Disclaimer: Jim, Blair, Simon, et al are not mine -- they belong to Pet Fly Productions so I end up borrowing them and returning them only slightly worse for wear.
Rated R for violence, though there is no explicit descriptions of crimes -- rape and murder -- the forensics discussions are a bit graphic.
Category: Drama, Case Related, H/C, Angst.
Notes: It takes place after "TSP2", but before "TSbyBS". Spoilers for "Cypher" and minor ones for "BMB" and "Attraction".
Acknowledgments: For my wonderful and encouraging beta Kathleen! Thanks!
Wednesday, 5:08 p.m., Cascade Police Gym
Detective Jim Ellison breathed in and out in time with the raising and lowering of the weights as he did his routine bench pressing. The rhythm calmed him and eased the troubled thoughts that skittered through his mind. After two weeks of nightly stakeouts they'd finally caught the perpetrator who had been robbing the upper crust of Cascade's society. Now the mayor would quit breathing down the necks of everyone in Major Crimes and he could take a few days off. Maybe he could talk Blair into going fishing. It had been too long since they'd taken the time to disappear into the mountains for some rest and relaxation.
Blair had looked even more exhausted than Jim early that morning after they'd booked the suspect. He'd insisted he was all right, but Jim knew better. Between the stakeouts and the end of the college semester, his partner was wiped out. The sparkle in his eyes had dimmed and the bounce that usually accompanied his steps had been considerably subdued. When he'd first met Sandburg, he thought the kid's energy was boundless, but he'd learned Blair was made out of flesh and blood like everyone else -- even more so.
He remembered a night a month ago when he'd come home to find Blair half on and half off the couch, sleeping as sound as a child. He'd tried to awaken him, but couldn't and managed to get him settled comfortably on the sofa. Jim had tucked a blanket around him and gently placed a pillow beneath his head after taking off the younger man's glasses. With his hands curled beneath his chin, Blair had appeared innocent and vulnerable, yet Jim knew the kid had a way of coming through in tight spots. Still, Jim's instincts were to protect him -- his guide -- and that instinct had tunneled its way into the very core of what made Jim who and what he was.
Jim couldn't even imagine coming back to the loft without Blair there. His smile faded as he recalled the time he'd thrown his friend out. He'd been afraid for the kid's life, afraid he was going to hurt him. Jim had been so confused, so bombarded by feelings and impressions that he was surprised he hadn't lost his mind completely. It had been Blair who had pulled him from the brink of insanity -- after himself being cradled in the arms of death following his drowning.
He shivered from a soul-deep chill. His very actions had been the cause of Blair's near-death, yet it was the power of his animal spirit, as well as Blair's, that had brought him back. The drowning and rebirth had also strengthened the bond between Sentinel and Guide in a way Jim couldn't fathom. All he knew was that the bond was there -- as tangible and unbending as the iron bar in his hands.
Jim concentrated on his reps and finally finished, lowering the bar back into its resting place. He sat up and grabbed his towel then wiped the sweat from his brow. He thought of Blair back at the loft finishing a term paper and the reassurance of their bond curled through him. He wondered if Blair felt that same connection to him, and had often been tempted to ask; but the words would get caught someplace in his throat and he'd let it go.
He took a deep breath. Today was the last day of the semester and Jim was betting Blair would appreciate a weekend away as much as he would. He'd go into the office tomorrow to finish up the reports and talk Simon into giving he and Blair some deserved time off.
With his decision made, Jim felt some of the pressure slide from his shoulders. He wandered over to the main desk and found Walt going over paperwork.
"Hey, can I get some service here?" Jim demanded.
Walt glanced up, impatience written across his broad features, until he saw who it was. He smiled and stood. "Hey, Jim. The usual?"
Jim grinned. "Yep. Got to work off some leftover stress so I can get some sleep tonight."
"How's Blair doing?"
"He's beat. We've had a rough couple of weeks."
Walt ran a hand over his crew cut and nodded sympathetically. "I heard about it."
Jim wasn't surprised. Walt had been a cop for thirty-one years before managing the Cascade PD gym and knew everybody on the force. He'd also fallen prey to Blair's charm and Jim suspected Walt's paternal instincts extended to the anthropologist.
The older man leaned over and withdrew a pair of red boxing gloves from the shelves below the waist-high counter. He handed them to Jim, then motioned over to the bags. "Got yourself some competition tonight."
Jim glanced over at the area a couple hundred feet away where two punching bags hung from the low ceiling. His eyes widened at the sight of a woman wearing a pair of blue gloves and dancing around the swinging bag as she thrust and feinted. A braid swung back and forth between her shoulder blades. Suddenly she stopped and wrapped her arms around the bag to halt its motion. She turned to meet Jim's eyes as if she sensed his gaze and her expression froze.
He was startled by the deep green of her eyes -- as green as a rain forest and equally impenetrable. An odd sense of familiarity slid through him and he shook it aside. "Who is she?" he asked, turning back to Walt.
The ex-cop shrugged. "Didn't say. Maybe a transfer."
Jim's attention was inexplicably drawn back to her. "Maybe."
"Hey, Romeo, here's your gloves." Walt's eyes twinkled mischievously.
Jim turned and took the pair of red boxing gloves from him. He pulled them on absently. "She's not my type."
"More like Blair's," Walt teased.
Jim rolled his eyes. "If it's a woman, she's Sandburg's type."
Jim smiled. "Could you give me a hand here?"
Walt tightened the laces of his gloves. "Go get her, Rocky."
Jim felt his face grow warm. "I'm not going to challenge her to the ring."
"Why not? I been watching her. She's pretty good."
Jim deliberated a moment, then shook his head at his own foolishness for even considering it. "I won't box with a woman."
"Call me if you need a ref."
Jim sent Walt a glare, then strolled across the gym. The woman didn't pause in her graceful movements and Jim tried to ignore her, too, but his enhanced senses flared at the familiar scent of her sweat. She reminded him of someone, but who? He shook the feeling aside -- she probably just wore the same brand of deodorant as someone he knew.
He started punching at the other bag, tuning his senses to concentrate on the play of muscles in his shoulders, arms, and legs. His mind drifted, thinking how nice it would be to stand in the middle of a stream with a fishing rod in his hands, the water undulating across his hip boots and a light breeze caressing his skin. He imagined Blair talking a mile a minute, his voice a soothing balm over nerves stretched too taut lately. Jim would even agree to some of Sandburg's tests if it made him happy.
Finally, Jim took a break and lifted the bottom of his damp tank top to wipe his sweaty forehead. The woman, too, had paused and drank from a water bottle. She was a few inches taller than his partner and her body appeared muscular, as if she worked out at the gym quite a bit. She was somewhere between his and Blair's age, and though she was a pretty woman, Jim didn't feel any attraction to her.
He smiled and covered the ten feet separating them. "Hi there."
She met his gaze and gave him a wary greeting. "Hello."
"I'm Jim," he introduced.
He heard her breath stumble and her heart trip, but her expression remained collected. "Kelly." She extended a gloved hand.
He bumped his boxing glove against hers in a strange, but fitting handshake. "Come here often?"
"Can't come up with a better line than that?"
Jim flushed hotly. "No, I didn't mean--"
She shrugged. "This is my first time. How about you?"
"I get here as often as I can. Works off the stress, y'know?"
"All too well." A whistle sounded at the other end of the gym and Kelly cringed slightly. She lifted her hands as if to put them against her ears, but stopped at the last moment. Jim frowned -- it wasn't that loud, even for his sentinel senses. She looked over her shoulder at the clock on the wall, and Jim noticed her face was somewhat pale and her heartbeat accelerated. "I have to go. Nice to meet you, Jim."
Long strides carried her away and Jim watched her pensively. It was odd he wasn't attracted to her. Instead, he felt an almost subtle awareness of her presence. It wasn't unlike his awareness of Blair, but on a much weaker resonance level. Why would a virtual stranger have kicked his protective instincts into gear?
Spotting the time, he cursed softly. He'd promised Blair he'd be home by six for supper, and it was already 5:45. Damn.
Wednesday, 6:14 p.m., The Loft
Jim parked his classic Ford truck beside Blair's equally old Volvo, grabbed his gym bag and hurried inside. As he took the stairs two at a time, his heightened senses could pick out the scents of garlic, red pepper, onions, and tomatoes. Lasagna -- one of his favorites. He just hoped Blair had made it with real meat and not tofu.
He unlocked the door and entered to find Blair setting the table. The thoroughly domestic scene would have made him laugh if he didn't appreciate his assistance around the place so much.
Assistance, yeah right, Ellison. Don't you mean friendship and a link that goes deeper than anything you've felt before?
"Hey, man, I was wondering where you were," his roommate and partner called out.
Jim tossed his keys in the basket on the small table and hung his jacket on a coat hook. "Sorry I'm late. Met someone."
His partner paused and grinned. "She must've been pretty."
Jim glanced at his friend, his brow creasing. "I suppose, but she wasn't my type."
Blair chuckled. "Turned you down flat, huh?"
Jim couldn't help but smile at Blair's ebullience. Nothing, not even the dark circles of exhaustion beneath the younger man's eyes, could keep him down for long. "I didn't even ask her. Wanted to give you a chance."
Blair sent him a not-so-subtle obscene gesture and Jim laughed. "Watch it, Chief, you need that finger for typing."
Still chuckling, Jim walked over to the clothes hamper and dumped his sweaty gym clothes then carried the empty bag upstairs to his room. By the time he returned, Blair had the lasagna on the table and red wine poured. With a sigh of contentment, Jim sat down across the table from him. "This looks great, Chief. Thanks." He peered into the lasagna with exaggerated seriousness. "This is real meat, isn't it?"
Blair laughed. "Yes. It was the least I could do, seeing that you've been working for eighteen hours straight." The student gazed at him, trying to hide his concern behind a clinical mask, but Jim could feel it like a warm summer breeze. "How are your senses? Still on line?"
"They haven't gone crazy, if that's what you're wondering." Jim flashed him a half-smile in reassurance. "I'm okay, Chief. Just a little tired. How'd your day go?"
Blair told him about his class and the exam he'd taken earlier while Jim had been doing reports.
"So how'd you do?" Jim asked.
"Do on what?"
Jim smiled tolerantly. Blair was about five pages ahead of him already. "On the exam?"
"Oh, aced it. I think."
"I knew you would."
"And how'd you know that?'
Jim forced a serious expression on his face. "Because I tutored you."
Blair's eyes widened behind his glass lenses. Jim smiled to himself at the familiar reaction. "You tutored me?"
"Yeah, all that time during the stakeout when I quizzed you," Jim said without cracking a smile.
"Well, yeah, I suppose," Blair admitted. He glanced at Jim, who couldn't hold back his grin. The younger man mirrored the expression. "Thanks, Jim. It really did help a lot, even though you kept mixing up indigenous and exigenous."
Jim shrugged and deadpanned, "Never could keep those two straight." He paused. "And you're welcome, Chief. Any time."
Blair shuddered dramatically. "No thanks. Those really wore me out, man."
"Me, too." Jim had hated to take Blair on all night stake-outs, but he needed him. Three years ago when they'd first met, Jim would never have admitted to needing anyone, but now he had come to realize that Blair was the piece of himself that had been missing. He knew Blair felt the same way, though the two of them never spoke the words aloud. It was merely there -- a given -- just like the air that surrounded them.
Jim took a deep breath and pushed back his empty plate. He picked up his wine goblet, twirled the stem between his fingers as he surreptitiously studied his guide. The younger man appeared somewhat pale and when Jim tuned up his hearing, he heard the slightly accelerated beat of Blair's heart. The kid was running on empty -- pure adrenaline. He took a sip of wine, considering how to word his concern without sounding like an overprotective sentinel. "How're you doing with schoolwork?"
Blair brushed a napkin across his mouth. "All I have left is to grade forty-three blue books."
"Think you can get them done tomorrow?"
"Not if I go in to the station with you."
"How about if you stay here at the loft?"
Blair nodded. "Sure, I think so. What's up?"
"I was thinking we deserve a break. I'm going to ask Simon for a few days off. What do you say we drive over to that little lake in the middle of nowhere and do some fishing and camping?"
Blair grinned widely. "I think it sounds great. Better'n great. We could try a few tests out there with nobody else around."
Jim groaned, not because he was upset, but because the reaction was expected. "Do we have to?"
"Oh, come on, Jim. It won't be so bad. I promise I'll do all the cooking."
Jim held up a hand. "Not if you're going to make weird vegetables and algae shakes."
"They're not weird, they're healthy."
"I don't care what you call it. If you don't cook normal food, I won't play guinea pig."
"Maybe I can use your favorite foods as a reward. Kinda like Pavlov's dogs," Blair teased, his blue eyes dancing.
Jim threw his napkin at his friend, hitting him in the face. He chuckled and Blair joined in, the loft filling with the friends' shared laughter, a release after the long, stress-filled days of the past two weeks.
Thursday, 9:23 a.m., Captain Banks' office
"We need this break, Simon. We're both burnt out," Jim said. "Besides, I've got more vacation days stockpiled than anyone else in the unit."
Captain Simon Banks aimed his unlit cigar at Jim. "I'm already short-staffed with Conner flying back home for two weeks and Joel out with the flu."
Jim leaned forward. "C'mon, the kid's tired and so am I. A person can only take so many all-nighters," he argued.
Simon eyed the stack of files on the corner of his desk and sighed. "Ah hell, these'll be here when you get back. You and Sandburg are beginning to look like hell." Though his expression remained stern, his dark eyes twinkled. "And that's not good for morale around here, especially the female contingent's."
Relief flowed through Jim. "Thanks, Simon."
"But I want you and Sandburg back bright and early Monday morning," Simon stated firmly.
"No problem, sir." Jim rose.
"Have you got your reports done from yesterday's arrest?" Simon asked.
"Not yet, but they'll be in your box before I leave."
A knock on the door startled him.
"Come in," Simon called out impatiently.
Rhonda stuck her head in. "There's an FBI agent to see you, Captain."
Simon grimaced, nearly biting the end of his cigar off. "Just what I need," he growled. "Send him in."
"Her," Rhonda corrected. She turned and motioned to someone. The door opened further and a woman wearing brown trousers, a tan t-shirt with a dark green v-neck sweater over it and hiking boots walked inside. She didn't dress like any of the other FBI agents Jim had ever seen. Then he met her gaze.
"We meet again," she said, her expression and voice cool.
"Kelly," Jim said, rising to his feet.
Simon stood and narrowed his eyes. "You two know each other?"
"We met last night at the gym," Jim replied.
She deliberately turned away from him and stepped toward Simon's desk, extending her hand. "Special Agent Kelly McDaniel."
Simon shook her hand. "Captain Simon Banks and you obviously know Detective Jim Ellison."
"I didn't know his last name," Kelly said, then arched an eyebrow. "He didn't tell me he was a detective."
"You didn't tell me you were an FBI agent," Jim shot back.
A slight smile touched her lips. "So I guess we're both even."
"Jim, those reports," Simon reminded.
"Yes, sir. I'm on them." Jim moved to the door. "Nice to see you again, Special Agent McDaniel."
"Same here, Detective Ellison," she said with the same formality.
Jim exited the office and returned to his own desk. He sat down and turned on his computer, but shamelessly tuned up his hearing to listen in on Simon and the FBI agent's conversation.
"Have a seat, Agent McDaniel," Simon was saying.
She sat down, and Jim heard the gentle thwump of a file set on the desk. "I'm here concerning this."
There was a quiet swish of paper and a sudden intake of breath from Simon. Jim frowned, wondering what had upset the seasoned captain.
"Rape and murder victim number eleven," Kelly said. "Found a week ago here in Cascade near the waterfront."
"Number eleven?" Simon demanded.
"Ten other women have been murdered in the exact same manner in two other cities. Four women were killed in Minneapolis two years ago. Last year, six women were killed in Denver -- the last victim was four months ago."
Jim's fingers curled into a fist. A serial killer, who was now in Cascade.
"And you're here because you've been assigned the case?" Simon asked.
"That's right." She paused and Jim heard her inhale deeply. "This isn't about glory or who gets credit, Captain Banks. I just want this person caught and in order to do that, I'm going to need local assistance."
Jim dialed down his hearing. As shorthanded as Simon was, Jim had a strong hunch that he could say sayonara to his and Blair's three-day weekend.
As Jim worked on his report, he kept half of his attention glued to Simon's door, expecting it to open at any moment. Fifteen tedious minutes later, McDaniel stepped out.
"Rafe," Simon bellowed.
The young detective scurried over to the captain. "Sir?"
"This is Special Agent McDaniel. She needs a computer terminal. Get her settled at Conner's desk," Simon ordered.
"And if there's anything she needs, don't hesitate to give it to her."
Rafe nodded, then ushered McDaniel across the room.
"Jim, can I see you in my office a minute?" Simon called out.
Here it comes, Jim thought.
He brushed past his captain as he entered the office, and Simon closed the door behind him. Jim decided to play dumb on this one, hoping his boss didn't suspect him of eavesdropping. "Captain?"
"Don't tell me you didn't listen in."
Busted. Jim smiled wryly. "Would I do that, sir?"
"I won't answer that," Simon grunted as he sat on the edge of his desk. "I'll work with her this weekend, but as soon as you and Sandburg get back, she and the case are yours."
Jim's muscles unknotted. "Thanks. I figured you were going to yank our time off."
The tall man sighed. "I should, but God knows you two need the break. All the hours you've been putting in...." He shook his head. "This is our job, not our life. Sometimes I forget that."
Though relieved to keep his long weekend, Jim felt a sense of unease at his friend's words. Although Jim wasn't the type of man to go on a seek and discover mission with feelings -- his or anybody else's -- he suspected something else was bothering Simon. "Is there something going on with Daryl?" he asked in a low voice.
Simon's head came up sharply and confusion brought a frown to his face. "No, he's fine. Why?"
Jim shrugged, forcing nonchalance in the gesture, and said helplessly. "You just seem kind of down, is all."
Simon pushed himself up and crossed to the window. He stood for a moment, staring out into the gray morning. "Diane gave me the ultimatum."
Shit, this was definitely out of Jim's area of expertise. "Oh?"
The captain sighed and returned to his chair behind the desk, plopping heavily into it. "My job or her. She said I was spending too much time at work and not enough time with her." He poured himself a cup of coffee and took a tentative sip. "Hell, Jim, I can't go through that again. Not after Joan. It was the same damn thing that led to the divorce."
Jim wished he had some words of wisdom to lend to his friend but his well was empty. If Sandburg had been here, he would've found the right thing to say. "I'm sorry, Simon. I thought she understood."
"They always do in the beginning, but then the reality of it hits them." Simon suddenly waved a hand at him. "Don't you have reports to do?"
Jim stood quickly, feeling guilty for feeling relieved. "I wish there was something--"
Simon managed a smile, but to Jim it resembled a grimace. "Comes with the territory."
"Yeah, I suppose it does."
Feeling like a coward, Jim left his office. He glanced at the FBI agent and crossed the room to her borrowed desk. "I guess we'll be working together."
"When you get back," she added, but there was no accusation. McDaniel held out the file. "Want to take a look?"
Jim accepted it from her and opened it to see a female victim staring at him with blank eyes from a color photograph. A diagonal cut between her breasts formed an odd red sash across her chest. He forced down the bile that rose in his throat. He should be accustomed to seeing death in his job, but the fact that he wasn't made him feel a little better.
However, he was concerned about Blair seeing such blatant violence. The pictures of the people Lash had killed still haunted the kid, nearly three years afterwards. Sandburg was too damn sensitive for the evil that filled this earth and Jim instinctively wanted to protect him from it. Only he failed more often than not and each of his failures had taken a piece of Blair's innocence. Thank God Blair still had some wide-eyed naivete left to view the world. How long before Blair would look at the world as Jim did, with suspicion and distrust?
Jim didn't want to consider his bright-eyed partner hardened by witnessing too much of man's most basest nature. Blair's soft heart was one of the things Jim sought to protect with the ferocity of a she-bear and her cub. However, this case looked like he would fail again in his duty to safeguard his guide.
"Victim was drugged and raped before she was killed," she said softly. "The Scarlet Letter."
"What?" Jim asked.
McDaniel clicked her pen with her thumb. "In the book, The Scarlet Letter, an adulteress was forced to wear a sash with the letter A on it."
"There's no sash," Jim said, furrowing his brow.
"Not a cloth one, but look at the cut on her chest. It doesn't look deep enough to kill, but it was very deliberate."
After a moment, Jim nodded. "You could have something there. Was she married?"
She nodded as she stared at the picture. "Just like the previous ten victims."
Jim watched as her gaze lost focus, as if she were seeing something in her mind's eye. "What?"
She started, blinked, and looked at Jim, her green eyes opaque. "Our killer is using these women to punish someone. He feels the need to be judge, jury and executor, after he tests them."
McDaniel planted her elbow on the desk and her chin in her palm. "I'm not sure. The drug in their system..." She shook her head. "I don't know."
Jim watched the play of emotions cross the agent's features -- anger, helplessness, fear, and back to anger.
"I'm going to start by talking to our victim's -- Mary Ellen Hayes' -- husband, friends, co-workers. Find out if she may have been having an affair," she said.
"You said there were ten previous victims. What about them? Were they having affairs?"
"Six were, four weren't, but all were having marital problems." She closed the file and a careful guardedness came into her expression. "So you're taking a three day vacation."
"My partner, Blair Sandburg and I've been working every day for the past two weeks. We need the break," Jim said quietly. "But if you think--"
A corner of her lips tilted upward. "We haven't caught this bastard in two years, I doubt three days will make a difference." Her eyes suddenly twinkled. "By the way, I have a weakness for pan-fried walleye."
Jim smiled. "You got it." He eyed her a moment, wondering why he felt as if he'd met her before. Realizing he was staring, he blinked. "I'd best get back to those reports."
When Jim got back to his desk, he picked up the phone and punched in the loft's number. Four rings later, Blair answered.
"Blair. Jim. Simon gave us the next three days off."
"Have any trouble?"
"No, but when we get back, we'll be working with an FBI agent."
Blair groaned. "Oh, man, that sucks. Those guys are so uptight."
Jim glanced at Kelly who was intent on her computer screen. "Special Agent Kelly McDaniel doesn't strike me as your typical FBI agent."
There was a moment of silence. "A woman, huh? I'm looking forward to meeting her."
Jim chuckled. "So how did you know Kelly was a woman -- table leg radar?"
"Haha! Real funny, Jim," Blair said, though Jim could hear the sheepishness in his tone. "Lucky guess."
"How're the blue books coming?"
"Got fifteen done. Only thirty-two left," he said, some of the exuberance leaving his voice. "But I'll have them done by tomorrow morning so we can head out early. You want me to call the boat rental?"
"That's all right. I'll do it. You just get those tests done, Chief."
"What do you want for supper?"
"How about I pick up Chinese on the way home?"
"No broccoli and chicken, okay? That didn't set well last time."
Jim grimaced. That was an understatement. Blair had kept Jim up all night as he'd vomited every hour on the hour. Not that Jim blamed him -- hell, the kid hadn't chosen to get sick. It was just that the sentinel and guide connection between them made Jim more empathetic toward the younger man and his own gut had cramped up the whole time Blair was sick. He'd finally given up on sleeping and had joined Blair on the sofa to watch an old movie. Five hours later he and his guide had awakened, Blair's head in Jim's lap and Jim's arm stretched protectively over the younger man. Blair had mumbled an embarrassed apology as he scrambled to sit up, although Jim hadn't felt the least bit uncomfortable.
"No broccoli and chicken," Jim repeated. "Gotcha. See ya this evening."
He hung up the phone and glanced up to catch McDaniel's gaze on him, an odd, almost sad smile on her face. She turned her attention back to the papers spread out on her desk.
Deja vu struck again. He searched his memory, seeking a woman named Kelly McDaniel, but came up empty. He was tired. Maybe after a weekend of rest and recreation he'd remember. He made a quick call to a boat rental place he'd used before and had to settle for a sixteen footer with twin twenty horsepower outboards for the weekend. Anything smaller had already been rented.
With a heavy sigh, he opened up the incomplete report on his computer and began two-finger typing.
Thursday, 2:20 p.m., The Bullpen
Jim's stomach growled, reminding him he hadn't eaten anything since the scrambled eggs and ham Blair had made that morning.
Maybe Kelly would like to go grab some lunch. He looked over at her desk and found it empty.
"Hey, H, where'd Agent McDaniel go?"
"She said she was going to go talk to some people. What's she working on?" Brown asked.
"The rape and murder from last week. McDaniel thinks it's the work of a serial killer, a man who's already killed ten women in two different cities."
Brown whistled low. "Damn. Are you and Blair assigned to work with her?"
Jim nodded. "Yeah, but not until Monday. Simon gave us a three day weekend."
Brown studied him a moment, his dark eyes understanding. "Yeah, you two need the break."
"You eat lunch?"
"Two hours ago, but if you want some company..."
"I thought you were supposed to be trying to lose a few pounds."
"Hey, it's what you eat, not how much you eat."
"Right, and the tooth fairy leaves a nickel under your pillow, too." Grinning at H's faked indignation, Jim stood and grabbed his jacket from the back of his chair. "I'm going to run over to the deli and grab a sandwich." He paused. "You coming?"
H smiled and joined him.
Thursday, 5:05 p.m., The Bullpen
Jim signed the last report and heaved a tired sigh. Finally, the paperwork was done. Now he could go home and pack for the weekend -- after he picked up supper.
He tossed the completed reports into Simon's box, then pulled his mail. Glancing through it, he didn't find anything that needed their immediate attention. The last envelope, however, was addressed to SA McDaniel.
Jim didn't know how important the contents of the manila envelope were, but he had a strong hunch it might be related to the serial murder case. He decided to drop by her hotel and deliver it personally. It would make him a little late, but Blair would understand.
He found the slip of paper where he'd jotted down the name of her hotel and the phone numbers to reach her, then shut down his computer noting how quiet the bullpen was. Everybody had either gone home or were out pursuing the bad guys. It felt strange to be done so early.
Thursday, 5:36 p.m., The Lexington Inn
Jim strode into the hotel's lobby and found the elevator. He rode up to the tenth floor, then found room 1017 and knocked on the door.
"Who is it?" came McDaniel's voice.
A few moments later, he heard stocking feet cross carpet. There was a moment's pause before the chain was slid off and the lock disengaged. The door opened and Kelly stood there, dressed in blue jeans and a baggy flannel shirt that fell to her knees. Papers were clutched in one hand and narrow reading glasses were perched low on her nose.
"What're you doing here?" she asked warily.
"You got something in my mailbox. It looked important."
She took the envelope from Jim's outstretched hand and glanced at the return address. "It is. Thanks." Removing her reading glasses, she stepped back almost reluctantly. "Come on in."
Though Jim knew he was already running late, Kelly McDaniel aroused his curiosity. He entered the modest suite, his nose twitching with the smell of freshly brewed coffee.
"Want some?" she asked, pointing to the pot.
She poured the remaining coffee into a paper cup and handed it to him. "Thanks," he said.
She folded one leg beneath her as she settled on the desk chair and motioned toward the settee a few feet away. "Have a seat."
Jim sat down, not realizing how tired he was until he was leaning back against the cushions. He took a sip of the coffee, and the rich flavor rolled across his tongue with almost sensual titillation. "This is really good. What kind is it?"
"Kona, straight, not a blend. I have a friend in Hawaii who supplies my caffeine fixes." She smiled slightly. "I never leave home without it."
"I'll bet Simon would like it. He's a coffee connoisseur."
"I'll have to take some in for him." She studied him closely, her green eyes narrowed, almost feline. For a moment, her face wavered, replaced by a cat. Jim shook his head. No question about it -- he needed a vacation.
"How's the interviewing coming?" Jim asked.
Kelly shrugged. "All right, but I have several more people to talk to. I checked out the bar where the victim had been the night she was killed. Talked to the owner but he wasn't any help. I'm going back tonight to see the bartender."
Jim frowned. "You should have someone go with you."
"I work alone. Always have, always will," she said flatly.
He tuned up his hearing and heard her heart rate increase. It shouldn't bother him that she worked alone, but it did. Maybe because he knew the feeling all too well -- before Blair Sandburg had bounced into his life, turning it upside down and making Jim stop running long enough to let the gift of friendship turn into a two way street.
Impatiently, she gestured toward the mess of papers strewn across the bed. "I was assigned the case after the seventh victim. I spent three months going over files and evidence and talking with relatives, friends, and acquaintances of the victims. Nothing, nada, zip." Frustration lent her words force.
"How were they killed?"
Kelly's eyes darkened. "In ten victims, there's been nothing definite -- none of the autopsies showed any major trauma, although there was some heart damage, even though the oldest victim was only thirty-nine and the youngest twenty-three."
"Again, nothing conclusive. They found the same substance in all of the victims' blood, but were unable to identify it."
"A drug? Poison?"
"Maybe. I don't know." She raked her fingers through her hair, which was a little longer than Sandburg's, but closer to the color of his own. Her frustration was clear even without his enhanced senses.
Guilt flashed through Jim. "We don't have to go fishing this weekend."
She shook her head and her lips formed a pale imitation of a smile. "This case won't be broken overnight."
Jim couldn't argue with that. "All right." He paused then asked impetuously, "Have you had supper?"
"I hadn't even thought about it."
"Why don't you bring the file and come on over to our place? You can meet Blair and the three of us can eat Chinese and talk about the case."
"My partner and I are roommates." He lifted a hand as if to stave off any comments. "We're friends."
Kelly brushed a hand across her mouth as if wiping away a grin. "I don't care if you're both drag queens. I only care that you two have the best arrest record in the Cascade PD."
Jim laughed. "Well, Sandburg does look pretty good in a strapless gown." He paused. "Supper?"
She appeared tempted, but then shook her head. "You and your partner have to get ready for your fishing trip. We'll get together when you two get back. Maybe I'll have something more by then."
Jim finished his coffee and stood. "I'd better get going." If he knew his young partner as well as he thought he did, Blair would be worrying about him.
"Why don't you call him and let him know you're running late?" Kelly suggested.
"Good idea." He reached into his jacket pocket, but his fingers didn't find his phone. "I must've left my cell phone in the truck."
"Go ahead." She motioned to the phone on the room desk and smiled crookedly. "Local calls are free."
"Thanks." Jim dialed his number and Blair picked up immediately. "I'm headed home now. Could you call the order in and I'll pick it up in about twenty minutes? Thanks."
He put the phone back in its cradle as a thought struck him. How had she known that Blair might be worried?
Kelly stood and opened the door. "Have a good time."
"You sure you don't want me and Blair to stay here and help?"
"For the last time, no. I can handle it." Then she added quietly, "I always do."
Jim heard it, though he doubted he would have if he didn't have his sentinel senses. "If you need any help at all, call Simon or Brown or Rafe. Any one of them will give you a hand."
"I know." She smiled. "Now go."
She closed the door and he heard her slide the bolt into place. He paused in the hall, his brow creased. What was it with Special Agent Kelly McDaniel? Why did he feel as if he knew her? Why did he get the impression she was hiding something from him?
Why did he feel the need to stay close and protect her?
Shaking his head, he listened to her steady heartbeat fade as he continued on to the elevator.
Friday, 7:01 a.m., The Loft
"Don't forget a jacket and a sweatshirt," Jim called down from his bedroom.
"Yes, Mom," Blair replied dutifully.
Jim descended the stairs, dressed in blue jeans and a navy henley beneath a light blue denim shirt with the tails hanging out. His Jags ball cap covered his head and he carried his gym bag filled with the clothes he needed for the weekend. He'd already loaded the pick-up with the bags of groceries and beer he and Blair had picked up after they'd eaten supper last night. The fishing rods, tackle box, landing net, and camping gear had also been stowed in the back of the truck.
"Watch it, Junior, or I'll ground you for the weekend," Jim teased.
Blair grinned as he tossed his backpack over a shoulder and picked up his overnight bag. "This is gonna be great, Jim. Just the two of us with the water spray in our faces, just like Captain Ahab."
"If we run into Moby Dick, I'm outta there," Jim said dryly.
Blair slapped his shoulder. "You mean a little old whale is gonna scare a sentinel?"
"Damn right, especially in Mayhew Lake." Jim glanced around the loft to make sure all the electrical appliances were switched off. "You turn off your light?"
"Yep, and I waited until the toilet quit running after I flushed," Blair said, a grin dancing on the corners of his lips.
Jim shook his head, but his eyes sparkled. "C'mon, Ahab, let's go catch some fish." He wrapped an arm around Blair's shoulders and guided him out the door.
Friday, 7:36 a.m., Waterfront pier
Captain Simon Banks was having serious second thoughts about allowing Jim and Blair three days off. A second rape and murder victim was found -- exactly one week after the first.
He drew his car to a stop at the usually deserted pier, now crammed with official cars -- patrol cars, the forensics vehicles, and the coroner's wagon. He spotted Kelly McDaniel in her uncharacteristic FBI attire -- brown jeans, a navy sweater and hiking boots -- stepping out of a black Jeep. He flipped up his coat collar to ward off the rain and headed in her direction as he clamped down on his first cigar of the day.
She saw him approaching and paused so he could join her.
"Welcome to Cascade," Simon said with a grimace.
McDaniel shrugged. "At least it's not snowing."
Simon managed a dry chuckle.
Walking side by side, they headed toward the circle of police personnel. Most of them recognized Simon, but the agent had to hold up her FBI identification before the patrolmen would allow her in the cordoned-off area. Ducking beneath the yellow tape, Simon got his first look of the victim. She was naked like the other Cascade victim and her eyes stared blankly into the rainy mist. A diagonal laceration between her breasts told them she was killed by the same serial murderer who had killed Mary Ellen Hayes and the ten other women. Some contusions and small cuts were scattered across her torso and face.
"Damn," he muttered. He glanced at the coroner who was examining the body closely. "What do you have, Dan?"
"No obvious signs of what killed her," Dr. Dan Black Wolf replied.
"The cut on her chest?" Simon asked.
Dan shook his head. "Not deep enough to kill, just like the other victim, but there's a few more marks on her body, like the killer had less control."
McDaniel nodded. "That makes sense. Our killer is getting bolder, and he'll continue to get more confident with each successive victim." She narrowed her eyes. "Was she raped?"
He nodded. "I've taken semen samples. I'll let you know if they match. I'll also have a DNA test done on it." Dan paused. "I assume you want priority on the autopsy."
Simon glanced at the Fed's clenched jaw. "The sooner the better."
"I'll schedule it for one o'clock."
"Thanks, Dan," Simon said. "I appreciate it."
"Was there bruising around the thighs?" McDaniel asked.
"Hardly any," the ME replied with a frown. "There tends to be at least some bruising there, even if the victim knows her assailant."
Simon narrowed his eyes. "You're saying the victim may have known the killer?"
McDaniel shrugged. "I just think it's strange that there's been so little sign of resistance in all of the victims." Pointing to the woman's left hand where a gold band and diamond were worn, she said softly, "I wonder if she was having an affair."
Simon gnashed his teeth, nearly crushing the end of his cigar. "I hate this. Why did this bastard come to my city?"
McDaniel shook her head, then glanced up at the gunmetal gray clouds, her jaw clenching. "He isn't going to quit until we stop him." She turned her attention back to Simon. "Besides the regular pictures, I want close-ups of those marks on her body."
Simon's stomach churned as he passed the directions on to the official photographer, whose face was somewhat pale. Simon couldn't blame him -- no matter how often they saw death, it still had the capacity to shock them. Thank God.
Curious, he watched the FBI agent work. She stared down at the body for a long moment, her face unreadable, her eyes narrowed. After a minute of studying the body, she pulled on a pair of latex gloves and squatted down. She touched the woman's face lightly and tilted her own head to the side, then closed her eyes.
Simon frowned. What the hell was she doing?
A flicker of something passed across her face. Fear? Surprise? Pain? Her face paled and he hurried over to her, touching her shoulder. "Kelly." Her name slipped out before he could censor himself.
She opened her eyes and they remained unfocused for a long moment, then she finally fixed them on Simon. "Yes?"
A bland curtain hid her thoughts from him. "What're you doing?"
"Just getting a closer look."
"With your eyes closed?" Simon didn't bother to hide his annoyance.
The agent shrugged, seemingly unfazed by his outburst. She straightened and brushed her hands across her thighs. "She hasn't been dead that long, only a few hours."
Simon glanced at the ME, who nodded in surprise. "Time of death looks to be between one and four a.m.," Dan confirmed.
"I'm going to see if there were any witnesses and talk to the person who found the body," Kelly announced.
"I have a meeting this morning with the commissioner. If you need help, call Rafe or Brown," Simon said. "I'll meet you at the morgue at one."
"You're coming to the autopsy?" Kelly asked.
Simon nodded grimly. "I want this son-of-a-bitch caught before he kills any more women in my city or any place else."
He stalked back to his car, chomping furiously on his cigar. Even though he knew Ellison and Sandburg had needed a break, he wished to hell he had them working with Special Agent McDaniel now. Maybe with Jim's senses, they could finally get this sick bastard behind bars where he belonged.
Pausing by his car, his gaze searched for the FBI agent and he found her talking to the patrolman who'd been the first on the scene. She tipped her head to the side in a gesture that uncannily reminded Simon of Jim Ellison.
Suddenly, Kelly McDaniel glanced up and caught his eyes. Heat shimmered through Simon at the contact and he quickly looked away. He settled in his car and gripped the steering wheel with shaking hands.
What the hell had just happened?
Friday, 10:49 a.m., Mayhew Lake, 140 miles east of Cascade
Jim steered off a gravel road with the rented boat hitched to the truck bouncing along behind. The sky was blue, the sun bright -- a perfect early fall day to do nothing but enjoy the rays and cast out a few lines in the middle of a glass-smooth lake.
"Should we pitch the tent first or just head out?" Blair asked, stretching as he got out of the truck.
"Let's grab the cooler and some munchies and head out. We'll come in early enough to set up camp before it gets dark." Jim watched Blair bounce for a moment and a crooked smile tugged at his lips. "That sound okay, Tigger?"
Blair looked puzzled for a moment, then realized what he was doing and laughed. "That was good, Jim. Your sense of humor's improving."
"You're finally admitting I have one?" Jim chuckled and patted Blair's side as he walked past him. They tossed their fishing rods, tackle box, a cooler filled with beer and bottled water, a bag with chips and some granola and nuts into the boat.
After backing the trailer to the edge of the lake, Jim put the truck in park and hopped out. He unclasped the boat from the trailer and handed Blair the rope tied to the bow. "Don't lose it, Chief."
After returning to the truck, Jim continued to back down until the trailer was submerged and the boat floated free. The rope tightened and Blair leaned back to hold it close to shore. Jim gunned the truck motor and pulled the dripping trailer to a higher point on dry land. Parking the truck under the shade of a towering oak, he pulled the keys and tossed them in his pocket.
He inhaled a deep breath of the warm air redolent with green grass, lake water, and damp earth. A hint of exhaust from the truck and his and Blair's scents were the only signs of civilization to his sentinel senses. Even though an inkling of guilt remained for leaving Simon with a hot case and a federal agent, Jim couldn't help but savor the tranquility.
"Hey, I need some help here, man," Blair called out.
Jim glanced over to see the smaller man on his backside as he strained to hold the boat from floating away. Smiling, he ran over to Blair and took hold of the rope. Together, they pulled the boat close enough that Blair could hop in without getting his feet wet. Then Jim gave the boat a shove and jumped in, getting his own boots damp but not caring. The day was warm enough that they'd dry quickly.
Jim started one of the motors, tossed a spare ball cap on Blair's head so his partner wouldn't get a sunburned face, then headed off to the far side of the isolated lake.
Blair clapped a hand to his head to hold the cap in place as Jim sped away. Water droplets struck Blair in the face and he smiled. Glancing back, he looked at his friend, and his smile grew. Jim had pulled the brim of his hat low to shade eyes that saw more than any other human's. The corners of his lips were turned upward and when his striking blue eyes caught Blair's, they twinkled with rare ease.
Contentment filled Blair and on some level he knew Jim shared the same feeling. The link between Sentinel and Guide was one that Blair was still trying to fathom. When Alex had "killed" him, everyone but Jim had given up on him. Jim had somehow linked their animal spirits and had brought Blair back from death.
Since that time, the bond between them had changed, deepened, though oddly enough, Blair merely accepted it instead of trying to dissect its meaning. He knew Jim recognized the change, too, though in many ways Jim was the same man he'd been when Blair had first met him. Detective Jim Ellison wasn't a man to verbalize his feelings; instead he showed it in gestures and touches that had originally made Blair uncomfortable. Now, Blair accepted it as Jim's way of expressing his fondness for those he cared about. And the stoic detective cared deeply, more than he allowed others -- and often times himself -- to see.
Jim slowed the boat as he rounded a point in the lake, then stopped the motor altogether. "Toss out the anchor, matey," he called out.
"Aye, aye, sir." Blair saluted as he followed the order.
Jim looked over the edge of the boat and Blair could tell he was expanding his sense of sight. "Twelve feet and there's a few old tree trunks down there. Looks like it might be a good place for some sunnies and perch."
"Can't you see them?"
Jim smiled crookedly. "That'd be cheating."
"Like you've never done that before," Blair muttered good-naturedly and knowing full well Jim could hear him.
They quickly got their rods ready, placed a leader and float on each of them then dropped them in with a nightcrawler on each hook. Blair sat in the front swivel chair while Jim stayed in the back seat near the motors.
"Did you remember the sunscreen?" Jim asked Blair.
The younger man slapped his forehead with the heel of his hand -- he'd forgotten it even after Jim's one hundred and three reminders to bring it. "Damn, I knew I'd forget something."
"Just keep your arms covered and that cap on. You should be fine."
"But it's hot out here," Blair complained.
"You're going to be a lot hotter if you get burned." Jim removed his denim shirt, leaving him in the short-sleeved henley.
"Hey, what about you?" Blair accused.
"I'm more used to the sun, Chief."
Grumbling, Blair had to admit Jim had a point. However, it didn't help. He was already sweating under his sweatshirt.
Jim tossed him his long-sleeved shirt. "Here, put this on. It's lighter than that thing you're wearing."
Blair tried not to smile, but the corners of his lips lifted. For all his gruffness, Jim was a marshmallow underneath it all. He lifted his sweatshirt off, then slipped his arms into the too-long sleeves of Jim's shirt. Once he had it buttoned, he pushed the cuffs up to his wrists. It was a lot cooler and he flashed Jim a smile of gratitude. "Thanks, man."
"You're welcome." The perfect blue sky paled next to Jim Ellison's twinkling eyes.
They each grabbed a bottle of water instead of beer since it wasn't noon yet and settled back to jiggle their fishing rods and soak up the silence. A pair of grebes skimmed across the water with clumsy dignity to land fifty feet from their boat. Jim could see their crests silhouetted against the clear sky when they settled on the water. The birds began to dive for their lunch, wary but not frightened of the boat and its two occupants. A heron suddenly rose up from a nearby channel and flew along the bank, its neck tucked and its long legs trailing behind the body.
Jim's gaze followed its flight, enjoying the remarkable grace of the ungainly bird in the air. "Notice how the heron flies with its neck tucked and legs extended?"
Blair glanced up, shading his eyes against the sun. "Yeah."
"That's how you tell a heron from a crane -- cranes fly with both neck and legs extended."
"I didn't know you were so into birds," Blair commented.
"There's something about a bird's flight that's always fascinated me." Jim shrugged, almost embarrassed.
"Cultures dating back thousands of years have revered birds for the freedom they represent," Blair began in his professor voice. "They seem to have the ability to break the bonds of the earth and sail above the problems represented by the land-bound creatures."
Jim laughed. "Maybe I just like birds, Chief."
Blair's face flushed, but he chuckled, too. "Resist the urge to expound, right?"
"Some things are just meant to be enjoyed, not analyzed," Jim said, but there was no reproach in his voice.
They sat in companionable silence for a few more minutes, until Jim suddenly straightened in his chair. "I think I got a live one, Chief."
Blair's gaze went to Jim's bobber that was being tugged down in impatient jerks. "Play out the line. Don't lose it."
"I've fished once or twice before, Sandburg," Jim said with affable exasperation. "Get the net."
Blair reached for the landing net and moved to the side of the boat where Jim' s line was.
Jim gave a quick tug to set the hook. "Got it. Must be at least a four pounder." he said triumphantly. "Get the net under it."
As Jim reeled in his line, Blair leaned over the boat and dipped the net in the water. He saw the fish coming up and stretched out to get the net under it. And leaned a little too far.
"Shit!" Blair yelped.
A hand grabbed the collar of his shirt and hauled him back into the boat. Gasping, Blair sat on the floor of the boat, his heart thundering. "Thanks, Jim," he managed to stammer out.
"Did you land my fish?" Jim demanded.
Blair blinked and found he still held the net firmly in his hand. He looked into the mesh and saw a three-inch sunfish staring back at him. It maybe weighed a pound.
"Four pounder, huh?" Blair asked, holding the flopping fish up by the line.
Jim brushed a hand across his mouth to hide his embarrassed grin. "Well, maybe I exaggerated a bit."
Blair shook his head, trying to keep a straight face. "You got one part of this fishing thing down pat."
"The lying part."
Jim snorted and Blair couldn't hold back his laughter. He tossed the fish to Jim who managed to catch it after some juggling.
"You get to clean it," Blair said and sat back down to enjoy the sun, the fishing and the camaraderie.
Friday, 1:02 p.m., Cascade Police Coroner's Office
By the time Simon arrived at the morgue, Special Agent McDaniel was already there talking to Dan.
"Just in time, Captain," Dan said.
Simon didn't like autopsies -- never had and never would. It was the aspect of his job he hated the most.
"The soul's gone, Captain," Kelly said quietly. "She can't feel any more pain."
"I know," Simon admitted after a moment of surprise that she'd read his closed expression so easily. "It's just that murder victims go before their time, taken by some son-of-a-bitch playing God."
"Playing Satan, you mean."
Simon nodded grimly.
Kelly and Simon put on their masks and followed Dan into the room where the body lay on a cold metal gurney.
"September 10, 1999. Autopsy of Jane Doe," the ME spoke into a microphone that hung suspended from the ceiling above the table.
Simon clasped his hands behind his back and tried to keep his features impassive as Dan went through the visible injuries first. Kelly stepped closer to the body, but Simon couldn't make himself move any nearer.
"What's that?" the fed asked, pointing to a barely discernible rash on the woman's belly and thighs.
Dan shook his head. "That's an odd place for a rash."
"Hives?" Simon suggested.
The doctor shrugged. "Could be. I'll take an epidermal sample and send it over to toxicology."
Kelly continued to study the skin outbreak for a moment, then gave her attention back to the autopsy. Simon frowned behind his mask -- what was the federal agent thinking?
Over two hours later, Dan laid the bloody instruments on the tray. "Nothing out of the ordinary with the internal organs, except for the heart."
"What about it?" Simon demanded.
"There was some tissue damage to the right ventricle."
"Same as the other victims," McDaniel said quietly. "Was it enough to kill her?"
"Offhand, I'd say no," Dan replied. "Not unless her heart just stopped."
"Then how did he kill her and the others?" Kelly demanded.
Simon heard her helpless frustration and almost laid a calming hand on her shoulder. Gritting his teeth, he wished he had a cigar and settled for slipping his hands into his trouser pockets.
"She wasn't strangled or suffocated or drowned, and the chest wound wasn't serious enough to kill her. There was a slight amount of fluid in her stomach. I'll send a sample down to the lab to get analyzed."
"What about toxicology?" Simon asked, his stomach a little fluttery.
"Even with a rush priority, it won't be until Monday morning. We should get the DNA results hopefully by Tuesday, maybe Wednesday."
McDaniel handed a card to the coroner. "My cell phone number is there. Call me as soon as you get the results."
Dan nodded. "Will do."
Kelly studied the body for a long moment, then raised her gaze to the doctor. "What do you think killed her?"
"Probably some kind of poison. Hopefully the blood analysis will tell us what kind." Dan shrugged tiredly. "But if it's the same killer, I doubt if anything conclusive will turn up."
"It's the same killer," the agent stated with a cold certainty that sent shivers down Simon's spine. "The son-of-a-bitch is taunting us."
"I'll never get used to this -- people being killed senselessly," Dan said.
Kelly shook her head. "No, not senselessly. The murderer thinks he's doing it very sensibly. We just have to figure out his definition of sensible."
"That's what scares me."
Silently, Simon and the agent left the room, dropping their masks into a HazMat waste disposal container.
"What do you think?" Simon asked as they took the elevator up to Major Crimes.
"I think Cascade has too many rainy days and not enough sunshine," she said wryly.
A grin tugged at Simon's lips. "That wasn't what I meant."
"Do you believe that someone could be scared to death?" she suddenly asked.
"I've seen people terrified, but scared to death? I mean, that's just a saying, isn't it?" He narrowed his eyes.
Kelly shrugged. "It makes as much sense as anything else involved in this case."
The elevator opened and they walked side by side through the Major Crimes doors. Kelly headed directly for Conner's desk and punched some keys on her computer keyboard. Simon watched her for a moment, then walked over to her desk.
"Let me know when you get the lab results," he said. "If you need any back-up, call me. I'm going to be your unofficial partner until Ellison and Sandburg get back."
"I'm honored, Captain," Kelly said, her eyes twinkling with rare warmth.
Simon managed to stifle his smile. "You should be."
He returned to his office and, after one more glance at the baffling woman, he began to tackle the pile of paperwork on his desk.
Friday, 4:04 p.m., Captain Banks' office
Simon eyed Kelly incredulously. "Are you telling me that these women each had a heart attack during the rape and died?"
She stood and crossed her arms in an oddly protective gesture as she paced the floor in front of his desk. "Maybe, I don't know. There's something missing. How can twelve victims all have the same type of internal damage? Maybe it's the drug. I don't know."
For a moment, Simon was reminded of Sandburg's nervous energy in her pacing and rapid sentences.
She came to a stop and clutched the back of the chair she'd just vacated. "Or maybe their attacker frightened them to death."
Simon tossed his pen on his desk and scowled. "In other words, they were scared to death."
"Do you have a better theory, Captain Banks?" The steel edge had returned to her voice and features.
"There's got to be another explanation." Simon swiveled his chair around to stare out the window. The gray sky was bloated, heavy with more rain. He turned back to face the federal agent. "Women are raped every day and while the physical, mental, and emotional damage are horrific, they don't die of fear. Do you have anything to substantiate this theory?"
"Nothing but a gut feeling," she admitted. Her gaze took on a haunted faraway look. "And the terror," she whispered.
Her face paled and Simon leaned forward. "Are you all right?"
He watched as she visibly pulled herself back together. "I'm fine."
Simon had seen that look before -- on Jim's face when he'd zoned. An eerie chill chased down his spine. "We've had two victims in Cascade now, each killed on a Thursday night," he commented. "What night were the other victims killed?"
"Wednesdays in Denver, Tuesdays in Minneapolis." She shook her head grimly before Simon could speak. "And I haven't a clue why our killer chose those days." Her gaze flickered across Simon and settled on the prematurely dark day. "A man reported his wife missing -- description of the latest victim fits. He'll be here in about half an hour. I can take him down to the morgue for the identification, if that's all right with you, sir."
Simon removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "That's fine." He settled his wire rims back in place. "You sure you don't want Brown or Rafe with you?"
"No, sir. If it's his wife, I'll stay with him for a while and see if I can find out anything." She grabbed the file from his desk and headed back to the bullpen. Simon watched her plop down at her borrowed desk.
Strange how the feds usually worked in pairs, especially with a case this big, yet Kelly was here alone. Or maybe they were shorthanded too, and were relying on receiving assistance on a local level. Still, something didn't quite add up.
His mind exhausted, Simon shrugged aside the nagging voice. In this day and age of cutbacks, the criminals were the only winners. And that pissed him off.
Friday, 4:15 p.m., Mayhew Lake
"Pass me the tackle box, would you?" Jim asked Blair.
Blair opened his eyes groggily. "What?"
"The tackle box," Jim repeated.
"Right, the tackle box," Blair muttered, looking around. He shifted and his foot struck what he was searching for. He picked it up and passed it to Jim, who was smiling.
"Have a good nap?" the older man asked.
Blair's face flamed. "I just closed my eyes for a few minutes."
"You were asleep for over an hour, Chief," Jim said with equal parts of amusement and affection.
Blair blinked and glanced at his fishing rod.
"Don't worry. I just saved a scrawny one from sacrificing itself on your hook." Jim's voice was light and relaxed. He opened the tackle box and studied the contents intently. "I'm going to try a new jig."
Blair removed his hat and ran a hand through his long curly hair. "I slept for over an hour? Geez, I'm sorry, Jim."
Jim lifted his puzzled gaze to the younger man. "What for, Chief? The last couple weeks have exhausted you and there's no reason not to catch up on some lost z's while you're on vacation. Isn't that what vacations are for?"
Blair smiled abashedly. "I suppose. I'm just embarrassed that I was out for so long and didn't even know it. I didn't drool, did I?"
"A whole gallon, but don't worry, I hung your head over the side so none of it got in the boat." Jim's eyes danced with mischief.
Blair laughed good-naturedly. It had been a long time since Jim had been in such a carefree mood and Blair found himself merely enjoying his friend's playful teasing.
"Want a beer?" Jim asked.
Jim handed him a bottle of Fat Tire, one of the micro brews Blair had talked him into buying rather than the usual. Blair twisted off the cap and took a sip. "This is pretty good."
"It ain't Bud," Jim shot back. "But it ain't bad."
"I knew you'd like it. You just have to take a chance now and again. Get out of those old habits and taste life."
"This isn't a beer commercial, Chief."
"I don't know. I think I heard some frogs croaking. Bud-why-zer."
Blair was rewarded with another wide grin from his partner.
"Don't give up your day job, Sandburg."
"No way," Blair said quietly, then remembered Jim's sentinel hearing probably picked up his low words.
He glanced up and caught Jim's half-smile. Jim raised his bottle of beer in a silent toast and Blair lifted his own in quiet accord.
Half an hour later, the two men moved the boat to another spot and tried some casting. After only a few half-hearted nibbles, Jim decided to head on in before the sun got too low. He steered the boat across the lake and watched Blair raise his arms like a tribesman worshipping the sun god. His long hair flew back and Jim's shirt, three sizes too big for him, billowed out behind him.
Jim smiled. It felt damned good to see Blair enjoying himself and relaxing. Ever since the overeager graduate student had paired up with him, it seemed that he was either involved in a case with Jim and risking his life or neck deep in his schoolwork and teaching duties. Usually all of the above.
They approached the shore and Jim called out, "Get ready to jump, Chief."
He watched like an overprotective brother as Blair crawled onto the bow then stood. Jim cut the engine and Blair leaped to the shore, the boat's tow rope in hand. Jim stayed in the back end as he tipped up the two motors so the propellers were out of the water and Blair tugged the boat right on to the sandy soil.
"C'mon, Captain Nemo, you've run aground," Blair called out.
Jim grinned. Suddenly, he swatted at a stinging sensation on his arm. He glanced under his hand, but didn't see anything. Probably a mosquito. They ran rampant around here. The stinging eased and he gathered up their rods and tackle box and stuck them in the side compartment of the boat, then latched it shut.
"Here." He handed Blair the cooler, sack of food and the younger man's sweatshirt, then hopped out of the boat.
He glanced at the knot Blair had made when he'd tied off the boat.
"Do I pass my scout test?" Blair asked innocently.
"Yep. Looks like you're now a junior ranger." Jim took the cooler from Blair's hand. "C'mon, Junior. You can earn some more points by helping set up camp."
By the time the sun dipped behind the trees, they had the tent up and had unrolled the sleeping bags inside it. They gathered some dry wood and Blair started a fire, then set to work making supper. The young man stood and pulled his hooded sweatshirt on over Jim's shirt, which hung six inches below the sweatshirt's hem.
Jim, who had donned an old oversized crewneck sweater over his henley, sniffed appreciatively from where he sat on a fallen log. "What're you making, Chief?"
Blair stirred the boiling contents over the fire. "Well, since the great sentinel of the city couldn't get any fish except one which had to be returned to its mom, it looks like campers' stew."
Jim grinned unrepentantly, then glanced at the kettle over the campfire. "What's in it?" he asked suspiciously.
"A little of this, a little of that," Blair replied, deliberately vague.
"C'mon, Chief, 'fess up. You're scaring me."
Blair smiled easily. "You mean I've done what the most cold-hearted of bad guys can't do on the streets of Cascade?"
Jim's warning tone made Blair hold up a hand. "All right, since you're bound and determined to spoil the surprise. It's beef stew."
Jim raised his head and sniffed -- nothing too exotic. "You sure?"
"Of course, I'm sure." Blair glanced away, shrugging. "Well, maybe I added one spice you've never had before. I want to see if you can detect it."
"Just a little one." He grinned. "You have to admit it's making you salivate like one of Pavlov's dogs, isn't it?"
"Don't push it, Chief."
When Jim used that tone of voice with anyone else, it made them cringe. With Blair, the younger man's smile only grew. The kid knew him too well, but that didn't surprise Jim.
Blair filled a plate with the stew and handed it to Jim, then got one for himself and joined Jim on the log. "Well?" he asked.
Jim picked up his fork and sniffed the stew, separating out the scent -- salt, rosemary, carrots, potatoes, beef -- then took a tentative bite. There was a strange flavor, something he'd never tasted before. "It's a little like celery, but tastes more bitter."
"Hey, that's really good, Jim. It's Fenugreek. It's used in a lot of African dishes."
"Fenugreek. Don't worry. It won't hurt you. Besides, it's good for you."
Jim rolled his eyes. "I should've known."
"Oh, c'mon, you have to admit it's pretty good, right?"
"I suppose." Though Jim found himself liking it, he enjoyed teasing Blair too much.
"And it'll help you sleep," Blair added.
"After all this fresh air, I'm sure I'll need it," Jim said with a heavy dose of sarcasm.
Blair's eager expression faltered and Jim suddenly felt like a jerk. "It's good, Blair. Honest." The young man's features lit up, warming Jim. "Sorry, Chief."
The firelight flickered across Blair's flushed cheeks. "No, I'm sorry, Jim. You'd think that after nearly three years I'd know better than to take you seriously."
Jim thought about that a moment and wondered if he'd just been slammed.
Blair suddenly laughed, uncannily reading his thoughts. "Quit worrying about it and eat. Tomorrow we have to make up for not catching any fish today."
They finished eating in quiet companionship. A coyote yipped, then another and another. A loon called from the lake, its long warbling note fading away with the slight breeze that soughed through the treetops.
Blair set his empty plate on the ground and leaned back to gaze up at the star-filled sky. "Thanks, Jim."
"For what?" Jim asked, puzzled.
"For suggesting this fishing trip. You were right. We both needed some time away from police work and the world of academia."
Jim nodded absently, his thoughts on Kelly McDaniel and the case he'd left her with.
"What is it?" the younger man asked quietly.
Though Jim accepted the link between himself and his guide, sometimes Blair's perceptiveness startled him. "I was just thinking of that case I told you about."
"The one that federal agent is here for?"
Jim nodded. "She doesn't know the city. I should've stayed."
Blair wrapped his arms around his drawn-up knees and fixed his gaze on Jim. The flickering campfire flames reflected off his glass lenses. "From what you told me, it sounds like she can handle things on her own for a couple days."
Jim remained silent, unable to pinpoint the reason for his agitation.
"What's really bothering you?" Blair prompted with eerie insight.
Jim smiled crookedly. "You ever think about going on the road, Kreskin?"
"Tell me." Blair wasn't going to let him off the hook.
Jim rubbed his eyes and rested his crossed arms on his drawn-up knees. "There's something familiar about her, like I know her."
Blair leaned forward, all eager graduate student once more. "What do you mean? Does it have something to do with your sentinel senses?"
"I don't know. Maybe. Her scent was vaguely familiar, but I couldn't place it."
Blair's expression faltered, and he appeared almost embarrassed. "It's not like Laura McCarthy, is it?"
"No," Jim answered without hesitation as his own face flamed with humiliation. He could still recall Blair seeing him and Laura lost in pheromones in the coat room. "In fact, there wasn't any attraction like that."
The younger man breathed a sigh of relief. "That's good, right?"
Jim shrugged. "I guess, but it's not because she's not attractive." He tried to tug out something that just lurked on the edge of his memory. "She reminds me of someone."
"An old girlfriend? Carolyn?"
Jim shook his head impatiently. "No, I told you it wasn't a sex thing. It's something else."
Jim blinked and the knot in his memory that refused to be undone, loosened a little. "Maybe. But that doesn't make sense. My father's family was small and I know all of them."
"What about your mother?"
"She's dead. I barely remember her."
"A relative of hers?"
"Dad said she was an only child and her parents were dead."
Blair frowned in frustration. "She could be someone you had contact with when you were both children."
Jim rubbed his forehead. "I don't know, Chief. It's probably my imagination." Blair nodded, but he Jim could see the gears spinning in his head. "Forget I said anything, Sandburg."
A headache began between Jim's eyes. "Let it go, Blair. It's not important."
The younger man nodded reluctantly, recognizing Jim's rising impatience. After they'd had a good night's sleep, he would try to get more information. Whatever was bothering Jim more than likely had something to do with his senses.
It was odd that Jim would have such a strong reaction to a stranger. He didn't talk about his family much and had mentioned his mother rarely. Blair was fairly certain his sentinel senses hadn't come from his father's side, which left his mother. But Jim had said she died not too long after the divorce. His father had told him so...
Blair's mind raced with suspicions and questions, but he kept silent. As close as he and Jim were, the Ellison family tree was a taboo topic between them. He would have to do some research on his own.
"Let's get the dishes cleaned up and stow the pack in the cab of the truck, then hit the sack," Jim suggested, pushing himself to his feet.
A wave of dizziness washed through him and he swayed.
Blair grabbed his arm and steadied him, concern coursing through him. "Are you all right?"
The older man rubbed his brow. "Just tired. I didn't take a nap in the boat today." Jim pulled out of his grasp and picked up their dishes, then headed to the lake. More than a little worried, Blair followed.
After the camp was tidied and the fire doused, the two men crawled into the tent. Blair shivered as he removed his shoes and jeans. He tugged on a pair of sweatpants and left his sweatshirt and socks on as he wriggled into his sleeping bag. He lay on his belly and covered his head but left enough open area that he could watch Jim ready himself for sleep.
The older man grimaced as he pulled off his jacket and hiking boots. Surprisingly, Jim left his jeans, sweater, and socks on. Usually his sentinel senses allowed him to tolerate the cold better than Blair.
"Are you cold?" Blair asked.
"A little," Jim admitted.
"Doesn't that seem strange, considering you're usually hot and have the windows in the loft wide open even when it's freezing outside?"
"Maybe I'm getting old. You know, the blood thins as you get older."
Blair snorted and kept his tone light in spite of his uneasiness. "You probably got sunburned and don't want to admit it."
"You caught me," Jim said as he slid into his sleeping bag. "I guess I should have worn long sleeves, too."
"Oh, man, I'm still wearing your shirt. You want it?"
Jim shook his head. "Just remember to wash it before you give it back." He reached for the Coleman lamp.
"Leave it on. I'm going to read a little first," Blair said. His real motive was to keep an eye on Jim for a little longer, but his friend didn't need to know that.
Jim rolled over to cast Blair a glare. "You didn't bring homework, did you?"
"Not exactly. It's a book on the social structure of an aboriginal tribe of New Guinea."
Jim groaned and closed his eyes. "Good night, Chief."
"Night," Blair said and reached for his backpack.
He pulled the thick book from the bag but didn't open it. Instead, he studied Jim's relaxed features. He'd fallen right to sleep. He knew Jim was tired, but it was barely nine o'clock. Maybe the Fenugreek affected him more because of his senses.
Jim shivered and shifted and Blair tugged Jim's sleeping bag up to his neck. An uneasy foreboding wormed its way into Blair's gut.
Something wasn't right -- he could feel it.
Saturday, 3:01 a.m., Mayhew Lake
Blair woke with a start and lay still for a moment, wondering what had awakened him from a deep sleep. He listened intently and the sound of thunder rumbling overhead gave him his answer. He glanced at Jim, who was in the same position in which he'd fallen asleep.
Worry gnawed at Blair. The thunder should have awakened Jim before it woke him. With his sensitive ears, Jim would've heard the approaching storm when it was still miles away.
Blair turned on his side, propping his elbow on the ground and resting his head on his palm. He watched the steady rise and fall of Jim's chest. It didn't appear to be anything other than a normal sleep pattern, interrupted by the occasional light snore, but something didn't feel right.
Jim would probably "spit the dummy," as Megan would say, but Blair had to make sure his friend was all right. He reached over to touch his shoulder. Jim didn't budge and heat radiated from his skin. Troubled, Blair maneuvered out of his sleeping bag and kneeled over him. He laid his palm on Jim's forehead and was startled by the heat.
"Jim, wake up," Blair said, shaking his shoulder.
Jim grunted and pushed Blair's hand away. The tent lit up with a flash of lightning and a few seconds later, thunder cracked, making Blair jerk.
Jim blearily opened his eyes. "What's goin' on?" he slurred.
"You're sick, Jim," Blair replied, his heart climbing into his throat.
He mumbled something Blair didn't understand and closed his eyes. Blair laid his hands on either side of Jim's stubbled face. "Wake up Jim! C'mon, man, you're scaring me here."
Jim blinked a few times, then finally his eyes cleared though Blair could see he still wasn't with the program.
"What is it?" Jim asked, then frowned. "Why am I so hot?"
He struggled to sit up and Blair wrapped an arm around his shoulders to help him. "Do you have the flu?" the younger man asked.
"I dunno, but I sure as hell don't feel so good," Jim admitted.
Blair sucked in his breath. Even in the dim light, he could see the paleness of Jim's usually healthy complexion. He laid the back of his hand against Jim's forehead and cringed inwardly at the alarming temperature.
"This is worse than when you had that cold," Blair said.
Jim crossed his arms and shivered. "It's freezing in here."
"Turn down the dial, Jim," Blair said slowly. Jim's characteristically short attention span was even shorter. "Listen to me. You have to concentrate and find the dial to turn down the cold. Can you do that?"
"I don't know. I-I can't seem to think straight." He blinked once, then stared into the distance.
Blair grabbed his arm as worry washed over him. "C'mon man, you're zoning on me. You have to listen to my voice and do what I tell you."
He came out of the trance slowly, his eyes focusing only by sheer force of will. "I can't find it, Chief. The dials aren't there anymore."
Blair took deep breaths himself to stave off his growing apprehension. "They're there, Jim. You just have to search a little harder for them."
Blair flattened his palm against Jim's chest and he could feel the rapid fire beat of his heart and his shuddering from the cold. The link between them was weak. What the hell was going on?
"Close your eyes," Blair instructed, his calm voice in direct contrast to the alarm rifling through him. Jim did as he said. "Now breathe in, then out. In, out, slowly. Feel your body relaxing."
Jim's muscles eased beneath Blair's hand and the younger man allowed a small sigh. This could be just the beginning of something far worse for his friend.
"Now you need to follow the cold back to where it begins. Can you do that?" Blair asked quietly.
Jim nodded. "Yeah... yeah, I got it."
"Now find the dial and turn it down."
Blair could tell Jim had succeeded when his shivering ceased. "Good."
Jim opened his eyes and looked at Blair. "You don't look too good."
"You oughta see you," Blair shot back with little of his usual fire. He was too concerned with what was happening.
More lightning flashed and Jim closed his eyes tightly as his hands flew to cover them.
Blair took hold of Jim's wrists, his fear re-surfacing tenfold and he forced himself to speak softly. "Are all your senses going crazy?"
Cringing, Jim nodded. "C-Can't seem to get them under control."
Guilt crushed down on Blair and he kept his voice low so it wouldn't hurt Jim's ears. "It must've been that new spice I tried. Damn, I had no idea it would do this to you. You've never had this reaction before from a new herb."
Jim shook his head and grimaced at the excruciating pain. "I-I don't think it was that."
"Something bit me in the boat when we got back," Jim managed to say. Words were getting more and more difficult to string together through the haze of sensory overload. His muscles trembled and he was glad he was already sitting down or he would've fallen flat on his face.
"What was it?"
"Didn't see it."
"Where did it bite you?" Blair asked.
Jim could hear the fear the younger man was trying to hold in check and he wanted to reassure him, tell him everything would be all right, but even the thought of trying to formulate a sentence made his stomach lurch. "Left arm," he managed to reply.
Blair pushed the sleeve of his sweater up and on the forearm, halfway to the elbow, was a huge swollen reddish circle. He inhaled sharply. "Oh God, Jim. This doesn't look good. We need to get you to a hospital fast."
Suddenly, the heavens opened up and rain pounded on the canvas above them. Jim groaned and pressed his hands to his ears, but he couldn't block the sound out. His brain screamed in agony and his voice followed. He was vaguely aware of Blair's hands on his arms, then shoulders, and finally his face. Jim tried to concentrate on his guide's touch, to block out everything else -- the jackhammering of rain against his eardrums, the explosions of thunder that vibrated down to his bones and the flashes of unspeakable white light that speared his brain.
The smell of damp wood burning filled his nostrils and he gagged from the strong scent. Blair's voice was a low hum in the back of his mind -- he could hear the tone, but couldn't understand the words. Jim's mind and body reeled from the neural input and he knew he couldn't continue or he'd be driven mad.
Lightning struck close and thunder cracked directly above them. Jim's mind cracked with it as he tumbled into a black silent void.
Ten minutes later, the wind tugged at the tent as rain continued to pelt the canvas. Water leaked into the bottom of the tent on Jim's side. Blair had managed to haul the bigger man out of his wet sleeping bag and pull him onto his own, but he didn't know how much longer his sleeping bag would remain dry.
Blair's teeth chattered and his fingers shook so badly it took him four attempts to tie the laces of one shoe. Every few seconds he glanced at his partner who lay as still as death. After Jim had lost consciousness, Blair had tried to revive him, but he was out. His breathing and heartbeat had fallen to a frighteningly low rate. What kind of insect bite would cause Jim to go into such a rapid descent?
He had to get Jim to a hospital and he couldn't wait until the storm lessened. He didn't know how much longer Jim had before his body completely shut down.
"Oh, God, pleasedontlethimdie, pleasedontlethimdie," Blair chanted.
He found the truck keys in Jim's jacket, which lay where the older man had tossed it earlier. Had it only been six hours ago? It felt like a lifetime.
Lightning punctuated by cracking thunder was almost continuous as the storm settled over them. The rain hadn't let up and had even grown heavier since it began.
Blair would go get the pick-up and drive it right up to the tent entrance. He would get Jim into the cab and take him to the nearest hospital, wherever that was. Blair unzipped the inside screen door, then the outer flap. Ice cold raindrops struck the back of his hands -- the temperature must have fallen at least thirty degrees.
He turned to look at Jim one more time and watched the shallow rise and fall of his chest for a few moments just to reassure himself his friend was still with him. Blair reluctantly turned to the door once more and raised the canvas flap. Lightning lit up the night to make it as bright as day and Blair's heart stumbled.
In the white light's brief interlude, Blair had seen a large branch lying across the back of the truck. Had it damaged the vehicle? Rain fell so heavily, it looked like black paint running down a canvas.
Wearing only his sweats and hiking boots, Blair took a deep breath and dashed out of the small doorway. In the short time it took him to re-zip the outer door flap, he was soaked and shivering. Raindrops struck like pebbles against his face and hands. Running to the truck, he slipped once in the mud, falling to his knees. He bit back a groan and pushed himself upright, brushing back wet, stringy hair from his face with a muddy hand.
Stopping at the truck, he stared at the large branch that lay across the back end. Blair breathed a sigh of relief -- it didn't look like it had done much but put a few dents and scratches on the truck. Jim wouldn't be too happy about that, but it could've been worse. Much worse, Blair thought with a shudder.
He climbed into the truck's bed, which had over an inch of standing water already in it. Reaching through the smaller branches to get to the main one, Blair gritted his teeth as the bigger twigs scraped his arms. Using his weight, he managed to push the heavy limb off the truck where it dropped to the ground with a thud he could hear over the storm's fury.
Completely soaked, Blair hopped to the ground and unlocked the driver's side door and slipped inside. For a moment, he just sat, his fingers clutching the steering wheel and his breath coming in harsh gasps. He shook so much he doubted he could find the ignition with the key.
Then he remembered Jim's cellphone. He leaned over and opened the glove compartment, then placed a hand inside. His fingers scraped smooth plastic and he dragged the phone out.
His hands trembling, Blair flipped open the phone, then punched the On button: Out of Service Area. He stared at the message a moment and the impulse to throw the phone out into the rain nearly overwhelmed him. Instead, he shoved it back into the glove box. He raked his fingers through his stringy, tangled hair. Okay, no phone, but at least he had the truck.
So which direction did he go? He hadn't paid too much attention to their route, trusting Jim to find the lake. Jim wasn't the one who'd navigated them forty miles in the wrong direction a couple years ago. Since then, Jim had made it a habit of memorizing a route himself before going anyplace.
He took a deep breath and pictured Jim inside the tent, his face pale and sweating. Jim couldn't navigate this time -- Blair had to do it. He rummaged around in the glove compartment and came up with a Washington state road map. Forcing his muscles to obey his command, he managed to start the truck. He could barely hear the motor running above the pounding of rain on the cab. Blair switched the heat on high, then turned on the dome light to study the map. He found Mayhew Lake, but according to the map, there was no road into it. Obviously there was.
He expanded his map search and spotted the highway. It looked like the nearest hospital was in the town of Wenatchee, about fifty miles away. Unless he could find a ranger station.
He put the truck into drive and guided it up the small incline to where the tent sat, a desolate outpost against nature's onslaught. He parked with the passenger side door within a few feet of the tent entrance.
Blair tossed their food pack on the floor and slid across the seat to slip out the passenger door, back into the bruising rain. His numb fingers fumbled with the zipper on the tent's door.
"C'mon, Sandburg, you can do it," he muttered impatiently to himself.
Finally, he opened it far enough to slip inside. His gaze fell on Jim immediately. The older man lay where Blair had left him, alternately shivering and sweating. His breathing had grown raspy, frightening Blair even further. He scurried over to Jim's side and laid his hand on his shoulder. There was little of the usual energy that flowed between them through their mysterious link.
Panic threatened Blair's hard-fought calm. "Dammit, Jim, don't you die!" He took hold of Jim's shoulders and shook him. "Jim, wake up. C'mon, man, you have to wake up. We have to get you to a hospital."
Jim merely moaned.
Blair shook him harder, praying he wasn't hurting him any more. "C'mon, Jim, I need some help here."
This time his friend seemed to hear his plea and moved his head from side to side.
"Help me, Jim," Blair pleaded, recognizing on some level that Jim was a sentinel, a man born to help others; if nothing else roused him, that instinct to help people, especially his guide, might. "Please, Jim. I need help to get you in the truck."
Jim didn't want to wake up. He just wanted to sleep in darkness where nothing could hurt him -- no noise, no light, no scents -- but something deep inside him wouldn't let him remain cocooned in his safe world. The struggle overwhelmed him and for a moment, he was once more plunging into a raging river. Where was Sandburg? He had dove into the white water with him, in spite of his fear of heights. Damn, the kid was loyal -- Jim didn't deserve that kind of devotion, especially from someone who foolishly entrusted him with his life. Didn't he know Jim was meant to be alone? The helicopter crash in Peru had convinced him of that.
"So, Ellison, you gonna try to drink the bar dry again?" Landon joked above the helicopter's vibrations.
"If he is, I ain't haulin' his ass back to the barracks. He threw up on me last time," Miller growled.
Jim laughed. "Nope. This time I'm going to find me some nice woman to spend the night with. Been a long time."
"Too damn long. I hope Melissa is still waitin' for me," the youngest member of their group said. "Last time I talked to her, she was wonderin' how much longer she had to postpone the wedding."
"I can't believe you had the balls to ask her to marry you right before heading out for a year-long tour," Landon said.
"I can't believe she said yes," Sarris added, exhaling a stream of cigarette smoke.
Jim watched the camaraderie of these men he'd spent weeks and months with, each one trusting the other with his life. Damn, they were a good group. The best a man could ask for.
Then the helicopter had crashed and he'd buried those seven men.
Those seven men who had trusted him with their lives.
"C'mon, Jim, wake up. I need your help."
Jim struggled against the hopelessness of the past and concentrated on the here and now -- his guide, the one he'd silently pledged his own life to protect. Sounds filtered into his mind, at first sounding like blaring speakers and he subconsciously tuned them down. Then the odors of rain, earth, and Blair's familiar scent rising above all of them invaded his nostrils. He latched on to Blair's voice, Blair's scent and risked opening his eyes.
Pain shot to his brain from the overload and he closed his eyes tightly against the assault of impossible color and motion.
"Find the dial, Jim," his guide was intoning in his soothing, smooth voice. "Breathe in, out, in, out, slowly. Find the control and turn it down."
Jim finally found what he sought and turned the dial down as far as he could, then opened his eyes once more. There was still too much light, but at least it wasn't accompanied by agony.
"Chief," he said and was surprised by the weakness of his voice.
Blair's palm settled against his cheek and the rough skin was almost too much to bear, but this was his guide. He wouldn't hurt him. "What--?"
"You're really sick, man. We have to get you to a hospital." There was desperation in Blair's face and voice.
Hospital. Sick. Blair worried. God, what was wrong with him? His thoughts skittered around in aimless circles and he couldn't remember where the hell he was; but if Blair said they had to go to a hospital, then he would.
"'Kay," Jim managed to slur in reply.
He felt Blair's arm slip around his back and he shivered. "Cold, wet."
"Geez, sorry, Jim." The arm moved away and Jim watched through slitted eyes as Blair removed his shirt and pulled on his jacket. Then he was back.
"Let's try this again," Blair said quietly, but Jim knew he was frightened. His heartbeat was so loud it filled Jim's mind, nearly blocking out his words.
"It's 'kay, Chief," Jim tried to reassure him, to make his heart stop pounding like train wheels on a track. He had to take care of his guide -- that was the sentinel's job. "I take... care you."
Something that sounded suspiciously like a sob came from Blair. "I know you will, buddy. But first we have to get you better." His arm settled around Jim's waist. "Okay, come on. You have to help me here, big guy. Try to stand up."
Stand up. How did he do that? He should know how. The tug from his friend gave him a starting point. Bend knees. Balance on feet. Straighten legs.
"That's right. You're doing great, man," Blair said in a too-loud voice.
Jim cringed, closing his eyes tightly.
Blair's hand flattened against his chest, warm and right, giving Jim a center of balance. "Sorry, buddy," he said. The sound of his voice didn't hurt this time.
"'s 'kay." And it was, as long as Blair was beside him.
"Let's go," Blair said in a low voice.
Jim could barely make his legs do what they had to and he found himself leaning on Blair too much. He had to stop that. He had to be strong. But no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't. A groan of frustration escaped him.
"You all right, Jim?" came Blair's anxious voice.
He managed a nod. Blair guided him through a small opening and things began to buffet him -- small, hard things that sent waves of agony coursing along his skin. He tried not to cry.
Men don't cry. Only women and babies cry.
But the pain was all over, especially his face and hands. Something hot and scorching burned a trail down his cheeks, making the agony even more excruciating.
Disappear. Go to the darkness.
No, Blair needs me.
Suddenly most of the sharp agony disappeared and he felt warm air blowing across him.
"Relax, Jim. It'll be all right," Blair said, his voice husky.
If Blair says it'll be all right, it will be. Trust.
Jim lay on his side and hot air blew across his face. Too hot. He stiffened and a horrible cry tore from his throat.
"Oh, God." Gentle hands -- his guide's hands -- moved across him, lifting him so he leaned against his friend's familiar side. "Everything's off-line, including touch, isn't it?"
He wanted to answer, but Jim didn't know what Blair meant. Arms moved around him and the familiar, soothing scent of Blair surrounded him. He leaned into the secure haven.
"Listen to me, Jim. We're in the truck now and we have to get you to a hospital." He paused and Jim felt an odd lurch in Blair's chest. "I hope I can find it. You know how I am with directions."
Hands eased him to lie down and this time there was no hotness burning him. Instead, one side of his face rested on damp cloth, but there was something calming about it. Then his friend's arm settled on his side, protecting him.
He was safe. The darkness could claim him again.
Blair felt consciousness escape Jim once more and fought the cresting fear. Jim lay on the seat, his head resting on Blair's thigh. Jim's expression was so trusting. All the times Jim had cared for him, Blair couldn't let him down.
He put the truck into gear and eased his foot on the gas. The windshield wipers swished across the glass, trying valiantly to keep it clear, but the rain was so heavy.
With one hand resting on Jim's shoulder to reassure both himself and his sick friend and the other steering the slow-moving truck, Blair settled in for a long, nerve-wracking drive.
Saturday, 7:07 a.m., Cascade Police Department
Simon rode the unusually quiet elevator up to the seventh floor. Though the police department never shut down, there were fewer people working on the weekend than during the week, especially at this early hour. The elevator ground to a halt, opened and Simon walked down the hall through the familiar glass doors into the bullpen. He halted in mid-step when he saw Agent McDaniel -- Kelly -- already sitting at Conner's desk. For a moment, he merely watched her, noting the concentration in her brow and the graceful movement of a hand as she absently tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. There was no doubt she was an attractive woman. Simon had noticed that fact the first time he laid eyes on her.
As he watched her, she lifted her gaze and there was no spark of surprise in her eyes. It was as if she'd known he was there all along. A shiver chased down his spine and he chastised himself for his peculiar reaction.
"What're you doing here so early?" he barked, burying his unease behind familiar brashness.
"I was wide awake so came in," she replied, her voice raspy as if she had a sore throat.
There was no sign that his blustering had even fazed her. Maybe if he wasn't wearing blue jeans and a Seattle Seahawks sweatshirt she might be more intimidated by him. He sighed. No, Agent McDaniel wasn't going to be intimidated by anyone.
He studied her face more closely and noticed the dark circles beneath her eyes, the paleness in her cheeks. "You look like hell."
"I didn't sleep very well." She motioned toward the numerous files and papers strewn across the desk. "There's someone out there raping and killing women and I haven't even a clue as to his identity. I don't even know how he kills them."
Simon frowned. She didn't sound like the usual impassive FBI agents he'd dealt with in the past. Hell, she wasn't like anyone he'd ever dealt with before. "He's been out there for a long time. He's not going to be caught overnight."
Kelly shook her head as she stood and walked to the water dispenser. "It wasn't entirely the case." She filled a paper cup, then washed two aspirin down. "I had a nightmare."
Simon crossed his arms and tilted his head slightly. "You want to talk about it?"
She draped an arm over the dispenser and forced a smile. "I dreamt that I was sick, and when I woke up I was feeling lousy. Strange, huh?"
Though she kept her tone light, Simon got the impression something else was bothering her, but he decided not to push her. She wasn't one of his people, though she had slipped into Major Crimes with little rippling among the ranks. "That is odd." He paused. "At least there's one good thing, a third victim hasn't shown up yet."
"If there's going to be a third victim, it'll be Thursday night," Kelly said quietly, her gaze unfocused.
After a moment of hesitation, Simon nodded. He started toward his office, then paused when his cellphone rang. He pulled it from a clip on his belt and punched a button. "Banks."
"Simon, it's Blair. I'm at the hospital in Wenatchee."
"What happened?" Simon demanded.
"Jim's real sick. We think it was an insect bite, but the doctors can't figure it out."
"Does it have to do with--" Simon glanced at Kelly, who seemed to have found something interesting to study on the wall. "--you know?"
"Yeah, I think so. His senses went completely off-line. Couldn't control any of them. The only thing that helped some before was when I talked to him, but there's no reaction anymore." Sandburg paused and Simon could hear his barely controlled grief. "I'm losing him, Simon, and I don't know what to do."
Simon's heart skipped a beat as fear crowded his chest. "Hold on, Sandburg. I'm on my way. I should be there in a couple hours." He broke the connection and closed the phone. He looked at the fed. "I have to go. Ellison's in the hospital in Wenatchee."
"What's wrong with him?" she asked.
"Sandburg doesn't know. Thinks it could be a reaction to an insect bite. I don't know when I'll be back."
The agent grabbed her purse. "I'll go with you."
Simon stared at her a moment, surprised by her concern for a man she'd only met. "Shouldn't you stay here to work on the case?"
"Like you said, it won't be solved overnight." She met Simon's eyes and spoke in a strangely melodious voice. "You need me to go with you."
He blinked. Yes, he did need her. "Let's go. It's a long drive."
Simon led the way out of the bullpen. As they silently rode the elevator down, he thought about Jim and all the dangers he'd survived in the military and the police force -- to be taken down by an insect bite seemed a cruel joke. But Simon had heard the fear in Sandburg's voice and if the student, who knew Jim's senses better than anyone, was scared, then Simon was downright terrified.
Saturday, 8:53 a.m., Highway to Wenatchee
Simon stepped on the gas, easing his way up to ten miles above the speed limit. If he was stopped, he'd just tell the trooper the situation and hope he'd get some professional courtesy.
He glanced at his silent companion. Why had he brought her with him? At the time, it had seemed the right thing to do. But now... She should be back in her room, lying down. Whatever illness she had seemed to be growing worse.
"Kelly," he said quietly.
She continued to stare out the window.
"Kelly," he repeated a little louder.
Her shoulders jerked and she turned to face him. Ashy smudges lay beneath wide eyes that seemed haunted by something only she could see.
"What is it?" he asked.
She shook her head. "Nothing."
"Don't give me that bull," Simon erupted. "Why did you come with me?"
She wiped her forehead with a trembling hand. "You wanted me to."
Had he? He couldn't remember for certain. He gazed at her pale complexion and slightly dilated pupils. "What's wrong with you?"
She shrugged. "Maybe a touch of the flu."
He didn't believe her. This was something different, something worse. "You shouldn't have come into the station this morning."
"I had to."
Her curt answer brought a frown to Simon's face. "Look, Kelly, if there's something you're afraid to tell me, don't be. I'll keep it confidential."
"There's nothing to tell."
Simon took a deep breath, not knowing if he could trust her or not. Jim was a close friend, Sandburg almost as close. FBI Special Agent Kelly McDaniel, however, was a virtual stranger, but there was something about her that made him want to trust her. She was intelligent, compassionate, and professional. He had seen the way she handled the latest victim's grieving husband last evening.
Simon's cellphone rang and he quickly answered it. "Banks."
"How is he?"
"Not so good. His heart and breathing rate are almost nonexistent. They've put him on a respirator and have him hooked up to all these machines." Blair's young voice broke. "They're afraid he's going to die, Simon."
"Calm down, Blair. You know Jim; he's strong. He'll pull through."
"Oh, God, the alarms went off. I have to go, Simon." The connection broke off.
Simon's heart leapt into his throat. Stunned for a moment, he could only stare at the phone. He took a shuddering breath and glanced at his companion. He hadn't thought her face could pale any further, but now it was chalk white. "Jim may be dying."
The woman's eyes closed briefly. "No."
The single word sounded like an invocation.
Saturday, 9:09 a.m., Wenatchee Hospital
Blair stayed in the corner of Jim's ICU room, hoping he wouldn't be noticed as the nurses and doctors went about their business. He watched as they applied CPR, then shocked Jim like he'd seen done on countless medical shows.
Blair concentrated on the small thread that still tied him to his friend, the thin string fraying more with each passing second. Blair's hands were clasped together tightly and prayers from fifteen different religions scurried through his chaotic thoughts. The electric shock they applied to Jim sent a ripple through Blair, too, but the thread continued to unravel.
"Live, Jim. Live!" Blair murmured, staring at his friend's white, perspiration-soaked face.
They shocked Jim again and Blair sucked in a quick breath, but the line stayed flat.
Blair's heart was hammering so hard he thought it would burst out of his chest. Moisture clouded his vision. The CPR continued and Blair wondered if this was how Jim had felt when he'd been drowned. He hoped not -- it was too painful, too soul-searing to bear.
One more shock and Blair jerked, his breath catching in his throat. But this time the thread tightened. He opened his eyes and saw the steady blip of Jim's heartbeat on the monitor. Too weak to stand any longer, Blair slid down the wall to drop onto the floor in the corner, his knees hugged to his chest. He wrapped his arms around his knees and rested his forehead on them, trying to regain some semblance of control of his emotions.
"You shouldn't be in here."
Blair opened his eyes to see a nurse standing above him. Her eyes were kind. "No, I can't leave him. He needs me."
"Are you related to him?"
"I'm listed as his next of kin," Blair murmured. He never thought he'd have to say that.
She glanced back at Jim and Blair followed her gaze. The crash cart had been removed and all the monitoring equipment was being checked over as Doctor Felton examined Jim's pupils. "I'll see if the doctor will allow you to stay."
"Thank you," Blair whispered.
"But right now, I want you to go clean up and get something to eat from the cafeteria. I'll send Doctor Felton down there to talk to you."
"Those are my conditions," she said firmly, but compassionately. She leaned over and helped Blair to his feet. "Your friend is all right."
He could hear her unspoken words -- for now.
Blair nodded mutely and stepped over to Jim's bedside, then laid a gentle hand on his muscled forearm. "I'll be back, Jim. I won't be far, just listen for me," he whispered hoarsely.
He stumbled out of the ICU room, afraid to leave and afraid to stay. It had been so close. He'd almost lost him. And why? Because of some insect bite? In all the times they'd gone camping and fishing, nothing like this had ever happened.
Blair's insides twisted in a knot, his head pounded, and the brackish taste of fear filled his mouth. If Jim lived through this, Blair was not going to let him go camping or fishing ever again.
He wished Simon, Taggert, Brown, Rafe, and Megan were here. He needed them.
I need Jim.
Stumbling around a corner, he found a coffee machine, then realized he only had enough coins left to call Simon one more time unless he went outside to use the cellphone. No, he had to stay close to Jim.
Saturday, 9:21 a.m., Ten miles from Wenatchee
Simon steered around a chunk of black rubber from a blown-out tire, then glanced at his silent companion. Her face had gained some color -- two red spots on her cheeks surrounded by sickly white.
"Are you all right?"
She blinked and turned slowly to Banks. "I'm not sure."
At least she didn't say "fine." Simon couldn't have taken another of those. "You should be home in bed," he said.
She reached out a shaking hand and rested it on Simon's arm. The warmth of her palm spread outward, massaging his tense muscles with the single touch. "I'll be all right. Honest."
Simon let out a sigh of frustration that he planned to follow with a vociferous "bullshit", but his phone interrupted. "Banks."
"Simon, it's Blair." His voice sounded weary. "They brought him back. He crashed, Simon, but they brought him back."
Relief made him almost dizzy. "Thank God." He paused, and asked softly. "How're you doing, Blair?"
A long silence. "I don't know. Okay, I guess. I feel like there's a part of me dying in there with him." The young man's voice was hollow as if he'd had everything sucked out of him.
"He's going to be all right," Simon said firmly. "You know how Jim is, plus he has something else going for him."
"His senses," Blair said dully.
"You," Simon corrected softly. "We're about ten minutes away. You're in ICU?"
"Who's with you?" Sandburg asked.
"Special Agent Kelly McDaniel," Simon replied.
"Oh. I have to go. Dr. Felton is coming," Blair said, his voice fading away.
"We'll see you in a few minutes," Simon said, then punched the off button.
"Ellison's all right?" Kelly asked.
"So far. They brought him back. Blair said he crashed." As soon as the words left his mouth, Simon's mind leapt into overdrive. He stared at the road, though he didn't see it. Instead, he sorted through the facts. Kelly had gotten sicker while Jim had crashed and now she was better, though still far from well. She was only an acquaintance of Jim yet she had wanted -- needed? -- to come with Simon to see him. He glanced at her profile, the delicate nose, the tight lips, the well-defined chin and jawline. He remembered the zoned look on her face when she'd examined the latest victim.
No, that was crazy.
Wenatchee came into view and Simon's outlandish speculations faded. The town was smaller than Cascade, but obviously large enough to have a hospital. Simon followed the blue H sign at an exit and spotted the building a minute later.
Saturday, 9:44 a.m., Wenatchee Hospital
Allergic reaction. Swelling airways. Possible brain damage. Unusual. Coma. Nothing else we can do. Prognosis: poor.
Blair's mind continued to echo the doctor's words after he left. Dr. Felton said it was probably a reaction to a bee sting, but he'd never seen anything like it. Usually the patient had the reaction within a short time of the bite, and though Jim's reaction had come on slowly it was no less grave. In fact, Dr. Felton said it was much more serious. Jim had fallen into a coma and while brain activity remained, it had slowed considerably as if his brain had gone on vacation.
Blair had almost laughed at that one. It sounded like something Jim would say to him.
"Hey, Chief, why don't you give your brain a vacation so we can get some rest around here?"
Blair swallowed the growing lump in his throat, but it still felt tight and thick. Jim dying was heartbreaking enough, but to have his body live and his brain die...
He covered his face, choking back his fear. "Wherever you are, Jim, come back," he murmured.
A hand settled on his shoulder and he jerked, half expecting Jim to be there. Instead, Simon looked down at him, his usually stern face concerned and sympathetic.
"You look like shit, Sandburg," Simon said, his gentle tone softening his words.
Blair had a momentary urge to stand up and give Simon a hug, but the captain could only take so much maudlin sentiment in one morning. He took a deep unsteady breath and tried to smile. "You oughta see the other guy."
Simon suddenly drew Blair into a brief embrace, then stepped back as if embarrassed by his emotional display. "How's Jim?" he asked gruffly.
"The doctor just talked to me. It's not good, Simon." He glanced at the woman a few inches taller than himself. Brown hair with auburn streaks was pulled back in a braid, though some tendrils strayed around her face. He caught her unusual green eyes and the concern in them surprised Blair, as did the sickly pallor of her complexion. This had to be Kelly McDaniel. He forced himself to stand, suddenly aware of how he must look with sweatpants full of drying mud and his hair wild and frizzy from the rain.
"Blair Sandburg," he introduced.
"Special Agent Kelly McDaniel," she said in a husky voice and shook his hand.
The moment their skin touched, Blair felt a small electric tingle. Surprised, he lifted wide eyes to the woman, but she only gave his hand a firm shake then released it.
Simon put an arm around Blair's shoulders. "Let's get you cleaned up, then we'll go down to the cafeteria and talk."
Blair nodded jerkily, though he continued to stare at the federal agent. Jim had said she was familiar and now Blair experienced the same odd sensation. As he and Simon walked away, she dropped into the chair Blair had just vacated.
Once in the restroom, Simon turned on the water faucet, mixing hot and cold until the temperature was just right. "Wash," he ordered the younger man.
Blair smiled at the command, but was grateful for Simon's steadfast presence. Blair filled his cupped hands with water then splashed it across his face. He added soap from the dispenser and scrubbed with his palms. After rinsing, he reached out and Simon handed him a few paper towels.
"Who is she?" Blair asked as he dried his face.
Simon frowned. "She's an FBI agent, here to investigate two serial murders."
Blair shook his head, his curls dancing around his cheeks. "I know that," he said impatiently. "Where'd she come from?"
"Where all feds come from, I guess." Simon narrowed his eyes, the overhead lights glinting off his glass lenses. "What's going on, Sandburg?"
"She's familiar, Simon. Jim told me the same thing last night."
"You've met her before?"
Blair thought hard. "I don't think so. I would've remembered a woman like her."
Simon came close to smiling. "Yeah, she is pretty memorable, isn't she?"
"You have the hots for her, Simon?" Blair asked incredulously.
"Geez, Sandburg, do you have a one track mind?"
Blair shrugged absently. "Not really. It's just that..." He tried to card his fingers through his tangled hair.
Simon handed him a comb. "Here, use this."
Blair worked the comb through the snarls, taking out strands of auburn hair in the battle.
"So Jim thought he knew her?" Simon ventured.
"That's what he said." He stared at his reflection, noting the red lines in his eyes and the puffy bags beneath them. "She looks a little like him, don't you think?" Simon stiffened, catching Blair's full attention. "What?"
"I was thinking the same thing, but that wouldn't explain why you think she's familiar," Simon spoke.
"Yeah, right. It doesn't make sense." He handed Simon his comb. "Thanks. I, for one, am not thinking real straight right about now. Maybe later, when Jim gets better I can look into it."
That's when, not if.
A sudden sense of urgency struck Blair and he headed for the door. "I have to see Jim before we go down to the cafeteria."
Simon nodded without hesitation and Kelly joined them in the corridor. They walked to the end to one of the guarded ICU rooms. Blair walked right in, but Simon and Kelly were stopped by the nurse on duty.
"I'm sorry, only family members are allowed in there," she stated with no room for argument.
"I'm Captain Simon Banks of the Cascade Police Department and that man is one of my detectives and a good friend."
The nurse shook her head, but this time there was a hint of compassion in her round face. "I'm sorry. Blair is listed as his next of kin so he's allowed, but nobody else."
Kelly tilted her head in question. "They're not related, are they?" she asked Simon.
He shook his head. "Not in the conventional sense."
Though clearly puzzled, she didn't continue her questioning. Instead, she moved to the window and gazed through the open blinds into the room. Simon turned his attention back to the two men. Jim lay as still as death, his face the color of parchment. Blair stood close to the bed, both of his hands wrapped around Jim's right hand and Simon watched his lips move. Through the open door, he could barely make out Sandburg's words.
"Simon and that FBI agent are here, Jim. I'm going to tell them what the doctor told me, then I'll be back. I won't leave you, I promise. All you have to do is follow our link and you'll know where I am. Please, Jim, come back. We all need you." A tear ran unashamedly and unheeded down the younger man's face. "Especially me. We're sentinel and guide. If you die, I don't know what I'd do."
Simon's throat tightened. Anybody else would have concluded the two men were lovers, but Simon knew the bond between them was friendship and so much more -- something beyond the physical. Something that made Simon uncomfortable every time he dwelled on the odd relationship.
Blair released Jim's hand and Simon could see him shore up his emotions before he came out of the room. McDaniel continued to stare intently at Jim.
"Let's hurry. I don't want to be gone long," Blair said hoarsely.
The agent glanced at them. "I'll join you. I have to stop in the ladies room."
Simon nodded as he and Blair turned toward the cafeteria.
McDaniel joined them in the cafeteria ten minutes later. Simon had drank two cups of coffee while Blair had merely gone through the motions of pretending to eat, hoping to appease Simon with his pitiful attempt.
Blair nodded at the FBI agent, a part of his mind wondering why she had accompanied Simon.
"Come on, Sandburg, you have to eat something. You aren't going to do Jim any good if you get sick," he said.
"Not hungry," Blair mumbled.
"What happened to your friend?" the agent asked quietly.
Blair met her gaze, mystified by her presence and distress. "I don't know. Jim didn't know," he replied. "I thought it was this new seasoning I made him try, but he said it was something that bit him."
"You're not sure?"
"I saw the swollen mark on his arm. The doctor said it was probably a bee sting, too."
"Has he ever had an allergic reaction before?" she asked.
Blair shook his head. "Not like this."
Simon pushed his glasses up and rubbed his eyes. Blair could feel the helplessness and fear emanating from him. For having such a grumpy exterior, Simon Banks was all heart beneath it. He pushed back his chair. "I'll be right back."
Blair watched the captain leave, knowing he needed privacy to brace up his emotions. He scrubbed his face with his palms, then lowered his hands and slumped in his chair.
"When did he start getting sick?" the woman asked.
Blair shrugged tiredly. "Last night when we turned in." Self-reproach filled him. "I should've brought him to the hospital right then. I knew something was wrong, but I just thought he'd get over it. Stupid."
Suddenly, Blair felt a featherlight tug on the bond he shared with Jim. An overwhelming sense of urgency brought him to his feet. "I have to see Jim."
He was vaguely aware of the FBI agent following him as he wended his way back to his friend. He concentrated on the thread between himself and Jim. It was growing weaker again; the soul of James Ellison was already beginning the journey away from him. Blair's stomach lurched and for a moment, he thought he was going to be sick. He had to get to him, touch him, try to strengthen the bond by physical contact.
Blair walked past the ICU nurse who was watching Jim's monitors. He hurried to his friend's side and threaded his fingers between Jim's. The tactile awareness of skin against skin seemed to reinforce the bond only faintly this time. "I'm back," he said quietly, hoping he kept his fear hidden.
Suddenly, the bond between himself and Jim intensified, the thread thickening strand by strand. Until he ran up against a transparent wall -- a mental barrier that threatened to cut the line between them.
He heard a growl and in their collective thoughts, he saw the wolf, his animal spirit, trying to dig under the wall that separated him from the black jaguar, which lay still and silent, except for the labored breathing. The wolf whimpered and howled mournfully. Its paws were raw and bleeding from its attempts to reach the jaguar.
"Jim! Can you hear me? Answer me, Jim!"
For a moment nothing happened, then slowly, the jaguar's eyes slitted open, studying the wolf. Sorrow and regret shadowed the cat's eyes.
"No! You can't leave! Not yet."
Suddenly the wolf stopped and its hackles rose. The animal turned and Blair followed his line of sight. A golden panther moved toward them, its coat healthy and shiny.
Blair's heart stumbled in his chest, then hammered against his ribs. Alex had returned, and now she would kill both of them.
"Don't be afraid. I'm here to help," the animal spirit spoke.
Was this another trick by Alex to make him lower his guard? No, Alex's animal spirit had been a spotted jaguar, not a cougar. How had he known that?
The wolf backed away, as if sensing the cougar meant no harm. The yellow cat padded to the barrier, then lifted a paw and dragged its claws along the wall. A howl of pain broke from the cougar but it continued to rip a jagged opening. The cat panted as it worked feverishly. Finally there was a passageway large enough to step through, but the weakened cougar didn't attempt to enter. It moved aside and gazed at the wolf intently, willing him to move through the opening.
Softly snuffling, the wolf trotted past the cougar to the jaguar's side.
Suddenly Blair was buffeted by Jim's thoughts. The link between them intensified and strengthened and the jaguar morphed into Jim.
"It's time to return, Jim."
"I can't. The lights, the sounds, the pain."
"I'll be beside you the whole way. Together, man. You know we can do it as long as we're together."
"Where are we, Chief?"
"I don't know, but I have a feeling we don't want to come here too often.
Jim chuckled weakly. "I'm with you there, buddy." He gazed at Blair and his blue eyes glowed so brightly, they were almost painful to look at. "You'll be beside me?"
Blair nodded. "Where else would I be? You're my sentinel; I'm your guide. Two halves, one whole, man."
"This isn't a Freudian thing, is it Sandburg?"
Laughter spilled from Blair. "Let's hope not."
Jim disappeared, replaced by the jaguar that struggled to stand as the wolf remained close by its side. Finally, the black cat was on its feet and the wolf nudged it toward the opening the cougar had created. Shuffling, the jaguar emerged from behind the barrier and it stood shoulder to shoulder with the wolf.
The wolf paused to sniff the air and look around, but the cougar was gone.
"Let's go home, Jim."
"You won't get any argument from me, Chief."
The jaguar and wolf faded away, replaced by the fluorescent lights of the hospital and the swish of the respirator.
Dizziness assaulted Blair and he closed his eyes against the vertigo. When he opened them, he found the nurse beside him, a worried expression on her face.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
Blair nodded automatically, his attention drawn to Jim. A pink flush tinged the older man's cheeks and his eyes beneath the lids moved.
Ignoring the nurse, Blair leaned close to his friend and whispered, "It's time to come home, Jim. C'mon, buddy. You've been sleeping long enough. Rise and shine."
"His fingers moved," the nurse gasped in surprise as she pointed to Jim's left hand.
Blair gave Jim's right hand a gentle squeeze. "Wake up, Jim. Let me see those baby blues that can turn a woman's head at a hundred paces."
Jim's fingers curled around Blair's hand and elation filled the younger man. Then Jim blinked once, twice, and finally his eyes remained open -- a little confused but aware. Blair's throat tightened and he could barely speak past the thickness. "Welcome back."
Panic fluttered across his face and Blair immediately understood. He rested his other hand on Jim's shoulder, giving it a reassuring squeeze. "It's all right. They had to intubate you. It's okay, just relax." He turned to the nurse. "Can you take the tube out?"
Amazement lit the woman's features. "I'll get the doctor."
Blair turned back to Jim. "Take it easy, buddy. The doctor's coming."
The detective's blue eyes lost their panicked expression and he managed a slight nod.
"How is he?" came Simon's voice from the doorway.
"Come on in and see for yourself," Blair said, his eyes misting. Embarrassed, he brushed his hand across them before the captain saw the moisture.
Simon entered and crossed the floor to Jim's bedside. A grin lit Banks' face. "Jim, you're back."
Jim blinked, unable to answer for the tube down his throat, but his eyes held a familiar twinkle.
Two nurses, an intern and Dr. Felton rushed into the room.
Blair didn't want to lose the physical connection to Jim, but he knew he had to get out of their way. He leaned close to his friend. "I have to move so the doctor can check you out."
Apprehension flitted through Jim's expressive eyes.
"It'll all right. I'm not leaving the room, even if they threaten to cut my hair." Blair smiled.
Jim seemed to relax and Blair gave his hand one more squeeze before he stepped aside. He and Simon stealthily backed up to the wall, hoping no one noticed them standing there.
"What happened?" Simon asked. "I came back to the cafeteria and you and Kelly were gone, so I came up here. I saw both of you standing over Jim. You both looked like you were zoned out."
Surprised, Blair scrubbed his face with his palms and dragged his fingers through his tangled hair. "I don't remember her being in here. All I remember is a dream and that's fading fast."
Simon crossed his arms, looking for all intents and purposes like he wanted to not ask what he was about to. "Was this a sentinel and guide thing?"
"I think so. At least the part of the dream I remember had our spirit animals in it." He frowned. "And something else..."
"What something else?"
Blair moved his hands around nervously. "I don't know. Something else like we weren't alone."
The cougar... Kelly McDaniel?
This was getting too weird.
Blair turned his attention back to Jim and watched the doctor draw the respirator's tube out of his throat. Blair grimaced in sympathy, knowing full well how uncomfortable it was to have the thing down there and then pulled out. The gag reflex kicked in and all you wanted to do was puke. Then when it was out, the throat was so raw and swollen, it was difficult to talk and damned agonizing to swallow.
Blair shuddered. Oh, yeah, he remembered all too well what that felt like.
Dr. Felton joined Blair and Simon in the corner.
"How is he, Doctor?" Simon asked.
"Better than I could have imagined." He gazed at Blair a moment. "I don't know what you did, Mr. Sandburg, but Mr. Ellison is making a miraculous recovery."
Blair smiled weakly. "It wasn't me. Just the Ellison stubbornness."
"When can we take him back to Cascade?" Simon asked.
"If his recovery continues at such an astonishing rate, he can be released tomorrow," Dr. Felton replied.
Blair wanted to let out a whoop of excitement, but managed to restrain it. He looked past Dr. Felton and met Jim's clear-eyed gaze. "Can I talk to him?"
"I don't see why not. We're going to leave him hooked up for another couple hours. If everything looks fine at that point, I'll have him moved to a regular room."
Blair excused himself while Simon continued to interrogate Dr. Felton. Blair couldn't seem to stop smiling as he approached Jim. "Hey, buddy, looks like you've just been proclaimed a medical miracle."
Jim's forehead furrowed. "What h-happened?" he asked, his voice rough.
"You want some ice?" Blair asked.
Jim nodded. Blair fished some ice chips out of a cup and pressed them past Jim's chapped lips. Jim closed his eyes tightly to swallow past his throat's rawness.
"It'll get better, Jim. Just hang in there."
"Easy... for you to say," Jim groused with a hoarse voice.
Blair's grin returned. "Never thought I'd be happy to be at the receiving end of an Ellison sulk." His smile faltered and he wrapped his fingers around Jim's hand. "We almost lost you, buddy. We figure you had some weird reaction to a bug bite, maybe a bee sting."
Jim's brow furrowed. "Senses?"
Blair understood the one word question. "Yeah, I think so. Whatever that thing injected into your nervous system, it made your sentinel senses go off the board." He paused, unsure of how to explain what happened. "I think your mind couldn't take the overload and it shut down. You were way out, man."
Jim frowned. "Last thing I remember... thunder and rain. Did it... storm?"
"Proverbial buckets. I managed to get you in the truck and drive here."
Jim's eyes widened slightly. "And Simon?"
"I called him. He and Kelly McDaniel drove over here right away."
"The FBI agent," Blair prompted gently.
He managed a slight nod as his eyelids fluttered. "So... tired."
"Go ahead and sleep," Blair said softly. "I'll be right here."
"D-Don't have to." Blair could see the effort it took for Jim to stay awake. "I'll b-be fine."
"I know you will," Blair said. "But I'm still staying here."
"A'right. S-Stubborn." But Jim seemed relieved as he closed his eyes. This time they stayed shut.
Blair smiled fondly. "Look who's calling the kettle black."
Dragging the chair closer to the bed with his foot, Blair settled on the plastic seat without relinquishing his hold on his partner. He concentrated on the bond between sentinel and guide, and felt the energy humming between them, comforting Blair more than any reassuring words a doctor could offer.
Exhaustion struck Blair with the force of a freight train. He lowered the bed rail and crossed his arms on the side of the mattress, still clasping Jim's hand. He laid his head on his arms and the sound of Jim's steady breathing lulled Blair into a deep slumber.
Simon stood outside the window watching his two friends sleep restfully. Relief was like a drug spreading through his system, easing his troubled thoughts. How often had those two pulled each other through a crisis? And how often had he been there to try to hold the other together during the worst of it? More times than Simon wanted to recall.
"How're they doing?"
Startled, Simon turned to see Kelly return. Her face had gained some color and the despair in her eyes had disappeared. He eyed her warily. "You tell me."
A corner of Kelly's lips quirked upward. "You saw us?"
He nodded curtly. "Care to explain how you got past the nurse?"
She gazed at Jim and Blair through the open blinds and shrugged. "I must've caught her at a weak moment."
Suspicion grew. "Let's say I buy that. Next question, why were you holding the hand of a man you hardly know?"
"It seemed the thing to do."
Simon narrowed his eyes to study her for a long moment. "Bull. I could order you to tell me."
"You could, but I don't have to answer. You're local, I'm federal." She turned to him and smiled, the gesture brightening her face and making Simon see her as more than an FBI agent. Much more. "Besides, you really don't care. You're just glad they'll both be all right."
Simon couldn't help but laugh. Damn, but the woman had balls. "Something tells me Major Crimes is going to be a little more interesting while you're around."
She merely shook her head and her gaze again drifted to the two men, both asleep. Her features softened. "I have a feeling with those two around, it's already pretty interesting," she said quietly.
Simon shifted his attention to Jim and Blair and swallowed hard. Interesting was definitely an understatement. Only they could turn a three day weekend fishing trip into a life and death struggle -- a struggle that could've easily ended tragically if Kelly hadn't been here. Simon didn't know how he knew, only that he did.
He rubbed his brow. First this sentinel and guide stuff, now a woman who, for all he knew, could be a faith healer.
"If I can borrow Jim's keys, I'll retrieve their camping and fishing gear," Kelly said.
"Good idea," Simon said. "I'll go with you."
"All right." Kelly turned away, but not before Simon caught a poignancy in her eyes that he knew she was trying to hide. He sighed. There was a helluva lot going on behind those green eyes that he had a feeling nobody would ever know.
Sunday, 12:55 p.m., Wenatchee Hospital
"Would you just give me my pants, Sandburg?" Jim asked in exasperation.
Blair shook his head. "Not until you agree to let me drive back to Cascade."
Jim's brow furrowed. He was getting cold standing there in only his boxers and a flannel shirt, but he wasn't about to give Blair permission to drive his baby. "That's Sweetheart we're talking about, Chief."
Blair rolled his eyes. "It's an old truck, Jim. C'mon, get real."
"That 'old' truck is the same age as you."
"Okay, okay. I promise I'll drive extra careful." He handed Jim his jeans. "Trust me, buddy."
"With my life, but not my truck," Jim said stubbornly.
Blair couldn't help it -- he laughed. It was so good to have the old Jim back after the last harrowing thirty-six hours that he couldn't get mad at the stubborn detective. "All right, but if you get tired, we pull over immediately. Got it?"
Jim tucked his flannel shirttails into his waistband, then buttoned and zipped his jeans. "Yes, Dad. Now, can I have my keys?"
Blair tossed them to the detective, then watched Jim lace up his hiking boots.
A blonde nurse appeared in the doorway pushing a wheelchair. "Your taxi service has arrived, Mr. Ellison."
Hiding a grin behind his hand, Blair watched the old Ellison charm kick into gear.
"That's very sweet of you, but I intend to walk out of here." Jim smiled and his blue eyes twinkled. If they'd been at Cascade General, Jim wouldn't have even tried -- they knew him too well.
But the nurse turned out to be just as immune to his charm as the nurses in Cascade. "Hospital rules, Mr. Ellison." She smiled but it was more the smile of a circling barracuda. "Either you sit your butt in this chair or I will get someone who can put you in it." She arched her brows. "Which will it be?"
Blair's attempt to clamp down on his laughter failed and he snorted. "Resistance is futile."
Jim sent his partner a glare and muttered something about assimilation, with the emphasis on the first syllable.
"I don't think that's anatomically possible, Jim," Blair said with a grin, his eyes glittering with mischief.
Without another glance at Blair, Jim plopped his backside in the wheelchair. "Don't forget my bag, Sandburg," he growled.
The nurse pushed him down the hallway and Jim instinctively listened for Blair's heartbeat. It had become second nature for him to keep track of his guide on a subconscious level, but it took him a moment to do it consciously. He heard Blair's footsteps nearing and smelled his shampoo as Blair joined him to walk beside the wheelchair.
Jim hated being treated this way. He felt fine, almost normal, except for the slight headache, sore throat, and subtle ache in his arm from the bee sting. He couldn't forget the lingering feelings from the nightmare he'd had overnight. He'd awakened around ten the night before to find Blair sleeping with his head on the edge of the mattress. God, the kid would have had a helluva neckache if he'd slept that way all night. So he'd awakened Blair and had him stretch out on the empty bed in his room. Blair had released his hold on him reluctantly and Jim had felt the loss of the contact immediately, almost like a physical ache, but Blair needed to get some sleep after the stressful Friday night. Sometime later, he'd awakened to Blair's voice and touch, telling him he was having a nightmare. He couldn't remember much after that, except that when he woke again, Blair was sleeping with his head resting on his arms, propped on the side of Jim's bed, holding his hand again.
Jim's face heated with embarrassment. He felt like a little kid who had to crawl into bed with mommy and daddy after having a bad dream. Damn, he hated that helplessness and vulnerability. If it had been anyone else but Blair who'd held his hand all night, Jim would've been thoroughly humiliated. But this was Blair... his guide... his best friend.
Even though Jim had been weak this morning, he'd batted aside Blair's assistance in getting dressed. It had only been an allergic reaction to a bee sting, albeit a serious one. Hell, it wasn't like he'd been shot in the chest with a 45.
"Take it easy," Blair said softly enough that only Jim's sentinel hearing picked it up.
Blair had known he was tensing and his guide's voice brought a measure of calm to Jim that hadn't been there moments before. Whatever this link was between them, it was powerful stuff.
The truck had already been pulled up to the curb, taking up two vehicles' spaces with the boat behind it.
Jim pushed himself out of the chair and started to walk to the boat to ensure it was riding on the trailer correctly without danger of slipping off.
"Mr. Ellison--" the nurse began in annoyance.
"It's all right. You did your job and got him safely out of the hospital," Blair said. "I'll keep an eye on him now." He flashed her one of his winning smiles. "Thank you."
She didn't look all that pleased with either of them, but nodded and returned herself and the wheelchair to the hospital.
"When did you go get all the stuff?" Jim asked.
Blair tossed Jim's bag in the pick-up's bed. "I didn't. Simon and that FBI agent did."
Jim turned to face him. "Kelly McDaniel was here?"
"You don't remember?" Blair asked, his worry evident both in his words and through their connection.
Jim shook his head. "I don't know. Maybe. It's all kind of fuzzy, Chief." He rubbed his throbbing brow. "I remember Simon."
Blair walked to Jim's side and laid a hand on his arm. "He stayed until about eight last night then drove back to Cascade."
"What about McDaniel?"
"She hopped a ride on a puddle jumper to Cascade after she and Simon delivered our stuff."
"She came with Simon though, right?"
"Then why didn't she go back to Cascade with him?" Jim pressed.
"She said she had to get back to work on the case."
"The rape and murder?"
"Only there's two Cascade victims now," Blair answered quietly. "Simon told me they found another body early Friday morning."
"We better get back, Chief," Jim said. He started toward the drivers' side, but abruptly stopped when he saw scratches on his beloved truck. "What the hell happened?"
Blair shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "The storm knocked a branch down on it."
Jim ran his extra-sensitive fingertips along the scratches and they felt as deep as the Grand Canyon. "Shit."
"Yeah, well, it could've been a whole lot worse," Blair said firmly.
Jim blinked and self-recriminations filled him. "I'm sorry, Chief. I'm sure you had other things on your mind that night."
Blair smiled weakly. "Just a few." Then his smile widened to a familiar Sandburg one and he patted Jim's side. "C'mon, big guy, let's get the hell out of Dodge."
"You got it, Festus."
As Jim headed around the front of the truck, Blair asked, "Why do I have to be Festus all the time? Why can't I be Marshal Dillon? Or even that deputy guy -- Newsome?"
"Newly," Jim corrected. "And you can't be the marshal because he always got the girl." He paused on the other side of the truck and grinned at Blair over the hood. "And I always had a thing for Miss Kitty."
Jim listened to Blair's laughter as they both slid into the cab. Blair's chuckles died as he looked around and his face lost some color. Jim leaned close to Blair and laid a hand on his forearm. "Hey, buddy, you okay?"
Blair brushed a hand through his mop of curly hair. "Yeah, I'm fine. Just remembering."
Jim studied his partner closely. "How bad was I?" he asked softly.
Blair licked his dry lips. "I thought you were going to die before I got you to the hospital."
Jim's heart kicked his ribs at the younger man's soft, emotion-charged voice. He gave Blair's arm a gentle squeeze. "But I didn't, thanks to you."
"I'm not so sure you should be thanking me," Blair said quietly. His eloquent blue eyes bespoke his remembered fear. "You've never had a reaction to an insect bite before. What if that new seasoning I made you try reacted with the sting and that's why you almost died?"
"Even if that happened, it wasn't your fault, Blair. We're still learning things about my senses. I have a feeling we'll still be learning ten years from now," Jim said firmly.
Blair eyed him for a long moment and Jim wondered what was going on in that genius mind.
"You think we'll still be partners in ten years?" Blair finally asked quietly.
Jim released his friend and sat back in the seat as he wrapped his fingers around the steering wheel. He stared out into an amazingly clear blue sky. "I don't know, Chief. I hope so. When I first met you, I didn't know what to think."
"Sure you did, you called me a neo-hippie witch doctor punk, remember?" Blair teased.
But Jim didn't laugh. "I was so scared that day, Chief; scared I was losing my sanity; scared I couldn't keep being a cop. I'd been in control of my life for thirty-six years and suddenly I wasn't in control anymore." He closed his eyes briefly, then reopened them and turned to Blair. "You're the one who gave me back a sense of control, but there was a price to pay."
Blair blanched and Jim continued gently, "Vulnerability to another human being -- to you. At first that was almost as scary as losing control, until I got to know you. Now I can't imagine my life without you in it." He took a deep breath, wondering why he couldn't stop his mouth from speaking. "And, yes, I hope we're still good friends and partners ten, twenty, fifty years from now."
Blair's lips turned upward. "Yeah, I can see it now, both of us in a seniors' home, you yelling at me for leaving my dentures on the sink."
Jim suddenly laughed. "And you still trying to get me to do one more test." He imitated a scratchy, elderly voice. "'Close your eyes and tell me what kind of sauce this is, prune or apple?'"
Blair snorted and the tension eased between the two men. After starting the truck, Jim glanced at the gas gauge to see if they had enough to get home and found it full. "Thanks for filling it up, Sandburg."
"I didn't. Simon said Kelly did."
"Guess we owe her a meal when we get back," Jim said.
He looked behind them then pulled out on to the road. Five minutes later, he merged the truck on to the interstate and they were on their way back to Cascade.
Jim glanced at his uncharacteristically silent companion. "I'm sorry I messed up our little fishing trip, Chief."
Blair blinked and brought his gaze to rest on Jim. "Nothing to apologize for. It wasn't your fault."
Jim shrugged. "I guess, but I still feel guilty. What actually happened that night?"
Blair explained the whole sequence of events, culminating in Simon and the federal agent's arrival at the hospital after Jim had crashed and been brought back by the miracles of modern medicine.
Jim imagined the helplessness Blair must've felt, and the frustration of not being able to do anything to help. The memory of holding Blair's cold, wet lifeless body by the fountain brought a shiver of remembered horror. He thrust the image aside. Blair was sitting beside him right now, very much alive. All he had to do was reach out and lay his hand on the younger man's shoulder to convince himself. But he didn't give in to the impulse. Instead, Jim glanced at his friend's pale face, which told him how frightened Blair had been.
"So how did I come out of this coma?" Jim asked.
"The doctor didn't know," Blair replied as his eyes flickered away from the older man.
Jim frowned. He'd learned to read his partner pretty well in the last three years and what he saw told him Blair was holding something back. "What aren't you telling me, Chief?"
Blair rested his elbow against the window as he continued to stare out at the passing landscape. "Something happened, something with our link, but I haven't been able to figure it out." He finally faced Jim again. "That bond between us was dying along with you. I could feel it weakening."
A visible shudder passed through the younger man and Jim finally gave in to his instincts, taking hold of Blair's arm reassuringly.
Blair swallowed hard and tossed Jim a grateful smile. "It got a little stronger when I touched you, but I knew I was losing you and there wasn't a damn thing I could do."
Jim squeezed his friend's arm. "I don't remember anything except..."
"Except what?" Blair demanded.
"I had this dream about our animal guides. Is that how I came out of it?"
Blair nodded. "I'm not sure what all happened, but I do remember the wolf leading the jaguar out of some kind of enclosure."
Silence filled the truck cab as Jim tried to make sense of something that had no basis in reality, yet was as real as the warmth of his guide's skin beneath his palm. "I think we're just going to have to chalk this one up to another Sentinel/Guide anomaly."
Blair chuckled. "Seems to be a lot of those lately."
Though neither spoke it aloud, Jim knew he and Blair were thinking the same thing -- there had been more anomalies since Blair had drowned; since the mysterious bond between them had grown stronger and become much more distinct.
The road stretched out ahead of them and Jim sat back to enjoy the drive. It was a beautiful day and he was alive to enjoy it with his best friend. For now, that was more than enough.
Monday, 7:46 a.m., The Bullpen
"No way, Sandburg. It was your turn to cook breakfast and you overslept," Jim was saying as he entered Major Crimes.
Blair, right on his heels, scowled. "I set my alarm." He shrugged self-consciously. "Only I made it for p.m. instead of a.m. Besides, why didn't your internal alarm go off? Why weren't you up by 6:15 like usual?"
Jim's lips twitched as a flush touched his cheeks. "Well, picking up bagels on the way to work isn't bad once in a while." He dropped an Einstein's Bagels box on his desk, then aimed an admonishing finger at his partner. "But let's not make a habit of it."
"I hope you brought enough in for all of us," Brown called out.
Jim glanced at Blair. "You were right," he said reluctantly.
Blair grinned smugly and pressed his wire-rimmed glasses up on his nose. "I made him get the Baker's Dozen pack."
As the Major Crimes detectives gathered around Jim's desk for bagels, Jim looked past them into Simon's office. He spotted Kelly McDaniel sitting across Simon's desk as the two of them studied something laid out in front of them.
"Hey, H, what's going on with Agent McDaniel and Simon?" he asked.
Brown swallowed a chunk of bagel. "She's been in there about ten minutes. I think they're talking about that rape and murder serial killer."
Jim glanced at Blair who had just spread some cream cheese on half a bagel. "Come on, Chief. I think they're talking about our case."
Knowing Blair was right behind him, Jim knocked on Simon's door then entered without waiting for permission. "Is this the case?" he asked his boss without preamble.
Simon nodded and motioned from them to join them. "Kelly's been going over what she's put together."
"Morning, Agent McDaniel," Jim greeted, then spoke to both her and Simon. "Sorry I ruined your weekend." He shrugged, raising his hands. "I've never had a reaction to a bug bite before."
Simon eyed Jim, a hint of fondness in his dark eyes. "You gave us all quite a scare. We're just glad you're all right."
"How are you feeling?" the woman asked.
Jim switched his attention to her and noticed she again wore her reading glasses perched low on her nose. It somehow seemed incongruous with her black jeans and colorful sweater. "Other than some soreness where the sting is, some nice bruises and minor burns on my chest, I'm fine."
"That's good." She glanced at Blair. "You're looking better, too. How are you doing?"
He smiled, his eyes glowing. "A lot better than when we first met." He motioned to his clean blue jeans and his layers of shirts. "I even cleaned up pretty good."
She scrutinized him, but her eyes twinkled. "Amazing what a little soap and water can do, isn't it?"
Jim curved his palm around the back of Blair's neck. "Don't let him fool you, Kelly. He wanted to make a better second impression on you. He's not usually this neat."
Blair rolled his eyes. "Of course, who could ever live up to the Ellison code of neatness?" He leaned closer to Kelly and spoke in a conspiratorial tone. "This man has cornered the market on 'cleanliness is next to godliness.'"
"Can we maybe get some work done today, people?" Simon broke in irritably.
"Yes, sir," the agent said, then smiled slightly at Blair and Jim, telling Jim that she recognized the tolerant affection in Simon's voice, too. Then she grew solemn and continued, "There was a second Cascade victim found early Friday morning a quarter of a mile from the first victim's location on the waterfront." She passed the file to Jim.
He began to open it, then noticed Blair looking over his shoulder. "I'm not so sure you should see this, Chief," he said in a low voice. "It's worse than Lash's work."
A crease appeared between Blair's eyes, but he adamantly kept his position. "I'll be all right, Jim."
Though Jim knew he would probably be on nightmare patrol for awhile, he respected Blair's decision. The younger man was stronger than the front he exhibited to the rest of the world. After taking a deep breath to prepare himself for Blair's reaction, Jim opened the file. The pictures were almost identical to the previous victim's. He heard Blair's increased heartbeat and slight catch of his breath, but Jim had to give him credit -- the anthropologist kept his revulsion from his expression.
"Same diagonal cut, but there's more marks on this victim," Jim said quietly.
Kelly removed her glasses. "He's gotten bolder much quicker this time."
"What do you mean?"
She stood and walked to the window, then turned back to cross her arms and leaned her hips against the window ledge. "Two years ago, he killed four women in Minneapolis. One a week for a month. The fourth victim had just a few more external marks on her body than the previous three. In Denver a year ago, he killed six victims. Again one a week, with the last three having progressively more external contusions. There was a fairly distinct tooth mark on the last victim in Denver. Using special cameras, they made a cast from the images." She shrugged. "The only problem is they were never able to find a suspect to compare against the cast."
"He obviously has something against adulterers," Blair suddenly said. "There's a matriarchal tribe in New Guinea where women can have as many husbands as she wants and can support, and if one of her husbands cheats on her, she can have him put to death." By the time he'd finished his little dissertation, Blair's hands were waving all over.
Kelly smiled slightly as if amused by his enthusiasm. "That's interesting, Dr. Sandburg, but I'm afraid we're not in New Guinea."
Blair flushed and Jim grinned. "Hear that, Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore," the detective teased.
"Kelly has tracked the women's last known locations to singles bars," Simon broke in before the conversation disintegrated any further. "Two different bars, two completely different parts of town."
Jim sobered, rubbing his brow. "And there's no way we could stake out every singles bar in the city."
"We may not have to." Kelly pushed away from the window and leaned over Simon's desk, laying a map of Minneapolis' streets across it. There were red circles with numbers in them and lines connecting the circles
"They make an A," Blair exclaimed, then added quietly, "A for adulterer."
"I'm impressed," Kelly said, gazing at Blair with a mixture of surprise and admiration. She pulled out another map. "Same thing in Denver, but he killed six women so the A was made a little differently." She straightened. "What we don't know is how many women he plans to kill in Cascade. Captain?"
Banks spread out a street map of Cascade, which had two red circles on it. He pointed to one. "This is where the first victim was last seen." He drew his finger up to the other one. "Second victim."
Jim stared at the map. "So you're thinking this is either the top of the A or the middle?"
The FBI agent nodded. "That's right. That gives us two areas to concentrate on come Thursday night."
Blair, standing close to Jim's side, frowned. "There has to be at least twenty singles bars between those two areas."
"I know," Simon said with a shake of his head, an unlit cigar between his thumb and forefinger. "But it's all we have at this point." He glanced at Kelly. "Have you been able to come up with any type of profile on him?"
"I've had a few thoughts," Kelly said. "The cut on the chest is only there to designate the sin of the sinner -- an adulterer."
"But he's just as guilty as she is," Blair broke in. "He raped her, for God's sake."
Jim heard a slight catch in Blair's voice and he rested a hand on the younger man's shoulder, immediately easing the tension in Blair's wiry body.
"An interesting choice of words, Blair," Kelly said grimly. "'For God's sake.' I think our killer sees himself as both sinner and savior, Devil and God. He probably grew up in a home where punishment was erratic, maybe an overcritical father and a mother who was opposite to the extreme. In fact, she may have abused her own son."
"Sexually?" Jim asked.
Kelly shrugged. "More than likely, and it probably began at a young age, before puberty so he didn't understand what was going on. Yet as he grew up, he came to recognize the sin, but also was unable to control his own unnatural drives."
Jim glanced at his young partner and Blair's expression held a mixture of revulsion and fascination. So much for protecting his partner from the darkness that roamed this world.
"How did you come up with all of this?" Jim asked.
"I trained under one of the best profilers in the country, Rachel Burke. She taught me to follow my instincts, so to speak." Kelly shrugged and gestured toward the files of all the victims spread across Simon's desk. "I've lived with those women for the last three months. They were all married." Kelly ticked off each the following things on her fingers as she paced. "They were in good health; they all died when their hearts stopped; they all had a rash around their thighs and lower belly; there was a slight amount of fluid which turned out to be cheap red wine in their stomach; and there was a trace of some kind of substance in their blood that we have been unable to identity."
"And they were all raped," Blair interjected in a low voice.
"Without much, if any, struggle," Kelly added softly.
"Did they all know the killer then?" Jim asked.
Kelly paused in front of Jim, glanced at Simon, then back at Jim. "I don't think so. I think the trace substance in their blood was some kind of drug or herb that made them more docile."
"Could the rash they each had be related to this drug or herb?" Blair asked.
Kelly blinked, sliding her hands into the pockets of her jeans. "It could. I hadn't thought of that."
"I could talk to Professor Summers in the chemistry department at the University," Blair volunteered. "He might know of a drug that could do all that."
"That's a good idea," Simon said. "Kelly, why don't you and Jim go through all the files of sex offenders in Cascade. See if any of their known locations match up to the times of the murders in Minneapolis and Denver."
"I want to talk to the bartender who was working the night Susan Leonard was killed. He had gone out of town for the weekend, but he's supposed to be back at work tonight," Kelly said.
"Okay. Jim, go with her," Simon said.
"I can do it myself."
Simon shook his head stubbornly. "Remember what I said?"
Jim frowned, watching their interplay closely. Kelly obviously had already gotten the lecture about going to visit a suspect or witness without back-up. And she hadn't liked it.
As he watched her, an image of a golden cat slid through this thoughts and he blinked the odd picture away. He turned to Blair and saw the younger man staring at Kelly as if seeing her for the first time. Then Blair's head jerked slightly and he caught Jim's curious gaze on him. Through their bond, Jim felt his puzzlement that matched his own. Had they both had the same vision? As soon as he could, he'd have a talk with Blair about it.
"I'm a federal agent. You have no authority over me," she said, her lips thinned in irritation.
Simon's expression eased and Jim was surprised to see real concern for the visiting agent. "Please, Kelly. Do it for my piece of mind."
"All right," she acceded reluctantly after a few moments.
She began to gather up the maps and files and Jim leaned over to help her, his hand brushing her arm. She jerked away as if burned.
"Sorry," Jim said automatically, then realized her reaction had been out of proportion to the accidental touch. "Is something wrong?" he asked, his voice pitched low for her ears only.
She shook her head. "No." Kelly piled the papers in her arms and made a wide arc around him to head out the door.
Jim caught Blair's puzzled gaze following her through the bullpen. He definitely needed to talk to his younger partner about a few things.
"Anything else, sir?" Jim asked formally.
"Just keep me informed on this one, Jim." Simon sighed and sent a concerned glance out his window to the woman who was already seated at her desk, a phone receiver to her ear. "And keep an eye on Kelly, too."
Suddenly, she strode across the bullpen and stuck her head in the door. "That was tox. They found the same substance that was in all of the previous victims' blood, and again, they were unable to identify it. I haven't gotten the lab results back yet from the semen sample, but I'm giving even odds it matches that taken from the last eleven victims."
"More than likely." Simon nodded. "Thanks, Kelly."
She bobbed her head once, then retreated to her desk.
"I'm going to head over to the University to talk to Professor Summers," Blair announced.
Jim followed him out of Simon's office, closing the door behind them. He put an arm around Blair's shoulders. "You okay with this case?"
"If you're asking if I can handle it, I can," Blair reassured firmly. "If you're asking if it's okay, no, it's not. To think there's someone out there doing these horrible things... But if Kelly's right about his childhood, he's as much a victim as the women he kills."
Jim shook his head, his lips pressed together in a firm line. "This man has drugged, raped and killed twelve women. Whatever his motivation for his crimes may be is a job for people with fancy degrees. Our job is to stop him before there's a thirteenth victim."
They stopped by Jim's desk and Blair turned to face the detective. "You're right." He shuddered. "It's just that a mother is supposed to love her children, not turn him into some kind of crusading psychopath."
"Not all mothers love their children, Chief," Jim said softly, his thoughts on his own mother, the woman who'd been killed in a car accident three days after she'd abandoned her two young sons.
Blair studied his friend for a long moment, his expression poignant. "I know, man." He paused. "Are you feeling all right? How's your head?"
"I'm fine," Jim said with tolerant fondness. "I've still got a bit of a headache, but other than that, I feel pretty much normal." He paused and his eyes twinkled. "Just because I'm usually a mother hen with you doesn't mean you have to follow my example."
"I know. It's just that you were--" Blair's breath stuttered. "You were dead and I-I thought you were gone for good, man." He swallowed hard. "And it felt like this big chunk of me died with you."
"I know exactly how you felt, Chief." He shivered, remembering the fountain. "But we're both alive and we're both fine." Jim shoved his hand into his trouser pocket and withdrew the truck's keys. "If you're going to the university, you're going to need these."
Blair's eyes widened melodramatically. "You mean you're actually going to trust me to drive Sweetheart?"
"Not if you continue with the sarcasm, Sandburg," Jim growled. "Bring her back without any more scratches."
"I'll be careful, Dad."
Blair was aware of Jim's gaze on his back and he smiled slightly. After nearly losing his friend this weekend, the little things he'd taken for granted held more significance. Much more.
He pushed the elevator button and a moment later, a hand touched his arm. He turned to find Kelly beside him.
"Are you going to see your professor friend?" she asked.
"There's something else you should mention to him." She folded her arms across her waist as if she were cold. "When you ask him about this drug, tell him that it might be a hallucinogen that causes extreme terror in the victim."
Blair's brows furrowed. How had she come up with something like that? The victims had all died so none had been able to relate that information to her. "Sure, I can ask him."
The elevator dinged and the door opened. Blair stepped inside, then turned back to Kelly. "Keep an eye on Jim for me, would you? He says he's feeling all right, but he doesn't like to admit he's hurting."
"I will. See you later."
As the elevator carried him downward, Blair pondered her reaction to Jim's touch and the strange image of a cougar that had superimposed her face for a split second in Banks' office. And his and Jim's impressions that they knew her.
Blair suddenly felt like he was looking at a puzzle where a few pieces were missing.
Monday, 11:55 a.m., Rainier University Science Building
Blair poked his head into Dr. Summers' office and spotted him bent over a desk covered with papers with little chemical symbols all over them. He'd taken a couple classes from the professor as well as talked with him about some of the hallucinogenic drugs that had been used in various cultures, including many Native American rituals.
"Hey, Dr. Summers," he greeted as he crossed the room.
Dr. Summers glanced up and Blair smiled. The man was the epitome of the stereotypical absentminded professor with straggly gray hair and round wire-rimmed glasses that kept slipping down his nose. A misbuttoned sweater was worn over a white shirt and bow tie.
"Blair," the professor greeted. "It's good to see you, young man. What brings you out of your dungeon?"
Blair laughed. "It's not a dungeon, just a basement office."
"Same difference." Summers motioned to the chair in front of his desk. "Sit down, my boy, and tell me what you've been up to."
Blair told him about the classes he'd been taking and how he was spending more and more time at the police station soaking up material for his dissertation. Dr. Summers thought he was doing it on the police sub-culture, just as everyone else did.
The professor leaned back in his chair and intelligent brown eyes gazed at him. "So, what do you want to ask me?"
Blair grinned. Dr. Summers may look the part of the absentminded professor, but his mind was sharp. "I never could get anything past you."
"Although you did try on occasion."
"When I was young and foolish, sir." Blair sobered and leaned forward in his chair. "Do you know of a substance that could cause a person's heart to stop, but couldn't be identified by a toxicology test? It might also cause a rash on the belly and thighs."
Dr. Summers thought for a moment. "A few, but they're hard to obtain."
"It also might cause extreme terror, maybe hallucinations."
"Does this have anything to do with those two women who were raped and murdered?"
Blair stiffened. "Why would you ask that?"
"A lucky guess, since I know you are working with the police, specifically one James Ellison who tends to get himself involved in sensational crimes."
Faint alarm riffled through Blair, but it was only an automatic reaction. Dr. Summers had been on the Rainier staff for years and years. "I can't confirm or deny that, sir."
"I understand, Blair," Dr. Summers said with a smile. "Don't worry. Your secret is safe with me." His expression sobered. "The symptoms you've described could very well be caused by Atropa Belladonna."
Blair's mind shifted into fifth gear. "Nightshade?"
Dr. Summers nodded. "Very deadly, but if someone knew what they were doing, they could prepare it and use it on someone who would display the symptoms you described."
"But it's native to Asia and Europe."
"True, but it grows all over the United States now. It wouldn't be difficult to find if one knew where to look."
Blair furrowed his brow and he stood. "Thanks, Dr. Summers. I appreciate your help."
"I'm glad I could help, Blair."
The younger man started to the door and collided with someone entering.
"Oh, excuse me," Blair said, glancing up at Professor Marshal, a man around Jim's height but with a look about him that screamed academia.
The man wearing black horned glasses with slicked-back dark hair held up his hands. "No, excuse me," he said with a smile.
"No problem, Professor." Blair hurried away, intent on reaching the library to do some research on belladonna.
Monday, 5:05 p.m., The Round-Up Lounge
Canned country music assaulted Jim's ears as soon as they stepped out of McDaniel's Jeep. He tuned down his hearing and followed the agent through the front door of the smoke-filled bar. Jim coughed and pinched his nose. He'd quit the bar scene a few years ago and the hazy atmosphere reminded him why.
"Are you all right, Jim?" Kelly asked, leaning close.
He nodded and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, then wiped his tearing eyes and blew his nose. Jim hoped it was only the smoke getting to him and not another cold. He didn't think he was up to handling that after the weekend's unpleasantness. "Fine. Just a sensitive nose."
Kelly eyed him for a moment longer, then strode through the room filled with the happy hour crowd to the bar in the middle. Jim followed, trying not to breathe too deeply of the noxious fumes that made Simon's cigar smoke seem tame in comparison.
"Are you Roy Fuller?" Kelly asked the tattooed man behind the bar as she raised her shield and ID.
He nodded warily. "I s'pose you're here about the woman who was killed the other night."
"Lucky guess," Kelly said, an eyebrow pitched upward.
Fuller held up his hands. "Look, the boss told me about it. Said there'd be someone in to talk to me tonight."
Jim plucked a picture of Susan Leonard from his jacket pocket. "Was she here Thursday night?"
Fuller took the photograph from Jim's hand and held it up to the light. "Yeah, I remember her. She was getting pretty tipsy. Told her I had to cut her off."
"What happened then?" Kelly pressed.
Fuller shrugged. "She disappeared into the crowd. Thursday night is Ladies Night so we got women all over the place and, of course, men lookin' to score." Fuller's gaze slipped down to McDaniel's chest, then back up to her face.
"Any man lookin' to score with her?" Jim asked, his voice hard and inflexible. He didn't like the bartender's attitude.
"Sure, lots, but none that seemed to be any different than the usual red-blooded horny man." Fuller laughed, his eyes again straying to the agent's chest, but this time he didn't even bother to hide his lusty interest.
Suddenly Kelly grabbed Fuller's shirtfront and jerked him forward, causing his elbows to slam on the bartop. "Look, we have a dead woman who was raped then murdered. If you think that's a barrel of laughs, I have a place I can send you that has a laugh a minute. Now cut the crap and tell us what you saw that night."
Fuller's face paled, telling Jim the man was a bully willing to intimidate only if his prey couldn't fight back. The FBI agent, however, wasn't anyone's fool and Jim grinned; she could be as tough as he was.
"You'd better listen to what the lady says, Fuller," Jim added his own two cents, though knowing Kelly had things pretty well under control.
"Well, there was this one guy," the bartender began with a hoarse voice. "He was kinda hittin' on all the women, but no one was takin' him seriously. I saw him walkin' towards that woman who was killed, but then I got busy and don't know what happened."
"Do you remember what this guy looked like?" Jim demanded.
Fuller shrugged. "Kinda like a janitor, you know, the kinda guy who's around but no one ever notices."
"Tall, short, fat, skinny, bald, what?" Jim continued pushing.
"About your size, but more in the gut. He had brown hair, normal cut, nothing weird about him."
McDaniel released the bartender who stumbled back slightly. "C'mon, we're going down to the station where you're going to sit down with a sketch artist and make a picture of this guy."
"I can't leave. It's too busy," Fuller argued.
"Then I suggest you call someone in to cover for you," Jim said mildly to cover his impatience with the slimeball.
Monday, 5:38 p.m., The Bullpen
The police artist was waiting for them when they arrived back at the station with Fuller in tow and quickly set to work. Jim and McDaniel moved off to the break room and Jim started a fresh batch of coffee.
As they waited for it to brew, Kelly crossed her arms and leaned against the counter. "The nectar of the gods," she commented, her nose in the air.
Jim laughed. "You and Simon and your coffee. Just give me something hot with caffeine and I'm ready to go."
The woman chuckled, but Jim could tell her thoughts were elsewhere and they remained silent as they watched through the open door as the sketch artist did his magic. Jim thought of a hundred things he could be doing at his desk, but he'd had a long day and his body wasn't back up to a hundred percent. He had already turned down his pain dial a couple times.
Fifteen minutes later, the artist glanced up and motioned for the two to join him. He handed them the sketch.
Jim held it out while Kelly looked over his arm at the drawing. Like Fuller said, non-descript -- no identifying marks on the face, no glasses, dark shaggy hair that hung across his forehead.
"Thanks, Mr. Fuller," Kelly said, then added sweetly, "We appreciate your willingness to help us in this matter."
Fuller sent her a glare and Jim had the overwhelming urge to teach him some manners.
"Let it go, Jim. He's not worth it," she said in a low voice.
Startled, he gazed at her, but she'd already turned away, her eyes averted from his. Jim noted that her heartbeat had increased and a pink flush which only he could probably see brushed her cheeks.
As Kelly called down to get a uniform to take Fuller back to the lounge, Jim hurried off to make copies of the sketch then distributed them to the watch commander and all the department heads. He returned to the bullpen forty-five minutes later to see the FBI agent staring at a picture of one of the victims.
"McDaniel," he said. She didn't appear to hear him. "Kelly," he reiterated, then grasped her arm and gave her a gentle shake.
She jerked away from him, her eyes wide. "Jimmy."
He drew back, startled by the nickname and her hammering heart. "Hey, settle down. It's all right."
Slowly, she became aware -- Jim could see the transformation first in her eyes, then her face finally relaxed. "I'm sorry. I was thinking."
Jim frowned. "You sure you're okay?"
She glanced away and began to shuffle papers on her desk. "Fine. Did you get the sketches and an APB out?"
"Yep." He held a copied sketch out to her and she took it with a trembling hand. His scowl deepened.
His phone rang, interrupting what he was going to say. He nabbed the receiver. "Yeah, Ellison."
"Hey, Jim. You need me to come down to the station?" Blair's voice asked.
He pinched the bridge of his nose. "No. I'm going to head out now."
"Good. I might have found out what our mystery drug is. Why don't you bring Kelly home with you and I'll have dinner ready? I can tell you both then."
Jim glanced at the agent who was looking away from him. "Sure, sounds good. I'll see if Simon wants to join us too. See ya in a bit." He hung up.
"That was Blair. He said he has an idea what the drug might be. Why don't we head over to the loft and have dinner?"
As she placed papers back in file folders, Jim knocked on Simon's door and stuck his head in. "Want to come over to the loft for supper? We can go over the case there."
Simon glanced out his window into the bullpen. "Is Kelly going?"
Smiling, Jim nodded. "Yeah."
It didn't surprise Jim when Simon stood and grabbed his jacket. "Sounds good."
With files tucked under her arm, Kelly joined Jim and Simon. She appeared surprised but pleased that Simon was coming with them. Jim plucked his coat off the back of his chair and followed them.
Twenty minutes later they arrived at 852 Prospect and climbed the stairs to the loft apartment.
"Something smells good," she commented as she waited for Jim to unlock the door.
Jim grinned. "Blair's going all out for you."
Simon scowled. "I hope he didn't make any of that stuff he puts under the sink for a couple weeks."
"I don't think I want to know," Kelly murmured.
"You're right, you don't," Simon said.
Jim opened the door and motioned for her and Simon to enter ahead of him.
"Hey, Simon, Kelly, welcome to our humble abode," Blair called out from beside the stove
Jim couldn't help but smile at his roommate. The younger man's hair, curly to start with, had frizzed slightly from the steam from the stove. He wore his glasses, giving him that professor look that Jim found oddly endearing, but wouldn't have been caught dead admitting.
Kelly smiled at the anthropologist. "Hi, Blair. It smells great."
She glanced around the loft apartment and Jim tried to imagine seeing it through her eyes. Ever since Blair had moved in with him, Jim had thought it had a homey, domestic feel to it. He traded a glance with his partner and the warmth of their exchange was comforting in a way that Jim didn't understand, nor did he feel the need to try to understand. It was merely another by-product of the link they shared.
Jim helped Kelly remove her jacket and hung it on a hook between his and Blair's, then took care of Simon's. "Want something to drink?" Jim asked. "Beer, soda, water."
"Water would be fine," Kelly replied. She set the files on the small table by the door where Jim had tossed his keys.
"That sounds good to me, too," Simon said.
Kelly followed Jim into the spacious kitchen and paused beside Blair, sniffing appreciatively of the stir fry in the pan. Her stomach growled on cue and she laughed as her cheeks reddened. "Sorry, no breakfast or lunch."
"That's not good for you," Blair said. "A person needs at least three meals a day, preferably five or six smaller meals. You're courting low blood sugar."
"Look who's talking," Jim interjected. "The master of missed meals."
"That coming from a man who thinks Wonderburger is a food group," Blair shot back, his eyes twinkling.
Jim chuckled and poured some bottled water into two glasses. He handed one to Kelly and the other to Simon.
"Thanks," she said with a smile. "You two sound like these two sisters I knew." Her gaze grew wistful. "Always arguing, but they loved each other underneath it all."
"I was an only child, and never had a brother until Jim," Blair explained. "What about you?"
She took a sip of water. "My family's all gone."
"I'm sorry," Simon interjected.
She shrugged and wandered further into the living room. Simon followed her as she ran a hand along the back of the couch, then touched the stereo lightly as she read the CD titles nearby. Simon said something to her and she replied, but Jim didn't tune up his hearing, allowing them privacy.
Blair leaned close to Jim, his shoulder brushing his arm. "How're you feeling? Still have that headache? How about your arm?"
Jim chuckled fondly. "Slow down, Chief. I'm not a hundred percent, but I'm doing all right. I ended up turning my pain dial down today."
"Not too far, though, right? Remember, pain is your body telling you you're hurt," Blair reminded.
Jim wrapped an arm around the smaller man's shoulders. "I know the drill, Sandburg. I'm being careful." He motioned toward Kelly. "What do you think of her?"
"You saw the cougar, too, didn't you?" Blair asked in a low voice.
Although surprised by Blair's blunt question, Jim followed his friend's line of thought perfectly and nodded. "I have an odd feeling about her, Chief. Why did she come to the hospital with Simon when she hardly knew me? Why are we both getting this image of a cougar?"
"And why does she seem so familiar? She can't be another sentinel, or you would react to her like you did with Alex Barnes. She asked me to ask the professor about a drug that might cause terror in a person, along with the other visible effects on the victims. Why would she ask that?"
Frustration brought creases to Jim's brow. "Too many questions and not enough answers. I'm wondering if she's really an FBI agent."
Blair's eyes widened. "What? You think she's pretending?" His heart rate skyrocketed. "Like Lash?"
Jim shook his head quickly and wished he'd kept his suspicions to himself. Lash's insanity had left an indelible stain of terror in Blair's memory. "Take it easy, Blair. No, not like Lash. In fact, I suspect the opposite."
Blair's heart slowed. "What do you mean, like a vigilante?"
Jim rubbed his brow, willing the drumming in his temples to ease up. "I don't know what I mean. Maybe that allergic reaction messed me up more than I thought."
"I knew it. You shouldn't have gone to work today." Blair took hold of Jim's arms and steered him toward one of the stools by the island. "Sit down. Relax until it's time to eat."
Jim chuckled as he settled on the stool. "Who's supposed to be the Blessed Protector of this team?"
"Right now I am." Blair crossed his arms and glanced across the room to gaze at Kelly. "I hope she's for real, Jim," he said softly, his expression troubled.
The detective sighed. "Me, too, Chief."
Across the room, Kelly studied a framed picture sitting on the bookshelf. Simon was telling her about the fishing trip -- Blair's first attempt at flyfishing and how he'd caught a beautiful trout within a couple minutes. Simon had taken the picture of Jim and Blair wearing hip boots and waders respectively and holding the trout between them.
"It was beginner's luck," Blair called out. He'd obviously heard the exchange also.
"My excellent teaching skills," Jim retorted.
"They're both full of it," Simon said in a loud aside to Kelly.
She smiled and seemed to relax.
Blair wouldn't allow Jim to help, so while the student set the table and poured the wine, Jim tuned in to Agent McDaniel's breathing and heart rate. The way her heart thundered, he was surprised her face appeared so calm. What was going on with her?
Suddenly, she went to the balcony door and opened it, stepping into the darkness of the evening. Simon followed and Jim tuned his hearing in to their conversation.
"Beautiful out here, isn't it?" Simon commented.
Hesitation, then Simon's solicitous voice. "Is something wrong?"
She took a deep breath. "No, I'm fine. Really."
"Dinner's ready," Blair called out.
Jim cringed, his hearing tuned up.
Blair was immediately at his side, a hand on Jim's back. "You were eavesdropping, weren't you?" There was no condemnation, only concern.
Jim's reply was lost as Simon guided Kelly toward the table.
His ears still ringing, Jim managed to smile. "Let's go sit down."
Kelly glanced at him, a question in her eyes as if she knew.
After everyone was seated, she commented, "It smells wonderful."
"I hope it tastes as good as it smells," Blair said.
She took a forkful and chewed slowly. When she was done, she shook her head. "It doesn't," she said and paused dramatically, "It tastes even better."
Blair smiled in relief.
After a few moments, Jim asked Kelly, "Have you been to the gym lately?"
"Not since Friday." She sighed. "And I know I should go to relieve some of the stress." A wry smile tilted her lips upward. "Catch 22. I don't exercise because I don't have the time, which leads to more stress."
"I know what you mean." Simon set his wine glass on the table. "I'm going in the morning. Want to meet me there?"
She grinned. "Do you box?"
"Box?" Simon asked, confusion evident in his expression.
"Walt at the gym says she's pretty good," Jim said with a slight smile.
"Walt would know." Simon said. "How'd you get into boxing?"
She shrugged. "Boxing seemed to be the thing to do on the wrong side of the tracks. Ended up helping me when I joined the Army."
"You were in the Army?" Blair's fork stopped halfway to his mouth.
"For six years."
"Where were you stationed?" Jim asked.
"Here and there. They kept me moving quite a bit," she replied vaguely.
Jim's cobalt eyes narrowed and Blair wondered at the odd coincidence. "Same here. I got out about eight years ago myself."
Jim nodded after a moment of surprised hesitation. "That's right."
"You have that look about you," Kelly said. "Always on guard, watching, every sense alert." Before Jim could reply, she turned to Simon. "Six a.m. okay?"
The captain nodded. "I'll be there."
After everyone finished eating, Blair stood and gathered the dishes. Kelly pushed herself up and carried her own plate and silverware to the sink, where Blair ran some water over them to soak.
Jim and Simon moved into the living room and Blair and Kelly followed. She picked up her files on the way to a large comfortable chair. Simon took the loveseat, Jim slouched on the sofa and Blair perched on the sofa's armrest beside him.
"Well, Chief, what'd you find out?" Jim began.
"Belladonna," Blair stated.
"Nightshade?" Kelly asked with a frown.
Blair nodded excitedly and his hands began to speak along with his mouth. "Atropa belladona. Its name comes from the Greek word 'Atropos', which was the name of one of the three mythical fates responsible for cutting short human life. Atropos was considered the fiercest of the fates because her sole purpose was to cut the threads of life with the shears she always carried with her."
"I don't know about you, but that gives me a warm fuzzy," Simon murmured with cutting sarcasm.
"Does it even grow around here?" Kelly asked.
"Though it's native to Asia and Europe, it's found pretty much all over the United States now." Blair paused dramatically. "It's been used as a hallucinogen extensively through the centuries. It's one of the hexing herbs of old."
"Hexes, like witches' hexes?" Jim demanded.
"How was it used by them?" she asked.
"It was an important ingredient in witches brew during the Middle Ages, often being equated with aggressive female sexuality. When under this potion, it was said the witches would engage in orgies with demons."
Jim's stomach clenched tightly with apprehension. He was liking this less and less.
"A flying ointment was also made from belladonna." Blair paused, his face reddening. "The witches supposedly rubbed it on their bodies, making the pores open and the skin would get hot. A topical aphrodisiac."
Kelly's face paled. "That would explain the faint rash and the lack of bruising around the thigh area."
Blair became more subdued. "Low doses can produce very vivid erotic hallucinations, while a larger dose could lead to traumatic and horrible psychotic episodes." He glanced at Jim and a visible shudder passed through him. "Like Golden," he said softly.
Jim reached up and gave Blair's arm a reassuring squeeze. Though Jim had been blinded and hadn't actually seen Blair standing atop a police cruiser waving a gun, he'd had enough nightmares about it.
"Golden?" Kelly asked quietly.
"A designer drug. Blinded Jim and nearly killed Blair," Simon explained, his own complexion a little gray.
Blair smiled weakly. "I was so out of it. If Jim hadn't been there, they would've had to shoot me to get me to stop."
Kelly looked from one man to the other and Jim had the strangest feelings she shared in the horrible memory. "If this bastard is using nightshade, it would explain a lot. What about these hallucinations -- besides the erotic ones, what about the terror?"
Blair nodded bleakly. "Definitely. When used in different doses, it can produce horrifying hallucinations."
"Why didn't tox pick it up?" Simon demanded.
"Probably because they weren't looking for it," Kelly said quietly. "I'll see if an additional test can be run on these last two victims."
Simon nodded. "Good. I want to find out for sure. Then I want to find out where this guy can get this nightshade. Would he be able to buy it from a pharmaceuticals company?"
"I'll check the internet," Blair volunteered.
The next two hours were spent rehashing the case, going over leads and dead-ends, discussing the killer's profile and putting together a sketchy plan of action.
Jim yawned widely. His body was still recuperating from his near-death experience. Blair's look of concern told Jim his guide felt his exhaustion through their bond.
"Why don't we continue this in the morning?" Blair suggested. "We're all tired and maybe after a good night's sleep, we'll think of something we missed."
"Good idea," Kelly agreed.
"I'll give you a ride back to the hotel," Simon volunteered.
After Simon and Kelly had left, Blair shooed Jim off to bed.
"I should help with the dishes. You did all the cooking," Jim argued half-heartedly.
"I'll let you do both next time." Blair's expression softened. "Go on, buddy."
Jim cast him a fond smile. "Thanks, Chief."
After making a stop in the bathroom, Jim headed upstairs and stripped to his boxers. He crawled into bed and listened to the quiet sounds of Blair cleaning up the kitchen. Twenty minutes later, the loft was silent and Jim concentrated on Blair's steady breathing and slowing heartbeat from the bedroom below. When he was assured his friend was asleep, he turned over and followed him into slumber.
Tuesday, 7:05 a.m., The Loft
Blair glanced up to see Jim buttoning his shirt as he descended the stairs. He reached for a cup and poured some fresh coffee into it.
"Morning," Blair said, handing Jim the steaming cup. "How's the head feeling?"
"Better, thanks." Jim took a sip of coffee, then leaned over the stove. "What's with the little Miss Suzy Homemaker routine this morning?"
Blair turned the pancakes over on the griddle as he laughed. "Just for that I'll burn your share."
"Now there's the Sandburg I know and love."
"I just thought you'd like pancakes for a change and since I was awake early... Just don't get used to it."
Jim chuckled and sat down. Blair joined him a few moments later bearing a plate piled high with buttermilk pancakes. They ate in companionable silence, interspersing mouthfuls of pancakes with sips of coffee and juice.
"I've been thinking..." Blair began.
Blair contemplated throwing the remaining pancakes at him. "Seriously, Jim, I've been thinking about Kelly McDaniel. I think she's an empath."
A year ago Jim would've dismissed the theory outright, but that was before he and Blair had discovered their own empathic link. "You mean like that lady on Star Trek who took away McCoy's pain by transferring it to herself?"
Blair grinned. "Something like that, but not quite as dramatic. Remember when you touched her in Simon's office yesterday?"
"Yeah. Maybe she was just embarrassed because she bumped into me."
"Simon said she was in ICU with me right before you came out of your coma."
"So what does that prove?"
Blair paused dramatically. "What if the cougar is her animal spirit and she was with the black jaguar and wolf in our vision?"
"Whoa, that's stretching it, Chief."
The student leaned forward, his face animated. "No, it makes sense. She's an empath. She knows she can help you come out of the coma. She follows me into your room and somehow manages to link up to our bond to help bring you back."
Jim wrapped both hands around his coffee cup, unconsciously clinging to something solid and understandable. "Even if I think you're right, how does she know about us? Did she show up in Cascade to find us? Or to find a serial killer? And why would she help me? We just met."
"You said yourself that she seems familiar to you," Blair said. "What if she's related somehow?"
Jim rubbed his forehead. "Slow down, Darwin. Don't you think she would've said something?"
Blair remained silent for a moment and Jim could almost see the gears moving. "Yeah, maybe, and I could be way off-the-wall here, man."
Exasperated fondness filled Jim. "Don't discount it completely, Chief. You do have a knack at coming up with the right off-the-wall theories."
Blair sent his friend a grateful smile. "Maybe, but it's a good thing I have you to rein me back in now and again."
"Goes both ways, Sandburg." Jim finished his coffee and stood. He gathered his and Blair's empty plates. "Let's get a move on."
Tuesday, 8:38 a.m., The Bullpen
Blair leaned back and his gaze flickered from his computer screen to his partner who worked at his own desk. Since Kelly hadn't arrived yet, Blair had commandeered Megan's desk. With Jim busy nailing down some loose ends from a fraud case going to trial the next day, Blair had gone surfing for information on nightshade.
Only feeling slightly guilty, he'd opened another window and checked into Kelly McDaniel's status as an FBI agent. Once he managed to hack into the general personnel files he'd found her information with little difficulty. Her home address was listed as Arlington and she'd been with the Bureau for four years. Previous to that, she'd spent six years in the Army, just as she'd told them the night before. However, her military job classification was vague and Blair had a feeling it was deliberately so. She'd been honorably discharged as a Captain. Her parents were listed as deceased. A few commendations and awards were listed. Nothing suspicious. All nice and neat.
Gnawing on his thumbnail, Blair shifted his attention to finding information on Jim's mother. The divorce decree was a matter of public record which puzzled Blair. Hadn't Jim said she died in a car accident a few days after she'd left her sons and husband? Or had he meant a few days after the legal divorce? And even if he did, Blair hadn't found Grace Ellison's death certificate. If she'd died in Washington, there'd be a paper trail.
His stomach churned as he debated telling Jim what he'd found. What would his reaction be if he learned Blair had been checking out his family? He wouldn't be happy. As close as they were, Jim kept his past bottled up. The few times he'd talked about it was when a case had directly involved his father and brother.
"You all right, Chief?"
Jim's quiet question startled Blair and he glanced up to see his friend standing beside Megan's desk. Blair looked at his computer screen, but the image was that of the nightshade plant. Thank heavens he'd minimized the search screen for Grace Ellison.
"Ah, yeah, I'm fine. Why?" Blair asked, his fingers closing around the mouse to give his hand something to do.
The crease between Jim's eyes became more prominent. "Did you find something? Your heart's racing."
"I was just reading about nightshade, you know, the symptoms and how it's been used in history." Blair forced himself to breathe in and out in slow, easy rhythm. He hated to go behind Jim's back, but he knew his partner wouldn't appreciate his meddling.
Jim tipped his head to the side in a familiar pose and Blair glanced at him questioningly.
"Simon and Kelly are coming up in the elevator," Jim said.
A few moments later, the elevator doors slid open and Simon and Kelly stepped out, laughing over a shared joke.
"One of us should remind him about Diane," Blair said quietly.
"They broke up last week," Jim said in a clipped voice.
"What?" Blair watched Simon and Kelly enter the Major Crimes glass doors. "You think this is a rebound thing?"
"Maybe. I just hope Simon doesn't get hurt."
"Especially if Kelly isn't who she says she is," Blair said softly.
"Good morning," Simon greeted Jim and Blair with a big grin.
Jim leaned closer to the tall man, studying his face. "Is your eye swollen?"
"He zigged when he should've zagged," Kelly said, her cheeks reddening.
Jim and Blair laughed at Simon's abashed expression.
"Walt was right. She's pretty good," Simon said to Jim.
"You were taking it easy on me because I was a woman," Kelly argued.
Simon straightened in mock outrage. "When the bet is breakfast, I don't throw a fight. You won, fair and square."
Blair and Jim exchanged understanding, but concerned looks. Simon was definitely getting personally involved with their mysterious visitor.
Kelly glanced at Blair's computer screen. "Were you checking on the availability of nightshade?"
Glad to have something else to think about, Blair nodded. "Unless our killer is harvesting it himself, there's not many places he can get it. Pharmaceutical companies which produce atropine need it. People who work in botanical stores would probably know how to get it."
Jim nodded. "That's good, Chief. We need to get lists of all the botanical and pharmaceutical companies here in Cascade, Denver and Minneapolis. Then we need to get a hold of all of them and have them fax or email their personnel listings. We'll have to go through them and see if we can come up with a name."
Even with the three of them and Simon when he had the time to help out, tracking down the lists, they didn't get the last one until six that evening. Then they settled down for a long evening of old fashioned paper work.
By midnight, they'd only made it through half the names and Blair's eyes were burning. When he glanced at Jim, he noticed his eyes were bloodshot. He consciously sought the link between them and through it Jim's aches and fatigue were transmitted to Blair. Alarmed by the extent of his friend's exhaustion, Blair leaned over and touched his arm gently to ground him. However, before he could say anything, Kelly spoke up.
"If we keep going, we're going to miss something. I suggest we quit for the night then start up bright and early tomorrow." She glanced at the clock on the wall, which read 12:10. "Today."
Simon removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. "You won't get any argument from me."
Blair glanced at Kelly, and found her anxious expression on Jim, as if she too knew the detective was still recovering. He turned his attention back to his friend who had pushed himself upright, but appeared ready for a major zone-out.
"I'll drive," Blair stated without room for argument.
Jim glared at him for only a moment, then nodded shortly. His hassle-free acquiescence told Blair the extent of Jim's weakness. A few minutes later, Blair, Jim, Simon, and Kelly rode the elevator down to the parking garage. Blair kept close to his partner, subtly grounding him with a light touch on his arm.
Beneath the stark silence that surrounded them, they could hear the clock as it ticked down the minutes until the killer struck again.
Wednesday, 7:45 p.m., Captain Banks' office
Kelly paced in front of Simon's desk, her arms crossed and her lips pressed together. "Damn it, there's going to be another murder tomorrow night and we're nowhere nearer to finding the murdering bastard than we were last week."
Simon glanced up, catching Jim and Blair's twin looks of grim helplessness as they perched on the edge of the conference table. They'd gotten through the personnel lists and had made numerous phone calls, but all of it had been for naught. Not a single solid lead had been discovered.
Simon took a deep breath. "Settle down, Kelly. We know how he's killing them now. That's a big step."
She halted abruptly in front of him and flattened her palms on his desktop. "And it hasn't done us a damn bit of good." She slapped the three inch stack of computer printouts. "We've been through every list and not one name appears on any of them twice. He's probably using a different name in each city, and we only have one day before he claims his next victim."
Suddenly, she closed her eyes and an expression of pain twisted her face into a grimace. Her eyes opened and in their depths, Simon saw raw agony. "Excuse me." She fairly flew out of the office.
Simon rose to follow, but Jim stopped him. The detective tipped his head slightly, telling Simon he was concentrating on listening. "She went into the women's room."
"Maybe someone should be with her," Blair said quietly.
Jim shook his head. "She wants to be alone."
"How do you know?" Simon demanded.
He noticed the look exchanged between Jim and Blair, but couldn't decipher it. Sometimes he hated their closeness. No, not hated, envied. "What is it?" he asked impatiently.
Jim sighed. "Blair has a theory that she's an empath."
A chill swept through Simon. "Like a faith healer?"
Blair's wide-eyed gaze darted to Simon. "Why do you say that?"
Simon fidgeted with his cigar. "I told you how I saw her in Jim's room Saturday."
"What we can't figure out is why she came to the hospital in the first place," Jim said.
"I wanted her to go," Simon said reflexively. He blinked. "But I couldn't figure out later why I wanted her along."
"Have you noticed how naturally she's blended into the unit?" Jim pressed.
Simon thought for a moment. "Actually, now that you mention it, she has."
"What do you know about her?"
"Not much more than you. We spent some time together at the gym yesterday, then had breakfast." Simon thought for a moment as he studied the end of his unlit cigar. "She doesn't talk much about herself. Come to think of it, she always steered the conversation to me."
Blair shifted uncomfortably. "I checked her FBI file. Everything seemed legit."
Anger roared through Simon's veins. "You checked up on her?" he demanded.
The student didn't shrink from his fury. "There's something about her, Captain. Something that just doesn't add up."
Jim took a step toward Simon, holding his hands up. "Calm down, Simon. You can't tell me you haven't had some suspicions yourself."
Simon stared into his best detective's steady blue eyes and his anger leached away. "You're right. When she came with me to Wenatchee, I knew something was up. I--" He cleared his throat. "I just didn't want to think about it."
"Because you like her," Jim finished softly.
Simon sank back into his chair. "Yeah, I like her, Jim. Is that a crime?"
Jim shook his head. "No, but I don't want you to get hurt, Simon."
The police captain forced a smile. "I'm a big boy. I think I can handle it."
"She's coming back," Jim announced.
A few moments later, Kelly came through the Major Crimes doors and rapped on Simon's door, then entered.
"Sorry," she said with a trace of embarrassment. "It won't happen again."
Simon held up a hand. "Don't apologize. You're only human, Kelly, and you've been on this case longer than the rest of us."
"So, what's our next step?" she asked.
"Dinner," Simon replied without hesitation. "I know this great Thai place."
She smiled. "Sounds good." She glanced at Jim and Blair questioningly. "What about you two?"
"They have bowling tonight," Simon stated.
Blair's mouth dropped open, but Jim grabbed his partner's arm and propelled him toward the door. "Yes, sir. Come on, Chief, we should go change our shirts and get our balls."
Blair made some remark about somebody's balls, but Simon couldn't make it out.
Kelly's eyes danced with laughter. "Why do I get the feeling they wouldn't know a bowling lane from a passing lane?"
"Beats me," Simon said innocently. He donned his suit jacket and guided Kelly out of his office.
Two hours later, they sipped wine in a dimly lit restaurant, their empty plates already taken away by the waiter. Kelly was thoughtful and Simon merely enjoyed watching her. If someone had told him a week ago he'd be wining and dining an FBI agent, he would've laughed. Jim's cautionary words floated through his mind, but it was easy to ignore them when Kelly was sitting across a small table in a cozy restaurant.
"A penny for your thoughts," he said softly.
She smiled wryly. "You'd be wasting your money."
"I don't think so."
She dropped her gaze to the wine goblet and stared into its burgundy depths. "Do you have any brothers or sisters, Simon?"
Startled by the out-of-the-blue question, Simon nodded. "Two of each, though I don't see them very often. It seems we're always too busy with our own lives."
Kelly gazed at him intently. "Make time for them. And for your son. Life doesn't give a person many second chances."
Simon's gut twisted at her sad, but intense words. "You sound like you speak from experience."
She smiled, the expression lighting her face, but not her eyes, which were shrouded in melancholy. "Experience is a tough taskmaster."
Silence surrounded them and though it wasn't awkward, Simon felt a need to escape the public restaurant. "Are you ready to go?"
Kelly set her empty wineglass on the table and nodded. Simon stood, then assisted her up, her hand wrapping around his palm. The heat of her touch spread outward and lower to his belly. Simon knew he should pull away from her, but couldn't. After paying the bill, Simon retrieved their coats and held Kelly's for her as she slipped her arms into the sleeves.
Darkness and quiet filled the car as he drove her to the Lexington and pulled in the circular drive by the front door. Every nerve in his body screamed to walk her to her room and hope for an extended visit, but the gentleman in Simon Banks overcame the temptation.
"Thanks for dinner, Simon." She turned to face him. "And for not asking for more than I can give."
She slipped out of the car and Simon watched as the doorman opened the door for her. Then she was gone, like a curl of mist in the fog. With a heavy sigh, Simon drove away.
Thursday, 12:34 p.m., Captain Banks' office
"I've got the watch commander to increase patrol around the areas tonight where we think the killer will strike next," Simon said. "We'll have four teams on stake-out too."
Jim squeezed the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "It's going to be like finding a needle in a haystack."
"It's better than we had last week," Simon retorted sharply, then rubbed his brow. "Sorry, Jim. It's just that this case is getting to me, too."
Jim glanced through the open blinds at Kelly and Blair, who were going through the stack of files... again. He noticed Blair didn't spend much time studying the victims' pictures. Suddenly, Blair stopped and stared into the distance. If Jim didn't know better, he'd think his friend has just zoned. Instead, Jim recognized it for what it was -- one of Blair's incredible leaps of logic, or in cop terms, coming up with a hunch.
He opened his hearing as Blair turned to Kelly, his hands moving in accordance with his mouth.
"What about those people who left their jobs right before the next group of murders occurred?" Blair began. "The killer would have had to quit a job in Minneapolis to go to Denver and the same thing for when he left Denver and came here. Maybe the names won't match, but the dates of employment might."
Kelly's mouth dropped open in astonishment as she scrambled around her desk, shoving files aside. "Why didn't we think of that before?"
Jim grinned. His partner had a knack at picking up on the obvious, or at least what appeared obvious after it was pointed out.
"What?" Simon demanded.
"Sandburg may have stumbled upon the answer."
A moment later, Blair and Kelly burst into the office. Though Jim was certain Blair knew he'd eavesdropped, he didn't let it show in his enthusiastic explanation. After he'd described his theory, Simon motioned to the conference table.
"What're you waiting for? Get to work," Simon ordered.
"Yes, sir," Kelly said with a jaunty salute.
An hour later, Blair's stomach growled, breaking the silent concentration in Simon's office. The younger man blushed. "Sorry."
"I'll run over to the deli and get us some sandwiches," Jim volunteered.
Nobody argued and Jim welcomed the break. His head had begun to ache again. Whatever reaction he'd had Friday night hadn't completely dissipated.
"Want some company?" Blair asked, his blue eyes telling Jim he'd sensed his growing headache. "I could use a break, too."
Simon seemed to understand and nodded without hesitation. "Good idea."
Kelly looked from Jim to Blair to Simon and back to Jim. Though her expression told little, her green eyes were piercing, like she was aware of the unspoken words between the three men. Her pupils dilated and Jim could see iridescent colors against the black retinal screen. Shifting colors, from silvery green to greenish blue to cobalt blue...
"Let's go, Jim," Blair said, holding the office door open.
Jim jerked slightly. God, he'd had a mini-zone. Troubled, Jim hurried out of the office, pausing at the coat rack by his desk and grabbing his and Blair's jackets. He tossed his partner's his and they walked out of Major Crimes.
"What happened?" Blair asked in a low voice as they waited for the elevator to arrive.
Jim scrubbed his face with his palms. "I don't know. One minute I was looking at Kelly, then you were talking."
Blair laid a hand against Jim's back. "Think, man, what were you looking at?"
"Her eyes, Chief. They were changing colors."
"Oh, wow, you sure?"
"Maybe it was only my imagination. Maybe my senses are still pinging from that insect bite. Shit, I don't know, Sandburg."
Blair rubbed Jim's back in relaxing circular motions. "Take it easy, buddy. Maybe your senses are trying to tell you something."
The elevator arrived and the two men stepped aboard. Jim hit the first floor button and the door closed.
"That I'm going crazy?" Jim asked with a weak smile.
Blair didn't take the bait; instead he spoke somberly, "No, who Kelly McDaniel really is."
The elevator came to a stop and opened to the busy brightly lit chaotic lobby. They shouldered their way through the milling crowd and out onto the sidewalk. The sky was littered with dark clouds, but for the moment, the sun shone brightly and Jim squinted. He focused on turning down his sight dial and the brilliance became more tolerable.
"She saved your life," Blair said softly. "Why?"
Jim had no answer for his friend. He pushed open the door to the deli and allowed Blair to precede him in. Pleasant scents of meat and onions and condiments deluged him.
They ordered four sandwiches along with cans of soda and bags of chips. Two hours later, the wrappings from the deli were still strewn across the conference table along with the lists.
"I've got eighteen names in Minneapolis," Jim said.
"Sixteen in Denver," Kelly spoke up, her reading glasses perched on her nose.
"Twelve in Cascade," Blair added. "People who've started in the last four months."
Kelly stood, grabbing her pile of print-outs. "Let's make some phone calls, gentlemen."
Thursday, 5:15 p.m., The Bullpen
Blair laid the phone receiver back in its cradle and crossed off the last name on his list. All twelve people had an alibi for either one or both nights the women had been killed. He raked his fingers through his hair and glanced at Jim and Kelly. They were both still following up on their own list of suspects. Blair shook his head. They couldn't even be considered suspects at this point since his hunch was one helluva long shot.
There had to be something he was missing.
His cellphone rang and he grabbed it from his open backpack. "Hello."
"Mr. Sandburg, it's Mike Oldfield, from your Anthro 101 class. I finished my paper."
"Great. How's your mother doing?"
"All right," Mike replied, some of the brightness leaving his voice. "It's been tough, though. I really appreciated your giving me the extra time to finish this so I could go to my stepdad's funeral."
"No problem. Your mom needed you. Why don't you slip the paper under my door and I'll pick it up later. That way I can get it done and you'll get full credit for the class."
"That'd be fine. Thanks a lot, Mr. Sandburg."
"You're welcome. Bye."
"Bye," came Mike's echo and the connection closed between them.
Blair glanced over at Jim, wondering if he'd let him borrow the truck to run over to the college. Then his gaze caught Kelly's.
"Any luck, Blair?" she asked.
He shook his head. "How about you?"
"None." She glanced at her watch. "And time is running out." Her body was tense, her face pale.
"Need a break?"
She blinked. "Why?"
"I have to run over to the college and pick up a paper from one of my students and I need a ride," Blair said impetuously.
Kelly took a deep breath. "Yeah, it's probably a good idea to get out of here for a few minutes. It's going to be a long night."
After catching Jim between phone calls to tell him where they were going, Kelly and Blair headed down to the parking garage. Once in her Jeep, Blair gave her the directions and she turned out onto the street.
"How long have you been on this case?" Blair asked.
"Five months." She sighed and brushed a wisp of hair away from her face. "Sometimes it seems like forever."
Sympathy filled Blair at the exhaustion in her tone. "Have you been working alone all this time?"
"Pretty much." She braked at a red light and sidled him a glance accompanied by a crooked smile. "I prefer it that way."
"Jim used to work alone, too, until I came along." He laughed lightly. "Now he's stuck with me."
"To do your dissertation on closed societies?" She arched an eyebrow.
The look in her eyes told Blair... "You know, don't you?"
"That Jim's a sentinel and you're his guide?" Kelly eased the Jeep through the green light. "Yeah, I figured it out."
"I read the paper you did on sentinels five years ago."
Puzzled, Blair shook his head. "That was in an obscure anthropology journal."
"I read obscure literature," she said with a smile.
Blair's mouth dropped open. "You're not an FBI agent, are you?"
"I have an ID and a badge to go with it." She made a right turn. "Where to from here?"
Blair gave her directions to Hargrove Hall and she found a parking spot right across the street. There was no sense of anxiety in her expression or motions. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe she was a bona fide FBI agent.
"Mind if I come in with you?" Kelly asked.
He grinned. "Not at all."
Blair opened the building's door and allowed her in ahead of him. She waited a moment for him to take the lead again once they were inside. He led her to his office, an old artifacts closet he'd taken residence in four years ago. Now it overflowed with his treasures -- books and his own relics from various cultures in the world. He opened the door, then bent over to pick up the paper Mike had slipped under it and continued to his desk. Kelly entered behind him and lightly dragged her hands across the books, the masks and the pottery.
He watched her out of the corner of his eye. Kelly McDaniel appeared to be a very tactile person, but if she was an empath like he believed, it made sense.
"Anthropology has always fascinated me," Kelly said. "The study of cultures, the differences, the similarities. I envy you, Blair."
He leaned against his desk. "There's no reason you can't take some classes if you're interested."
She shook her head. "I'm never in one place long enough."
"But you don't have to travel all the time."
"I travel a lot."
The wistfulness in her voice tugged at Blair's compassionate nature. "Then quit. Do something else. Be a cop like Jim. That way you can live in one place."
Her shoulders straightened. "No, that's not my way, Blair." She tilted her head slightly. "Do you think that professor you spoke to about the nightshade would still be here?"
"Probably. He usually works in his office until seven or so."
"Could I meet him?"
Though her tone was innocent enough, Blair had a strong suspicion she had an ulterior motive. "Sure."
With the student's paper in hand, Blair ushered Kelly out of his office and locked the door behind them. He guided her out of Hargrove Hall and past the fountain. His stomach lurched and his heart slid into his throat. Even after four months, he couldn't walk past the location of his death without a near-panic attack.
Kelly's hand rested on his arm. "It's all right, Blair," she intoned softly. "It can't hurt you anymore."
Blair stumbled to a stop and stared at her. If he'd had any doubts she was an empath, they were gone now. "You were with Jim and I, weren't you?"
She drew away from him, her features closing. "What do you mean?"
"Last weekend at the hospital. You were with us in the vision."
"What? You want me to pretend it didn't happen? Pretend that you didn't save Jim's life?" Blair's hands moved wildly as his tone grew more frenetic. "Damn it, Kelly, you have a gift. Don't deny it."
Kelly closed her eyes tightly and covered her face with her palms. Slowly, she lowered them and met Blair's gaze. "It's both a gift and a curse. I'm sure Jim would understand."
Blair remembered the first day he'd met Jim. He recalled Jim's desperation and fear that wanted to deny his senses, turn them off so he wouldn't have to deal with them. He hadn't wanted to be different... a freak. Did Kelly feel the same way?
He reached out to her, clasping her hands. He composed himself as he breathed in and out slowly, hoping that his calmness would in turn ease her. For a moment, she stood stiff and uncertain, then relaxed slowly.
"Thank you," she said softly. "Not many people can do that."
Blair smiled. "I've had a lot of practice."
Blair didn't bother to deny it. Instead, he released her hands, but lightly ushered her across campus with his palm resting on her back. He was Jim's guide, but the instinct for guiding was ingrained within him, just as Jim's sentinel abilities were ingrained within him. Had they been genetically programmed to come together as sentinel and guide? Or was Blair a guide no matter who was the sentinel?
He thought of Alex Barnes and his blood chilled. He had been able to guide her, but she wasn't his sentinel. The sense of wrongness had always been there, but Blair had shoved it aside, along with his protective instincts for Jim, his true sentinel. If he hadn't been spending so much time with Alex, he would have been there when Jim needed him most. No, he couldn't lay the entire blame on Jim for throwing him out of the loft. Blair had let him down, had ignored the signs in his enthusiasm in working with another sentinel. The fact that Blair considered Jim his best friend only added to Blair's guilt.
"Let it go," Kelly said quietly.
Startled, Blair realized she'd read his thoughts and had recognized the intense guilt he kept so deeply hidden. Her empathy was beyond anything Blair had ever experienced and he wondered if she'd be averse as Jim in performing some tests.
They arrived at the science building and Blair led her to Dr. Summers' office. Blair wasn't surprised to see the older man still immersed in his books and notes that were strewn across his desk like a strong norther had whipped through the room.
"Dr. Summers," Blair called out as he entered the office.
The professor lifted his head sharply, startled. "Good gracious, Blair, two visits in less than a week. Are you certain you're not in one of my classes?"
Blair laughed. "No, this is a social call more or less. I'd like you to meet Special Agent Kelly McDaniel with the FBI. Kelly, this is Dr. Summers."
She extended her hand and the older man shook it. Blair watched Kelly's expression closely, hoping to catch a hint of what she detected in the professor. But her smile didn't waver. "Nice to meet you, Doctor. I just wanted to come by and thank you personally for your help."
He waved a blue-veined hand. "Always glad to help, especially when it's Blair. He's always been one of my favorite students. Tried to get him to switch to chemistry, but he had his mind set on anthropology."
"I just couldn't get excited about little symbols all over paper," Blair said with a shrug, his eyes twinkling. "Well, we'd better get back. I'm sure Jim and Simon are getting impatient."
"Bye," Kelly called to the gray-headed professor.
Blair waved and they headed back down the hallway.
"Well?" Blair asked in a low voice.
Kelly smiled. "A crackerjack mind lies under all that frumpiness, but all that was on it was chemistry." She glanced around. "Is there a women's restroom around here?"
Blair pointed around a corner. "Turn there and it's the second door on your right. I'll wait by the door."
He continued down the hall, then stopped by the exit doors. He leaned a shoulder against the wall and closed his eyes. Tiredness washed through him. Their weekend of rest and recreation had turned out to be filled with neither and Blair was feeling the effects of too many short nights.
Suddenly, his eyes flashed open. His lungs grew tight and his heart pounded against his ribs. He searched the hall around him, but couldn't see anybody. There was no sound except for a faint voice from near Dr. Summers' office. Adrenaline coursed through Blair's veins and the fight or flight reaction kicked in. He took short shallow breaths as he sought the trigger which had set off his internal alarms. Was it Jim? He stretched out toward his sentinel, but there was only the subtle rhythm of awareness between them.
Blair raced down the hall and skidded around the corner, coming to an abrupt halt at the shocking sight that met his eyes.
Thursday, 6:03 p.m., The Bullpen
Jim rocketed to his feet even before he realized what he was doing. His mouth grew cottony as his heart thundered in his chest. His hearing spiked -- a dropped pen, a chair's squeak, footsteps, a keyboard clicking -- all exploded in his mind like a battlefield. He pressed his palms against his ears, but couldn't stop the vertigo that gripped him. He sank back onto his chair, closing his eyes tightly against the white light that stabbed his brain and brought back his headache with a vengeance.
"Jim. Can you hear me?"
A voice, low and urgent, tugged at him. He concentrated on the sound and dialed his hearing down, then did the same with his sight. Finally, he opened his eyes and found Simon's blurry face inches from his own.
"Jim, are you all right?" Simon demanded.
"Fine, sir," he managed to reply. Sharp pain pierced his temple. "Just a headache." Unease spread through him and the sense of danger grew stronger once more. Jim jumped to his feet, nearly bowling Simon over as he reached for his coat. "I have to go."
Simon grabbed Jim's arm. "Where?"
"Sandburg. Something's wrong."
Simon hesitated for only a moment. "I'm going with you."
Ten minutes later, siren going and lights flashing, Jim careened the truck around a corner. Simon braced his hand against the dashboard.
Simon broke the tense silence. "I don't want to ask this, but how do you know?"
"I just do," Jim replied curtly.
"It's a sentinel and guide thing, isn't it?"
"I suppose. Sandburg and I have this, uh, connection. We haven't talked about it, but we both feel it." Jim tried to hide his own discomfort behind a nonchalant shrug. "All I can tell you is I have this gut feeling that Sandburg's in trouble."
"And he and Kelly are at Rainier?"
"Yes, sir." Jim pressed his lips together, accelerating even more. He clutched the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles turned white. The numbing fear had eased slightly, but Jim couldn't relax as his stomach twisted in a knot.
Finally, they arrived at Hargrove Hall and Jim parked haphazardly. As he jumped out of the truck his gaze flew to the fountain, but this time there was no familiar body lying facedown in the water. Still, the knot in Jim's gut tightened. He'd come so close to losing Blair...
Instinct made Jim stop and look around. No, his friend wasn't in Hargrove Hall. He was in a different building.
"This way, Simon," Jim hollered. He took off at lope, Simon joining up with him. Jim allowed instinct to guide him and they entered the science building. He ran unerringly down the hall and turned a corner. His eyes met Blair's and relief flooded through him, making him lightheaded. Then he noticed Kelly, who lay curled up on the floor.
Jim hurried over and squatted down beside Blair, resting his hand on his friend's shoulder, to assure himself he was real. "Are you all right, Chief?"
Blair nodded. "How'd you know?"
"I felt your fear."
"It wasn't mine. It was Kelly's."
"What the hell happened, Sandburg?" Simon demanded.
"She said she had to use the restroom, so I went to wait for her by the door. Next thing I know, I can't breathe and my heart's doing triple time." Blair dragged a shaky hand across his curly hair. "I found her like this, except she was moaning, kinda like an animal in pain. Her skin was so cold. I talked to her, like I do Jim when he zones and she finally relaxed a little. But she still hasn't regained consciousness." Blair met Simon's dark, anguished eyes. "She's an empath, Simon, and she's connected to Jim and I somehow. That's how she was able to help him at the hospital."
For a moment, Jim thought Simon would blow a gasket, then his expression crumpled and he laid a gentle hand against Kelly's face. "I knew there was something about her."
Jim pulled his cellphone from his jacket pocket and called 911. After he gave them the information, he asked, "What made her go into this, uh, zone?"
"It had to be someone she touched," Blair said quietly. "But I didn't see anyone."
"When Kelly wakes up, she can tell us," Simon said.
"Do you think it's connected to the serial murder case?" Blair asked after a few moments of silence.
Jim rubbed his jaw with his knuckles. "Odds are against it."
Blair glanced around, then stood and walked to a notice taped to the wall. Jim, watching his partner, joined him.
"What is it, Chief?" Jim asked, his blue eyes narrowed.
"It was right in front of us all the time." Blair pointed at the sign.
Jim followed Blair's line of sight to the announcement of a Botany Club meeting. "Son-of-a-- Have there been any new professors hired in the science department in the last four months?"
"One, but he doesn't look like the composite of our suspect. Professor Marshal. He's in the biology department," Blair replied.
The faint sound of a siren reached Jim's sensitive hearing. "The ambulance is on the way. Simon?"
"Go. I'll stay with her and let you know when she wakes up," Simon ordered.
"Come on, Chief," Jim called.
The two men ran down the corridor to the biology instructors' offices. There were met by locked doors and no sign of activity.
"Everyone's gone home," Jim said in disgust and frustration.
"Not everyone. Come on." Blair grabbed Jim's arm and led the way back to Dr. Summers' office. He knocked on the open door and stepped inside. "We need to find Professor Marshal. Do you know where he lives?"
Dr. Summers' eyes appeared owlish behind his round glasses as he stared at Jim. "What is it? What's wrong?"
"We have to talk to him," Jim stated with a clipped tone. They didn't have time for pleasantries.
"Let me see here." The professor began to rummage around the mess on his desk, a mess that made Blair's disorganization appear neat and tidy. "I believe I have his phone number someplace here."
Jim glanced at his watch. Six thirty eight. The killer could already be choosing his next victim. He shifted impatiently.
Finally, Dr. Summers held up a card between two fingers. "Here it is. 555-4381."
Jim popped his cellphone opened, dialed a number. "Yeah, H, could you find the address that goes with this number? 555-4381." Jim forced himself not to fidget as H punched in the number on his computer. After what seemed an eternity, he got his answer. "Thanks." He folded the phone shut and looked at the wide-eyed professor. "Thank you."
He headed out of the office with Blair beside him. As they ran out of the building, they passed a pair of EMT's going in. Blair paused a moment to tell them where Kelly was, then he and Jim ran across campus to get Jim's truck.
"You know this is a long shot," Blair said as Jim drove.
Jim nodded. "Yeah, but it's the only shot we have." He'd simply been reacting for the last half hour, now doubts began to creep into him. "What if we're completely off base on this whole thing? I mean, we're basing this -- this tip on a woman's possible reaction to a person's feelings. Doesn't this seem a little weird even to you?"
"You felt it, too, Jim," Blair said quietly.
Jim shifted in his seat. "How? Why?"
"I wish I could tell you, but I just don't know. There were only a couple obscure remarks about a possible telepathic link between a sentinel and guide in what I've read about sentinels. But that doesn't explain how we both felt Kelly's distress."
"Unless she's a sentinel, too."
Blair shook his head. "No, you'd be going territorial again and that hasn't happened. Besides, she wears reading glasses. No true sentinel would need glasses."
Jim had to admit the kid made sense. He turned into an apartment complex and parked. He glanced around, found the right building and walked inside. The complex didn't even have the simplest of security and looking around at the rundown interior, Jim could see why.
"Why would a professor live here?" Blair commented.
Jim reached behind him and retrieved his revolver. "Stay behind me, Chief."
Jim allowed a slight smile as he climbed the stairs to the second floor. He tuned down his smell and tuned up his hearing. A metal pan clattered to a floor and Jim cringed, rubbing his brow.
"Are you all right?" Blair asked softly, laying a hand against Jim's back.
His guide's soothing touch eased Jim's headache enough that he could nod without feeling like his head would fall off. "I'm okay."
They arrived at number 212 and Jim extended his senses, but couldn't hear anybody from within. "It's empty." He took a deep breath and a sharp acrid odor sent him reeling back to slam against the opposite wall.
Blair grabbed his arms, his expression frightened. "Jim, what is it? What's wrong?"
"Rubbing alcohol," Jim managed to say, though he kept his eyes closed as he struggled to regain control.
Blair's hands moved up and down Jim's arms, soothing, anchoring. "Dial it down, Jim. Take it easy. You can do it."
Jim dragged a hand across his face, trying to dispel the odor though it was only in his memory now. "God, it smells like he bathed in it."
"It's probably how he prepares the nightshade. I was reading on the internet how it's soaked in rubbing alcohol to create the hallucinogen."
"First how to make bombs, now how to make your own drugs. Is there anything you can't find on the internet?" Jim demanded.
Blair shrugged helplessly. "First amendment and all." He paused. "So Professor Marshal isn't in there?"
Jim shook his head. "And we can't go in there without a warrant and we can't get a warrant without something more substantial than Kelly's reaction to somebody." Saying it aloud made the whole situation almost ludicrous.
"Maybe it's open," Blair said. He tried the doorknob, but it was locked.
Jim considered his options for only a moment. A man who had killed twelve women was out there searching for the next one. "Here, let me try, Chief." He pulled something from his pocket, but turned aside so Blair couldn't see what he was doing. A few moments later, the door opened. "Gee, it must've been sticking."
"Let's hope we don't have to explain this," Blair said, glancing around nervously.
They entered the dark apartment. Though there was still some light left outside, all the curtains were closed, giving the place a cold, empty feeling. They looked around, careful not to disturb anything.
Jim followed a distinct odor to the bathroom. He pushed back the shower curtain and found two potted plants sitting in the tub.
"Sandburg," he called.
Blair entered the tiny room and peeked around Jim. "What is it?"
"Is that nightshade?"
It took only a moment for Blair to recognize the leaves and he nodded grimly. "Yep. There's five bottles of red wine in the kitchen, too. Cheap red wine."
"I'll bet it matches the samples found in our victims."
They continued their search and found pictures in a box under the man's bed. The snapshots were of the victims writhing in either agony or ecstasy. Jim didn't know which, but either one made him ill. The man had forced women to do things with his homemade drug and staged their execution when they did what he deemed evil. Even though the actions were induced by him.
Blair groaned. "God, Jim, this man is sick." He turned away from the hideous pictures.
Jim gritted his teeth, his jaw muscle clenching. He should've kept Blair back, away from these reminders of another serial killer. He studied Blair for a long moment, feeling a sad resignation steal across him. God, he hated dimming the bright light of optimism and innocence within his friend.
"This is going to happen to another woman tonight if we don't find him first," Jim said with quiet intensity. "See if you can find anything that might tell us which bar he was going to tonight."
After half an hour of sorting through every scrap of paper they could find, they had found nothing hinting at his destination. Blair, however, had found Marshal's black-rimmed glasses sitting on his dresser.
"The more I think about it, the more that sketch could be Marshal without the glasses or greased back hair," Blair commented.
"Respected professor by day and serial killer by night," Jim stated, his voice rough with steely anger.
Jim's phone rang and he nabbed it out of his pocket. "Ellison."
"Jim, it's Simon. Kelly's gone."
"What do you mean gone?"
"Gone. Disappeared. Vamoose." The normally steadfast police captain sounded close to frantic. "She was put in an examination room and when the doctor went to check her out, she had left. No one saw anything."
"Damn it. She knows who the killer is. It's the biology professor, Marshal. We need an APB out on him. First name--" Jim glanced questioningly at Blair.
"Joseph," he supplied.
"Joseph Marshal. Address is 1833 Forester Drive, Apartment 212," Jim said to Simon.
"How can you be so sure it's him?" the captain asked.
"We're in his apartment now," Jim admitted.
"Without a warrant?" Simon roared, then quickly added. "We'll worry about that later. I'll get an APB out on him and make sure all our people have it tonight." He paused. "Do you think Kelly is after him herself?"
"Yeah, I think it's personal for her, Simon, and even though Blair found her records, I don't think she's FBI either."
Simon's sigh was easily heard over the phone. "All right. I'll get her picture out there, too."
"Keep the sketch circulating. Blair thinks it's Marshal without the glasses or slicked back hair."
"Will do. You coming back to the station?"
"No. We're going to do some barhopping," Jim said.
"If you find Kelly--" Simon broke off. "Bring her in, too."
"Yes, sir." Jim closed his phone and looked at Blair. "Kelly slipped out of the hospital. No one knows where she is."
"She's not a criminal, Jim," Blair stated. "For whatever reason she's doing this, I trust her."
"Because of this connection we have with her?" Jim demanded.
"Because she saved your life. She didn't have to expose herself that way, but she did. We owe her the chance to explain."
Jim wasn't certain who or what to believe anymore, but his partner made a good case. Besides, Jim wanted to believe in her, too. "Let's go."
Thursday, 11:13 p.m., The Paladium Nightclub
Blair pressed himself close to Jim's broad back as he followed him through the ocean of people cramming the club. His head pounded in rhythm to the local band on stage and the stream of loud conversations nearly deafened him. However, he wasn't worried about himself but his sentinel. They'd been in over a dozen clubs already, each one progressively more strident and he'd had to pull Jim out of four zones so far.
Through their link Blair could feel Jim's tension and the nausea which gripped him. He also knew Jim had dialed back his senses as far as he could without going completely off-line. Only when they were in a corner or seated at a table did Jim turn up his sight and hearing to see if he could find either their suspect or Kelly. Blair had also suggested smell, since the suspect would probably have a residual rubbing alcohol odor clinging to him. It was during those times that Jim had zoned.
Blair felt Jim's arm pull him closer into a partially open corner space.
"I can't keep this up much longer, Chief," Jim said hoarsely, his lips close to Blair's ear.
Blair stared into Jim's red-rimmed eyes and knew he was coming to the end of his endurance. Normally, Jim would have been able to draw on his reserves, but his mental shutdown over the weekend had weakened him. He gripped his friend's arms. "Just one more time, buddy. I'll be right here."
Jim took a deep unsteady breath and gave a curt nod. Blair could almost see the dials being turned up as Jim searched the room with his eyes and ears. Blair remained silent, though he maintained his hold on Jim, grounding him with his touch.
It took longer than usual for Jim to pull his sight and hearing back to normal parameters. "Nothing," he said in disgust.
Jim's face clearly displayed his repugnance, but he didn't argue. He closed his eyes and raised his head.
"Okay, now start filtering out the scents. Get rid of them one by one. You're doing great, Jim." Although Blair spoke in his low guide voice, it easily cut through the rest of the noise surrounding them.
The detective suddenly stiffened and his eyes flew open.
"Did you find Marshal?" Blair asked.
"No, but he was here. I can smell him."
Exasperation lit Jim's haggard face. "I don't know, fifteen, twenty minutes ago."
"Let's go outside and see if you can pick up his scent out there," Blair said.
A few minutes later, they stood on the sidewalk lit by a garish neon sign above the club entrance. Jim searched the area with his senses as Blair looked around, hoping against hope Marshal hadn't gone too far. He glanced back at Jim, who stood motionless, his eyes unseeing.
Blair quickly reached out to his shallowly breathing sentinel. "Hey, Jim, come on, man. Come back to me." He massaged his back between his shoulder blades, talking constantly and growing more worried by the minute.
Finally, Jim jerked slightly, then blinked. His dazed eyes settled on Blair and he rubbed his brow. "Sorry."
"Don't be," he said, his fear making his voice sharper than he'd intended. "You're pushing yourself, Jim, and it's bound to happen." He forced himself to smile past his apprehension. "Besides, that's what I'm here for."
"There's just a faint trace left, not much I can pick up on," Jim said wearily.
Blair's heart sank. "Let's head to the next club."
Jim jammed his fisted hands into his jacket pockets. "This is crazy, Chief. He's probably found his next victim and taken her to wherever."
Blair thought for a moment. "The pictures! Maybe you can see something in the background to tell us where they are."
"It's worth a shot."
Jim drove back to Marshal's apartment as Blair called Simon, letting him know what they were doing. Simon said he'd meet him there with a search warrant.
"I wonder how he got that so fast," Jim commented as Blair handed his phone back to him.
True to his word, Simon was waiting for them in the parking lot when they arrived. The captain's eyes snapped with tension. He handed them the warrant.
"Let's do it legal this time," Simon said dryly.
"Yes, sir," Jim replied.
"Any word on Kelly?" Blair asked Simon as they entered the apartment building.
Simon shook his head. "Nobody's spotted her. The stakeouts and patrol cars are still canvassing the two areas." He took a deep breath. "I called a friend of mine with the FBI. He looked into her file. You were right. She's not an FBI agent. Her records were slipped into the system two weeks before she came to Cascade. There's a federal warrant out for her arrest."
"I'm sorry, Simon," Jim said.
The captain shrugged, though it appeared to be a forced gesture. "You warned me."
Awkward silence came between the three men. Jim picked the lock to Marshal's apartment and once inside, went straight to the box under the bed. Jim sat down as he looked at each picture, studying not the victim but what lay behind her.
Simon glanced over his shoulder and his eyes revealed his horror. "We have to stop this bastard."
His stomach churning, Blair didn't look at the pictures. Once was more than enough. He wandered to the window and gazed out into the darkness. Somewhere out there Marshal was preparing his next victim. He could've given her the nightshade by now and the hallucinations would begin. Remembering the Golden he'd accidentally ingested, Blair shuddered. If Jim hadn't been there...
Fear that wasn't his rippled through Blair. He spun around to make sure Jim was still with him and met his wide eyes.
"Did you feel it?" Jim demanded.
"What're you two talking about?" Simon demanded.
"He has her," Jim said in a low voice.
"Yeah," Blair replied as the blood left his face. He crossed over to Jim. "Anything?"
"Not yet," Jim stated. He continued going through the pictures, pausing only a few moments on each one as he scanned it quickly. Abruptly, he stopped and pointed to a small pale square behind the woman. "Look at that."
"What is it?" Simon demanded.
"It looks like a label of some kind." Jim squinted. "Hennessy Shipping."
"Shipping. Weren't the bodies in Cascade found near the waterfront?" Blair asked excitedly.
"Within half a mile of each other," Simon said. He flipped open his phone and punched in a number. "This is Captain Banks, Major Crimes. Get me the location of Hennessy Shipping."
Blair bounced on one foot then the other restlessly, frightened for Kelly McDaniel. Her fear was continual now, like a low vibration humming within him. By the tautness in Jim's body, Blair knew he felt the same awareness.
It seemed to take forever for the person to get back to Simon, though it was only a minute. "Okay, got it. I need you to get back-up to that address now." Simon slapped the phone shut. "It's a warehouse on First Street. Right in the middle of where the two bodies were found."
Without another word the three men raced downstairs to their vehicles and squealed out of the parking lot.
Blair braced his hand against the dash as Jim spun around corners. Any other time, Blair would've commented on Jim's driving skills or lack of, but the situation was too dire. If they didn't arrive in time Kelly would become the thirteenth victim of a serial killer.
And they'd never know who she really was.
The tang of stale saltwater announced their destination and Jim braked hard, throwing his door open before he came to a complete stop. He raised his head, sniffing the air, searching...
Suddenly, Jim staggered and fell to his knees. Blair squatted down beside him and wrapped an arm around Jim's shoulders, drawing him close to his chest. His friend couldn't keep going much longer without reaching meltdown.
"What's wrong?" Blair asked.
"He's here," Jim barely managed to say.
"Can you hear anything?" Simon demanded.
Blair jerked his head up, ready to protect Jim, to tell Simon they couldn't keep demanding more and more of him. But at the last moment, he clamped his mouth shut. Jim would be the first person to object, claiming there'd be time enough later for him to rest and regain his control. After they caught the murderer.
Still on his knees, Jim tipped his head to the side. "I can hear his voice. He's reading a passage about adultery from the Bible." He paused and his face paled. Blair could feel the jump in his heartbeat, the breathing that was far too labored. "We have to go in. Now!"
Blair and Simon pulled Jim to his feet and they scrambled to the only door they could see. Amazingly, it was open. They slipped inside and Jim, with his enhanced vision, took the lead. About twenty feet inside Jim stumbled to a standstill. "Damn it, I can't hear anymore." Frustration gave his voice a sharp edge.
"Take it easy. Just relax," Blair intoned.
He could see the detective try to do as Blair instructed, but after a few moments he could feel Jim's impatient irritation. The older man shook his head. "No good. My hearing's gone."
"Then we do this the old fashioned way," Simon said. "I'll go this way. You two go that way."
Simon headed out before Jim or Blair could object.
"I want you to wait here, Chief," Jim said.
Blair shook his head vehemently. "No way, man. You need me." Jim opened his mouth to protest but Blair didn't give him a chance. "Forget it, Jim. I'm going with you."
After a moment Jim smiled slightly, recognizing his defeat in the face of his guide's obstinacy. "Anyone ever tell you you're stubborn as a jackass?"
"Yeah. My sentinel. All the time."
Blair hooked a hand around Jim's arm and they moved quickly through the darkness. He could tell Jim was trying to stretch out his senses, but the huffs of exasperation also told him his friend wasn't succeeding.
A dim light ahead caught Blair's attention and he stumbled to a standstill. "Up there. See it?"
It felt odd for Jim to be squinting at something Blair could clearly see.
Jim nodded and he straightened, drawing strength from some steely core within him. "Get behind me, Chief. I don't want you anywhere near that bastard."
"You sure you're okay?"
Jim took the lead, moving with the grace of his animal guide. Blair stayed behind him, his fingers clutching Jim's jacket. There was no way in hell he was going to chance losing him, physically or mentally.
Words spoken in a greasy tone reached them, dropping like rocks in Blair's stomach. He could still "feel" Kelly's terror, but didn't know if Marshal had given her the nightshade or not.
They paused by the doorway leading into the office. Jim peered around the door frame and Blair felt his sharp intake of air. Suddenly the detective jumped into the room, his gun held in both hands. "Freeze. Cascade Police."
Blair stepped through the doorway and his heart skipped a beat at the tableau displayed before him. Kelly, obviously naked beneath a towel covering her from neck to hips, lay on a desk, the only piece of furniture save a chair in the room. Her arms were stretched above her, wrists tied to the desk's legs. Her eyes were wide, filled with terror. Marshal, his shaggy hair hanging over his brow, held a glass to Kelly's mouth and red wine trickled across her chin.
"Put it down," Jim ordered in a barely controlled voice.
"You're too late. She's already begun the test," Marshal said with a benign smile.
"What did you do?" Jim demanded.
"It's begun. There's no stopping her judgment now."
"Oh God, I think he gave her the nightshade," Blair said hoarsely.
"Not much," Kelly said weakly. She closed her eyes tightly and a tremor seized her body.
Jim suddenly bent over double, one arm pressing into his stomach but managed to keep his gun trained on Marshal.
"I'm s-sorry, Jim," Kelly said. "I c-can't stop it."
Blair felt the echo of pain through his gut, but knew it was nothing compared to Jim and Kelly's agony. He reached for the gun. "I'll keep him covered until back-up gets here."
Blair saw the indecision in Jim's face, then the slow acceptance. Blair reached for the revolver as Jim's face contorted.
The crash of glass and Kelly's, "Look out!" were his only two warnings.
A knife materialized in Marshal's hand and he lunged toward Jim. Blair didn't even stop to think and put himself in front of his friend. The knife sliced through the air and across Blair's midsection. Burning agony sent him to the floor as his arms wrapped around the bleeding gash.
"Blair!" Jim hollered, but his voice sounded far away, like he was calling from the end of a tunnel.
An explosion sounded within the close confines and for a few moments afterward, Blair thought he'd gone deaf. Then there were hands gently ghosting across him and a familiar voice talking to him, telling him to hang on, that help was on the way.
Blair blinked away the blurriness and focused on the pale face above him. "Jim, is Kelly--"
"Simon's taking care of her. Shhh, take it easy, buddy. The ambulance is en route," Jim said softly as he tried to slow the bleeding.
Blair raised his hand, surprised by how much energy it took and laid it on Jim's arm. The detective's muscles shuddered beneath his palm. "You all r-right?"
Jim covered his hand with his own larger one. "I'll be okay once you and Kelly are out of danger."
Blair tried to keep his eyes open but the darkness was drawing him nearer... until it finally closed in around him.
Friday, 2:36 a.m., Cascade General Hospital
"Would you sit down? You're making me dizzy."
Simon paused in his pacing, then asked dryly, "Isn't that my line?"
Jim managed a smile, but it was tremulous at best. Blair had been in surgery for over an hour and Kelly had had her stomach pumped and her blood was being analyzed. She had begun hallucinating on the way to the hospital, scaring them with her horrified screams. Jim had never seen Simon so ashen beneath his dark complexion.
Jim, however, was dealing with his own demons -- the major one being guilt. The kid had taken a wound meant for him and though Jim would've done it for Blair without a thought, he hated his friend doing the same for him. Other demons crept through the link that bound him to his guide and the mysterious Kelly. Blair's pain and Kelly's terror both battered at his mind, making him physically ill.
The nausea returned and Jim stood, hurrying down the hall to the restroom. He'd already vomited so much he just ended up with a bout of the dry heaves.. The wracking spasms made his eyes water and his stomach muscles ache. If he was going through this he didn't want to imagine how Blair and Kelly were feeling.
He flushed the toilet and exited the stall to find Simon holding a damp paper towel. Jim accepted it with a mumbled thanks and the coolness felt good against his warm face.
"Did I tell you Kelly was sick Saturday, up until you regained consciousness at the hospital?" Simon asked.
Jim's motions ceased as he stared at his friend and boss. "You're saying she was sick because of me?"
Simon threw his hands up. "I'm just telling you what I know."
Jim tossed the paper towel in the trash. "Why is she linked so closely to us, especially me?" He recalled Blair's interrogation about his family. "Sandburg was asking me about my mother. I think he thinks Kelly and I are related." He laughed weakly. "Crazy, huh?"
"He could be right."
Simon's calm acceptance wasn't what Jim was expecting. "I figured you'd laugh the loudest over that Sandburgian."
Simon took a deep breath. "There is something about her. Not exactly like I knew her from someplace, but there were certain characteristics I'd seen in you. I thought it was only my imagination but the more I saw you two together, the more I realized I wasn't imagining it. If she had had blue eyes the similarity would've been easier to spot."
Jim's heart thundered in his chest and he wondered how much of it was caused by his emotions and how much was Blair and Kelly. He'd only begun to mend the fences with his brother and father. Could he build another relationship? Provided she was related at all.
He left the restroom and Simon followed silently. Restlessness and worry over his partner made him take over Simon's pacing route. There had been so much blood on Blair. The doctor had ordered two units of blood for him immediately upon their arrival at the hospital. Jim didn't think it was a mortal wound, but there was no doubt it was serious.
He paused and the hallway wavered in and out of focus. Jim reached for a chair and dropped into it.
Simon gripped Jim's arm. "Are you all right?"
Jim plopped his elbows on the chair and buried his face in his hands. "I don't know," he said huskily. "Blair stabbed. Kelly drugged. A killer finally dead. A woman who might be a relative. It's a lot to digest in a few hours."
Simon scrubbed his palms across his face. "Yeah, I know. Did you notice the wedding ring Kelly was wearing?"
Jim's eyes flashed open. "What?"
"In the warehouse she told me it was to attract the killer. She figured out he was hitting bars with Ladies Nights so that's where she looked." He took a deep breath. "Sandburg was right. She had run into Marshal in the hallway at the science building. He must've gotten scared and taken off when she went into that emotional overload."
"She knew he was the killer," Jim said dully.
Simon nodded. "Two feds are on their way here to take her into custody."
"Is there any way we can stall them?"
"I doubt it. They don't take kindly to someone impersonating an agent, especially one who's able to hack into their computer system and create her own file."
"She's going to have to stay in the hospital for a while though, right?"
"Depends on how quickly the nightshade works its way out of her system," Simon said wearily.
Jim leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. He tentatively touched the bond between himself and Blair, relieved to feel that he wasn't in as much pain anymore. Of course that could just be the anesthesia. Jim wouldn't relax until he talked to the doctor and saw Blair himself. Why did the kid have to be so damned courageous? If only he would've stayed behind him like he'd told him.
Then we'd all be dead.
The arrival of a doctor wearing surgical scrubs came around the corner. Jim could smell Blair's blood on him and a wave of protectiveness washed over him. He sprang to his feet. "How is he?"
The bald doctor smiled. "He'll be fine. The laceration wasn't that deep and only cut through the epidermal layer and nicked the muscle. After we got the blood in him and the wound sutured, he immediately showed improvement. Two days in the hospital and he'll be more than ready to go home."
Relief surged through Jim and only Simon's strong hold on his arm kept him upright.
"When can I see him?" Jim asked.
"Give them about fifteen minutes to settle him in his room and you can stop by for a few minutes. Then I strongly suggest you go home and get some rest," the doctor said.
"As soon as I see my partner."
"Do you have any information on Kelly McDaniel?" Simon asked.
The doctor frowned. "I'm sorry. You might want to check with the nurse at the desk."
"Thanks, I'll do that," Simon said.
The doctor left and Simon led Jim to a chair. "Wait here. I'm going to see if there's anything new on Kelly's condition."
"No, I'll go with you."
"I need some answers, Simon," Jim said in a low, emotion-laden voice.
The two men walked to the admitting desk.
"Can you tell me if there's been any change in Kelly McDaniel's condition?" Simon asked.
The nurse sifted through the files on her desk and came up with one. "The doctor allowed her to leave half an hour ago."
"How?" Simon exploded. "She'd been drugged."
The woman pointed to the paper. "It says here there was no sign of a drug in her system and she was aware and lucid. There was no reason to keep her."
"Which room was she in?"
"What room?" Simon bellowed.
"Exam room C."
Jim and Simon dashed down the hall and pushed through the door marked C. A discarded gown lay on the bed and a note was on the pillow. Simon grabbed the paper and read aloud, "I'm sorry I deceived you. I never meant to hurt anyone. I hope you can accept my apology and forgive me my deception. Try to be content with knowing we were able to take a killer off the street. K. P.S. Second chances at life often come with a price."
Jim closed his eyes a moment. She was truly gone. Only awareness of Blair thrummed through the unexplainable link.
The door burst open and two suited men, obviously FBI, strode in. They looked around, seeing the empty bed and cast off gown. "Where is she?" one of them demanded.
"Good question," Simon replied, unobtrusively placing Kelly's note in his pocket.
Jim and Simon walked past the fuming agents and back to the admittance desk.. Words were useless and neither man pretended otherwise. Kelly was right. A man who'd raped and murdered a dozen women would never do so again. But it was a bittersweet victory.
After getting Blair's room number, Jim glanced at Simon.
"Go ahead, Jim. Tell him I'll stop by tomorrow when he's feeling better," Simon said.
Jim laid a hand on his friend and boss' shoulder. "I'm sorry, Simon."
"I am too."
Shoulders hunched, Simon walked toward the waiting room and Jim wished he could do something to ease the other man's hurt. Simon was a helluva police captain and a good man, but ever since his divorce life had dealt him some bad cards. Though Simon and Kelly hadn't had time to form a relationship, Jim knew his friend had wanted to.
He swallowed hard and headed down the hall to Blair's room. As he drew closer, his heart lifted. Blair was going to be fine. He pushed open the door and slipped inside. His gaze immediately fell on his friend, softly illuminated by the nightlight above him. If it hadn't been for the IV, Jim could've convinced himself Blair was only sleeping.
He crossed the room and leaned over his guide, his fingers whispering across his pale cheek. "Hey, Chief. You awake?"
Blair's eyelashes fluttered open, revealing momentary confusion. "Jim?" His voice was sentinel soft.
Jim rested his palm on Blair's head. "I'm right here, Chief. How're you feeling?"
Blair shifted, then hissed. "Hurts."
"You remember what happened?"
Blair's brow creased as he tried to shift through the fragments of memory. "Marshal, he had a knife."
Jim's stomach clenched, recalling how Blair had jumped in front of him, hearing the slice of the knife through cloth and skin and Blair's cry of pain. He covered his terror behind a strained smile. "I thought I was supposed to be the hero of this dynamic duo."
"You always... get to b-be the hero. My... turn." Blair's teasing tone and weak smile went straight to Jim's chest and brought a lump to his throat.
"You did good, Blair," Jim said huskily.
Jim considered telling him about her disappearance, but decided to obfuscate for now. "She's just fine, Chief. Simon says hi and he'll see you tomorrow. Now you need to get some rest."
"'Kay." Blair closed his eyes. Suddenly, they flew open again. "Go home. Get... some sleep."
Jim clasped his hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. "I will."
Blair's lips lifted slightly. "'Night."
"Good night, Chief."
Blair's eyelids closed and this time they remained that way. Jim watched him until his breathing evened out, then still stayed by his side, listening to his heartbeat. Exhaustion tugged at Jim and he knew if he didn't leave soon he'd fall asleep on his feet. He soothed a few damp strands of hair back from Blair's forehead. "I'll see you later, Chief."
He joined Simon in the waiting room. The captain looked as exhausted as Jim felt.
"How is he?" Simon asked as he rose.
"Tired, but he seemed pretty good." Jim rubbed his eyes. "I'm going to go home and get a few hours' sleep, then come back to see him."
"Sounds like a plan."
The two men walked down the white corridor, their footsteps heavy.
Eight days later, 10:06 a.m., The Loft
Blair stumbled out of his bedroom, yawning and brushing his tangled hair back from his face. A gentle rain pattered on the balcony and created rivulets down the glass doors. Though it was midmorning, the apartment was dim and Blair almost missed Jim sitting on the sofa, his hands resting in his lap with a piece of paper between them.
"Hey, what's going on?" Blair asked, joining Jim on the couch.
Jim blinked and focused on him. "How are you feeling, Chief?"
"A little stiff, but almost back to normal. Quit changing the subject. What's wrong?"
"I picked up the mail from yesterday. This was in it." Jim handed him a paper.
Blair squinted at it, then rose and returned to his bedroom to get his glasses. Coming back, he sat cross-legged by Jim as he started to read. "It's an obituary for a Linda Harris, age 27."
Jim nodded. "Keep on reading."
Blair took a deep breath, wincing slightly at the healing wound and read silently. When he was done, his mouth was dry and his heart pounded. "She was Marshal's seventh victim." He paused. "And Kelly's sister."
"Did you see their mother's name?"
Blair found the name and swallowed hard. "There's more than one woman named Grace."
"Yeah, but look at the handwritten note at the bottom."
"I always wished I had a big brother when I was a kid and you're exactly how I pictured him. Kelly," Blair read aloud.
Jim sprang to his feet and strode to the balcony doors. He crossed his arms and stared at the rain, but Blair knew he wasn't seeing anything but memories. His jaw appeared carved in granite and his lips were a thin slash across his angular face. He looked like he would shatter into a million pieces.
"She didn't even write or call," Jim said, his voice sounding lost.
Blair set his glasses and the paper on the coffee table. He stood and walked to Jim's side. He didn't have any words of comfort and instead stood silently beside him, hoping his presence offered Jim some sort of solace.
The abrupt ring of the phone startled them and Jim quickly moved to answer it as if needing the diversion. "Ellison." He listened for a long time, his face paling. "All right, thanks, Simon. I appreciate your telling me. Bye."
Blair gazed at Jim questioningly.
"That was Simon. He called in a few favors with the feds. Grace Ellison became part of the federal witness protection plan a year after she left my father." Jim's voice faltered. "She got mixed up with a man who was an accountant for the mob. When she learned she was pregnant, they were married and she convinced him to turn state's evidence. They had another daughter, Laura, three years later."
"So Kelly and Laura were your half sisters," Blair said.
Jim nodded, sorrow etched in his brow. "Kelly's still under federal protection and will be for the rest of her life. It was part of the deal my mother and her second husband made with the feds."
"Is her father still alive?"
"He died five years ago in a traffic accident. Her -- our mother died over a year ago of cancer."
Compassion filled Blair. "So Kelly is all alone now."
"Why didn't she tell me?" Jim demanded.
Blair laid a calming hand on Jim's arm. "She may not have even known until she met you. She was raised in the witness protection program and taught not to trust strangers and you were a stranger more or less. Besides, she knew she had to disappear again once her sister's murderer was captured."
Jim turned back to the gray landscape and stood silently, a fist pressed to his chin.
Blair's heart cried for his friend, for the loss of something Jim hadn't even known he possessed.
"My sentinel abilities must've come from my mother," Jim finally said quietly.
Blair nodded. "She probably had the genes for enhanced senses and you inherited all five. Kelly received the tactile one and it was so strong that it became an empathic ability."
A shadow of a smile touched Jim's lips. "Do you realize how crazy this sounds?"
"As crazy as a man able to hear an insect chewing a leaf three hundred yards away."
"Touche." Jim took a deep breath. "Do you think she'll come back?"
"Anything's possible. Couldn't you use some of your leverage to find her?"
"I could, but I won't."
"Her life is obviously in danger. If her identity is found out, she could be killed and I couldn't live with that, Chief." He turned to meet Blair's eyes. "She knows where I am. If she feels it's safe, she'll come back."
"How do you know?"
Jim smiled. "The same way I know you'll always be there for me." He placed his hand on his chest above his heart. "I know it in here."
Blair felt the warmth of friendship flow between their link, a bond as deep as that of blood. He nodded. "I hear you, Jim."
Jim put an arm around Blair's shoulders and the younger man leaned against his side. Together they watched the rain come down, knowing the sun would eventually break through the clouds and chase away the darkness.
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