Cover by Ankaree
Artwork by Lisa, Ankaree, Annie, Lyn, Romanse
It wasn't unusual for Blair to feel a wave of nausea tug at his belly when he saw a dead body. Sure, it had gotten a bit better over time, and as long as the remains weren't especially bloody or of someone he knew, he could deal. But it was very unusual when Blair noticed that Jim was also feeling out of sorts after looking at what was spread out at their feet.
The body, a male from his first cursory glance, was lying on his back. There was so much damage to the face that it was hard to tell the sex of the victim. With a sigh, Blair glanced again at the scene.
The man's arms were thrown wide and his legs were splayed around the chair on which he must have been sitting. The chair was overturned, clearly indicating that the powerful force of the shotgun's blast had thrown him and the chair over backward. Unwilling to look any longer, Blair walked away, glancing at the few photographs and personal items decorating the small room. There was a picture of a man and a woman. From the clothing and hairstyles, he figured that the photograph looked about thirty years old. Another small photo, black and white, and damaged, showed the same couple with a toddler. Blair wondered if it was the dead man when he was a boy.
"Dennis Brenner. Age 37." Jim searched through the man's wallet that had been lying on the kitchen table. "Credit card in the name of Marjery Samuelson. Another one imprinted with the name, William P. Atherton III." Jim glanced up at Blair. "I don't think these were good friends of his, Chief."
"Probably stolen," Blair added. "I found a couple of boxes of checks on the shelf over there. Different names, different banks. There are a couple of checks missing from each box, and the addresses on the outside of the boxes don't match Brenner's. Looks like he might have been pilfering mailboxes."
"Not a nice guy. We'll have to run him through the system. Maybe somebody in Robbery was getting close and he panicked."
Blair's eyes were drawn back to the victim. "You really think he'd kill himself over some larceny beef? This seems like a little- I'd almost say overkill." Blair sighed, rubbing his hand over his face. He didn't even want to think about what the gray clumps of -- stuff were that clung to the bookcase located directly behind the victim. Dusty book covers of red, blue, gold and green were dotted with splotches of the stuff, as well as blood and - Blair closed his eyes and tried to breathe through his nose - and hair. Brown hair. More was stuck to the walls and the floor.
Moving a step closer to his partner, who stood staring down at Brenner, Blair tried to speak, but the words dried in his throat. Jim must have heard Blair's throat clicking because he tore his own eyes away from the scene to look into Blair's.
Blair saw Jim's pale face and clenched jaw. Clearing his tight throat, Blair whispered, "Outside..."
Jim nodded, and with his lips in a thin, tight line, he bolted for the nearest exit. Blair followed closely, casting an apologetic glance at Dan Wolf, the ME and friend to both men, who stood, silently surveying the scene while one of the forensics' techs, a young woman Blair didn't know, snapped picture after picture with her digital camera. Shrugging at Dan, who gave Blair a quick sympathetic smile, he followed Jim out onto the small back porch.
Being careful not to touch anything in case of fingerprints or other forensic evidence that hadn't yet been discovered, Blair stood closely behind his partner with his hands at his sides. Jim took in several deep breaths, huffing each one out slowly. His hands were clenched and his jaw muscle twitched.
"You okay?" Jim shrugged. Blair nodded in understanding. "This one slammed your senses for some reason?" It was part statement, part question. Again, a slight shrug from his partner. "You want to wait in the truck?" he quipped.
Jim snickered. Turning his head, his gaze met Blair's and he said dryly, "I just might take you up on that."
Blair had to smile in return. With some of Jim's discomfort gone, he touched his arm. "It's a bad one."
"Not anything we haven't seen before."
Blair sighed. "Unfortunately. But... Was anything different? The smell of -- the blood, the body, or the room?"
Jim shuddered. "I don't know. Maybe. Yeah, something..." Pinching the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger, he repeated, "I don't know. It wasn't the blood. It was... I don't know." He ground out the last few words, clearly irritated with his inability to express himself about whatever was bothering him.
With a tug on Jim's coat sleeve, Blair said, "Don't force it, man. You know that never works. Do you want me to go back inside and see if I can find anything -- unusual?"
"What do you expect to find? I mean-"
"Jim. Blair." Dan's soft voice interrupted their conversation. When they turned toward their friend, he explained, "Looks like a suicide, all right, but..." He shrugged, seemingly unsure.
"What?" Blair asked, becoming irritated that all three of them seemed out of sorts. Considering the number of homicides and other crimes they'd investigated together over the past years, it was beginning to bug Blair that the indecisive feeling was touching each man.
"I don't know. Something strange..." Dan chuckled uncomfortably, his head swiveling back to look into the house. He turned back to his friends and said, "Hell, I'll have to wait to see what the postmortem tells me, but it has all the earmarks... The shotgun, positioning of the body, but until I've done the autopsy, I'll keep my weird thoughts to myself."
Jim looked out over the small backyard. Blair waited expectantly but when Jim didn't question Dan further regarding his "weird thoughts", he intently examined the side of his partner's face. Jim looked even more unsettled than he had a few moments earlier.
"Jim, I hate to even suggest this, but..." Blair stopped, nodding toward the house's interior with his hand on Jim's shoulder. "I think we have to go back in and take a look. I know we'll have the pictures of the scene afterward, but something tells me you need to check the room over. You know, really inspect it."
Dan added, "The body's been transported, if that helps."
Jim raised an eyebrow, but slowly nodded. He trusted Blair's instincts so he didn't question his suggestion. "Right." Jim turned on his heels and disappeared back into the house's interior.
"Is he okay?" Dan asked, watching Jim's retreating back.
"Yeah, he's fine. I need to go and..." Blair haphazardly waved a hand.
Dan nodded. "Go and do your thing, Blair. Jim seems to work better when you're next to him." When Blair gave Dan a quizzical look, he just smiled and shrugged. "I notice things. You and he make a good team, so go and -- talk him through it."
Mildly surprised at Dan's insight, Blair was not surprised at Dan's ability to be discreet while conveying his true meaning. The man was a genius, Blair knew. He flashed Dan a small, thankful smile before he quickly followed his partner back into the closed confines of the small dank-smelling living room.
Jim had carefully position himself so that his shoes didn't touch any of the wide pool of blood spread across the inexpensive vinyl floor. Blair stood next to his partner, and quietly guided him through the usual steps.
"First, just take a mental image of the entire scene. Don't focus on anything individually right now, but let your first impressions hit home."
Jim nodded. He slowly scanned the entire room from ceiling to floor in each direction before he returned to his original position.
"Good job. Now let's do each sense. Start with sight. Focus on this area," Blair pointed toward where the shotgun had lain. "See if you can tell if anything is out of place." Blair almost chuckled. "I was going to say normally out of place, but nothing about this is normal," he muttered. Jim's strong hand briefly squeezed the back of his neck, making Blair flash him a quick, grateful smile.
"You do good, Chief," Jim said quietly.
Blair shrugged. "Your English sucks, Jim."
They smiled at each other, eyes locking for a brief moment before Jim blew out a breath and returned to his job.
"Jim, even I can smell the blood and gun powder. Man, it's going to really be uncomfortable for you, but you can do it." Jim nodded, his nostrils flaring.
"Okay," he said after a few moments.
Blair nodded. "The techs are done. Anything you feel is relevant you need to touch? We'll skip taste, man. There isn't anything in this room I want your tongue to be within a hundred miles of." Blair shuddered, making Jim raise an eyebrow.
Blair rolled his eyes, and Jim returned to his examination of the room. He walked around several times before he finally said, "I'm finished here, Chief. I really don't sense anything out of the ordinary. Let's head on back to see when the autopsy is scheduled. I want to be there for this one."
Blair shuddered again somewhat theatrically. "Oh, goodie," he groused as they made their way out the front door to Jim's waiting vehicle. "My favorite thing in the whole universe."
Jim grinned. "You want to have lunch before we get back?"
With wide eyes, Blair held out his hands. "No, thanks! If there's even a tiny little chance that Dan's scheduled the autopsy for this afternoon, I need to go in with an empty gut. Throwing up isn't a favorite pastime of mine. Not to mention a total waste of good food."
After they'd climbed into the truck and Jim had pulled away from the curb, he cast a wry glance at his partner. "If it makes you feel any better, Chief, I'm not that hungry either."
Opening the door to the ME's lab, Jim and Blair walked across the chilly room to the side of the stainless steel table. Dan Wolf waved the men closer.
Jim nodded. "Wolf. Got your message. You're doing the autopsy on our suicide already?"
Blair glanced at the sheet-covered body, swallowing quickly. "We figured it'd be a few days what with all the other stuff," he waved a hand toward the other three tables holding similarly covered bodies, "that seems to be waiting. Our guy was found just this morning. What's the rush?"
Dan smiled in embarrassment. "This one was bugging me for some reason." He glanced toward the other exam tables. "They're not going anywhere," he said with a dry laugh.
"So what did you find?" Jim asked.
"Forensics cleared the scene. They've done a preliminary report, and I've examined the body. Unless forensics finds something to change my mind in their final report, this was definitely a suicide."
Jim nodded. "No big surprise there. I didn't see anything that would have led us down any other path."
"Now we have to figure out why," Blair offered.
"Chief, we ran him through the computer. He had a rap sheet a mile long. For the past twenty years, he'd been in and out of jail. Maybe he was just tired of living."
"I don't know... I guess." Blair shrugged.
"Blair," Dan said, "unless you have any other information for me to believe otherwise, I don't see any signs of foul play."
"You're a good ME, Dan. It's just me. Something isn't right." Blair sighed. "I hate getting these -- weird vibes."
Dan grinned. "I admit I felt -- unusual at the scene also, but there is nothing here to back up any feelings, no matter who has them."
Jim snorted. "Chief, everything about you is weird."
Blair gave Jim a deadly look and reached out to smack his arm. Jim jumped away, knocking his hip on the side of the exam table. The man's arm slipped out from under the sheet and hung over the side of the table.
Jim reached out and took the hand in his. He started to put it back under the sheet. "Now see what you've done. Have a little resp-"
"Jim?" Blair asked, watching while Jim's index finger touched the center of Brenner's palm.
"There's something..." Jim turned the hand over, palm up, and focused his sight on the roughened skin while he traced his fingertip over it. "A. I. K. O. N."
"What?" Dan asked. "I don't see anything." He stepped away, returning momentarily with a large magnifying glass. "Let me take a look." He peered intently at the hand that Jim held out to him.
Blair looked over Dan's shoulder. "Me, neither. Aikon? Is it somebody's name maybe? A name tag, or what?"
"I don't see a thing, even under magnification." Dan straightened up. "Whatever it is, it didn't even bruise or discolor the skin. Let me try something more powerful."
Blair put a hand on Dan's arm. "If Jim says he sees it..." His words trailed off and he shifted uncomfortably.
Dan smiled, giving Blair a reassuring glance. "If Jim says he sees it, then I believe him."
Blair knew Jim was pleased at Dan's acceptance of his discovery. He didn't say anything in response, but he did nod and smile at Dan. "Good work, Wolf. Come on, Chief. Let's go and figure out what those letters could mean."
Blair quickly followed his partner, calling over his shoulder, "Thanks, Dan!"
"Sure, guys. Glad to help."
Blair trotted the last few steps before he fell in beside Jim. "Anything else?"
"Little triangles. Tiny, but distinct."
"Triangles?" Blair walked a few more steps before he abruptly stopped. "Nokia!"
Jim turned. "What?"
"A cell phone! Nokia. It's a brand name-"
Jim rolled his eyes. "Well, duh, Sandburg."
Blair grinned sheepishly. "Sorry, man. So did the guy have a cell phone?"
Jim shrugged. "Doesn't everybody?"
Blair chuckled. "It's an invasion, an alien takeover. People can't live without them." At Jim's fondly exasperated grin, he shrugged. "Let's head over to forensics and find out about Brenner's phone."
With a nod, Jim started walking toward the lab. "Maybe there's something on the phone's log that might help."
"You never know. We haven't even been able to find any family to notify in the stuff we went through. He deserves a decent burial."
"He was a petty thief."
"He was a human being."
Jim chuckled. "That's what makes you a good man, Sandburg. You have a good heart."
"So do you, Jim. You just like putting on your usual macho front. But hey, man, I still love you."
Jim just smiled.
Art by Annie
"Sandburg! Ellison! My office!" Simon called through the open door. When Jim and Blair had taken seats, Simon poured coffee.
Blair glanced at Jim and winked. "So, how's Naomi?" He grinned when Simon almost dropped the coffeepot. Both of them were still coming to terms with the fact that could actually be related to one another if Simon and Naomi took things further.
"She's fine," Simon replied before he said gruffly, "If you called her more often, you'd know that."
Blair had the grace to look suitably chastised, nudging Jim with his knee when the other man gave a soft chuckle.
Clearing this throat, Simon got back to business by asking, "What's the word on the Brenner case?"
Jim shrugged. "Not much. Dan's report rules the death a suicide. Forensics backs up his conclusion."
Blair nodded. "Right. The really weird thing-"
Simon raised an eyebrow. "Do I want to hear this?"
Blair grinned. "I think it's pretty darned interesting. Brenner had this impression of his cell phone on his right palm. It showed that he was clutching the thing so tightly that he managed to transfer the raised letters and keys onto his skin, and several hours later, the impressions were still visible." Blair glanced at his partner. "Well, visible to Jim, that is. Dan couldn't see them even with magnification, but Jim read off the letters to me."
"And so where is this going?" Simon asked before he took a sip of the hot beverage.
"It's just weird, that's all. The forensics techs found a cell phone beside the body, so we know it's our suicide's phone," Blair continued, "but there is no record of him signing up with any company for service. There weren't any phone bills or records of him owning the phone in his personal papers."
Simon asked, "Was it stolen?"
"Forensics checked the serial numbers. It wasn't reported as stolen. And get this, Simon," Jim said, "there were absolutely no calls in the telephone's memory. There was no phone number in the display. None of the cell phone companies show Brenner as a customer."
"How's that possible?" Simon asked.
Jim said, "Not a clue. The lab guys tore the phone apart. As far as they could tell, it had never been used."
"But he had the need to clutch the damned thing so tightly that he left imprints in his skin? That is rather -- weird." Simon shook his head. "If Dan and the lab techs agree, then this isn't a case for Major Crime. Sounds like time to put this one to bed." Simon pulled out a fresh cigar and passed it under his nose, sniffing lightly, making Blair grimace.
"I thought you gave those up?" Blair asked. "Didn't I hear something about your doctor not being happy you're still smoking after the last checkup?"
Simon bristled. "I'll have you know I'm in perfect health." He patted his broad torso. "Besides, I have a situation over at the First Federal Bank on Longmont I need you two on pronto."
With a quick touch to Blair's arm, Jim rose. "Isn't that Captain Stabler's jurisdiction? Why us?"
Simon rubbed his forehead. "I don't like the way this one went down. Apparently, a bank robber was holding a couple of civilians hostage when the robbery went bad. We have three DBs. I want my best team to check it out before the media has a field day with it, claiming the police botched up the negotiations." Simon sighed, shaking his head. He pointed toward Jim. "I want you and Sandburg to go over the scene, double check the witness reports, and talk to the negotiator. Something about this has my hackles up."
"Did you alert the detectives on the scene that we're coming? I'm sure they aren't going to like us stepping on their toes," Jim offered.
"You know the mayor will want an in-depth report on this sort of disaster, and as I have oversight on anything in this city that I think needs further investigation, I think it needs you two to take a look," Simon said firmly before adding, "So go and do your thing. And yes, they know you're coming."
Blair rose, draining his last sip of coffee. "Sure, Simon. Thanks for the coffee."
"Yeah, thanks, Simon. Come on, Chief."
Art by Ankaree
"I'm going to walk through the lobby," Jim said, touching Blair's shoulder. "I want to check the scene before the bodies are removed. Why don't you go and talk to Lieutenant Morales. He's in charge of the scene. The officer in the blue uniform over by the squad car furthest to the left." Jim inclined his head toward the other side of the street where numerous emergency vehicles and police units sat, lights flashing. "Dark hair, older gentlemen."
"Sure, Chief. No sense both of us having to have those images in our brain."
Blair looked into Jim's concerned eyes. He gave his partner a grateful smile. Jim nodded and disappeared into the bank's interior after showing the police officer on guard at the door his identification. Blair crossed the street and approached the officer in charge.
"Lieutenant Morales? I'm Detective Blair Sandburg." He flashed his ID.
Morales nodded curtly. "The brass sent you."
"Captain Banks from Major Crime wanted me to come and take your statement."
"I would have filed a report when I got back to the office," he said testily.
Blair held out his hands, hoping to placate the man. "This is just an informal talk, Lieutenant."
"How long you been on the job?"
"I don't see what that has to do with your giving me a statement while my partner looks over the scene."
"Don't get your panties in a bunch. Just asking," he said shortly before demanding, "Who are you partnered up with?"
"Detective Jim Ellison."
"Oh, right. The mayor's special pet," he said derisively.
Blair bristled at the tone, as always, ready to defend Jim's abilities. "What?"
"Nothing. Ask your questions." The man clearly conveyed his exasperation at having to answer questions posed by someone he seemed to consider an inexperienced detective.
Irritated by the lieutenant's attitude, Blair almost pressed the man further about his comments, but he didn't want to put Jim in any kind of future awkward position with the man. And not knowing Jim's history with him, he ignored the belligerent attitude and asked his questions instead.
Blair held his pad and pen at the ready. "Can you tell me what happened?"
"We got a call at 10:43 am that there was a robbery going down. Two squads answered the silent alarm. When they got here, the perp had already holed up. Didn't even try to escape although he already had a bag full of cash."
"So he had the opportunity to escape?"
"That's what the bank's security guard said. The teller had given the perp the cash and he was almost to the door before the silent alarm was even tripped. The guard said the guy was walking toward him when he suddenly pulled his gun and started firing into the ceiling."
"Okay. Then what?"
"The perp forced the guard to lock the door from the inside and he grabbed a hostage. According to the guard, there were several men close by the perp, but he bypassed them for a young woman. The woman started crying..."
"Go on," Blair encouraged.
"The witnesses all agree that the woman didn't do anything to provoke the robber."
"What do you mean by provoke?"
"She was crying, but when the perp told her to shut up, she managed to stop. When he told her to stand in front of him as a shield, she followed his instructions. He forced her over to the front window and looked out over the street. By then, the scene was crawling with squad cars."
Morales shrugged. "I haven't seen the surveillance tapes, but apparently the perp shot the woman point blank in the head. The bank exploded in chaos. Other hostages started screaming and running. The guard said the perp calmly lined up his gun sight on another victim, a teenage boy this time, and pulled the trigger. Killed him instantly."
"Shit!" Blair shook his head. "And so the SWAT sniper took out the robber?"
"No, he shot himself."
"What?" Blair asked. "How?"
"How?" Morales said snidely. "He put a bullet into his brain. Saved the taxpayers the expense of a trial and incarceration."
Blair bit his lower lip in order to stifle the smart retort that almost burst out of his mouth. He took a small breath and huffed it out before he asked, "Could you please explain the circumstances surrounding the perp's -- suicide?"
"He walked over to the front of the bank and stood where everybody could see him through the glass door. He put the gun into his mouth and pulled the trigger."
Blair made a few more notes before he calmly looked into the lieutenant's eyes. "I need a copy of the bank's security tapes sent over to Captain Bank's office as soon as possible."
He paused for a moment as if he were going to protest before he finally conceded, "Be there in a few hours."
"We done?" Morales asked curtly.
"Yes, thanks for your help." Morales turned and quickly walked away. Blair watched his back for a moment before he started to walk toward the bank's front entrance. Clenching the pen in his hand tightly, he muttered, "What an asshole."
"What's wrong, Sandburg?"
Blair started. He hadn't even seen Jim crossing the street until he'd almost plowed right into him. "Oh, hey, Jim."
"Did he give you a rough time?" he asked, nodding toward the retreating officer.
Blair shrugged. "No more than any of the other couple of dozen members of the PD who resent my position with Major Crime." Before Jim could get angry at Blair's treatment, Blair gave Jim a sidelong glance. "And who resent your talent, your closure rate, and your dazzling good looks."
Jim guffawed with amusement. "Yeah, right." He ruffled Blair's hair. "One of the witnesses is waiting for me to speak to him. Apparently, he was closest to our perp and said the guy had an accomplice."
"A second perp?"
"No, not exactly. He says the guy had a hand's free cell phone and an ear bud in; that he was talking to someone off and on during the entire robbery."
Blair's eyebrows flew upward to his hairline, and he felt that same weird vibe he'd felt at the first suicide they had inspected. "You don't say."
"Too coincidental for my taste, Chief."
"No kidding. How did you feel while you were inside the bank?" Blair asked innocently, curiously watching Jim's face.
Jim shifted uncomfortably and pinched his nose with his thumb and forefinger. "Now that you ask... A bit -- strange. Something was off..."
"Any clue what it was?"
Shrugging, Jim looked puzzled when he said, "No, not really. Just -- weird, like when we were at the house over on Wentworth."
"Where Brenner committed suicide?"
Blair nodded. "I felt -- something too. It is strange." Looking around, he then asked, "Where's our witness? At the hospital?"
Jim shook his head. "Over this way." He led Blair over to a man who sat on the back ledge of an open ambulance. Blanket over his shoulders, he sipped a cup of what looked like hot coffee.
"Yes?" The slightly built, Asian man raised his eyes.
Jim flashed his badge. "I'm Detective Ellison. This is my partner, Detective Sandburg. I appreciate your letting us talk to you so soon after what happened. It's a big help."
Blair nodded. "Thanks. You must have had an awful time."
"Yes. Very awful." The man shivered.
"We'll make this quick," Jim said. "I want you to explain exactly what you meant when you told the other officers about the perp talking into his cell phone."
Nodding, Mr. Wong stated, "He seemed very agitated. Quite angry, and the sweat was running down his face... I could hear him some of the time. He kept saying that he couldn't do it... that he didn't want to do it..."
Blair asked, "Did he ever say what "it" was?"
"No," Wong answered, shaking his head. "I don't know if he meant the robbery or the... killing. He listened more than he talked, but when he did speak, he seemed to be -- begging some of the time. Pleading that he didn't want to do -- whatever. It was very -- unusual."
Jim nodded encouragingly. "Did he ever mention a name or say anything that would give us any indication as to whom he was speaking, or where this other party was calling from?"
"No, not at all. He wasn't very coherent." He shrugged and sighed tiredly. "Maybe he was insane, and there was really nobody on the other end of the line anyway. He had to be crazy to do what he did..." Wong blanched, remembering his experience. "I'm sorry. I'm going -- to be sick."
"Medic!" Jim called, waving one of the EMTs over. "Take care of Mr. Wong."
"Yes, sir," the woman answered.
"Thank you, sir," Blair offered. "You take care of yourself."