"Run that last part over," Jim requested, leaning forward to peer closely at the television screen.
Blair hit the rewind button and then pressed play. "Right there. Look at the perp's face. He's definitely talking."
"Yes, he is. Wong was right. I just wish this darned thing had sound! Then we could maybe figure out who he's talking to."
"I have an idea," Jim said, reaching over to punch several numbers of the interoffice phone. "Vera? It's Jim Ellison. Does Rachel still work over in Personnel? Could you ask her to come to the conference room on the sixth floor? I have a tape I'd like her to take a look at. Thanks."
"Rachel Morgan. She's one of the interpreters for the court for the hearing impaired. She also reads lips."
"Ah!" Blair smiled. "Good thinking!"
Within five minutes, an older attractive woman with curly blond hair and glasses walked in. "Jim? You rang?" she asked pleasantly.
"Rachel, thank you. You know Blair."
Rachel smiled, nodding at Blair. "We've met in passing. What can I do for you two?"
"We'd like you to watch this tape and tell us what the guy's saying."
"Sure. What's the case?"
"Bank robbery gone bad," Blair offered.
"Oh," she said. "From this morning. Right. Too bad. I hate hearing about things like that."
"Don't we all," Jim agreed. "Go ahead, Chief."
Blair started the tape while Rachel watched intently.
"He's not always facing the camera, but he's definitely talking to someone. "Leave me alone." "No. No. No." "I hate you." "It's all your fault." She shook her head. "Plenty of really foul language. Things I'd be embarrassed to repeat to you, but it looks like it's pretty much the same thing over and over. If you want an actual transcript, I can take the tape and as much as I can decipher, I'll type up for you."
Jim nodded. "Thanks. If you have the time, that'd be great."
"Of course. I'd be happy to help figure this out. Those poor families need to know if somebody was pulling this guy's strings."
"Thanks, Rachel," Jim said, rising. When Blair hit eject, he passed the tape to his friend.
"Any time, Jim. Blair, nice seeing you. I'll get back to you by the end of the day. Good afternoon, gentlemen."
Blair walked next to his partner as they crossed the busy street, threading their way around police cruisers, ambulances, the ME's car and the coroner's vehicle.
"Jim, man, how could he have been talking into that hand's free and there be no record of his call? The phone wasn't damaged. The circuits were in like-new condition. Nothing was wrong with that phone!" Blair glanced around, shaking his head in exasperation. "That's twice now. It's too coincidental. What the hell could be going on?"
"You mean what's going on other than he had no service, didn't make any calls, and that the damned thing had never been used... according to the lab, anyway," Jim said, his own exasperation evident.
"Do you think they made a mistake?" Blair asked, trotting up the wide steps of the church with his partner beside him.
'No, I don't. I think they found what they were supposed to find."
Blair stopped. "They were supposed to find nothing?"
Jim stopped as well, nodding. "You got it, Chief."
Shaking his head, Blair said, "I just don't get it! And the transcript that Rachel sent over didn't tell us much, other than what we already knew."
Jim cast a wry glance at Blair. "You mean other than Tom Bartholomew was a piece of human trash and I'm not sorry he's dead?"
"Yeah, there is that. How do these people keep getting out of jail? I'm really tired of it. You know? He was sentenced to ten years. He's out in three! If he'd still been locked up, those two innocent people would still be alive!"
Jim nodded his thanks at the police officer who opened the door for them, and followed his partner through. "Trust me, Chief," he said in a quiet voice. "I know. More than I like to even think about."
Blair looked around as they passed through the vestibule and started down the tiled center aisle of the large sanctuary. "It's a church, Jim," he said redundantly.
Jim just nodded. Blair sighed and together they made their way over to where the forensics team was gathered. Dan nodded to both men, who returned his greeting with grim faces and curt nods of their own.
"What do we have, Dan?" Jim inquired.
Dan cocked a head toward the choir loft. The body of a middle-aged man hung from the second floor balcony, swaying slightly. "Father Patrick O'Malley. Pastor of St. Joseph's. He's been here for twenty-two years." Dan sadly shook his head. "The second body is in the confessional. Moira Sweeney, 78. She was apparently strangled by Father O'Malley. He then hung himself. One of the parishioners came in for confession and saw the father's body. She managed to call 911, but it wasn't until officers responded that they found Mrs. Sweeney's body. The door to the confessional was closed, and they found it while making a routine search of the premises for evidence."
"Was there a cell phone?" Blair asked.
Dan raised an eyebrow, clearly surprised at Blair's initial question. "Not that I've seen. Forensics is doing a sweep now, gathering anything and everything, and taking pictures, of course."
Jim glanced around, arms crossed. He wandered over to the wooden confessional and peered into the left side compartment, where the body of Moira Sweeney lay, covered with a sheet. He entered the small space, lifted the sheet, then re-covered the body. Blair opened the right side and glanced inside. Seeing nothing out of place, he sighed and opened the middle, the place in which the priest sat to hear the confessions of his parishioners.
Blair examined the interior, but stepped backward after a moment. "Kind of dark. No light that I can see. I guess the priest sits in the dark?"
"Let me take a look." Jim walked into the small space, closing the door behind him. After a few moments, he opened the door and sat down on the built-in bench. Pointing, he said, "The scroll work on the wooden door allows some light and a bit of air in. Guess he didn't really need a light to forgive sins and to lead people in prayer."
"No, it's empty." Jim ran a hand up the walls and along the doorframe. "Nothing."
"The ME is going to move the body, Jim."
Jim nodded, stepping out of the small area. They both moved back, giving the techs room to work, and watched, waiting patiently until the woman's body was placed into the black plastic body bag and zipped up. After the gurney was wheeled away and one of the techs snapped pictures of the confessional's interior sans body, Jim took the opportunity to examine the area that had previously been hidden by the murder victim.
"See anything?" Blair asked.
Jim focused on the dark interior. "Give me a second."
"Sure, man. Take your time. By the way, Jim, how do you feel?"
"Give me your first impression about this case. Don't ponder, don't consider, just tell me."
"Like the other times?"
Jim's eyes narrowed before he slowly nodded. "Yes. What's going on?"
"Not a clue, Jim." When he saw Jim suddenly stop his search and focus intently, Blair asked, "You find something?"
"You have an evidence bag, Chief?" Jim asked, snapping on a disposable glove that he'd pulled from his jacket pocket.
"Yeah, got one right here." Blair dug through his own pocket, pulling the item out. He opened it and held it out so that Jim could drop whatever he'd found into it. "Find something?" he repeated.
"Yeah," Jim called over his shoulder while he rooted around on the floor. "Look at this." He rose and held out his glove-covered hand. The thin, silver cell phone lay in the center of Jim's palm.
"Oh God," Blair whispered.
"Appropriate, Chief," Jim said smartly, dropping the phone into the evidence bag.
"This is too weird," Blair muttered, shivering. "Way too strange for me."
Jim took the bag from Blair and sealed it. "For you, Chief? The man who brought me back from the dead and performed shamanic rituals that rival the imagination?" Jim said teasingly. "I didn't think the word 'strange' was in your vocabulary."
Blair raised an eyebrow. "Ha. Ha. Very funny. Besides, your feeble attempt to try and make me feel better isn't working." He almost smiled. "But thanks anyway."
The corner of Jim's mouth tugged upward momentarily. After pulling off the plastic glove, he reached out and affectionately patted Blair's cheek. "That's what partners are for. Now let's get this to one of the techs so they can do their thing."
"What? So they can tell us that it's not registered to the priest? And that no calls had been made? And that no phone bills could be found? I don't know if I can take that kind of news again."
"If you have any better ideas about this," Jim said, holding up the bag by the very edge as if touching even the bag that held the phone bothered him, "I'm willing to listen."
Blair shook his head and shoved his hands into his pockets. Following Jim back over to where Dan was working, he said under his breath, "How about the phone service from hell?"
While Jim handed the bagged phone to one of Dan's people, Blair asked Dan, "How do you feel?"
Dan raised an eyebrow. "What?"
"How do you feel about this case, about being here? Don't think about it. Just say the first word that comes to mind."
Dan blurted out, "Strange."
Blair nodded. "Me, too."
"What's going on?" Dan asked.
Slowly shaking his head, Blair sighed. "I wish I knew."
Art by Annie
Jim turned toward the black woman who stood on the sidewalk a few feet away from the station's front doors. "I'm Detective Ellison."
Blair stopped and smiled at the woman when her questioning eyes met his. "Blair Sandburg. I'm Detective Ellison's partner."
The woman, who looked about fifty, nodded. "I'm Sophie Green."
"What can I do for you, Mrs. Green?" Jim inquired.
"You're investigating the death of Father O'Malley?" she asked, her eyes quickly filling with tears.
"Shall we go someplace to talk?" Blair offered, sensing that the woman had some important information to offer about the dead man. "The middle of the street isn't the best place."
She nodded, allowing Jim and Blair to lead her into the cafe next to the police station.
"Have a seat, please," Blair offered, pulling out a chair. "Coffee? Tea?" Blair sat down beside Mrs. Green while Jim took a seat opposite her at the small table.
"Nothing. Thank you."
"Two coffees," Jim ordered when the waitress appeared. Once she left, Jim asked, "What can we do for you, ma'am?"
"Father O'Malley was a good man."
"He just didn't ever feel that God forgave him. I wanted you to understand that he was a good priest, and he loved his parish."
Blair glanced at Jim, who looked puzzled. "We're not questioning his devotion to his job," Blair stated. "And there's really no investigation being conducted. There's no -- crime that is unsolved."
Jim said softly, "Why did you want to speak to me?"
Mrs. Green pulled a tissue from her purse. "Twenty-five years ago, Pat- Father O'Malley and I had an -- affair. Nobody else knows this! I need you to know because I want you to understand that he was a good man! I forgave him for choosing the church over his son and me. He devoted himself to God, but I think he did -- what he did because of guilt!" Quietly, she blew her nose. "He never forgave himself, even though I know God forgave him. After all these years, he still felt such overwhelming -- shame!"
"I understand," Jim said sympathetically. "Thank you for letting us know."
"It's important to me," she added before she looked directly at Blair and asked, "Do you believe that the devil did this to him?" Her intent gaze held Blair's, demanding an answer.
Blair cleared his throat before he said, "I believe that it is possible that a man can feel such torment in his soul that he leaves himself -- open to influence by an outside force that can't be explained. That he can be driven to such a thing as Father O'Malley was driven to because he can't let -- a higher power into his soul to give comfort."
Mrs. Green gave Blair a watery smile. "Thank you." She rose, and both men rose with her. "Thank you," she repeated before she turned and left.
"Do you really believe that, Chief?" Jim asked seriously.
Blair turned toward Jim and said solemnly, "With all we've seen, don't you?"
With a small grimace, Jim nodded.
Art by Lyn
Blair picked a package of whole wheat pasta from the shelf and after fishing his glasses from his shirt pocket and putting them on, he started reading the ingredients on the box's side panel. His cell phone buzzed, vibrating against his side. Reaching into his jacket, he carefully retrieved the phone, staring at it with a bit of apprehension. For a moment, his mind flashed back to the two suicides and the cell phones. Realizing he was being paranoid, he glanced at the caller ID before he hit the "on" button. "Yeah, Jim."
"You're going to have to cut the grocery shopping trip short, Chief."
Hearing his partner's curt tone, he immediately paled. "What's happened?"
"Simon called. I'll meet you at George Washington Elementary School on President's Boulevard."
"Jim, please tell me that nothing bad has happened to any little kids today. I don't know if I can handle it."
"Sorry, Blair," Jim said softly. "I can do this alone-"
"No! No, you can't. We're partners. For better or worse, remember?"
Jim gave a small chuckle. "Yeah, Chief. I remember. See you in twenty."
"You drive carefully, okay?"
"Yes, mom," he answered smartly.
Blair smiled, disconnecting and pocketing the phone. He glanced at the items that he had gathered in his cart so far. With a sigh, he pushed the cart over to where one of the store clerks was working stocking shelves. With an apologetic smile, he said, "I'm sorry, but I've been called away on an emergency." He showed the girl his badge. "Can you put this stuff back for me?"
The teenage girl smiled. "Yeah, I'm here for five more hours. Might as well keep busy."
Blair nodded. "Thanks!" He hurried to his vehicle where he clamped the flashing red light to the roof, turned on the flashing white lights and siren that Jim had installed in Blair's personal vehicle after he had become a permanent member of the force, and pulled into traffic. He hated the thought of going to a school, and Jim's reluctance at explaining any details let Blair know that whatever had happened, it wouldn't be good for anybody.
When he pulled up a half a block away from the two story, red brick building, the entire street was blocked off by police cars, emergency vehicles and fire trucks. Blair trotted up the block, making sure that his shield was within easy reach. As he approached the front of the building, several officers he knew nodded in greeting, and he returned their nods with one of his own. Joel stood at the top of the steps. Blair joined him, looking down over the controlled chaos of the street.
"What the hell happened?" he asked, seeing a large group of students, along with parents and teachers, gathered in a store's parking lot across the street. Several more, smaller groups of children were congregated around the back door of the ambulances where more adults hovered around. He counted five ambulances on the scene. "Did that many kids get -- hurt?" he asked, shocked.
Joel put a hand on Blair's shoulder. "No, Blair. Thankfully, right now, none of the kids are dead. Only one of the teachers."
"Right now?" he echoed.
"Unfortunately," Joel responded, nodding. "Three are in critical condition and at least two or three more are in serious condition."
"They were all shot?"
"No! Thank God, although this is bad enough. They were poisoned."
Blair turned wide eyes to Joel. "Poisoned?"
"Yes." Joel gave a small grimace of pain and rubbed his forehead.
Concerned, Blair asked, "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, just a bit of a headache. I feel a little off today."
Blair carefully searched Joel's face, knowing that Joel must be feeling that same "thing" that he, Jim and Dan had been feeling at the last few crime scenes; that something was just not right.
"What kind of poison?"
Joel shook his head. "I'm not sure. I've been in the hallway but I haven't been inside the classroom, but Jim has. He'll fill you in. I know he's waiting for you." Joel moved closer even though the nearest police officer was at least twenty feet away, and his voice was quieter when he said, "He works better with you helping him."
Blair had to smile. "Thanks, Joel. He does. Lead on, please." He followed Joel through the double doors. "I hate hearing about kids being hurt. They should be protected."
"Tell me about it." Joel cast Blair a sympathetic glance. "This way," he said, turning down a hallway and stopping before an open door. He put a hand on Blair's shoulder. "I'll talk to you later."
"Okay, Joel. Thanks." Blair walked into the room and stood near the back, taking in the scene. It was such an ordinary classroom. Then why did he feel that same thing: something unusual, something strange was going on? With a shake of his head to clear it, he looked around.
While the teacher's steel desk stood in front of the room in what looked to be its usual position, the room itself was a mess. There were student desks pushed out of alignment, and some were overturned. Books, pencils, crayons, and lunch boxes, along with sweaters and jackets, were strewn everywhere. Directly to the left of the teacher's desk was a portable table where the remains of what looked like a cake sat, along with a plastic jug that contained some sort of red liquid. One of the lab techs was dusting the jug for fingerprints while others gathered items from the teacher's desk.
Blair's further observations showed paper plates, plastic forks and paper cups covering the small table and the floor. As he walked toward where Jim waved from the front of the room, he passed the colorful bulletin boards covered with maps of the world, pictures of animals -- dogs, kittens, fish, turtles and ponies -- as well as a full wall of brightly decorated art pieces clearly done by the students. As Blair walked by, he could read some of the names: Miranda, Jacob, Tyrell, Sidney, Annie...
With his hands in his pockets, he walked the rest of the way to where Jim and Dan Wolf stood with their gaze glued upon the sheet-covered body.
"Jim. Dan," he acknowledged before asking, "What happened?"
"Hey, Blair," Dan said. "Fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Emily Lane, age 46."
"Joel said she poisoned her class?" Blair asked, still shocked at such an action.
Jim nodded. "The class was apparently celebrating one of the children's birthdays," he explained, head cocking toward the table where the remains of the party still lay. "From what I've gathered, one of the parents provided the food."
Dan waved a hand toward the table. "Forensics did a preliminary check of the juice. It's laced with some kind of a garden or animal pesticide. They found an empty plastic bottle in the woman's sweater pocket, but it was unmarked. We'll know more after the lab tests the residual liquid that remained in the bottle."
"So who do you think tampered with the juice? The teacher or the parent?"
Jim looked around the room before he glanced back down at the body. "We'll question everyone, but I'm putting my money on the teacher."
Jim shrugged. "Just a hunch."
Dan spoke while Jim hunkered down to lift the sheet. "She has all the signs of ingesting poison, as do the children who were taken to the hospital. Only in her case, she took enough for it to be fatal."
"How many were affected?"
"There were twenty-two children in this class. We transported the entire group to be checked out, of course. So far, three are in ICU and two are listed as serious but stable. Several of them were treated and released, and the rest are being examined, even if they didn't display any symptoms."
"Okay. Thanks, Dan." After Dan nodded and walked away, Blair hunkered down next to Jim. "Anything unusual?"
"Other than I have the creeps today big time?" Jim asked a bit sarcastically.
"I know what you mean. I feel it too."
Blair shrugged before he asked again, "Do you see or sense anything out of the ordinary on the body?"
"No. I can smell whatever she ingested. There's a bit on her mouth."
"Not to mention that some of the juice has spilled on the table and floor. I'm sure you can smell it. Can you tell what it was?"
"No, not specifically. Just that it contains chemicals." Jim dropped the sheet back over the woman's face and rose, brushing off his hands. "Too bad this had to happen."
Jim sighed. "The usual. We'll interview the kids, of course, and the other staff members, but since we know who committed the crime," he waved toward the sheet-covered body, "there's really nothing to investigate."
"Yeah, I know. It just seems..."