to the others. Only I think I
will keep your spirit tied to mine. Yes, that would only be fitting for one such
The Prey had stopped, looking back over the path he'd run down, fear crossing his face. Slowing to a crouching, silent prowl, he crept up on the Prey. It had found the clearing. Perfect! He transformed into the Jaguar, extruding the nails of his human garb, thickening them, curving them, sharpening them, as the spotted golden fur cloaked the body and the muscles became bestially strong and swift.
He settled back on his haunches, patiently waiting until the Prey, the Shaman, thinking himself safe, had turned his back to him. Springing forth from his hiding place, tawny and black paws connected with the Prey's back, sending the Shaman sprawling.
Blair realized his mistake moments too late. A great weight struck him between the shoulder blades, bearing him forcefully to the ground. His face buried in cold, dead grass, he struggled with all his might, until a blow across the head sent him tumbling into darkness.
He sat, humming the chant, making sure that all was perfect as he slowly used the hollow stone bowl and the pestle to grind the flowers, tree bark and other plant parts to a mush. The Shaman still slept. No matter, he needed time to finish preparing the trappings for the Shaman's final journey.
Adding a touch of clear plant oil to the bowl, he finished mixing the paint. Grabbing the river reed he needed, he rose and crossed to where the Shaman hung, his toes barely reaching the ground, his arms stretched overhead. He had fought well, a prize worthy of a god's attention. Reaching out, he tilted the head back, towards the tree he had tied the man to, and started brushing the paint across the naked body in the manner prescribed for the Ritual of Crossing. Full of power and strength, the lithe form belied hidden qualities. He couldn't help but admire the Shaman's build. This one could have easily followed the Path of the Jaguar, been a warrior, but instead he had turned his quest for knowledge inward.
He looked to the darkened sky above, the moon not yet fully covered by the shadow. He still had a little more time. Paying close attention to the task at hand, he finished applying the last Nahuatl symbol just as the Shaman started to stir. Good, the man should be awake for this, to know his sacrifice was for the glory of Tezcatlipoca. Setting aside the bowl and brush, he stripped out of the confining clothing of the Jaguar Warrior, kicking them aside in distaste. He was past ready to shed the Warrior's body.
He awoke to the feel of something rough and warm and wet laving his cheek. With a gasp, Blair opened his eyes to find the face of a monster pressed close to his. The visage was that of a spotted jaguar, only distorted. The muzzle was shorter, and the head longer, the eyes the outward shape of a human's but golden, with vertical pupils, like a cat's. They blinked slowly at him, and a fur-covered cross between a hand and a paw gripped his chin, short stubby fingers ending in razor sharp claws holding him firmly.
The mouth opened, revealing gleaming white canines several inches long. A tongue lolled between the teeth, flicking out to lick Blair's temple. He whimpered, tremors rocking his body. He was upright, his arms tied over his head to a tree limb, forcing him to stand on tiptoe.
The claws released his face, tracing a slow path down his neck, following his jugular across his naked flesh to where his heart pounded wildly in his chest. The werecat purred, teeth nipping at Blair's shoulder until he cried out as they pierced the skin. The textured tongue swiped over the small wound, lapping up the tiny drops of blood.
Then the creature stepped back, turning away, bending to pick up something on the ground. A clay bowl was lifted in both hands, and a guttural chanting filled the air with the harsh consonants of Nahuatl. The beast turned back to Blair, one hand going again to his jaw, prying his mouth open.
Too frightened and shocked to react before, Blair fought like a wild man now, lashing out with his feet, striking the jaguar-man in the stomach and chest. The animal stumbled back, snarling, liquid sloshing over the sides of the bowl. His claw-hand gripped Blair by the neck, slamming him back into the tree, knocking the air from his lungs.
As the young man struggled to breathe, the creature poured the contents of the bowl down Blair's throat. He choked and gagged on the burning, alcoholic pulque, most of it streaming down his neck, but the cat covered his mouth, forcing him to swallow the bit that remained. The drug turned his muscles to mush, and he sagged in his bonds, the pain in his shoulders a mere annoyance.
A small voice in the corner of his mind spoke of the blue paint, cold and wet on his skin, and urged him to fight, to struggle against what he knew was happening.
But it was too hard, and even when the creature cut him down, lowering Blair to the ground, he couldn't find enough strength to run. But he managed to find his voice. "Who are you?"
The cat-man looked down, its mouth opening in what Blair realized passed for a smile. When it spoke, its words were guttural and accented. "I have many names. Nahuaque, Yoalli Ehecatl, Necocyautl--"
"Tezcatlipoca," Blair whispered. Things were beginning to make a crazy, wild kind of sense to him.
The feline grin widened. "I prefer Titlacahuan, He Whose Slaves We Are, or Tlalticpaqueh , Owner Of The World, because after I have your heart, Shaman, when the shadow turns the moon the color of sacrificial blood, I will cross fully into your human world. I will once again be World Owner, and your pitiful race my slaves."
The anthropologist tilted over onto his side, pressing his face against the cold ground. "Jim..." he moaned.
A human hand clasped his shoulder. Blair looked up to see the sentinel leaning over him, concern written on his face. "Jim! Oh, god, Jim! You have to help me! No, no, you have to get out of here! If he finds you, he'll kill you!"
Jim's laugh descended into sharp, coughing snarls, and his facial features melted and shifted and became the god's jaguar form again. "How touching! Or would you prefer your lover?"
Sky leaned over him then, her soft lips kissing his forehead. "Just relax, baby, and accept your role in this ritual."
Again the figure blurred and Blair stared at his twin. "Yeah, man, quit fighting your karma. It's a great honor to be chosen."
Scooting away from the thing, Blair pressed himself against the tree trunk, trying to burrow inside.
A tall figure with the dark coloring and broad features of an Aztec bent over him, lifting him across his shoulder. "It is useless to struggle, little Shaman. I am the god of destiny, and your fate has been foretold since you came screaming into this world."
Blair hung upside down over the back of the god as Tezcatlipoca crossed the clearing to a large, almost flat stone. As he looked down, he could see a distorted reflection in the smoking mirror that was the god's foot. He realized it was his own, his face streaked with dirt, blood and tears, his expression shifting from fear to resignation. Blair was going to die. The Aztec deity laid him on the rock, stretching his limbs into the sacrificial position, tying them to stakes pounded into the ground.
He gazed up at the sky, the colored lights still dancing, the moon turning a deep shade of red, only a faint cresent of silver visible now. Everything had been leading up to this. He had been right. All the sacrifices had been about spiritual power, about leading to this moment. And his heart would be the last, the sacrifice that would make Tezcatlipoca invincible.
Wait a minute! If he needs my heart, then he's not invincible now! Someone--something--can still stop him!But what?
Tezcatlipoca loomed over him, the obsidian tecpatl raised in his left hand. He drew it across Blair's chest slowly, lazily, leaving a shallow cut to mark the spot for the deeper one to come.
The wound burned, and Blair could feel the warm trickle of blood down his ribcage. "Help me!" he screamed. "Please, somebody, help me!"
The smell of freshly spilled blood, coupled with the
scream, brought Jim back to awareness -- and he was standing over a naked,
spread-eagled Blair with his left hand raised, holding a black, wicked-looking
"NO!" He willed the knife to fall from his hand even as he shouted. Amazingly, the weapon dropped to the ground.
As the knife fell to the ground, Blair pulled against the ropes holding him, ignoring the pain as they cut into his wrists. He had to get free; he had to! His struggles ceased as the form of a black-bearded man appeared at his feet. He was dressed in Aztec garb, a blue and green belt holding a loincloth around his waist. A dazzling jewel shaped like a conch shell hung around his neck, and he wore a headdress made of long, bright red and black feathers. In one hand he held a scepter shaped like a serpent, in the other a shield. His wise eyes were a glittering black. "Quetzalcoatl..." Blair breathed. Light to Tezcatlipoca's darkness, he was the God of Creation, and God of Wind.
Will you accept my help, Shaman?
The deity's words thundered in Blair's mind. He remembered the legends he'd read, of how Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca had destroyed four worlds and brought the fifth one, this world, into being; of the many times they'd fought over the destiny of their people.
The time for battle is once again at hand. My brother has chosen his champion. I choose you, Shaman. Do you accept my help, or do you doom your people to Tezcatlipoca's bloodthirsty rule?
"Yes! Please, I have to help Jim!" Blair didn't even stop to consider what form the help would take.
Very well.The time is almost here. We must stop the sacrifice. Quetzalcoatl grew taller, his body twisting and lengthening, like a lump of clay rolled out. Feathery scales sprouted from his skin, and his face broadened and flattened, plumes of feathers wreathing his head. The Serpent God's tongue darted in and out as his long coils wound around the sacrificial stone.
Wide-eyed, Blair wondered for a moment if he wouldn't regret this later as the great snake's head bent down, mouth opening wide. Blair closed his eyes as he was swallowed whole. He imagined it was what toothpaste felt when the tube was squeezed, and would have laughed hysterically, had he not been so terrified.
And then he was Quetzalcoatl, as Jim was Tezcatlipoca. The Serpent acted swiftly, wrapping his coils around the screaming Jaguar God, tightening them so the other god couldn't move. But Tezcatlipoca still held the sacred blade. He slashed at the snake, cutting great gashes in his eternal rival's flesh.
Blair could feel himself, feel Quetzalcoatl, weakening. Changing shape hadn't been enough. If Tezcatlipoca could cut out the Shaman's heart in this form, he would still win. The light would fail, and darkness would walk the earth unchecked.
Jim watched in horror as the huge, winged serpent
swallowed Blair. "NO! I can't lose him!" The hand holding the obsidian dagger
stabbed at the snake's body, trying to cut through the reptile's shimmering
scales to reach Blair's heart. Helplessly, Jim glanced around the clearing,
spotting someone he hoped would come to his aid. Looking into the dark cat's
golden eyes he pleaded, "Please, help me! Help us!"
The black jaguar seemed to nod. An almost grim look of determination crossed its face, then it lunged. Leaping into the fray, it sank its sharp fangs into the wrist that held the dagger. The blade fell from the hand holding it. Jim felt the searing pain of the bite race up his arm. The agony intensified and he suddenly realized that the dark animal was actually trying to tear the hand off. Knowing he'd do anything to save Blair, Jim was more than willing to lose a limb, or even his life, if it meant his guide would live.
Queztalcoatl squeezed harder as Jim's spirit guide savaged Tezcatlipoca's arm.
But the dark god refused to give up. He plunged his fist into one of the great wounds on the snake's body. Blair shrieked in agony as he felt fingers wrap around his heart, claws digging in.
The winged snake took to the air then, rolling and diving, each snap of its tail sending lightning bolts streaking across the sky, each powerful flap of its wings a clap of thunder. Try as he might, the fusion of Shaman and Serpent God could not dislodge Tezcatlipoca.
A silver streak of fur darted from the forest and leapt into the air. Canine teeth sank deep into the arm grasping the Shaman's heart. Blair felt the tight grip easing.
Quetzalcoatl's head reared back as he spit a stream of venom into his brother's eyes. With a roar of pain and rage, the Jaguar God let go of his rival, of Blair. The Serpent loosed its coils. Tezcatlipoca tumbled through the sky, his body rapidly shifting from Aztec warrior to werejaguar to the familiar figure of Jim. He slammed into the ground and lay still. A dark, formless shadow detached itself from the sentinel and disappeared into the night.
The wolf and jaguar spirit guides had fallen with the god, but they got to their feet and shook themselves as a thin line of silver glowed along the edge of the crimson moon. The eclipse was over.
Jim! Oh, God, Jim! We have to help him!
The wind from Quetzalcoatl's wings bent trees and raised a cloud of dust as the Serpent Deity landed with far more grace than Blair would have thought a creature his size capable of. He wasn't sure how the snake did it, but suddenly he was no longer a part of it. He knelt beside his friend, his fingers searching for and finding the pulse at his throat.
"Is it over?" Blair asked, satisfied that Jim had not been seriously harmed by his fall.
It is over. The time to cross between worlds has passed. You did well, Shaman.
"Will Jim --" Blair stopped before he finished the sentence, not sure what he was asking.
Yes, Shaman, your Jaguar Warrior will be well. The blackness that has plagued his mind is gone.The plumed snake became translucent, the dancing lights of the aurora showing through his skin.
A sibilant hissing filled the air. Sleep, Shaman. Sleep. Blair looked for the owner of the voice while a strange fog rose from where he'd last seen...what was it? Something....The mist coiled around Jim's body, flowing upward to caress Blair's thighs, then chest, finally covering his face, obscuring his vision. His questions fading, Blair slumped over Jim and lost himself in the land of slumber.
A thin sliver of light teased along the edge of Blair's eyelids. He turned his head toward it, blinking. Sunlight streamed across the horizon in pastel fingers of pink and peach. He sat up slowly, both hands going to his throbbing skull. "God, that must have been some party. Where in the hell am I?"
If the snow-capped peaks rising in front of him and the crushed grass surrounding him were any indication, he'd been sleeping in a natural meadow somewhere in the mountains. A puff of cold air swirled over him, and he shivered. He was wearing his clothes, but his jacket and gloves certainly weren't enough protection for a freezing night spent outdoors. Why hadn't he died of hypothermia?
"Augh!" Blair glanced behind him, finding Jim curled up in a ball in the grass, one arm stretched toward his friend. "Well, that sorta explains the not-freezing." He poked at the other man. "Jim? You in there, man? 'Cause this is like, so totally weird, that I'm seriously close to freaking."
"Ummm." Jim flipped his arm across Blair's leg, mumbling something about a 'blanket hog'.
Blair tapped the sentinel on the cheek. "There are no blankets, man, that's the problem. Wake up!"
The urgent note in his guide's voice must have done the trick. Jim sat bolt upright with a yell. "Jesus! Sandburg! What the hell?"
Blair wrapped his arms around himself. He was really starting to get cold now. "Yeah, that's what I was saying. Where are we and what in the hell are we doing here?"
Jim squinted against the brightening sun, his eyes scanning the area. "Looks like the side of Mount Baker."
"I feel like I just ran a marathon, then slept on a bunch of rocks. How about you? How's your head?"
"It hurts like the rest of me." Jim got to his feet and gave Blair a pull up with his good hand. "But not like it has been. Let's see if we can follow our tracks out of here. I'm freezing."
As they crossed the field, they passed a large, flat stone. Blair shuddered at the sight of it, but didn't know why. They paused at the base of a tall pine, as Jim scanned the area.
"All right, Chief. I can see our footprints in the frost. We came up the mountain from the east." He started to walk away in that direction, then turned and plucked something off the bark of the tree. "You must be shedding, Sandburg." He held up a long, curly strand of brown hair.
Blair's hand automatically went to the back of his head. "Ow! There's a lump there."
Tilting his head down, Blair let the sentinel probe his scalp. "Doesn't feel serious."
"It's not your head," Blair complained. "Let's just get out of here."
The two men started down the trail, and within thirty minutes had reached a dirt road. Parked alongside of it was the blue-and-white Ford.
Blair's gait slowed as he approached it. "I remember...something. You wanted to come up here, because of the aurora...so I could say goodbye to Sky..." The memory that she was gone was sharp and painful. "It was so beautiful. All green and purple and blue...and it snapped and hissed." He shook his head, then winced. "But I don't remember taking falling asleep."
"Neither do I, Chief. But we seem to have come through it okay." He pulled open the door to the truck. "Come on. Let's get out of here."
Blair climbed into the cab as well, pausing as an owl's soft hoot cut through stillness. As Jim started the engine, Blair stared back up the hillside. Something had happened up there, something important. But damned if he could remember what it was. Shrugging, he closed the door as Jim drove off.
Jim tried not to worry too much about the unusual circumstances in which he'd awakened. He recalled mentioning the lunar eclipse to Blair last night, how the northern lights would probably be spectacular and a nice way to pay their respects to Skylark Kullien. But he couldn't remember anything else, not until he woke up in the mountain meadow.
When he'd started the truck up, he'd cranked the heater over to max and noticed that Blair stopped shivering after a few minutes. Just as he was about to make a smart-assed comment, a cell phone trilled in the silent confines of the cab, causing both him and Blair to jump. "Glove box," he told his friend as Sandburg started hunting for the twittering phone.
"It's yours, Jim." He held the cell toward his friend.
"Answer it, Chief." He listened in as Blair greeted the caller, focusing in tight when his friend mentioned a certain name.
"Ellison's phone, Sandburg speaking."
"Sandburg! Where the hell have the two of you been all night! I've been trying to reach you for hours!"
"Uh, hi, Simon. Uh, Jim and I went up to this mountain meadow to watch the eclipse last night and, uh, we kinda, well, fell asleep...."
"Without telling anyone where you were going? Damn it! We're in the middle of a major investigation and the two of you just take off on a whim?"
"Sorry about that, Sim--" Blair snapped his mouth shut as the Captain cut him off.
"Save it! We had a situation here while you two were off communing with nature. How fast can you get over to Mountain View Scenic Highway overlook three?"
Jim pulled off the county road onto a marked highway. Strangely enough, it was the one Simon was talking about. Looking for a mile marker, Jim spotted something far more interesting, rotating emergency lights from several vehicles just off the road ahead of them.
"Tell Simon we're almost right on top of him." Seeing the confused look on Blair's face, Jim pointed towards the flashing spectacle.
"Uh, Simon? We'll be there in about a minute." He smiled perversely as he disconnected from the call, thankfully cutting off the myriad of questions coming from Simon's end.
Less than sixty seconds later, Jim pulled his pickup up behind Sydoriak's county-issued car, and they climbed out of the cab to walk over to where Jim had spotted Banks. "Captain, Sydoriak," he greeted the two men as he and Blair got close. Looking past them, Jim spotted an old, beat-up car -- now perforated with a number of bullet holes -- and a blanket shrouded form lying nearby. "What the heck happened here?"
Frank Sydoriak smiled as he answered, "We solved the Aztec murders."
Blair gasped, his face lighting up with confusion. "How? When?"
"Early this morning, Doc. State patrol pulled over a suspected drunk driver, but when the officer approached the subject, the sonuvabitch pulled a gun and started throwing lead." Frank shook his head. "The trooper's fine, managed to duck and cover fast enough, and called for backup. Tell you what, this would be more believable if you take a look at the video. Come with me."
Jim and Blair followed Frank over to a state patrol unit where he pulled out a monitor on the side of the dashboard camera and played the tape recording of the traffic stop for them. A disheveled looking man, maybe in his late 20's or early 30's, was on the screen, waving a gun around as he shouted. Thankfully, State Patrol had forked out money for recorders with good microphones. The man was clearly upset as he strutted around, waving his gun as he shouted at the trooper and the units that had responded to the officer's call for backup.
"You can't kill me! I'm a fucking GOD! You are all nothing more than my slaves, to do with as I will! I am the Night Wind! I am the one whose name strikes fear into the bravest of warriors! I am Tez-cat-lee-poke-ah!"
The subject then made a dash towards an officer, brandishing the gun and officers on the scene had responded to the apparent threat with force. The suspect went down in a fusillade of gunfire. Frank turned off the tape. "Looks like you were right, Dr. Sandburg. Our Aztec killer was a nut."
A hand landed on Jim's shoulder and he looked to see Simon holding up a couple of clear evidence bags. "Jim, Blair, this is what we found in the man's trunk when we started to inventory it for impound."
One bag held a broken, handmade flute while the other one contained a black stone, possibly obsidian, dagger decorated with what appeared to be blood-splattered feathers.
"We'll have forensics check out the knife as the possible murder weapon, and we'll have to analyze the blood. Hopefully it'll match one of his previous victims and we don't have another body somewhere. All that's left after that is looking into the man's background and finding out if he was ever treated for being a nutjob. We'll be closing down the task force," Simon was saying as Jim and Blair reached out to touch the bags in the captain's hand. "Too bad you both had to pick last night to stargaze, or you might have caught this guy yourselves." Simon handed the bags over to a Forensic tech who'd come to collect them, then placed a new cigar in his mouth as he gleefully turned back to have the last word.
"Since you two are obviously well rested from your little camping trip, you both can handle the closing paperwork and deal with the press."
Jim let out a heartfelt groan of despair, along with Sandburg. "Chief?"
"Next time I suggest we do any stargazing?"
"Remind me of this morning, will ya?"
"Oh, you bet!" Blair stomped off towards the truck, Jim following him just close enough to hear the young man mutter, "Paperwork! I hate paperwork! And it's Saturday! We were supposed to have the whole weekend off! This really sucks!"
Jim held back a burst of laughter, which quickly became a groan. "Press? We get to handle the press?" He spun on his heel, shouting towards his captain, "Simon!"
The man looked over at him in the dawn's light.
"We have to handle the press?"
His commanding officer nodded, grinning widely around the cigar clamped in his teeth.
"I HATE dealing with newsies!"
"Crap. Blair, you said it, this really sucks."
~~ END ~~
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