Novation Productions Season Six Presents


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By Ismaro

Dedicated to the memory of Kjell Nilson

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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 Li 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.

" rolls. 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.

Continue on to Act 2