Letters From Hades

Part 3

By Demeter

"As the night falls, I am afraid, Someone, somewhere, somehow, They will get me"

Carole Smith, "The Magic Castle", 1998 ( from a poem written by her son Alex)

17

"No, we didn't find James yet." I give the cuffed perp an angry push, uncaring that he's complaining loudly. One of the ATF guys takes him from me, and I follow Drennan down the stairs into the bowels of the building. "I'll be calling again, Simon. I'm hearing more heartbeats - I think we just found those kids."

I've learned to distinguish different ages quite well; at least here, they're not all in the same person.

We have easily found the house that Grays described to us, suburban, but very inconspicuous, until you enter it. The door was answered by a middle-aged, balding man, behind him his wife, both of them acting surprised and shocked to have the police at their door.

Upon crossing the threshold, I almost gagged from the smell, but I guess no one but me even noticed yet. I heard the many heartbeats, some seemingly drugged, some unhealthily fast, and I just knew we were right here.

The first rooms were nondescript, like people with a better income would live, nothing special about them, but the deeper you got into the house, there were rooms with sound isolation, the furniture and decoration very much like the scenes I remember from Vice, beds covered with black velvet and silk. Grays had mentioned them, too.

There was a computer terminal, and I was pretty confident we'd be able to charge the eight men and two women we'd encountered so far with possession, and quite probably distribution of illegal porn.

No Philip James yet, though the older woman looked very much like the picture I'd seen of Nathan Clayton's mother, Alice James.

And we had yet to go through the cellar, and the barn.

***

The door is old, and heavy, secured with iron bolts. Impossible to open from the other side. When we open it, Drennan says, "My God," and I wonder for a split second, because I'm sure she can't see what I see, but it must be the smell that's getting to her, urine, feces, blood.

There are several pairs of eyes staring at us, hope long lost. Maybe more than one of the people who have tortured them has worn a uniform, and the only thing they expect is more pain to come.

As we walk into the room, I realize that the windows have been barricaded with wooden boards. There is no source of light in here. I force myself to take a closer look at the young occupants, as Drennan calls for the paramedics. The oldest of them has to be no more than ten or eleven.

And then I realize that there's a body in the room, in the corner under a blanket.

Drennan's eyes meet mine, and in them, I read exactly the same as what's on my mind; if only we could. Why not spare the taxpayer the expense, and get rid of those ten people right away? There's not one of our colleagues who would not help hide the bodies. Just say there were no adults in the house, just these helpless kids.

There's a boy, pale and thin, a questioning look in his large, dark eyes, as if he's expecting me to give him a reason for all he had to suffer, and I wonder, do they really need our fond thoughts of revenge? Of course not. They need to be safe again first and foremost.

I crouch down in front of him, but still leaving him personal space, so he doesn't feel cornered. "It's okay now. You don't have to be afraid anymore." I can see and feel clearly that he doesn't believe me. I wouldn't, if I were him. "What's your name?" I ask.

He seems to be considering the question. Is it safe to answer? Will things be worse if he doesn't? "Colin," he whispers eventually.

That moment, the paramedics enter the room, but I haven't missed the question Colin has for me; "Why does Jenny sleep all the time?"

"You take your time to get well, okay, Colin? We'll look after Jenny, I promise."

When a female paramedic starts talking to him softly, he's still looking at me. I can feel that gaze still boring into me minutes later. How do you explain things like this -- not only to a child, but to anyone?

What's worse, I have seen that gaze before, on Blair's face, when Kevin asked me if they were going to burn in hell.

***

There are more kids in the barn, and there we also find wooden poles, bound together in a cross - an upturned cross, to be precise.

"I don't know." Megan's looking like she has a headache - which she probably has. "From what I've read in Sandy's paper, these people are clever criminals, hiding their tracks. I can't believe they left these things lying around like this."

She's right; it's like the jars with the blood at Wright's. With this stuff all in the open, they were planning something. Not counting in that one of their members would talk? It's almost too easy. And we haven't found James yet.

Part of me is disappointed and frustrated, but having freed those kids sure is a great victory. Having freed them before the night of Halloween, that is. Fifteen days to go. Still, time is running out on us. If we don't find the bastard, then we've at least got an idea of what's going to happen once the day arrives.

For now, the children are brought to the hospital, accompanied by a team of psychiatrists - once they're up to it, the children are going to be carefully questioned as to their identity, compared against files of missing children, and then we hopefully find out if James was really in the compound up until a few days ago, like Grays has claimed.

If we're really lucky, we'll get this information from the group that we have arrested, and we don't have to bother the children for now. In any case, it's going to be another long night; I hope Blair has followed my advice and has gone home.

As I stand outside the big barn, next to Megan, I open up my hearing again, in order to rule out any possibility that I might have missed something in this house of hell.

There's a girl, a toddler still, brought out on a stretcher. Her hair is jet-black, long black lashes. She reminds me of someone I know, but I can't place her. And there it is again, this itchy feeling, that I might have overlooked something, just as I had it when I was looking over the photos from Wright's house again.

"Are you getting something?" Megan asks, probably worried I could be zoning.

"No... yes... I don't know." I look at the girl again, and the image is all of a sudden accompanied by a scent, very faint, drowned out by all the other, more obtrusive smells around here, but it's definitely there. A perfume, one I have smelled before.

It belongs to the woman Blair had met when he should have been presenting his dossier to the DA instead:

Julie.

***

When I call the station again, Simon tells me that Blair has left to meet a friend, and has told him to tell me not to worry. I'm not too sure what to make of it, when I remember that Blair was going to explain some things to Mr. Thomas. Yeah, right. I swear this damn case has become so tangled and complex, I have almost forgotten about the bodybuilder guy in holding. Drennan interrogated him, and so far, he's been stonewalling about his association with James, claiming he just 'couldn't stand those damn fags making out', but she doesn't believe him, and neither do I.

I call Blair on his cell, and he answers it on the third ring, sounding inappropriately high-spirited.

"Hey, man. Is it okay if I'm not home for dinner?"

I suppose I'm talking to someone who does not know about the newest development in the case, which is probably for the better. "No problem, Chief. I'll be stuck here for a while longer. And where are you?"

"Well, I have to make up with someone, if you know what I mean."

I'm silent for a moment, once again wondering about the relationship between Tony and Craig Thomas, and what Blair has to say about it. This 'multiple' thing is easy to accept in theory, but the truth is much more complicated.

"Don't worry," he says, "I know Blair's boundaries better than any of us. I might not always agree, but I'm patient, okay?"

I find myself smiling, for the first time today. "Okay then. I need to ask you a favor though. You've got Julie's address?"

"Julie?"

"The TA you met..." Oh, right. Tony did not meet her. "Well, okay, not you. She's a friend, and I need to ask her something. Maybe Blair saved her address on the cell phone? Could you please check?"

"Wait a minute." A moment later, Tony is back on the phone with me. "There's only one Julie, Julie Claasen, 11 Jasper Street. I don't know if that helps. You want the phone number, too?"

"Yeah, thanks. And it's a great help."

When I hang up the phone, I'm glad that Tony did not ask why I wanted to talk to Julie. I'd hate for Blair to find out that another of his friends is involved in criminal activity - and especially in this.

Jasper Street is the fourth peak of the pentagram in the computer simulation.

***

I talk to Megan briefly, explaining to her why I need to talk to Ms. Claasen. It's only a ten-minute drive - her apartment is close to the university, an area where many students live. Julie Claasen is living alone. I wish I had paid more attention to her when I saw her that other time, but how could I have known she'd be important somewhere along the line?

Her expression is guarded when she opens the door, not removing the chain immediately, though I can tell she has recognized me.

"Detective Ellison. This is a surprise. What can I do for you?"

"Can I come in?"

She smiles a bit slyly. "Only if you're not going to yell at me again."

"I promise."

Julie finally removes the chain and steps back from the door to let me into a small, but nicely furnished living room. Lots of books, psychological and anthropological textbooks, some paperback novels. It looks familiar, which is somehow reassuring.

I don't know why. The house we've searched today looked homely on the surface, too.

"You want some coffee?"

"No, thanks." Suspicion takes over again. The scent is stronger in the apartment; I have not been mistaken.

We sit down, and she looks at me expectantly. "I wonder if Blair has talked to you about the case we're working on at the moment." Now I see the suspicion blaze in her look, too.

"Blair never talks about any cases, but I do read the newspaper. The hunt for that Satanist guy, what was his name? James? - sounds like a good bet. I don't understand why you're asking me, though. You think I'm hiding him here in my apartment?"

I don't answer her question directly. "You know, with a case like this, we get lots of calls and hints, and we have to follow them in order to rule out all the possibilities, you know?"

Julie shrugs.

"Many people are scared, and sometimes it makes them overreact. We have gotten calls from folks who think they saw their neighbor wearing a black robe, when it was in fact just a coat with a cape; things like that. One of the calls was regarding this house, and I've seen the other apartment is empty."

"Why don't you just tell me what you want from me? This is ridiculous. I don't hold black masses. There are some kids in the neighborhood who do these Black Metal parties every now and then, but I've never been to any of them; it's not my kind of scene. If that's all, Detective?"

The voice is the same, but her heart is beating faster, hands shaking. She is afraid.

"Is someone threatening you, Julie? You could come with me to the station right now and make a statement. We'd protect you."

"I have nothing to say, except that I want you to go now. Before I report you for harassment."

A single scent is probably poor evidence, but I'm positive that I'll be able to convince Simon to sign off sing off on staking her out. She knows something, that's for sure. And my instinct says that we need to stay close to her - for her protection.

"I understand. If you ever change your mind, don't hesitate to call. At any time."

When she doesn't move, I just lay my card on the coffee table, and leave.

***

18

"So that was your infamous roommate?" Craig asks, seeming curious.

Beside him on the couch, Tony's almost asleep, enjoying a rare moment of safety in the doctor's embrace, even though he knows it can't last forever. Halloween is too close, always a difficult time even without James on the loose.

Too many people know the truth already, and one day Craig will find out, too. Tony has decided not to tell him at the moment, for the sake of not causing any more confusion.

That, and he doesn't want sympathy.

He also hasn't forgotten the promise made to Jim, but a little cuddling will certainly do no harm, will it? "I'm sorry," he says now, "I just wanted to sleep in my own bed after all that happened. Please understand."

Craig is stroking his hair, the touch soothing and almost hypnotic, but his words shatter the almost trance-like state. "What is it with you and that older guy? One minute you're begging him not to hurt anyone, and the next you're pulling a gun on him?"

Tony is admittedly as confused about the scene as Blair is. He wasn't there, but where guns are concerned, Ben is always a good guess. "I was scared."

"I didn't even know you were carrying a gun. I told the cops I didn't know who fired the gun; I'm not sure if they believed me."

"That older man..." Tony shudders, as he knows it has to have been James. "He ran away when he heard the police siren, and I'm not that good a shooter. But the other guy, he wouldn't stop beating up on you, and I just couldn't wait until the police arrived."

"It's okay," Craig says gently, putting a finger to his lips. "I'm on sick leave for now, and you probably spared me a visit to my own workplace, and the humiliation of getting patched up by my colleagues. It's true what they say about doctors being the worst patients."

"So you don't mind if I stay the night?" Since the incident with the dead cat, Tony avoids coming home to the loft alone, especially at night.

"Of course not. You're always welcome."

There's a slight 'but' in Craig's voice, an unspoken curiosity unsatisfied, and Tony knows they're going to have to talk someday. But not tonight. He wants to stay in this illusion of safety just a little while longer.

***

I'm standing in an unfamiliar bathroom, staring as though hypnotized at the drop of blood that's snaking down my arm from a cut about two inches long. Feeling dizzy and disoriented, I clutch the sink harder, the porcelain feeling alien under my hands.

Where am I? Where has the cut come from?

Stupid.

Useless.

Coward.

I need to leave this bathroom, right now, but I am frozen. Make it deeper.

There's some kind of pain, seeming to center in my stomach, but I can't locate it precisely.

And then, the room is starting to spin around me.

***

"You betrayed me. You will pay for it."

The voice of Philip James that night is merely a whisper, but it thunders in Little Jacob's sensitive ears, over and over again. Past and present bleed into one another, and he can't decide which is now, and he's even more scared. He's gotten away this time, but there's no escape from the Punisher, because he is on the inside.

'The time is near', keeps resounding in his head, louder yet until it hurts.

***

"Leave me alone, man!"

Hands that are gentle one moment can be brutal the next; Zack knows all about it, and that's why he doesn't want the man to come closer, even if he claims that they know each other, and that he's a doctor.

Despite his fear, Zack almost snorts at that. As if it means anything at all.

"You've hurt yourself. Please let me take a look," the man pleads again, and Zack stares dazedly at the blood on his arm. Has he done this? No way.

"You're lying. I know it."

"I'm not lying. Let me at least bandage it, okay?"

Some have bandaged the wounds they have caused before. Is he one of them? It hurts. Zack feels like crying even though he knows that he mustn't; it always makes things worse, and he is no sissy, after all. He just wants it to go away...

***

At the last moment, Tony refrains himself from cursing. He feels like he's losing control over to others, alters drawn out by the fear that James could be a threat to them again. Slowly, he drags himself up from the floor.

"I'm sorry," he says, smiling at Craig who looks shaken, probably for a reason. "It's just that I'm a bit of a mess these days."

***

At early dawn, Kerry steals herself away from Craig's apartment. She needs to go to the hospital, see for herself that the children are safe, and cared for. That nobody yells at them. She knows best how scared and confused they are now, and she's determined to help them, by talking to them, or maybe drawing little pictures for them.

She's always done this - as best she can - for the inside children, and sometimes, for other children in the house, too, like Andy, and Lily.

She's left a note for the doctor, that he shouldn't worry, and that she's going to call him, hoping Tony will be satisfied with that.

They decided long ago that the children always come first.

***

There's this girl who looks a lot like one Kerry once knew. She's driving the hospital staff crazy, screaming as soon as anybody approaches her, and they need to, in order to treat her injuries. When Kerry arrives at the ward, the girl has just woken up again, kicking and spitting at everyone who comes too close.

It's a Detective Rafe who's guarding the room, and he looks just as frustrated as the doctor, and the nurses. Fortunately, they all seem to know Blair, and Kerry just says, "Let me try."

They look at her in surprise, but step aside.

"That's okay. You're making yourself heard," she talks softly to the girl. "That's good. I feel like screaming sometimes, too."

The girl's gaze is one of shock. She has probably never heard that before.

"It's okay to scream when it hurts so bad, when someone is hurting you, because no one should. And some people are so bad that you can't forget about them, and you see bad people everywhere. You can't see anyone good anymore, right?"

The child nods, still looking at Kerry wide-eyed. She has stopped screaming, and started sucking on her thumb instead.

"I know what it feels like. But that's what the bad people want, that you don't trust anyone. They are not right" She's talking slowly to the girl, as if they have all the time in the world. "Look, there's a policeman outside the door. Maybe you've met one who was bad, too, but this one will make sure that none of the people who hurt you can come in."

The girl now casts a shy look at the detective, and he smiles, though Kerry can sense his own pain, too.

"The doctor and the nurses want to make sure you'll get better. That's the only reason they are touching you. Not because they like to see you hurt, only because they need to know what's the matter with you -- to make you stop hurting. Please let them help you."

Very carefully, Kerry reaches out a hand, not touching the child, waiting.

Everyone in the room seems to be holding their breath for long moments -- and then the girl reaches out too, her fingers brushing against Kerry's tentatively. There are tears in her eyes, and Kerry's, too.

"Stay?"

"Of course. I'll draw you a picture, too."

***

Somebody's gently shaking me awake. "Come on, wake up, Chief."

Startled, I open my eyes, barely keeping myself from groaning when I take in my surroundings. I'm sitting in a chair beside a hospital bed, and the reason why Jim is whispering is that there's a girl I've never seen before, sleeping in that bed. On the nightstand, there's a picture of a bird, drawn with crayons.

There's no signature on it, but I recognize Kerry's style. Probably she gave it to the child. I dazedly look at the girl for a moment, until Jim touches my shoulder carefully. "I hear you've done great. Let's go home now."

"What's the time?" I ask when we are outside in the hallway.

"Just after six."

"In the morning?"

"I'm afraid so." Jim smiles wryly. "I guess nobody went home yesterday, and when Rafe called about the magic you did with that poor girl, I thought you could maybe use a ride."

Magic. The word lingers on my mind like some unwanted echo. Magic, it was not. "I suppose my car's here; Kerry does drive," I say wearily. "But thank you. I can use it." Looking at him again, I realize that he's exhausted, too, and guiltily I remember how we parted yesterday. "Was it bad?" A stupid question to ask, really.

He nods. I wait for words to come - in vain.

"You can tell me," I insist. "I'm not going to fall apart, you know."

"Later. Let's go home first."

This conversation is not over yet.

***

We're about three blocks away from the loft, having to stop at a red light. Both of us are lost in our respective thoughts for a moment, before Jim says, "What happened to your arm? I can smell blood."

Testimony to how tired he is; normally he would have smelled it right away. But the impressions of today probably messed with his senses. Again, I think that it probably would have been easier on him if I had been there. Sure, Megan can bring him out of a zone-out if necessary, but she can't read between the lines, yet. Useless. Coward.

I'm cringing, pulling myself back to the present moment just in time. "Cut myself. Accidentally," I hurry to add.

"Again?"

There's not a whole lot of use in lying to him. I just sigh. "Scared the hell out of Mr. Thomas for sure. Not that I know."

"Did you explain to him?"

"I guess not. Look - I'm really sorry I chickened out on you."

"I asked you to stay away, remember?"

"Yes, but--"

"No, but," Jim cuts off my words, sounding so angry that I actually flinch. "Can't you just let it be? Believe me, you wouldn't have wanted to see what we found. Those kids, being kept tied up in the dark, like some wild animals in their own waste, and if those creeps felt like it, they pulled them out and cleaned them for their sick--"

***

Whose turn is it for Halloween night?

***

For a heartbeat, we just stare at each other, shocked.

"I'm sorry, Chief. God, I didn't mean to --"

"It's okay," I say, even though I feel sick to my stomach at the images his words have conjured, at the echoes within.

"No, it's not. I should have known better. In any case, one of them has to know where James is. He can't hide forever."

Hopefully, he's right. As long as James is out there, I'll never be free. For the rest of the drive, we stay silent, and I have to fight the nausea that has set in from the moment I started to imagine it. Jim is right. And maybe, that cruel inner voice is right, too.

***

19

It's good to know that Simon won't be giving us any trouble for the time being; so no one else has to know for now. I could tell that Rafe was quite baffled by Blair marching into that hospital room and convincing the little girl to let the doctor examine her - but he's nowhere near the truth.

One thing he said stuck with me though - "I swear he called her Lily." Another piece of the puzzle? Again, I check the ATF file of the old case against James. No Lily, or Lillian, on the list of the freed children.

One name I find is Julie Ronalds. Coincidence? I'm suspicious. Names can be changed. Maybe she did it to make it harder for cult members to find her. Maybe she simply had been married - Julie seems a few years older than Blair...

Simon has assigned Taggart and Connor for the watch, whereas I'm supposed to get Alice James to give up her husband's hiding place. We have first reports from the psychiatrists treating the children coming in. There's no doubt that serious abuse was taking place in that house.

Melissa Clayton had tried to keep up the pretense of a loving mother - her mother-in-law, Alice James, doesn't try to hide anything. She's close to fifty now, dark hair graying, nothing spectacular about her. She doesn't wear any make-up or jewelry. When she speaks though, there's so much malice in her voice that I have no difficulty believing that she is with the main perps, like her deranged husband.

"You will never find him," she says with a self-satisfied smile. I want to wipe it off her face, and I do have some ideas how.

"What makes you so sure? We've come pretty close. We've got you."

"You think you can scare me?" she huffs. "Take a look at yourself, and everyone around here. I think we did pretty well in scaring you."

"Don't you worry about me." I'm not scared of her, that's true. What puzzles me about these people is that you can't get any leverage with them. They are so damn sure of themselves.

"That's right. You will never know, never understand. Your little friend, however..." She lets her words trail off, knowing she's got me on the hook. Very much like her son Nathan. I wonder if she has prepared herself for this, just as I did. "Let's say he knows some things about Philip. I was at times jealous of him."

There, I must have blacked out for a moment myself, because the next conscious moment I'm standing over her, and as though through a fog, I hear Simon's voice urging me to let her go. The woman's mad laughter sounds like fingernails on a slate to me. Hell, we left Kansas a long time ago.

"Take a break," Simon says when we're outside. "You've slept for what, two, three hours? Any?"

"Know anyone around here who had more?" I ask sarcastically.

He sighs. "Right. I know you want a quick success, we all do, but it isn't accomplished that way. You got us the information from Clayton. You cracked Grays. Cut yourself some slack already."

"It's not that easy. We still haven't got James."

"Why don't you go and spend some time with Sandburg, how about that? Maybe you'll find out about that weapon no one has seen, make sure there'll be no further trouble on that subject. I'll call you if anything happens."

I shrug, but in truth, I'm more than glad about this assignment. While we walk further away from the observation area, Simon asks the question that must have been on his mind ever since we sprung the news on him - "Isn't this multiple personality disorder extremely rare? I know it does exist outside of the movies, but I always thought the odds were, I don't know, one in a million."

"Like being a Sentinel?" I ask dryly.

"All right, you've got a point there. With you two the surprises never end, do they?"

We don't go any deeper; keeping the tone as light as possible. I take another look at Alice James who had a delicious meal on the stove, while inside that cellar some of the kids were starving. Simon is quite right; it's not a good idea for me to be in the same room with her right now.

***

I drive around aimlessly for a while, trying to get my thoughts into order. Around five, I arrive at the loft ready to crash, thinking guilty thoughts of our early morning conversation. Throwing the reasons exactly why I didn't want him at the scene of the crime yesterday into Blair's face certainly wasn't helpful in making things better.

Hell, will I ever get this right?

I think the consequences weren't too bad; he accepted my apology - but what if Billy had listened? Or Kevin? Maybe it's not fair to wallow about how crazy our lives have become, when, for years, I automatically expected that he live with something that wasn't any less weird - enhanced senses.

Doesn't really matter much that he wanted to meet a Sentinel - for sure, Blair did not know what he was getting himself into when he asked me to come to his office that day. Did I? Do I, now? The facts don't change, though. He's the best friend I ever had. Call me stubborn, but I won't let go. James, that sick fuck, he wants to be master over life and death -- but he never managed to do what we did, that day at the fountain.

When I get inside, Blair emerges from the kitchen carrying a bottle of wine and two glasses. I give him a quizzical look, wondering what's up. "Hi there. What's the occasion?"

"I don't know," he says wearily. "Simon hasn't fired me yet? At least some of those children will have a life now? Pick one. Or maybe it's just that I want to sleep tonight, no nightmares."

I reach out, put two fingers under his chin to turn his face to me. "Now look at me. Is that really Blair? No alcohol for anyone under twenty-one."

My words have the desired effect; he smiles, and I'm quite happy with my success. Maybe Simon's idea wasn't such a bad one.

"Aren't you ever freaked out by this?" he asks all of a sudden.

I wait, knowing there's more behind this question than the need for a simple answer. And it isn't like I could give one. "Freaked out?" I just repeat. Well, daily?

"I sure know I am," he continues. "For most of my life, I tried to make myself believe that these things didn't happen, or when it wasn't possible, that they aren't strange at all. But I keep finding things in my closet that I don't remember buying. I'm hearing these voices, and -- damn it, I was hoping so much that getting an explanation would make it easier. You know what, Jim? It doesn't. I feel like it's making things a lot worse. I don't understand how you can stay so calm about it."

I choose to be honest. "It scares me, too." Especially with those pictures on my mind, those CDs, and the real live horror just yesterday. "But I figure with all this shit we've been through already, the chances are pretty good."

"It's been worse since the fountain. Strange, as if some sluices have been opened. What if I start to listen? What are they going to tell me?"

Blair takes a deep swig from his glass, and I can see his hand is shaking.

"I feel like I'm going crazy. I keep dreaming these things, about people wearing robes and masks, black candles in the room, and it reeks of blood, and I'm so scared I can't breathe -- I don't know anymore if it's from the stuff I've read, or something else. I just don't know."

Moments like these are the worst - he always knows the right words to say when another Sentinel weirdness is occurring, but I'm absolutely clueless here. "Whatever it turns out to be, you know, I won't let you down. Not this time." Never again.

He considers it for a moment. "Some of us have been forced to do horrible things."

I listen more closely now - 'some of us', what does he mean? Some of the alters - does he remember anything? Or some others who were forced to split up into different personalities in order to survive?

"Not that I'd know, but it could be. It's all over the books and articles. Are you really sure you want to deal with this shit any longer?"

I think of Clayton's words; no one is innocent. The internal debate is brief and conclusive. "Yes, I am."

Again, Blair doesn't quite react the way I was vaguely expecting him to - he gets up abruptly, turns away. I can smell the tears he's trying to hide from me.

"You have no idea!" he says angrily. "I could have killed!"

I have read enough things to know I can't simply say it never did happen, even though I find myself unable to imagine... no. "You'd never willingly hurt anyone. I know that, and it's enough for me." As I say this, I'm getting up, too, stepping behind him, slowly, so as to not to startle him.

"This guy I've been reading about raped three women, and he claimed he didn't know about it. There are all those reports of children having hurt younger children, babies..." The anger is leeched from his voice, drowned out by despair.

"No," I say, embracing him, glad he doesn't resist, mindful of any frightened child that could come out at any moment. "None of what is happening right now, or may have happened at some time, is your fault. You know that."

"I don't deserve it. I'm not worth it." The worst thing is, he says it like it's somehow important to make himself believe that he's unworthy of somebody caring for him.

"Allow me to disagree here - because for once, I know better."

There is no switch at this moment, which I see as a good sign. I simply hold on. Maybe someday, he will be able to believe me.

***

The package comes with UPS the next morning, after a breakfast of eggs and bacon that Blair seemed to thoroughly enjoy, but of course it wasn't really him. I'm immediately on alert; I haven't forgotten the last warning they sent us before. Some of the crank calls we'd had earlier in this case might have pointed in the same direction, and would surely be an appropriate moment after we've made this many arrests.

However, I can't detect anything dangerous even with my senses open wide.

Blair is actually very enthusiastic about the delivery. "For me?" he asks, clapping his hands. His eyes are shining. "I wonder what's inside!"

No, I don't panic. Here's an easygoing, curious child, and I can deal with it! If I tell myself every so often, there'll hopefully come a time when I will fully believe it. And I'll have to be patient a little while longer, because integration, if that goal is ever reached, doesn't happen within a few months. It's a process of years. "Looks that way." I smile at him, wondering if I've simply gotten paranoid. It's happened to other people dealing with these Satanist pornographer creeps before.

Blair, usually blessed with fine motor skills, moves to open the package with the clumsy hands of a pre-schooler. I can't help but stare. He's engrossed in the task.

Wrapped in colorful paper, there's a children's musical clock. You've got to pull on a cord, and then it plays a melody, some children's song - I've heard it before somewhere. Nothing bad, nothing dangerous about it

-- I'd thought.

The expression of a child happily exploring his surroundings has vanished from Blair's face, replaced by the absolute terror of another alter.

These bastards, I think, feeling helpless at this transformation, helpless to do anything. In another life, one that's only a pale memory now, I have learned about methods of torture. I have heard stories from survivors. Ask yourself why some of them are scared as hell of everyday things like a table, or a clock.

He - it might be Billy, or Jacob, presses his hands over his ears, whimpering, oblivious to everything but the melody.

The sound is heart-wrenching; I can't stand it, but I realize it's not a good moment to offer touch as a solace when I slowly reach out a hand and he jerks away, almost banging his arm against the tabletop.

The musical clock plays on. I want to smash that damn thing against the brick wall, but the rational part of me holds me back. It's evidence. It could get us closer to James.

"It's okay. Come on, buddy, the thing can't hurt you."

"Hurts. Make it stop."

I wouldn't have heard the whispered words if it weren't for my hearing opened wide, and I'm glad it is, even though the melody is almost painfully loud that way. "You're safe now. It's just a stupid song. It can't harm you."

And then there's silence.

Blair relaxes into a more comfortable position on the chair, raising his hand to touch his face, a bewildered look appearing when his fingers come away wet, his expression turning to disgust. "What happened? And what is this thing--"

"Don't!"

"It's not a bomb, is it?" he asks with a mischievous smile, a kind of melody to his voice I haven't heard before.

Just how many of them are there anyway? Ocean's words ring on my mind, 'the more severe the abuse, the more alters'. Sometimes I think I don't want to learn another single fact on this disorder. "No, it isn't."

"Good. I think I really have to go now; got an appointment with Ocean. We don't want to be late."

If somebody had told me this a while ago, I'd simply would have called them crazy or worse, but when he's getting up to walk over to the coat rack, putting on his jacket - maybe it's me going crazy, but the moves, the complete body language, are all female, even the way he ever so slightly swings his hips - Blair's never done that, except for one occasion when he was trying to demonstrate the Yoruba ceremonial dance to me.

"You're Kerry. The one who draws."

She gives me a brief smile before closing the door behind her, obviously pleased to be seen.

***

20

I know I must be dreaming, but that doesn't make it any better. The image of a dead cat flickers before my eyes, the thick smell of blood. I want to scream, but there's something hindering me, a hand over my mouth. And this melody, God, somebody stop it!

-- your gift for Halloween, little Jacob --

Like a poisoning substance that's invading me, burning inside of me, and I can't stop it, not even hold my hands over my ears, because they are tied, arms stretched so tightly it hurts...

Then there's the pain, all-consuming, and the scream that can't get out makes my body tense to the point of breaking--

I'm drenched in sweat, gasping for air as I become aware of my surroundings. It's a rest stop; I'm still sitting behind the wheel, trembling from head to toe. Damn it! I haven't even listened to the melody of that musical clock those sick fucks sent us, but it's meaning sure has registered with me, us, one of us. How did I ever manage to get the car parked?

This thing is getting much too dangerous. Maybe being locked up somewhere wouldn't be such a bad idea anyway--

Hey, stop that. It's okay. I'll make sure that there's never one of the kids outside when we're driving.

Okay. Don't freak. Just listen. Sounds like something I would have told Jim years ago - only that the voices he heard were real.

I'm real, too. I thought you'd gotten that by now, the voice gently admonishes.

The strange thing is, after this horror flick that's just been playing in my mind, I find it has a strangely calming effect. It's like, I don't know, a feeling, a presence, but it doesn't scare me. It's the afterimages of bizarre rituals being performed that scare me.

Tony?

Right, man. But don't think I chose those girly clothes. Kerry's responsible for that.

I look down at myself, the colorful shirt I'm wearing along with jeans. It could have been worse, right?

I can live with that.

Ya think? It sounds teasing.

Then I realize I'm going to be late for the appointment with Ocean, and in a heartbeat, the connection, or whatever it was, is gone, and I'm left wondering if I simply imagined it, too. The melody, however, was real. And there was always pain accompanying it.

***

"This musical clock scared the hell out of me for some reason, but I don't really want to talk about it. I have some ideas about it, and I don't want to go there, yet."

Ocean agrees. She, too, thinks there'll be time for it when we're on another safety level, inside and outside. For inside, she's teaching me all kinds of exercises. "It's important that there's a safe place established for when things get bad, especially for the children. And name someone who'll bring them there."

"Bring them there? I've only gotten a vague idea of one of them, and they seem to be living their lives pretty much separately. How do I make them do anything?"

"There'll be more communication in time," she assures me. "You are getting there. In the meantime, one of the others might be willing. The most important thing is that it's going to work."

I lean back in my chair, inwardly shaking my head about the idea of getting imaginary children to an imaginary safe place. Or maybe the reason why I'm feeling a bit uncomfortable is just that I'm on the other end of the bargain this time - it's certainly no stranger than making Jim work with imaginary dials for his senses. And work, it does.

"It's weird," I tell her. "I've been trying to get back and remember, but there's nothing but a few really scary nightmares, and it could always come from having read so much stuff. Whereas -- there is something else I have been thinking about a lot."

She just waits so I keep on talking, though I'm feeling vaguely stupid, "I was, I don't know, thirteen, or fourteen. Mom always worked two shifts, so I was home alone a lot of the time, and there was this teacher who offered to supervise me doing my homework at his house."

Observing people is what I once earned a living with, and I do have a degree in psychology, after all. When Ocean tenses ever so slightly, I don't miss it.

"It's not what you think. He was pretty young still, and I didn't have lots of friends around at the time, so that offer was very welcome. I had brilliant grades that year." I'm laughing, a bit uneasily. "Now you're getting this expression. I know it from Jim in interrogation, when he knows that he's got the perp."

"This is no interrogation," Ocean says calmly. "It just occurs to me as strange that he'd invite a student to his house, but as you say, it could be that I've gotten jaded. You were a gifted child. Certainly, you were popular with more than one teacher."

"Popular is the correct word."

***

Leila is a bit confused, about where she is, and who this nice lady is who's talking to her. Forcing herself to focus, she finally realizes what the subject is: Ned. Probably Naomi sent her to that High School shrink.

She looks around, seeing that the door is closed. For some reason, that makes her nervous. Leila can't be comfortable in a room with the door closed, so she asks the lady if it is all right to open it. The shrink whose name is Ocean - Leila can read it on the framed certificates hanging on the wall - agrees, and she gets up to open it, sighing in relief when she comes back to sit down.

"So, where were we?"

Ocean promptly gives her the clue she needs. "You were telling me about you meeting Ned at his house."

"Right. He really likes me," insists Leila, recalling with a smile all the gifts and the nice words. She crosses her legs in a practiced move, grown-up but not, smoothing down an imaginary skirt. She's quite sure that they expect her to talk badly of him, but she won't do them the favor. "Always treats me like an adult."

"He does that how?" the lady shrink asks. There's a slight sharpness to her words, but Leila chooses to ignore it.

"We talk about all kind of things. He helps me with my homework, and evenings we sit on the porch, watching the sunset. I'm allowed to have a glass of wine." Most of the time it's more than one. Leila likes it when the contours of reality begin to soften and blur.

Then Ned will tell her how pretty she is, and Leila won't care that he calls her Blair.

Zack is always watching the scene, tears in his eyes. He's scared of men, and he doesn't want to be touched.

Ben wants to throttle the teacher, but he can't overcome the sluices. The Keeper has closed them firmly to keep the children away.

***

"Leila is seldom out," Tony later explains to Ocean. He is still not too sure about therapy, but something has to happen, and it will be up to him to control the flow of information, so that Blair won't get overwhelmed by it.

Quite a job.

He, too, doesn't want to talk about the musical clock, not here and now. There'll be a time for it. All things considered, Leila's story is the lesser evil, literally. "It's because she is troubled, and she causes trouble. But naivete can be a blessing sometimes."

"It can be dangerous when you don't notice that people are taking advantage of you, don't you think?"

"No shit. It's not that she doesn't know, on some level. That's why she keeps having these stomach pains, and throwing up." He grimaces. "Another reason for keeping the girl at bay."

"Does she know about the others?"

Tony shakes his head. "Me and Kerry know all who are around, and the Keeper, of course. And..." Wolf, he'd almost said, but it's not up to him to tell Ocean about the shaman. "Kerry doesn't look in the mirror, because she's not happy about what she sees, but Leila doesn't recognize who's in there, you know?"

Ocean nods, as if she understands, which is of course impossible. Again, Tony reminds himself why he was skeptical about therapy to begin with. However, he can't help but admit it feels good to have somebody listening, somebody who seems trustworthy so far. Maybe, someday, he'll share his worries about integration, and his fear of losing the part of Blair's life that is his own.

"So," she continues, "Leila came later, but not because of the teacher, right?"

"You're catching up quickly."

"Thanks. What happened?"

Tony's expression turned hard. "With Ned? We found out he did it to other kids, too. Younger ones. We reported him anonymously."

Of course, Ned found out later, and he blamed Leila, who was shocked, absolutely oblivious to everything that had gone down. She should have never gotten her hands on that first razor, Tony thinks ruefully. Should have known she'd take it hard.

"So you stopped him eventually, that's good." Ocean hasn't missed that he won't be telling them about the day when Leila came. It's too early, too much.

"Tony, what about the one who was there last time? The one who hurts himself and with it, all of you? Can you help me talk to him?"

Whoa, another one of those unpleasant subjects. Ben does help to survive in the kind of reality Blair has chosen, with people like Kincaid, or David Lash in it - but sometimes Tony feels that inside, he's got to protect them from Ben, too. He's troublesome, more so than Leila who's asleep most of the time. "Don't expect Ben to talk to you again. He thinks that therapy is a waste of time."

"He has a right to his opinion, but we've got to talk about this cutting thing," Ocean insists, and it's clear that there's no negotiating with her on this.

***

"It is a waste of time indeed. Fucking liars and cowards, too weak to live."

The laugh sounds awful, and he notices with some satisfaction that the woman sitting across from him is looking concerned.

"Well, Ben," she says, meaning to sound confident, but he knows it's not a hundred percent, because he's trained to see people's weaknesses, and hit them where it hurts. "I'd like to hear why you're thinking about them that way."

He grins at her. "I'm not Ben. I'm the one who's making them all shut up. Soon. They broke the promise, and they are going to pay. Hey, Ocean, what do *you* fear? I can make it come true."

***

No wonder I've been exhausted lately, with all those folks acting, feeling, being, inside of me. Ocean has told me that many multiples seem to have problems with batteries and stuff, because of the amount of energy they bring with them.

I feel like I could sleep for days, and she's looking tired too. We've agreed that the alters will take up space in the sessions, and that we're going to piece the parts together, but that she will not necessarily tell every bit of information at once. First, we've got to work on the safety net.

Still, this scenery seems bizarre to me, even more so when she tells me that she's, after encountering yet some other alters, achieved a fragile peace with the one who likes the sharp objects. For now. I guess no one has told her about the gun yet, and I'd rather leave it at that. She seems rather concerned about the cutting - I could tell her that you're not going to die from it, but anyway...

I try to remember what we spoke of last - right, my brief foray into getting private tutoring. Why did that come up anyway? I haven't thought about it in years. Well, whatever. I look over to where Ocean has set up her children's corner. On a soft, light blue blanket sits a plush toy sheep.

All of a sudden, I'm fighting the weird urge to go and pick it up. "Did they tell you about the teacher?"

"Yes, they did," Ocean says softly.

"Well, maybe I didn't tell you the whole truth," I say, overcome by a sudden and deep sadness. I really want to go over into that corner now, curl up into that blanket with the sheep, and fall asleep.

Books, and red wine, and touches.

You're so damn smart. Old enough to do grown-up things.

Pretty.

It's all muddled, no clear images, but much of the knowledge is there; even if I can't touch it, I know it happened. Me spending all those afternoons at Ned's house, when later he was fired because of being caught with an even younger boy... It's not even much of a surprise anymore, no extreme shock, because it was there all along. Just this sadness. Knowing it isn't enough of an explanation...

Ocean doesn't look surprised either. Figures; how many times has she heard stories like this in the past twenty years? Ned, the teacher, was just a symptom. There might be others. It's not the source of disease, though. "That's what we built the imaginary vault for. You don't lock away the subject as a whole, but the images, until it's safe to deal with them. We will, when you're ready."

"I get the feeling there's going to be a lot eventually."

"That's why we give it time. Sort it out, give you more control."

I have to grin despite myself. "You sound like me, when I was trying to help Jim with his senses in the beginning - he wanted everything at once, too."

Ocean smiles back at me. "I know, not all of the things I'm teaching you, are actually new for you. You always had a talent, and I'm not surprised how things turned out, you finding Jim..."

"Yeah, I was lucky that way." Only for a brief moment, I wonder what my life would be like if it hadn't happened. Being all alone with those ghosts of the past, always wondering when they'd be returning to claim me once and for all, like it happened with Marsha, and the two unidentified victims. And Jill Clayton.

"You know, about Ned, I'm just disappointed. I haven't thought about it very often, and now that I realize... it just pisses me off, you know? I was naive, and he took advantage of it."

"Being pissed off is good. He had no right."

"True. But I don't think he ever hurt me, physically. Somebody else did before."

"I know, and they're way too present for my comfort. Safety must come first, Blair. I still want you off that case. We could work out something."

I shrug, not really fazed that we won't delve into any gruesome subjects for now. "I need a little more time. As you said, we're doing not any confronting for now. Actually, I do practice this imagery stuff, because lots of it is also very helpful for Jim; it's good for me to have a wider repertoire there. And I also did the homework you asked me to do, the map. Forget about the case; I have a million questions for you that the books don't answer. For example, how do I keep them from fighting over the clothes we wear?"

It's not like I can't get anything past her, not the attempt to change the subject here, but Ocean finally accepts that there's no point in insisting - just yet.

As we start putting together the list, I realize that for the first time, I've said 'we' - and meant it. The underlying emotion is a wild mix of confusion, worry - and, surprisingly, pride.

***

21

Tony

Billy

Kevin

Kerry

The praying one?

Little Jacob

I'm jotting down the names on the legal pad, waiting for Dan Wolf to return. He's done the autopsy on the girl we found in that cellar; we've identified her as Jennifer Butler; her parents were among the people arrested along with Alice James; Mr. Butler is a cousin of Philip James. He claims not to know where James is.

Dan returns from his break ten minutes early, a grim expression on his face. There are dark circles under his eyes - it's happening to all of us. The slipping of the professional persona.

"Jim." He nods at me. "I'm afraid the results won't be of any surprise for you. Only this time, it was even worse than with Jill Clayton. It's a miracle she survived as long as she did."

I'm about to say that it was probably a mercy for this girl to have her suffering ended, but I hold back the words, wondering about the child that panicked at a simple melody this morning. No, you can't say that. All of them deserve to live and get the best help that can be given to them.

Dan tells me some more details, and I realize that I'm very tempted to drift off a little myself. I want this case over and done with. But we're not there yet; Julie Claasen is still under observation, but nothing has come up yet.

Marsha Clement has woken, but she's got a long road of recovery before her.

Too damn many loose ends.

Ocean might insist on going slow, and I can see the point she's got there - however, I still must see things from an investigator's point of view. Perps who need to be identified. In the long run, I'm not sure if we can stick to that moderate pace.

***

The day passes into evening rather uneventfully, contrary to the way it has begun. Blair opens another bottle of wine for dinner, and I wonder, should I be worried about this new habit, but you can't really determine anything from two days, can you?

He's quiet, contemplative, and it makes me rather curious about how today's session went. I find it hard to imagine anyway. I've seen the department shrink on occasion when it was mandatory, like after shooting a perp - I didn't hate it, didn't care much for it either. I am - if I didn't know better, I'd suggest - jealous? It's just that I think I should be better prepared for the things that could come up. Probably will come up at a certain point.

"Hard work today?" I ask finally.

He shrugs. "You find out anything about that musical box?"

"Serena's on it. Nothing yet, though, no prints or anything obvious."

He acknowledges my words with a nod, and we're back to the silence. Abruptly, he says, "It's weird; I'd never imagined it could happen that way, but one day, you just find your life is in shambles. I'm really sorry, Jim. You must have felt that way when your senses came online, and you had no idea what was going on. And there was I, blabbering about what a great thing it was."

"It's not the same." For emphasis, I lay my hand on his arm. "Listen, it's not always fun, but I can put them to good use, and you showed me how. It can even be fun sometimes. That's sometimes entirely different."

"Hypo- or hyperaesthesia can be a result of trauma. And in your past, there's plenty to pick from."

I feel uncomfortable with this turn of the conversation. "Maybe, but if it's that way, you've done a great job helping me deal with it. Let me help you now." It's not the right moment for these thoughts to be intruding. I wanted to die after that helicopter crash in Peru, and I would have found a way if Incacha hadn't found me.

And it's true, if it wasn't for Blair, I probably would have gone crazy somewhere during the Switchman case. All the more reason not to dwell on these past things. Now is not about me.

He smiles, but his eyes are bright. "Hell, isn't there a game on TV or something? I find it suspicious how our evenings more and more consist of mushy talk."

"Hey, not my fault if you're getting all gloomy from too much wine. So, anything spectacular happening at Ocean's today?" I give it another try. No such luck.

"Well no, you don't really want to know about my teenage neurotics." He knows I've caught the increase of his heartbeat, and hastens to add, "Not about James or anything. Nothing like that;" this time he's telling the truth, and I'm a little relieved.

One day, we'll have to go there, but may that day come later rather than sooner. If only we could get all of those creeps off the streets without making their victims go through all this shit again.

"Okay. You're right, a little mindless TV would be nice."

***

I can't sleep, pondering that I had intended to ask Tony about Craig Thomas. Not everyone we meet these days, can be connected to James; it would be severely paranoid to think that way - but I'd just like to make sure that Blair, and the others, are safe, and the possible connection of Julie to the cult is no good news in that department. There's no proof yet that the black-haired child we've rescued is hers, yet I already know.

The scent I recognized; it could be a coincidence, or some other explanation. For Blair's sake, I want to hope that she's on the run from those people; that there's some good and honest reason why the child wasn't with her.

The truth is, I don't know what to believe any longer. And it surely wasn't a coincidence that James and his muscle chose the situation when Blair was with Thomas.

There must be some significance, and I'm going to find it.

***

There are soft sounds from Blair's room, drawers being opened and closed, pens on paper. Why did I never notice before how little he actually sleeps? No wonder he always has trouble getting up in the morning; it wasn't him, wondering, worrying, writing at night, it was one of the others, but it all happens in the same body which didn't get the necessary rest.

After a while, being curious and sleepless still, I get up and slowly walk down the stairs. Listening carefully.

"Hey," I say softly upon opening the door. Hoping it's not the praying one; I really had a hard time dealing with him. Let someone more aggressive come out; I have no problem with that. They have a right to be angry about what's been done to them. The children - okay. I just don't know what to do about this 'burning-in-hell'-business. "Can't sleep?"

He's sitting over a rose-colored book, folded in the chair in what looks like an uncomfortable position. Even without trying to read, which I could, but don't want to, I can see there are different handwritings in that book. He's looking up at me warily as I enter the room.

Blair.

My knees almost go weak with relief. "Hey, Chief. What's keeping you up?"

He shakes his head. "I'm sorry, Jim, I can't have a heart-to-heart right now. I know you mean well. Just - not now, okay?"

"No problem." I'm trying hard not to let my disappointment show. And who am I to ask this of him anyway? "Just wanted to make sure you're all right."

"All right, I wouldn't say. But it's no worse than a few hours ago. Go to bed, Jim."

I'm dismissed, left with the unsettling feeling that I'm missing something. No worse than a few hours ago. Whatever happened in today's session?

***

October 31st is getting closer. That must be the reason, I think, when those screams tear me out of a light sleep. I'm only surprised the nightmares haven't occurred more often. I'm guessing that they will as we near the holiday.

Acting quickly, I'm down the stairs within a few heartbeats.

Blair has somehow managed to get himself all tangled in the sheets, no wonder he's panicking; it has to feel like being tied up tightly. I approach him and start talking to him, but my words don't get through to his fear-driven mind. "No. No," is his only answer.

All right then, put Plan B to action. "Wake up now. Come on." I'm touching his shoulder lightly - still nothing. As I try to catch his flailing arms, I'm grateful for quick reflexes, stepping back just in time to avoid getting punched.

And then he's bolting upright, huddling against the wall, shaking all over. His heart is racing.

"Welcome back," I say. Blair is, indeed, even though there are flickers of the nightmare lingering in his gaze, tense and upset, but aware. Thank God.

"At least no cuddling on the floor this time," he jokes, but his voice is still shaky.

"Well, no, I didn't dare. I didn't know you were that strong. You sure that none of your people is working out?"

Blair looks at me closely, blinking a bit, which reminds me I still haven't turned on the light; so I switch on the little lamp on the nightstand. "I didn't do anything embarrassing, did I?"

I shake my head 'no'. I feel like something has changed today, something in between us I can't describe. Of course it's understood that I'm not supposed to be informed about every word that is spoken in Ocean's practice, but still... She has always emphasized that the integration of whatever led to the multiplicity can only happen with lots of groundwork done before. So what happened?

"Do you remember?"

"Yes... no - not clearly. Goddamn him," he swears abruptly. When he looks at me again, his eyes are full of regret. "I'm sorry, Jim. I can't tell. Not yet."

"It's okay. Whenever you're ready."

Him. Who is he talking about?

***

I can't let it be. On my lunch break the next day, I'm calling Ocean, not too sure what I'm expecting, but needing to share my worries with her.

We talk a bit, and she tells me to be patient. "Later on, there's always the possibility that you join in for a few sessions. Given your special relationship, I think it would be very valuable. And of course, you're always welcome if there's something you want to talk about alone."

At first, I'm not sure I understand. "Well, thanks, but I've got lots of information from the 'net. It'll take some time to go through it."

"Jim, are you taking care of yourself, too?" she asks gently.

Something about this question doesn't sit well with me, and I almost growl at her. "Caring for me? I'm not the one who needed to shatter in order to survive! This is not about me."

"In some way, it is. You've got to understand what it means to live with a multiple. I agree that Blair needs a friend to support him, but you can't do that when you're exhausted. So be sure to take some time for yourself too - take a walk on the beach or whatever works best for you."

I can't believe my ears. "And just leave him alone with this? Hell, I'd thought you understood more about our relationship."

"What I understand is, that it's very special. Something that you don't put at risk just so."

"Well, I won't, thanks for the advice." What did I think anyway? That she'd be giving me a detailed report of the last session, so I can figure out who Blair meant to curse yesterday - James, or somebody else?

"Please, believe me," Ocean tries once more. "I only get to hear these stories - you are confronted with them up close. I know you're trained, so am I, but every now and then we've got to think of ourselves. Don't forget about it."

I end the call shortly after that; at the moment it's not something I want to hear.

Still, I'm reminded all of a sudden that I haven't seen Dad in a while, and maybe I could invite myself for dinner on Sunday? I make a mental note to call him later.

***

22

The figure that materializes in the doorway seems neither human nor animal, but something in between. There's a light behind it, similar to the flickering flames of the Golden Fire People, and I can feel my heart starting to pound.

The eyes look as if they have a red glow in them, but that's probably my terrified imagination.

It - he - comes closer. I want to get up, out of my bed and escape, call out for help, but I'm paralyzed. All I can do is wait.

A heartbeat later, those eyes are only inches away from mine; I'm made immobile by it's weight. There is no sound but the blood rushing in my ears; I'm feeling nauseated, like I'm going to faint any minute now. The scream dies in my throat the way it always does in very bad nightmares - I'm all alone.

The knowledge is worse than the pain that follows.

It always comes back on Halloween.

***

It always comes back on Halloween. That's a line written in the diary, in a childish scrawl, with a marker.

There's no way I can tell Jim about this - the nightmare, or Ned whose memory I blame for it - it's too much of an unwanted consciousness that comes rushing in this story's wake, things I don't want to deal with, and things I don't want anyone around me to deal with.

Well, Ned -- I remember how he looked at me, with the glint in his dark eyes that were following me around those afternoons in his garden, how it made me slightly uncomfortable.

"Don't be afraid," he'd say. "I'll be good to you."

Damn liar that he was. Ned was smooth, certainly not a first-time offender, and he could see something in me I wasn't aware of, not at all -- that he could have talked me into whatever he wanted me to do, and I'd be easy, because my defenses had been crushed long before. I couldn't really tell him 'no' - and maybe I even thought that the definition 'good' would apply to him, because he wasn't sadistic. He knew.

It wasn't that I liked the taste of the wine; but I welcomed the burn of the alcohol, how it always helped me to draw back into myself.

The result? It doesn't go further than that gaze and an unsettling feeling, waking up in his bed, but nothing in between.

And if I had started there, I'd come too close to having to reveal that it's been like that most of my life. I've had relationships, yes, but how much of an accomplishment are they really when you're missing half of it? That time when Sam was pissed off at me for standing her up, or another, when I 'forgot' about her birthday -- it would have been impossible to tell her the truth. Even less likely I'd ever admit to her that in crucial moments I'd be - where the hell ever - just not there.

I feel like I should call her, just to see if, with the changed premises of my life, there's anything left worth saving.

Sam is quite a bit surprised, saying that I shouldn't dare cancel our date for today, before I can even suggest it. Just as well. I tell her I wasn't sure about the time we'd agreed on, and she sighs and tells me it was still 8 p.m. We're all set.

***

JustSam touches the soft hair of the woman sleeping beside him, smiling. He isn't much interested in all the trouble around him, and he needed a break from the distant but omnipresent sound of crying children, and all the pain that is not his, but is starting to touch him. Annoying him, because he can't even tell where it's coming from.

It's a good thing that his relationship with Sam - he finds it cute that she's got the same name as he has - is that uncomplicated. A quick call, a look passing between them in the hallway at the station, it's enough. Like today.

When she'd called yesterday afternoon, "Hey, Blair, you want to come over after work?" JustSam had said yes. Like most of them, he answers to the name even if it isn't his, just to avoid complications.

JustSam snorts. What luck. He wouldn't want to own the guy's clothes either - in his opinion, Blair has absolutely no taste when it comes to that.

Since money is always tight, JustSam can't really hit the stores he would like to clothes-shop in, but there are always the designer outlets, and the internet.

Sam moves beside him, and he pulls her close to him, cherishing the feel of her warm body in his arms, the remains of a strange sadness always at the back of his mind. He can be here all the way, at least. Sam doesn't know it, but the guy she thinks she is dating is hardly ever there when they are together. And if Blair seems a bit distracted sometimes, it's because very few memories of the sex they share are available. It's okay, because it's JustSam who takes care of that.

He's charming, and attentive, someone women are drawn to, because he not only treats them to expensive restaurants, but really listens to them.

He generally knows how to win people over, and while he's not much into studying, he would have handled the dissertation defense, if Blair hadn't blown that before. Not that JustSam cares. He's got his own tasks to perform, and one of them at the moment is to put Tony in his place, because his activities are causing a bit of trouble.

Tony wants someone to help with the protector's job, preferably Jim Ellison, but he's already got a second choice at hand. There's a 'but' in this, though.

Hell yes, JustSam does like women.

***

I think I've always been drawn to women who have a history of abuse in past relationships, be it a parent or a partner. I never really wanted to take a closer look, but it seems that I've been feeling safer with them, their expectations, and their fears.

Molly had needed almost two years to get rid of the boyfriend who was beating her up when he felt like it. Maya had led a very sheltered life until I met her, but she surely had been betrayed by her father, and then Francisco, who almost got her killed.

Genevieve, whose family had been threatened with torture and death for a long time --

-- and then there's Sam. Her mother is an alcoholic, and while she was, as far as I know, not physically abusive, she knew how to hurt with words. At the age of ten or so, Sam had to take care not only of her mother unable to do the daily chores in her drunken state, but her little three-year-old sister. Make sure she got breakfast and got to the day care center. Having accomplished all of that, Sam would go to school, and despite the worries she always carried with her, she'd be a brilliant student. School was her shelter, and none of the teachers ever knew about the burden the bright girl had to carry.

Looking back, it's not to hard to see the traces that are left in their lives -- so how about mine? I wonder, while outside, another day is dawning, and Sam is still asleep.

Did one of the alters commit a crime? Recently, then?

I rather stayed vague with the blurred stories of my own life, but we did spend long nights talking, long sessions of sipping tea or wine, or sometimes just holding each other. What I'm trying to say is that the same is true as it was in my probably not so healthy relationship with Ned, the teacher.

All that was clearly sexual, must have been, is firmly scratched out of my memory, and sadly, it's not such a surprise any longer. Somebody else took over and did the job.

Why didn't I seek help sooner?

First, those two experiences I've had with therapists, seemed to be enough for a lifetime. The schizophrenia diagnosis had scared Naomi enough to turn to everyone who offered help; and she'd most likely have converted if the Christian therapist hadn't been a fundamentalist who only made things worse.

I kept having those dreams of a half-human monster that was trying to devour me; the ones that always made me wake up in a cold sweat, hyperventilating.

They've come back, as they always do around the end of October. I'm starting to see the significance in that.

***

The window of Ocean's practice is wide open on this beautiful autumn day. It is feeling like the beginning of the end to me. I tell her about bits of internal conversation that have taken place, when the laughter stops me cold. Just floating over from down the street, some kids coming home from school, teenagers, effectively harmless.

Now, that is.

Back in school, being mostly ahead of my grade and seldom long enough in one place to form lasting friendships, I was the ultimate kid to be picked on. Certainly one reason, too, why I was drawn to Ned who had sensed my need to have a friend, someone protective, and used it for his own purposes. I never confided in Naomi, too ashamed of it all. Ned, well, he was witnessing it all the time.

This went on for years, a time I can now only look back with a shrug, because, hey, things are a lot worse for kids nowadays; they have to deal with a far greater amount of violence.

But then, there's this weird scene on my mind, sitting in the principal's office, there's Naomi, another kid whose name I don't remember, and his mother. They're both mad as hell. My knuckles hurt, and I have no idea why. The other kid's nose is bleeding.

***

Laughter... Little Jacob always hears them coming first. They're going to teach the brat a lesson. Teacher's pet, who the hell does he think he is? Too late to run.

The scene has unfolded many times before, leading to many bruises Blair never told anyone about, because he couldn't remember where they were coming from. He sees them coming, taunting him, and later, he'll be on his way home, or somewhere in the city, wondering how he's gotten there. All in between literally white noise...

Because it's Zack who had taken just another beating, Kerry, who had no defense against their insults.

Today, however, this will change forever.

"You think you're better than us, don't you? No one wants you around here. Go back to where you--"

The rage that's building inside does not belong to Zack who's lying on the ground, but there's a force in it that makes him dizzy. The hand that's forming a fist isn't his either. While he slips away, it's Ben who delivers the punch, cherishing the bully's shocked expression.

"Why don't you get lost?" he sneers back.

"You will regret that! My Dad is a lawyer!"

Ben just laughs at this. "Go run to Daddy. I don't care."

His hand stings from the blow he's delivered, but the stupid expression on the other boy's face is worth it. No one is going to talk to them like that - ever again.

***

There's nothing hazardous in this; except for the fact that at that time, the 'system' was obviously already established enough for its members to act that independently. The question remains, what caused it to come into existence in the first place? It's strange anyway; I wonder if it's some kind of protective mechanism that I'm thinking so much of my teenage years lately.

Ocean says that usually, not all of the alters come because of the original trauma, and this is a way to approach it slowly. More than once, I'm reminded of my own attempts to piece together the mystery of Jim's senses, when did he first use them, why did he stop, and what made them come back?

However, there's no need to get all enthusiastic about all the things we've possibly got in common - having enhanced senses is not a disorder.

Before we part today, Ocean tells me that she met a therapist from Cascade who's experienced in treating multiples. When she says it, I'm startled, thinking for a moment that she will, for whatever reason, terminate our contract. I'm secretly checking my watch, wondering if any unfriendly alter has appeared in the meantime.

"Maybe you and Jim should talk to her. She might be able to give you any hints of cult activity in Cascade, or tell you if there's an increase of cases that hint at ritual abuse. Not that you have to go," she adds quickly, misunderstanding my apprehension. "I'm sure Jim will handle it."

"No, that's... okay, thank you," I stammer. "I just thought-- never mind."

She doesn't mention it, but I know she has understands now. "I just thought of this recently, and the sooner you don't have this case to deal with any more, the better. Maybe she can help."

***

Brad notices this strange feeling again, even though the room, and the other occupant, a woman of about fifty, aren't threatening. Just where does this come from - and why is he here?

He decides it's better to lay low, as he did before, with Jim, less trouble that way.

It seems that whatever appointment this is, it's almost over. After he has left, he'll be calling Julie and making a date to meet with her - he hasn't seen her in quite some time.

***

Remind yourself that Julie's the only reason why you're here, and she's worth it.

"Hey, man. I'm glad you could come!"

He smiles as Will puts an arm around his shoulders, trying to hide his apprehension. He still doesn't understand why Will and Ken have invited him to this party; so far, they haven't done anything but give him hell, from calling him a loser in front of the others, to shoving him around.

He never would have come if it weren't for Julie. She's new at their school, slightly older than the other students, because she's been traveling a lot with her parents, and missed classes - but she's so beautiful. When she asked if he'd come too, there was no way of saying 'no'.

"Well, yeah, it wasn't so hard. Finals are over, so there's time." He cringes as soon as the words are out of his mouth - wouldn't that be just what the nerd they are calling him, would say? But Will doesn't seem to mind.

"Cool. Here, have fun."

He accepts the glass, sniffing cautiously. "There's alcohol in it, right?"

"Just a little bit, nothing dangerous," Will assures him.

***

"You're not feeling so good, huh?" Ken's voice seems to be coming from far away, and the room is spinning. The mix of sounds, laughter, music, glasses clinking together, and his own blurring vision threaten to make him sick; he sways dangerously, grateful for the hand that steadies him.

"Shit, wha' wassin 'dat?" Even his voice doesn't obey him anymore. He only hopes that Julie won't witness this embarrassing moment. She wouldn't talk to him ever again.

"Just a bit of red wine. I had no idea you're so sensitive..." It takes lots of concentration to decipher Will's words, and if there's a bit of malice in them, it could be his imagination. He doesn't care much, still feeling awful.

"Come on," says Ken, "let's get you upstairs. There's a room where you can lie down for a while. You don't want to puke all over the dancefloor."

The way to the upper floor seems to take forever. It's like the two men are dragging him up the stairs more than he's actually walking. He feels the looks thrown at him, but it doesn't matter. Lying down is the ultimate goal.

He's blinking, realizing that they've stopped. Ken is opening the door, and they all go inside, and he'll never forget the sound of the key being turned in the lock.

Just why are they doing that?

Fear surges within him, and he begins to struggle against their hold, but only for a moment. Then his eyes grow heavy, and his legs buckle under him, the world becomes black.

***

Focusing clearly is not possible, but there's no danger of sickness now. The feeling is one of lightness, of floating. Leila knows she is naked, but she is not scared; everything is dulled within a gentle cloud that takes off the sharp edges of reality.

There are hands on her body, arousing her, unfamiliar voices encouraging her. She yields to their touch, wanting nothing but sweet oblivion. Closer still...

***

Another one is outside Leila's body, staring at the scene in horror. He sees what she can't see, feels the violation and hurt. Zack will remember. She won't.

***

The first thing he notices is the bad headache. There isn't anything else yet, and as he carefully opens his eyes, he finds himself in an unfamiliar room. He bolts upright in the bed, and instantly groans with the reinforced pain.

The door opens, and inside comes...

"Julie! What are you doing here?"

She smiles. "Those idiots put vodka into your drink, and you were a bit sick. I stayed with you."

He feels his face redden with shame. "You didn't have to..."

"I wanted to," she says, coming closer, then she sits on the side of the bed. Julie reaches out one hand to touch his arm, and he's happy for a moment - until he realizes he's naked under the cover.

"Um, Julie, I didn't do anything embarrassing, did I?" he asks worriedly.

"No," she assures him. "Compared to what happened on my first binge, this was nothing. But it looks like you've got the headache from hell. Think you can handle an Aspirin yet?"

***

Back in school, before Ben had made his spectacular reappearance, Ken and Will were back to their usual abusive selves. But they never invited Blair to parties again - which was just fine with him. He and Julie became friends, but then she moved away shortly after, without even saying goodbye.

When Blair and Julie met at Rainier, he only had a vague memory of having met her before. Brad was happy to meet his old friend again.

Zack remained wary.

***

23

"This is him, yes! He said he was going to buy it for his grandchild, and asked specifically for that melody!"

The young salesclerk, probably working during holidays, is enthusiastic to help. The man she identifies as the buyer of the musical clock, is Philip James. The picture we show her is the one our sketch artist made with Craig Thomas' help.

"Thank you," Drennan says. "You've been a great help."

I catch her gaze, and she shrugs, knowing I've noticed that trace of frustration in her voice. We've got more than enough evidence, and statements. And still, this monster can be bold enough to walk around and go shopping!

I want, and I don't want to know what happened to make Blair Sandburg, who is one of the most courageous people I've ever met, afraid of a simple children's song.

The surveillance of Julie Claasen hasn't brought any result yet, and Simon has announced that we'll have to call it off after the Pagan holiday. What's worse, with all the arrests we've made, but not having gotten any closer to James, I'm afraid that other cases will have priority soon.

I cannot accept that, neither can Drennan, or any of us.

***

The tension is palpable at home, too, despite the new front door and our attempts to circumvent the subject of what might happen on Halloween - still, even if thirteen children were lucky enough to have escaped the horror.

That evening, we spend some time with long put off housework, which is giving me mixed emotions - for one thing, the cleaning feels kind of good, like a ritual. On the other hand, I can't help thinking that those freaks must have done this, too, preparing a meal, doing laundry or mopping the floor - preparing a scene where children, and sometimes adults, would be raped and slaughtered.

Even if we caught all the perps, and put them in prison, those scenes will be with me forever, I know.

Stowing away the cleaning utensils, I make my way into the kitchen where Blair stands at the stove, stirring something in the pot with much concentration. Barefoot, wearing black jeans, and a black shirt. Okay. In the sink, there are dishes left from the ice-cream the children have just enjoyed, a brand that Blair grimaced at later. Now it's time for an adult dinner.

I pick up a spoon and taste; a pasta sauce with several herbs, and a fruity flavor to it.

"Well, at least you're as good a cook as Blair is," I concede.

Tony turns to smile at me. "Good. Craig said the same, so it must be true."

Right. "So you're still seeing him?" I'm surprised, but I realize I shouldn't have been. Of course Tony does have a different opinion about pursuing his relationship with Thomas, than Blair has.

"Yeah, so?"

"How is it possible that you're attracted to men when Blair isn't?" There, it's out, all in one breath. It's still bizarre, and will always be, to talk to one of the alters as a different personality, but hey, that's reality as we know it for now. Not much to argue. And I'm only beginning to realize that Tony has a lot of answers to what caused the alters to appear.

"Do I know the answer to everything? I just hope you won't start to tell me that it's because of his sorry excuse for a father, or that idiot teacher who liked teenage boys, for that matter. It just is, okay?"

He looks at me thoughtfully while I'm trying to digest this new information. Teacher? I can now guess what that session he didn't want to talk about was all about. Damn it. And I remember that Billy hinted at Tony knowing about Blair's father.

"I never said that; it's just not so easy to understand. So you know about hi-- your father?"

Tony shrugs. "More than I ever wanted to know, actually, and there's a reason why Naomi didn't even want to say his name once she got an idea of what was going on. Back to your original question, without the parade of creeps that we met, it would have been much easier to be who I am."

I wisely do not point out that in that case, Blair probably wouldn't have needed an imagined protector, but anyway.

"Can you tell me more?" I ask, aware that I'm taking a big risk here. There's no saying what kind of things could come up.

Tony shrugs, but his heartbeat is up. "I wasn't there with the teacher, so I don't know about it first-hand. The father -- he was bad. Forced Naomi to arrange visitation rights for the weekend. When she suspected that there was more going on than visits to amusement parks, it was the first time they ran away. What she didn't know then was that the father was a good friend of Philip James."

I must have stared at him, the cold creeping up inside of me while he's so casually telling me what I've feared all along. And I've noticed that Tony never says 'my father'.

"But this is not really a surprise at this point, is it? Look, I don't really want to open that book tonight. Please understand, it's hard enough to keep everyone calm now that Halloween is almost here." He turns off the stove, facing me with a gaze that is part sad, part speculative, and I know exactly what's on his mind.

"This thing with Craig, it isn't-- I mean, all you have to do is say the word."

"Not going to happen, I'm sorry."

With a sigh, Tony says, "Well, it was worth a try anyway. You finished with cleaning? Okay. Let's eat."

***

Alice Jefferson had married Philip James in 1972, when she was seventeen -- twenty-three years younger than her husband who'd be founding the 'School of Satan' a couple of years later. She was one of his first and most dedicated followers. Back then, it all happened under the surface. They lived in a good neighborhood, had one son, Nathan, and when Alice was unable to conceive another child, they adopted some more children.

Their names appeared six years later on a list of the FBI who freed them from James' compound, alerted by the infamous anonymous caller who could never be found.

Along with them, there were other kids who'd been reported missing by their real parents, like Marsha Clement.

Later that night finds us sitting over files, trying to find hints in the past as to where to find James in the present. Neither he nor Alice ever made a statement; both of them were convicted because of many concurring statements by their cronies who were trying to get off easily. Bottom line was that both regularly 'celebrated' Satanic rituals, in the course of which excessive violence against children was committed.

I take a look at the picture, Alice James at the age of twenty-three, staring defiantly into the camera. And I get what I deserve for taking this shit into our home.

"Please, don't make me go back." The voice is full of fear, and it belongs to Billy who obviously recognizes the bitch. "I'll be good, I promise..."

"I know," I say, hoping it sounds convincing. "It's an old picture. She's in prison now, and she won't get out again. There's nothing for you to be afraid of."

He looks at me for a moment, as if trying to gauge the credibility of my words. "Did you find the knives, too?" His heart is still beating way too fast. "You must find the knives before Halloween. I don't want to be the sacrifice."

Oh God.

I remember clearly that piece of folklore Blair has told us before. "Look, Billy, there's nothing to be afraid of. There's Ocean, and me, and the -- the adults inside--" I stumble over the words as I'm scrambling for an explanation that will be enough for this terrified boy, "We'll all look out for you. I promise. Nothing can happen to you."

If only I'm not promising too much here, but at least, Billy seems satisfied, because he curls up beside me on the couch, going to sleep almost immediately. I'm glad for the respite. As I return to the files, I'm still wondering what will happen, if one day, when all of them come together.

***

Blair wants to go out with Sam, so I decide to call my father after all. He's surprised, but pleased, and says that he'd love for me to join him and Sally for lunch.

Something feels strange, different -- and it takes me a while to realize that for what seems an eternity, I haven't spent time with anyone who is not, in any way, involved in the never-ending case. It makes me think of Ocean's advice, and I feel guilty for having snapped at her -- and guilty, because I enjoy the unexpected lightness in the company of people who haven't seen the evil that we have.

After lunch, Dad and I sit in the living room, having coffee and some pastries that Sally had made before she left to visit her son, and Dad wonders aloud, "Now where's this young man who seems to always be by your side, Sandburg? Don't get me wrong; I'm glad you came, but it's a rather unusual sight to have you here alone."

I shrug, glad to see that Dad has really changed over the past few years. I'm sure this would have been a snide remark up until a while ago.

"Blair is busy," I say vaguely. "Still working for the department, though not as a cop, you know."

"Yeah. Must be hard, this case, that's all over the news now. I know you're probably not allowed to tell me much, but Jimmy, if you ever need to talk--"

"Dad." To my utter shame, I feel my vision blurring, and it's not because this offer is most unusual in the Ellison family. I push back the emotion hastily. "Thank you. That's why I'm here, actually. We've seen so many ugly things, I just needed to remind myself what a normal family looks like."

"I didn't exactly provide you and Steven with 'normal'," he says somewhat sadly.

"You were in a difficult situation, and you did your best. The things they did to those kids -- it's inhuman. You wouldn't want to believe it happens, until you don't have a choice any longer."

"I guess it wouldn't be right to say I can imagine, but --" He chooses his words carefully. "Excuse me, Jimmy, but this sounds as if you're taking this way personally. Is there something else...?"

I can't tell him, no way. At this moment, I realize that I might have come with exactly this intent, but I find it impossible.

"No. No, it's just the worst case I've had in years, that's all." It's not a lie.

***

I leave for home later than I had intended; so I call Blair on the way, to see if he wants to meet me for dinner somewhere in the city. He doesn't answer the phone, neither his cell, which makes it hard to keep my own catastrophe fantasies at bay.

Maybe he just stayed with Sam, as he does on occasion, and turned the cell off, because he doesn't want his nosy roommate to keep tabs on his every move?

It doesn't help.

And then, I receive the call just the same moment as my cell phone rings. Never a good combination.

There's been a 911 call, reporting an injured woman, and the address is -- shit, shit, shit. 11, Jasper Street. Where the hell is that surveillance team? I hit the accelerator, praying that Joel and Megan are all right.

It's Simon on the cell, and what he tells me, sounds even worse.

***

24

Calm down, I tell myself. It's not like this is the worst possible neighborhood of Cascade where I find myself. Actually, I know somebody who lives around here; the TA who was with me when one of us decided to skip that presentation for the DA.

It's the nearing of Halloween that's making me this skittish. It's that atmosphere of summer having passed, fog occurring more frequently - like now. And all that decoration in the stores, why did I never wonder?

I'd always passed it quickly, shuddering at the sight of spiders and monsters.

Don't-start-now.

It's been a while since I last saw Julie, so I decide to go and check if she's home, maybe up for a coffee and a little talk, before I start freaking out again. I haven't spent much time on those mundane things lately, and it would certainly be nice.

As I walk up the stairs to her apartment - the front door of the two-story house is wide open as usual - a weird, detached feeling gets hold of me, and I'm shaking myself. No. I don't want this, not to lose any more time, though the apprehension within me is growing.

I'm scared, says a child's voice, and I realize I have heard it before.

Come on, I tell him. Nothing dangerous here. We're just visiting a friend.

So I'm finally getting the hang of it? I muse, as I'm taking the last stairs. Standing before the front door to Julie's apartment, I notice that it has been left ajar, and within a split-second my heart is hammering. "Julie?" I call.

Get a grip. Maybe she is doing laundry, went to the basement where the laundromat is, and left the door open to make it easier... I can't fool myself. There's a strange smell -- like sulfur...

Pushing the door open, I feel like my heart has come to a halt; unconsciously, I'm holding my breath for a long moment until it starts to hurt, and I have to suck in some air. The ground is starting to sway beneath my feet; it's not an earthquake, but the nausea assailing me at the sight in front of me. I can feel that child within starting to cry with horror, a familiar horror, while I just stand there and stare.

There's a large pentagram drawn on the hardwood floor with blood, her blood. Julie lies in the center of it, her naked body spread-eagled, eyes wide open, staring at nothing. 'The time is now', is written in bold letters in a circle around her, illuminated by the black candles still burning.

And then I realize that the killer has ripped her heart out.

The nausea surges, and there's pain, and then blackness.

***

The Keeper is working hard, but he can't prevent pieces of sensation coming through, getting linked to memories of earlier rituals they were forced to take part in. The only thing he'll be able to salvage is Brad's insistence that Julie was never anything other than a good friend to him. Tony and Kerry try to calm down the children, and Leila feels all alone, her body hurting from those vicious pains in the stomach even though in fact, the body is bleeding from the back of the head.

Samuel is praying again to prevent the fires of hell from devouring them, like that first Halloween.

The children want peace and quiet, not all these loud, urgent voices around them. Inside, and outside.

Ben is considering the possibilities how that can be accomplished.

"Chief?" *That* voice is warm and gentle, and it reminds Tony that one of them has to get on the outside before Blair comes to, and realizes what has happened.

***

Tony doesn't remember Julie, but seeing the way her body has been mutilated and subsequently arranged, for them, for Blair to find, makes him shudder, and he's grateful that Jim is now here, sharing part of the burden.

Julie has been the sacrifice. And Tony presumes it's because of something she didn't do right, her punishment for disobedience. Did it have anything to do with the child? He'll need to go on the inside and find out if anybody knows anything - beside Brad who adored the TA.

His eyes stray to the little box that a tech just picks up with gloved hands. 'Little Jacob' is written on it, and it's the same handwriting as on the note they found next to Marsha.

Oh no.

When the tech carefully opens the box, everyone in the room is looking sick all of a sudden. Tony almost gags, even though he's anticipated what's inside.

***

God, please let it have been another of those nightmares. I only got a glimpse of the scenery, but it was more than enough, and Jim's serious gaze tells me all I don't want to know. We're standing in the hallway of Julie's apartment, and the coroner's team is just carrying out her body.

I'm pressing my hand against my mouth, hard, because I'm afraid if I don't, I'll start to scream and probably not stop again.

Jim has assessed my state of mind quickly and correctly. Saying, "I'm so sorry, Blair," he pulls me close and holds on. I don't scream, but I'm starting to shake so hard that I feel like his embrace is the only thing that's holding me up at the moment. I can't cry. It's not because of all the other people around here; I don't really care about them. Only once this dam is broken, there's no way of controlling the flood.

It's a good thing that he's not freaked out by Tony. I can tell, because Jim still doesn't hesitate to use touch as a means of communication, confident, not worried anyone of us could get him wrong there, and therefore, we don't.

He just strokes his hand down my back, and it doesn't scare any of the children, or lead Tony to a misinterpretation.

All of a sudden he tenses, and my heart misses a beat - I'm expecting him to tell me to get a grip already, but no. Jim sounds kind of puzzled when he says, "You're bleeding."

It isn't until then that the pain at the base of my skull registers with me. "I thought it was one of us who called 911," I say, equally as confused.

"Me, too. I think we've been mistaken. Damn it! It was the murderer who called, and he was still there when you came in. There were at least two of them - one in the apartment, the other distracting Megan and Joel with that fake mugging." He calls back the paramedic who's just passed us by.

"Megan and Joel?" I ask, confused. "What were they doing here anyway?"

"Long story, Chief." He sighs. "I'll tell you after this young man has taken a look at your head and told us if we're going to the hospital tonight."

***

I've just used all the obfuscation talent that I, and maybe some of the others, have to convince the guy that with a trained medic as a roommate, no, we, um, I do not need to spend the night at the hospital. No double vision - and if there is, there might be other reasons for it, but that, I don't tell him.

I can't believe that Julie is dead. It's not like we met very often, but she was one of the few constants at Rainier, one of those people who even dared to call after my 'dishonorable discharge'. Why did those freaks draw her, of all people, into it?

Later, when we're already home, I can give the answer myself. They're getting more and more personal, tightening their web around me. Earlier, I had lectured Major Crimes and Drennan about cult leaders that call their former victims back.

James wants me - but he won't stop until he has hurt everyone I love.

Jim, who is on the phone with Simon, gives me a wary glance, as my heartbeat is starting to speed up again. I've got to warn them, and now. Jim. Ocean, Naomi, probably Thomas.

After he's finished the call, I tell Jim about my theory, and to my relief, he's taking it seriously. But he also tells me to ask Naomi to come here. I can't do that yet.

***

Why is this happening to us?

I don't really expect anyone to answer, still not used to this inner dialogue, but Tony is there. He seems to be very present during all of this, and somehow, it feels familiar. I'm reminded of people telling me how bravely I'd mouthed off to Kincaid, and Lash.

You're welcome, he says, as if relating to my thought. But I can't really answer your question. Not now, not then. There is no rational explanation.

I feel like crying again. Because he, and the comfort of his presence feels real -- and because there's a reason why it is that way.

I know.

***

As Blair falls asleep, Tony wonders what's going to happen to this new found acceptance once Ocean starts to work on integration. Does she really want for all of them, including the children, to die?

Don't worry, Ben says grimly. We've got means to keep her from doing that.

Do they really?

I don't know what's going on, Leila writes. The pain she's been feeling every conscious moment lately intensifies when she sees her hand moving, words being written in her diary.

I DON'T WANT TO DIE.

***

Jim bluntly forbids me to set a foot in the morgue, for which I'm grateful. All morning I've felt like it would have been an obligation, feeling guilty, and the need to do something that can give me absolution.

He can't, however, keep me from seeing the photos afterwards, and I start at seeing the marks on her arms. I realize I've never seen her without long sleeves at any time. Okay, so there isn't much opportunity for light clothing in Cascade anyway, and hating to be cold, I've never questioned it before.

Julie hadn't been cold. She had successfully hidden the fact that she had, from the looks of it, regularly cut herself.

I told you so, but you didn't want to listen to me. You could have helped...

"Shut up." I've barely whispered the answer, just moved my lips in fact, but Jim has noticed the silent exchange anyway.

"He cut her up like this?" he asks Dan, after giving me a worried glance.

"No," our ME says with a sigh. "Most of them were self-inflicted, over the past few months and even years, I'd guess. He did everything else, but..."

"It's called deliberate self-harm," I cut in. "A really frighteningly common phenomenon among young women nowadays. Can be everything from burning themselves with cigarettes, scratching... but mostly it's the cutting. It's supposed to be relieving after stressful situations, some kind of dysfunctional coping mechanism, but sometimes... they also have a history of abuse. They feel alienated from their bodies, and it's their way of making themselves feel again." And it doesn't do shit in the long run.

"Exactly what I wanted to say," Dan comments, not without a hint of amusement. "I thought your field of study was foreign cultures."

"That's true. I did a paper once on ritualistic self-harm in various tribal cultures as opposed to similar occurrences in western societies." Which is the fucking truth. Just why would I have been drawn to this subject anyway?

Jim doesn't comment on this, just gives me a long, thoughtful look.

***

Our lunch consists of a double latte at the nearest Starbucks, neither of us left with any appetite. Across the street there's a Dollar Store, all made up for Halloween with all kind of things in the form of pumpkins. And the obligatory skeletons, spiders, witches. I stare at it for a moment like falling into a trance, but tear myself away from it just in time.

Julie obviously had been through something she wanted to forget about, and I never knew. Where is the connection? How could James have known?

"Chief? You still with me?" Jim asks, and it isn't until then that I realize he's been talking to me. "Did she ever tell you about the cutting?"

I can tell he's wondering, too. About me, and those seemingly coincidental minor injuries. Cuts. "No, never. If I had looked more closely, though, I think I could have... no, there's no point in this. Never mind."

But I know I've said too much; Jim will not let it go, he's got to have answers. He takes my hand into his, then opens the shirt sleeves and pushes the fabric out of the way. I don't resist, transfixed, knowing exactly what he's looking for, and that he's going to find it. Dialing up touch, no doubt, as he runs his fingertips over the inside of my arm.

"Hey, Jim, you do remember we're in a public place here? People are looking! Would you please..."

Having seen the pattern on Julie's arms, it doesn't take him long to find the evidence of those scars I have pretended to have forgotten all about.

The weight of discovery makes us both silent, unsure what to say.

"I can't believe you can still feel them." Shouldn't I have known, though? "It's been... almost twenty years..."

"And if it were thirty years, I'd still know."

I believe him. If it's a good thing or not, I can't say at the moment. All of a sudden, I'm rather relieved that we still have an appointment for the day; no opportunity to deepen the subject. For now.

***