Many, many thanks to Mackie/Linda, Susan, and Jane.  Even though I fell way behind schedule, they never lost their patience and good humor (at least not within earshot <g>).  You ladies are treasures!

Thanks also to my "back-up" crew, Kathleen, Angie, Kim, Becky, and Robyn.  Without your encouragement and occasional betaing skills, I would have given up ages ago.  Hugs to all!
 
 


Lullaby

Iris Wilde





Cascade - 1966

Cold.  Wet.  Foggy.  She hated Cascade.  Too much rain, not enough sunshine, and on nights like this when the clouds hung atop the street lamps and telephone poles, it reeked of dead fish and stagnant salt water.

She bent slightly and adjusted her stocking.  Someday she'd get out of here.  Someday she'd have enough money and she'd go someplace warm.  Someplace sunny.  Someplace where she could get a real job.  Someplace where no one knew what she'd done before.

She really wanted to go to Hollywood.  She knew she could make it as an actress if given half a chance.  Mrs. Haines, her English teacher, had told her she had natural ability.  She'd been cast as Emily Webb in her high school's production of Our Town and everyone had said she was Oscar material.  She'd have to work hard, maybe even hop in the sack with an agent or a producer or somebody, but hell, that was no big deal anymore.

She'd have to start off small, a minor role or walk on, but eventually she'd move up.  She'd do some television, maybe get to star opposite Ryan O'Neal in Peyton Place.  Then there'd be movie offers.  She'd play Paul Newman's leading lady.  She could drown in eyes so blue.

Just a few more weeks, maybe a couple of months, and she'd have enough money to go.  A year at most.  Then she could put all of this behind her.

Something crashed in the alley behind her and she whirled about.  A small orange blur darted by her legs and she nearly tumbled over it.  Damn cat!  That was something else she wouldn't miss--all the stinking stray animals.  Cats on the streets, dogs in the parks...there ought to be a law.

She sighed.  It was just the stress and long hours.  She could use a nice soft bed, one in which she could actually sleep, but now she was working days as well as nights.  The cops were really cracking down, thanks to that lunatic, and many of her regular customers were avoiding the area for fear of being picked up.  Great.  The cops decide to patrol the area to "protect" people like her and business dwindles to a trickle.  Just swell.  Well, with any luck they'd catch the guy before long.

She didn't worry about it--well, not too much.  She was young, but she could take care of herself.  She'd just have to be careful.  She'd stick to near street lamps and main roads, and she'd only--

Hands grabbed her hair and clamped over her mouth simultaneously, jerking her back.  She lost her balance and fell against solid bulk, the heels of her shoes bouncing across pavement as she was dragged backwards.  The glow from the street lamp faded, replaced by the smothering darkness of the alleyway, and in that single second she knew she was going to die.

She was shoved to the ground, and the little air left in her lungs was squeezed out by the man's weight as he dropped onto her.  Gravel cut into her calves and the odor of nearby garbage made her gag.  The man didn't seem to notice.

"Don't you scream, baby girl.  Wouldn't want to have to hurt you.  You just lie there and be quiet."

His breath stank of old coffee and stale spearmint and she tried to turn her face.  He would have none of that, though, and yanked her hair.  His face, hidden behind a ski mask, was less than an inch from hers.

"Look at me, whore, and don't you dare close your eyes.  You do and I'll rip them out."

It wouldn't matter, she knew.  He would kill her when he'd finished.

"Hush, little baby, don't say a word.  Papa's gonna buy you a mockingbird."  His voice was thick and breathy as he sang, and she felt him fumbling with his belt.  Part of her wanted to cry in terror.  Part of her wanted him to just hurry and get it over with.  Part of her was determined to survive.

The latter took control.

"If that mockingbird don't sing, Papa's gonna buy you a diamond ring."  He lifted her dress and clawed at her panties.

Her hand moved, spider-like, over the bits of trash scattered about them.  Her fingers danced across something sharp, halted, investigated, then grasped.

"If that diamond ring turns brass, Papa's gonna buy you a looking glass."  He jammed a leg between hers, forcing them apart.

She swiped the jagged edge of the broken bottle across his face, slicing through both mask and flesh.

His cries of surprise and agony sparked her to action.  She kicked and squirmed, dislodging him in seconds.  She crab-crawled away from him[,] then scrambled to her feet.  He lunged at her, but she dodged and used the bloodied bottle to keep him at bay.  She dashed out into the street and the screams he had forbidden now ripped the fabric of the nighttime peace.

The flashing red strobe from the police car bounced off the surrounding buildings seconds before the vehicle squealed around the corner, stopping only after one tire had jumped the curb. She staggered to the unit and collapsed against it, and for once she found the sight of a policeman comforting.  All she could do was point into the alley, but it was enough. She heard the officers call out to someone, then the sounds of a scuffle, then footsteps.  The policemen emerged from the alley.  A bent, bleeding figure walked between them.

One officer settled her attacker into the back of the unit while the other approached her.  "Are you all right, miss?"

He'd called her "miss."  His gentle tone and polite manner were her undoing, and sobs shook her small frame.  The broken bottle was pried from her fingers and an arm was placed about her shoulders.

"He s-sang," she blurted out, realizing it made no sense but knowing somehow it was important.  "He sang th-that song...the one about the m-mockingbird."

The arm around her shoulder tightened.  "Call it in, Tom," the officer said to his partner.  "Tell them we caught the 'Lullaby Rapist.'"

~~~~~~~~~~********************~~~~~~~~~~

Cascade - present day

Jim studied the photos carefully.  Each woman was young, each was reasonably attractive, and each sported bruises on her face, neck, arms, and thighs.

"Four rape victims, four similar stories." Simon's nasal baritone floated above Jim's head and moments later the captain leaned over him to place two files on the conference table.  "None of the victims saw their attackers, so they can't provide us with much in the way of a description. The DNA sample taken from one of the victims is useless because she'd had intercourse with other men prior to the rape.  The remaining victims reported their attacks several days after the incidents.  What we do know is that all of the women were assaulted by a man wearing a ski mask, and all stated their attacker sang to them."

Blair gulped the last of his coffee, nearly choking.  "Sang?"  He leaned across the table to better see the file Megan perused.

Simon nodded.  "Sang, Sandburg.  He sang a lullaby."

Megan smiled grimly.  "How sweet."

"Isn't it, though?"  Simon dropped into the chair beside Jim.  "'Hush, little baby, don't say a word...'"

"'Papa's gonna buy you a mockingbird,'" Blair finished.  "So this guy takes a song that parents have been crooning to fussy babies for generations and turns it into his own twisted serenade.  That's sick."

Jim tossed the photos onto the table.  "Is it him, Simon?"  He felt Blair and Megan's attention turn toward him but kept his own eyes on Simon.  The captain gazed back momentarily, then shook his head.

"No, but still. "

Blair leaned forward in his seat.  "Um, what are you guys talking about?  Is it whom?"

"It's all there."  Simon indicated the second file, older and worn.  "Thirty-some years ago there was a series of rapes on Cascade's lower west side.  All of the victims were young female prostitutes, and all claimed the rapist sang to them.  Sang a lullaby.  That lullaby."

Megan pulled the second file across the table and began rifling through its contents, sharing them with Blair.  "It couldn't be the same man, could it?  After all these years?"

"His name is Gerald Schirding and no, it's unlikely.  He was released from prison a few years ago, but according to prison authorities he was pretty ill.  Emphysema."

Jim detected the uncertainty in Simon's voice.  "You don't sound convinced, sir."

"Oh, I'm sure he isn't committing the rapes, but I'm not so sure he's innocent of all involvement."

Blair toyed with his empty coffee cup, absentmindedly rubbing his thumb along the rim of his cup. "Why is that?"

"The details of the earlier rapes weren't given much attention.  The west end was considered Cascade's low rent district even then, and its inhabitants were usually treated like second-class citizens.  A crime there was given low priority, so the rapes of a few prostitutes were pretty much ignored by the police and media alike."

"Peachy." Styrofoam squeaked beneath Blair's fingers.

"It was another time, Chief," Jim explained, knowing as he said it how lame it sounded.  "Prostitutes in that part of town were near the bottom rung on the ladder of humanity.  Still are, as far as some people are concerned."

"In fact," Simon said, "the one good thing to come out of the case was a ruling from the commissioner's office demanding that officers be held accountable for their behavior in dealing with citizens.  All citizens."

"Sensitivity Training 101, huh?"

Jim grinned.  "Something like that.  The case was big news for a few years in part because Schirding was from the 'right' side of the tracks--Woodland Heights, to be exact."

Megan closed the file and set it aside.  "In part?"

Jim picked up the file, opened it, and began flipping through the reports.  "During the same time frame as the rapes there were three murders, all prostitutes.  Their bodies were dumped in the bay, so what little forensic evidence a lab in the mid-60's could've used to find the murderer was washed away."

"Everyone suspected Schirding," Simon added, "but without evidence there was no proof, and he swore he was innocent.  He confessed to five counts of rape and assault and battery, and he served thirty years.  The murders were never solved."

Megan locked her fingers and placed her chin upon them.  "So, we have a copycat-rapist-might-be-murderer."

"With possible inside information."  Simon leaned back in his chair.  "Like I said, the rapes didn't receive much attention, so the public's knowledge was limited.  They knew that Schirding wore a black ski mask and sang to his victims, and they knew he choked and hit the women during the rapes.  However, they didn't know the details of the actual attacks, and they didn't know he called his victims 'baby girl' and 'sweetheart.'  Or that afterwards he told them they'd wanted it as much as he had."

Jim winced as the cup in Blair's hand screeched angrily.

"An MO shared by our current perp, I take it?" He leaned forward, wrestled Blair's cup from his grip, and set it next to his own.

Simon nodded. "Jim, I want you and Sandburg to pay Schirding a visit.  He lives with his son Michael in Pine Ridge.  He has to know something about this.  Connor, head over to the west end.  There's a clinic on the strip called The Haven that offers assistance to prostitutes in that part of town--birth control, HIV tests, counseling, drug rehab, things like that.  It's run by a woman named Maureen Paxton."  Simon chuckled.  "She's a live wire, so be prepared.  She persuaded our four victims to file reports with us, and she's been calling the mayor's office demanding 24-hour police patrols, an undercover operation... everything but the National Guard."

Megan pocketed the address.  "Can't say I blame her, Captain."

"No argument from me.  Jim, when you two finish at Schirding's, meet up with Connor at The Haven then report back to me."

"Will do."  Jim motioned for Blair to follow him.  "C'mon, Chief.  Let's pay Mr. Schirding a visit."

Blair frowned in disgust.  "Shouldn't we get shots or something first?"

"Nah, just maintain a safe distance and wear gloves."

"Gotcha."

~~~~~~~~~~********************~~~~~~~~~~

"Impressive!"

Jim smiled.  "Don't drool on the window, Sandburg."

"Jim, I'm looking at some of the highest priced real estate in Cascade.  I think that warrants an appreciative word or two."

"Hey, you're a byproduct of the hippie era, remember?  You're supposed to be above coveting material goods."

Blair snorted.  "Yeah, right."

Jim shook his head sadly.  "Another illusion shot to hell."  He gave some of the opulent homes a cursory glance.  A sprawling Mediterranean here, an imposing Tudor there, each with an immaculately manicured lawn, strategically placed shrubbery, and trees trimmed into submission.  Money could buy perfection.  Or at least a perfect facade.

"Hey, Jim?  You seem pretty familiar with the Schirding case."

"Yep."

"Why?  You were just a kid when it happened."

"It hit close to home.  Literally."

"How so?"

"Remember where Schirding lived when he committed the rapes?"

"Yeah, Woodland Heights.  That's on the--oh!"

"Exactly."

"How far from your house?"

"Woodland Heights was adjacent to my neighborhood.  We could see the homes there from the park." Jim focused his sight on a road sign in the distance.  "Three more blocks."

"Did you know the Schirdings?"

"No, but I knew of them.  Gerald Schirding was the original bogeyman, the 'monster in our midst,' so to speak.  Parents whispered to each other about him and kids passed along the legend, embellishing it through the years.  I remember sitting on Pete Stinson's back porch one summer night while his older brother 'entertained' us with the latest tale...something about Schirding sneaking out of prison on the weekend and kidnapping local kids."

"Were you scared?"

"Hell, yes!  Every time something happened in the neighborhood--a window was broken, a pet disappeared, a kid turned up missing--it was blamed on Schirding."  Jim chuckled as he turned onto a side street.  "Of course, we'd find out later a baseball had broken the window, Brutus the Dachshund was visiting the poodle down the road, and the missing kid had run away to grandma's, but the rumors continued."

"Sounds like Cascade's answer to Boo Radley."

"Except Schirding really was a lunatic," Jim reminded him as he parked the truck in front of a palatial gray stone home, "and still may be."

Jim gazed at the home, raking it from top to bottom.  Every door was closed, every window curtained.  The house seemed suffocated.

"When did you find out the truth about the Schirding case?"

Jim continued to stare at the house.  "A few months after Bud was killed.  I realized that bogeymen were just men.  I asked Sally about Schirding and she explained it in terms I could understand.  Then when I joined the force I did my own research.  The reality was almost as scary as the myth."

There was a movement, a faint shifting of fabric in the front window, and Jim zoomed in.  They were being watched.

"C'mon, Chief," he said, reaching for the door handle.  "Let's not keep the man waiting."

~~~~~~~~~~********************~~~~~~~~~~

The housekeeper frowned at Jim's ID, then frowned at Jim.  Blair averted his gaze as an image of Young Frankenstein's Frau Blucher pricked at the edge of his mind.  He doubted this woman would appreciate the comparison.

"I don't know about this."  The frown deepened.  "I don't think Mr. Schirding would like this."

Jim retrieved his ID.  "Well, perhaps you should call him," he said, stepping around her to the edge of the foyer.  "While you're doing that, my partner and I will have a friendly chat with the elder Mr. Schirding."

The woman seemed to consider this.  Then, frowning deeper still, she extended a hand and indicated a doorway to their right.  "Mr. Schirding's father is in the den.  He has another guest.  Please be brief."  With that, the frowning housekeeper turned and scurried into another room.

"Thank you, Miss Congeniality," Jim muttered as they headed toward the den.

The room beyond was spacious and grand but heavy curtains drawn against the afternoon sun gave it a stifling, almost claustrophobic feeling.  At the far end sat two men who turned to face them.  Blair thought the younger of the two vaguely familiar, but there was no mistaking the identity of the elder.  Time and disease had ravaged Gerald Schirding's body so that it bore no resemblance to his mug shot, but there was something about his eyes...

"Gerald Schirding?"  Jim's voice was all business.  "We're with the Cascade police department.  I'm Detective Ellison and--"

The man seated beside Schirding rose to his feet.  "I'm Thad Martin.  What's your business with Mr. Schirding?"

Blair snapped his fingers.  "That's why you look familiar!  Your picture is on the back of your books."  The man smiled slightly, obviously pleased to be recognized.  "Pleased" did not describe the expression on Jim's face, so Blair hurried to explain.  "This is Thad Martin.  He writes novels about--"

"--serial killers and other lowlifes.  I know who he is, Sandburg."  Jim leveled his gaze at Martin.  "I've read a couple of your books.  The Dark Heart was very interesting."

"Yes," the man agreed, "it was one of my best.  Robert Hickman is a fascinating man.  Quite brilliant, but such a tortured soul."

"Yeah, after reading about his rough life as a kid I was able to overlook the fact that he brutally murdered seven children."

Martin's smile faded.  "Detective, understanding the nature of the beast may help prevent similar tragedies."

"Or not."  Jim drew closer to the fourth man, who still sat silently on the sofa.  "Mr. Schirding, I'd like to ask you a few questions."

The old man adjusted the tube that snaked from an oxygen tank to his nose.  "Haven't the police got anything better to do than harass a dying man?"  His voice was raspy and tinged with anger, and Blair realized any information he and Jim got from him would be hard won.

"We're not here to harass you, sir.  We're hoping that you can shed some light on a current case."

"Heh-heh!" the old man wheezed.  "You--you want me to help you?  God, that's rich!"

Jim persevered.  "Mr. Schirding, you were arrested over thirty years ago for a series of rapes.  Is that correct?"

The laughter stopped.  "You know damn well I was or you wouldn't have asked."

"Well, it appears that someone is following the example you set."

"There's a copycat?"  Martin's voice contained an element of delighted curiosity that grated on Blair's nerves.

"Hoping for a sequel?"

The author backed down.

"Do you know anything about it?" Jim asked.

Schirding matched Jim's stare for several moments before answering.  "No, I don't know anything about it," he sneered, "and if I did you'd be the last to hear about it."

"What the hell do you people want?"

Blair whirled around as a middle-aged man, his face flushed with fury, stormed into the room.  Blair stole a quick glance at Jim, noted he was still engaged in a battle of wills with Schirding, and intercepted the newcomer.

"And you are?"

"Michael Schirding," the man stated, stopping in front of Blair but looking past him.  "Would you mind telling me what the police want with my father?"

"We need to ask him a few questions."

"About what?"

"There has been a series of rapes and--"

The younger Schirding exploded.  "What?  You're interrogating my father about what?"  Blair was nearly knocked from his feet as Michael Schirding lunged past him.  "Get out!  Get the hell out of here before I call my lawyer and have you charged with harassment!"

"We're investigating a crime."  Jim's voice was calm and controlled.  Michael Schirding wisely avoided physical contact but stood with his face only inches away from Jim's.

"My father is seventy years old, for God's sake.  You can't seriously believe he has anything to do with...with...."

"There are similarities, so we came to ask a few questions."

Schirding closed his eyes and took a deep breath before saying though gritted teeth,  "Any further questioning will be done in the presence of my lawyer.  Now get out."

Blair started for the door at Jim's signal, glad to be facing away from the others when Jim called back over his shoulder, "Don't leave town, Mr. Schirding.  We'll be in touch."  The den's heavy oak doors nearly clipped his heels.

"Well, that was fun," Blair mumbled as they crossed the foyer.

"Charming family," Jim added.

"I see you survived."

Jim and Blair looked at each other, then behind them, seeking the source of the third voice.  A fair-haired man, tall and muscular, stepped from the shadows.

"A little worse for wear," Blair admitted, taking in the man's casual clothing and relaxed appearance.  "Do you work here?"

The third man nodded.  "Eric Portier.  I'm Mr. Schirding's nurse."

"Nice job."

Portier shrugged.  "It pays well.  Mr. Schirding--Michael--he's okay.  He's got a lot on his shoulders and I think it gets to him sometimes."

"And Gerald Schirding?" Jim inquired.

Portier looked at the closed den doors, then back at Jim.  "Like I said, the job pays well."

"Ah."

Portier started to speak, but the housekeeper abruptly appeared, her perpetual frown firmly in place.  The nurse excused himself and left through the doorway from which he had emerged, his thick-soled tennis shoes barely making a sound against the hardwood floor.

The housekeeper made shooing motions, her hands flapping about like startled birds, and Blair nearly tumbled over Jim as the woman all but threw them out onto the stoop.  The door was slammed shut and a familiar frowning face materialized in an adjacent window.

Jim smiled and waved to her.

~~~~~~~~~~***********************~~~~~~~~~~

Jim parked the truck by the crumbling curb and looked around.  It was a part of the city not found in the travelers' brochures or mentioned in any tour guide's carefully practiced speech, yet it too was Cascade. The street was lined with shops that catered to various pleasures of the flesh, and here and there stood living advertisements with painted smiles and vacant eyes.  An orange neon sign throbbed rhythmically, a siren's song of "XXX Girls," and almost every window carried cardboard promises of sex.  Scattered about were other businesses--a gated grocery, a couple of liquor stores, and a pawnshop--but they did little to lend an air of legitimacy to the area.

Jim's gaze was drawn to the building on the corner.  Its rose and gray exterior was a visual oasis amidst the garishness surrounding it, and it exuded such an aura of peace and stability that the words above the door, The Haven, seemed superfluous.

"Seems out of place."  Blair's voice was little more than a reverent whisper.

"Like a saint among sinners," Jim added, stepping from the truck.  "And right where it can do the most good.  C'mon."

Jim felt the stares of the half-dozen women standing along the street.  It was no surprise.  The sight of two men heading toward The Haven and away from the business district was probably unusual, even suspect.

As they approached the door, a woman emerged from the building.  Once, a lifetime ago, she might have been attractive, but now her face was lined and scarred, a recorded history of every drink, every drug, and every trick.  Her age?  Twenty-something...or maybe forty-something.

She sauntered toward them with a strut more sad than seductive.  "Oooh!  Now ain't you two something sweet to see early in the mornin'."  She gave Jim the once over.  "You've gotta be a cop, baby, 'cause a man with your body don't need to pay for it."

Jim grinned.  "I bet you say that to all the guys."

"Just the pretty ones."  She flipped a lock of straw-like hair over her shoulder and winked at Blair.  "Now, you look like someone who wants to play."

"Um...um...."

Jim grabbed Blair by the scruff of the neck and gently urged him onward.  "Later, Romeo.  We're on company time."

Blair shrugged and muttered, "It's the hair, man.  It's gotta be the hair."

"Yeah?  Well, maybe it's time to get you groomed."

"One word about table legs, Jim, and you'll live to regret it."

"Oooh, I'm scared!"  Jim held up a rock steady hand for effect.  "This is me, scared."  He sidestepped a half-hearted swat and yanked open the door, following Blair through.

The decor inside The Haven was as unpretentious and soothing as its exterior.  Overstuffed chairs in sherbet pastels occupied much of the visible space.  A young girl sat along the east wall, bouncing an infant on her pudgy knees.  Her clothing, shorts and a shirt at least two sizes too small, did nothing to disguise her more than ample figure, weight probably gained during her pregnancy.

Jim shook his head sadly.  If she was here at The Haven, then she was a working girl.  Was the baby's father someone she knew, or was he just one of the faceless men she'd serviced on a particular night many months past?

Stay focused, he reminded himself.  His job was to keep her and women like her from becoming victims of a singing rapist.  Beyond that, her fate was out of his hands.

"Jim?"  Megan motioned for them to join her across the room.  Beside her stood an older woman with the soft, squishy physique of Aunt Bee and the steely eyes of a no-nonsense den mother.

"Ms. Paxton, I presume."  Jim extended his hand.  The woman's grip was every bit as firm as he'd imagined it would be.  She was a force to be reckoned with.

"Detective.  So, what are you going to do about this bastard?"

"Well," Jim looked to Megan for assistance, but her sly smile said quite plainly that he was on his own, "our first step is to warn the women so they--"

"I've already done that.  They know the risks, but when all you can think about is your next fix or your next drink or," she spared the woman with the baby a glance, "your kid's next meal, you rationalize things."

"We'll want to speak with the women who--"

"They've already given their statements to one of your officers.  If you want to speak to them yourself, let me know so I can start contacting them.  They don't exactly work nine-to-five."

Jim took a deep breath and rubbed the back of his neck.  Count to ten.  "Look, Ms. Paxton--"

"Maureen."  Her voice was milder now, almost genial, and she allowed her shoulders to slump a bit.  "I'm sorry, Detective.  I don't mean to take this out on you, but I know how the rest of Cascade views this part of town.  I know what they think about the women here.  They're human sewage, the bottom feeders.  And in the war on crime, more often than not they're considered the enemy."

"Jim," Megan piped in, "Maureen and I chatted quite a bit before you and Sandy got here, and we have an idea."

"Let me guess.  You want to go undercover as one of the local ladies."

Megan seemed briefly taken aback but nodded.  "What do you think?"

"I think it sounds like something out of a 70's television cop show.  It also happens to be an excellent idea.  If you can pull it off, that is."

Megan arched her eyebrows.  "I have many hidden talents."

Jim heard Blair's nearly silent chuckle.

"Okay, head back to the precinct and brief Simon.  Sandburg and I won't be far behind."

"Right."  She said good-bye to Maureen before heading for the door.

"Hold on, Megan.  I'll walk out with you."

Jim watched his partner scurry to catch up with Megan and turned his attention back to Maureen.  She was frowning, and her gaze was unfocused and downcast, as if viewing some dark memory.  Jim gently touched her arm.

"We'll get him, Maureen.  I promise."

~~~~~~~~~~********************~~~~~~~~~~

Blair held the door while Megan slipped into her car.  He shut it behind her and leaned on the frame of the lowered window.  "Well, this will be quite a career change for you," he teased.

"Nothing I can't handle, Sandy.  I've done this type of thing before.  Well, not this type of thing...I mean, as a police officer...but not...damn, you know what I mean!"

Blair grinned and patted her on the shoulder.  "It'll be our little secret."  He laughed as she drove away in a cloud of Aussie slang and watched her car disappear around the corner.

A moment later his laughter froze in his throat, choking him, as his eyes filled with yellow mist.

Lash.

Golden.

The dual terror surged through his mind in an icy wave as the mist enveloped his face, but he fought the instinct to claw at it.  Instead, he took a deep breath, lifted a single hand...and touched gossamer.

"Hey, Mister, are you looking for some fun?"

The gauzy material slipped past his fingers as the "mist" was tugged up and over his head and a slender figure stepped from behind him.  Blair's heart dropped into his stomach.

She wore jeans and a tank top, of which one slim spaghetti strap was attached with a safety pin.  She was slightly shorter than he, with shoulder-length brown hair, brown eyes, and a sprinkling of freckles across her nose.  Blair had seen enough of street life to recognize a newcomer, and this girl, still fresh-faced, with a hint of fear and uncertainty, was a recent addition.

She looked like someone's kid sister.  And probably was.

A long yellow scarf, the object that only seconds before had startled him, now hung innocuously around her shoulders.  Tiny beads and mirrors reflected the sun's rays, dancing them about the young girl's neck and face like firelight.

A distant memory surfaced.  Another time.  Another place.  A different kind of firelight.  "Where is your heart?"

"Hey."  A hand waggled back and forth before his eyes.  "Are you in there?"

Blair shook loose from the memory.  "Um, yeah, I'm here."

"So?"

"So, I don't think that's a good idea."

"Why not?"  The girl moved in closer and placed her hand on his chest.  "Don't you like girls?"

Blair took her hand in his.  "I like girls very much.  I respect them, too."

Confusion flashed through the girl's eyes.  This was obviously not the response she had expected.

"Gypsy," Maureen Paxton called from the doorway, "if you're hoping to get a rap sheet, keep it up."  Jim edged around her, holding the door open.  Blair watched the girl's eyes widen at the sight of his partner.  She turned her attention back to him and sighed.

"Some other time."

He tightened his grip on her hand before she could pull away.  "Maybe we could get together.  Just to talk."

"Talk?"

Blair released her hand and grinned.  "Talk."

"Okay."  She returned his smile.  "Weird, but okay."  She pulled the scarf tightly around her shoulders and headed for The Haven.  Jim held the door for her, gave Maureen a quick wave, and joined Blair.

"She's a little young for you, Sandburg."

"She's a little young, period.  What's a kid her age doing down here?"

Jim shrugged and headed for the truck.  "What are any of them doing down here, Chief?"

Blair shadowed him, silent.

~~~~~~~~~~********************~~~~~~~~~~

Jim closed his eyes and inhaled deeply.  He loved Sally's spaghetti sauce.  During his last visit with his father he had persuaded her to part with the recipe.  It had a unique, heady flavor he'd loved even as a child, but as he stood at the stove, stirring the simmering sauce, it was the aroma that enraptured him.  Sweet basil, spicy parsley, earthy rosemary, pungent, nose-tickling garlic--he was bordering on an olfactory orgasm.  He took another deep breath, delighted to discover he could "taste" the sauce without putting a drop on his tongue.  He nearly made a comment to that effect, but thought better of it, realizing it would be tantamount to hanging a neon sign around his neck that read, "Please test me."

"So, Jim, the sauce must be doing wonderful things to your sense of smell, huh?"

Damn.

Blair stuck his head over the steaming mixture and sniffed.  "Smells scrumptious."

Jim shoved him away.  "Get out of there.  It's one thing to find your hair all over the bathroom, but if you get it in this sauce I swear you'll wake up bald."

"Misery loves compa--Ow!"  Blair rubbed his arm as he retreated to the other side of the kitchen island, well beyond Jim's reach.  He picked up a knife and resumed chopping tomatoes for the salad, pausing only to cast an expectant glance toward his room.  "So, how much longer do you think she'll be?"

Jim shrugged.  "Hard to tell.  Think of it as a dress rehearsal for a school play.  You have to put on the costume and the makeup, just like it's the real thing."

"For some women it is the real thing."

Jim noted the grim line of his partner's lips.  "You're thinking about the girl from this morning."

"God, Jim, she couldn't have been a day over seventeen...eighteen at the most.  She should be picking out colleges, not picking up men."

"None of them should, Chief."

"I know, but this girl...there was something different about her."

Jim crooked an eyebrow.  "We're about to enter the Sandburg Zone, aren't we?"

"I'm going to talk to her, see if I can find out her story.  Maybe I can help."

"Just don't expect a miracle, okay?"

Jim turned his attention to the French doors as they swung open.  Megan stepped out, wearing a satiny red dress, complete with plunging neckline and a thigh-high slit on the side, and spike-heeled pumps.  Hands on her hips, she did a slow 360, then struck a pose.

"What do you think?"

"Wow!"

Blair's smile seemed painfully wide to Jim, who pressed two fingers to his lips and viewed Megan with a more critical eye.  A few seconds later, he shook his head.  "No, it's too uptown.  You look like you work for an escort service."

Megan cocked her head to one side.  "I need something...sleazier?"

"Yeah.  This," he indicated the dress, "says, 'Here's a price list and yes, we take credit cards.'  You want something that says, 'I'll do anything for twenty-five bucks and an order of fries.'"

Blair choked and returned to his tomatoes.  Megan nodded and returned to Blair's room.  Jim returned to his beloved sauce.

"Hey, did you read Brown's report?"

"Yeah.  Can't say I was surprised."  Jim removed the sauce from the stove and turned the burner off.  "Too bad Schirding's ex-wife didn't say something back then.  It might've saved some lives."

"I guess she was in a state of denial."

"She had her reputation to consider.  Thirty-five years ago divorce, especially in the Schirdings' circle, was a rarity.  'Irreconcilable differences' was acceptable.  'Incest' would've caused a stir at the country club."

Blair popped a tomato wedge into his mouth.  "Maybe she wanted to spare her daughter."

"Maybe, but you saw the report.  The girl was in and out of therapy for years.  Drugs, alcohol, suicide attempts.  Maybe what her daughter needed was validation."

"Hindsight is 20/20, man."

"Tell that to victims six through eight, the ones found in the bay."  Jim dumped the spaghetti from a colander onto a plate and handed it to Blair.  "I feel for Schirding's ex-wife and daughter, Chief, but the rapes and murders occurred after they'd moved out.  If Mrs. Schirding had gone to the police, things might have been different."

Blair set the plate on the table.  "Well, we know this new guy is mimicking Schirding's original pattern, including details which were never publicized, so it stands to reason that Schirding is feeding him information.  We need to catch the copycat and get him to roll over on Schirding about those old murders."

"It's been a week since the fourth victim was attacked.  Schirding never went longer than ten days." Jim poured the sauce into a bowl and carried it to the table.  "If our suspicions about Schirding killing those three women are correct, and if this new guy follows the pattern, he'll murder his sixth victim."

"We'll just have to make sure he doesn't get a chance."

"From your lips to God's ears," Jim murmured.  He heard the French doors rattle as they opened again and moved forward to get a better look.

He had wanted sleazy, and she hadn't disappointed him.  She wore cutoffs so short they would have been the envy of Daisy Duke and a shirt that exposed most of her midriff.  She had opted for sandals this time, evidently going for maximum exposure.  Jim peered closely at her face and, spying the addition of heavy eyeshadow and lipstick, nodded his approval.

He turned to ask Blair for his opinion but quickly determined it wasn't necessary.  Blair's eyes bulged in their sockets and his mouth hung open, but he remained speechless.  Jim chuckled and gave Megan the thumbs up.

"Perfect, Connor."

~~~~~~~~~~********************~~~~~~~~~~

"Perfect, my ass!"  Megan adjusted her shorts as discreetly as possible and hoped to heaven she wouldn't have to chase down any perps while wearing them.  She didn't like pain.  She also didn't like cold air on bare skin, but at sundown a frosty breeze had begun blowing off the bay, and her "perfect" attire provided little protection.  She'd brought a jacket to wear, but her unprotected legs were covered with goosebumps.

She checked her watch.  Almost two a.m.  Just a few more minutes and she could call it a night.  Maureen Paxton had persuaded the women who worked this area to wrap up their business by two and meet back at The Haven.  "Primetime" was between eleven p.m. and two a.m., so there had been little opposition.  For that, Megan was grateful.

A car cruised by, slowed almost to a stop, and then resumed speed as if the driver had changed his mind.  A second car followed shortly thereafter but continued down the road as well.  Good.  She was in no mood to walk the short distance to the curb to deal with some hormonally-charged jackass.

She found the situation strangely comedic.  Normally Vice would have been running regular patrols through the area, arresting those making their living in the world's oldest profession.  For now, though, a moratorium had been declared on arrests, and the prostitutes plied their trade under the watchful eyes of their former adversaries.  There was a bigger fish to catch.

Another car approached, this time pulling up to the curb.  One of the two men inside it waved her over, leaving little room for interpretation.  Megan plastered her sexiest smile across her lips.

"Hey, good lookin', wanna party?"

Megan wrinkled her nose.  "Forget it, mister.  You can't afford me."

"Rafe, man, you need to work on your technique.  That was lame."  Henri Brown leaned across his partner from the driver's seat.  "Fair creature, wouldst thou grace us with your presence in our most unworthy chariot?"

Megan rolled her eyes.  "Lovely.  I get to choose between Tony Manero and a Don Juan wannabe. You'll have to do better than that."

Henri grinned.  "Two words: working heater."

"I'm all yours."  Megan yanked open the rear passenger door and slid into the car, grateful for the cloth-covered seats beneath her legs.  Cold leather would have been the last straw.

Rafe pivoted in his seat to face her.  "Jim called.  The women are heading to The Haven, as promised."

"Good.  Any problems?"

"Nothing out of the ordinary.  It's the middle of the week, so things are slow."

"It's getting down to the wire," Brown added.  "If this guy's gonna stick to the original pattern, he'll have to act within the next forty-eight hours."

"Unfortunately we don't have any guarantees he'll follow the same pattern," Rafe said.  "So far he's only mimicked the general location of the attacks and the actual rapes themselves.  There are plenty of inconsistencies."

Megan tugged at her shorts again and began to massage her icy legs.  "Let's hope this isn't one of them.  I'd like to catch this bloke before he hurts another woman."

Brown met her gaze in the review mirror.  "We all would."

She settled back into the seat and closed her eyes, allowing the warmth of the car's interior to seep into her body. As she felt the stress fade with the cold, she offered silent thanks that, for her, this lifestyle was only pretend.

~~~~~~~~~~********************~~~~~~~~~~

 "Well?"

"I saw her.  The one I want."

"What did she look like?"

"Pretty.  Kinda long hair."

"Good.  Long hair is an asset.  Makes them easier to control.  You can grab on to it, twist it, pull it.  They can't get away."

"Yeah, I know.  You told me."

"You remember everything I tell you, don't you?"

"Of course."

"Do you remember what I told you the last time?"

"You said that I'd only had a taste of what could be.  That it was time to know what it means to be a god."

"That's right.  Other people want to do what we do.  They fantasize, they write books, they make movies, but it's meaningless without action.  They don't have the courage to follow through, so they hide behind false morality and flimsy paper laws."

"They're afraid of the dark."

"I wasn't.  You're not.  Are you ready?"

"I want to be a god."

~~~~~~~~~~********************~~~~~~~~~~

Simon stirred his coffee with a swizzle stick as he finished reading the report in his hand.  Satisfied, he closed the file and peered over his glasses at the three people across the table.  "No luck last night?"

"I certainly didn't get lucky," Megan muttered.  "Thank God for small favors."

Jim smiled, took a tentative sip of his own coffee and winced.  "No arrests, if that's what you mean, sir."

"True, but no rapes, either." Blair sniffed the contents of his cup before drinking.  "Everyone on Maureen's list checked in and went home."

"Good point, Sandburg, but unfortunately it brings us no closer to catching our rapist."

"Background checks turned up nothing on Schirding's son, housekeeper, or nurse," Jim said.  "We're checking out his former cellmates, just in case.  We did find something on Thad Martin, though.  A misdemeanor trespass and assault."

"We may have something, then."  Simon placed the report on the table and flicked it over to Jim.

Jim picked up the file.  "The report from the stakeout?"

Simon nodded.  "The elder Mr. Schirding didn't leave his home.  No surprise there.  Michael Schirding left his office at approximately nine p.m. and arrived home half an hour later.  Thad Martin spent the night at the Schirding residence.  Well, most of the night."

"Oh?"  Blair scooted his chair closer to Jim's and began to read over his shoulder.

"Martin was seen driving away from the Schirding house around one a.m. and didn't return until almost three.  I'll give you three guesses as to where he went and the first two don't count."

"You're kidding."  Megan leaned over Jim's spare shoulder.

"Nope.  In fact, Connor, the officers tailing him asked me to pass along their admiration for your, um, fashion sense."

"Thank you, sir.  I live for compliments."

The captain grinned.  "I told them to keep their eyes on the suspect next time."

"Next time?"  A pained expression crossed Megan's face.  "I prefer to remain optimistic."

Simon chuckled.  If Megan thought the comments would end when the case was solved, she was sadly mistaken.  He would allow her to keep her illusions a while longer, though.  "Keep up the good work, Inspector.  Your sacrifices are duly noted."  He leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers.  "Jim, you and Blair have a chat with Thad Martin.  Don't mention the tail, but see if you can get him to slip up, maybe say something damning.  Hell, do some of that sentinel stuff on him to see if he's lying."

"'Sentinel stuff,' sir?"

"You know what I mean, Jim."

"Sure, Simon.  I'll do some 'sentinel stuff.'  You ready to do some 'sentinel stuff,' Chief?"

"Sounds good to me, Jim."  Blair nudged him with his elbow.  "Hey, maybe we could say 'hocus pocus' and do some magic stuff, too!"

Jim landed an "ah, shucks" punch to Blair's chin.  "That'd be keen!"

"Get out of here and get to work," Simon growled as the three rose from their seats and headed for the door.

Blair saluted him.  "Yes, sir.  We'll get busy with that 'sentinel stuff' right away, sir."

"Yuck it up, Sandburg," the captain called after him.  "I'll think kind thoughts of you tonight when I climb into my nice, soft bed and you're on stakeout."  Simon placed his interlocked fingers behind his head and smiled.  It was good to be captain.

~~~~~~~~~~********************~~~~~~~~~~

Blair entered the foyer and stopped dead in his tracks.  What lay before him was a sumptuous feast of antiquities and art.  There was no doubt about it: Thad Martin had exquisite taste.  He felt pressure against the small of his back and moved forward as Jim urged him further into the penthouse.

Martin closed the door behind them.  "I was on the phone when you arrived, so let me finish up and I'll be right back.  Please make yourselves comfortable."  He excused himself and slipped into another room.

Blair let out a low whistle.  "I want to be a rich and famous author when I grow up."

Jim sat down on the brown leather sofa.  "Well, you always have...."  His voice trailed off, but Blair easily filled in the blank.

He plopped down beside Jim.  "The diss?  No way, man.  It's not worth the price.  I'd rather be poor and happy."  Jim only smiled in reply, but it was enough.  "Besides, all of this--the antiques, the expensive furnishings, even the view of the bay--was bought with someone else's misery."

Companionable silence hung between them for a few brief seconds, then Jim announced, "He's coming.  The person on the other line was a female.  It didn't sound case related, though."  The last sentence faded into a whisper.

"Sorry to keep you waiting," Thad Martin said, his voice preceding him into the room.  "Now, what can I do for the police department?"

Jim leaned forward as Martin took the chair across from him.  "We have a few questions for you."

"About Gerald Schirding, I presume?"  Martin waved his hand in dismissal.  "There isn't anything I know that you can't get from reading the old police reports."

"If that's true, why write the book?"

"Because it offers a look into the mind of a criminal, Detective.  Knowing what Mr. Schirding did is only half of the story.  We need to know why; then we can use that knowledge to help others."

What others? Blair wondered.  From the looks of things, the only person being "helped" by Martin's books was Martin.

"Has Schirding said anything about the murders?"

Martin shook his head.  "No, and I doubt he had anything to do with them.  He's been very straightforward about his past, very honest about what he did."

Jim snorted.  "Yeah, he's a regular pillar of the community."

"You're judging him without knowing the whole story, Detective Ellison," Martin admonished.  "He had a difficult childhood."

Blair winced in sympathy at the sight of Jim's jaw clenching.  That had to hurt.

"Lots of men had 'difficult' childhoods, Mr. Martin.  They didn't grow up to rape six women."

"Five," Martin corrected.

"Five," Jim agreed.  "The sixth victim was just a child.  His child."

"A story concocted by his estranged wife."

Blair noted the change in Jim's expression.  His facial muscles slackened, his jaw relaxed, and his eyes were frosty.  The sentinel was going to make his move.

"You seem convinced he's innocent of the murders."

"I am."

"What about the recent rapes?  Could he have committed them?"

Martin laughed harshly.  "Not a chance."

"Yet there are similarities between the old case and the recent rapes, things only the original rapist would know.  Why?"

"I don't know."

Jim cocked his head to one side, and Blair knew he was listening for more than just spoken words.  "Guess."

Martin threw his hands up, obviously exasperated.  "Maybe he told someone about them."

"Maybe he did."  Jim's voice was little more than a whisper.  Blair watched the two men duel silently, locked gazes their only weapons.

Martin blinked.  "I don't like what you're insinuating, Ellison."

"You've spent several weeks with the man.  You know about each and every rape down to the most minute details."  Jim leaned back, the epitome of relaxed satisfaction.  "You know as much as Schirding knows."

Martin bolted from his chair.  "Get the hell out of here!  The next time I talk to you, it'll be with my lawyer present!"

Jim leisurely rose to his feet and headed for the door.  Blair followed him, sparing one last glance at the magnificent objects surrounding him, finally understanding.  Thad Martin wanted to give visitors to his home the impression that he was a man of culture, a lover of all things aesthetic.  It was a facade.  Underneath it all, he was no better than the schlock reporter who produced articles about some celebrity's two-headed alien love child or wrote about the latest Elvis sighting.

In fact, Blair thought as the penthouse door swung shut against his heels, considering his subject matter, he's much worse.

~~~~~~~~~~********************~~~~~~~~~~

His eyes were unfocused, staring into nothingness.  He sat motionless and silent.  He was up to something.

"You're up to something."

Blair blinked several times before looking at Jim.  "Huh?"

"You've got that look on your face."

"What look?"

"The one that says 'I'm up to something.'"

"Jim, I'm not up to anything."

"What are you planning to do?"

"I'm not planning to do anything!"

Jim flipped the signal and turned left onto Hamilton.  "Fine.  Don't tell me."

"There's nothing to tell."

"Fine."  Jim concentrated on the traffic ahead of him, accelerating through a yellow light only to have to drop his speed as he pulled up behind a Ford Festiva.  Geez, did people still drive those things?

"Hey, could you pull over at that pastry shop up there?"

"Sure."  Jim slowed even further and drew parallel to the curb.  "This has something to do with what you're up to, doesn't it?"

"Would you stop that?"

"Well?"

"What makes you think I'm up to anything?"

"For starters, you're going into a pastry shop; a temple to high fat, high cholesterol, and refined sugar."

"I need to get something."  Blair pushed his door open and jumped from the truck.

"This doesn't look like the kind of place that sells those blocks of wood you call bran muffins, Sandburg."

"It's not for me."

"Ah!"  Jim rubbed his hands together in gleeful anticipation.  "In that case, I'll take one buttermilk and one jelly-filled."

"It's not for you, either."

"You're up to something."

Blair gripped the door of the truck.  "I'm gonna hurt you, man."

Jim raised his hands defensively.  "Hey, if you don't want to talk about it, that's fine.  It's none of my business, partner."

There it was--the sigh.  He had him now.

"Fine, if you must know, I'm buying a danish for Gypsy."

"Gypsy?  The girl at The Haven?"

"Yeah.  I didn't get a chance to talk to her last night, so I thought I'd try tonight.  I spoke to Maureen, and she told me the kid loves blueberry danish.  Goes straight for it whenever breakfast is offered."

Jim softened a bit.  "So, are you going to try to reform her?"

Blair shrugged.  "I'm going to try to do something.  Get her off the street, get her to go home, to a shelter...I don't know.  Something."

"She's not Amber Larkin, Chief.  Her situation, her background, her attitude--they're all different."

"What are you saying, Jim?  I shouldn't try?"

"No.  I'm saying you may not get a happy ending this time around."

"I know."

Jim smiled sadly.  "Do you?"  Blair's eyes embraced his for one long moment.  Yes, he did.  "Okay, get what you need and hurry.  I want to get there early."

"Back in a sec."

"Oh, and Sandburg?  If you come back without a buttermilk donut, you're walking the rest of the way."

~~~~~~~~~~********************~~~~~~~~~~

Jim paused a moment before entering The Haven to survey the street with a critical eye.  He was pleased with what he saw--nothing.  Oh, there was a person here and there and a few parked cars along the way, but nothing about them would have raised the suspicions of the average citizen.  The man slouched against the storefront window of U-Save Liquor appeared to be a typical drunk, not an armed officer of the law.  The pretty blond sashaying down the sidewalk in a miniskirt and go-go boots looked every bit the prostitute, so who would have guessed that only a week before she had successfully wrestled a 235 lb. drug dealer to the ground?

A tap on his arm drew his attention.  Blair snickered.  "Check out Megan.  Wonder where she got the blond wig?"

"Why?  Thinking of borrowing it?"

"Nah, blond hair clashes with my complexion.  Besides, it looks like something a cat coughed up."

Their entrance into The Haven attracted little attention.  Those inside, both employees and patrons, seemed to grudgingly accept the presence of the police and no longer treated them as some kind of invading virus.  Jim spotted Maureen across the room.  Her stiff posture and grim countenance evidenced her waxing stress level, and Jim wished more than ever to find a way to ease her fears.

That's simple, Ellison; catch this jerk before he hurts another woman.  But it wasn't simple.  In choosing prostitutes, especially these prostitutes, the copycat had guaranteed himself a plentiful crop of victims and very little danger of discovery.  The women of Cascade's west end considered rape little more than sexual shoplifting, an acceptable risk and fact of life.

Jim nodded as Maureen waved them over.  He and Blair had only taken a few steps when a blur of yellow cut across their path, nearly careening into them.

"Oops!  Sorry, I didn't--Hey, it's you!"

Blair smiled at her.  "Hi, Gypsy.  I was hoping I'd see you tonight."

"Oh, yeah?"

"Uh-huh.  I brought something for you."  Blair dangled the white wax paper bag before her.  "Blueberry."

The young girl's eyes widened and she squealed with delight.  "Thanks!  I haven't eaten since last night and I'm starved!"  She snatched the bag and plundered its contents.

Jim watched as Blair blanched, then recovered quickly.  To his partner's credit, his voice revealed nothing of his obvious anguish over the girl's situation.

"So, are you working tonight?"

Gypsy chewed furiously and swallowed, choking a bit in her hurry to clear her mouth and fill her stomach.  "Yeah, I have to.  Last night was a bust.  Only had one customer.  This is Friday, and things always pick up on the weekend."  She licked a dab of filling from her finger and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.  "Well, I have to go.  It'll take me a few minutes to get to my station."

Blair looked up at Jim, a silent plea visible in his blue eyes.  Jim winked.  Permission granted.

"Why don't I walk with you?  We could talk."

Gypsy appeared to consider this.  "Um, okay.  Talk is good."  She adjusted her ornamented scarf around her bare shoulders.  "Just don't scare my customers away, okay?"

"I wouldn't think of it."  Blair gallantly offered her his arm.  She stared at it for a moment, uncertain, then took it.

"Weird."

Jim watched the two of them leave then completed his journey to Maureen's side.  The older woman's expression had relaxed a bit.

"Gypsy has a new friend, I see."

"Sandburg has a way with women."  Jim's smile faded a bit.  "Seriously, he'd just like to help her."

"I hope he can."  Maureen walked toward her office and motioned for Jim to follow.  "She's relatively new, only about three months on the streets.  So far she's stayed clean.  No drugs, no booze.  Well, not much.  That will change, though.  It always does."

"What's her story?"

Maureen stooped to pick up a discarded book.  "The usual.  Left an abusive home, thought she could make it on her own, and ended up selling her body to survive."  She sank into a chair just inside her office door.  "Damn it, I get so tired of this cycle."

Jim leaned against the doorjamb.  "Blair will give it all he has, I guarantee you."

"And what about this lunatic?  What kind of guarantees can you give me about him?"

"Only that we'll do our best to take him down."

"Your best."  Maureen smiled.  "That's all we ever wanted."

~~~~~~~~~~********************~~~~~~~~~~

Waiting.  A combination of agony and ecstasy.  He felt like a child in the dark hours of Christmas morning, all prickles and sparks in anticipation of what was to come.

He heard the door click shut behind him but waited to speak until he could feel the other at his back.

"It's time."

~~~~~~~~~~********************~~~~~~~~~~

Waiting.  A combination of terror and need.  He was drawn to her like the proverbial moth to the flame, yet he feared discovery.  He feared failure.  He feared.

As he pulled out of the shadows onto the street, he wondered if the moth rejoiced as the tongue of fire singed its wings.

~~~~~~~~~~********************~~~~~~~~~~

"So, that's your...what did you call it?  Station?"

"Yeah, station.  My territory."

Blair cringed at the matter-of-fact statement.  They might as well have been discussing the weather.  "It's kinda dark here, isn't it?"

"Uh-huh.  Not as many businesses, more vacant lots."

"Why don't you stick closer to The Haven?"

Gypsy giggled.  "Because I don't want to pick my teeth up off the pavement.  New girls always end up on the fringe.  If you invade someone else's territory, you're asking for trouble."

She pulled away from him and crossed an unlit alley, stopping in front of a condemned building.  Faint squeaks and scratches emanated from the shadows.  Rats, Blair guessed, but he'd love to have Jim's sentinel vision just to make sure.

"So you're stuck out here?"

"For now."  She sat on the crumbling cement stairs underneath the building's decrepit awning.  "Eventually I'll get to move in a bit."

"Why?"

"The others will leave."

"Leave?"

"Yep."

"Where do they go?"

Gypsy was silent for a moment. "Some move on.  Some die."

Blair studied her face in the failing evening light.  She was probably no more than seventeen.  Seventeen going on ancient.  He sat beside her.  "Gypsy.  Is that your real name?"

More silence.

"What happened?  How did you get here?"  He hated to push, but he felt compelled by something inexplicable and urgent.

She stared off into the distance and did not answer for several moments.  "It was just me and my mom.  Then it was me, my mom, and Tom.  When mom went to work, sometimes it was just me and Tom."

Blair didn't need to hear it.  It was written in the tears in her eyes and trembling of her chin.  "Wasn't there anyone you could tell?"

Gypsy sprang to her feet, her harsh, bitter laughter echoing off the few buildings that surrounded them.  "Oh, yeah, I told.  I told him to stop.  He didn't.  I told my boyfriend.  He dumped me.  I told my mom.  She said I was just trying to break her and Tom up and called me a liar."  She turned away from him and made a great show of examining her yellow scarf.  "I left the next day."

Blair remained seated, available but non-threatening.  "And now you're here."

"Hell, if I'm gonna spread my legs, I might as well make some money for it, right?"

Blair considered his next words carefully.  "Is this where you want to be, Gypsy?"

The girl whirled about and looked at him as if he'd begun speaking Latin.  "What?"

"Is this where you want to be?  Is this what you want for yourself?"

"God!  What kind of a moron are you?  No one wants this!"

Blair held up his hand and spoke in soft, soothing tones.  "I know that.  So what do you want?"

Gypsy paced frantically, the facade of apathy completely ripped away.  She twisted the yellow scarf in her hands.  "It doesn't matter what I want anymore.  This is all there is.  This is it.  This is me."

"This isn't you," Blair countered.  "What do you want?"  No, that's not the right question.

A tent.  Firelight.  A brown-skinned woman of about forty.  A yellow scarf decorated with beads and mirrors.

"Where is your heart?"

Gypsy stopped dead in her tracks.  Her hands stilled.

"Where is your heart?" he repeated.

The voice was that of a child.  "I can't go back.  She called me a liar."

 Blair nodded.  "That was wrong."

"I'm not a liar."

"No, you're not."

"What do I do?"

"Tell her."

Gypsy shook her head.  "She won't listen.  She called me a liar."

"Make her listen."

"She hates me."

"She loves you."

"That's crap!  You don't call someone you love a liar," she insisted.

"Sometimes you do."

"You don't know what it's like." Gypsy returned to pacing and her voice gathered volume.  "You don't know how it feels to be called a liar, to be accused of something you didn't do, to have your life ripped to shreds!  You don't know what that's like!"

Blair rose to his feet and caught her arm as she passed, capturing her.  He cupped her damp cheeks within his hands, and gazed down into her eyes.  "I know all that and more."  He took a deep breath.  "I know what it's like to have someone you trust wrongly accuse you.  I know how it feels to have everything you've known ripped away."  Impulsively he leaned forward and kissed her forehead.  " I also know people make mistakes, awful mistakes, and they want to make things right. But if you're not there, they can't.  If you leave, they can't say they're sorry.  If you run away, what's broken can't be mended."

Blair wrapped his arms around the weeping girl as she collapsed against him.  He held her, murmuring words of comfort and peace, and waited for the tears to pass.  Several minutes later, she pulled back enough to look into his eyes yet still remain within touching distance.  She smiled, then began to laugh shakily.  Blair joined her, giddy from the emotional roller coaster ride.

Gypsy wiped her at her eyes with her scarf.  "That was...um...."

"Weird?"

"Weird.  A good kind of weird, though."

"Are you okay?"

She nodded.  "Yeah, I'm fine."

Blair decided to test the waters.  "Do you want to stay out here?"

"No."

"Want to go back to The Haven?"

Gypsy nodded again.  Blair took her hand and took a step.  She hesitated, pulling him back.  He knew what she would ask before the words left her lips.

"What if nothing has changed?"

He couldn't lie to her.  It was an unknown, a variable entity.  "We'll figure something out.  There are places you can stay, people who'll help you."

She seemed satisfied with his response and fell into step beside him.  "Whatever happens, at least it'll be better than this."

"Definitely."

"I won't be alone."

"No."

"I won't end up like April."  She stopped again, bending to remove her shoe and shake a pebble from it.

Blair knelt beside her.  "Who's April?"

"She was my friend.  When I first got here, she was nice to me.  Helped me get settled, taught me a few things, you know?"

Blair could guess.  "What happened to her?"

"She killed herself."

"I'm sorry."

"She seemed really strong."  Gypsy tossed the pebble to the side and put on her shoe again.  "I mean, she knew how to handle the creeps and everything.  But that singing guy, he really mess--"

"What?"  Blair felt ice form in his brain and steadily progress down his spine.  "What did you say?  What singing guy?"

"That guy they're looking for."

"What about him?  What did he do?"

"He raped her."

Ice water pooled in his shoes.  "Are you sure?"

"Uh-huh.  We always walked back together.  One night I got to her station and she was sitting behind a dumpster, crying.  She told me what happened.  I wanted her to talk to Maureen, but she wouldn't and made me promise to keep quiet."  Gypsy stood back up and took a tentative step, testing her shoe.  "She was in bad shape.  She couldn't work, so she didn't have any money for her...stuff.  I tried to help, but a couple of days later she was gone."

"That means the next victim will be number six."

Gypsy shrugged.  "I guess.  Does it make a difference?"

"It could.  C'mon."  He grabbed her with his right hand and reached into his pocket with the other, fumbling for his cell phone.

As he drew it from his pocket, blinding pain seared the back of his head.  He fell to his knees and pitched forward onto the pavement.  Someone screamed, and he fought against the darkness closing in from all sides.  He turned toward the shrieks of terror and tried to make sense of what he saw.  Legs.  White shoes.  Tennis shoes.  Thick soles.  The image blurred.

The sounds of the struggle faded down the alley.  There was a distant screech of tires, then that, too, disappeared.  Blair struggled to rise, but his legs were clay and he could only do it in agonizing increments.  The pain reverberated in his skull like a physical echo, and bile rose into his throat, but he willed himself to remain conscious.  Finally he stood.  His first step shot a bullet of pain through his skull, but he persevered, driven by a single thought that permeated his brain.

The sixth victim was the first to die.

~~~~~~~~~~********************~~~~~~~~~~

Jim picked up his radio.  "Heads up, people.  Thad Martin left Schirding's a little while ago.  His tail lost him in traffic, but he was last seen headed this way."

Jim scanned the street once more, willing his partner to materialize.  He understood Blair's desire to help Gypsy, but they had a job to do and it appeared things might be coming to a head sooner than expected.  He could only hope that Blair's lengthy absence meant some degree of success.

He focused his sentinel vision on an approaching car.  It was Martin's black Lexus.  Obviously the man was not here to blend in.  If all went well, it would be an easy bust.

Perhaps too easy.

Jim tried to ignore the niggling doubt in the back of his mind.

He waited until the Lexus had passed, then radioed the other officers. The car progressed to the next block and stopped.  Jim grinned.  Martin was in Connor's territory.  He dialed up his hearing.

"--looking for a good time."

"Well, you've certainly got the wheels for it."

"Why don't you come over here and take a closer look?  Better yet, maybe you'd like to see it from the inside."

"Careful, Connor," Jim muttered as she approached the Lexus.  He slipped from his own vehicle and stealthily made his way down the street.

"Mmm.  Leather."

"Yeah, it's nice and soft, like your bare skin.  Want to try it out?"

"Sorry, but I like my leather a bit more...restraining, if you know what I mean."

Jim choked on his next breath.  So did Martin.

"A-hem!  Um, well, maybe we could explore that possibility as well."

"Great.  Let's talk about price."

Martin seemed to balk.  "We can talk about that in the car."

Megan shook her head.  "Sorry.  I don't climb into cars with strange men until I see the candy."

Jim wasn't prepared for Martin's response.  The writer scrambled from his car, knocking Megan down in the process.  He launched himself at the police inspector.

Jim ripped his gun from its holster.  "Cascade PD!  Freeze!"

Martin froze, distracted long enough for Megan to sweep out with her leg and knock him to the ground.

Two other officers emerged from hiding, their guns aimed at the fallen man.  Megan cuffed Martin, then took Jim's proffered hand and stood up.  She dusted off her backside.

"Sorry about the metal cuffs, Mr. Martin.  We're all out of leather."

Jim reholstered his gun.  "Nice work, Connor."  Too easy.

Martin flopped on the pavement like a beached fish.  "Wait!  You don't understand!  It's not what you think!"

Jim grabbed Martin's arm and pulled him to his feet.  "You have the right to remain silent.  If--"

"I don't want to remain silent!  I haven't done anything wrong!"

Jim spun Martin around to face him.  "You don't call assaulting a police officer 'wrong'?"

"It was an accident!"  Martin took a couple of deep breaths and repeated more calmly, "It was an accident."  He addressed Megan.  " I didn't mean to hit you."

There was something odd in the man's voice.  Sincerity.  Thad Martin was sincere.

Too easy.  Jim listened to the nagging voice in the back of his brain.  "Why are you here, Martin?"

"I was doing some research."

"On?"

"Prostitutes.  These prostitutes, specifically.  Gerald Schirding took his victims from here."

"You should know."

"Of course I know!  I'm writing a damn book about him!"  Martin clamped his mouth shut with an audible snap and took another deep breath.  "I'm sorry, but you have to believe me.  I'm just here to gather information."

"What kind of information?"

Martin blushed and looked away.

"Ah!  A little hands-on learning experience."  Jim turned to Megan.  "You should be flattered."

Megan shuddered.  "I need a shower."

Jim played a hunch.  "What were you doing last night when you drove by?" Jim asked.  "Soaking up the atmosphere?"

Martin shook his head.  "No, I was just looking.  Window shopping.  That was Erik's idea.  He said I should 'check the merchandise before buying it.'  He even came with me."

Jim saw his own surprise mirrored in Megan's identical expression.

"Erik?"

"Erik Portier, Mr. Schirding's nurse."

A dozen puzzle pieces slipped into place.  "It was his suggestion?"

"Yes.  He's quite the expert on Gerald Schirding.  In fact, he--"  Martin's face drained of color.  His own words had finally sunk into his brain.

"Connor, get on the horn and have them put out an APB on Erik Portier.  Then--"

Jim's whole body tensed, his instincts and senses exploding into awareness just milliseconds before his brain interpreted their signals.  He pushed past Megan and dashed to the end of the street, reaching the corner just in time to catch Blair as he stumbled into sight.

"Whoa, Chief.  I gotcha."

A mop of brown curls came to rest against his chest, and Blair's fingers sought purchase within the folds of Jim's jacket. "Jim?"

"Yeah, it's me, buddy.  Connor!" Jim yelled back over his shoulder.  "Call the paramedics!"  He tried to ease Blair to the ground but encountered resistance.  "Sandburg, you need to sit down and let me get a look at you."

"There's no time, Jim!  He took her!"

Jim didn't bother to ask.  "All right.  We'll take care of it.  You stay here and wait for the ambulance."

"No.  I'm going with you."

"Chief--"

"Jim, there was another girl.  Another victim we didn't know about.  Gypsy is number six."

"Damn!"  Jim wrestled with the need to see Blair cared for and the desire to have his guide at his side when he needed him most.  He gazed into his partner's eyes.  Fear.  Remorse.  Guilt.  Hope.

He steadied Blair's body against his own, supporting him.  "C'mon."

~~~~~~~~~~********************~~~~~~~~~~

"So this is the one?

"Yes."

Gypsy winced as younger man's grip on her arm tightened.  She wanted so badly to scream, to cry out, to demand that he let go, but an earlier outburst had earned her a hard slap across the face and a split lip.  Silence offered a sort of invisibility.

"She's very young."

"Does it matter?"

"No, not at all.  A whore at any age is still a whore."  The old man raised a gnarled finger to her face and brushed her cheek.  She flinched.  "She reminds me of my daughter."

The tone of his voice said so much more than his words.  Gypsy pitied his daughter.

"Really?"  The younger man seemed pleased.  "Then she was worth the trouble."

"Trouble?"

"There was a man there.  I was waiting for him to leave, but he started to take her with him."

The older man grew agitated.  "What did you do?"

"I took care of him."

"Did you kill him?"

"I don't think so.  Does it matter?"

"Of course it does!  We don't want anyone to get hurt!"  The old man's breath came in harsh gasps, and Gypsy half expected him to collapse and die right before her eyes.

"But what about...?"

"She doesn't count.  None of them count.  Haven't you been paying attention?"

Gypsy swallowed several times.  She didn't count.  She meant so little to them that they discussed tossing her away as if she were nothing more than a piece of trash, a soiled diaper to be discarded.  A trembling started within her belly and slowly worked its way to the surface.

With a rough tug Gypsy was yanked to her feet.  The younger man wrapped her hair around his hand and began dragging her toward two massive doors.  Her illusion of invisibility shattered and the air was rent by a loud piercing scream.  She felt air rush by her face as a hand was raised, and she waited for the blow, screaming all the while.

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

Blair grabbed the dashboard with one hand and his head with the other as the truck lurched around a corner.  The incessant pounding had dulled to a tolerable throb, but what was left of his brain was becoming mush as it slammed into the sides of
his skull.

"Sorry, Chief," Jim mumbled.

"S'okay.  It didn't hurt."

"Liar."

"I'll live, Jim. That's more than we can say for Gypsy if we don't hurry."

"Sandburg," Jim growled, "if I go any faster I'll have to peel you off the inside of my truck."

Blair bit back his retort.  They were both on edge.  What if their hunch was wrong?  What if Portier had taken Gypsy somewhere else?  What if they were too late?  What if, as they roared through the streets of residential Cascade on their way to rescue the girl, her lifeless body was already floating among the whitecaps of Cascade's harbor?

Jim turned off the lights and siren seconds before they bounced across an intersection.  "It's just ahead.  We don't want to announce our arrival."

As they neared the house Blair squinted, searching frantically for Portier's car.  It was nowhere in sight.

"He may be parked in the garage," Jim said, evidently reading his mind.  He drove past Schirding's house and pulled over just beyond a neighbor's driveway.

Blair slid from the seat, bracing himself with the door while he waited for the world to stop wobbling.  Jim was at his side in seconds.

"Are you up to this?" he asked.  Blair nodded.  "Okay, backup is on the way, but we can't wait.  Stay close.  They may have their security system armed."

They scrambled up a small hill to the front yard, sticking to the hedge line along the periphery to avoid the puddles of light cast by several lawn ornaments.  The house itself was dark, curtains drawn.  Blair followed Jim as he took a few tentative steps toward the house.  Nothing.  Schirding had not set the alarm for the night.  They continued, passing by an enormous window, and approached the front door.  Jim held up his hand, and Blair stopped just short of running into him. The sentinel held perfectly still for a moment.

"I hear Schirding and Portier.  It sounds--"

Blair flinched, the scream audible even to him.  He dodged around Jim, grabbed the doorknob, and looked over his shoulder, waiting for the signal.  Jim drew his gun from beneath his jacket and nodded.  Blair gave the knob a quick twist.  It turned.  He stepped back to allow Jim to enter first, then drew up beside him, matching him stride for stride.

Another scream echoed through the shadows.  The house's cavernous interior made it impossible for Blair to tell its point of origin, but Jim took a direct path to a room at the back of the house.  Jim tapped Blair on the arm and motioned for him to take up a post on the far side of the doorway.  Once Blair was in place, Jim held up three fingers.  Two.  One.

"Cascade PD!"

They flung the doors open, startling the room's occupants.  Portier took one look at the gun in Jim's hand and shoved Gypsy toward him.  Blair intercepted and shoved her into a nearby corner, out of harm's way.  He felt a reassuring touch on his back as Jim passed him to pursue the fleeing Portier.

Blair turned just in time to see Jim bring Portier down hard against a figurine case.  The glass front shattered and the case tipped onto its side, smashing the contents.  Colored bits of porcelain showered the two men where they lay.  A few anxious seconds passed before Blair heard the familiar voice of his partner.

"Eric Portier, you're under arrest.  You have the right to remain si--"

"Damn you!" Schirding spat. "You can't come into my home without a warrant!  I'll sue you!"

Jim sat up, moving stiffly.  Porcelain chips fell from his clothing and blood trickled from a small cut on his forehead. Ice-blue eyes blazed above a deadly smile.

"You'll be doing it from prison," Jim stated coldly.  "If you live that long.  You're under arrest."

Blair felt a hand slip into his.  "Is it over?"

He nodded.  "It's over.  Are you okay, Gypsy?"

Her fingers tightened briefly.  "My name is Kelly."

~~~~~~~~~~********************~~~~~~~~~~

Jim peered over Blair's head.  "Well?"

"Shh!  They'll hear you."

"Sandburg, they're outside, we're inside.  They're not going to hear me."

"I don't want to take any chances."

Jim pressed in closer, tilting his head to keep Blair's hair from tickling his chin.  On the other side of the window, Maureen Paxton stood beside Gyp--Kelly Walsh.  The younger woman chewed on her thumbnail and trembled with nervous energy. Her eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot, either from lack of sleep or crying.  Probably both.  According to Maureen, Kelly had been a basket case since calling her mother in Seattle.

Things looked good.  The old boyfriend was gone--had been since the day after Kelly ran away--and Ms. Walsh had done everything she could think of to locate her daughter and bring her home.  Kelly had been honest with her mother about her life in Cascade, but none of it mattered to a mother desperate for her child.

"Hey!"  Blair bounced, narrowly missing Jim's nose.  "There she is!"

A Velveeta-colored cab stopped in front of the building, and a dark-haired woman emerged.  Kelly froze, a statue of flesh and bone, and Jim wondered for a moment if she would faint.  Then she was enveloped in her mother's embrace, and the two bodies melted into one.

"Man, that's beautiful."

Jim grinned.  "You're sniffling."

"Am not."

"Are too.  And you've got tears in your eyes.  I can see your reflection in the window."

That earned him an elbow in the ribs.  "You're such a dick.  Hey, check it out."

A small crowd had gathered across the street.  Jim recognized most of them as frequent visitors to The Haven, and he extended his vision.  What he saw nearly broke his heart.

Some watching the reunion wept openly, others blinked back their tears, and still others averted their gazes as if the sight of it was too much to bear.  Their faces revealed regret and hopelessness.  They seemed to have given up.

Jim closed his eyes for a moment, wishing for things he knew would never happen.  When he reopened them Kelly and her mother were loading the girl's few possessions into the trunk of the taxi.  They were going home.

He yanked a lock of Blair's hair.  "C'mon, Sandburg.  There's a steak at O'Reilly's with my name on it."

Blair hesitated a moment longer, then backed away from the window with a sigh.  "Sounds good.  O'Reilly's, that is, not your steak.  I've seen your steak.  Stick a pole in it, attach a bed sheet, and you've got a pretty good sailboat."

Jim reached for the door but it swung open before he could touch it.  Kelly stood before them, breathless and smiling, her trademark scarf hanging from her neck.

"Good!  I didn't want to leave until I had a chance to say good-bye."  She threw herself at Jim and wrapped her arms around his waist.  "Thanks for saving my life."

He chuckled and hugged her back.  "My pleasure."

She turned to Blair and hugged him tightly as well, hanging on a little longer this time.  "Thanks for giving me my life back."  She released him and studied his face for a moment.  She lifted the scarf from around her own neck and draped it around his, then gave him a kiss.

"Here.  Something to remember me by."

Blair touched the scarf reverently.  "Are you sure?"

She nodded.  "I know where my heart is."  She gave him another quick hug and hurried back to the waiting cab.

Jim frowned.  Blair was staring at the scarf as if the beads and mirrors adorning it held the meaning of life.  "Are you okay, Chief?"

Blair looked up, a beatific smile gracing his lips, and Jim felt something indefinable and permanent settle into place.

"Yeah, Jim.  I'm fine."

~~~~~~~~~~finis~~~~~~~~~~

Feedback is appreciated, and I will reply ASAP.

Fanfic

Home