The rain, not unusual for Cascade, hadn't stopped in two weeks. It was a constant drizzle that turned dirt into mud, grass into limp green masses, roads into slick danger zones, and mild mannered citizens into snappy, surly drivers. But Blair was glad it was raining. Glad for the trickles of water that dripped down his forehead and matted his hair. Glad for the mist that soaked his jeans into a chaffing dampness. Glad for the tracks of moisture that concealed the other, saltier, tracks that were of his own making. He blinked, feeling another tear drop off his eyelashes to join the others. At least he wasn't the only one.
The light of the ambulance turned the murky world into a flashing sphere of red and blue. The ravine, just on the edge of town, was a favourite dumping ground for garbage and other undesirable things. One threw one's trash into the ravine if one was too lazy or too cheap to tow it away. One threw junk in the ravine. One didn't throw a five year old child into the ravine.
Blair shivered as the small body bag was hoisted from the gorge. The rescue workers didn't even have to strain at the weight of the tiny body. Blair looked at the well worn picture clutched in his hands, creased from many folds. A red-haired boy, curls at all angles and one missing tooth, grinned back at him with vivid green eyes. A holy terror to his teacher, pesky brother to his ten year old sister, and only son to the parents who stood by the coroner's wagon, Perrin Spencer was no more. Blair didn't even notice his fingers crushing the dampened picture in a fist until he felt the pain of his nails biting into his palm. So ended a three day hunt for the missing boy. The third child to be found dead, discarded without a thought: used and abandoned.
It was with a start that Blair realized that water no longer fell on his face, diverted by an umbrella held over his head.
"You okay, Blair?" Joel Taggert, his face weary and drawn, asked with obvious concern. "You don't have to be here."
Blair managed to turn up the corners of his mouth in gratitude. It wasn't a smile, but he doubted that it was even possible to smile, or that Joel would expect it. "I'm okay, Joel. Thanks. Jim's down there, but he should be coming up soon."
Since transferring to Major Crimes, Joel had become fast friends with the long haired graduate student, his teddy bear exterior laying bare the heart-felt emotions many detectives left deeply hidden. Now, more than ever, the willingness to share pain was a balm to Blair's soul.
"Why don't I drive you home? Jim will probably have to go the station and take the statement of the jogger who found the body. You can't do much there, or here. I'll tell Simon I took you home and he can pass the message on to Jim."
Home suddenly sounded like paradise, as another shiver wound its way up Blair's spine. He nodded, hunching his shoulders, and followed Joel to his station wagon. As he sat in the passenger's seat, waiting for his driver to return, Blair watched the coroner's wagon depart, inky black against the gray mist.
Mrs. Spencer sank to her knees, mindless of the mud, grief written in painful detail over her face. Blair's eyes met hers and for an instant, he felt as though she was looking straight into his soul, reading his every thought. He wanted to look away, but was bound to her by shared grief, shared pain. Only the slamming of the car door saved him from drowning in the emotional whirlpool.
"Ready to go?" Joel's soothing tenor filled the car.
"Yeah." Blair's voice was quiet and subdued as he fastened the seatbelt. They pulled away from the scene and Blair twisted to look back at the grieving couple who had lost part of their lives. It never ends, Blair thought. The cycle never ends.
The ride to the loft was quiet, but for the hum of the heater and the rapid swoosh of the wipers against the windshield. Neither spoke, lost in thought and private pain.
It took Blair a moment to realize they had reached the loft. Undoing the belt, he clapped Joel on the shoulder. "Thanks. It'll be okay."
Joel nodded glumly. "But not for a long time."
Remembering the stricken woman's face, Blair had to agree. It wouldn't be all right for a long time. He slammed the door securely and gave a half-hearted wave, before darting into the warmth and dryness of the building.
The loft was a cozy haven of heat and light, both having been left on in their hasty departure to the crime scene. The television droned on, breaking news bringing the late night tragedy into homes across Cascade. Blair picked up the remote and silenced the recorded misery. He put on the kettle to boil and stared at the escaping steam puffing up into the air above the stove, trapped in memories....
The small boy sat quietly in the corner, large eyes fixed on the man in the rocking chair. Puff. Puff. The blue eyes followed the smoke rings with awe, lips pursed in an 'o' of delight.
"Blair!" Namoi Sandburg, splendidly arrayed in a long patchwork skirt and green billowing blouse, stood with her hands on her hips in the doorway of the small living room. Her lips curved in a smile as she watched the entranced five-year old.
'Blaaaiir," she said in a singsong voice.
"Yeth, momma?" Blair was slowly growing out of the lisp, but Naomi wasn't worried. Her boyfriend sometimes remarked on it, but she was sure Blair would be fine. Blair was perfect.
"Didn't I tell you to go to bed?"
Blair ducked his head, the dark curls bouncing against his forehead. "Yeth, momma."
"Off you go, sweetie." Naomi held her arms wide, smiling as her son scampered across the threadbare rug to wrap his arms about her waist. "Now you be good. I've got some friends coming over and we don't want you to get in the way, okay? Tomorrow, maybe we'll go get some ice cream." She swung Blair up into her arms and straightened the small pyjama top which had gotten twisted. "You'll be good for me?"
Blair nodded as he laid his head on her shoulder, a small thumb making its way to his mouth. "Okay."
She ducked through the strings of beads that separated the living room from the small room containing Blair's bed. Beside the bed was a bookshelf with a few scattered toys, and piles of books, carefully stacked. The bed itself was adorned with a brightly coloured, lovingly woven cover, a Navaho design. Naomi pulled back the blanket and tucked Blair in, before reaching over to pull out a well-worn book from the bookcase.
"Here you are, sweetie."
Blair burrowed under the covers and reached up for the book. "Story?"
"Not tonight, honey. You can read it yourself, remember?" The doorbell rang. "Now you be good. When you finish, just turn off the light, okay?" She moved the small lamp closer to the bed. She bent down and kissed the small forehead, running a hand lightly through the glorious mop of curls. "Love you, Blair. Love you best of all."
"G'night, momma." Blair said, already opening the cover of the book, peering at the print and pictures. Naomi patted his head one more time before drifting out to welcome her visitors.
Blair followed the words with one finger, quietly sounding out each word. "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms," Blair squirmed with delight and read on. "..and an oozy smell, nor a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort." Blair snuggled down into his own comfortable hole in the mound of blankets and continued to read, as sounds of merriment and laughter trickled through the bead curtain.
The harsh whistle of the kettle brought Blair back to the present. He turned off the burner and filled the infuser with pungent pieces of dried mint. The bittersweet smell rose in the steam, warming his face, while the ceramic sides of the mug gently toasted his chilled fingers. The pouring rain had turned to a drizzle, droplets beating a soft tattoo on the window panes.
He wandered to the living room and set his cup on the coffee table before fetching essays from his room. No time like the present to catch up on grading, he mused. With an enthusiasm he had to force, he dove into the world of academia.
The clock on the wall ticked, a counterpoint to the leaking faucet which plinked steadily into the basin. The loft was silent, peaceful. The red ink of Blair's pen was dark against the bleached paper as he scribbled cramped comments in margins. Blood against pale skin. The dark lines of black ink of the answered questions were bruises on the wrinkled paper.
Blair pushed the stack of essays away from him in a rush. A couple slid off the pile and toppled to the floor, crinkling paper in a messy pile. His heart pounded in his chest, thudding in his ears. The memory of that small body bag would not be banished from his inner eye, overshadowed with visions of the past. He closed his eyes and slumped back onto the sofa. He scrubbed at his face and wondered when Jim would be getting home.
The clock read nine o'clock; four hours since they had received the call. Four hours since all hope had been dashed for the Spencer family.
He didn't know how long he sat there before the key in the door signalled Jim's return.
"Jim. You're back." Blair opened his eyes and turned to look at his roommate.
"Your powers of observation never cease to amaze me, Sandburg," came the biting reply. The weary set of Jim's shoulders staved off the retort that welled up in Blair's throat. He merely stood, walked to the kitchen and waited, hip resting against the counter and sipping his now cool tea. Jim sighed into the heavy silence. "I'm sorry. I...I guess I'm on edge."
"That's okay, man. It's understandable." Blair took another sip of the tea, using the moment to let Jim collect his thoughts. "Did the jogger say anything?"
Jim shook his head. "Same as the other two. The body..." Jim's voice cracked slightly on the word, "body was there for over forty-eight hours. Not long after the Spencers contacted the police. Our killer isn't wasting time."
Jim's face was smooth, but Blair could see the tense muscles and fine lines which belied the calm exterior. Jim's knuckles were white as they gripped the counter.
"Jim, why don't you grab a shower and hit the sack. I'll take care of the dishes and lock up." Blair waved at the dinner dishes. Jim padded to the bathroom without a word of protest and soon the sound of running water could be heard from behind the door. Blair looked over the messy kitchen; discarded dishes from their earlier departure and scraps of food littered the counters. He immersed himself in the process of organizing the sink, colour coding the leftovers and thoroughly scouring every last dish.
So engrossed was he in his task, he didn't notice Jim had finished his night-time rituals and gone upstairs until he pulled the stopper in the sink and looked up at the loft ceiling. Jim's silhouette was cast in soft muted greys against the white plastered ceiling. He was sitting on the bed, elbows on knees and face resting against his palms. He wasn't making a sound, but Blair could see the broad shoulders shake.
Blair closed his eyes with pain, wishing he could give comfort, but knowing it wasn't wanted, at least not yet. He continued cleaning the kitchen, making sure the dishcloths were meticulously folded and hung on the oven door, the draining rack stored in the cupboard under the sink. With a last glance at the polished counters he turned off the light and went to prepare for bed himself. The light upstairs had been turned off and Blair looked up one more time before checking the locks on the doors, and turning off his own light. He lay down and stared into the inky blackness. He couldn't sleep. Couldn't find blessed oblivion. And he doubted his best friend upstairs could either.
Outside it continued to rain.
Dawn came early, helped by the clearing skies which revealed a
pale pink sky, threaded with purple and grey. The alarm clock by the bed continued
to buzz, and Blair smacked it in irritation.
He hadn't gotten to sleep until well after two o'clock, and the brief rest hadn't done much to energize him for the coming day.
Blair slowly rolled to his side and continued the roll, his feet coming to rest on the cold wooden floor with a muted gasp. The chill on his soles was enough to shake the last cobwebs of sleep from his mind, and the events of the evening past caught up with him in rush. It hadn't been a dream. It was cold reality. Cold being the operative word, he mused, clutching his blanket around him.
"Sandburg, the furnace broke down last night. I called the repairman, and he'll be in later today," Jim called through the door. "The water's cold, so I wouldn't recommend a shower."
Blair swore under his breath. "Great. That's great." He could hear Jim still standing by the door.
"You coming in with me today?"
Blair rubbed a hand over his face. He stumbled to the door, his blanket wrapping about his ankles. "Sorry, Jim. I've got a faculty meeting this morning and office hours. Maybe I can make it after two. Will you be okay?" He opened the door.
Jim stood with two cups of coffee, dressed and shaved. He offered one of the mugs to Blair and nodded. "Yeah. I'm going to be sitting in on the autopsy to see if there's anything they might miss."
"Just be careful, Jim. If you zone, I wouldn't want to have to explain it to Dan." Blair was grateful for the meeting he had. The last thing he wanted to do was to have to endure the necessary evisceration of a little boy, as if what the kidnapper had done wasn't a violation in itself. It was times like this, Blair didn't envy Jim his senses. He'd settle for his academic job, safe and secure, insulated from the horror. Except that he was no longer separated from the harsh reality of life anymore. Crime was part of his life now. There was no protective bubble of ignorance which he could hide behind and pretend that the world was a beautiful pristine place. He had seen the guts and blood of life. He had seen the darkness that hid behind the sunlight.
He swigged the last of the coffee and borrowed Jim's electric razor to offset the worse of his stubble. First meeting, then finish grading; that was the order of the day. Then he would try to help put an end to the terror.
Blair pushed his chair about in circles, spinning aimlessly in the small confines of his office as the wheels squeaked noisily. He wasn't going anywhere, but that wasn't the point. The point was that neither was the debate raging between faculty and students. He threw down his pen in disgust. He had just wasted an entire two hours while the department chair tried to explain why retired faculty should be given priority in hiring for any teaching positions that became available. Needless to say, none of the teaching fellows accepted the argument. Worries about sky-rocketing tuition and student loan repayments were giving Blair a headache. Trying to balance teaching with his own work was becoming more of a struggle.
Blair spun the chair around, ready to greet the student with a forced grin, only to falter as Mrs. Spencer paused in the doorway.
"Uh, Mrs. Spencer!...Uh..please, come in." He pushed away from the desk so hard, the chair skittered across the floor and thumped into a wall. He hastily pulled folders, books and stacks of paper off a chair, gesturing for the woman to sit. "What...what can I do for you? Can I get you some coffee? Tea?"
Mrs. Spencer shook her head, red hair hidden under a stylish black hat. "No, thank you. I...I came to thank you for everything you've done."
Blair began to wave his hands in denial, but she leaned forward and placed a tentative hand on his knee.
"I know that it's not a civilian observer's job to make sure we got hourly updates. Or to make sure we had food in the house. Or to be there...when...when they..." Her voice dissolved into choked sobs. Blair grabbed the box of tissues from his desk and pressed it into her hands.
"Mrs. Spencer, I just wanted to help. No thanks are necessary." He could feel his throat tighten. "I'm just so sorry we couldn't find Perrin earlier. So sorry."
She looked up at him, eyes red-rimmed. She managed to summon a quivering smile. "It's not your fault." Her eyes welled with tears. "There will be a service tomorrow at two o'clock, a private one. The police aren't...aren't releasing P...P...Perrin's body, but we needed some closure. Some sort of closure." She sniffled. "Would you come? Please?"
Blair nodded. "I'd be honoured."
She rose, and clutched Blair's forearm. "Mr. Sandburg. I...I...I don't know why I feel so comfortable around you, but I want to thank you again for being such a comfort. I feel as though you know what I'm going through. Bless you. Bless you."
She hugged him impulsively, clutching the cloth of his shirt like a life-preserver. He patted her back awkwardly until she let him go, eyes downcast with embarrassment. "I'm sorry."
And then she was gone.
Blair knew he wouldn't get any more work done that afternoon, grabbed up his coat and book bag and went to catch the bus to the police department. Maybe he could help Jim.
"Come on, Chief. We've got a call to make."
"What's up?" Blair caught the file as it was tossed to him across the cab of the truck. He hadn't even gotten into the building of the police department. Jim had pulled up by the sidewalk, gesturing for him to join him.
"Derrick Saunders is a convicted paedophile. He was released a month ago and is now living in Treeland Heights."
"Geez. That's where all the victims lived." Blair looked over at his partner. "But Jim, a past conviction doesn't mean he's responsible."
"I know. We're not going there to arrest him. We're going there to protect him." Jim checked the rearview mirror as he changed lanes.
"What?" Blair's voice was filled with a mixture of disbelief, anger and fear. Jim flicked on the turn signal and pulled into the lane leading to the Treeland Heights subdivision.
"Seems like some reporter found out Saunders was living in the area, and put his name, picture and address on the front page of the Cascade Times. He called the police when a small mob surrounded his house this morning. The officers that responded dispersed the crowd, but we've got an armed contingent staying at the house, just to make sure. We're going to establish his alibi, and make sure that there's no doubt it wasn't him."
Blair flipped through the file on his lap. Derrick Saunders, age forty-nine, no family. Charged and convicted of sexually molesting three boys in 1987, he served his time and had been released with a letter of support from his psychiatrist and was, according to the doctor, at low risk of re-offending.
"Here we are." Jim braked to a halt in front of a small house in the middle of the subdivision. In front of the bungalow, a police cruiser sat unobtrusively in the driveway. People were gathered in small groups up the street, but no one was moving any closer than a couple of houses.
Blair studied the house as they made their way up the brick walkway. The green trim around the eves and windows was well kept, the hedge bordering the windows and porch neatly pruned. The picture of suburbia was marred however by the fine spider web cracks which radiated from the jagged hole in the french window by the front door. A piece of plywood had been hastily tacked behind the hole, hiding the interior of the house from view.
The door bell chimed a merry tune at an octave that had Jim wincing. The uniformed officer who answered the door peered at Jim's badge and waited for Blair to root out his observer ID before waving them in.
The officer led them to the living room. A man, who Blair supposed to be Saunders, sat on the couch, a cigarette held nervously in his fingers. He looked up from his newspaper when they came into the room, and stood.
"I suppose I should thank you for coming," he said, clearly resenting their presence. "Sorry for the decor, but my neighbours decided I needed some remodelling."
"Mr. Saunders, I'm Detective Jim Ellison, and this is my partner, a civilian observer, Blair Sandburg. I hope you don't mind if we ask you a few questions."
Saunders gestured to two comfortable chairs by the couch. "Please, have a seat."
They accepted his offer, and while Jim pulled out his notebook, Blair took the opportunity to study the man across from them. With his neatly cut, short brown hair, slim build, and wire rimmed glasses, Saunders wasn't exactly what Blair had expected. By now though, he should have known not to prejudge people based on the records, but this man did not strike Blair as one who would molest children. But looks could be deceiving, that he knew.
Jim coughed discreetly, as the smoke from the cigarette irritated his nose. "This shouldn't take too long. If you could only tell us where you were on the night of the 23rd."
"In the early evening, I was attending a meeting with my therapist. I'm sure he'd be more than willing to confirm my presence in his office at the time. As for the rest of the evening, I spent it here at home." Saunders stubbed out his butt, and pulled out a package of cigarettes for fresh one.
"Did anyone see you at home, or did anyone drop by?"
"Detective, I'm a convicted felon. I don't have many friends." Saunders took a drag on the cigarette, turning his attention to Blair. "Sandburg. That's a familiar name."
Blair shifted uncomfortably, glancing at Jim. "Yeah, well. It's kinda common."
Saunders shrugged, nodding as he blew a smoke ring into the air. "Detective, I assure you I had nothing to do with what happened here. If anything, it was a matter of bad timing. Talk to my psychiatrist. I'm in therapy, I've done my time. The last thing I'd do is jeopardize my freedom again." He blew another smoke ring. "I didn't hurt those kids."
Blair stared, fascinated. The smoke rings slowly grew in size, expanding and fading as they rose. He had a gut feeling that Saunders was telling the truth, but his stomach churned uneasily for some reason. His eyes followed the smoke rings and came to rest on a decorative hanging on the wall. The design was Navajo, and was incredibly familiar.
"Sandburg. Sandburg....you wouldn't happen to know Naomi Sandburg, would you?"
Blair looked down to see Saunders staring intently at him. "Uh, yeah, she's my mother. Why?" There was silence. Blair's lips slowly parted, as memory washed over him. He shot out of the seat. "Jim, gimme the keys to truck."
Jim rose as well, slowly twisting to take in his partners face. "Chief, are you OK?"
"Just give me the keys." Blair caught the tossed key ring and brushed by his partner, and the confused cop waiting in the hallway. He was in the truck, and pulling out onto the main road before Jim even made it to the porch. How Jim would get home didn't even cross his mind. All that mattered was that he get away.
The drive to the loft was a blur. He wasn't aware of the near miss he had at the corner when a van ran the red light, nor of the tailgater who almost rammed the bumper.
Blair ran up the flight of stairs, fumbled with the keys and managed to unlock the door. He bolted into the loft and slammed the door behind him, panting with the exertion of his run. The french doors rattled as he pulled them shut behind him, and he curled into a ball in the corner, hands clasped over his head, tears clogging his nose. The memories washed over him like a wave, drowning and pulling the air from his lungs.
He curled into a small ball, clutching the threadbare teddy in his tiny arms. He had to be quiet. Momma would be back soon and then he could fall asleep, but until she came back, he had to be quiet. He was a big boy now, almost six. And he knew that there were no monsters in the closet of his tiny bedroom. He wasn't afraid of monsters.
But he was afraid.
Of the man Momma liked.
He knew that Momma was happy. She laughed a lot, and was happy all of the time. So were her friends who lived with them. The laughter sometimes kept him awake long into the night.
At first he cried, but that was bad. Because Derrick heard him and came into the room at night. He didn't like Derrick, and while he wasn't afraid of monsters in the closet, he was afraid of Derrick. He did things that didn't feel right. Momma's hugs were nice and warm. Derrick's hugs weren't very nice at all.
He wished Momma would come home. Derrick didn't come into his room when Momma was home. He pulled out his book, opening it to where a tiny scrap of paper marked his spot.
"His head was in a whirl of hope and wonder. It seemed that the ring he had was a magic ring: it made you invisible! He had heard of such things, of course, in old, old tales; but it was hard to believe that he really had found one, by accident. Still there it was: Gollum with his bright eyes had passed him by, only a yard to one side."
Blair looked up as the bead curtains were disturbed by a tall figure. He bit his lower lip, and hugged his book close to him. He wished he had a magic ring.
"Hello, Blair. Do you have a kiss for me?" The figure's voice was dark, and was missing the sibilant hiss of the mean Gollum in the story, but made him shiver just as much. Derrick said that if he wasn't a good boy, that the bad men would come and take him away. Momma had told him that too, that he mustn't do bad things. Lips pressed against his forehead and Derrick sat on the edge of the bed and took the book, placing it on the table. "Be a good boy, Blair. Be a good boy."
Blair blinked trustingly, letting the man pull down the bottom of his pajamas.
When Derrick left, he pulled the book to him, clutching it in his small fingers, the salty tang of tears on his tongue.
The party in the living room escalated, pot and heroin circulating freely. And in the small room in the back, a small boy dreamt of tall strong warriors with eyes that could see for a million miles and ears that could hear the sobs of a boy crying for the loss of a childhood.
The next morning, Blair sat at the sunny kitchen table, munching on a piece of toast with wild blueberry jam. His face was liberally smeared blue, and he smacked his lips appreciatively intent on eking every last taste. Naomi laughed at his antics and ruffled his hair.
"Momma?" He stopped mid-chew, mouth slightly agape.
"Can I have a magic ring?"
"Why on earth do you need a magic ring?"
"Like the one Bilbo has. So I can disappear."
"You don't need to disappear, sweetie. Bilbo needed the ring to hide from monsters. Besides, if you had a ring, how could I find you?"
And that was the end of that.
The knocking at the door wouldn't stop. Blair clapped his hands over his ears, but it seeped into his brain, thumping in time with the rush of blood in his eardrums.
"Blair! Sandburg, come on, Chief, open up." The handle of the door rattled. Jim could have broken it down, if he really wanted to, but Blair could see the cons involved with that. So he unfurled his cramped body and went to the door.
He pushed curls off his face and opened the door. "Hey, Jim."
His partner moved back in to the living room, giving him space. He took up the offer and took a seat on the sofa while Jim perched on the arm of the chair.
"Want to tell me what happened back there?"
Jim looked down at his hands, as if unsure what to do with them. The silence was thick, and soon was too much for Blair to bear.
"Mrs. Spencer dropped by my office today. There's a memorial service tomorrow. She invited me to go. I'm not sure if it's for me or for her. I mean, she seemed to realize how much closure means, but I got the feeling it was more for her sense of safety than anything else. Like she knows she can trust me, or something." Blair rambled on, pulling the afghan from off the back of the couch and draping it over his shoulders. "I'm getting the Volvo back tomorrow morning, so I should be able to get there and then meet you at the station by three. I should pick up some groceries while I'm at it."
Blair looked up his partner. The look on his face was almost enough to send him scurrying back to his room. But he knew he had to face this, no matter how much pain it would bring up. Blair twisted the fringe of the blanket between his fingers. The wool fibres were thick, but not scratchy, and his fingers unconsciously stroked them in a circular pattern, following the loose knit.
"You can tell me." Jim's voice was hushed, slinking through the tightly pulled silence rather than piercing it. And that's when Blair realized, there was no pity in that voice; there was only compassion.
"Naomi was a good mother." Blair locked gazes with Jim, daring him. Jim remained silent. "When I was five, we moved to San Francisco. We had been living in Iowa, but Naomi really didn't like there. She wasn't happy. But San Francisco...San Francisco had it all. She found people like her, free spirits, the ultimate hippies." Blair smiled faintly at the memory. "She had a lot of friends. Everyone wanted to be with Naomi. But then, there was me."
Blair looked his hands, and swallowed hard. "Remember how I told you that it was great when she had lots of boyfriends? It wasn't always that great. And there was this guy, the memory is so vague..." he gave a watery chuckle. "It's funny, how you remember things. It was the smoke rings. I remember the damn smoke rings."
Blair stood, a nervous energy pervading his body, the afghan slipping from shoulders. He felt the need to run, to move. He settled for pacing around the living room, while Jim continued to sit quietly. "He would come into my room late at night. Told me that this was what good boys did, and that this is what having a dad would be like. I was only five. The summer before, Naomi had been visited by child services. Single mothers didn't have it very easy back then, and she put the fear of foster homes into me. Derrick knew that." Blair ran both hands through his hair, tilting his head back and closing his eyes. "God! He knew that."
Blair blinked rapidly to clear his eyes, the moisture the blurring the room. "Anyway, Naomi found out, we left, and I've been in and out of therapy since. I..." Blair sniffled, clearing his throat. "I've really thought I had put it behind me." He shrugged, unsure of what else to say.
Jim's eyes were suspiciously bright, and he stood, tentatively moving closer to Blair. He held out his arms, unsure as to how it would be received. But he needn't have worried, Blair stepped into his arms, seeking shelter from the storms of the past.
The next morning was dark, and rain clouds once again threatened in the sky.
"And today, in Treeland Heights Cascade, the citizens are calling for justice. Derrick Saunders, a resident of this quiet community, and a convicted paedophile, has been hiding in his house all day. Residents here are demanding that the police take action and protect their children from the danger that lurks in their midst, and threatens even more children. Coming on the heels of three recent fatal attacks on children in this area, the people here are wondering what more will it take for the Chief of police step in and enforce justice. This is Wendy Shaw, Channel 10. Cascade, Washington."
Simon turned of the tape, and turned to Jim and Blair. Ellison held the file with Saunders record, along with the transcript from their interview with Dr. Muldoon, Saunders' psychiatrist. Blair merely stared at the blank screen. "I've got the Mayor breathing down my neck, and twenty reporters have called in the last ten minutes. They want answers, and so do I."
"They want him arrested." Jim tossed the folder onto Simon's desk.
Blair shook his head, drawing the attention of everyone in the room. "He didn't do it, Jim. His alibi checks out. He wouldn't have had enough time from his appointment with Dr. Muldoon to get from the clinic to the neighbourhood in the time frame the Spencers gave us. They're just looking for scapegoat. The real killer will still be out there. It's bad enough the department doesn't think there's enough risk to protect him from his neighbours anymore, but to put him away for something he's innocent of and everyone knows it? That's just bad karma."
"It's not like it would be such a bad thing if he was put in jail," Simon interjected. "The thought of him living in one of our neighbourhoods...let's just say that I can sympathize with the parents who want him out of there."
"Simon, you can't arrest someone for something they didn't do. Or something that they haven't done yet," Blair said, leaning forward intently.
"Sandburg, I can't believe you're defending this guy!" Jim stood and paced back and forth in the close quarters of Simon's office. Simon wrinkled his brow in confusion, gazing quizzically at both of them. Jim didn't elucidate, but merely continued to stare. Blair's lower jaw clenched under scrutiny, but he didn't volunteer information either.
"Jim, may I speak to you outside please? Privately." There was an undercurrent of cold steel in his voice. Jim opened the door, but the gallant gesture was lost as Blair stormed outside brushing by him in irritation. Simon merely huffed and rolled his eyes, used to the eccentricities of his team.
"Look Jim," Blair hissed. "My past is that. MY past. And it's just that, past. Got it? Whether I think someone deserves to go to jail is not at issue here. We know he's innocent. The psychiatrist verified his alibi. Finding a scapegoat is *not* your job. We need to focus on finding the real murderer before another kid disappears and another family gets ripped apart. Focussing on Saunders is *not* the way to do it."
Jim had the grace to look embarrassed, but the concern in his eyes was enough to have Blair wind down and take a deep breath. He looked at Jim with a mixture of anger, resentment and oddly enough, thanks.
"I know you hate that this, and it would be so easy to put Saunders away, and I'm not saying I wouldn't like it, too. But you know we can't."
Jim crossed his arms over his chest and lowered his head, studiously investigating the tiles on the floor of the bull pen. When he looked up again, Blair was resting his hip against Henri's desk, one hand scrubbing at his eyes while the other rested against his mouth.
"Okay, Chief. You're right."
Blair's eyes widened in surprise. "What? Just like that?"
"Yeah. Just like that." Jim looked about and made sure no one was nearby. "Look, it just pisses me off that a man like Saunders is out there walking around. He's a time bomb waiting to happen. And well, he...he hurt you. It was a long time ago, I know that. But he didn't do his time for that. He got away with it. Let's just say, if there was a way I could put him away, I would. Did...did Naomi ever press charges?"
Blair held up a hand at the sudden intensity of Jim's question. "No, and I'm not either. So don't even go there, okay? I put it behind me, and that's where I want it to stay."
"But Sandburg, it's just that--"
Simon's door swung open with a bang. "We've got shots fired at Saunders' house. Units are responding, but Jim, I want you down there."
"Shit." Jim grabbed his coat, Blair snatched up his book bag and they hit the elevator at a run.
Jim had the siren on as soon as they pulled out from the garage and the drive to Treeland Heights passed in a blur of cars, trees and wary pedestrians. When they pulled up outside of Saunders' home, two squad cars, lights flashing hypnotically in red and blue, were parked erratically on the lawn, and a crowd of spectators was gathered at the perimeter of the lawn.
"Is he dead?" "Don't let him get away with murder!" "Stop the killer!" Shouts from the crowd made Jim wince, but a hand on his arm helped him focus. Blair pulled him about as an officer approached them. They both pulled their identification and the officer jerked his head towards the house.
"Saunders is dead. He was shot, almost point blank. We've got the dogs out looking, but with all these people out here, it's not looking good."
"Okay, we'll take over the crime scene, you try to get some crowd control going on here. We don't want a riot on our hands."
A flashbulb popped close by, and the glare from a spotlight gave Jim afterimages which shimmered distractingly.
"Detective! Joan Smythe, Channel One, is it true that Derrick Saunders killed someone? Is there a dead body on the scene? Is the manhunt for the murderer over?" A microphone was waved about by a tall woman in a trench coat.
"And take care of these clowns!" Jim shouted over his shoulder at the officers who began herding the crowds away. Blair trailed behind his partner as they entered the house. Jim immediately moved to the kitchen, unerringly following the scent of blood.
Derrick Saunders lay sprawled on the white-tiled floor, his blood a vibrant dark red pooling around his body. Blair inhaled sharply through his nose and clenched his teeth. His audible swallow was followed by a soft exhalation.
"Oh man." He didn't resist as Jim pulled him away, out into the livingroom. His stomach rolled and he took a quick breath to settle it down.
"Stay here, Sandburg. I've got to do a search of the house. You make sure no one goes in there without first checking with me." Jim pulled his gun and went to the hallway to look through the bedrooms.
Blair went to the living room window and held a hand to his stomach. Jim finished the search and returned the kitchen. Blair pointed the way for the forensic unit that entered the house. He took a deep breath to calm his nerves, only to get a noseful of smoke from the still smouldering cigarette in an ashtray on the coffee table. The smell of tobacco and burning paper was too much, invoking memories of a nicotine-stained hand moving over him. He could feel the bile rising in his throat.
The clock on the mantle chimed one o'clock.
The service. He had forgotten about the service. Shit. He pulled his scattering thoughts together, and rallied his nerves to return to the kitchen.
They were taking pictures, the flashes capturing in brutally bright light the scene before them. Jim was going over the kitchen with tweezers, bagging hair and fibres.
He turned around, a latex glove holding the tweezers securely and unwaveringly. "You okay, Chief?"
"Yeah. Look, I have to go. The service for Perrin is in an hour and I have to go drop off a library book before I go broke from the fines. Will you be okay, you know?" Blair jerked his head towards the forensic officers, trying to be as subtle as possible.
Jim nodded grimly. "I'll be fine. Do you have your phone?"
"Call me when it's all over. I'll pick you up."
Blair smiled thinly. "Will do."
"Blair, thank you for coming." Mr Spencer took Blair's coat and hung it in the closet, already brimming with coats from the other mourners. "Please, help yourself to food, drink. Mary is upstairs getting some peace and quiet before the storm. She's been up there for hours, but should be down shortly though. The service itself will be starting in about twenty minutes."
"Thank you." Blair wasn't sure what else to say. 'Good to be here' and 'Happy to come' just didn't seem appropriate. "I'm glad that you and your wife have a chance to say good bye to Perrin."
"It will be a while before we can put this behind us, but, it's a start. I just wish we could have had a funeral." He looked at Blair apologetically. "Not that I blame your colleagues, but its hard having to postpone the funeral until the investigation is closed. Very hard."
"I understand. Which is why I think the memorial is a great idea." Blair followed the older man through the church hall to the buffet table, where sweets, small sandwiches and cookies lay on paper plates, blanketing the table. Blair poured a cup of piping hot coffee into a Styrofoam cup and fortified it with three cubes of sugar and some warm cream in a chipped creamer. Mr. Spencer excused himself to welcome another mourner, the need to keep moving more than obvious in his tense frame. Blair looked around, taking in the room.
The church was a Protestant one, a clone among the many whitewashed-steepled buildings that littered the city. The people inside the hall were what Blair had expected. Elderly women, ensuring the napkins were precisely folded, young friends with their own children held close, five-year olds chasing each other gleefully through the expansive room, oblivious to the mournful shroud which cast a pall over the brightly lit walls and sparkling floor tiles.
Blair surveyed the outpouring of support in the form of flour, eggs, and sugar, wondering whether to take a brownie or a cookie.
"Perrin loved those brownies."
Blair turned. "Mrs. Spencer."
She was red-eyed, and her hands trembled visibly
"Blair. How are you?" She took a shaky breath.
"I'm okay. How about you? Your husband said that this afternoon's been rough." He took her hand and led her to a convenient chair.
"Oh, I'm surviving. Moving on and all. I just wish that we didn't have to do this. I keep thinking, if only we hadn't moved this year. If only I hadn't let him go play in the yard. So many 'ifs'." Fresh tears welled in her eyes and she pulled an already shredded tissue from her pocket. "I...I heard from a neighbour that the man who hurt my baby is dead. It's over, isn't it."
Blair closed his eyes, the vision of Saunders submerged in his own blood stark in his mind. "Mrs. Spencer, I'm so sorry. But Saunders wasn't the man who killed Perrin. He has...had a rock solid alibi."
Mrs. Spencer paled, reeling against Blair's shoulder as he crouched beside her. Blair thought she might even faint, and looked worriedly around for her husband.
"He didn't kill Perrin? Everyone said....He didn't?" Her question was almost Sentinel soft, and if her head hadn't been resting against his shoulder, he doubted he would have heard it.
"No." Blair's voice was also soft, filled with regret, sorrow, and a smidgen of relief.
Mrs. Saunders dabbed at her eyes. "I...I have to go clean up. The service starts soon. Thank you, again."
Blair nodded. "Just let me now if you need anything."
He downed the rest of the coffee as she walked away. He frowned, and moved mechanically towards the sanctuary as the minister announced the beginnings of the ceremony. He sat in the hard pew, fighting not to fidget, struggling not to squirm, lost in memory as the organ music washed over him.
He had to be good. He had to be. Derrick was already mad. Derrick had yelled at mommy. But what he couldn't understand was why mommy had yelled back. Or why she grabbed him up in a fierce grip and had ran out of the house, without so much as a suitcase.
Now, sitting on the hard bench outside the doctor's office, instructed not to move from the seat, he clutched his book tightly. He was lucky to have been holding it when mommy walked in and found Derrick touching him. Otherwise, he might have not been able to take it with him, like his other books. But this one was his favourite. Bilbo was funny, and Galdalf was the bestest wizard ever.
He swung his legs and opened the book to a page with its corner carefully folded. The piece of paper he used as a bookmark had fluttered to the ground as his mommy carried him out to the bus stop. He skipped the part where they killed the dragon, not liking it very much. Special things shouldn't be hurt, and well, dragons were special, sorta. Even if he wasn't very nice. He was probably just misunderstood, Blair figured. Poor dragon.
"As soon as Bombur had gone, Bilbo put on his ring, fastened his rope, slipped down over the wall and was gone...."
"Let the children come unto me...." The minister continued to read as soft music played in a light counterpoint like children's laughter, lingering in the air like the fading colours of a rainbow. Blair shot a sideways glance at the woman across from him, seated in the pew on the other side of the aisle.
Mrs Spencer was staring straight ahead, her eyes glazed. Her husband clutched her hand, but she seemed oblivious to his presence.
The choir began the postlude, bringing the service to a quiet sombre end. As the amen sounded, people rose and began filing out, stopping to pay their respects to the couple at the front of the church. Blair followed suit.
"If you need anything. Just let me know," Blair said, shaking their hands, and returning the brief hug that Mrs. Spencer enfolded him in.
"Thank you again, Blair," Mr. Spencer replied. Mrs. Spencer looked away, holding her hand to her mouth. "I'm going to take Mary home now. Today has been quite rough. I'm worried that our daughter is suffering from our lack of attention, so we're going to be going away for a while, try to put it behind us. Mary thought it might be nice to go to Colorado."
Blair smiled. "I hear it's lovely there this time of year. And remember, don't hesitate to call."
He stood outside on the porch, watching as the mourners got into their cars and with minimal jockeying for position, drove out of the small lot that served as space for parishioners to park during services. A brisk wind tossed his hair, the smell of salt strong off the harbour. There was a tang to the air that promised more rain, and Blair didn't even need Sentinel senses to know it. Pulling out his phone, he dialled Jim's number.
"Sandburg, you ready? I'm just getting ready to head back to the station from Saunders place."
"Yeah, the church is on the corner of Dunn and McDonald Avenue. I'll be out front."
"Give me fifteen minutes."
"You don't sound okay."
"I...I just have some thinking to do."
"Okay, hang tight. I'll be there in a bit."
"It's my job, Chief."
The phone disconnected and Blair was left in the cold. He tugged out the pair of gloves he had stuffed into his pocket and warmed his fingers in the soft interior. The gloves made it hard to do up his jacket, but he persevered and once finished, continued to look out over the parking lot, lost in thought and memory.
"Yes, Blair?" Naomi stopped smearing sun screen on Blair's arms as he wriggled about to face her.
"Why did we leave?"
"Because it wasn't a good place for us, honey."
Blair picked up his shovel and a pail, looking at the beach with five-year old determination. "Can we build a castle, momma?"
"Whatever you want, sweetie."
"A house, then? A nice house, with a television so I can watch Mickey Mouse?"
Naomi sighed. "I thought I told your aunt no television."
"I like Aunt Jane. She's funny. Can we stay with her?"
Naomi watched as Blair began packing soft black dirt into the pail.
"For a while, honey. Then we might have to go."
"Because it might not be safe here."
Blair continued his mission to fill the bucket, the tip of his tongue protruding from his lips in concentration, caught between his teeth."
"Because Derrick might find us."
Naomi sighed, but smiled. "Because he was a bad man."
"And that's why we left?"
"Even if you were laughing and happy?"
Naomi felt a tear fall down her cheek and Blair stopped packing the sand watching the small drop with concern. She gathered him into her arms and held him close.
"Honey, I was very happy. But I didn't know what Derrick was doing. And when I found out, we had to leave. Even if I wasn't going to be happy anymore."
"I don't want you to be unhappy."
His child's naive love was almost enough to break her heart.
"Well, Blair, you'll find out that parents, and especially mothers, will do anything to protect their children, because they love them so much. Even if it makes them a bit unhappy. I love you, baby. Having you safe and happy, makes me more happy then living with Derrick and my other friends. Besides, Auntie Jane is a lot of fun, isn't she?"
Blair nodded sagely. "And she let's me watch Mickey Mouse. He has a dog, Pluto! Can I get a dog? I think I'll call him Gandalf, 'cause Gandalf's a great wizard, and my dog could be a great wizard too!"
Naomi listened to Blair's ramblings, smiling with joy, regret and hope.
The sound of the sea eased pain, soothed sorrow, and washed away the guilt, transforming the soul as surely as it moulded the coast.
The sound of the truck's horn brought Blair out of his thoughts and back to the present where it had started to drizzle again.
"You're going to catch pneumonia, Chief," Jim called, as he held open the passenger door.
Blair darted down and scrambled into the dry warmth of the cab. "Thanks, man. I didn't realize it was raining again. Kinda had my own zone out, I guess."
Jim nodded as he pulled out into the traffic. "You want me to drop you off at the loft? I have to go the station. Simon wants to talk."
"No, I'm good. I need to talk with Simon, too."
Jim shot him a glance. "Anything you want to share?"
Blair shook his head. "Not yet. I...I...I just have think."
Jim accepted the evasion with no more than a suspicious glance. "Whatever." His voice softened. "Listen, Chief. How are you really holding up? This hasn't been the easiest couple of days. I mean, what with finding out about Saunders and then him dying and all..."
"Jim," Blair interrupted. "I'm handling it. Just give me some space, okay?"
Jim nodded, "Sure."
"Any luck with Saunders' case?" Blair decided changing the topic was a good defensive strategy.
"Not really. The weapon was a small caliber hand gun. Could have been any number of people. It wasn't like there wasn't reason to want him dead." Jim paused. "I mean..."
"I know what you meant, Jim. Guess it was a good thing I was at the station, huh?" Blair stared out the window, watching the rain drops dance in the wind sheer on the window. The rest of the trip was in silence, the hum of the tires on wet pavement and the passing splashes of cars the only noise.
By the time Jim pulled the truck into the station, Blair's hair had just started to dry, small frizzy fly aways coming loose from his ponytail. He pulled of the leather band constraining the curls and let them fall down onto his shoulders. Jim was stonily quiet, barely acknowledging the people who greeted them on their way up to Major Crimes.
"Ellison, Sandburg, can I see you in my office, please?" Simon stood by the door, waiting for them to precede him. Once he had his star team seated, he sat on the edge of his desk.
"Jim, I need you on the Saunders murder."
"I'm already on it, sir." Jim gave a mock salute. "I did a once over of the crime scene. There's not much yet. A couple of hair and fibres, we have the bullet, and all we need is the gun to match. But it won't be easy, there's a lot of people out there who would want him dead. Motive isn't going to be our friend."
"No one's happy about this, Jim." Simon ran a hand over his face wearily. "The mayor doesn't want a vigilante running about. No one's going to mourn the son of a bitch. No one. But we have to find the killer."
"Both the killers." Blair murmured.
Jim and Simon looked at him.
"There are two killers. The one who shot Saunders and the one who killed the children. We need to find both the killers."
"I'm aware of that Sandburg." Simon's voice was hard as a diamond, chiselled and cutting.
Blair didn't make down. "Look, all I'm saying is that no one deserved to die. The kids...Derrick...no one deserves to die."
"Yeah, well, welcome to the real world kid," Simon said, his voice softening for a moment. "Blair, I understand if you want to sit this out. When kids are involved, it gets rough."
"It's a bit late for that, Simon," Jim interjected. "Look, I'm swamped with trying to get leads on the serial killer. Could Rafe and Henri take Saunders?"
Simon shook his head. "Sorry, I've got them picking up the slack on other cases that have been popping up, some drug charges and a serious assault case. I need you on this. Besides, the two are probably linked some how."
"Oh my god." It was quiet, understated, but held a note of shock that froze both Jim and Simon. "I know who killed him."
Jim swivelled in his chair to look at his partner. "What?"
Blair started at the loud exclamation. He turned his head, eyes wide and disbelieving. "I know who killed Derrick. Oh, god. How could she?"
"Who the hell is he talking about, Ellison?" Simon demanded.
"That's what I'd like to know." Jim reached over and put a hand on Blair's shoulder. "Chief? Who killed him?"
"Mrs. Spencer. Perrin's mother." Blair squeezed his eyes closed. "A mother will do anything to protect her children."
"Oh...just something Naomi told me once. But she did it. I'm sure of it."
"And how do you know this?" Jim asked, face willed with a mixture of hope and scepticism.
"She thought he was the murderer. When I told her he wasn't, she almost fainted. She killed him, Jim. I know I don't have any real evidence, but I'm sure of it. We just have to prove it."
"You damn well have some evidence before you accuse the victim's mother of killing someone, Sandburg!" Simon rose up off the table, looming over the observer. "Do you know the shit I could get into if *that* goes public?"
"This isn't about the image of the department or its reputation! This is about catching a killer!" Blair powered out of his chair, pushing a finger into Simon's chest.
"Captain, let me ask some questions, make a few calls. All we need is to get a gun match. We can't ignore a possible suspect just because she was the victim's mother. Revenge is a mighty strong motive."
Simon let out a deep breath, and reached for his cigar case. "Go. Get out and make those damn calls, and make sure that you have something that will stick before you go about accusing upstanding members of the community, you hear?"
"Thanks, Captain Banks." Blair was reserved as they left, and he quietly shut the door behind them.
Blair stood on the balcony, beer in hand. He was oblivious to the cold until a warm sweater was draped about his shoulders.
"Can't have you turning into an icicle on me, Chief."
"Was she arrested?"
Jim sipped his own beer, staring off into the sunset that spread across Cascade's skyline. "Yeah. They were getting ready to leave town, just like you said. The gun was buried in the backyard. She confessed right away."
"What's going to happen to her?"
"The DA convinced her lawyer to go for a guilty plea with a defence of diminished capacity. The judge was ready to see her right away and gave her five years, suspended sentence, no trial, no mess. They want to keep it out of the press, and try to forget it ever happened. Hell, she's practically a hero the people in her neighbourhood. What a mess." Jim leaned his forearms against the railing of the balcony, bending at the waist.
Blair rubbed his forehead. "I wish I knew what I should be feeling. It's just that I'm glad he can't hurt anyone anymore. But I didn't want him to die, and that Mrs Spencer..." He trailed off, unsure of what he wanted or meant to say.
"Well, at least we were able to catch the killer."
That brought on silence, the feeling of failure strong in the air.
"Do you think we'll catch him?" Blair didn't have to say who me meant. The hidden threat to the children of the city lurked like a snake in the grass, hidden and camouflaged from sight.
"I don't know, Chief. I don't know."
They stood shoulder to shoulder watching the sunset until the first star began to blink silently in the sky, and darkness blanketed the city, broken by streetlights.
Blair stood in the graveyard. It had been a long five months. Dealing with the memories of his past, the events of the present, and the fears for the future had taken a toll. But he managed to survive, and weather the storm.
He looked down at the small cross that marked the burial sight.
The case of the serial killer was still open, but a lack of clues, and the fortunate lack of new attacks had left the entire police department scratching their collective heads. Jim had received a new case load that monopolized his time, and the plump folder with crime scene photos and depositions from parents lay buried under a mountain of paperwork, awaiting the break that might never come.
The sky was grey, but a hint of yellow sun broke through the clouds. Blair stuck his hands in his pockets and pulled out a well-worn, tattered paperback book. He stroked the cover, finger tracing the picture of a dragon flying over a mountain peak.
"I don't need a ring anymore. But I wish I had one." He said aloud, speaking to the dying grass and the cold concrete bordering the grave. "Rest well."
He tucked the book back in his pocket and turned on his heel. He left graveyard, and walked to the parking lot where Jim waited with the truck. Leaving behind the memories and fears, moving onward to the future and his hopes.
Left behind, the small grey cross creaked in the wind that swept the brown grass in waves. A small concrete block marked the body within. Inscribed with block letters, cold and unforgiving: Derrick Saunders, May 17 1948- August 27, 1997.