Novation Productions Presents Season 6 Episode 3

Salamander

By

Ismaro


Act 1


Dedicated to the memory of Kjell Nilson

The ice storm that had socked in Cascade was a thing of the past. The near past, it was true; the weather had only returned to a few points above freezing, but the wintry, looking glass land was now a city drenched in melt water. All in all, every cop and consultant was more than content with staggering leave in the week that followed; after their strivings in the blizzard, everyone needed a day or two off to recoup their energy, and there was just enough time for them to have it before the start of the new millennium.

So it came to pass at Major Crime that only a few uniforms and Jim Ellison and Blair Sandburg, having been absent on the 26th, were working the four to midnight shift on December 31, 2000, when the call came in to Jim's desk at six-thirty-five.

"Jimmy? Jimmy? Please, please be there!" an anxious woman's voice pled. "I need you Jimmy! Please help me!"

Jim cocked his head at Blair, who picked up the extension to listen in.

"Sally? What's the matter? Is it Dad?" Jim asked automatically. It sounded like a personal cry for help, but Sally was William Ellison's housekeeper, and she might have been calling for the senior Ellison.

"No, no, Jimmy. It's my friend, Suki. You remember her? Suki Tang?"

Blair raised his brows at Jim, who had drawn his down while searching his memory banks.

"Oh, yeah, Suki. She used to make great gingersnap cookies." Jim was wearing a faint smile on his face.

"She's in trouble, big trouble, and scared. He's dead, Jimmy! You will help, Jimmy?" Sally begged, before breaking down into huge sobs.

"Whoa, Sally, what kind of trouble?" Jim asked. "Tell me exactly what's wrong." He was beginning to feel worried himself. Sally's tears were something he'd never seen in his lifetime; she was always serene and in control of herself, or so he had thought, when she was surrogate mother to himself and his brother, after their father took custody, in an uncomfortable divorce. "I'll help in any way I can."

Blair made a motion toward Simon Banks' door to let Jim know he'd get the captain of Major Crime to pick up also. Jim bobbed his chin in acknowledgment and went back to trying to calm Sally down. Blair skipped to the office door, knocked once and opened it before getting permission.

"Come!" Simon said a moment too late, and scowled when he saw who it was. "Don't you ever...?"

"I knocked, Simon. Pick up on line three. Sally Lee, Jim's Sally, is in trouble, and it doesn't sound good. She says someone, not William Ellison, is dead." Blair stuck his hands in his pockets.

Banks was frowning again, but this time it was at the news, and not at the department's consultant. He tapped the speakerphone feature, and both of them listened as Jim and Sally continued to talk.

"Suki, she took a new job when Dr. Marshall died. It was cook-housekeeper at Saint Germain Island."

Blair flashed a question at Simon, who back mouthed, "Saynt GerMayne. An offshore island. Nothing to do with Genevieve Benet."

Blair lifted his brows for thanks.

"It paid lots of money, but she was always terrified there. The people – they're scary, Jimmy. Now she called and said the butler is dead, and she's afraid of what will happen to her. She's like my sister, Jimmy. Please, please help her!" Sally fell to weeping.

Simon jerked his head at the door and nodded. Blair caught the signal and crossed to wave the 'okay' at Jim. Jim nodded back, and got the details of the crime from his surrogate mother.

 

"I checked with the 33rd Division, and no one has reported a death on the island," Jim stated fifteen minutes later. "They're happy to have us take over. The ice storm we just went through hit them as hard as anyone." He shrugged.

"Wait, why do we have jurisdiction? This is somewhere out in the Sound, right? Wouldn't it be the Coast Guard or something?" Blair asked, bewildered. "At least at first?"

"Saint Germain Island is an anomaly, Sandburg," Simon Banks explained. "It's just a hunk of rock with some trees on it, used to be contiguous with the mainland. It was bought outright by some band of religious fanatics a good hundred years ago, and they put up a stone mansion. But an earth tremor soon afterwards sank the isthmus to it, so now it's an offshore segment of the city. The inhabitants called it Saint Germain Island."

"What do they do for supplies?" Blair wondered. "There's no bridge, right? Or ferry?"

He scoured his brain. "I've lived here for, what, 15 years? I'd have noticed a ferry."

"Nope, no ferry, Chief," Jim commented. "At least nothing direct. Sally told me that Suki had to order a boat from the main ferry at Doyle Pier, every time she went shopping, and she bought for months at a time. There's a private airstrip, and both a plane and helicopter on the island, for the owners to use, but no boats, which is what you'd expect would be first choice for reaching the mainland. So the owners can come and go as they please, but the household staff are pretty much stuck there, with no easy way off the island. A strange set up."

"They seem to cherish their privacy, don't they?" Simon said dryly. "Even to the point of failing to tell the authorities about a murder."

"Yeah," Jim agreed. "I don't think Sally's wrong about Suki Tang. At the very least, she would be a material witness, and for all we know, she's a victim waiting to happen."

Simon Banks thought a moment. "Okay, then, we'll use a police chopper to get to the island. It's a flea hop; it won't take you more than ten or fifteen minutes once you're airborne. You'll both go, with someone from the M.E.'s office, and a Forensics specialist. They can bring the woman and the body back, while you two stay and investigate. The chopper will come back for you later this evening. If they're religious nuts, you ought to be able to get a handle on them, Sandburg."

"If the name of the island is 'Saint Germain', I think I can guess just what kind of cult they are, Simon." Blair's tone was dark.

"Why?" Banks asked simply.

"Saint Germain isn't the real saint Genevieve's island is named for, not if these are cultists. The name is a joke on us 'ordinary' common stock, the blind fools that we are," Blair told him sardonically, "so that we'll confuse the two. If the group there named their island for the Comte de Saint Germain, they're devil worshippers."

"Oh, great," Jim groaned. "I thought we got all the millennialist whackos last year."

"No, we only got the ignorant millennialist whackos last year. Some people can't count. The year 2000 is the end of the second millennium. 2001 is the beginning of the third millennium." Blair was jaded. "We get the intelligent millennialist whackos now."

"The fun just keeps on coming." Simon rolled his eyes.

Blair nodded, his lips tight together.

 

"I'll let her down easy, Jim, but we don't have a lot of time," Syd Blailock told the detective. "The way these winds are whipping up all of a sudden – we're going to have to take off again real soon, if we don't want to be stranded here."

The island of St. Germain was just what Simon said it was. Rocky, tiny, deeply treed with weathered evergreens, a fortress against the outside world. It took some doing to find the helipad, especially in the partial gray-out conditions the wind and water were spitting up unexpectedly. But there it was at last, and the air strip, complete with hangar, the mansion close by it, and an outbuilding that evidently housed a generator and other service machinery. Jim could see a dock a little way beyond that with his heightened eyesight, but it was invisible to the rest of them. More chillingly, Jim could see an overgrown field in which upside-down crosses poked through the weeds. He didn't like thinking about what that might mean.

The chopper set down, and its occupants took a long look at the stone manor.

It repulsed and fascinated all at once. Large and squat, three stories high, there were four towers or turrets, one at each of its corners, and none of them matched the others. One tower was square and medieval, with an upper rampart meant for sentries, of which there was none; another was round with a high window, fit for Rapunzel; a third ornate and topped with an onion dome; the fourth built in a haphazard tiered fashion, blocks of stone jutting out here and there. It seemed that even the rooms in the house battled for power on St. Germain Island.

Jim led the small party up to the main doors. They were huge, wooden and iron strapped. At either side an angel's head was placed, but it was clear to anyone who saw them that these angels were not on the side of virtue. A cherub smiled lasciviously on the left and a seraph sneered on the right. As gargoyles, they invited evil, rather than scaring it away. Overtop, Palladian-style, a stained glass window portrayed a skeleton nailed to a cross, with figures of men and women laughing and pointing at it, scorning a few ragged forms huddled at the feet of the corpse.

"Wow, is that ever horrible!" Dora Lake, the Forensics tech, breathed, crossing herself.

Jim hid a shiver of his own, and knocked on the door. "Come on, people. We're in a hurry." Then aside, "It was the butler who died. We may have to crash our way in," he offered slightly humorously.

It was enough to break the tech out of her funk, and rejuvenate the rest of them. Jim pounded again. They'd begun to shout, and discuss using more forceful means of entry, when the door opened noiselessly.

"You were not invited," said a man in a black silk morning suit, as far from a butler as could be imagined. Tall, impeccably groomed, his pallid face was all arrogance, his obsidian eyes cold and opaque. "You will leave now." He began to close the door.

But Jim, Blair and Syd were all in the way by then. As Jim advanced, the unknown man stepped back, his movements sinuous and his eyes colder than ever. Impatience was in every one of his muscles, but on his face there was disdain, as of the head of a great army for an enemy soldier, unarmed and ill-prepared for war.

"I am Detective James Ellison of the Cascade P.D. This is my partner, Dr. Sandburg, and our team. We have had a report of a murder on your island." Jim had forced the man back to the huge drum table in the great foyer. A quick glance around showed that the hall split the mansion all the way to the back, with two staircases, one at each end, on each side of the hallway, making four in all. There were rooms off the hall to either side, large ones by the great front door, smaller ones at the rear. Jim gave his attention back to the man who had opened the door to them. "And you are...?"

The man in black looked the party over, lingering on Blair for a long, measuring minute, and finally turned back to Jim. "Basilicos Basiliscos. You may call me Basil." What should have been a pleasantry came out as rank self-aggrandizement. "It was Suki who called, no doubt."

Everyone from the police department knew in that instant that Saint Germain Island was not safe for Sally's best friend.

Blair peered around the foyer. Here and there were art pieces that he suspected were lost masters; depicting witch burnings, torture, demons and hellfire, they looked to be by Breugel the Younger and Bosch, Dali and Picasso in a morbid mood. He shook himself and turned away; he'd been hagridden by nightmares enough, he decided. Besides, Jim was taking charge. He watched his partner work.

Jim motioned for Dora and Vince Clemente to come forward and start looking around. "Then there has been a death here," he concluded. "One you did not see fit to notify the authorities about."

Basil stared at the detective, in a jousting of wills, his left hand in his pocket, his right toying with a flower in the vase on the table; it was a dark purple hellebore, the Christmas rose. After making them all wait, he finally stopped trifling with the blossom. "Yes. But it was a natural death. We have no doubt about it, and intend to inter him in our graveyard, as he himself intended. He was very faithful."

"Who was it, again?" Blair asked innocently.

Basil turned the cold, cold eyes on him, and Blair felt his hairs rise in response. "Our retainer."

"Did he have a name?" Jim inquired, without any innocence at all.

"Zachary Groundwater." Basil tossed the name off as if he were washing his hands of the man's very being.

Jim was forestalled from further questioning by the approach of three newcomers, all of them as different from Basil as sand is from water, but all equally imposing.

A huge black woman dressed in a flowing green caftan and bejeweled turban lurched toward them from the front right stairs, her size lending grandeur to her appearance. Though the outfit should have seemed bizarre and ridiculous, especially with huge, gaudy gems dripping from her neck and hands, and emerald buckles gleaming at her feet, on her it was almost an understatement. She had the ugliest face Jim had ever seen, and perhaps had been a belle-laide in her youth, but in her sixties or seventies, she was purely disgusting in her features, which were twisted by envy, malice and slyness. There was that same strange fascination/repulsion push and pull to her that the house itself had. Jim wondered why he thought of her and the house as being alike, a living woman and dead stone.

"The Pythoness," Basil murmured, a finger at his lips. He inclined his hand towards her, not so much pointing as sending a false caress her way.

"The Pythoness?" Jim said disbelievingly. Blair tapped his arm and signaled his partner to let him watch what was going on, and not dig more deeply yet. Jim grimaced and subsided.

The black woman walked as far as she wished and not another step. "They're here about Groundwater. They'll take Suki with them when they go," she intoned importantly.

"Is that the best you can do?" asked sharp voice from the bottom of the rear right stairway. It belonged to an Asian man wrapped up in gold, or so it seemed. His lounging pajamas floated about him; he was rail-thin and aesthetic in his features. "Every one of us could foresee that. I knew from the moment I heard the rotors," he baited her.

The Pythoness lunged at him, holding back her attack at the last moment. "And why should I tell you anything? Love? Money?" She threw her head back and cackled resoundingly.

Blair signaled to Jim, 'Dial down hearing now!' The stone walls made an echo chamber; it was as if the members of the Cascade Police Department were under attack. Everyone flinched, Jim more than the others, his super-acute hearing assailed by the screeching.

At last the great woman ceased. She dropped her voice. "Oh, no, Six. I will tell no one my secrets. No one needs to know what I know, but me. Not for love, and not for money, and not even for power, will I tell what I see. You do not want to know what I see for you, Six." The menace in the last caused the man in yellow to fall back a pace.

"Six Hundred And Sixty And Six," Basil mentioned to Jim and Blair, as the man in yellow flexed his lips sourly.

Great, just great. Someone who thought he was the second Beast in the Revelation of St. John. An Anti-Christ. Yes, indeed, New Year's Day, 2001 was the due date for the intelligent whackos. Jim and Blair exchanged unimpressed glances.

"And the lovely Melusine Julnar," Basil went on.

A beautiful woman with the most delicate of features, a pocket Venus, was wandering slowly down the left rear staircase. Her china blue eyes were shining, their color enhanced by the sapphire border on her sheer linen tunic. If it were not for her white-blonde locks and pale rose cheeks, she might have stepped down from a frieze on a tomb in ancient Egypt. To say she was an eyeful was to underestimate what she did to the other parts of a man, Blair thought, and shifted a little where he stood.

"You are here about our poor butler, Groundwater, are you not?" she said in a sweet but unplaceable accent.

"Yes, and about Suki Tang," Jim told her for the record, knowing that she already knew.

"Ah, poor Suki!" Melusine mourned softly. "She thinks she must have poisoned Groundwater by mistake."

There was a general murmur of support from the other occupants of the house. Suki was the killer. Suki should be investigated for murder.

"I fear she cannot live with that knowledge." Melusine let a tear fall.

The Pythoness snorted.

Jim knew a threat when he heard one. "Then you will take my partner and me to Suki now, Ms. Julnar, and Basil will escort Mrs. Langley and Dr. Clemente to wherever Mr. Groundwater's body is."

It was odd. The authoritativeness in Jim's voice should have commanded respect and co-operation, if grudging, from the occupants of the house on Saint Germain Island. But the four people stared at him as if he were a microbe under a microscope.

"I said now!" Jim raised his voice.

There was no immediate response.

Then Melusine smiled again. "It is raining harder now. You'll have to be quick or you won't be able to leave until the storm is over."

Sure enough, a clap of thunder could be heard in the distance. Syd popped out of the mansion, evidently to gauge the flying conditions.

"There's still time left," Basil said sotto voce, and Melusine inclined her head.

"I'm sure you're right, Basil dear," she crooned. "But they must be fast." Where there had been honey before, now there was iron. "Don't you agree, Six?"

The Asian man drew his thin lips back in something like a smile, and the wind whistled around the mansion.

The lovely woman stepped forward and linked her arms with Jim and Blair. "Come along, then. I'll take you to the housekeeper."

Somehow, she was creating a cocoon of three, where no one else existed. The most stubborn man alive was not going to allow himself and his partner to be co-opted by a pretty girl mixed up in a murder. Jim cleared his voice, and said, "Basil, please take Dora and Dr. Clemente to Mr. Groundwater." It was enough to break her spell. Melusine blinked at him a few times, but the glamour didn't work twice.

She recovered quickly enough. "Suki is in the buttery, off the kitchen. It's down the hall, and to the left."

With a nod of her head, she started the partners walking toward the left side of the great hall extending from the foyer. Jim looked over his shoulder to see Basil leading the Forensics and M.E. people to the right rear area. He let it go at that, and followed where Melusine led.

 

The kitchen was entirely up-to-date, and it came as a surprise. Everything else in the mansion had seemed to belong to a period long before the present. But all the bells and whistles of the modern techno-kitchen were there, and chrome gleamed, undimmed by fingerprints, throughout the room.

The only thing at all out of place was a gigantic platter of holiday sweets. Suki had apparently whipped up a mountain of cookies, including gingersnaps, chocolate truffles and rum balls, as well as a fruit-and-almond chocked Christmas cake with marzipan icing. One sliver of the cake was missing from ring. Jim took a long sniff.

"Take you back to your childhood, Jim?" Blair mentioned. It was almost a whisper, though why he should whisper in front of their guide was beyond him.

With a sidelong glance at Melusine Julnar, Jim agreed, "Yeah, it does. I love the scents of Christmas."

"Me too," Blair replied. He looked past her and lifted an eyebrow.

A lowered brow told him not to take the discussion any further.

"Where was the body found, Ms. Julnar?" Jim asked, suspecting he already knew.

"Here in the kitchen, on the floor. We knew right away he was dead. I suppose we shouldn't have touched him, but we couldn't just let him lie there, could we?" She turned gigantic, pansy blue eyes on Jim.

Jim merely inspected her from top to toe. She lowered her gaze again, disengaging from that ploy.

"Where are Suki and the buttery, then?" Blair asked instead.

"Through these doors, on the left," Melusine said. She did not let go of their arms, but craned her neck smoothly to indicate the interior doorway, half-hidden by the angle of one of the three upright freezers in the kitchen.

Jim all but yanked her toward the door, since she would not disentangle herself from either Blair or him, and rapped once. "Suki? It's Jim Ellison."

"Mr. Ellison!" came a creaking voice through the closed door, and when it opened, a small woman with grief and terror in her eyes looked up at the tall detective. She reached out for Jim's hand, and Melusine drew back, as if it were a killing touch.

Jim reached around Sally's 'sister' and held her by the shoulders in a half-hug. Blair found a chair in the small service room, and Jim helped Suki to sit in it.

"Mr. Ellison," the housekeeper said, "I am so frightened. You will take me away, won't you?"

Melusine was there again, with soothing tones. "Yes, I expect he will, but don't be afraid, Suki. I'm sure that the police will be gentle with you. After all, it was an accident, wasn't it?"

Suki turned a confused face to her. "What was an accident?"

"Suki, Suki," Melusine mourned, shaking her head with disappointment. "I'd hoped you'd come to terms with it. Poisoning Groundwater. You didn't mean to do it, did you?"

Suki gasped and went very pale, focused only on the blonde woman. To both of the men from Major Crime, she appeared to be mesmerized. Blair started chafing her hands. Jim glared at Melusine, and patted Suki Tang's back. "We're at the beginning of our investigation. We'll take you off the island, and I'll suggest to my boss that you stay with Sally until everything here is cleared up."

"I poisoned Mr. Groundwater accidentally," Suki parroted dully, her face and body slack.

"There, you see," Melusine said brightly. "I'm sure everyone will understand that this was a tragedy, not murder. They probably won't even put you in jail."

Suki fainted outright.

Leaving Blair to the job of bringing Suki back to consciousness, Jim hurried Melusine out of the buttery and into the kitchen. "What the hell do you mean, interfering with my investigation?" he asked furiously.

Melusine seemed to dwindle into herself. "I didn't mean anything, Detective," she said piteously. "Only, we all know it was Suki who poisoned Groundwater, and she couldn't have done it on purpose, could she?"

Jim was fed up with the woman's cozening ways, but it was obvious that he was getting nowhere with her, and never would. He called Blair out of the buttery and into the kitchen. "How's she doing, Chief?"

"She's conscious, and I think she knows she'll be okay. Why?"

"I'm going to have a look at the body, and send Dora down here to prep the kitchen. I'll need you with me."

"Sure thing, Jim," Blair said. "So how is Suki supposed to have poisoned the butler, anyway?" he asked pointedly, his eyes straying to the glaringly white bit of doily on the platter where a missing piece of fruitcake should have been.

Melusine blushed prettily. "Yes, that's it," she said admiringly to Blair. "Groundwater was lying right beside the dessert platter. Such a tragic mistake. I'm sure you both understand."

Yes, indeed, Jim understood all right. They were railroading the cook, and he wasn't going to stand for it.

"I need to see the body now," he told her. "Stay away from Suki Tang. I'm only going to tell you once."

Black light sparkled in the beauty's eyes, and overhead a rumble of thunder shook the heavens. Then Melusine returned to her sugary 'self'. "Very well. Let me know how else I can help, please. I'll be going upstairs to my rooms now." She took herself away, turning to mount the left rear staircase, just outside the kitchen door, leading to the Rapunzel tower. Jim stopped a moment to speak to Suki, making reassurances and asking her to wait for his return.

When he had rejoined Blair, they started out of the kitchen and across the great hall, just past the right rear staircase leading to Six Hundred And Sixty And Six's suite. The ground floor servants' quarters were laid out as the mirror image of the kitchen and service rooms, though partitioned differently. Jim followed the trail left by the other party, tracking them by scent; Six Hundred And Sixty And Six was sporting a uniquely unpleasant mix of spices and musk in his aftershave, he remarked to Blair.

"I wonder where Suki was supposed to have gotten the poison," Blair whispered in his partner's ear as they went along.

"Yeah, I noticed they didn't have that loose end covered, too," Jim said. "It will be interesting to see what they come up with."

Quietly, they followed in the wake of the others.

The servants' quarters held bedrooms, a common room with satellite television and a stereo, a couple of bathrooms, and a games room. Blair wondered out loud why there was so much space devoted to two people. Jim put the question aside; he didn't want to have to deal with the island's servant problem or its graveyard quite yet. The rain was coming down like spears of water, dashing against the windows.

They found the spacious butler's chamber crowded with people. Dr. Clemente glanced over to Jim at once. "It appears he was poisoned, Detective. Cyanide, by the looks of it."

Jim could already tell that from one look at the portly, middle-aged man's corpse, but had Vince run down the symptoms for the benefit of all.

"Cyanosis, the blue tinge to the lips and skin meaning loss of oxygenation, the smell of almonds on his breath," the physician said. "If it weren't for the almond smell, I might reserve judgment a little more, but everything so far is consistent with cyanide poisoning and there's no sign of strangulation or choking. He died very fast, I believe, but I'll need to do a full autopsy on him to determine how long ago it was."

Six Hundred And Sixty And Six said, "We heard a kind of thumping noise, at supper time, and came into the kitchen to see Groundwater on the floor." He seemed quite happy about it all.

"Who is 'we'?" Jim demanded to know.

"Why, all of us," Basil said. "We had retired to the salon, and were awaiting coffee and dessert, which Groundwater was to bring in to us. We all heard him."

"Where is the salon, exactly?"

"To the right, as you come in," Basil answered. After a pause, he added, "My own rooms are on the third floor above it." His tone conveyed that he was monumentally bored by the proceedings.

"I had some more inquiries to make, Basil; you'll have to wait before returning to your rooms," Jim told him, then looked the rest over. "So all four of you heard a man fall to the floor in a room diagonally opposite, as far away as it is possible to get on the same level, with stone walls all around to block the sound," Jim challenged them directly.

"Yes," said The Pythoness firmly, folding her arms over her massive bosom.

"We did," Six Hundred And Sixty And Six backed her up.

"Melusine was also there," Basil tossed off. "She'll tell you the same."

"I'll just bet she will," Jim snarled.

A peal of thunder shook the house, and Basil said under his breath, "Back off, Mel. Back off!"

The rain lightened up a bit.

Jim surveyed the room. "Dora, have you got the shots you need of the body?"

"Yes, but I need to check out the kitchen, since that's where he died."

"We'll check it out together. Vince, do you have what you need?"

"I just need help with the body bag and stretcher."

"Blair, go get Syd, and tell him we need the gurney in the servants' quarters ASAP and an update on whether it's safe to fly. Then join me in the kitchen."

"Okay, Jim."

With that, everyone went to work.

 

By the time Blair had rejoined Jim, the vehicle for the cyanide had been identified. Someone, presumably Melusine, had helpfully left it out for them to find. A bottle of thin almond syrup was apparently the culprit, laced liberally with cyanide. The sentinel had dialed down hard, in order to pick up on the ingredients in the flavoring crusting its cap, keeping his distance.

"Don't get too close to it," Jim cautioned. "Just inhaling the stuff can kill you."

Blair watched Dora process the scene. "Then why wasn't Suki a victim, too?"

"Suki never touched the bottle after it was poisoned, or she would be dead on the floor herself, Chief. The syrup's got a higher concentration of cyanide than the fruitcake has. Someone poisoned the syrup, then soaked the cake with it, long after Suki had baked it. When Sally made Christmas cake, she'd bake it weeks in advance," Jim explained, "and soak it with rum or brandy periodically, and I expect Suki does the same. The marzipan icing is new, coming after the brandy and syrup were added to the cake. The poison had been sopped up by the raisins and dried fruit long before Suki iced the cake, so the concentration and the smell are diffused. You've got to eat the stuff to die now."

"Huh. It sounds like a really dicey way to kill people. Anyone might die," Blair commented.

"No one was likely to handle the almond syrup bottle except Suki...."

"...Who is the nominated scapegoat, so she doesn't count, being expendable," Blair interposed sarcastically.

"Right. That means the fruitcake is aimed at someone who likes fruitcake."

"Which most people hate," Blair commented.

"Well, apparently Zachary Groundwater liked fruitcake. If he was the target, though, I'll eat my badge," Jim growled.

"We'll have to ask everyone who liked fruitcake," Blair sighed. "As if with this crew we're going to get a straight answer. Either everyone did, or no one did. I wonder which they'll pick."

Jim drew his partner away from the Forensic tech, for a private talk. "What's with these people? 'The Pythoness'? 'Six Hundred And Sixty And Six'?" he spat with distaste.

Blair leaned back against a refrigerator. "'The Pythoness' was the title of the oracle at Delphi, the first priestess of Apollo. She'd sit on a throne suspended above a fissure in the earth, which let out gases that supposedly gave her 'inspiration' when she foretold the future. Either that or she ate hallucinogens. I'd bet this Pythoness does the 'oracle, hallucinogen, prophesying' thing wholesale."

"I'd lay odds on it. How about Melusine Whatever?"

Blair shrugged. "Melusine is a figure from French folklore. She's a mermaid who changes her two fish tails for legs, marries a human and they have kids. He looks at her when he's not supposed to, and she reverts to her mermaid self and swims off. Same with Julnar, only that's in the Arabian Nights. And the Andersen story, too."

"You know a lot about this stuff," Jim noted.

Blair smiled back. "Sir Richard Burton translated the One Thousand And One Nights. Of course I read it."

"Six Hundred And Sixty And Six is obvious." Jim shut his eyes briefly, as if in pain.

"The number of the beast, in the apocalypse. And 'Basil' means 'Prince', so I'd guess the guy thinks of himself as royalty in hell. I'd bet he...."

Whatever else Blair had to say was cut off by the ringing of Jim's cell phone. "It's Simon," the detective told his partner. "Hey, Captain. Speak up, I can hardly hear you!" Jim had his left hand over his ear, compensating for what had to be a terrible connection.

"...what you've found...far?"

"A bunch of crazies, Captain, and they're all using fake names, so far as I can tell."

"Fake what?"

"Names. Names. Fake names." Jim was yelling.

"...tax rolls. Check...here. When...return...?"

"Sandburg and I are staying for a while longer. Huh? We're staying for a while longer."

"...Need to... soon. Weather...."

Jim tried to tell him again that he and his partner wouldn't be returning immediately.

"Bad weather. Serious elec-- ...soon."

They would have to communicate in another way. "Go find Syd," Jim bade Blair. "Let him know he's got to be ready to leave in the next ten minutes. Tell him we're staying, but will need him to come back for us later."

"'Kay," Blair said, and jogged out of the kitchen.

 

The body bag was just being zipped up. Only Vince and Syd were in the butler's room, all of the occupants of the house having played their parts in the grim charade, and having left for more interesting pursuits.

"Syd, Jim's been trying to call Simon, and can't sustain the connection. He says to be ready to leave in ten minutes. Can you get out of here by then?" Blair asked.

"Yeah. The storm's pretty bad, but the chopper's a good one. We're in some kind of micro cell weather-wise, and it's getting worse. I watched the weather fronts while I was outside, and been checking my watch. I figure we have about a fifteen-minute window of opportunity safety-wise. We're moving now, Vince!" Syd called across the room.

"You can come back for Jim and me later? In a couple of hours or so?" Blair asked.

"Yeah, no trouble. These micro cells blow themselves out pretty quickly."

"Okay. I'll get Jim to brief Dora on whatever he wants Simon to know."

"Good idea," Syd agreed, and started towards the medical examiner to help with the gurney.

"Great. We'll meet you at the helipad."

Blair ran back to the kitchen.

Out by the helicopter, the raindrops were shards of glass, hurtful where they struck. Getting Zachary Groundwater's body inside wasn't easy; he was in rigor. All the people from the police department had to help. Then it was easy work to load it up with equipment, help Suki in, and finally, for Syd, Dora and Vince to climb in also.

Watching from the portico at the rear doors of the house were all four of its owners. Under cover of Blair giving unnecessary instructions for Joel to feed his dog, Libby, Jim had his hearing and sight up to catch their conversation and nuances of behavior.

"Why aren't those two getting in?" The Pythoness asked furiously.

"Don't ask me," Melusine said, white-faced with anger.

Basil put shaking hands into his pockets. "You're the one who was supposed to convince them that it was all an accident, the cook's fault." His tone was noxious. "You and your glamour."

"I tried."

"Didn't try hard enough, then," Six Hundred And Sixty And Six concluded. "Or don't you have the power to do it?"

Melusine whirled on him. "I have as much power as you! Something blocked it. I don't know what. Basil, do you know?"

The rest was lost as the motor caught, and Jim and Blair had to scoot out from under the blades of the helicopter. By the time they were clear, the foursome of Saint Germain Island were mum.

Jim came up first, Blair behind, filling him in on the overheard conversation. At the doorway, he said, "We'll be continuing our investigation inside now." He waved the suspects into the house, ignoring their outrage. With nothing to be done about it, at least out of doors, Basil, The Pythoness, Melusine and Six Hundred And Sixty And Six re-entered their domain, Jim and Blair right on their heels. It took a minute or two inside for them to throw off the water drenching them, as a dog might.

Overhead, the sky seemed to explode. Lightning struck the rocky island again and again. Blair clutched at Jim's arm, pointing into the sky, a look of dread on his face.

The thunder was too loud for speech. Jim clasped his best friend by the biceps. 'It's okay, they're all right, they were far away from the lightning,' he meant, and Blair closed his eyes in relief.

Melusine, Basil and Six Hundred And Sixty And Six all had their eyes fixed on the storm clouds. There was shudder after shudder of lightning strikes and thunder, all seeming to come at once, and the winds whipped up like a cyclone. When waves from the Sound began to pummel the shore of the island, The Pythoness came up behind the other three, and laid her arms across their shoulders. It wasn't a friendly contact.

The other three sprang apart, and there was a sudden change in the storm. Still thunderous and full of lightning, the strength of it died down, and the wind stopped beating at the Sound, the waves ceased battering the island.

"Did you just see what I just saw?" Blair asked Jim.

"What did you see, Chief?" Jim asked. "The storm died down."

"Yeah, but they made it die down," he urged, jerking his head toward the people of Saint Germain Island. "They're sorcerers, Jim."

"Chief," Jim groaned. "Don't go all weird on me. You're already weird enough, and they're right out of a 60's Hammer B-movie. I've exceeded my capacity for weirdness for one day, okay?"

Blair's eyes held Jim's for a time, and it was Jim who looked away.

"Well," Melusine said, jolting the men by her sudden appearance at their sides, and without a drop of water anywhere on her, "it seems you'll be our guests for a while." She smiled without any warmth whatsoever

"Guests!" The Pythoness grunted, then turned her back and stumped off.

"We'll have to put up, uh, put you up for the night, I suppose. The servants' quarters will have to do," Six Hundred And Sixty And Six suggested with ill grace.

"After all," Basil wound up, "you're not going anywhere in this weather, are you?"

The storm lashed up again, and The Pythoness was not there to do anything about it. Rain, hail, lightning and winds covered the island of Saint Germain.

Jim and Blair were stranded.

It was eight o'clock p.m. on the eve of the third millennium.


Act 2


Jim pulled Blair aside for a chat, while the others left them behind, apparently heading off to the main living area.

"Look, Chief," he said, "I don't care how it looks. We have a murder to investigate, and I don't buy that 'The Cook Did It' explanation any more than you do. But we've got to be realistic about it, and look for a poisoner, not a sorcerer. I don't buy the 'Evil Magician Kills Butler' answer either. Do you?"

Blair was being put on the spot, and he wasn't ready for it. He gazed at Jim with troubled eyes. "Jim, I honestly don't know if I do, but I'm leaning that way."

Jim groaned. "Now is not the time for abracadabra mumbo-jumbo, Sandburg. We have a real, live person who has access to poison, who killed a human being, and three others covering up for him or her. No one is safe on this island. Don't you get that?"

Blair gritted his teeth. "Sure, I get that, Jim. I saw the body too. I know we're stuck here with very dangerous people. Only, you don't seem to get that the playing field isn't level. Or maybe that they're playing war games with live ammo, while we're playing tiddly-winks. We have to be ready for a completely different kind of head-on attack, not someone with a gun or a knife. Do you get that?"

Jim rolled his eyes. "To be frank, Chief, no, I don't. What do you think they're gonna do? Spell us to death?" He threw his arms wide, exasperation spilling between them.

Blair stood firm. "Yeah, actually, these people might be able to spell someone to death. Don't you have any sense of the power they possess? What about Melusine?"

Jim frowned unhappily. "There's something a little – off about the place, and the people," he said with almost tangible reluctance, "but it's not like I suddenly see a totally new spectrum of colors or anything. With Melusine – yeah, there was a kind of change in the room's energy when she was trying to persuade Suki to admit to murder; I did catch that, and watched out for it later. Otherwise, it's more like the ozone smells a little different here. That's all, and the weather alone is enough to account for it. I don't want to go borrowing trouble, you know?"

"We don't have to borrow trouble, Jim. We're already in it, up to our necks and maybe beyond." Blair grasped his partner's shoulder and squeezed. "If you start seeing the jag, or any ghosts, or anything else 'weird', you have got to tell me. This place reeks of evil to me, and so do the people, and I don't know why they don't reek of evil to you."

"You're playing the shaman card?" Jim asked sarcastically.

Blair flushed, and removed his hand. "If that's what you want to call it," he shot back. "If I'm right about this, and we're up against real evil, people who worship Satan and are waiting for the Anti-Christ, when it just happens to be the dawn of a new millennium right now – God knows what they can do! Evil magic? Working spells? Maybe!"

Jim threw up his hands in rejection of the shaman's take on things.

Blair insisted, "We're gonna need more than good detective skills to get out of the trouble we're in. Do you understand what we're gonna need instead?" He searched his partner's face hungrily.

"What?" was the only answer.

"Faith," was the reply.

The two men stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity. Blair broke the silence.

"If they aren't just deluded bad guys, Jim -- and from what happened with that storm outside, plus what Melusine did to Suki, I think they're more than that -- then we haven't got the strength to face them down all by ourselves. We're gonna need help, and I mean big time spiritual help, angelic type help, or higher, the highest, Jim, because humans up against demons always ends badly for the humans."

"Now it's demons, is it?" Jim coughed hard. "We're in the Sandburg Zone for sure."

Blair had had enough of Jim's disbelief. "I'm not talking about you putting your faith in me, Jim Ellison. I can't do the job! I'm nowhere near powerful enough to stand against demons and devils, all by myself.

"If I'm right about the fact that we're up against Satanic forces and not just earthly ones, and that we're facing people who believe in the imminent arrival of the Anti-Christ, Ruler of Hell, the playing field isn't level," he repeated for emphasis. "It will take Christian faith to stop them.

"I'm a synchretist when it comes to religion; I believe in God, in karma, in spirit animals, in the power of love, too, but I'm a Jew, Jim. I was bar mitzvah'd. I know about the Revelation of St. John in the Christian testament, and what Six Hundred And Sixty And Six has called himself for, but it's not from my faith tradition. It's from yours, damn it.

"Jews don't have heaven and hell in our tradition. We die; we go to Sheol, a simple place of peace. And we await the coming of Messiah. We don't have the Revelation of St. John, with its apocalyptic vision of the coming of the Anti-Christ and the war against humans and heaven. That's in your bible, not the Hebrew Scriptures. Ritual has meaning. I'm not the one who's been baptized; you are!

"I can do white magic stuff that just copies theirs, in a small way, only for good, not evil. Even though there's a lot of Kabalistic Jewish information about stopping demons and using Solomon's seal, I'm not a Kabala scholar, and I don't have the knowledge or power to go up against them all by myself, alone. I need you with me on this, not pulling away, because you're the one with the right to call on heaven for help against Apocalyptic evil. And if you think that's playing the 'shaman card'...." He couldn't continue, and turned aside.

Jim was dumbstruck. He had never intended to start an argument with Blair at so critical a moment, and he knew, or thought he knew, the danger the inhabitants of Saint Germain Island posed. All he had wanted was to find the murderer, close the investigation, and get off the island as quickly as possible, no mystical magical mythical tour included. But what he had accomplished instead was to insult and annoy his best friend, who truly was his shaman. He couldn't let things stand like this.

"Chief." Blair still had his back to him. "Chief, please." Jim put out a hand and turned his partner around to face him. "I, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to deride your beliefs or question that you're a shaman. It's just that I'm not comfortable with the whole dark magic thing." He paused, pulling himself together to make the announcement he didn't want to share. "If there's anything to what you've been saying.... Believing in the Anti-Christ? I don't think it's in me, Blair. If everything rests on me, I don't know if I can do it, either. I don't know if I've got enough faith for this," Jim confessed

Blair drew in a deep breath. "You just need the faith of a mustard seed, right?" he asked firmly.

"Whatever that means," Jim replied bleakly.

"Start thinking like a mustard plant, then. We're gonna need your belief at its highest level. It's your religious tradition they're working in." Blair was nodding encouragement.

Jim sagged a little, and Blair popped him on the biceps.

"Don't be so downhearted. You brought me back from death, remember? That took a lot of faith, Jim. Believe in what you yourself know, have experienced, of the spiritual, first. Then we'll work together on it," the shaman of Cascade said.

"Yeah, together," the sentinel of Cascade echoed.

They gave each other a terse smile. 'Together' had always been enough before. It was all they had, on Saint Germain Island, at the dawn of the new millennium. At the coming of the apocalypse.

 

They found the deadly four in the immense, lavishly appointed living room, Basil's 'salon'. Six Hundred And Sixty And Six was playing Wagner on a grand piano with absolute perfection as to technique, and no emotion at all. Melusine was draped over a sapphire satin loveseat, her pretty head on her hand, pretending interest, but really watching The Pythoness, who was pouring herself a libation of rum from a luxurious bar cabinet at the end of the room. Basil stood staring out the window at the storm. It had not abated one whit.

Jim cleared his throat. "May I have your attention? We are still investigating the death of Zachary Groundwater. We will need to talk to each of you, one by one. Where may we speak privately?"

Six Hundred And Sixty And Six crashed his hands down on the keyboard, making a jarring cacophony. Melusine giggled girlishly, and The Pythoness gave a guttural 'Ha!' and downed her drink. Basil kept watching the storm.

Jim waited. And waited. And waited. "Where may I interview each of you about the death of Mr. Groundwater?" he tried again.

The Pythoness sent him a scathing look and refilled her glass. She plodded heavily out of the room, but with the elegance of an elephant, rather than the waddle of a goose. She pushed between Jim and Blair at the door on her way out, giving Blair a once-over as she went.

"Hey!" Jim protested indignantly, but the woman was off up the near staircase to her tower and remained silent.

He turned back to the others in the living room. "So, are the rest of you going to stomp out mad, too? Or is there anyone who intends to co-operate with this investigation? Because until we're satisfied we've got Groundwater's killer, we won't be leaving."

That drew everyone's attention to him. Basil's face was speculative, Melusine's innocent and wide-eyed, and Six Hundred And Sixty And Six's was almost indifferent. They glanced at each other, and appeared to come to a group decision.

"The Pythoness did it," Basil announced.

"Yes, it's true," Six Hundred And Sixty And Six backed him up.

"I hate to believe it of someone I've known and trusted for so many years," Melusine said with sad insincerity, "but I must agree. The Pythoness poisoned Zachary Groundwater."

Jim and Blair shared a moment of sheer ire.

"The Pythoness did it," Jim repeated. "What exactly is her real name, by the way?"

"Oh, that is her real name," Melusine assured him. "She had it changed by law. Like The Artist Formerly Known As Prince."

"I, also, have had my name legally changed," Six Hundred And Sixty And Six informed the pair from Major Crime.

Melusine nodded enthusiastically, and Basil inclined his head, turning again to look out the window at the rain and lightning forks.

"All right, then," Jim went on. "Why do you think The Pythoness is the guilty party?"

They all rose to meet the challenge.

"Well, she's our alchemist, you know," Melusine answered chattily. "She's got all kinds of poisonous plants and distillates in her laboratory. She's the only one who would have access to cyanide." The men murmured affirmation.

"No one could have taken any from her stock, then?" Jim baited them, interested in the group storytelling. "It seems very possible to me."

Basil laughed outright, a rich, rumbling laugh that chilled Jim to the bone, and set Blair to shivering at his side.

"No," he said. "No one pokes around in anyone else's rooms, or areas of expertise, either. When we do group things, we use the rooms on the second floor; that's what they're for. The Pythoness, our alchemist, as Melusine said, was perfectly safe in her suite. You may want to interview her there, and you'll see for yourself how secure she is in her fortress. But it's undoubtedly she who killed the butler."

"Why would The Pythoness want to kill your butler?" Jim asked snarkily. "Wasn't he giving good service?"

Melusine gurgled and Basil allowed a smile to turn up his lips. Six Hundred And Sixty And Six was the one to field that question.

"She wouldn't have been after him," the man in yellow said. "She was after another target, of course, and Groundwater simply died for his gluttony." He elevated a casual shoulder.

"I thought you were convinced that it was Suki Tang who killed the butler, Melusine," Blair put in, his voice harsh. "You almost had her believing it too. What changed your mind?"

"We talked about it," she explained, "Basil and Six and I. They showed me how wrong I was. I'm so sorry if I got her into any trouble." She made a pretty moue.

"You should probably go talk to The Pythoness now," Basil directed the investigation while still looking out the window. "Who knows what she's doing up in her laboratory, all alone?"

Having received their walking papers, Jim and Blair left with as much dignity as possible, off to beard the poisoner in her den.

 

Two steps up the staircase, Jim hushed Blair, and tapped his ear as a signal that he was listening in to the conversation they had left behind.

"Well, that got rid of them for a few minutes. They're like nasty little nippy dogs. I rather wish The Pythoness would poison them too." It was Melusine Julnar speaking.

"Which of us was she after?" Six Hundred And Sixty And Six asked, teasingly.

"Don't be so coy," Melusine responded. "We all know who she wanted dead -- first."

"The one of us who is her closest rival, of course," Basil tossed off. "Interesting method of outdoing an opponent. Nothing magical about it, so none of our wards could foil it. It might actually have worked." He sounded honestly surprised.

"Yes, I suppose it might have," Melusine said airily.

"There's nothing stupid about The Pythoness, Basil," Six Hundred And Sixty And Six commented. "How do you suppose she grew so ugly?"

"I know exactly how she grew so ugly, Six," Basil said coldly. "She's a second Dorian Grey. Every one of her sins and perversions, her tortures and killings, show in her face. After all, it's what she's got to compete with. We all know each other very, very well, as competitors."

The room fell silent, so Jim motioned for Blair to continue upstairs, and they crept along, careful not to allow the people below to know they had been listening in. On the landing, Jim filled Blair in on the conversation.

"Competition? What competition?" Blair asked.

"I don't know. They didn't say," Jim told him. "Let's go ask The Pythoness some questions, and maybe she'll let something drop." He rubbed at his temples.

"Headache?"

"Yeah."

"You need to dial down something?"

"I don't know. I think this case is just getting to me. I don't like it that they picked on Suki for their sacrificial lamb, Chief. Sally was frantic about her."

"Yeah, when there's something personal in a case, it makes it that much harder till it's solved." Blair patted his friend on the back.

"S'okay, Chief. Let's go talk to the poisoner. If she is one, and not just the sacrificial lamb number two."

 

They found their way up to the suite housed in the front right tower of the mansion. It was locked, with a huge iron keyhole, and barred with heavy wooden slats and huge iron strapping. Altogether, it looked impregnable. They knocked.

A moment later, without a word, The Pythoness swung the door open and scowled at the detective team.

"We need to talk to you about the death of Zachary Groundwater," Jim said, unfazed by her animosity.

"Why?"

"All of your friends fingered you as the killer," Jim told her provocatively.

Amazing! She laughed, and laughed, and laughed, braying, and led the way into the anteroom of her chambers.

"Well, of course they fingered me," The Pythoness gasped out between guffaws, staggering about in her hilarity, reaching with a hand to find stability. There wasn't much to hang onto. Huge, with walls of gray granite, the antechamber was the most unwelcoming place in a home that either man could imagine. There was only an occasional chair of great girth to accommodate her size, beside a large table holding a lamp, a vase of monkshood, jimsonweed and hemlock flowers, and a few cookery magazines. Everything else was bare rock. The chair was apparently one The Pythoness used often; its cushions were molded to her form. She found it, and sank down, still chuckling hard.

"Why 'of course'?" Blair asked.

The Pythoness shook a finger at him. "Because I did it, of course." She began laughing again.

Jim looked at Blair with exasperation, and found its match in Blair's face.

"I'm just going to go poke around a little," Blair decided, as The Pythoness flicked a hand his way. He began checking out the other rooms. In only seconds he was back. "The first room is her bedroom, looking out over the front of the mansion. The second's her bathroom. But in the third room, there's a big lab with retorts and stuff, Jim. One of the test tubes reads 'Hydrocyanic acid." He cast an uneasy look at The Pythoness, and mumbled, "Handling all that poison -- she must be Rappaccini's daughter, Jim."

"Cyanide," The Pythoness said with relish. "I think I like it better than curare, and curare's always a favorite. And the metals. Lead, arsenic, thallium. I like thallium. Oh, and the radioactives, too! Radiation poisoning. Lovely, lovely, lovely. The earth is so full of such wonderful things...." She smiled secretively and the rhyme was left unfinished.

"You admit you killed Zachary Groundwater?" Jim asked, to be sure.

"Yes, certainly, I do." She gulped down air and managed to cease laughing. "He was, what do you call it? Collateral damage. I wasn't aiming for him. I had no idea the butler liked Christmas cake. I mean, how many people do?"

Jim took control again. "So who were you aiming for, then?"

"Basil, of course," she said coolly. "He's the only other one with real power, and he loves almonds; if the fruitcake was full of almonds and smelled delicious, he'd have taken a piece or two. Such a neat and tidy murder, nothing at all magical about it. He'd never have expected that kind of attack. I'll have to think of another way to get him now.

"As for the others, Six is thoroughly self-deluded about who and what he is. He's just a mathematician who knows the Kabala, numerology and astrology too well for his own good. Or his own evil." She barked another laugh. "And Melusine's ambition is ludicrous," The Pythoness denounced the beautiful woman pitilessly. "Consort to the Ruler of Hell? Hah! She cannot come to power, no matter how she looks."

Blair couldn't help himself. "Why do you people live together? You hate each other!"

The Pythoness jiggled with laughter. "You know your Machiavelli, don't you? Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer," she paraphrased. "Besides, we have certain – interests in common, and when we work together, we access power you could never dream of."

Blair had to ask. "You're in competition. For what?"

"Oh, you already know the answer to that question, Shaman. The time is only a few hours away. Then one of us will know the ultimate Power, will wield it as we wish. Shudder, Shaman. You are an enemy, and you will not go scatheless when that hour comes." Her words were cold adamant.

Then, the ugliest woman Jim had ever seen raised an inquiring eyebrow at him. "So what are you going to do about all this, Sunny Jim?"

Jim had had enough. Ignoring Blair, who was trying to get his attention, he drew his handcuffs out, hauled the huge alchemist out of her chair, and told her he was arresting her for the murder of Zachary Groundwater. Blair started reading the Miranda Rights list once Jim had fastened the cuffs around the fat wrists of the poisoner. She was jiggling like jelly with suppressed mirth.

"You two are so pitiful," she said at last. "You think these can hold me?"

Still with her back to them, The Pythoness said one word. "Conciderite."

The handcuffs crumbled into dust.

Jim would not believe it. "Metal fatigue," he muttered to himself, reaching for a pair of plastic cuffs in his pocket. "Try these."

No sooner were the plastic cuffs in place than The Pythoness said, "Conciderite" again, and they fell to pieces.

Blair closed his eyes, weary.

She finally turned around and faced them, arms akimbo. "You don't get it, do you?" she sneered. "You can't take me in. You can't cuff me, and you can't shoot me. I am The Pythoness, Alchemist Supreme, and I have the power of transmutation, the emerald from the toad's head, the one true Philosopher's Stone, at my fingertips. Anything that comes out of the earth, I have sway over. The earth is my element, and all the things it contains and all the things that grow out of it. I raised this mansion myself, the entirety of it, calling the rock to rise out of the water, cutting it like butter with my words, and it took but a few minutes to accomplish my task. It was the calling of the rock that caused the isthmus to be flooded. That too was part of my task. I created the island of Saint Germain. The others may play with it, but they can't threaten it. No waves or wind or lightning will harm Saint Germain Island as long as I'm here; it belongs to me." She rested back on her heels.

"Geez, how old are you?" Blair blurted out.

"Older than sin, baby shaman. As old as evil. The natural inheritor of the throne of Hell, deep in the bowels of my earth." The Pythoness stared at him levelly.

"Why are you telling us all this?"

"In a very few hours, you will be rendered inactive, nonexistent, irrelevant, to the universe." She curled a lip. "You haven't got a chance in Hell, little boy."

"Is that prophecy?" Blair challenged her, up in her face, fear put aside, to Jim's delight.

"Nah. It's simply logic. The way I'd bet, if I needed to bet. But having the Philosopher's Stone means never having to want for money." She reached out to touch the occasional chair and ran her finger along the back. Everywhere it traced turned to gold. "Back off, you silly, foolish men; I haven't time for you. Basil is still in my way and the hour is closing fast. Go, before I turn you to gold, too." She held out her hands and waggled her fingers at them.

Jim dragged Blair from her chambers, and slammed the door shut. They heard the huge iron lock snick heavily behind them. The Pythoness was alone in her den.

 

"I was so not expecting that," Blair mumbled, pacing with nervous energy outside the suite belonging to the murderess.

"Like I was?" Jim smiled without humor. "What did she do with the cuffs? I mean, what did she do? How did she do it?"

Blair stopped on a dime, swiveled and grabbed his partner by the shoulders. "She did magic, Jim. Real magic. She changed the cuffs into dust. Just like she made that upholstery become real gold. She's a sorceress, and she's into the dark arts, the left-hand path, Satanic beliefs, all of it. You saw it for yourself. Don't you believe what your own eyes tell you?"

Jim stood still, his partner's hands on his shoulders, his partner's steady gaze riveted on him. "I don't know, Chief. I just don't know. This is, this is so surreal. I can't begin to think about it. She raised the mansion out of sheer rock in a few minutes? What's with that?"

Blair sighed tiredly. "Geez, Jim, I don't know, but Merlin was supposed to have raised Stonehenge by magic, too. It's legend, of course, but some kind of precedent, maybe. That woman, that woman – she's totally scary, and I think she probably could have turned us to gold if she'd wanted to."

Jim's face writhed sickly. "Yeah," he whispered at last. "Yeah, I think she could have, too."

"The start to believing," Blair clapped his best friend's arms. "Keep on thinking about this lot in spiritual terms, and we've got a real chance. We're in this together, Jim, right?"

"Right."

"So what do we do now?"

The detective recalled his duty. "We call home." He took out his cell phone. It didn't work; the storm was blocking all communication with the mainland. He folded the phone over and put it away. "We can't call out for help, Chief. So I guess we stand guard over The Pythoness so none of the others kills her, and she doesn't kill any of them; and wait until the weather's calmer and we can call out."

"Yeah," Blair confirmed. "Whatever happens, the two of us together, doing our jobs – I think it's the best thing we could ever do."

Jim smiled at him, a real smile, full of affection. "The very best," he said.

They sat down to wait for whatever came next. It didn't take long in coming.

 

AIIIIIEEEEEE!

A gut-wrenching scream rent the world. It had come from The Pythoness's rooms.

Jim and Blair scrambled to their feet.

"What was that?" each man asked the other.

Jim pounded on the door, yelling at the woman inside. Blair tried to pry at the hinges. Up the staircase, Six Hundred And Sixty And Six, Melusine and Basil came running.

"What's wrong? What's happened?" they all asked.

"We don't know," Jim said tautly, "but we're going to find out. Does anyone have a key to the door?"

No one admitted to it.

"Chief, give me your knife."

Blair handed it over wordlessly, his glasses too fine to make a picklock for the ironbound door, and then backed everyone away from the entrance to The Pythoness's rooms, to give Jim free play.

The sentinel was using his hyper-acute senses of touch and hearing to pick the lock. It was a tough one, especially made by the mistress of metal to keep people out of her suite, but he managed it at last. The door swung open.

Within was a scene straight from hell. There wasn't a body, as such. There was the occasional chair's frame, with the seat and back burned through, and a great volume of ashes on the floor beneath. At the sides of the chair, two green shoes with emerald buckles were untouched, and there was a foot still in each. A plume of smoke had spread out black, greasy soot, which covered the walls down to about a yard from the floor. There were splashes of water here and there around the room. Nothing else was affected, not the table, not the magazines, not the flowers. Only the center of the chair, and whatever had been in it, had been consumed to fine ash.

"Pythoness?" Blair tried to call, but the word came out as a croak.

Jim's voice was stronger. "Pythoness? Pythoness!"

Melusine was bending forward, one arm across her stomach, her other hand at her mouth. "What's wrong with you? Why can't you see it?"

Jim whirled on her. "What do you mean? What am I supposed to see here?"

Melusine trembled, pointing at the heap of charred matter. "There! Don't you see?"

Everyone looked at the chair again.

"That's The P-Pythoness," Melusine stuttered hysterically. "That's her! Those are her feet. That's all that's left of her now. She's been burned to death, burned alive!"

She had turned completely white, but no one flew to her aid. They were all too caught up in the mystery of the death of The Pythoness.

"We heard her scream," Blair said slowly.

"She must have died almost immediately," Jim completed the thought.

"How unusual. Spontaneous human combustion," Six Hundred And Sixty And Six conjectured academically.

"Well, I'll be damned," said Basil.


Act 3


Jim had fiddled with the keyhole at The Pythoness's suite and managed to relock it. There didn't seem to be much more to do than that. First, he had prowled around the entire suite, ensuring that no one had come and gone in secrecy, via hidden stairways or secret closets. There was nothing untoward in the apartment itself, other than her laboratory-cum-distillery, and that was full to bursting of everything that could maim or kill mind or body – poisons, hallucinogens, even explosives. Otherwise, the bedroom was just a bedroom with a view of the lawns outside, and the bathroom like all bathrooms.

"We'll need Forensics to go over everything," Jim told the remaining three residents of Saint Germain Island. "Until we can reach the mainland and get them over here, this suite is off limits to everyone."

Blair, who had been blocking the curious eyes of the others while Jim worked, herded them down the stairs, Melusine complaining saccharinely, until Basil asked her if she really wanted to stay in The Pythoness's rooms, to keep her ashes company. That shut her up, and the rest of the descent down the stairs was made in deadly quiet.

At the foot of the stairs, the threesome parted, each sorcerer making for his or her own tower. Basil's was the second front tower, the one with the medieval parapet, which matched The Pythoness's tiered effect as well or as badly as Melusine's circular Rapunzel turret matched Six Hundred And Sixty And Six's onion dome, both at the rear of the building.

Jim checked his watch. It was barely nine o'clock.

He and Blair shared a determined look, and began to explore the mansion, talking as they went.

"I hope we get out of this alive," Blair muttered.

Jim had no hope to give him.

"I can't believe so much happened in the space of what, two hours or so?"

"Yeah. It's a good thing we grabbed supper early. I wouldn't eat a crumb in this place."

They were on the second floor, which housed only three great rooms at the sides and back of the mansion, the front hall having a vaulted ceiling. It was locked, but open to sentinel vision via the keyhole.

"Conference room, Chief, with table and chairs."

"Keep moving, then." Blair bounced with nervous energy. "I can't believe how fast things are happening. Less than three hours to midnight."

"Three hours to the apocalypse?"

Blair didn't answer.

The second room was apparently for the working of magic, full of strange symbols and names and words written on the walls and floor. Blair asked for descriptions of a few, and grimaced. They went swiftly to the third room.

It was apparently a room for worship of Satan, its altar and appurtenances unspeakable. Jim refused to tell Blair what he'd seen.

Staircases rose from the second floor landings to the four towers. Jim confirmed that Basil's tower was above the living room, Melusine's above the kitchen and Six Hundred And Sixty And Six above the servants' quarters. They already knew that The Pythoness's suite was atop the dining room, directly across the great hall from the living room.

"I need a place to think," Jim told his best friend, and they went down the stairs to find the living area, where they had come to collapse on a silver moire couch after the fruitless search. "Got any ideas, Chief? About all of this?"

"They're dangerous people, Jim," his partner said. "Even if none of them has the power that The Pythoness had, and I don't know if I believe that, still they're evil-minded, and we're just bugs under their feet to them. They don't care as much as we'd care when we step on an ant. I don't know what we should do next. Stay out of their way? Let them play out their competition, and see who wins? What if the winner...?" He couldn't finish.

Jim put out an arm along the back of the couch, behind Blair. "What you said earlier. We stick together, and we do whatever the case requires."

"Yeah, but, are we in any kind of control here?" Blair asked, turning on his hip to face Jim. "Is there a 'case' we're on, any longer? The Pythoness admitted killing Groundwater, and she's dead now. What case do we have to work, Jim?"

Jim arched and cracked his back, then groaned. "The suspicious death of The Pythoness, Chief. We work the case."

"Just how do we do that?" Blair sounded exhausted, even to his own ears. "Isn't that a case for Arson?"

Jim stretched again, and put his arm out along the sofa's back again. "Yeah, well, Arson isn't here and we are. What do you know about spontaneous human combustion, Chief?"

Blair grimaced. "Some stuff from the course I was taking, you know, the one with the urban myths."

"So you think it's an urban myth?" Jim asked.

"No, I don't. Do you?"

Jim tightened his lips for a moment. "I wish I did, but I don't."

"How come?" Blair was astounded. "You don't generally believe in that stuff."

"Joel told me about a couple of cases he knew of. We got to talking on a stake-out one night, while you were at the U. There's some statistical anomaly that really makes you want not to live in Pennsylvania, according to him." Jim grinned nastily.

"So what did Joel say?" Blair asked. "I wish I'd known he had experience with it. It would have been useful for the course."

Jim almost smiled at the near-normalcy of Blair's reversion to the anthropology student he would always be. "Well, he said it happens. I guess from the death of The Pythoness, that's not really in doubt, anymore."

"Yeah, that's what I found out in the course, too. Only there is a lot of disinformation out there, you know?" Blair was lecturing, and Jim was glad to have him do it. The storm wasn't letting up at all, and they had to do something to pass the time. Something constructive. Something ordinary. Something potentially helpful.

"Disinformation? Like what?" Jim prompted.

"Like it only happens at night, to heavy people who are alone and who have alcohol problems, plus who smoke or have a fire going. Oh, and that the 'wick effect' explains it all away." Blair waited for questions.

"It happens in the daytime?" Jim asked.

"Yeah, and there have been survivors, too. Mid-80's, a guy still in his teens, in London, England, walks down the street and bursts into flames from the waist up. 1988, Agnes Phillips, Sydney, Australia, asleep in her daughter's parked car, bursts into flames too. Her daughter and a passer-by beat out the fire. A complete inquiry's done, and eliminates accelerants, wiring problems, and smoking as factors. She was horribly burned in just minutes, Jim, and died a week later. And there's no reason for the fire."

Jim nodded for him to go on. He was intrigued by his best friend's wealth of knowledge of such an obscure subject, and needed to draw on it for the case, but even more, he wanted to keep Blair talking. As long as he was talking, he wouldn't be panicking, and if there was ever a situation to panic in, Jim thought, this was the one.

"Okay, homegrown case here. 1980, Florida, Jacksonville. Woman sitting in a car, her friend's driving, and she bursts into flames. The friend tries to beat out the fire, and they crash. At the hospital, they find burns over about a fifth of her body. The investigation is just like Ms. Phillips: no reason for her to catch fire. Plus there was almost no damage to the car, bar scorching the leather a little. She survived, wanting a rational explanation, Jim, and she couldn't find one. She had to settle for spontaneous human combustion."

Blair sucked up some air. "You know, we may have to settle for it, too, Jim."

Jim put up a hand to stop his partner. "Something's going on upstairs, Chief."

Blair was bounced back into the real world again. "Who? Where?"

Jim was extending his hearing ability, intent on something unseen. "Basil. Basil is making noise in his own suite. Moving furniture. And he's mumbling or chanting, but I can't tell what. I thought he was on his way out, but apparently not. I can't figure what he's doing, though."

"Probably some kind of spell." Blair didn't want to think about what spell would be appropriate for the advent of the Anti-Christ. "How about Melusine and Six Hundred And Sixty And Six?"

"She's pacing, and he's as silent as if he were asleep. He could be sleeping, for all I can tell."

"Yeah, the guy is definitely cold-blooded."

Jim stood up. "I can't keep sitting here, waiting for something to happen. Wanna go exploring? Check outside? I want a look at the dock, maybe there's a way off the island we don't know about, and there's the graveyard, too."

"Yeah, yeah, okay."

The partners went to find their coats, and left the mansion for the night air and storm.

 

A peal of doom and a flash of forked brilliance lit up the dock.

"It's a good thing there's lightning," Blair commented. "I wouldn't be able to see a thing without it."

The icy rain was sheeting down.

Jim smiled into the blackness. "Just keep hold of my coat. I can see well enough. I wanna investigate the graveyard, Chief."

"Oh, great," Blair complained. "We're off to look for ghosts, now?"

"Yeah," Jim said, resignedly. "The dock's a total washout." He jerked his thumb at the disobliging landing. "No boathouse, no boat, not even a canoe."

"And the hangar's a hangar, just as described. No car, even. I guess these people never leave the island itself." Blair hunkered into his coat. Icy and drenched was his world.

"Looks like, Chief." Jim led the way down the tarmac to a worn path twisting toward the cemetery. "I wonder how they get the plane fuel." He stopped for a moment. "I just realized how pointless that question is." He shivered at the thought of the power of the sorcerers, and went forward.

The footing was uncertain; what had been hard-packed dirt before the storm had turned to particularly slick mud. Jim put a hand back to help Blair make his way through the dark, and they fetched up at the overgrown field with chills in their souls.

"See anything, Jim?" Blair whispered, knowing there was no need to keep his voice down, but somehow compelled to do so anyway.

"The crosses...."

"I know they're upside down, Jim," Blair interrupted.

"Yeah, but they're also inscribed. It's – spooky."

"Why?"

"One reads 'Apollonius, poisoned, 1911', another 'Wyrwulf, drowned, 1914,' a third, 'The Beast, suffocated, 1919'. They're all like that, Chief. And they date over the whole last hundred years. Strange names, and murder declared as the means of death for each one." Jim sounded stumped.

"Oh, geez, oh, geez, oh, geez," Blair moaned.

"What is it? What are you thinking?" Jim demanded.

Blair looked at him, dull-eyed. "I think I know what they've been doing, Jim. They've been in competition for a century, or close to it, and I mean the people in the mansion tonight. The Pythoness, Six Hundred And Sixty And Six, Melusine, and Basil. Remember what The Pythoness said? She's as old as sin? I think they've lived for, maybe, a century, who knows how long, all of 'em, and they've stayed put here, defying all pretenders to the throne of Hell to come to them here, to do battle.

"No car, remember? They never leave the island. The rivals get flown in, instead, and when they're dead, they end up in this field." Blair pushed with his hand at the graveyard, as if to remove it from his life.

Jim just stood there, his thoughts his own.

"They've been picking them off," Blair continued, "one by one. I bet the four sorcerers took on whoever practiced in their own field of specialty. Apollonius was the seer of Tyana, and his namesake is declared to have died by poison: I'd bet it was The Pythoness who killed him. 'Wyrwulf' means a shape-changer, as Melusine's name means, and he drowned. Whoever took the name 'The Beast' did it in defiance of Aleister Crowley, and someone suffocated him. Ultimately, there were four left, the masterly four who commanded the four elements with the greatest power, one apiece. The Pythoness, Six Hundred and Sixty And Six, Melusine and Basil.

"My God, Jim, they really are in competition, lethal competition." Blair's voice rose higher, " and now with only four left, they've started battling each other. One of the three of them killed The Pythoness tonight, and they're all back there thinking of ways to kill each other off, until only one is left, and at midnight, the survivor becomes the Anti-Christ!"

Jim needed to check Blair's near-hysteria. "Slow down, Blair, it's just a theory, okay?" he barked, latching onto his partner with a vice-like grip. "We've got work to do." He peered at his watch. A bolt of lightning crackled through the air, illuminating the ghastly scene of the living men at the graveyard of dead, would-be Anti-Christs. "Hold on for just a little while longer, Chief. It's roughly ten now. Let's get back to the mansion. You okay?"

Blair shook with cold. "I guess," he said reluctantly. "But to be truthful, Jim, I'd rather stay out here."

Jim had a great deal of sympathy for that wish, but he reached out to clap his partner on the back. "Yeah, well, duty calls. We've still got a murder to solve. Talk to me, Chief. You know more about spontaneous human combustion than I do."

As usual, having information to contribute brought out the impartial, steady academic in his partner. Blair grabbed a lungful of air and revved up to reveal more information. Jim was intent on him as they climbed down from the field of graves.

"Well, as to the cause, there are three main theories. One is the wick effect."

"What Joel was telling me," Jim put in, peering at his footing, finding the safest way back from the graveyard. "The clothes catch fire and the body fat burns like a candle."

"Yeah. Only the TV demonstrations don't replicate real SHC conditions, and the cases with witnesses disprove the assumptions that the theory rests on."

Jim was surprised. "Really? It sounded good when Joel explained it." He stretched out an arm and kept his partner from stumbling over a nasty rock. Blair had calmed down a lot, and that helped Jim to settle down too.

"One experimenter, John DeHaan, is well accredited in the arson field. He worked with pig carcasses and hog fat, setting them on fire and documenting the results."

"What's wrong with that?" Jim wanted to know.

"Nothing, unless you don't replicate the conditions of the cases, and misrepresent the meaning of the findings, Jim." Blair's tone was scalding. "The BBC in England bought the 'wick effect' as the explanation for spontaneous human combustion and filmed a demonstration. Only, see, DeHaan gets the carcass burning by using an accelerant –"

"Ah," Jim said. They took small steps, Blair placing his feet exactly where Jim's had been before him.

"Then, he lets it burn a few minutes, but when it threatens to spread beyond the carcass to other things in the test room," Blair said between footfalls, "they extinguish the fire. In SHC, there's a highly limited circle of damage, and no one puts the fire out. If you read DeHaan's paper, it's clear that the pigs burned for hours before being consumed to ash and bone fragments. You don't find bone like that in the real cases; everything that burned is fine ash, powder. Plus in another documentary, DeHaan admits that it would take twelve hours or so for a human body to burn down to ash like that. Crematoriums use temperatures around 2000 to 3000 degrees, and it still takes a few hours."

The lightning flashed again. "Be careful, Chief," Jim took advantage of the illumination. "That grade change down there is steep."

"Got it, Jim. Thanks."

Jim wanted to get at the real cause of The Pythoness's death. "Okay, give me options, Chief. If she didn't die because of the wick effect, what did our poisoner die of instead?"

Blair sighed, and took the slope downwards lightly, Jim braced to catch him if needed. "There's a Cambridge man, Dr. John Emsley, who fingers phosphorus, in the form of diphosphane, in the digestive tract, saying it can burn internally or ignite methane in the tract, and they don't need oxygen to burn. There's a couple of bad jokes about constipation you don't wanna hear, Jim. Phosphine ingested directly could do it, perhaps, but no one eats insecticide. You didn't see any phosphine or phosphorus anywhere around here, did you? There wasn't any in The Pythoness's lab."

Jim took Blair's weight against him for a moment, pivoting so his friend found his footing securely on level ground. "No, nothing like that. The stuff's risky to work with. Joel and I talked about that too. We both have some experience with it; it's in bombs. Rappacini's daughter probably didn't want to blow herself up, let alone poison herself with it. Ever hear of 'smoking stool syndrome'?

Blair eyed Jim as the sky lit up briefly. "You're kidding me, right?"

Jim said, "Nope. Believe me, you don't want it. If there's anything else, tell me back at the house. The rain and lightning's getting worse. Let's run for it!"

They sprinted for cover. The rain kept coming, the winds whipping the drops into scattergun shot. Conversation halted until they reached the portico at the rear of the mansion. Bending down to catch their breath, Jim looked a question at Blair and Blair answered.

"We need -- a high heat source -- to char down -- to bone fragments," Blair panted.

"So what could do that?" Jim threw at him, pulling up again.

Blair breathed deeply. "A guy, Larry Arnold, suggests there's a sub-subatomic particle called a pyroton. Only, no one's identified a pyroton, and it's a circular argument. What's a pyroton? The thing that causes SHC. What's SHC? The effect of a pyroton."

"Gotcha."

A horrible flash blinded both men, and a tree on the other side of the island flamed and crackled. The earth beneath them trembled, and they clutched at each other as they were nearly thrown off balance.

"Lightning?" Jim asked when the ground was steady again. "Is lightning a possibility?" He stared off into the distance, picking up flares not visible to his partner.

"It's hot enough, Jim. Like about 6000 degrees. But there's no direct strike evidence. And most people hit by lightning aren't that badly burned."

"Some electrical phenomenon, then?"

"Maybe." The two men entered the mansion, as Blair kept talking. "There are at least three cases with blue flames or blue auras, which were witnessed. A woman in London, England, died in front of her father and brother-in-law, and they saw blue-green flames shooting out of her mouth. A man in South London, a tramp, was found by bystanders attracted by the blue flames shooting out of a slit in his chest and abdomen. They say he was burning from the inside out.

"Another, in Budapest, a guy in a field, glowing blue all over, collapses. A busload of physicians get out to help. He's dead, with a shoe blown off, and there's a hole in the heel of his foot. The autopsy shows his stomach and belly were carbonized from the inside out. It was reported in a meteorological journal; they were thinking it might be ball lightning."

"Ball lightning?"

"Yeah, a real wild card. They're only just now beginning to replicate it in labs, and not much is known about it scientifically. It might be a plasma form, very, very hot, it might be a weak electrical field with microwaves, I'm not sure how that goes, but, then, neither are the researchers. But ball lightning can enter a place through a window without harming it, as sunlight does, or down a chimney, out of an electrical socket, or through the water pipes, so don't shower in a storm, you know? Plus it just lollygags around, here, there, and everywhere, as it sees fit; it doesn't follow a straight line, and will stop, go straight up, zigzag, change speeds. Oh, yeah, ball lightning is a real wild card."

"Okay," Jim said, thinking things over, and looking at his watch again. Twenty to eleven. Suddenly, his head spun to the side, his eyes toward the far end of the great hall, his mouth open but speechless.

Blair said nothing, recognizing the signs of a sentinel listening for something important

He only had a moment to wait. Jim turned to him again and whispered, "Melusine is on her way toward the other tower at the back. Six Hundred And Sixty And Six's suite."

"Wanna follow?"

"Wouldn't miss it for the world."

The two from Major Crime moved silently toward the back of the building.

 

"Don't you see? The power balance is off! We have to team up! We're not strong enough, either of us, to fight him on our own!"

"Dear Melusine, I don't need to 'team up' at all. I am already the Anti-Christ. My number is my name. Six Hundred And Sixty And Six. I will come into my full powers at midnight and transmute myself into any form I choose. Then my competitors had best be gone from this place."

"I'm not a competitor, Six! I don't want to be the Anti-Christ. You know that!"

"I know. You want to be the Whore of Babylon. I don't know if I want you, though, little schemer."

"Six, whatever I want, Basil wants to be the Anti-Christ. He's real competition for you."

"All I need to do is wait, stupid girl."

"And what if he kills your body before the stroke of midnight? What then, Six? Will you take the throne of Hell if you're already dead? I don't think so. Neither do you."

"No, not if I'm already dead. Hmm. Perhaps. The balance of power is unequal. If you wish to lend your strength to mine in warding off Basil that suits my purposes well enough."

"How kind of you, Six."

"Mockery isn't going to get you the role of the Whore and my consort in Hell, Melusine."

"No, but this might."

"Save it for later. If we want to take further precautions against Basil, we should do so now."

"Done. Where?"

"Here."

 

"Okay, the deal's done, and all I'm hearing now are more scraping noises, like with Basil earlier. I think they're moving furniture or something."

"They could be creating a larger protective circle than Six usually uses, one big enough for both of them."

"Protective circle?"

"Yeah, Jim. You know, blessed salt strewn around it, only I guess they'd use cursed salt instead. The names of demons they're calling on written outside, upside down crosses and runes and stuff. They call on the four elements to protect them, and sit in the circle until whatever magical brou-ha-ha going on is over and it's safe to go out again."

Jim stared at the frame of a painting of Baphomet briefly, and then snapped his fingers. "Didn't The Pythoness say her element is earth?"

Blair perked up. "Yeah, she did."

"That's why the power balance is out of whack. One of the four elements is out of play. Probably no one knows how the element of earth works now."

"That fits with the graveyard, too. Survival of the four fittest sorcerers. Now, they've got to kill off each other until only one is left. With The Pythoness gone, that would mean the other three represent air, water and fire, and the power of the earth is just kinda sitting there. Neutral? I wonder...."

"Which of the others is which, Chief?"

"Melusine has to be water. She's the mermaid, remember?"

"Yeah, right. Fire and air. Which is Basil and which is Six?"

"Geez, Jim, I don't know. They whipped up this storm among the three of them. I can't tell which of them is fire and which air. Fire would account for the lightning. Air for the wind. Melusine wears blue, like water, and The Pythoness wore green. Maybe their colors are a clue. Basil wears black, which I guess is because it's Satanic, anticipating his victory, perhaps, so that's neutral. Six wears yellow. I wonder if that's yellow for the sun? Or for Lucifer, the light-bringer, and fallen angel? If so, he'd be fire. How do we know that the SHC was caused by the fire sorcerer, anyway? It's a good guess, but that's all. They may all know a lot of fire spells." Blair threw up his hands.

Jim was musing. "Would the sorcerer of the air be strong enough to take on fire and water?" he asked.

Blair looked thoughtful. "He could deprive the fire of oxygen and put it out that way. Water is not a direct threat to air as such, but could do a lot of harm to a human body. If the air sorcerer has a lot of sylphs, air elementals, at his disposal, he could whip up a cyclone and remove the water from his vicinity. I just don't know who is who."

"Elementals?"

"Yeah, nature spirits, servants of the masters of the elements of air, water, fire and earth. The Pythoness would have had gnomes, Melusine undines. Whoever is air has sylphs, and whoever fire, salamanders, fire-resistant snakes, not the newts, you know?"

"Let's go find out who's got what, then," Jim suggested.

They jogged up the stairs to Six Hundred And Sixty And Six's suite.

 

No one had answered the knock. Jim used Blair's knife again and picked the lock. "I'm getting pretty good at this," he told his partner as he gave the knife back.

They opened the door and entered an exact duplicate of The Pythoness's antechamber. Only this one was hung with loose muslins and silk swags, an Aeolian harp and discordant wind chimes, all appurtenances of the master of the air. So that left Basil as the master of the element of fire.

"You think he killed The Pythoness?" Blair asked, as they slowly circled the room.

"What? By black magic? No, I don't believe in it. I know, I know. It's dangerous for us if I don't believe in it, but I can't manufacture belief just for this one occasion. I'd rather go with the wick theory."

Blair clicked his tongue, but let it go.

Beyond the antechamber were three rooms, in the same arc as The Pythoness's – the bedroom, the bathroom, and a room with a closed door that was the equivalent of The Pythoness's laboratory, the place where Six Hundred And Sixty And Six worked.

Jim strode to the room and opened the door without any announcement.

"Stay back," Six hissed at them.

"Get out," Melusine ordered. "You're in terrible danger. Leave us alone, you pests."

They were working on creating a circle of safety, as Blair had predicted. Only on the floor of the room, a huge upside-down pentacle was inlaid with black marble, as were two outer circles around it. Etched into the marble was the face of a goat, the upper two points of the star its horns, the lower two its ears, and the bottommost its beard. It was really only large enough for one to use. Melusine was pouring out salt along a huge ring of chalk they had drawn, enlarging the sphere of protection, chanting as she went. Six was writing names in the circle, names that called on fallen angels, Belial, Mammon, Leviathan, Ophis.

When Jim attempted to close the distance between them, Six Hundred And Sixty And Six looked toward him and threw out his open palm. "I, stulte!"

Jim felt himself swept up off his feet and driven by a great wind all the way back to the door to the hallway. He hit the granite door side and collapsed in a heap.

"Oh, my God," Blair cried, and dashed to his partner. "Jim, Jim! Are you all right?"

The sentinel started to pick himself up off the floor, and accepted a hand up. "Yeah, I think so. What just happened?" His confusion showed as he checked out his new whereabouts.

"I was about to ask you the same thing," Blair said anxiously. "From where I was, it looked as if you were blown away, literally."

Jim swallowed hard. "I was." His tones fell low. "I think maybe he just used magic on me."

Blair's face was a picture of concern and relief. "So you believe now? That we're up against something we may not be able to deal with alone?

Jim shook his head. "I still don't believe it, Blair. Maybe it was just a freak gust of wind." His voice betrayed him.

Blair grabbed his shoulders and shook him. Jim was startled into giving his shaman his full attention.

"Look, Jim. You'd better process this, and fast. This was no freak gust of wind. We're inside, there's no window open, it's raining out there like it's the second flood.

"You've got to integrate what you just experienced with everything else you know and have ever believed in. There are spirit animals, Jim, and we both have them. This is something in the spiritual realm, and it's not benevolent. It's going to kill us. They're going to kill us, or whoever is the winner will. We don't have time for you to be of two minds. So get it together. Our lives depend on it!"

Jim said nothing, but his eyes pled for understanding in his doubtfulness.

Blair softened a little. He knew Jim hated the mystical side of being a sentinel as much as Simon Banks hated the sentinel concept as a whole, and that was a very great deal. He gripped his partner's shoulders once for comfort, and then patted his biceps. "Just think about it, and keep thinking about it. Okay?"

"Okay."

"Good."

The two of them went back to watching the preparations of the sorcerers of air and water. Melusine lit candles, Six Hundred And Sixty And Six wrote arcane symbols from the Kabala and other sources around the widened circle, and both chanted.

It wasn't enough. Blair cried out in astonishment and fear, and Jim yelled with him.

There was fire in the sorcerer's room. Balls of light, white, blue, yellow and orange, were coming through the windows, breaching the glass without damaging it, floating toward the circle, ringing it and dancing around in a fragmented, random pattern.

Six Hundred And Sixty And Six called out, and winds whistled inside his chambers, freezing Jim and Blair, but having no effect at all on the balls of light.

Melusine called for water, which pitter-pattered from the ceiling above. The drops slid off the 'skins' of the lights, and onto the granite beneath. She yowled defiance, and fell to the floor, grabbing Six Hundred And Sixty And Six by the ankles. With a mighty surge, she lifted him cleanly off his feet and out of the circle, which was undamaged and cast its protection around her unabated.

Six Hundred And Sixty And Six blasphemed God and cursed the treacherous sorcerer of the water, coiling into a fetal position, unshielded.

The balls of light stopped moving. Between the space of one breath and the next, they reformed in a circle around the sorcerer of the air.

"What do you see?" the shaman whispered, shaking, into the sentinel's ear.

"I think I see ball lightning, or will-o-the-wisps," the sentinel replied, breathlessly. "Something like fire or plasma, I don't know what."

"Oh," said the shaman. "I'm seeing the balls of light, but I'm also seeing salamanders inside them, Jim. And I think there may be sylphs here, too."

Jim reached for his forearm and hung on tight.

The circle of fiery lights began to close about the sorcerer.

Six Hundred And Sixty And Six threw out his arms. "Ergo animam aeris pasco, ideo mutuo dominum tuum adirite!" he cried.

As Jim and Blair watched disbelievingly, half of the balls of light separated themselves from the rest, and floated out through the windows by which they had entered, doing no damage, just like sunbeams.

No longer floating randomly, the remaining lightning balls targeted the man. He was engulfed in plasma hotter than the surface of the sun. In a trice, there was nothing left of him, except one shoeless foot. All but one of the balls of lightning burst, leaving drips of water in their wake. The last ball floated to an electrical outlet on a wall, and disappeared into the socket.

It was over.

Melusine got up, and staggered over to Jim and Blair. "Did you see that?" she choked out.

But as Jim and Blair were about to answer, another cry pierced the night air.

"AHHHHHHHHHH!"

"Basil?" Jim and Blair asked each other, and then ran for the suite belonging to the sorcerer of fire.

By the time they got there, the door was in scorched splinters, apparently blown apart by a great blast of fire. The chambers were empty of fireballs, salamanders and sylphs. Of Basil, there was no trace but ashes in a heap scattered in a wide circle, like the ashes of Six Hundred And Sixty And Six.

Melusine crept toward the men of Major Crime. "Is, is, is he – dead?" she whispered.

Blair whirled toward her. "Yes. He is. You're the only one left."

The lovely blonde's whole demeanor changed in an instant. She grinned with evil glee. "Then I guess I win. Such an easy triumph. I cringed and deferred to their 'superior' masculinity, and they ate it up, the dolts. Just pushing Six out of the way, and letting him cremate Basil, and vice versa, so they killed each other off. And they thought I didn't have a chance." A deep guttural rumble of malice and merriment filled the tower. "Meet the Anti-Christ," Melusine exulted, "and bear witness to her birth!"

She swelled, growing taller than Simon Banks, wider than Arnold Schwarzenegger, and harder of feature than any picture of Moloch.

She, or he, or it, threw back her head and screamed with unholy laughter.


Act 4


Jim and Blair held onto each other for dear life. Melusine was dreadful in her gruesome triumph. They knew they had no chance against her. The sorcerer of water had the perfect weapons to use against a man who feared deep water, and a man who had once drowned.

But Melusine's mood changed as quickly as her appearance. She glared at the two of them.

"Well? Aren't you impressed?" she asked. "You should be." Her self-satisfaction was complete.

Blair wet his lips. "Yes, we're really impressed," he said. "We never expected – you."

Melusine morphed into a woman's shape again, this time as tall and imposing as Athene, but with black eyes and a look of cruelty rather than serene wisdom. "I am I," she announced. "I am whatever I wish to be." She switched again, this time to a redheaded Goth teen with the map of Ireland all over her/his face.

She puffed up with pride. "I am whatever you wish me to be," she said, and a slyness passed over her features.

"What would you like me to be, Jim? This?" She morphed into a petite young woman with long, tumbled mahogany curls, bright blue eyes and full, cerise lips. "Would you like me as Blair?" Her voice was low and dulcet.

Jim stepped back, revulsed.

Melusine giggled wildly. "Try me on for size, Jim," she coaxed with malice in her eyes.

"No! Stop it!" the sentinel ordered, with a quick glance at his partner.

Blair was crimson with shame.

"Oh, Blair, don't be so sad," Melusine said soothingly. "If he doesn't want you, I can arrange for you to have him." She morphed into a feminine Jim, tall, strong, Amazonian, with short-cut glossy brown hair and eyes like blue topaz. She reached out and stroked Blair's cheek. "See? Whatever you want."

"I don't want this. I don't want you," Blair rasped.

Melusine's eyes flashed. "What if I want you? What if I want you both? What if I want you like this?" She became everyone they had ever known, male and female, friend and foe, one by one, but always, always, revolting.

"Dear God," Jim prayed.

But Blair had somehow recovered his composure, as though the final indignities had settled his mind and heart. "You really are a whore, aren't you?" he said evenly.

Melusine resumed her blonde, pocket Venus guise, leaving neither man any illusions about her ability to take them both down, however she looked. "Yes," she said. "I am The Whore. I've been in every brothel from Rangoon to Persia to Patagonia to Cascade. There is no one I haven't had, if I wanted him or her. The Whore. I have no peer."

She laughed an ugly, evil laugh. "What my so-called competitors didn't count on is that my ability to shape-shift lets me be both The Whore of Babylon and The Anti-Christ!" She gurgled as she appreciated her own depthless cunning, and transformed from Maya to Michelle to Samantha to Lila to Alex to Naomi to Simon Banks to Daryl Banks and everyone else they knew in Major Crime, dazzlingly fast, headily sickening. "If I want you, I will have you. You're pretty, Shaman, and you're handsome, Detective. I might have you both at the same time, and I will be anyone I please to be when I do."

Her eyes were icy. "So don't go thinking you have any say in the matter."

Both Jim and Blair were silent and stoic.

Melusine's lips twisted. "Hmm," she commented. "I'm bored now. I'll be back to have you both in a while, so you might as well go up to my rooms and wait for me, naked, of course. I'll be along later, after I've visited my ocean and bathed in the moonlight. Tidewater is wonderful."

She left the men behind with a dismissive wave of her hand, and tripped down the stairs from Basil's apartments. Outside, the rain was sheeting down, but it picked up a rhythm of sorts, as if dancing as its mistress whirled in its embrace.

Jim and Blair stared at each other.

"What do we do now?" Jim asked, hushed.

His partner sighed. "Pray, Jim," he said. "Pray for inspiration."

 

It took a couple of moments for the shell-shocked friends to break out of the glamour Melusine had laid on them. Jim looked at the time: quarter after eleven. He tried calling Simon and the Coast Guard for help, from inside and outside the building. But it was still raining torrentially, and that was enough to stop the transmission. Meanwhile, Blair looked hither, thither and yon for a computer, but there was no such thing in the mansion on Saint Germain Island. Apparently, people with the combined power of the four primary sorcerers on Earth didn't need computers. They could call up an elemental to do whatever bidding they wanted done, including collect information.

The men met up again in middle of the main hall.

"No go," Jim reported.

"Same here," Blair told him.

"Shit."

"Yeah."

"How did she kill Basil? Do you know?" Jim wanted to know.

"She didn't. Six did. He turned Basil's spell back on him, by a curse. That as the fire required air to burn, and Six was the master of the air feeding them, so, the salamanders must return to their master and burn him to equalize things. Half of them left, you saw that for yourself, and I saw half of the sylphs leave too." Blair was panting for breath, near to panic.

"Look, there's got to be some way to fight her," Jim urged desperately. "Stay with me here! You know this stuff. What can we do?"

Blair hung his head and shook it. "Jim, all I can tell you is that she's still playing by the book, and if we use white magic for protection, creating a protective circle, you know, it might give us a couple of more minutes of life. But she's strong, Jim, and she's smart. Getting Six to trust her, so she could manage things to get him to kill Basil and Basil to kill him – that's pure genius. She's evil, and she's smart. And she's strong."

"You're repeating yourself," Jim said, his hand stroking worriedly over his short-cropped hair. "Whatever we can do, we need to do. It isn't just about your life and mine. If she is who she claims to be, the whole world is at stake!"

Blair looked up at him. "Well, then, let's think about faith, Jim, and white magic. If we have to stop her, white magic isn't going to do the trick alone."

Jim paused. He took a deep breath and let it out. "You know, Chief, there are a lot of agnostics who find God in a foxhole."

"Is this foxhole big enough for you?" Blair asked hopefully.

Jim stared into the night. "It might be."

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO—

Somewhere in the dark outside, Melusine screeched horrifically, breaking off in mid-scream; the rain stopped; and the whole world turned over on the equator.

 

"That, that wasn't...you? You fighting off Melusine? Was it?" Blair asked, disconcerted, peering through the hall door and into the dark outside.

"No, not me. Believe me, Chief, I wish it was, but I think it was something else, and I don't think it's good." Jim rubbed his temples.

"Can you figure it out? Can you pick anything up with your senses?" Blair needed to know. He took hold of one of Jim's wrists. "Be the sentinel, Jim. Pick up whatever is out there, please!"

Jim looked sick, but jerked his head in agreement with his shaman's assessment. "Okay, but I need you to keep me from zoning. I have no idea what we're dealing with."

Blair gripped his partner's hand hard. "I'm here, and I won't let you zone. Just try, okay?"

So Jim did. "I'm trying sight." He started to move toward the great wooden doors, but Blair dragged him away, further down the hall and into the kitchen.

"No, no, no! You're not getting any closer to whatever that was," Blair informed him. "You're trying all the senses in turn, but from here, okay? We need all the space between us that's possible. We need to be able to run, Jim. Not face it, but run, if possible."

Jim's lips tightened, but he said, "Yeah, you're right. It's so natural an impulse, to go look."

"Not this time. Listen first."

"Okay. The rain's stopped, for one."

There was silence in the great granite hall for a few minutes, and then Jim began to heave.

Blair pushed him down on his haunches and bent him forward. "Breathe, Jim. Slow and sure."

The nausea passed. Jim cocked his head and looked at his best friend. "That was bad, Chief. I picked up something with my ears, and piggybacked smell."

"What? What did you get?" Blair almost danced in impatience.

"It's something scaly, and slow, and big, and it stinks of snake," Jim reported.

Blair looked as if he'd been punched in the gut. "Oh, shit, oh, shit, oh, shit," he babbled.

"What is it, Blair?" Jim asked apprehensively.

"Something not good," Blair declared slowly. "I think – I think Basil survived his immolation, but not in human form. If I'm right, we do have a chance of beating him, but only if I've got it right."

An explosion outside sent shrapnel streaming towards the stone mansion. Reflected in every window was the furnace that had been a hangar with a helicopter, airplane, and fuel. The two men were fixated at the sight.

Jim became alert to his surroundings first. "Tell me what to do, Chief, to fight this thing, and we'll do it!" The sentinel was going to war, and taking his shaman along with him.

 

They fled up to Melusine's rooms, the only suite not destroyed, juggling their booty from the kitchen. Once there, Blair took in the group of rooms in a single sweep, and groaned.

"God, why didn't I think of this?" he lamented.

"What?" Jim asked, busily moving the huge mahogany hall table to reveal the round, blue silk rug beneath it.

"Shit, Jim, she hasn't got any mirrors in here! I was counting on the mirrors," Blair said, his fingers raking through his curls.

"What would she need with mirrors? She looked however she wanted to look, in her mind's eye," Jim said absently. He held out the box of salt. "Wanna bless this, Chief?"

Blair started to give his best friend a glare, but suddenly relaxed. "Yeah," he said gently. "Let's both bless it, okay?"

"What do I say," Jim asked.

"Lord, bless this salt and protect us against all evil, thank you," Blair suggested.

They both said the words.

Jim found the bottle of imported water, and they said the prayer, amended as necessary over it. Then the same was done for the candles and the cinnamon they'd brought up from the kitchen.

Jim was in charge of laying down an outer circle of the blessed salt, all around the perimeter of the rug. He was half-aware of Blair at his shoulder, letting water soak into the border of the carpet.

The other half of him was aware of the coming of a huge, scaly beast.

"Chief, it's inside the downstairs hall. Work fast!" he ordered.

"I am, I am. There, the water's in a ring. I'm gonna work on the candles."

"Okay, I'll take two of them. Which names?"

"You do Gabriel and Michael. I'll do Raphael and Uriel," Blair assigned the appropriate archangels to the appropriate believer.

They were scratching the second names into the soft wax of the emergency candles, using their pens, when Jim gave another update. "It's at the bottom of the stairs. It's making for us."

"Okay, okay, we knew it would," Blair said. "Just keep working." He put stars of David on his candles, then exchanged them for Jim's ones with crosses, and they inscribed their symbols on all of them.

Blair gathered the candles together. "Where is due north, Jim?"

The sentinel pointed the four directions and the candles were set out hastily, each to the point attributed to the archangel whose name was written on it. Saying brief prayers, Jim lit them, Blair following with pinches of cinnamon to freshen the air. That covered the four elements of earth, water, fire and wind, the white magic plan, such as it was. It had taken them only fifteen minutes, and, privately, each of the men wondered how many extra seconds it might add to their lives, if any.

Blair squatted on the rug, within the protective circles, and drew Jim down next to him, making sure that Jim was facing away from the door to the landing.

"Jim," he started, and choked.

Jim took his face gently in both his hands. "We're not getting out of this, are we, Chief?"

Blair grasped Jim's hands and squeezed hard. "I don't think so, Jim."

They let their hands, still clasped, fall between them.

The skritchy, scratchy, scaly sound was halfway up the last flight of stairs. Slow moving, and gigantic, was the body making it. Loud thwacks reverberated in the stone as a massive tail hit rhythmically against the walls.

"Don't listen," Jim said. "Just listen to me, okay? We can choose not to see or hear it."

"Okay," Blair managed to get out. He made himself breath more deeply a couple of times, and asked, "What'll we do instead?"

"Look at our memories. Us, together, Chief."

"Good, good." Blair smiled, a small but real smile.

"I want you to know what a difference you made in my life."

"Jim – "

"No, I want you to know. I have to make you know. I remember the biggest surprise I ever got was when you threw me under the garbage truck and saved my life. I'm so glad you didn't just let me walk away."

"I remember when I was at my lowest, after the warehouse burned, and you took me in, ape and all. Even when Larry was destroying the loft. And when you found me, when Lash...."

"I remember too. I was so worried I wouldn't be in time."

The monster had moved a third of the way up the stairs.

"I was so scared when I heard the shooting. You'd dropped your gun. I thought Lash must have had one. I'm so glad he didn't hurt you."

"I remember when you said no to Eli's offer. I thought you were leaving for good."

"I was an idiot even to have entertained the idea for a minute."

"No, no, you weren't. It was a good job."

"Doesn't compare to my own work with you. Plus, it's about friendship. It always was."

The monster had gained another third of the staircase.

"I remember all the quarrels...."

"...and I remember we made them all up. I remember you choosing to be a sentinel."

"I remember you being made shaman of the Great City."

"Most of all, I remember being in the jungle, being the wolf, and feeling so alone."

"I remember." Jim had to swallow hard before he could continue. "The best time in my life was when I was the jag, and I found you. Then we came back together."

The monster was at the door. The stench was acrid and vomitous.

"What are you seeing, Jim?" Blair asked.

"You on the grass, Chief, breathing. Breathing again. That's all I can see. You?"

"You looking down at me, okay and smiling. It was all I wanted to see, then and now. I can't see anything else. I choose to see you, then."

A horrific hissing, the cold wind from flapping leather wings, and a blast of heat made it part of the way through the circle they had laid.

Blair said sotto voce, "Jim, I don't think the protective spells have any more strength."

"Maybe this is all the time we have."

"I think so. I'm glad we're together, buddy."

"Me, too. Me, too. And grateful to have known you, and have you as my friend, Chief."

"Same here, Jim."

"Here goes."

Together, they turned to face the Anti-Christ.

 

The change was instantaneous. It started at the eyes. They lost their glitter, and their color; they lost all intelligence. It took longer for the rest to turn to stone.

But it was only the eyes that they had to worry about. It was only the eyes that could kill with a glance. Once it had seen itself reflected in the watery surfaces of blinded eyes belonging to two men who cared for each other more than for himself, both humble enough to know he couldn't go it alone and grateful for the other being part of his life, the proud and monstrous beast could not live with its own soulless, empty being.

The basilisk died with one look at them.

Jim and Blair had to blink their tears away, but, mercifully, it was after they had turned to look at the candidate for the title of Anti-Christ.

"What is it, Chief?" Jim asked, surveying the half-gray, half-green snake with wings.

"A basilisk, Jim," Blair said wonderingly. "It's one of the forms Satan takes, like the serpent or goat or satyr. A snake on steroids, a venomous, fire-breathing dragon without legs, and the ability to turn people to stone with its eyes, like Medusa and the other Gorgons."

"It was Basil, then?" Jim deduced.

The graying crept along the beast's belly.

"Yeah, it was. I just remembered. When he introduced himself, it was as 'Basilicos Basiliscos"," Blair realized. "I said something about it to you, didn't I?"

"That he thought of himself as royalty. Prince Basil, Heir to Hell. Prince Basilisk, huh?"

"That would be him. I guess you can't fight fire with fire; the salamanders Six turned back upon him only strengthened him, or maybe it was the sylphs that fed the fire. Basil must have risen from his own immolation like a phoenix from its ashes, only hideously evil and impossibly much stronger. Maybe he triggered the explosion of the hangar for the same reason. God! What would hellfire at midnight have done to him?" Blair shivered badly.

"And we stopped him?"

Blair gazed back at his partner. "Not us. Not our power. But what we both believe in. The same thing that made me the wolf and you the jag, that time before."

"Yeah," Jim said. "Yeah."

They didn't have to spell it out. They both knew Who and What had slain the hateful snake. They both knew their prayers had been answered, and they felt the divine, the numinous, in each other and in their own bones.

So Jim did something normal, as the basilisk continued to transform from flesh to rock. He called Simon Banks. The call went through.

"Simon, come get us, and make it as fast as possible. Helicopter, Coast Guard, anyone. Just get us out of here!"

While their captain expostulated on the other end, Blair had been looking out of the windows of Melusine's bedroom.

"Jim! Jim, tell him to hurry!" Blair yelled back.

"Why? What's wrong?" Jim asked.

"The sea, Jim. The sea. It's advancing. Look! The dock has disappeared! The storm's stopped, but the sea...."

Jim joined his best friend, the brother of his heart, and looked out at Puget Sound. "Simon, get us off this island now, the thing is sinking into the sea!"

"What? Are you kidding?"

"Blair and I are in real danger of drowning. Do you think we'd kid about something like that, sir?"

"Syd's already in the air, Jim; he insisted on going as soon as the micro cell cleared up. The copter will be there in just a few minutes. The water's too choppy for the Coast Guard."

"Tell him we'll be on the helipad, if the island isn't under water. Tell him to expect to have to lift us out."

"I will. Good luck!"

"Thanks. We need it." Jim closed the phone.

"How do we get down?" Blair asked anxiously.

"Crawl over the damned thing," Jim said, with renewed vigor. "Give me your hand."

Blair reached out, and they began slithering down the petrifying body. Jim pulled back as they got to the lower landing; the tail was still lashing back and forth.

"Do we have time to wait?" Blair asked, counting on Jim's hearing to pick up the sound of the sea and the rescue helicopter.

CRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAACCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKK

Bits of the granite walls around them began to flake off. They were in a hail of stone flak.

"Move, Chief! It's crumbling around us!"

Jim timed his jump exactly, missing the basilisk's beating tail at precisely the right moment. He cleared it totally, coming to rest on the floor of the great hallway. He turned back to Blair.

"Get ready!"

Blair nodded, trusting his best friend to take care on his behalf, and his sentinel to know when he would be safe.

"Now!"

Blair leaped, and Jim helped catch him. They had to run like rabbits to dodge the final, snaking death throes of the monster they had slain.

Together, they dashed for the rear door, grateful they were so close to it.

"God, Blair! It's coming down! Go, go, go!"

They both threw themselves out of the house.

With a ghastly, baleful howl, the stones that The Pythoness had called from the earth collapsed on her murderer's thrashing tail.

The partners came to a complete halt.

A rip in the earth had opened up, and the hangar, with all its burning, was swallowed within the gash. Only an inch-high rim of flame could be seen.

But the airstrip, the airstrip, was still there.

"Come on," Jim yelled, as another fissure opened behind them, and the mansion erected by The Pythoness began to fall into the abyss, block by block, the great snake sliding down along with it.

They ran forward, Jim shouting and pointing at the sky, where the lights of the police chopper were visible.

"Can they see us?" Blair asked.

Then powerful night strobe lights centered on Jim Ellison and Blair Sandburg, and the man afraid of the water jumped for the rope ladder let down by Syd Blailock, before the sea could inundate them, and the man afraid of heights bounded up right behind him.

As the chopper lifted straight up, they hung onto each other as well as the ladder. Below, Saint Germain Island sank into the Sound, and was no more. The mistress of the earth had her revenge on the rivals who had inhabited her mansion and her island, at last.

 

"Simon, please," Blair asked, exhausted.

Banks, almost crazy with worry, was taking it out on his best detectives, who were also his best friends. "I deserve an answer, damn it!" he demanded.

"I know, I know, sir," Jim said. "But it's long and involved and it's even more than the usual Sentinel stuff."

"No, no, no, no. I don't want to hear that!" Captain Banks groaned.

"What time is it?" Blair asked.

"Uh, about ten to midnight. Why? Do you want to get to the party on time?" Simon asked nastily.

"Yeah, that's exactly what I want to do. What I want Jim to do, too."

Simon looked closely at the police consultant, then even more closely. "You need this, don't you?"

"Oh, man, Simon, we so need this. Normality and friends at midnight."

"When it's safe to rejoice," Jim put in.

"Need to know everyone's safe. Everyone."

Simon was perturbed. He was beginning to think they were in shock, and needed hospitalization, not partying.

Blair sent an exhausted plea to Jim, without words. Simon needed convincing.

Jim obliged. "The short of it is," Jim did his own version of obfuscating, "a woman called The Pythoness admitted to killing Zachary Groundwater. Due to the sinking of Saint Germain Island, and the collapse of the mansion on them, the rest of the inhabitants are presumed dead. We got airlifted off just in time, thanks to you and Syd."

"You saved our lives," Blair Sandburg said.

Simon, who had more affection for the people under his command than it was wise to admit to, and who counted these two second only to his dear son, Daryl, made a pass with his cigar in the air. "And you want to go to the New Year's Eve party."

"Yeah," Jim and Blair chorused.

"Okay."

 

They took Simon's sedan, and, of course, Jim had to drive, with his usual reckless disregard for traffic, Simon beside him, mouthing imprecations. Blair lay on the backseat, trying to regulate his breathing and reach the first stage of meditation. They arrived at Joel's house with three minutes to spare. But both sentinel and shaman made the headcount, and all their friends and loved ones from Cascade were there, including Libby, Blair's dog. Joel had a soft spot for her, just as he did for her human companion, and had brought her home with him, in the expectation that her housemates would arrive sooner or later. Blair and Jim had their faces well licked, and then accepted glasses of California champagne.

An empty corner of the kitchen beckoned. The two men withdrew, Libby following, ostensibly to get something to eat, whether for her or themselves didn't matter.

The countdown was being called out by their friends. The new millennium was dawning.

"Happy New Millennium, Jim," Blair said, holding up his glass to clink with his friend's.

"Happy New Millennium, Blair," Jim wished him.

"Thank God we can make the toasts."

"Thank God."

They shared a deep look, which held an understanding that came only to a few and only at great cost.

"My best friend," Jim said, dumping the glass in the sink.

"My brother," Blair said, dropping his in too.

They clung to each other in a hug that lasted too long and was too close, too cherishing, for the mores of the day, but was only fitting for the two of them, alone together. The shout that midnight was marked and a new day come, was not loud enough to pierce their shell of thanksgiving for the miracle of having each other in their lives. But it didn't matter, nor did the joshing they got afterwards, nor Libby's impatience for a liver treat.

They were the Sentinel and Shaman of the Great City of Cascade, and that was what mattered more than anyone else would ever know.

THE END


AUTHOR'S NOTES

1. The author had a lot of help with the research on this story. As to ball lightning, her great thanks to the late Kjell Nilson is due; as to spontaneous human combustion, thanks to the fire-fighting brother-in-law, who said he knew nothing about it, but if it was for fiction, to go for it! Also to my researchers, Antoinette Bennion and JAC. For the illustrations, to Suisan, CarolROI, Michele, and JAC. The author hopes she hasn't left anyone out!

2. The author must thank her tireless beta's, too. Lady Shelley, CarolROI, Amy, Lin, and Suisan all worked like dogs to make this thing a go. Thank you, ladies. Love ya, L.S.!

 

3. If you absolutely have to have information on spontaneous human combustion, here's the place to start: 150 Human Combustion Links at

http://www.mysteries-megasite.com/main/bigsearch/human-combustion.html

 

4. The report by John DeHaan of the original trials he ran before doing the BBC documentary is at: http://www.forensic-science-society.org.uk/DeHaan.pdf

(A comment about DeHaan's work: he is the author of Kirk's, the arson handbook, should you see references to it in the literature.)

A critique of DeHaan's demonstration, which the author heartily endorses, having seen the documentary before reading the critique, and being outraged at the methodology in the television program, is here:

http://www.alternativescience.com/spontaneous-human-combustion-burning-issue.htm

It is the author's opinion that real scientists don't and shouldn't bullshit about their experiments.

Most of the individual cases discussed in this story are cited at the site immediately above, or can be found by links from it.

 

5. As to individual cases, the references are as follows:

The teenager who burst into flames while walking down the street in London, England, is Paul Hayes, and his case is discussed here:

http://www.geocities.com/Area51/Rampart/9866/SHC.html

The elderly woman in Sydney, Australia, who died of burns received while sitting in a parked car is Agnes Phillips, and her case is discussed at:

http://www.alternativescience.com/spontaneous-human-combustion-burning-issue.htm

The woman passenger in the moving car, who had 20% of her body burned, is Jenna or Jeanna Winchester, and a brief mention of her can be found here:

http://anomalyinfo.com/articles/sa00070.shtml

The woman who suddenly emitted blue-green flames from her mouth in full view of her father and brother-in-law is Jeannie Saffin, and the case can be found here:

http://www.alternativescience.com/spontaneous-human-combustion-cases.htm Also, her brother-in-law was interviewed in the documentary Burning Bodies: Spontaneous Human Combustion, infra.

The man with a blue aura, who died in Budapest, is discussed anonymously at:

http://www.science-frontiers.com/sf073/sf073b06.htm

The tramp whose body emitted blue flames and so attracted help is Robert Francis Bailey, found September 13, 1967, in Lambeth, England. A report of the case is here:

http://www.alternativescience.com/spontaneous-human-combustion-cases.htm

 

6. The BBC programme is referred to in the article in the BBC News article, 'New Light on Human Torch Mystery', at http://new.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/158853.stm

The critique of it at comment 4 above is detailed as to the methodology, and, truly, the author cannot recommend acquiring or watching the original programme. It's not worth the time or trouble, in her opinion, unless you want to compare the arson methodology therein to that in the paper DeHaan wrote, cited supra.

The more recent documentary shown on the Discovery Channel this year, in which is discussed the internal phosphine/diphosphine/methane oxygenless-fire, is Burning Bodies: Spontaneous Human Combustion, produced by GRN Entertainment Inc. in association with the Discovery Channel, copyrighted MMI, Sequoia Entertainment, Inc.

 

7. Larry E. Arnold is the author of Ablaze!, which is available both through Amazon.com and from the author at his website below, as are his tapes on the subject. He is the promulgator of the 'pyroton' theory. He also explores such topics as the effect of leylines on spontaneous human combustion cases, UFO's and Kundalini power, so it's a case of 'reader, beware'. http://www.geocities.com/slashaeby/ablaze.html

It appears to the author that the proper spelling of the sub-subatomic particle he posits is 'pyroton', with a 'ton' ending like 'proton', but she has seen 'pyrotron' in a variety of places, and believes the second is a misspelling.

8. Rejected material: The author rejected out of hand theories that involved backed-up kundalini power in the celibate, psychic fire starting, leylines, UFO's and Men in Black. The author could be wrong, but somehow she doesn't think they're involved. The case of Jack Angel, in Savannah, Georgia, 1974, has been thoroughly debunked as fraud by Joe Nickell of CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal). Of debunking, there is much, and most commentary is more than merely skeptical of Mr. Arnold's theories; but the one sure thing of Larry E. Arnold's work is that he researched the heck out of SHC cases, citing a variety of sources for the more obscure, i.e., the ones with survivors or witnesses. It doesn't cut the mustard for an apparently all-inclusive theory to ignore the exceptions. The wick effect isn't all-inclusive. The author would like to know the answer, but doesn't buy bad science any more than she buys bad New Age beliefs.

9. In re: ball lightning, the case of the anonymous man in Budapest cited above posits ball lightning as the cause of that person's death. It is a report in a meteorological journal, and, as such, very interesting. The author has three years worth of research on ball lightning, and it's still a labyrinth of theories without proof. It's almost impossible to replicate in the laboratory, and there's no way to predict when and how the balls of lightning will occur in nature. In other words, it exists, but there's no hard science on it, and the possibilities are endless. The descriptions the author gave of the balls of lightning and their behavior in real life are all as accurate as possible, and have been observed in the wild all over the world. For their effect on glass, try here:

http://www.science-frontiers.com/sf085/sf085g13.htm

There is more to know at:

http://www.eskimo.com/~billb/tesla/balllgtn.html

And if you must have it, there are 130 links on ball lightning, too! Gotta love the megasites!

http://mysteries-megasite.com/main/bigsearch/ball-lightning.html

10. Smoking stool syndrome is a real medical condition, a result of phosphorus poisoning. Information on it can be found here:

http:www.emedicine.com/emerg/topic918.htm

 

11. The Latin. The author is nearly three decades away from her Latin classes, so the language may be a little rough. Here goes:

Conciderite: Be destroyed.

I, stulte: Begone, fool.

Ergo animam aeris pasco, ideo mutuo dominum tuum adirite: As I have kept your essence alive with air, so return to your master and treat him as you do me. (Spoken to the salamanders in the ball lightning.)

12. Happy New Year!