Warnings: Violence, language, mention of
abuse, "off-camera" sexual situation: PG-13
Spoilers: References to "Cypher"
Many thanks to my betas, patl and
Kathleen for their assistance and patience. Here be saints!
Thanks also to Robyn, who is always ready to help those of us whose knowledge of medical matters extends only to band-aids.
This is for Cat, my sister by blood, for
shared secrets, shared rooms, shared clothing, and shared love. Pecan pie
at Claire's, ROTC in the USA, rewritten Christmas songs, parental lectures...what
larks! Thanks for putting up with a tag-along kid sister. I love you.
This is also for Aggie, my sister by soul. Knowing that you're somewhere out there gives me joy and serenity, and each night I search the sky. We are the stuff of stars!
And finally, this is for those who survived
their own closet monsters, choosing to walk in light and forego the darkness.
We, too, are family.
Do not fear the graveyard dark, dear,
Or the closet shadowed dim.
Fear not what lies beneath the bed, dear,
But the beast that lies within.
Spirits rise and walk at dusk, dear.
Dawn breaks east, they fade away.
But the beast that lives within, dear,
Journeys with you night and day.
Closet monsters pose no threat, dear,
Though the door is yawning wide.
But beware those who may have, dear,
Monsters closeted inside.
Fear not monsters 'neath your bed, dear,
But those that sit at your bedside.
Those that claim to love you most, dear,
From those monsters run and hide.
Fear no dark imagined beast, dear.
Don't dread what you cannot see.
Fear those standing in our midst, dear.
Monsters look like you and me.
It was more or less what she had expected: a run-down apartment in a run-down part of Cascade, a dingy grey building full of dingy grey rats and dingier grey people, all without color or warmth or life. As she climbed the creaky stairs to the second floor, she couldn't help but wonder if the cockroaches were grey. Suppressing a shudder, she clung to the arm of the man at her side. He offered her no comfort or support, and that, too, was as she had expected. His attention would be focused on the task, as always. If he turned on the television to watch a program, it became his entire existence. When he read a book, the world around him disappeared. And when she permitted him to touch her, she was the center of his universe. Right now, however, the universe was a shriveled grey man with grey hair in apartment 203.
She found it hard to believe that she had ever been married to that faded little man, let alone made love to him. Yet their two children had been the proof of that union, their two contributions to the world, their two attempts at immortality. Failed attempts, she reminded herself. Both were dead now, and there had been no others. There had been moments in her life when she had forgotten about the children, allowed the memories of them to slip through her fingers like sand, washed them away with bottle after bottle of cheap wine, pushed them away as she had pushed dozens of spent men away from her body when each had finished with her, tossed them carelessly into the corner of her mind's closet and shut the door.
It had been easiest with Jimmy. At first she had missed him terribly, her golden boy. But he had been only five years old when he died, and she could barely remember what he looked like. Sometimes he came to her in dreams, his visage blurred or hidden in the shadows, and what little detail she noted had faded by the time she awoke. Her memory of him was foggy, and she wondered how much of it was real and how much a product of her imagination, inventions to fill in the growing number of gaps. Ah, well, it didn't matter anymore. He had been gone for so very, very long, and it had been for the best. There were worse things than death.
"You said 203, right?" She jumped at the sound of her current lover's deep, raspy voice. She stepped past his bulky frame and looked up at the numbers on the door. The zero leaned drunkenly against the two, and the black paint that covered them was peeling by various degrees. They had arrived.
"This is it, Del," she confirmed. She looked up at his face, her blue eyes gazing into the sea green depths of his. "Are you sure about this?"
She shivered at the look in his eyes. "I told you before, Ellen, I'd do anything for you. All you gotta do is ask."
She nodded, then knocked timidly on the door. They waited a moment, but the door remained closed. What if he wasn't home? What if, after the endless months of waiting, she missed him? She felt a growing desperation, a fear that they had risked all for nothing.
The door shook under the force of Del's pounding, and his efforts were rewarded.
"Shit! If I open this door and find a damn salesman, I swear to God I'm gonna kill him. Got nothin' better to do than bug the hell outta people." The door swung open as the occupant continued his tirade. "All I can say is you'd damn well better be Ed McMahon with a check for ten mil--"
He looks even worse than the last time. "Shriveled" didn't do him justice. She'd seen prunes with fewer wrinkles. No, the only word that could describe him was "withered." She considered her plan and grimly decided she was doing him a favor. She watched as recognition dawned in his grey eyes, and a crooked caricature of a smile pulled at his lips.
He stared at her, apparently speechless. He swallowed a few times, then shook his head. "Damn, woman, you've thrown me a curve. I don't know what to say."
"How about 'come in'?"
"Oh, yeah, I guess that'd be alright." He moved aside, then looked questioningly at her as Del followed her in.
"Ernie, this is Del Harper."
"Huh. Nice to meet you." Ernie held out his hand, but Del ignored it. Ernie shrugged, bringing the proffered hand to his mouth as he coughed.
Probably emphysema. The stench of stale cigarette smoke tickled her nose, and a grey-blue haze, made visible by the late afternoon sunlight filtering through a lone window, floated lazily at eye level. Definitely doing him a favor, a merciful favor. "How are you doing, Ernie?"
He shrugged again. "No complaints. I get by. You haven't changed much. I see you still like yellow," he said, indicating the dress she wore, the bodice visible beneath her coat. He scratched the side of his face, squinting at her. "Look, I don't wanna seem rude or nothin', but what are you doin' here, Ellie? I mean, it's been years," he hooked his thumb at Del as the larger man shuffled around the apartment, looking here and there, "and it ain't like you're hurtin' for company."
"I came about Davy." Her words hung between them for a moment, then were batted roughly aside by a quick, harsh laugh that cut deep into her core.
"Davy?" he spoke the name as if its very utterance was unbearably bitter. "A bit late, ain't you? In case you haven't heard, the kid's dead." Another cough, more rheumy this time, and Ernie pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and spat.
"I know. They told me."
"Good riddance, I say."
Ellen fought the urge to scream at him, to claw his eyes from his face, to sink her nails into his flesh, to..."That's no way to talk about our son, Ernie."
"Our son? Hell, Ellie, we may have brought him into this world, but he was the devil's own."
"No!" She felt the hard-fought-for control start to slip, then recovered as Del's wanderings led him into her line of sight, directly behind her former husband. "He was our child."
"He was a monster," Ernie corrected, turning away and nearly barreling into Del as he walked past him and into another room. He returned seconds later, a number of newspapers in his hand, and thrust them towards her. "Here! You wanna see what that little bastard did? Wanna read about all the people he killed? There!" He flung the papers at her feet. "Some kids get mentioned in the paper 'cause they play a good game, or they get some big scholarship. Not Davy. Our kid makes it to the front page 'cause he's a serial killer."
She knelt to pick up the newspapers, fingering them as if they were fine parchment. She unfolded each one carefully, scanning the headlines, until she came to the last. There, under the glaring headline, was his photograph. Davy. She let the others fall to the floor.
Her son. Her baby. She traced the face with her fingertip, imagining the smooth texture of his skin in place of the paper's dry, flat surface. Her Davy. She could hear Ernie from a distance, but found it hard to concentrate on his words. Her Davy was gone.
"...damn kid was killing people, then trying to become them. Even passed himself off as a woman once. Killed a lady, then went to her funeral in her clothes, driving her car."
Ellen's eyes drifted to the man before her, a grizzled shell of a man really, and felt her hatred for him begin to boil once more. "You let them kill him."
Ernie snorted. "They did us a favor. One guy even said that Davy probably killed Jimmy. Think about it, Ellie. We never did find out why Jimmy died, but all of the sudden Davy's runnin' around in some of his clothes, starts tryin' to act like him." Ernie met her gaze. "They didn't kill him, Ellen. They put the sick son of a bitch out of his misery. Think of it as a mercy killing."
"You let them kill him."
"I didn't do nothin'. A cop shot him. He was gettin' ready to kill again...some college kid, I think. Came pretty close to it, I heard." Ernie pointed at the newspaper in her hand. "It's all there. He had on a wig and some of the kid's clothes, tryin' to look like him. Was gonna take his place, too, I guess. Just about did."
Ellen felt a flutter in her heart and clasped at her throat. "Take his place?"
Ernie continued as if he hadn't heard her. "I wonder how long it would've gone on, how many more he would've killed, how many more people he would've 'become'?" He coughed and spat again. "He was evil, Ellie. I knew it. You knew it. Hell, maybe we should've killed him ourselves. There was a time I thought you would."
She narrowed her eyes, glaring at him. "He was our son. I loved him."
"You had a strange way of showin' it."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"God, woman, you've got a selective memory." He moved a bit closer to her and lowered his voice. "I know what you did to him, Ellie. We might not've been livin' together then, but I still dropped by to see him. I remember how red and raw his skin was after one of your 'baths.' You just about scrubbed him to the bone. I saw the bruises, too, and the marks that belt left on him. And there were...other things, things that were happening before the divorce, things that never stopped." He took a step back from her. "Maybe I should've stopped you or something. Maybe I should've got you both some help. I don't know, and it's too late to care. He's dead and I can't say...won't say I'm sorry."
He truly is pathetic. Any doubts she may have harbored disappeared as she caught Del's attention and nodded. "It's time to leave." She smiled at Ernie. "It was nice to see you again, Ernie. Thank you."
She saw the confusion in Ernie's face turn to horror as Del shoved a knife into his back. Her former husband tried to break away, but Del held him in place, working the knife. She noted with detached interest as Ernie's eyes began to glaze, as he gasped unsuccessfully for breath, as his body slipped to the floor. Her eyes traveled from Ernie's body to that of her lover's, her passions stirring as she watched him use Ernie's own shirt to wipe the blood from the knife before placing it into the deep pocket of his oversized trench coat. Yet another task completed to perfection.
Del looked at her expectantly...like a dog waiting for his treat...good boy. She walked around the body littering the floor and slid her arms around Del's waist, enduring his hungry kisses and roving hands, demanding his usual payment for a job well done. She allowed him to touch and taste only for a moment, then pulled away from him, ignoring his frustrated attempts to reengage.
"Not here, Del," she admonished. "Wait 'til we get home. Besides, we're not finished yet."
Del's hands dropped to his sides. "What do you mean, 'not finished'?"
Ellen clutched the newspaper to her heart like a long lost child. "Didn't you hear what Ernie said about Davy? How he became other people?"
"Yeah. So what?"
"They killed him before he had a chance to finish the last one," she whispered, as much for her own benefit as for Del's. She needed to hear herself say it, to give her thoughts form and substance. "He left his own body, and they killed him before he could return." She threw herself into Del's arms, hugging him tightly. "He's still here, Del. He's still alive!"
She did not resist as Del detached her from his neck. "Ellen, that's crazy. The cops shot him. He's dead and buried."
"They killed his body," she insisted, "not his soul. He's still here, Del. Please, baby, help me find him. Help me get my son back." She pressed her body against his, trailed a single finger along his jaw, then kissed him deeply, using her body to persuade him in a way her words could not. Finally she pulled away, sensing his capitulation in his body's responses.
She gave him a quick peck, then held up the newspaper, pointing to one of the many photographs that accompanied the story. "With him," she said, indicating a blurry snapshot of a young man with flowing dark hair.
"That's it, baby. Yeah, right there. Oh, you're sooo good, baby." Jim closed his eyes in blissful release. God, he loved feeling this way! Strong...superior...masculine...he was king of the mountain! It was such a rush...God, he was ready to go at it again!
"Um, Jim," a familiar voice broke through his reverie, "I'm glad that you finally figured out how to access the property room files, but you might want to keep the monologue down, man, 'cause you're getting some really weird looks."
Jim glanced past the computer's monitor. His partner was not exaggerating. Rafe was smiling behind the hand that covered his mouth, Rhonda was fanning herself with a manila folder while batting her eyelids, and Brown...Brown was resting his chin upon his clasped hands, winking and pursing his lips, blowing kisses. Everyone else had the good sense to look busy, but these few were evidently not intimidated by the legendary wrath of Ellison. Jim grinned sheepishly, turned to speak to his partner and ended up nose to nose with a hairy-faced beast.
"Sandburg, what the hell are you doing?"
The beast sighed heavily. "You're supposed to be scared, man."
"Why? It's the same face I see every morning.?"
"Har-har." Blair pulled the mask over his head, eased it over his ponytail and began twirling it on his index finger. "I'm giving a lecture today on the monster legends of various cultures. You know, werewolves--fact or fiction?"
Jim smiled wryly. "Welcome, students, to Bogeyman 101."
"No, really," Blair continued, his interest in the subject reflected in his sparkling eyes and animated gestures. "Monster myths reveal a great deal about the cultures and societies that create them. Their fears, their desires, their taboos--they come to life as things that go bump in the night. For instance, the Kuu believe--"
"Speaking of monsters..." Blair muttered under his breath.
Jim smacked Blair on the back of his head as he rose from his chair. "Be nice," he admonished as he ushered his smaller partner ahead of him toward the captain's office door. They entered and stood before Simon's desk.
Jim watched as Simon opened his mouth to speak, then clamped it shut, his eyes falling upon the hairy mass wadded in Blair's hand.
"Pet tribble having a bad hair day, Sandburg?"
"Uh, no sir." He cleared his throat, and Jim heard his voice switch into scholar mode. "Actually, I'm giving a lecture about the monster myths of various cultures. For instance, the Kuu believe--"
Simon waved his hand. "I don't want to know. I've got all the monsters I can handle walking the streets of this city." He took a breath, continued to look at Blair, then shifted his gaze to Jim.
Jim stiffened. He'd seen it before, this visual assessment which Simon performed, and had learned to read it well. A quick glance at Blair accompanied by eye contact with Jim meant that Simon was calculating the risk of including a civilian observer in police business; reversed, it was Sentinel related and would rely heavily upon the Guide's input. But the exchange Jim had witnessed was the one he feared the most. Whatever the problem, it somehow involved Blair, and he could tell from Simon's hesitancy that the captain was uncertain how to proceed.
Jim stretched out an arm, caught the door, and gave it a slight push. It closed with a quiet click, and he turned back to the man seated behind the desk. "What is it, Simon?"
Simon left his chair and walked around his desk. He perched on the edge of it and indicated that Jim and Blair should be seated. Another bad sign--he wanted them to get comfortable. Jim decided to forego his usual chair, choosing instead to sit beside his partner on the edge of the long conference table in the center of the room. His longer legs permitted him to sit further back, and he casually placed his arm slightly behind Blair so that the smaller man was close to his side. He was conscious of his body language, yet it was as involuntary as his next breath. Instinct demanded it, and who was he to argue with nature? He tuned into his Guide's heartbeat as Simon began.
"We just received a call. There was a homicide on the south side, over on Sturbridge. I want the two of you to check it out." The captain returned his attention to Blair. "When is your class?"
"Not until ten," the grad student replied. "I'll drive the Volvo so I can head out after we're through."
Simon nodded, his eyes remaining on Blair much longer, in Jim's opinion, than was necessary. Time to push.
"What's bothering you, sir?" Jim waited for the captain's eyes to swing back to him before continuing. "Is there something we should know?"
"The murder victim's name is Ernest Lash."
Just the slightest skip, an extra thump or two, and then Blair's heart resumed its normal rhythm. His breath caught once, and the smaller body leaned infinitesimally closer. None of his reactions would have been visible to Simon, but Jim heard and felt every single one.
"You okay, Chief?"
Jim saw the Sandburg b.s. veil slip firmly into place. "I'm fine."
"Are you sure, Sandburg?" Simon looked no more convinced than Jim felt.
Blair sighed. "Yes, Simon, I'm sure. I'll admit, I wasn't prepared to hear that name again, but it's in the past."
Jim acknowledged Simon's questioning look with a shrug and stood, tugging at Blair's sleeve to indicate it was time to leave. "I'll ride down with Sandburg, then catch a ride back in one of the units." He opened the door and waited for Blair to exit, then added quietly, "I'll give you a full report when I return, sir."
Simon nodded. Message received.
"Nice neighborhood," Blair mumbled.
"Not too far from your old 'apartment,' Chief," Jim reminded him.
"Hey, my warehouse was Beverly Hills compared to Sturbridge. We had a better class of vermin."
Jim raised his hand, resting along the back of the Volvo's front seat, and tapped Blair lightly on his shoulder. "You can always move back if you want."
"Nah, I'll stay where I'm at," he stated firmly, looking at Jim from the corner of his eye. "The landlord's a jerk, but tolerable. I miss the rats, though."
Jim smiled and shook his head. He knew the chance of Blair relocating was nil, not just because his partner was content with his current living arrangements at the loft, but for the pure and simple fact that Jim would not permit it. It was much easier to keep an eye on his friend if Blair remained in the near vicinity or, better yet, at Jim's side. Sharing the loft was a small price to pay for a healthy Guide.
Of course, even having him in the loft is no guarantee of safety. Jim's smile faded, the intrusive thought an unpleasant dose of reality. The loft had offered no protection against David Lash.
Lash...he'd really hoped he'd heard the last of that name. It was one of the few times Jim had killed someone without a tinge of regret, and even after Lash lay dead, his body riddled with bullets, his open eyes forever sightless, it hadn't ended. Not for Blair, and therefore not for Jim. He would never forget the absolute terror in the kid's eyes when he had returned to free him from that damned dentist's chair. He would never forget Blair's uncharacteristic silence, as if the words he'd used to taunt Lash, to let the murdering psychopath know in no uncertain terms he could never be Blair Sandburg, had drained his vast language reservoir. He would never forget how sleepy mutterings had quickly escalated into screams as dream evolved into nightmare. He would never forget waking up the next morning, spooned behind his friend on the cramped little bed, gratified that his presence had chased away the demons of sleep and vowing to spend any number of nights in the same spot until Blair regained his balance.
And now this. Their interview with Ernie Lash was another thing he would never forget. The man had been a walking "don't" poster for fatherhood. He had obviously been aware that his son's behavior was odd, and had even spoken of the probable abuse young David Lash had endured at the hands of his equally disturbed mother, yet he had done nothing to stop it. He had sat in the interrogation room, smoking his way through several cigarettes, and had admitted that he wished his own son dead.
Well, his wish had been granted, and the very man who had desired an end to his son's life had joined his child in whatever awaited souls such as theirs. It's over, Jim realized as they pulled into a parking space in front of the shabby apartment building. The end.
Jim's nose wrinkled as they walked through the main entrance and climbed the stairwell. Mildew, rotting wood, urine, sweat...he felt himself zoning as his brain automatically tried to categorize the numerous smells assaulting his olfactory system.
"Jim? C'mon, man, don't do this now. Listen to my--"
"I'm fine," he assured Blair. "I just wasn't ready for the quantity of...um, aromas."
"I know what you mean. It's almost too much for me. I guess if you live with it everyday you get used to it."
As they climbed the stairs in companionable silence, Jim monitored Blair's vitals. A slight elevation in heart rate, but no faster than the kid normally exhibited when approaching a crime scene. He relaxed, but only minutely. Blair seemed okay, but he'd wait a few days before sounding the all clear. Lash still invaded his own memories on occasion, and he wouldn't be surprised to see the familiar terror resurface in Blair. Jim knew that his partner's psyche was strong, but Lash had proven to be one phantom that haunted them both.
An open door and yellow crime scene tape greeted them as they approached the second floor apartment. Jim ducked under the tape but moved no further into the room until he'd had a chance to look at the condition of the corpse. It had been covered by a coroner's sheet, and blood was visible on the floor surrounding it. He stepped away from the door, allowing Blair to enter, but placed himself between the younger man and the body, effectively blocking the view.
"Okay, Jim," Blair began, his hand on Jim's arm, his voice low and measured. "Make a general sweep. We'll start with the obvious. Do you see or smell anything that doesn't seem to belong?"
Jim inhaled, then winced. Damn, the place stank! He singled out, identified, and discarded the various smells, finally settling on four he deemed worthy of additional attention. The strongest was blood...well, no mystery there. He tossed it onto his mental scrap heap. Two had distinct chemical bases, but were vastly different in scent. One was sharp and spicy, the other floral, cloying and sweet. The last...he shook his head. The world was full of sick people.
"Well?" Blair was looking at him expectantly.
"There were two people here, a man and a woman. I can smell cologne or aftershave, and perfume." He scanned the apartment, eliminating everyone, including the cold form that littered the floor. "And somebody got a little excited."
"There is the distinct...odor...of arousal. Male arousal."
Blair blinked owlishly, mouthing a silent "oh." Jim watched his partner glance around at the other officers milling about the apartment, then smiled when Blair's eyes returned to him, eyebrows raised, questioning.
"No, Sandburg. It's no one here." He looked at the body on the floor, a sick feeling growing in his stomach. "Whoever killed Ernie here must have found the process very stimulating."
"The world is full of weirdos, Jim. Cascade just seems to be their favorite hang out."
Jim spotted a familiar face and waved. "Harrison, what's the story here?" He waited patiently as the attractive woman gave a nearby uniform some instructions, then sauntered toward him, a Mona Lisa smile gracing her lips.
"Ellison. Things so slow in Major Crimes that they send you on a routine homicide call?" The tall blonde winked at Jim then turned to Blair. "Hey, gorgeous, wouldn't you rather transfer to Homicide and partner with me instead of tagging along behind ol' Rushmore?"
Jim met Blair's quizzical glance with his best icy stare, but to no avail. "Rushmore?"
Jim fixed the homicide detective with an identical look, but it was obvious that the woman was no more intimidated than his partner. "Yeah, as in Mount Rushmore...strong, silent, jaw of granite...bit of a blockhead. I started calling him that back in his Vice days. Fits, don't you think?"
Jim placed a hand firmly over Blair's mouth before the anthropologist could reply. "Do you think we could get back to business?"
Harrison winked at Blair this time, then consulted her notes. "Not much to tell, Jim. No witnesses, at least none that are talking, but that's not unusual for this area. The deceased is Ernest Lash." She glanced up from her notepad. "By the way, he's the father of that psycho that was running around here a while back."
Jim kept his eyes on his fellow officer, but his ears were busy elsewhere. Blair's heart sped up just a tad, and he heard the young man take a calming breath. He was fine. "Yeah, we know, Ginny."
"Oh, that's right," she said quietly. She peered at her notes once again, her discomfort obvious. "Um, the deceased was stabbed in the back. We'll have to wait for the coroner's official report, but there seems to be only one wound. From the large quantity of blood, I'd guess the killer knew what he was doing. A twist here and there can do a significant amount of damage to the internal organs."
"And no one saw anything."
Harrison wagged her finger. "I didn't say that. I said no one's talking."
"So we have nothing?"
"There was no sign of forced entry, so we can assume the victim knew the killer or at least didn't feel threatened. Forensics should finish up soon, and they've taken a few samples, so we'll have to wait and see."
Jim nodded absently. The information he had gleaned from the scene would serve no purpose at this point, not to mention that he'd have a hard time explaining it. He needed to do a little investigating himself on this one. "Listen, Ginny, I don't want to step on anyone's toes, but--"
"--but you'd like to check some things on your own." Jim searched her face, but there was nothing but sincerity and understanding. "Sounds good to me. Maybe between the two of us we can keep this one out of the 'unsolved' drawer."
"Thanks." Jim hadn't missed her surreptitious peek at Blair during their exchange. She knew that Jim's interest was personal, and her willingness to include him in the investigation in light of this hadn't surprised him. She was as good as they came.
"I'll call when I hear something." Harrison brought her hand to the side of her forehead in a mock salute. "See you later, Rushmore." She turned to leave, then tossed over her shoulder, "Sandburg! I'll call you later and we'll have a long talk."
"I'm looking forward to it," Blair managed to squeak out as Jim pushed him back into the hallway. "Rushmore. Man, that is so you."
Jim tried his icy stare once more, only to have his guide dissolve into laughter. Damn, he was losing his touch. "Don't you have a class to teach, Junior?"
Blair grabbed Jim's arm and looked at the watch on his wrist. "Yeah, I'd better hit the road."
Jim followed Blair around to the driver's side of the Volvo and leaned on the open door as the younger man slid behind the steering wheel. "You'll be in this afternoon?"
"Yep. I'll call before I leave campus to give you an E.T.A."
"Good. See you later." Jim shut the door and stepped back as Blair put the car into gear and pulled away from the curb. He was preparing to reenter the apartment building when he heard the Volvo stop.
Blair cranked his window down. "See you later, Rushmore."
"I know where you live, Sandburg!" he called as the Volvo accelerated into traffic.
"So, as you can see, monster myths have performed a variety of functions: to explain the unknown, to insulate the culture from outside influences, to encourage conformity among its members and deter them from engaging in undesirable behaviors, and yes, to keep children from misbehaving." Blair paused as his students traded knowing glances and "naughty child" comments and gestures. "The fear of monsters is one of the few fears that we carry into adulthood because its origin is in our mistrust of the unknown."
"Wait a sec." Blair noticed a denizen from the back row rising from his slouched position.
Wade Thurman...Mr. I'd-rather-be-playing-football who told me Day One that he was here only for the credit and has never made an effort to participate. Well, lo and behold, the dead have arisen. "Yes, Wade?"
"I'm an adult, and I don't believe in monsters." The impressively muscular young man sat up straight, a transparent attempt to show that with his physique it was the monsters that should be trembling with fear.
"Good for you," Blair commended, "but the monsters we encounter as adults take nontraditional forms." He began to pace in front of the class, making eye contact with several students, but especially with Wade. "They're no longer the snaggle-toothed bogeymen that hide under your bed or in the closet. Sometimes they appear as ideas or beliefs. Bigotry, for example, is a societal monster." Blair watched as, one by one, his students began to follow his line of thought. "People who don't understand another race, ethnic group, religion, et cetera, fear it. The difference is that, unlike children, they cloak their fear and misunderstanding under a mantle of hatred or violence."
Wade gave a short, quick nod. "Okay, so you're saying that the monsters of the adult world are all up here." He tapped his finger against his temple. "They're figments of our imaginations, in a manner of speaking."
"Yes, in some cases, they most certainly are. Those are the monsters we can defeat with education and cultural awareness programs."
"What do you mean 'in some cases'? You think there are some real monsters out there?"
"Most definitely, and they're the most difficult to detect."
Blair stopped pacing, choosing instead to lean against the desk at the front of the room. He picked up his werewolf mask and began to fluff its shaggy mane. He spoke almost casually, curious as to the reaction his next few words would garner.
"Because they look just like you and me."
Wade waited until the laughter around him had settled. "Professor, I'll admit that I'm pretty scaring looking before I've had my first cup of coffee in the morning, but a monster? Next you'll be telling us vampires and werewolves are walking the streets of Cascade."
Blair cast his eyes down at the mask in his hands then smiled at Wade and arched his eyebrows. "Maybe not in that sense, Wade, but consider this: it's Hungary, at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, in the early 1600's. You're one of the local villagers, an undereducated, superstitious tradesman. One day, you stumble upon the corpses of four young girls, their bodies mutilated, covered with puncture wounds, drained of blood. Keeping in mind who and where your are, what is the most likely explanation?"
Wade appeared to mull it over, then shrugged. "A monster."
Blair nodded. "And that was the widely held belief until the villagers discovered the truth. The 'monster' was a human being, a woman, Countess Elizabeth Bathory. She believed that bathing in the blood of young girls would keep her young and beautiful. One of her favorite devices was a kind of iron maiden, one with spikes. She would sit underneath it as it was closed around the unfortunate girl." The students exchanged looks of disgust and horror, and Blair pressed home his point. "Not a monster in the traditional sense. Not a vampire. A human being, just like you and me." Blair glanced at the timer on the desk. Time to wrap up. "One final question before you leave. Tim," he pointed to a tall, lanky young man in the process of shoving his notes into a text, "who was Frankenstein?"
Tim stuck his arms out straight in front of him and thrust out his lower jaw, exposing the teeth. "Big guy. Green skin. Bolts on his neck."
"No," Blair countered, laughing. "That was The Creature, the result of one man's attempt to play God. Frankenstein was the doctor, the human being who created The Creature, yet it is his name that we always associate with the monster." He waved his hand toward the lecture hall's wide doors. "See you next Tuesday, and don't forget to read chapters seven and eight."
Blair stood by the desk as the last of the students filed through the doors. He grinned as Wade waved good-bye, expecting that within a week the jock and former hold out would be sitting somewhere near the front row.
He gathered his notes and placed them in his bookbag, followed by his werewolf mask. A worthy investment. Maybe he should hang it on the wall in his office. Or better yet, the loft. Wonder how long it would take Jim to realize there was something unusual about the wall decor? And speaking of Jim...he grabbed his cell phone from his bookbag and hit the autodial.
"Hi, Chief. Finished for the day?"
"Yeah," he zipped up his bag and walked through the doors. "I'm gonna stop by the loft to change into something warmer before I head your direction. I think we've used up our three allotted days of sunshine for the year."
He heard Jim's quiet laugh, figuring that Jim would be shaking his head at Blair's intolerance for low temperatures. "Well, bundle up, Frosty. We're heading down to Sturbridge to see if any of the non-witnesses have remembered anything."
"Oh, lovely. Okay, I'll be there in about 45, maybe an hour."
"Great. Oh, and Sandburg?"
"Leave the mask at home."
"Jim, I'm not a child, you know."
"Right. See you soon."
Blair stopped just inside Hargrove's main doors and unzipped his bookbag just enough to slip the cell into an inner pocket, muttering about humorless, staid, anal-retentive cops. No, he wouldn't hang the mask on the loft's wall.
It would look much better perched on the top shelf in the refrigerator, covering one of Jim's color-coded Tupperware bowls.
Her eyes never left him as he crossed the street to the parking lot. He was the one. So different from her Davy in appearance, but the body was just a facade, a shell that housed the soul, and she knew, beyond any doubt, that Davy had to be inside that shell. He stopped by an older model car and climbed in.
"That's him," she whispered. She heard Del turn the ignition and felt a moment's panic. "What if we lose him on the freeway?"
"We have his home address. He has to go there eventually."
"What if he doesn't want to come?" She let her eyes drift from the other car to Del, her breath catching when he met her gaze. Such cold eyes.
"I've got something that'll convince him."
She let the breath she was holding escape through her lips. Soon.
Blair dropped his bookbag on the kitchen counter with a resounding thunk then rubbed his arms vigorously. Geez, he was freezing! The front had moved in more quickly then predicted, and Cascade was once again cold and damp. His lightweight jacket had proven useless against the drastic drop in temperature, and the Volvo's heater hadn't produced enough heat to break the chill that was settling into his bones.
"Somewhere in this world it's sunny and in the 80's," he mumbled to himself, taking off his jacket and hanging it on a hook. "I oughta find out where and spend a week observing the culture. Their native dress, their recreational habits, their mating rituals...I wonder how much an airline ticket to Miami would cost?"
Well, there was always his usual recourse: layers and layers. He rubbed his hands together in anticipation. Ah, yes! Start with a nice, short-sleeved cotton tee, add one plush flannel shirt, and top it off with Jim's old Cascade P. D. sweatshirt...if it was clean. Okay, clean wasn't a solid prerequisite. If it didn't smell bad.
He was headed toward his room, trying to define the parameters of "bad," when he heard a knock at the door. He did an about-face, playing a round of "who could that be" in his mind as he approached the door, then opened it.
He knew her. He'd never met her before, yet somehow he knew her. Not her name, but her face. It was nightmarishly familiar. So pasty and pallid, almost bloodless against the yellow blouse she was wearing. Yellow? She smiled. He'd seen that smile before, those thin lips...no, not a smile, not really. Smiles were warm and safe...that smile had been neither. It had been sinister, deadly. And her eyes...he had stared into those same eyes, and in doing so had peered into evil unimaginable.
He shook himself, vaguely aware that she had said something. "I'm sorry?"
"I said our car broke down just outside, and I wanted to know if we could use the phone?"
We? Blair suddenly realized there was a second, much larger figure in the hallway, a man who appeared to take an inordinate amount of interest in what little of the loft was visible through the open door. It was too bizarre. Why had they walked up three flights of stairs to borrow the phone when there businesses and other residences on the ground floor? He heard a voice within himself, a voice that sounded amazingly like Jim, quoting one of the tenets of self-preservation: never allow strangers into the loft.
"Um, just a moment and I'll bring it to you." Good, Sandburg. Be very polite and courteous. "Do you need the phonebook as well?"
The woman stepped forward, one thin, pale hand reaching out, reaching toward him. "Davy?"
Blair jerked away, instinct taking over. He pushed on the door, then watched in horror as a large, booted foot placed itself against the doorjamb. He was propelled backwards as a solid mass thrust the door inward. He fell back against the small table by the door, knocking it over, but regained his balance. He broke to his left as the man entered the loft, dashing toward his room and the back exit within it.
"Stop or I'll put a bullet in your back."
Blair froze. The voice left no room for dispute. He slowly raised his arms and turned to face the intruder. The woman had entered the loft as well. She was smaller, her countenance less threatening, yet Blair couldn't shake the impression that she was infinitely more dangerous.
"C'mere." The man waved the gun, indicating that Blair should move closer. He willed himself to do so, taking deep calming breaths in an attempt to slow his racing heart. He had no idea what was going on, but any action on his part would require a clear head. Maybe he could yell, or push the guy out of the way, or--
The man cocked the gun and placed the barrel against his forehead. "You try anything and I'll blow your brains out. Understand?"
Blair started to nod, then thought better of it. He'd hate for the man's finger to slip at an inopportune moment. "I understand."
"Del," the woman placed a hand on his gun arm and squeezed it, "don't hurt him." Blair held his breath, praying the added pressure wouldn't cause an involuntary finger constriction.
"If he's a good boy, I won't have to." The man pressed the gun more firmly against Blair's head. "You're gonna be a good boy, aren't you?"
"Yeah," Blair replied, exhaling gently. "I'll be good."
"Wise decision. Now, we're all gonna walk out the door and get on the elevator and go out the back entrance. Then we're gonna get in the car and take a drive, just like one big happy family." The man lowered the gun, slipped it into his coat pocket and then placed his arm around the woman's shoulders, his eyes never leaving Blair. "Keep this in mind--any problems, I'll shoot you, then I'll walk out to the street and start shooting anyone who crosses my path."
Blair nodded, then proceeded the couple out the door. He knew better than to wish that Jim would miraculously appear. There was simply no chance. Jim was waiting for him at the station. He had no reason to suspect that Blair was in trouble. He wouldn't even know anything was amiss for a couple of hours. A lot could happen in that amount of time.
A clang from the elevator drew Blair's attention. Someone was coming up. He glanced back at the man...Del...hoping this wouldn't be classified as a "problem." Del removed his arm from around the woman and patted his pocket with his hand. Blair swallowed convulsively, then turned to face the elevator as the door slid open.
"Blair! Lord in heaven, child, where have you been? It's been days since I've seen you."
"Hi, Mrs. Gunderson." He stepped into the woman's open arms to receive a hug. "Um, I've been pretty busy with classes." Oh, God. Don't hurt her! She's just a sweet, harmless old woman, a grandmother. She feeds stray cats and makes the best almond strudel and is knitting me a blue sweater and is totally harmless. Blair felt his hands start to shake as he left the woman's warm embrace.
"Well, don't make yourself sick, you hear me?" She looked past him and smiled. "Kids these days, " she addressed the two strangers. "They burn the candle at both ends and in the middle." She returned her gaze to Blair, awaiting the obvious. He couldn't ignore her, he couldn't risk her life, and yet--
"Um, Mrs. Gunderson, these are the...Smiths. They're friends of my father's."
Mrs. Gunderson reached around him and stuck out her hand. The other woman blanched, but the man didn't miss a beat. "Pleased to meet you," he said, taking the hand in his own. "You'll have to forgive my wife. Arthritis."
"Oh, I understand entirely. This weather can't be helping any, either." Apparently satisfied, Mrs. Gunderson pulled back from the trio. "Well, I won't delay you any longer. You enjoy your time together." She started toward her own apartment. "Oh, Blair? Tell Jim I'm baking strudel this afternoon." She winked and waved goodbye.
"I'll tell him," he called back. He watched her progress down the hallway, relief nearly overwhelming him as she arrived at her apartment door, unlocked it, and entered. She was safe.
"See? That wasn't so difficult, was it?" The man ushered him toward the elevator.
"No," Blair whispered as they stepped into the small metal box. "Not difficult at all."
Jim glanced at his watch then back at the report before him. He shrugged and tossed it back into his inbox. Blair should be here any minute, so the file could wait for him. He had to leave Sandburg something to do, didn't he? Besides, it seemed that whenever the kid had a free moment he was devising some new test, so why not keep him busy?
Jim cast his eyes around the bullpen, focusing on all the other inboxes. How many reports could he collect before Blair popped in?
Del focused on the traffic ahead, determined not to look at her again, at what she was doing. He'd already seen enough, and all it had done was stoke the fire in his gut. God, she was practically all over the kid, touching him and kissing him. It made him sick! He'd given up everything for her, had broken probation, had broken the law, yet she rationed herself to him a morsel at a time. Sure, sometimes he ignored her refusals and took what he wanted anyway, but she stayed with him, so obviously she enjoyed it. They had a good thing going.
Now this kid comes along and she can't keep her hands off of him. If she'd treated her real son this way, no wonder he'd been a screw up. Well, he'd let her have her way for now. He had stuff to keep the kid quiet and pliable, and that would keep her happy. If she ever decided that two was more than she could handle, if she let that punk come between them...well, little "Davy" would meet with a nasty accident.
Del Harper was nobody's fool.
Jim pulled the phone receiver away from his ear and glared at it, his expression demanding that it produce something other than incessant ringing. Why the hell wasn't Sandburg answering?
"This is the end you talk to," a dark finger tapped on the phone's mouthpiece, then moved to the opposite end, "and this is the end you listen to. C'mon, Detective Jim. Figure it out."
Jim transferred his glare from the phone to his captain. "Thank you, sir. I treasure your invaluable assistance." He placed the receiver back onto its cradle. "I was trying to reach Blair. He's not answering the phone."
"Any phone. I've called his office, the loft, his cell...nada."
Simon shrugged. "Probably got sidetracked by something. A pretty female something."
"Maybe." Jim grinned, but the anxiety remained. Something wasn't right.
"Anything on the Lash case yet?"
"Only what I reported earlier."
"Perfume and aftershave aren't much to go on, Jim."
"Forensics hasn't had enough time to compile their report."
"What about witnesses?"
"That's what Sandburg and I intend to check out, if he ever gets here."
Simon came around to Jim's side of the desk and sat on the edge. "How's the kid handling this?"
"He's okay," Jim assured him. "Ernie Lash wasn't a particularly pleasant person, but he was a damn sight better than his son. Blair's not going to lose sleep over this one."
Simon sighed. "I don't know. In his own way, the father was almost as bad as his son."
Jim gaped at Simon. "Come again? Simon, David Lash was a serial killer. He murdered four people. My partner was almost number five, which in itself is enough to put him at the top of my list."
Simon held up his hand, and Jim willed himself to rein in the emotions that had threatened to bubble to the surface. He hadn't yet found a way to put the whole Lash incident behind him, at least not where Blair was concerned. It had been too close.
"I'm not ignoring Lash's crimes, Jim, but as a father I can't overlook Ernie's failure to act when he realized there was something definitely weird going on in his kid's mind. He also knew his wife was abusive, but he did nothing to intervene. Yes, David Lash was a monster, but his father had a hand in his creation."
Jim rubbed the back of his neck, surprised to discover how tensed he'd become in the course of the conversation. "David Lash knew the difference between right and wrong, Simon. He chose to kill. Yeah, his childhood was lousy, but ultimately he was responsible for his own actions." Simon's lips turned upward in one of those know-it-all smiles that Jim found annoying. "What?"
"When the topic of conversation pertains to one Blair Sandburg, your objectivity flies out the window."
"And speaking of Sandburg...," Jim reached for the phone once again, effectively ending the discussion. He knew Simon was probably right, but he wasn't going to admit it. He considered himself a reasonably tolerant man with a well-defined sense of justice and fair play, but Blair was his blind spot. Where his friend's safety was concerned there were no grey areas.
He pulled the receiver away from his ear and glared at it yet again.
"No answer?" Simon's voice reflected the worry that Jim felt.
"No. Look, if it's okay with you--"
"Go," the captain ordered. "Call when you find out what's going on."
Jim rose from his chair and started for the elevator. He felt the urge to run, to scramble into his truck and hit the sirens and lights, but suppressed it. No need to overreact.
"If he was distracted by a 'female something,' get him fixed."
"I'll perform the surgery myself, sir."
She hated this. She hated him when he did this. She hated them all, every one of them--her father, the boys in school, Ernie, Del, and all those in between. She hated what they did to her and how they made her feel.
Oh, she'd let each of them think they were the best. She'd wrapped her legs around each and moaned or thrashed or screamed, depending upon the man and his preference. And she'd done other things as well, things that people spoke of only in muted tones, their voices dripping with disgust, while in their closets they hid magazines and books and videos. She'd done it all and it had served her purpose. It was amazing what a woman could get from a man for the price of her body.
But she still hated it. She felt so...dirty. She'd thought that would change as she got older. She had thought she'd feel differently after she got away from her father, after she had put some miles between her and the endless parade of high school boys who had passed her around like a worthless penny. She'd moved away, married Ernie, and expected it would all fade away. But it hadn't.
Until Davy. Their time together had offered respite from the constant shame and sense of helplessness. Davy had been a godsend, and if Jimmy had lived she might have doubled her blessing, but he hadn't, so she'd come to depend upon Davy even more. He had become her world, her lifeline, her sanity. Then he had left and she thought she'd lost him forever, but now...now...
So, she would lie here, going through the motions, letting Del take his pleasure and giving him what he wanted in return. He exacted a high price, but Davy was worth the pain and humiliation.
Besides, her turn would come.
Jim turned the key, unlocking the door to the loft, but he knew that Blair was not inside. The Volvo was parked out front, but his partner's heartbeat was noticeably absent. Well, maybe the kid had left a note or something that would allow Jim to track him down. Of course, after Jim did find him, Blair would probably wish he'd never left any clue to his whereabouts, but that was something they'd work out between themselves.
Jim opened the door with one hand and rubbed at his nose with the other. Something tickled at it, something familiar. Had Blair been burning incense again? Well, whatever it was would have to wait. He was on the hunt.
He stepped through the doorway and walked directly to the phone. He hit the "play message" button, then proceeded to scan the area. No notes on the refrigerator or table, but Blair's bookbag was on the counter, so perhaps he'd just made a quick trip to the local grocery. Hadn't he said something last night about needing bread and coffee?
The second and final phone message ended. No luck there--both from him. Damn! Well, fine. He'd interview the witnesses who hadn't witnessed anything on his own, then spend the rest of the day plotting his guide's painful demise. He turned toward the door, but the sight that greeted him would not allow him breath, let alone mobility. The small table had been overturned, and the small basket and its contents lay scattered about.
The Volvo...the bookbag...no note...no heartbeat. Jim's paralysis was but a memory as he instantly metamorphosed into a whirlwind, rushing around the room, peering around corners, throwing open the French doors to Blair's room, mounting the stairs to his own two at a time, all the while calling for him yet praying he wouldn't find him. No heart beat.
There was no sign of him, a fact both terrifying and glorious. There was hope! He descended the stairs at a full run and grabbed up the phone, dialing frantically. How much time had passed? How much time had he wasted at the station, growing more frustrated with Blair's failure to show? Why hadn't he listened to that little voice, the same one that had warned him in the past, the one that had been nagging at him all afternoon, the one that was always right?
"This is Ellison. Patch me through to Captain Banks." Okay, take a deep breath. You're going to need your wits about you. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in--
"Simon, it's Jim. Sandburg's missing?" Breathe out.
"Are you sure?"
"Positive. His car is outside, his bookbag is sitting here, and there's sign of a struggle." Breathe in.
"Okay, I'll be there ASAP with help."
"What? Jim, what's wrong?"
"Oh God, Simon. It's the same! I just realized it's the same!"
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"The smells, Simon. Perfume and aftershave. They were here, in the loft!"
He was different, like night from day. Dark curls fanned out across the pillow, bearing no resemblance to the wispy dark blonde mane of before. When she ran her fingers through his hair they became entangled in the long, unruly mass. His facial structure was stronger, lacking the slender fragility with which she had been so familiar, and it would have taken her first Davy a day and a half to acquire the five o'clock shadow that she felt beneath her questing fingers. So different.
But that didn't matter. He was here, and he was hers. She bent and kissed his forehead, pleased to see the lipstick outline that remained. She had always loved leaving her mark on him, ruby red kisses on his face, his neck, his body. They'd play their game again, when he awoke. It would be like old times, like it had been when he was younger, when he was Momma's Boy.
She had been in control, had called the shots, and when she had finished, the burden of sin had rested with him. After the game, she would bathe him, scrubbing away the filth, washing clean the sinful body, leaving him perfect again. There had been times when he hadn't wanted to play the game, when he had smeared himself with his own bodily wastes, but in the end she had won. She'd cleaned him, disciplined him, then forced him to play anyway. By the time he was a teenager, he'd learned never to refuse her.
She looked back at the sleeping form lying on the bed beside her. It had been awhile, and in his new form he might not be so willing a participant, but eventually she would prevail. He was her boy, her Davy. He would wake soon, and then they'd play.
Simon entered the loft and nearly collided with Jim. Not good. The man was pacing like a caged animal...an extremely pissed caged animal. He leaned back through the doorway and addressed the two men waiting in the hallway.
"Rafe. Brown. The two of you start knocking on doors. Ask if anyone heard a disturbance or saw anything unusual. This crowd should be a bit more cooperative than the Sturbridge 'witnesses,' so do what you can to jog their memories."
"Yes, sir." Brown turned toward his partner. "You want this floor or the second?"
"The second," Rafe replied without hesitation. "It'll be quieter."
Simon watched as the two men went their separate ways. The relief on their faces would have been comical under other circumstances. They had no desire to face Ellison at a time like this. Hell, he wasn't even sure he wanted to, but he was the captain, and more importantly, Jim's friend. At a time like this, Jim needed someone to keep him balanced, to act as his voice of reason. "And guess who gets to play Horatio," he mumbled to himself as he stepped back into the loft and closed the door.
Jim had stopped pacing and stood at the balcony doors, his arms crossed, his body rigid. Simon approached him cautiously, but the other man gave no physical indication that he was aware of anything outside of his own mind.
"It's happening again."
Simon barely heard the softly spoken words. "What's happening again?"
"Jim, we don't know yet if the two incidents are tied together." He held up his hand as Jim rounded on him. "Yes, I know. The perfume and the aftershave. But we have to establish a link between the two other than the smell of the crime scene. Sandburg was with you this morning. Couldn't the scent have lingered on his clothing or something?"
Jim shook his head. "No. It was much fainter in Lash's apartment. I detected it here the moment I walked in, but it took me a few minutes to process it."
"Okay," Simon acquiesced, "so what have we got? A man and a woman kill Ernie Lash, then decide to kidnap your partner. Why? Where's the motive, Jim?"
"I don't know!" Jim stormed past him and snatched up the phone. Simon watched fear, rage, and regret battle silently for dominance within his friend's eyes, his body almost trembling in an effort to regain control, however tenuous. Finally, Jim released a deep sigh, punched at the phone's keypad, and looked at Simon as he brought the phone to his ear. "I don't know," he repeated more calmly, "but I intend to move heaven and hell to find out."
Simon nodded approvingly as he listened to Jim ask Joel to pull David Lash's file and collect any information and test results available on Ernie Lash's murder. An out of control Ellison was effective but unpredictable. A focused Ellison was law and order at its best. A focused Ellison worried about Blair Sandburg was a juggernaut. Failure was not an option.
Jim set the phone down. "Joel said he'd have everything waiting for us when we got back to the station."
"Good. I want to--" A knock at the door interrupted him and he turned to open it. "That's probably Forensics. I told them to see what they could find. Maybe they can lift some prints or--" No, it wasn't Forensics, not unless they had recently added an elderly woman to their team.
"Sir, I'd like you to meet Mrs. Esther Gunderson." Rafe smiled sweetly at the woman. Simon heard Jim's quiet gasp behind him and realized that this might be good news. Rafe placed his arms around the shorter woman's shoulders. "Gentlemen, I think we've found an honest-to-God witness."
Simon stepped aside as Jim came from behind him. "Esther, did you see Blair?"
"Yes," she replied, looking from Jim to Simon and back again. "We passed in the hallway. He was on his way out with some friends." She reached out, placing her hand upon Jim's arm. "Is something wrong?"
Jim patted her arm. "We're not sure. Blair seems to be...missing. Did you happen to recognize these 'friends'?"
She shook her head, "No, I've never seen them before. They were older, though. Friends of his father, he said."
Simon felt rather than saw Jim stiffen. "His father? Are you sure he said his 'father'?"
"Oh, I'm certain."
"Do you think you'd recognize them if you saw them again?"
"James," the older woman admonished, "my eyes may be a few years older than yours but they work fine."
Jim smiled apologetically. "Yes ma'am. I'd like you to come down to the station and tell us everything you remember. What they looked like, how tall they were, what they were wearing, what they--"
"What?" Simon asked, grasping at a distant memory..."Everything in the damn house was yellow." He saw the same horror growing within him mirrored in Jim's eyes as they met his.
Mrs. Gunderson waved her hand. "The woman was wearing a yellow blouse. I'm no fashion plate, but I know better than to wear a color that makes me look like a corpse under funeral home lighting. I guess she must like yellow."
Consciousness poked and prodded at him like an impatient child vying for his parent's attention. He tried to ignore it, wanting only the blessed nothingness of sleep, but a shiver erupted from the bottom of his feet and plowed directly into the base of his skull. The void retreated and he stumbled into awareness.
Cold. It was cold. Had he opened his window last night? He didn't recall doing so. Well, he'd just have to open his eyes and look. C'mon, eyelids, you can do it. Here we go. A little more...done! Nope, no open window. No window, period. Who the hell had stolen his window? And his bookshelf? And his desk and his masks and his photos and his doors and his walls and oh my God I remember!
Blair's eyes opened wide and fear-borne sweat instantly beaded his forehead. He had to get out. That was the first order of business. Get out, get out, get out! Okay, deep breath...good. Now sit up and--ow! What the...shit! Why hadn't he noticed this before?
He tugged at the bonds holding his arms to the bedposts, but the ropes held firmly, as did those on his ankles. Great! Just great! As his waking terror subsided into a more coherent sense of dread, his body began to cool and the shivering returned. The cold seemed to be seeping into his pores, and a second glance revealed yet another bit of information he'd overlooked before. He was wearing his boxers and nothing else.
He closed his eyes and tried to organize his muddled recollections. Two people: a man and a woman. A gun. Mrs. Gunderson. A long drive through Cascade's back streets and forgotten neighborhoods, all the while enduring the constant attention of the woman. She'd touched his hair, his face, kissed his cheek.
She'd called him Davy.
The shivering increased, and he clamped his teeth together to keep them from slamming into each other. Damn it, this could not be happening! It had to be a coincidence. There couldn't be a connection. The two incidents couldn't be related. They couldn't be related.
But they were. He had never met her, but he recognized her. He'd never laid eyes on her before this day, yet the sight of her had unburied bits and pieces of a nightmare memory. An angular face, dead eyes, chilled hands..."I can be you!"
Pain in his wrists broke through his dark, swirling thoughts, and a quick inspection disclosed angry red marks on his skin, evidence of his fear. He must have been twisting his arms in a subconscious attempt to free himself. He took a deep breath to center himself. Now was no time to lose it.
He reviewed the day's events again, hoping to discover some tidbit that might offer a solution to his latest crisis. They'd driven for over half an hour before arriving at this...hotel? No, apartment. The sign had said Harbor View Apartments. Yes! At least he knew his location. It was in a lousy part of town, and the only way one would ever view Cascade Harbor would be on a clear day from the highest point on the roof with a pair of binoculars...but hey, it was a start.
The couple had hustled him into their apartment, and from that point things had progressed downhill at an alarming rate. He remembered the man's anger in response to the woman's actions, anger directed at him. Blair had offered to leave, but his levity was not well received. The man had disappeared into another room, reappearing moments later with a small cup of liquid and a terse instruction: drink.
Blair had asked about the contents, had tried to reason with the man, but the order was restated, this time under the threat of a painful death. As he had placed the cup to his lips a familiar odor had nearly sent him into a panic. He'd tried to lower the cup, but strong arms had grabbed him, one twisting through his hair and forcing his head back, the other pouring the contents into his mouth. He'd coughed and sputtered but swallowed enough of the chloral hydrate to know the battle was lost, and several minutes later darkness enveloped him.
Now he was awake, for what it was worth. Sounds drifted from the next room. The couple was watching television. Occasionally their voices filtered through the closed door, but the snatches of conversation were unintelligible and his ability to concentrate seemed impaired, a side effect of the drug, most likely. Was it still Thursday? He had no way of knowing how much time had passed or what his captors' intentions were. He knew only one thing, was absolutely certain of only one undeniable fact: somewhere, far beyond the walls of this frigid little prison, Jim was searching for him. That was enough, for now.
Jim flipped through the file, page after page. There was noting else to be gleaned from it, but it kept his hands busy and gave him something to look at besides Mrs. Gunderson. The old woman sat beside Rafe, her face bathed in the whitish glow from the computer. If he tried, Jim knew he'd be able to see the slow construction of the suspect's face in her glasses. The mug shots had produced nothing, but if her occasional grim smiles were any indication, they were having much better luck with the department's facial composite system.
He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. God, he was tired. He wanted nothing more than to be at home relaxing on the sofa, a beer in one hand, the remote in another, and Blair seated beside him, grading or writing or reading. It was a wonderful image, the reality of many an evening, but not this one. This was his nightmare come to life.
"How're you doing?"
Jim flinched, startled by Simon's voice. The captain's approach had caught him unaware, and not for the first time he wondered if it was possible to zone on the sense of fear.
"I'm fine, just wishing we had something to go on. The waiting is getting to me."
"I know." Simon sank into a nearby chair. "We'll find him, Jim."
Jim leaned back and stared at the ceiling tiles. It was as bad as before, the helplessness, the feeling that he'd be too late. This time, though, there was no evidence trail, no last minute clues, no--
Simon leaned forward. "Say again?"
"There's no duck down stuck in a drain this time. There's not one solid piece of evidence to point the way, nothing to give us an idea of where he might be. At least before..." Jim closed his eyes again. "At least before we had something. It was a race against the clock, and for a while I didn't know if we'd make it, but then we did and he was alive and it was over. This time...I just don't know, Simon. He's out there, expecting me to find him, and I'm flying blind."
Jim saw something harden in Simon's eyes. The captain slowly rose to his feet, towering over him, then placed his hands on the desk and leaned forward. "You listen to me, Jim Ellison." He spoke in low, forceful tones. "Don't you dare start doubting yourself now. You're doing your best, and your fellow officers are doing their best with what they have to work with. That's all we can do and that's all Blair would expect. We'll just have to pray it's enough."
"Sir?" Rafe stood at a distance. "I think we're through."
Jim looked at Simon, who nodded. Lecture over...and grudgingly appreciated. Jim gave Rafe the "thumbs up" signal. The young detective clicked the mouse a few times, then scooped up the printed composites, brought them to Jim's desk and laid them before him.
Jim stared, glad that Simon had been able to vocalize an appropriate response. The image of the man was ignored in favor of the woman's. The same face. The same damn face. It had spoken to him from across the conference table; it had smiled and commended Blair on his contribution to the case; it had glowered at him in the candlelit gloom of an abandoned warehouse; it had stared up at him as its eyes glazed in death. The same face. But not the same.
"Oh yeah," Simon concurred. "No doubt about it."
The sound of running feet drew Jim's attention. He stood, a seed of hope taking root as Henri Brown ran into the Bullpen.
"Jackpot!" The large detective thrust several sheets of paper into Jim's hands. "Your hunch paid off big time, my man. Ellen Lash was living in Portland up to a month ago. She was under the care of a Doctor Simone DuClaire at the Pacifica Mental Health Clinic. Seems Mrs. Lash has some unresolved emotional problems. Anyway, she was an outpatient there, and they thought she was making progress. Then she didn't show for her regular appointment, and when they tried to locate her, no luck."
Jim passed each page to Simon as he finished it. "What about the man?"
"Sheldon Harper. There's a warrant out for his arrest, and he's got a rap sheet that includes assault, battery, theft of controlled substances, and attempted murder. He's a chemist and used to work for Chem-Star Laboratories in San Diego, but he got caught trying to add to his personal chemistry lab. He tried to kill the coworker who blew the whistle on him. His lawyer got him off on diminished capacity--more unresolved emotional problems, I guess--and he moved to Portland. Anyway, according to Harper's sister, the two of them met in a bar a few months back, hit it off, and moved in together. Then a couple of weeks ago, they disappeared. Her doctor is worried, and his probation officer is pissed, but no one had a clue as to where they might've gone."
"Until now." Jim pulled two pages from the pile of sheets and laid them next to the sketches. Near perfect matches.
Simon snatched up all four likenesses and handed them to Brown. "Get these to the press, and give them the names. I want this on the eleven o'clock news. These two have to be sleeping somewhere."
Jim watched Brown's retreating figure. Now they had a chance...Blair had a chance. He moved from behind his desk and made his way to Mrs. Gunderson's side. The woman had been watching him, her brown eyes soft with concern. He put his arms around her and hugged her plump, soft body to his own.
"Did I help?" she whispered quietly against his chest.
He tightened his arms and, not trusting his voice, simply nodded.
She entered the room, and seconds later he felt the mattress shift as she sat down at his side. Blair kept his eyes closed, hoping that she'd believe he was still sleeping. He concentrated on his breathing, keeping it as slow and natural as possible, and willed his body to stay loose and relaxed. Until she kissed him.
It wasn't a motherly kiss, or even the hesitant kiss of a stranger. It was rough and bruising, the type one expected from a passionate lover. He felt her tongue against his lips, and all pretense ended as he pressed his own together, denying her entrance. She stilled, and as she pulled away he opened his eyes.
He swallowed once, twice, the bile rising into his throat. She looked so much like him. Why hadn't he noticed it right away? Why had he opened the door? Why had he gone to the loft? Why hadn't he just braved the cold and gone straight to the station? Why?
Blair started at the sound of her voice. He hadn't realized he'd spoken aloud. "Why did you kidnap me?"
"We didn't kidnap you." The woman seemed genuinely confused by his choice of words.
"Listen, lady, when you take a person against his will, that's kidnapping. Look it up."
She smiled at him, a smile that was simultaneously tolerant and predatory. "I know what it means, but we didn't kidnap you. You can't steal something which already belongs to you."
"I don't belong to you."
"Oh, a son always belongs to his momma."
Great, Sandburg. Your truly are a psycho magnet. "In which case I 'belong' to a rather willowy redhead named Naomi Sandburg who would probably toss all of her beliefs about nonviolence right out the window and tear you limb from limb if she were here right now." He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, composing himself. Now was not the time to start rambling.
"Stop playing games," the woman snapped. "I'm your momma."
Blair shook his head. "You're not my 'momma,'" he said, then added quietly, "and I'm not Davy."
The slap surprised him, the force of it nearly splitting his lip against his teeth. He looked into a pair of glittering eyes, void of humanity and so familiar..."I want you to meet my friends." The sour taste returned to his mouth.
She grabbed his jaw. "Don't back talk me, y'hear? You remember what happens when you back talk?" She tightened her grip, then crushed her lips against his again. This time he allowed her the taste she sought, not willing to risk more of her wrath in his precarious position, and prayed to God he wouldn't vomit. Somehow, he didn't think she'd react well to that.
She finally lifted her face from his, apparently sated. She stroked his face with her hands. "Yes, you're in there, aren't you Davy?" Her eyes slowly roamed downward, and Blair felt his face redden.
"Um, where are my clothes?"
"In the living room," she replied, her eyes continuing their journey southward, then coming to an abrupt halt.
Oh shit! "Could I have my clothes, please? I'm cold."
The eyes returned to meet his. "Well, now, why don't I warm you up?" She leaned directly into his face, nose to nose. "Let's play our game, Davy."
Oh shit oh shit oh shit! "Um, I really don't--" Another slap, and seconds later he felt a trickle of blood at the corner of his mouth.
"No talking, Davy," she whispered, kissing him, her tongue darting out to lick the blood away. "I don't like it when you talk. Don't make me punish you."
Blair closed his eyes, anticipating her touch, yet still recoiling from it. She was undaunted, though, as her hands caressed his face, his shoulders, his chest. She trailed kisses on his body in the wake of her hands, her lips nearly as icy as her fingers. "Oh, I love my little Davy. You're momma's boy, aren't you?" she cooed, bringing her lips back to his. Her hands parted company, one reaching up to bury itself in his hair while the other continued its exploration.
Blair frantically tried to find a focal point for his mind, something that would allow it to drift away, to separate itself from the travesty in which his body was an unwilling participant, but it had turned to stone, heavy and immobile. Every touch was magnified tenfold. Her tongue snaked into his mouth, filling him until he feared he would suffocate. Her hand stroked and kneaded his stomach, persisting until the muscles quivered from the unwanted attention. Then she moved lower...and lower, the boxers no barrier to her determined hand.
He mentally screamed, pleading with his body's involuntary response system, but it was no use. The woman obviously knew what she was doing. He struggled against the ropes around his wrists and ankles, but his movements served only to further excite the woman. She broke the kiss and encouraged his efforts, increasing the intensity of her touch. His face burned with shame, shame that he knew was not his to bear, but that knowledge did nothing to lessen it. If it was this terrible for him, an adult, how could a child...her own child... endure it?
He groaned as she brought him to release, then held his breath for several moments, terrified there was more to follow. Instead, she climbed off the bed and walked into the adjacent bathroom. He heard water running, then she emerged, wiping her hands on a towel. She stopped beside the bed, gazing at him with a look of...disgust. She was disgusted with him?
"Look at you!" she hissed. "Look at the mess you've made. You're filthy, Davy!" She turned toward the door that led to the living room, twisting the towel frenetically in her hands. "I'll be back in a minute," she said, pausing at the door. "You need a hot bath."
The blood in his body turned cold, slowed, and turned to ice. "You're gonna have a nice, hot bath." The mad ravings of a psychotic killer, or the echo from a tortured childhood? His eyes filled with tears. Suddenly, David Lash seemed less the maniac, less the amoral thief of lives and personas. Once there had been a little boy...and that boy never had a chance in hell. Blair closed his eyes, then began experimenting with the ropes around his hands, ignoring the pain as his skin gave way to the unyielding nylon. Tears streamed from his eyes and down the sides of his face, but he ignored them as well.
"I can be you!"
The reverse was just as true.
Del flipped through the channels, not really watching any of the programs long enough to identify them, but desperately seeking any distraction.
He knew what she was doing. He'd seen it in her eyes and in her movements. Did she think closing the door would hide it from him? Did she think he wouldn't figure it out? Hell, even that moron she'd been married to had probably known what she was like. Did she think that he was as stupid as Ernie?
He heard the bedsprings squeak. Fine. Let her have her fun, let her use the kid any way she wanted. As long as she was ready for him on demand, as long as she kept him happy, she could have as many Davys as her little heart desired. But if she started cutting him off...
His finger stilled above the "channel up" button on the remote. What the hell was that? He began backtracking, one, two, there.
His own face stared back at him. It was his San Diego mug shot, along with some kind of picture that more closely resembled him than the five-year-old photo. His name flashed upon the screen, and he turned up the volume.
"...are wanted for questioning in relation to the murder of one local man, Ernest Lash, and the disappearance of another, Blair Sandburg. Police say--"
Del jumped to his feet and turned the television off. They had to get out. Now. He ran to the front door, opened it enough to allow his head to fit through, and looked out, his eyes darting left and right. There was no one about...yet. They had avoided their neighbors, keeping a low profile, but the office manager had spoken to them face to face. Would he call the cops? Del snorted. Not likely. He was some little foreign guy who spoke with a funny accent. Still, they couldn't take chances.
He closed the door and walked slowly toward the bedroom. He didn't know what he'd see when he walked in, but he had to let Ellen know. She'd want to take the kid with them, but it was too risky. He'd slow them down. No, they'd have to get rid of him.
The door opened as he reached for it, and Ellen emerged, a far away look in her eyes, a fine sheen of sweat visible on her forehead and above her upper lip. She walked past Del as if he wasn't there, rubbing her hands vigorously with a towel.
"Davy needs a bath."
"Listen, Ellen. The cops know about us. I just saw it on TV."
"I'll need your help," she said, turning to him but not looking at him.
"Damn it, Ellen! Did you hear me?" He grabbed her arms and shook her. "They know about Ernie. They know about the kid. We gotta get out of here!" She wrenched away from him, her face livid, but the distant look in her eyes fading. Well, at least he had her attention.
"No! He needs a bath! He's filthy! Dirty! Dirty!" She gasped for breath, and Del considered smacking her across the face--it worked in the old movies, didn't it--but in the next moment she quieted, a sultry smile upon her lips.
Del knew the look, recognized the trick, but he let it play out. She slowly stepped closer, pressed her body against him, undulated her pelvis against his, and placed her arms over his shoulders, locking her fingers behind his neck. She drew him down for a blistering kiss, then broke her lips away from his.
"Just tonight, okay, lover? No one around here knows us, no one saw us bring him in here. We're safe." She kissed him again, lightly this time. "Trust me, okay? We'll leave in the morning."
It was just after eleven. They could head out early, six or six-thirty. One night. He could wait one night.
"Okay, but we leave early, got it?" Her reply was another kiss. He pulled her arms from around his neck. "We'll give 'Davy' his bath, but you'd damn well better make this worth my while later."
She shrugged. "Don't I always?" She headed back into the bedroom. "Hurry. I left the water running."
Del followed behind her, wiping his mouth. She tasted of the kid. Since they'd been together, his were the only lips to touch hers. Now, in less than twelve hours, everything had changed. What was next? Would she refuse him, push his body away when he wanted her? Would she leave him?
No, Ellen wouldn't do that. She wouldn't be able to handle the kid alone. She'd stay with him if only for that. Well then, he'd just have to prove how indispensable he was to her continued happiness. He'd just have to make sure the kid behaved for his "momma."
Now we wait. Simon turned the television off. This was the hardest part. The waiting. The not knowing. Begging the phone to ring, yet terrified that when if did, the news would forever change your life. Imagining the worst and hoping to God you were wrong. The realization that no matter how much you believed you could control the events in your life, in reality you were completely impotent when it mattered most.
He cast his eyes around the Bullpen, not surprised to see his best people still there. The workday could be divided into shifts, but one could not place friendship into neat little blocks of time. Rafe and Henri sat side by side, picking through the files, examining each well-worn page. Joel stood by Jim's desk, speaking to him occasionally, receiving only monosyllabic replies in return.
Jim. To the learned eye he was a study in contrasts, and the passage of time had given Simon the instincts of an expert art critic. The stony set of Jim's jaw, the rigid muscles in his arms, the ramrod straight posture, the lethal stillness of his entire being--each conveyed a sense of strength, all painted a picture of solidity, of an impregnable human force. But Simon spotted the flawed canvas, recognized the forgery. At this moment Jim was assuredly at his most deadly, but he was also entirely vulnerable. If Sandburg was dead...
No! He would not even consider the possibility. It was too soon and there was too much at stake. They would find the kid, probably worse for wear, but they would find him. Alive. For Jim's sake, as well as his own.
Simon glanced down at his watch, then at the phone on a nearby desk.
Ring, damn you! Please, ring!
He couldn't breathe. He couldn't scream. His vision was fading, failing, but through the murky water he could see a form, could make out the features of a man's face, a familiar countenance that had, an eternity ago, dominated his dreams. There was a second form, equally familiar now, but feminine. She was speaking to the man, the sounds garbled and muffled by the water. Blair struggled to rise, but his own body scorned his efforts and the man easily held him under. He swung a clumsy arm at the blurring shapes, but the woman slapped it away like an annoying insect. It was too much! His lungs were afire! He opened his mouth, expecting a rush of water and, finally, release from his misery. Yet his hell would be immortality, for there was no strangling, gurgling, no gasp of liquid death. Instead, the woman's voice rang clear in his ears.
"Look, Davy. A new friend."
Blair jerked hard against the ropes at his wrists, forcing himself to consciousness. He took deep, shuddering breaths, dispelling the remnants of his nightmare while trying to arrange the scattered pieces of his mind. God, he was muzzy, as if his brain were swimming in...nope, not swimming. No water imagery, thank you.
His mind began to clear, but the price for clarity was pain. His head was pounding, his jaw hurt, his shoulders ached, his wrists and ankles were in agony, his skin, especially the right side of his body, burned as if he'd been dipped in acid...and there was another, indefinite pain, not physical, yet just as real. Memory.
It had been an exercise in terror, torture, and degradation, beginning the moment the man and woman had returned to the bedroom. The woman, Ellen, had disappeared into the bathroom, but the man, Del, had stopped beside the bed. Blair had ventured a glance at the man, and immediately regretted it. He knew. It was apparent in his eyes, by the smirk on his face. Del knew what Ellen had done.
Blair had felt his already flushed face redden further had hastily looked away, so he hadn't seen Del raise his hand, hadn't been prepared for the impact on the side of his face. He had cried out, the pain shooting along his jaw and up into his temple. When the stars twinkling against his closed eyelids had faded, he had lifted them to see Del leaning over him. Seconds later, the rope around one wrist slackened. Del moved to the next, then hesitated.
"You try anything, I'll kill you. Got it?"
Blair had nodded. He couldn't have done anything even if he'd wanted to. It was only with Del's "help," a vise-like grip around his arm that had yanked him from the bed, that he had been able to rise, and the same grip had barely kept him from falling flat on his face as the man had ushered him toward the small bathroom. He had stumbled through the doorway and descended straight into the depths of his own personal hell.
Ellen was waiting for him beside the half-filled tub. "You need a bath, Davy. Strip down and get in."
He'd blanched. His earlier discomfort at waking to find himself clad only in his boxers was nothing compared to the mortification he was experiencing now. There was no way...he couldn't...not with her standing there...he was a grown man...he couldn't.
"Do it." Blair had flinched, the steel in Del's voice restating the consequences of disobedience without uttering a single threat. He'd slipped out of his shorts, his gaze firmly fixed upon the floor tiles, aware of two pairs of eyes watching his every move. He'd had to steady himself against the sink, woozy from the combination of the sedative, inactivity, and shame. Ellen had grabbed his shorts.
He'd hurried as best he could, desperate to shield himself as much as he could from the two strangers' eyes. He'd lowered himself into the tub, wincing as his ankles sank below the water. He'd placed his arms strategically over his groin and leaned forward, still keeping his eyes lowered.
Ellen, kneeling on the floor to his right, had soaped a cloth and begun washing his back and right shoulder. At first he'd sat perfectly still, enduring her rants about his "filth" and "impurity" and "corruption," but soon the vigorous cleansing had taken a rougher edge, as if she were trying to rub the very skin from his body. He'd pulled away from her, hoping to lessen the cloth's contact with his skin, but it had only enraged her. She'd scrubbed harder and his struggles had increased. Without warning, Del had lunged at him and shoved him back, smacking his head against the tub's porcelain side, then pushed him beneath the water's surface.
Blair had flailed his arms wildly about, had twisted and turned, modesty forgotten, as he tried to free himself. His mind was screaming, but he kept his mouth tightly closed. He would not die this way!
His body had relaxed, as exhaustion coupled with his survival instincts took control of him. Del held him down a moment longer then dragged him back up. Blair had wilted against the side of the tub, catching his breath and gathering his wits about him. Del's grip on his chin had brought him out of his daze.
"Next time, I won't let you up." The man had backed away, returning to his post in the doorway, and Ellen once again began trying to scour away the sin and contamination that only she could see. Blair had nearly bitten through his lip to keep from crying out in pain. When finished, she'd dried him with a coarse towel, irritating his tender skin further. They'd allowed him to put on his boxers, and when he'd quietly announced he was cold, Ellen had fetched his shirt. Then they'd secured him to the bed once more and left him alone in the darkened bedroom.
He had listened to them as they conversed in the next room. Del had wanted to go to bed, saying something about getting an early start. Ellen had gone to an all-night convenience store to get a few things. It was as if "it" had never happened, as if he'd ceased to exist.
He'd tried to sleep. He'd wanted to forget about everything, to settle into sweet oblivion and dream about Jim and home and grading papers and Jim and classes and Dr. Noori's pretty new assistant and research and Jim and dating fiascoes and poker games and Jim. So he'd slept, he'd dreamt...and now he never wanted to sleep again. Not here. Not with them nearby. He'd sleep later, if Jim found him.
When Jim found him.
"Shit, Simon." It was all he could muster, the only response his fatigued brain could produce.
"My thoughts exactly. No wonder the woman is a nutcase. With a childhood like that..."
Jim closed the file and handed it back to the captain. "I suppose."
"What do you mean, 'you suppose'? God, Jim, the woman was sexually abused as a child, and she in turn became an abuser. It was generational, self-perpetuating. If David Lash had lived to start a family, it probably would have continued."
Jim rubbed a hand wearily across his face, noting the stubble that scratched his palm. "Lots of people have been abused as kids, and yeah, they have problems, but they go on to lead fairly normal lives. They get help or they find a way to deal with their past, but they don't become this," he pointed first at David Lash's photo, then at that of Ellen Lash, "or this. They don't become monsters, Simon."
"I'm not saying they do, Jim, but if we want to understand we have to look at the larger picture."
"Well, maybe I don't want to understand right now, okay?" Jim heard Simon's heavy sigh. Oh, great. Lecture time again.
"You know what your problem is?"
"Other than the fact that some psycho bitch from hell and her lunatic lover have my partner?"
"You have a blind spot by the name of Blair Sandburg."
"If this were any other case, involving any other victim, we could sit here and discuss this like rational adults. But it's Blair, and that means only one thing: black and white." Jim started to speak, but Simon's hand went up, cutting him off. "Where the kid is concerned, you have an invisible line, a boundary, and God help the person who crosses it."
Jim opened his mouth again, but there was nothing he could say. It was the truth. He'd listened to the psychologists debate the issues surrounding criminal behavior and knew intellectually that many prison residents were the products of horrendous childhoods. Though in his heart he believed that good and evil, right and wrong, were conscious choices, he understood how such early exposure to the dark side of humanity could warp a person's moral character, and on occasion he found within himself a kind of sympathy for the very person he had arrested.
But never when Blair was involved. Any threat against his guide was met with unmerciful fury. He didn't care about David Lash's childhood traumas, because when all was said and done, it didn't matter. The man had tried to kill Blair and had paid the price for it. In similar circumstances, Ellen Lash would fare no differently. If that made him a cold-hearted son of a bitch, so be it.
Jim rose from his chair. "I don't want to discuss it, and I sure as hell don't want to be rational right now. Damn it, why haven't we heard anything? How long does it take to pick up a phone and dial?"
"Everybody quiet!" Henri Brown's urgent command brought activity in the Bullpen to a dead stop, and Jim gripped the side of his desk. Rafe was speaking quietly into his phone's receiver. Jim dialed up his hearing and managed to pick up snatches of the conversation.
"...dey here. I let dey have corner room...uh, unit. One man and one woman. I not see younga man, but I know dey. Dey in nummer six."
Jim pushed past Simon, grabbed his coat, then rushed to Rafe's desk as the young detective hung up the phone. "Where?"
"Harbor View Apartments over on Noble Avenue. The manager, Mr. Hsang Bui, rented number six to a couple matching the photos on the news."
Jim headed for the elevator. Harbor View on Noble. Number six. He tapped his fingers on the wall, waiting impatiently for both the elevator and his fellow officers. They arrived simultaneously.
The descent into the garage was interminable and Jim used Rafe's voice to ground him.
"He said he didn't see Sandburg, but he's absolutely certain that Harper and Lash are there."
"I hope he's right," Joel muttered. "We can't afford any false leads right now."
Jim slipped through the elevator doors as they opened and headed for his truck. A firm grasp on his arm brought him to a halt.
"Jim, you ride with me."
Simon shook his head. "That's an order, detective. I'm not turning you loose with a vehicle, not in your condition."
Jim altered directions. He didn't have time to argue. Blair didn't have time. He slid into the front passenger seat of Simon's car, buckled his seatbelt, and, in the absence of a steering wheel, gripped his own knees.
Simon hit the lights and siren as they emerged from the garage, and Jim compensated by averting his eyes and turning down his hearing. He didn't want to risk ringing ears, not when he would soon have to search for the single most important sound, the one familiar rhythm that had been missing for far too long. His guide's heartbeat.
Please, let it be there.
Blair lurched upward as the bedroom door unexpectedly burst open. Damn! Pain shot through him, radiating from the scarlet marks that encircled his wrists and ankles and passing through the muscles of his body. His determination to remain perfectly still until the agony had passed disappeared as he saw Del approach him, his face livid.
"The fuckin' cops are outside! We gotta get out of here!"
A howl of joy and relief nearly erupted from Blair's lips, but he bit it back. The situation was now at its most dangerous, and he knew Del would have no reservations about killing him.
"Look, man. You can get out of this. You can go out a window or a door and make a run for it. No one has to get hu--" His head snapped back as Del backhanded him.
"You just shut the hell up, you stupid shit. This is all your fault."
The last of the bonds were pulled free with a vicious tug and Del dragged him from the bed. The man pulled him along with him into the living room, cursing and threatening him with every breath, but Blair could only shuffle along behind him. The room was spinning, and he found himself clutching at Del just to remain standing. Del scooped up a gun from a nearby table then headed for the front door. A harsh pounding on the other side of it stopped him in his tracks.
"Police. Open up." The voice which left Del motionless spurred Blair into action.
"JIM!" He wrenched away from Del a half second before the door exploded inward, nearly torn from its hinges, but adrenaline was not enough to propel him away from the madman's reach, and his head snapped backward as Del seized a handful of his hair. The gun was pressed into his side.
Jim and Simon entered the room, guns drawn and aimed. Blair looked directly at Jim, met his partner's eyes for just moment, and smiled ever so slightly. Jim was here. Things were looking up. Okay, so a nutcase with a gun was using him as a shield and a hostage. Still, Jim was here. And Simon. Which meant that Joel and Henri and Rafe were probably somewhere around. Barely controlled hysteria pricked at his innards, his stomach quivered, and the urge to giggle was almost overwhelming. It was as good as over.
Del jabbed him roughly in the side with the barrel of the gun. "I'll kill him."
Blair watched as Jim moved further into the room. Del backed up so he could not be outflanked, and Blair nearly fell against him. His legs were wobbling, and he really just wanted to sit down. Couldn't Del see it was over? Jim was here.
"Drop the gun." Oh, good! Jim was using his icy, kick-ass tone. Blair blinked sleepily. He wanted to go home now.
"You back off!" The gun cocked and Blair cringed. Damn, Del just didn't know when to quit, did he? And why didn't anyone but him care that the floor was pitching and rolling?
"Harper, you've got no way out. This place is surrounded. The only way you'll get out of this alive is to drop the gun and back away. Now." Hey! Simon was joining in with his I'm-the-captain-so-do-as-I-say voice...and it was working! The hand clenching his hair slid away and Del was lowering his gun.
Blair took a few faltering steps toward Jim, then hesitated, confused. The look on Jim's face frightened him. Something was dreadfully wrong, he realized. A loud shout startled him, and he wavered, nearly losing his balance. Why was Jim yelling at him? Wha--SHIT!
The room rocked with explosions, and each second lasted forever. When calm once more descended, Blair opened his eyes to see...the rug. Why was he face down on the rug, and why did it feel as if the building was resting on his back?
"Are you okay?" Jim's breath tickled his ear, and there was something strained about his voice. Blair tried to roll over, but Jim refused to budge. "Lie still a sec." The weight on his back shifted. "Simon?"
"He's dead, Jim."
Blair squirmed, trying to dislodge Jim so he could get up. Who was dead? Simon? No, he'd heard Simon say someone was dead. "He's dead, Jim." Just like Dr. McCoy. Or was it McCay? He wanted to laugh, but someone was dead so that wouldn't be appropriate, and it would seem incongruous with the tears that had begun, one by one, to stream down his face. God, his head hurt. Everything hurt.
The next moment he was cradled in warm comfort, wrapped in a tight embrace. Something soft, smelling faintly of cigars, was draped over his body, and something softer, sounding amazingly like Jim, was telling him everything was okay. He buried his face against the solid shelter of Jim's chest, the heartbeat against his cheek a thrumming lullaby.
Now he could sleep again.
Jim fingered the bandage around his arm. Just a flesh wound, hardly worth the time spent disinfecting and covering it, but the doctor had insisted, and since he had nothing better to do while he waited for them to get Blair settled, he'd agreed.
It had happened so fast. Jim had watched in horror as Del Harper had released Blair, then raised the gun, aiming for his back. With Blair wavering between them, he couldn't risk taking a shot at Harper. He'd barely had time to tackle and cover the his partner before the gun had discharged, the bullet slicing a shallow valley across his upper left arm. A second shot had followed immediately. Simon's bullet had stuck its target, and Del Harper had died almost instantly.
As if conjured by the memory, Jim detected the familiar smell of cigars and coffee, and moments later the captain rounded the corner, his coat draped over his arm, a Styrofoam cup in each hand. Jim accepted the offered cup of steaming liquid and scooted to his left to make room for Simon on the cushioned bench.
"They said they'd come to get me when they had him in his room."
Simon nodded. "Good. I think you should stick close to him for a while."
Jim sipped the coffee, considering Simon's words, reading the implications. "They didn't find her, did they?"
"No. We have a witness, a store clerk who said she came in to buy a few things between 11:30 and 11:45, but no one has seen her since."
"Did they find the murder weapon? The knife?"
"No. They're still going over the apartment, but my guess is they either ditched it or it's in their car."
Jim stood and walked to the large window opposite the bench. She was still out there.
"There's an APB out on her and the car," Simon continued, as if reading his thoughts. "With any luck, we'll catch her before she skips town."
"I don't think she'll leave yet."
"Me, either. The kid's a loose end."
Jim closed his eyes and leaned his head against the cool glass. He couldn't tell Simon. Not yet. Not without Blair's permission.
After the ambulance had left and he was certain that Blair was safe, he had persuaded Simon to let him give the apartment the once-over before joining his partner at the hospital. There was nothing out of the ordinary in the living room save the cooling body under the coroner's sheet. The kitchen had a few interesting chemicals stored in a variety of places, and Jim had easily located a small cup with a residual substance on the bottom and the subtle scent of Blair on its lip. While Simon passed along the information to the hospital, Jim had wandered into the bedroom.
The sight of the ropes hanging from the bedposts, the stench of fear, and the strong, musky odor of semen had nearly driven him to his knees. He'd staggered into the adjoining bathroom, seeking refuge, but instead had been confronted by more evidence of depravity. He'd nearly zoned on the bathtub, still wet from use. He picked up a washcloth, damp but smelling strongly of Blair, and in an instant knew all.
He had read the files on David and Ellen Lash. The information had been scant due to doctor/patient privilege, but it didn't require a psychology degree to deduce the real story behind this particular relationship. Ellen had been abused, and she in turn had passed her legacy on to her son, creating a monster that had devoured lives in an attempt to sate its hunger for revenge. The monster had been slain, but its Frankenstein had survived.
Jim's senses had reeled as he fought to suppress his rage. Victim or criminal, insane or stable, Ellen Lash had committed the unpardonable sin of including his guide in her sick little fantasy. She was The Enemy.
He opened his eyes and stared at his reflection in the window. He barely remembered the trip to the hospital, the treatment of his wound, or anything that may have been said or done in the hour since he'd left the crime scene. At this moment his mind contained only two coherent thoughts: protect Blair and stop Ellen Lash.
His eyes drifted to Simon's image on the glass, and he smiled. "I'm fine, sir. I just need to see my partner."
Ellen wrapped her coat tightly around her body and hunkered down further in the car's front seat. It was cold, but not freezing, and the thick wool would keep her warm enough. It was only a few hours until morning, and then...
"Cascade General" glowed in the distance, beckoning to her. He was in there, behind glass doors and brick walls, but no barrier would keep her from him. She could wait here in the parking lot, one of a hundred anonymous cars, until the time was right. It wouldn't be easy, and a dozen things could go wrong, but they would be together again and no one would ever separate them.
Death would permit an eternal union.
Blair was floating. It was odd, because he vaguely recalled one of his elementary science teachers explaining to the class that clouds consisted of water droplets or ice and, contrary to anything he and the other children may have seen in comic books or on Saturday morning cartoons, clouds were not solid or fluffy or soft. Yet his cloud was all three, and every once in a while it rocked gently beneath him.
He was not alone.
He felt hands on his body, moving light as a whisper across his bare chest. Somewhere, a memory burned bright with horror and shame and panic nipped at the edge of his mind. Instinct, however, shushed the fear, bade it be still. These hands posed no threat.
A peculiar scent, antiseptic yet woodsy, floated under his nostrils, and he wrinkled his nose. The hands stilled but did not leave him. His reluctant eyelids gradually lifted to half-mast, and he woke to discover a pair of familiar blue orbs gazing intently into his.
His heart sang, his soul whooped ecstatically, and his brain danced a jig, but the only visible display that Blair could muster was a weak smile. It was enough, judging from the look of sweet delight on Jim's face. His eyelids lost their battle with gravity, and he sank into featherbed near-sleep. The hands once more tenderly caressed his skin, a soothing coolness trailing each stroke as the lotion numbed his raw, inflamed skin. It dawned on him that his legs and back were no longer burning, and he wondered if perhaps Jim was finishing what a nurse had begun. No, Jim would never have trusted such a delicate task to foreign hands, and only due to his innate trust in his Sentinel would he have remained sleeping through it all.
The hands were on his right arm now, and Jim's ministrations became impossibly more gentle. This side of his body had borne the brunt of Ellen Lash's maniacal bathing ritual and the very air seemed to press painfully against it. Yet a single touch from his friend was topical morphine.
"Better?" Jim's voice drew him back from the edge with a velvet cord.
"Mm-hm." Well, not quite a coherent response, but Jim would understand. How could he put it into words? It was the chasm between heaven and hell. His cloud rolled a little to the left, and soon the soft cotton of his hospital gown was drawn up around his neck.
"I'm gonna sit you up for just a minute, okay?"
"Mm-hm." He felt himself lifted until his head rested against Jim's shoulder, then the gown was tied behind him. He was nearly overwhelmed by the desire to wrap his arms around his friend, to thank him a million times over for coming to his rescue, but in the absence of the strength necessary to accomplish this feat he simply nuzzled his head against his muscular temporary pillow and depended upon Jim's ability to read Blair-sign. A moment later a hand lay atop his head, securing him both physically and emotionally to his Sentinel. Time passed, molasses-slow and silent. Restoration.
Blair finally lifted his head, and Jim began to lower him back onto the bed.
"Nuh. Lef' si'." Any doubts he harbored about Jim's interpretive abilities vanished when his friend eased him onto his left side. It was welcome relief, taking the weight from his back and right side, and the reduced discomfort cleared some of the haziness from his brain. He opened his eyes again, a bit wider than before, and watched as Jim pulled a chair next to the bed and sat down. The older man leaned into the bed and propped his head on his crossed forearms, his face mere inches away from Blair's. The fraternal intimacy was the last brick needed to complete the wall of security, and the day's shadows faded away.
"Wha time is't?"
"Around two a.m.," Jim replied, glancing at his watch.
Blair spotted a slip of white peeping from beneath Jim's shirtsleeve, a soft mesh similar to the gauze bandages encircling his own wrists. He reached out, tracing it with a tentative finger.
"I ducked, but not far enough. It's just a flesh wound."
"Aren't they all?" Jim's chuckled at his query, a low, throaty sound that warmed him from the inside out, sending a pleasurable shiver of joy through to the core of his soul.
Lucidity was returning by degrees, and Jim's eyes were alight with dozens of unspoken questions. Blair knew that the protective Sentinel in Jim would prevent the Detective within him from launching into an interrogation, and truth be told, he himself wanted nothing more than to forget the past several hours, to crumble them into a tiny wad and toss them away. But ignoring the day's events would not make them disappear. More importantly, it wouldn't be fair to Jim.
Blair wrapped his hand around Jim's forearm. "It's okay, Jim. You can ask."
Jim lifted his head from his arms and repositioned his free hand to cover Blair's. "What do you remember?" he asked quietly.
"Everything, I guess. I'm a little foggy on the rescue scene, though."
Jim nodded. "Not surprising. You were barely conscious."
"Somebody died, right?"
"That was the guy...Del."
"Yeah." Jim looked down at their hands and clenched his jaw for several seconds. "The woman is still out there."
Jim squeezed his hand. "She told you?"
"No, but I guessed. She looks a lot like him." Blair swallowed, then added in a Sentinel-soft voice, "She called me 'Davy.'"
"Shit." The word was barely audible, yet it seemed to reverberate around the room. Blair waited for the inevitable, and a moment later Jim met his gaze. "In the room you were kept, I could...did she...do anything to you?"
It was Blair's turn to tighten his grasp. "Nothing I can't deal with, Jim."
Jim slipped his right arm from beneath Blair's hand, settling it instead upon his head, burying it within his tousled mass of curls. "I'm sorry, Chief."
Blair brought their clasped hands to his heart, seeking to reassure his friend and ease the grief reflected in the hoarse apology. "I'm okay, Jim. I mean, it was seriously disgusting, and it's probably gonna be with me for a bit, but I won't be permanently scarred or anything." He mustered up a wide grin. "I don't think it's going to put a crimp in my love life, man."
Jim returned the smile, ruffled his hair playfully, and then began a slow, steady massage of his scalp. "What am I going to do with you?"
Blair yawned. "Take me home?" The earlier exhaustion was descending again, soft like a summer shower, and Blair felt himself drifting. He closed his eyes, just catching the softly spoken words as he drifted into sleep.
"In the morning, Chief."
Ellen cupped her hand to the side of her face to block the mid-morning sun. She peered from behind the delivery truck, watching as the three of them emerged from the main exit. A tall white man pushed the wheelchair, and an even taller black man walked alongside of it, but they were minor characters, stage props and nothing more. She focused her attention on the third.
Davy looked miserable. There were dark circles under his eyes, his hair hung limp around his face, and a lavender bruise marred his right cheek. Poor thing! He had suffered so much during his life. Well, after today he'd never suffer again. Neither of them would.
"Don't worry, baby. Momma's gonna make it all better."
"I'll get the car."
"That's okay, Simon." Blair lowered his feet to the ground and pushed off from the chair only to be shoved back onto it by firm pressure on either shoulder.
He released a frustrated sigh. "Jim, I'm perfectly capable of standing on my own two feet and walking to the car."
"Probably, but I guess we'll never know, will we?"
Simon stepped off the curb and headed toward the parking lot. "Shut up and stay in the chair, Sandburg," he commanded. "The last thing we need is for you to fall flat on your face. You're too short to make an effective speed bump."
"Thanks, Simon," he shot back as the captain walked away. "You keep me humble." He tried to stand again. This time the hands on his shoulders pressed down more forcefully and remained in place.
"Sit. Stay." Blair surrendered, holding up his hands in resignation, and was rewarded with a gentle pat on the head. "Good boy."
"Sit? Stay? Good Boy?" He snorted. "What's next? Roll over? Fetch?"
"Nah, but if you promise to stay off the furniture and bark when you need to go out, I'll give you a Scooby snack when we get home."
Blair looked directly above his head and glared at his partner. "Funny, Jim. This is me, laughing. Ha, ha." The effect was lost as he squinted against the sun, and when Jim mimicked his facial expression he couldn't help but laugh. "You look like Popeye. Hey, do you--"
A thunderous boom rocked the air around them. Blair jumped from the wheelchair, this time aided by Jim as the older man grabbed his arm and dragged him back through the doorway and tucked him into a corner.
"Stay here while I check it out, Blair." His tone brooked no argument, and Blair was not inclined to challenge him anyway. Thick blue-grey smoke poured from around the building's corner, and he watched nervously as Jim and several others raced directly toward it. He navigated past several potted plants and trees, hoping to gain a better vantage point from a nearby window.
Oh God! He whirled around at the all too familiar voice, uttering an all too familiar name, nearly falling in his desperation to put space between them. Ellen snagged his sleeve and attempted to pull him toward her, but he twisted from her grasp and backed away. He had to get the hell out of there! He had to find Jim and Simon!
He feinted to his left, then scrambled for an opening at his right. He tried to rush past her, but she jumped in front of him, blocking his path. She grabbed his bandaged left wrist with one hand and pushed something sharp against his gut with the other. Blair froze.
Ellen closed upon him, and he fought the urge to scream. She released his wrist to place her hand against his bruised cheek, then leaned in, kissing his lips.
"We're going home now, Davy."
Jim coughed and waved his hand though the air, and then realized the futility of the action. There was simply too much smoke. He retreated to the periphery, hoping to better see the burning car and to determine if there were any occupants trapped inside. Judging from the smoke billowing from the car's interior, if there were, it would require dental records to identify them.
"Jim!" He looked back to see Simon approaching cautiously, pausing a moment to pull a handkerchief from his pocket to place over his nose and mouth. "What the hell happened?"
"Car fire," he replied, failing to suppress a fit of coughing.
"Is there anyone in there?"
Jim shook his head. "Not living. I don't hear a heartbeat."
"What about visual?"
"It's hard to tell with all the smoke." Jim extended his sight. Enhanced vision was not x-ray vision, but he could make out a few details of the car's exterior. He felt Simon's hand on his arm and used it to ground him. "I can't see--wait a--oh my God!" Jim focused his sight more intently, praying that he was wrong, that it was a coincidence, but..."Shit!"
The touch on his arm tightened. "Jim? What's wrong?"
"It's a green Monte Carlo. Damn! She torched her own car!" He turned to Simon, then glanced away, unable to bear the sight of his own fearful expression reflected in the lens of his captain's eyeglasses. "She's here."
Jim took off for the hospital's main entrance at a dead run. Behind him he heard Simon dialing his cell phone while trying to keep up, but the call was a formality. By the time back-up arrived, the crisis would most likely be resolved, one way or another. Jim peeled around the corner of the building, spotted the still-empty wheel chair, and dashed through the entry and into the building, then stopped in his tracks.
Simon nearly plowed into him. "Where is he?"
Jim held up his hand to silence him, then opened his hearing wide. He quickly eliminated the feedback, one noise, then another, searching, going further...there! He cocked his head to one side, pinpointing the deceptively calm voice of his guide.
"Why are we going to the parking garage? What's there?"
"Don't worry about it, Davy. I'll take care of everything."
Jim motioned for Simon to follow him. "They're headed for the garage. They must be using the tunnel to cross over."
"That's on the third floor," Simon offered. "Let's take the stairs."
Jim took the lead again, the rhythm of his stride matching that of his heart as he and Simon sprinted up the stairwell. They burst through the third floor door, barely missing a group of young interns. Simon whipped out his badge and told them to clear the area, but Jim never slowed. His universe was a disembodied voice, somewhere in the distance.
The parallel did not escape Jim. When David Lash had taken his partner, it was Blair's voice that had acted as a beacon, drawing Jim to the right room just in time. Now that same voice was providing a breadcrumb trail, but instead of hungry birds, Jim's greatest adversary was a mad woman with a warped sense of maternal love. Where the younger Lash had failed, the elder Lash seemed hell-bent to succeed.
"What's on the fifth level, Ellen? Hsst...ow!"
"Don't call me by name, Davy. It's not polite. Call me Momma."
Jim slowed long enough for Simon to catch up. "They're headed for the fifth level of the parking garage."
"That level is open. Do you think she has another car stashed there?"
"I don't know," Jim gasped as they exited the tunnel and started for another flight of stairs. He put a finger to his lips as they took the steps two at a time. They were closing in now.
"Look, why don't we go back to the hospital? There are people there who can help you."
"We don't need their help. We have each other."
Jim stopped five steps short of the landing and scrunched down. Simon dropped into a crouch as well, breathing heavily. Jim held up three fingers, lowered one, then another, and then the third. The two men crept up the last steps one at a time, finally espying their targets. They were walking away from the two men, walking toward nothing. Nothing but a waist-high cement wall.
Jim bit his lip. The top floor of the garage was nearly vacant. There was no cover, nothing that would permit them the element of surprise. When they left the stairwell they would be exposed, and there was no telling how the volatile Ellen Lash would react. Jim sent a silent prayer to whomever was the patron saint of beleaguered Guides and their stressed-out Sentinels, then nodded to Simon. They unholstered their guns and left the safety of the shadows.
"What are you going to do?" Jim sensed Blair's composure slipping. The voice had the tremulous quality of one that had reached a limit, of a weary and frightened soul. He picked up his pace a bit, trusting Simon to do likewise.
"We're going to be together forever, Davy."
"I'm not Davy, okay? Stop calling me that!" Jim watched as Blair tried to tug his arm from the woman's grasp. She jerked back on the arm and brought a knife into full view.
"Don't fight me! You know I don't like it when you fight me."
"Well, you know what, lady?" Blair's voice rose in pitch, giving it a slightly hysterical tone. "I really don't give a rat's ass about what you like! I'm not drugged and tied up to a bed, in case you hadn't noticed. And I only went along with you this far because I couldn't take the chance that you'd hurt someone else, but that's not much of an issue here, is it? Look around! It's just us! It's--"
Ellen Lash noticed them a split second before Blair, but it was enough to give her the upper hand. She held the knife against his throat. Jim and Simon both aimed their guns.
"Ellen Lash," Simon called out, "my name is Captain Simon Banks. You're under arrest. Drop the knife and step away from Mr. Sandburg."
She seemed confused by the formal titles and responded by pressing the knife harder against Blair's skin. Jim leveled his gun at her. If she flinched, he'd kill her instantly.
"Leave us alone!" the woman screamed. "You took him away once! You can't have him this time! He's mine!"
Jim detected the movement of Blair's lips, and turned up his auditory dial.
"...not Davy. Can't you see that? David Lash is dead. My name is Blair Sandburg. I'm a grad student." A thin trickle of blood ran down Blair's neck, and Jim swallowed convulsively. Don't push it, Chief. He took a step forward, then another, decreasing the distance between them gradually, inch by inch.
"No one has to get hurt here," Simon continued. "Just lower the weapon and back away."
Tears streamed down Ellen Lash's face, leaving black mascara trails beneath her red-rimmed eyes. "No," she murmured, defeat weighing heavily upon her. "We...I...Davy?"
Jim breathed a sigh of relief as the knife slipped from Blair's throat. Ellen was gazing at the young man as if seeing him for the first time. "Davy?"
Blair shook his head. "I'm not Davy."
Jim reached out, caught hold of Blair's arm, and pulled him away from the woman, placing him at a safe distance and standing between the two. His attention never wavered from the woman who, while apparently stunned, still had a weapon in her possession.
"Drop the knife, Ellen."
He knew the moment her eyes met his that she would never surrender. He'd seen the same stare long ago, in a dark warehouse with a nearby duck pond, from a man whose features still haunted him, features he saw in the creature now before him. It was a mixture of hopeless insanity with the barest hint of evil. It was a monster that held human form.
She raised the knife over her head, but before it could start its downward arc Jim shot it from her hand. The blast from the gun and the loss of her weapon was an obvious shock to Ellen, and she stumbled backward, clutching her hand to her chest. She glanced from Jim to Simon, then rested her eyes upon Blair. Jim sidestepped blocking her vision.
She appeared to deflate, weaving unsteadily for a few seconds, then before any of them could stop her she spun around, cleared the few feet separating her from the wall, and launched herself into the open air beyond. Jim and Simon dove for the wall, but the sickening impact of soft flesh and fragile bones on unyielding pavement was audible even to those without Sentinel hearing. Her heart stopped beating an instant later.
"Oh God." The whispered utterance, along with the frantic staccato of Blair's heartbeat, drew Jim away from the edge and back to his friend's side. Without a word, he draped his arm over Blair's shoulder and began guiding him toward the stairwell, once again leaving Simon to take care of the details, certain that the captain would have it no other way. He could feel tremors coursing through the smaller body, and he wanted to have Blair settled somewhere safe before his fellow officers, the media, and every gawker in a five-mile radius descended upon the scene.
"It's over, Chief."
Jim opened his eyes slowly, giving his vision time to adjust. It was just before dawn, the brief period of time when dark and light coexisted, equally matched in their coupling, when all colors were shades of grey.
Something had awakened him. A hushed sound, a muffled movement, a stifled sigh; all sounds he associated with only one person. He tossed his comforter aside, snatched up his robe, and put it on as he quietly padded down the stairs.
Blair was standing at the balcony doors. He was dressed in sweats, but his arms were folded tightly at his chest and his shoulder hunched as if cold. He stared out at the city beyond the glass doors, but subtle hints belied an inward focus. He had been unusually quiet for the past two days, and while he had assured Jim that he was recovering from his ordeal, it was obvious that Blair was still coming to terms with everything that had happened. Jim's attempts to pry it from him had met with the usual creative diversions and obfuscations, so he'd decided to wait it out.
The waiting, apparently, was over. This was a silent invitation.
Jim snatched up the afghan from the sofa, shaking it with ceremony, and made a few additional noises to announce his arrival, yet Blair did nothing to acknowledge it. Jim stood directly behind him, just inches away, but didn't touch him. When the time was right, Blair would let him know. He could feel heat emanating from Blair's body, could smell the mixture of herbal shampoo and the medicinal ointment that covered his body, and most importantly, could hear the steady rhythm of his heart.
"I don't think I hate him any more."
Jim narrowed his focus to Blair's voice. "Who?"
Jim's stomach knotted. That's okay. I hate him enough for both of us. "Why not?"
"Because it makes sense now."
"What makes sense?"
"What he was doing."
Jim sighed. "You're losing me, Chief."
Blair was silent a moment. When he finally spoke, it was in a tiny, mournful voice. "If she'd been your mother, wouldn't you want to be someone else?"
He squeezed his eyes shut, forcing himself to count to ten. He couldn't answer that one, knew that if he tried he'd probably lose it. He wanted to grab hold of Blair's shoulders and shake him, to remind him of those last few desperate minutes of Lash's life, of the terror each had experienced, how it had remained with them for days and nights and weeks afterward. David Lash had killed four innocent people in his search for a new identity, and nothing, no childhood trauma, no amount of abuse, could excuse his behavior. But no matter how much he disagreed, this part of Blair that was fair-minded and tried to find the good in others was something he'd always admired. He opted instead for gentle honesty.
"I guess I've always believed that, no matter what happens to us in life, we make conscious choices regarding right and wrong."
Blair nodded. "I think that's true up to a point, but what happens to a child when he is exposed to constant corruption from the moment he exits the womb? How does it affect a child when the very people he should be able to love and trust most use that love and trust to hurt him? And what if he isn't quite normal? What if his brain has some bad wiring? What if he has mental problems besides?"
It made sense, of course, and in theory Jim could see the logic and maybe even agree with it. But not where either Lash was concerned. Their pardon due to reasons of insanity had ended where Blair's personal space began. By attacking his partner, they had forfeited any chance for mercy or compassion from Jim Ellison. Yes, Simon, I have a blind spot by the name of Blair Sandburg. Don't expect that to change any time soon.
Blair leaned back a bit closer to him. "Jim?"
"Where did the monsters live when you were a kid?"
He smiled at the shift in topic. Sometimes it was difficult to follow Blair's train of thought. It twisted and turned and loop-de-looped, defying logic and the laws of gravity. He had to think hard for a moment. "We had an old gardening shed in the back yard. It was dark and scary, full of spiders and stuff. I could see it from my bedroom window. Sometimes, I swear I saw something moving around in it. What about you?"
Blair dropped his arms to his sides. "When I stayed with my cousins in Texas I had to sleep in a room with this rickety old closet door that wouldn't shut all the way. I just knew something was going to sneak out and get me while I was sleeping."
Jim chuckled quietly. "Kids scare easily. They see monsters where there aren't any."
"And the real monsters," Blair added in a hushed voice, "are usually in plain sight."
Jim could think of nothing to say. It was true. He'd seen enough during his years on the force to know that often a child's worst nightmare hid behind the face of a loved one.
Blair was now a hair's breadth away, and Jim knew the time was right. He took the edges of the afghan in hand and wrapped it around Blair, then closed the space between them, pulling Blair back to rest against his chest and tucking the curl-covered head beneath his chin. He enveloped the smaller body within his own arms, and Blair brought his hands up to his chest and locked them around Jim's arms. They stood there for several minutes, neither one speaking, sharing a rare intimacy that few friends experience, the physical expression of security, support, and love. At one time Jim had thought these moments were for Blair's sake, but he'd come to realize that he benefited as much, if not more. He rediscovered his humanity, his ability to trust, and the brotherly affection denied him as a child. He could remain like this indefinitely.
Jim scanned what little he could see of the city. His city. It seemed sullied somehow, with its gaudy displays of superficial civility, its night-banishing lights, its geometrically pleasing structures, its named streets and nameless citizenry. He was the Sentinel of the Great City, yet at this instant his protectorate was contained within a single room. He glared at the world outside the doors, daring it to encroach upon this haven, their refuge from what lurked in the shadowy corners beyond the glass.
"There are others out there," Blair echoed his thoughts. "Monsters are preying on innocents, creating more monsters in turn. God, Jim, we could bump into any of them on the street and never know it."
"We can't catch them all, Chief, but we do stop some of them."
"I know. It's just something I don't understand, you know? I can't accept it."
Jim tightened his hold and lowered his head to speak directly into Blair's ear. Unruly curls tickled his lips and danced with each breath. "I hope you never do," he whispered. He returned his gaze to the cityscape. Faint streaks of pink and gold decorated the tops of distant clouds, and the grey faded as color reawakened around them.
They greeted the dawn together.
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