TOUCHING EVIL

Written by LilyK

Cover by Ankaree

Artwork by Lisa, Ankaree, Annie, Lyn

 

Act One

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."

~o0o~

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.

~o0o~

"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."

~o0o~

 

"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."

"Thanks, Jim."

"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."

"And then?"

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."

"Thank you."

"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?"

"Yeah."

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.

"Mr. Wong?"

"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."

Act Two

"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?"

"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."

~o0o~

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.

"Anything, Chief?"

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."

"Find anything?"

"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?"

"About...?"

"Give me your first impression about this case. Don't ponder, don't consider, just tell me."

"Peculiar."

"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."

 ~o0o~

"Detective Ellison?"

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."

"Yes, ma'am."

"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.

~o0o~

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.

"Chief."

"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."

"Why's that?"

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."

"It?"

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."

"What next?"

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..."

"What?"

"Unfinished."

Act Three

Jim led the well-dressed woman holding the hand of a young boy into the nearest empty conference room. Blair followed, smiling at the child, who looked up at him with curious brown eyes.

"Thanks for coming down, Mrs. Wilson. And thank you for bringing Curtis." Jim smiled at the pair, pulling out a chair for the lady.

Blair glanced down at the boy. "Hello, Curtis. I'm Blair. Why don't you sit down right here," he put a hand on the back of one of the chairs, "and I'll get you a soda. What kind would you like?"

Curtis glanced at his mother, who nodded her consent. "Pepsi, please."

"One Pepsi coming up. Mrs. Wilson? Soda? Coffee?"

"Nothing for me. Thank you."

"Jim?"

"Not right now. Thanks, Blair."

When Blair returned a few minutes later with the soda, Jim was talking to the boy, who was describing his last football game.

"Sounds like you're a valuable team player, Curt."

Curt nodded enthusiastically. "It's fun. And I'm pretty tough." He held out his arm and flexed a thin muscle.

Blair grinned, placing the can down on the table. "Hey, pretty good muscles there."

Mrs. Wilson put a hand on Curtis' arm. "Why don't you tell the police officers exactly what you told me last night after we got you home from the hospital."

"Okay, Mom. It's kind of creepy, though."

Blair smiled. "That's okay. Jim and I like creepy." Jim cast Blair a quick glance and raised an eyebrow. Blair shrugged. "You tell us whatever you think would help us figure out exactly what happened."

"Okay. Well, it was Christina's birthday and her mom brought cake and cherry punch. I told Mrs. Lane that I didn't want to drink any of the punch, but she said it wouldn't be polite to refuse." Curt shrugged, taking a sip of his soda. "When I said I couldn't drink it because cherry made me sick to my stomach, she got mad."

"Did Mrs. Lane get mad a lot?" Jim asked.

"No, hardly ever. I don't mind going to school because Mrs. Lane makes it fun. I have to do homework and stuff like that, but she gives us special treats and stuff. Once we went on a really cool field trip to the space needle. We rode the elevator to the top!"

"That sounds like great fun! So did you drink the punch?" Blair inquired.

Curt said, "No way, man! It was gross! I took a cup and pretended to so she wouldn't yell at me. I just stuck my tongue in it. Ick!" He made a face, making Blair smile. "When Mrs. Lane wasn't looking, I put my glass back on the table so somebody else could have it."

"What did it taste like?" Jim asked.

"I don't know. Kind of funny. Not like my mom's stuff. I ate a big piece of cake, so I couldn't taste it any more anyway."

Mrs. Wilson said, "Tell us about what she drank, honey."

"Okay. Before the party, Mrs. Lane took this plastic bottle from her pocket and dumped it into the punch."

"Did she know you saw her?" Blair queried.

"No. I was supposed to be practicing my cursive, but I looked over at her while she was fixing up the table with the cake and stuff on it. She kind of looked around, you know, like on TV, like she was making sure nobody was looking. But I saw her take the bottle out of her sweater pocket and pour it into the punch. That's why I lied about the cherry junk. I like cherry, but I didn't want it after she put that junk in it." After taking another sip of his soda, he added, "I told Justin not to drink any, but he called me a dork. I think he was one of the sick kids."

"Well, I'm sure the doctors will do the best they can for him," Jim responded before asking, "Did Mrs. Lane drink any of the juice?"

"Yeah," he said, stopping to take a sip of his soda. "She drank two whole glasses. I saw her dump more of the stuff into her own glass. The whole rest of the bottle. She was acting weird."

Jim nodded. "You're doing a great job, Curtis. Anything else?"

Mrs. Wilson smiled at her son and prompted, "Don't forget about the phone, Curtis."

Jim and Blair looked at each other. Blair didn't look the least bit surprised at the mention of yet another cell phone, while Jim clearly conveyed to Blair that this entire phone thing was beginning to bug the hell out of him.

"What about a phone, Curt?" Blair managed to ask.

"It was weird. She kept talking on her cell phone."

Jim asked, "Can you tell us why you think that's weird? Everybody talks on cell phones these days."

"Nobody's allowed to talk on cell phones in class. Michael got his taken away one day when he forgot to turn it off, and it played the really cool music from Spiderman during math. Even the teachers aren't supposed to use them unless it's an emergency. Once Mrs. Lane had to use it when Megan fainted. I want a cell phone, but mom says I can't have one until I'm older."

"Did you ever hear anything that she said while she talked on the phone?" Blair's stomach churned as he asked the question.

Curtis screwed up his face in concentration. "It was kind of creepy. She kept hanging up and it kept ringing. It must have rung three dozen times."

"Curt, are you exaggerating?" his mother asked.

Curtis grinned. "Yeah, maybe. It was more like five or six times." He shrugged, swinging his legs.

Jim nodded, giving the boy an encouraging smile. "That's all right. You're doing a great job. So what did she say to the person who called?"

"I couldn't hear much, because she kept leaning down and putting her hand around her mouth, but once she got really mad. She said, "No, Katie! No!" Really loud! The whole class jumped. We all started talking to each other, wondering what was going on, and she got mad again, told us all to shut up. She never said shut up to anybody before. Mrs. Lane says it's bad manners. She says that it's okay to ask the person to please stop talking, or to please be quiet, but we get points taken off if we yell shut up." Draining his can of soda, he wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. "And please and thank you. Mrs. Lane says good manners are the sign of a good person."

Blair glanced at Jim once again before he said, "Curt, you've done a fine job. This is very helpful information."

"Thank you for bringing him in, Mrs. Wilson," Jim added.

Mrs. Wilson nodded. "I just hope the other children are okay. I've explained to Curtis about Mrs. Lane... How she was sick in her head, and did something she didn't mean to do. I think he understands."

"He's a smart kid," Blair offered. "And the other children who were admitted to the hospital will recover. We're happy nobody else had to die."

Mrs. Wilson said, "Thank God for that."

"I'm happy, too," Curtis said. "I don't like Miranda," he added honestly, "but I didn't want her to die. Not like Mrs. Lane..." He kicked the toe of his shoe against the chair leg.

Blair tousled his hair. "You did an excellent job! Come on. I'll walk with you to the elevator."

"Chief, I'm heading down to the lab to check on something. Thanks again, Mrs. Wilson. Good meeting you, Curtis." Jim held out his hand, which Curtis took and pumped vigorously, grinning.

"I'll be right there, Jim," Blair said, his gaze finding Jim's. He knew exactly what Jim was going to the lab to check on, and he felt a cold spike of fear stab his body. He knew Jim must have sensed his sudden spike in heart rate and respiration, because Jim moved close to him and put a hand on his shoulder. He squeezed lightly and nodded reassuringly. When their eyes met, he saw the care and concern radiating from his partner's clear blue eyes, and in spite of the circumstances, it gave him a warm feeling. Giving Jim a reassuring smile, thanking him silently, he escorted the guests to the elevators.

~o0o~

When Blair entered the lab, Jim was standing next to one of the techs as the man peered through a microscope.

"Detective, this phone is as clean as the day it came off the assembly line. I'm sorry. I know this is damned freaky. I mean, that's three cases in a week that have had cell phones linked to them in some way, and all three haven't had a single bit of use!" Shaking his head, the tech sighed. "It makes no sense to me. What are they? Possessed?" he asked, almost jokingly. Seeing Jim's stern look, the man blushed. "Sorry," he muttered.

Blair stood on the tech's other side and said, "Hey, don't worry about it. You can't make any evidence where there isn't any. Actually, your discovery is just as helpful. Now we know that each of the three phones were in the exact same condition. That's a clue in itself."

Jim glared at Blair over the man's back. Blair cast Jim an innocent smile, making him shake his head and straighten up. "Thanks, Luke."

Blair clapped the man on the back. "Thanks, man. Good job."

As they walked back toward the bullpen, Jim tiredly rubbed his face. "I'm really getting fed up with these ones, Blair. We're getting nowhere fast."

Blair sighed. "There's nowhere to go, Jim. Each one was definitely a suicide. And while the -- collateral damage... God, that's such an awful term!"

"I know what you mean. It's a ripple effect. They felt -- compelled to kill somebody before they killed themselves. But their motives mean a lot. I wish there was more that they'd left behind to tell us why!"

With a comforting glance, Blair answered, "Thanks. You always seem to know what to say to make me feel a bit better."

"You're welcome. So what were you going to say about the other victims?"

"Just that we know who killed each of them. It's not like there's a big question about who did it. But there's a huge question about the whys of it."

"True, Chief. Very true."

"I don't know about you, but I'm ready to go home. I need a shower and I'm hungry."

"And I could use about twelve hours of sack time," Jim added tiredly.

"Sounds good."

"It is late. What do you say we grab our coats and head home? I don't feel like cooking, but I'm willing to spring for dinner since the grocery shopping was interrupted. No way I'm stopping at the store to shop tonight."

"Something quick. Subs, maybe."

"Works for me."

After turning off computers and clearing desktops, the men grabbed their coats and headed out the door. On their way past Rhonda's desk, she called, "Guys? Here's that information you requested."

"Thanks, Rhonda," Blair said with a smile, taking the sheet of paper that Rhonda held out. "See you in the morning."

"Night, Blair. Jim."

"Evening, Rhonda," Jim responded. As they headed toward the elevators, Blair read the paper while Jim tugged on his sleeve, guiding him around other people in the hallway with long-practiced ease. "One of these days, Chief..." he said amusingly as he punched the elevator button.

"Get this, Jim," Blair said with interest. "Mrs. Lane's twin sister, Katie, was raped and murdered ten years ago in St. Paul. The perp was never found. Man, that's rough. Their parents... They're still alive. It's has to be horrible losing both of your children to violence." He sighed. "Sometimes life plain sucks."

The doors opened and the men entered the empty car. Jim pressed the button for the parking garage. "No shit, Sandburg," Jim muttered.

Blair shrugged and after folding the paper, he shoved it into one of his jacket pockets.

~o0o~

The hot water cascaded down Blair's body, sending waves of warmth over his skin. He sighed with contentment, his hands resting lightly on Jim's hips. With his eyes closed and his head tipped back, he let the spray's fingers pound into his scalp, giving it a light massage. Jim's hands moved up to his head, and with a gentle tug, he moved Blair slightly forward, out of the direct spray so that he could wash the long strands. He took his time, rubbing the scalp with just the right amount of pressure that he knew Blair liked. Blair made small moans of pleasure, which made Jim chuckle. Blair kept his eyes shut until Jim moved him back under the water to rinse out the shampoo.

"How's that?" Jim asked.

Blair reached up, threading his fingers through his hair. "Good. Thanks."

"Turn around."

Blair turned, sighing with relief when Jim's large hands massaged deeply into his shoulder muscles. "Feels great!"

"I aim to please."

Blair chuckled, moving back a bit to allow Jim's erection to brush against his backside. "I noticed."

Jim laughed, wrapping an arm around Blair's shoulders and pulling him back against his chest. "You are such a tease." Jim planted a series of small kisses down the side of Blair's face, licking the water from the unshaven cheek as he rubbed his tongue along Blair's jawline.

Blair laughed, and turned in Jim's arms, wrapping his own arms around Jim's torso. "You feel so good! Just what I needed." Resting his head on Jim's shoulder, he murmured, "Like being close to you."

Jim kissed along the top of Blair's shoulder and up to his ear, nibbling the lobe before sucking on it.

"Jim! Man, you know how much that turns me on!" His hand slid down Jim's sculpted back, across his left buttock and around his upper thigh to lightly clasp Jim's erection. "Kiss me, Jim. Like you mean it."

Jim complied, firmly pressing his lips against Blair's. With a small moan, Blair opened his mouth, inviting his lover to explore while his hand stroked Jim exactly the way he knew Jim liked it. A couple of firm caresses followed by a bit of play around the head, and Jim was soon moaning deeply, holding Blair's ass in his large hands. While he amorously kissed his lover, Blair's fingers moved along Jim's body with familiarity, cupping the taut balls before returning to the hard flesh. It wasn't long before Jim was shuddering and spurting semen over Blair's hand and onto his stomach.

Kissing Blair ardently, Jim wrapped an arm around Blair's neck while his left hand traveled down his chest, stopping momentarily to tweak the hard nipples. After a bit more nipple play, the hand slipped down to hold Blair's thick penis in his palm. Closing his hand around the firm flesh, Jim stroked. He continued his deep, arousing kisses while he jacked Blair's organ, teasing a bit when he moved his hand from the erection to lightly finger his balls. When Blair groaned and thrust his hips forward, wordlessly demanding that Jim take up where he left off, Jim chuckled against Blair's lips. He slipped two fingers behind the sac until he lightly touched Blair's hole. Blair gasped against Jim's mouth and spread his legs just a bit, giving Jim more access. Jim teasingly tapped the sensitive ring of muscles with a fingertip, laughing softly when they spasmed. He slipped a finger in, fucking the tight space for a few moments.

"Jim... God, Jim.... You're driving me nuts here," Blair murmured.

"Not doing my job," Jim answered.

"What?"

"You're still able to talk," he said with a laugh. Covering Blair's mouth with his once again, he removed his finger and once again palmed Blair's erection. Blair gasped against Jim's mouth, and when the strong fingers wrapped around his penis, he wantonly thrust his hips forward. Jim held his hand just right so that Blair could fuck the small tunnel he created, and it was with a grunt of pleasure that Blair came a minute later.

Standing with his eyes closed, he silently stood under the still warm spray and let it wash away the remnants of his orgasm. He didn't open his eyes until Jim tapped his cheek with a long finger. Slowly, he opened his eyes and looked sleepily at his lover.

"Now I'm doing my job."

"Hmmm?" Blair answered.

"You're not talking."

Blair gave Jim a goofy grin, which made Jim laugh. He pulled his partner into his arms, reaching around him to turn off the water. He grabbed two thick towels and after wrapping one around Blair's shoulders, he climbed out of the shower. He wrapped the towel around his own waist before turning to guide his sated lover out of the tub. With a grin, he dropped a smaller towel on Blair's dripping head.

"Better dry off a bit before you climb into bed, Chief," he said with amusement. "Or tomorrow morning, your hair will be fuzz-ball city."

"Okay, Jim," Blair said sleepily. He managed to pat the towel against his hair before he said, "I'm too tired."

Jim took Blair's hand and led him through the loft to their bedroom. The wooden floor and steps were cool under Blair's feet, making him shiver. "Furnace is on, Blair. It will warm up in a bit." Pulling back the covers, he tossed a dry towel on Blair's pillow before he stripped his partner of his towel. "Climb in."

Blair slipped into the cool sheets, shivering slightly. "Cold."

"I'll warm you up." Jim slid onto the bed behind his lover and after covering their bodies with the blankets, he wrapped an arm around Blair's chest, pulling him close until their bodies were pressed together along their lengths. With a contented sigh, he kissed Blair's ear. "Night, Chief."

"Night, Jim. Love you," Blair whispered, lacing their fingers together.

"Me, too."

~o0o~

Blair sat at the kitchen table, sipping a fresh cup of coffee. He occasionally glanced upward and smiled. In his mind's eye, he saw Jim looking exactly the same as he had when Blair had climbed from the bed about an hour ago. He loved watching Jim sleep. When he'd gotten up, Jim was lying curled on his side, his face peaceful and relaxed. Taking another sip of coffee, he returned to his work.

The yellow legal pad was covered with his notes. He doodled along the margin while he reread what he had written. On the far left column, he'd listed the names of the four suicide victims: Dennis Brenner, Tom Bartholomew, Patrick O'Malley, and Emily Lane. Next to each of those names, he noted their criminal history. Brenner was a petty thief since his junior high school days, Bartholomew was a career criminal with various charges against him that included car theft, assault, drunk and disorderly, and breaking and entering. O'Malley had a clean record other than a few parking tickets, and Emily Lane's record was squeaky clean.

Next he considered why these particular people committed suicide and the idea that he'd been kicking around in his head. He'd actually written: demon? devil? possession? With a sigh, he wondered if he was being -- ridiculous. But what else could he think? Each had a cell phone in their possession during the commission of their crimes, and all but Bartholomew had killed or tried to kill people for no apparent reason. He tapped the pen against the paper before he wrote: Who? What? Why? How?

Blair mulled over the four questions. Who? he set aside for now, because that was too creepy for him to even think about at the moment. And he could just hear what Jim would have to say when he told him he thought some -- evil force was possessing cell phones and turning citizens into killers. What? Maybe the Who? was really a What?. With an uncomfortable laugh at himself, he shook his head. "Nothing like confusing yourself, Blair," he muttered. Why? Why was easy. To cause misery, to exert power, to show dominance, to be a bastard. The usual reasons evil entities bug the shit out of people. How? He pondered the "hows" of the four cases. After a few minutes of contemplation, he wrote:

 Step one: Convince someone with a weak mind to kill him/herself. Brenner. Too easily done for a powerful evil force. Onto step two.

Step two: Convince someone with a weak mind to kill him/herself and somebody they don't know. A test in escalation. Not quite as easy, but doable. Bartholomew. Onto step three.

Step three: Convince someone who is a good person to kill him/herself and somebody they know. Harder, but obviously still doable. O'Malley. Note: good person has something that they feel guilty about that nobody else knows. O'Malley had an out-of-wedlock child twenty-five years ago. No criminal record. Holy man, believes in confession, but does he still feel guilty about past sins in spite of belief? Very appropriate in a sick way: murder committed in confessional.

Step four: Convince someone who is a good person to kill him/herself and somebody they care about. Much harder, but still something that was accomplished. Lane. Note: check on what she could have been blackmailed with by evil force. Sister raped and killed. Survivor's guilt?

Step Five: Convince someone who is a good person to kill him/herself and somebody they love. Person unknown. Ultimate accomplishment; even bigger success if person has something -- some quality -- that makes them unique or unusual. Something that could make them even harder to "turn". Like what? And/or who?

"Hey, Chief." Two strong arms circled Blair's neck and the hands slipped down the front of his shirt.

"Jim," Blair said happily, dropping his pen to cover Jim's splayed warm hands with his. "How'd you sleep?"

"Great. Thanks to you."

Blair craned his head to the side to peer up at his lover. "You too, man. I feel pretty good. You hungry?"

Jim nodded, kissing Blair's forehead. "Starving!"

"Pancakes okay?"

"I thought you hadn't finished the shopping."

Blair rose and headed toward the kitchen with Jim close behind. "I didn't, but I found pancake mix in the cupboard. It just takes water. No maple syrup, though, but I dug out a can of peaches. I diced them up and put in some cinnamon and butter, and let it simmer for a few minutes." He held up the pan, which Jim sniffed appreciatively. "Voila! Peach syrup. All I have to do is warm it up a bit, make the pancakes, and brew up a fresh pot of coffee. Fifteen minutes and we'll have breakfast."

When Blair had put the pan back down on the stove and turned on the burner to low, Jim grabbed Blair's wrist and tugged him close. "What would I do without you?" he asked, giving Blair a bear hug and a loud, wet kiss on the side of his face.

Blair laughed. "Starve?"

Jim laughed along with his partner.

~o0o~

Blair sat at his desk rereading his notes from this morning about the suicide and the suicide/murder cases that they'd investigated. Picking up his pen, he decided to see if he could finish his last train of thought about the fifth step. He picked up his coffee cup, but when he went to take a sip, he realized the cup was empty. Lifting his head, he had intended to ask Jim if he wanted a fresh cup when he went to the break room to fetch himself one, but Jim wasn't at his desk. For a moment, Blair didn't think anything of it, figuring that Jim had gone for coffee, or to the men's room, or to hit the snack machine. But something niggled at his brain. He rose, absentmindedly chewing on the top of his pen. He glanced out through the windows that led to the hallway, searching for his partner, but the man was not in sight. Suddenly apprehensive, he started across the bullpen toward the double doors leading out into the hall.

"Rhonda?" Blair called, approaching the woman's desk situated near the doors.

"Hey, Blair. What's up?" she asked brightly, giving Blair a warm smile.

Blair smiled in return. "Did you see where Jim took off to?"

"I saw him leave a few minutes ago, but he didn't say anything to me. He was too busy."

"Too busy?"

"Yes. He was talking very intently with someone on his cell. Sounded important."

Blair's face paled. "Thanks." He quickly walked out into the hallway, calling out to Vera, who was walking toward the opposite end of the hallway near the elevators. "Vera! Have you seen Jim!"

Vera nodded, peering at Blair over her glasses as he made his way over to her. "He took the stairs just a second ago," she answered, waving toward the closed door. "Anything wrong?"

Blair plastered a pleasant smile on his face. The last thing he needed to do was to arouse her suspicions and have her follow him on his search for his partner, asking questions, or volunteering to look for Jim herself. Or worse, telling Simon that something was up yet again with Sandburg and Ellison. "Nope. Thanks, Vera!"

He slipped through the stair access door and as soon as it closed, he sprinted up the four flights toward the roof access. Blair knew without a doubt what was happening, and he derided himself severely for not seeing it coming sooner. He was so stupid sometimes! He'd just realized, just understood what was happening not five minutes ago while he sat at his desk, making more notes and rethinking the similarities and differences in the string of suicides and murders that they had witnessed the past week.

Jim was the perfect candidate for step five. He was a good person, and he had something special. More than that, Blair knew, he was something unique. He was the world's only known living Sentinel, born to protect the tribe. If what Blair feared was actually happening, then Jim was, at this very second, being influenced by the same force that had tormented the other victims, and he was the only person who could deal with this. He certainly didn't want or need an audience on the roof to see what was happening to Jim. And there was no way he could give a rational explanation to any onlookers about what he knew was going on.

If Simon saw Jim acting in an unusual or irrational manner, he would bluster and shout, and insist Jim return to his desk or visit his physician for a checkup. He couldn't possibly explain that Jim was the next victim in a string of victims, and that the voices that were telling him to kill himself, and possibly anybody else in the nearby vicinity, were coming from Jim's own cell phone. Simon would roll his eyes and when Jim did whatever he was ordered to do to end his life, the captain would never believe that some nameless, faceless evil had control over somebody as strong as James Ellison. And that was only if Simon lived through the incident to even think about what had happened. Simon would never believe that the voice Blair insisted was on the other end of the cell phone wasn't another living, breathing human being committing the heinous crimes, but a twisted, evil, demented force that gained more and more strength as each act of suffering was successfully completed.

Blair knew he was the only person who could help his partner. He was Guide to Jim, the Sentinel. He was partner to Jim, the Cop, and he was Lover to plain ordinary Jim, a man who needed -- deserved to be loved more than anybody Blair had ever known.

As he climbed the steps, his stomach constricted in a tight knot. He felt a complete and utter wave of dread wash over his body. "Oh, God," he muttered, "no, no, no!". He raced up the steps toward the roof. "Shit, shit. Jim, man, I'm coming. I'm coming," he chanted, taking the last set two at a time. He burst through the access door, slamming it forcefully against the concrete wall. "Jim?" Blair raced out into the center of the area, his head swiveling from side to side. He turned in a full circle, calling, "Jim!" When no one answered, he trotted around the air conditioning units and headed toward the north side side of the building. From the corner of his eye, he caught a movement and his gaze found that which he sought.

Act Four

Jim was indeed on the roof. In fact, Jim was standing on the ledge of the building with nothing between him and the sidewalk but ten floors of empty space and a very deadly landing. Cautiously, Blair approached his partner. When he got close enough, he could hear Jim speaking anxiously to whomever was on the other end of the cell phone that he had pressed against his ear. Because his back was turned to Blair, he couldn't hear what Jim was saying, but he was instantly terrified. If he was correct, Jim was in immediate jeopardy, and unless Blair could get through to him, he would throw himself from the ledge and fall to his death.

"Jim?" Blair called softly, walking slowly toward his partner. "Jim, man, please..."

Jim never turned, but his hand fell away from his head, the cell phone still tightly clutched in it. His head fell forward, chin to chest, and Blair knew that while he was staring down onto the city street far below, that he probably saw and felt nothing, that he might not even be aware of what was happening. But no, that would be too -- easy for the victim. They had to suffer, so they knew. Blair felt it down to his bones. While they couldn't do anything to help themselves, they felt each second of each minute of exactly what was happening before they did what they were ordered to do. With a groan, Blair broke out into a cold sweat. The wind whipped his hair into his eyes and he brushed it away in irritation.

"Jim, it's Blair. Please, please..." Blair was within touching distance of his partner when Jim turned his body from the waist to face Blair. His eyes were large and dilated, and his face was covered in a sheen of sweat in spite of the cold, biting wind.

"Jim? Please come down from there," Blair pleaded, reaching out a shaky hand.

Jim sneered, and ground out, "Get away from me."

"Jim, please listen to me. I know what's happening-"

"Shut up!" Jim suddenly yelled, his face turning red. "You are such a jerk! Always telling me what to do. Always rubbing your smarts in my face! I'm tired of you! Year after year, I have to listen to your sanctimonious preaching. I have to hear your brilliant ideas and I have to have you solve my cases! I don't need you! I don't need anyone!"

Blair froze in his step, his body shaking. He cleared his throat before he asked, "Jim, who was on the phone?"

"None of your fucking business! You wouldn't understand anyway! You think you're so fucking smart! I'll show you. I'll prove to you who's the brains of this operation!"

"Jim, please... You're not making any sense!" Blair's gaze bore into Jim's. He pleaded with his eyes while he pleaded with his words. "Come down from there, and you can tell me exactly what you think of me. You can ream me out about my not cleaning the bathroom and my dumb eating habits. We'll go for a beer-"

Jim's eyes narrowed. "Don't you get it? You are so stupid! I don't want you any more! You're a liability! I'm sick of looking at you!"

"Okay. Okay. I understand." Blair stepped closer, wondering if he could possibly throw his arms around Jim's waist and have enough strength to pull him back from the ledge without tumbling both of them over. The retaining wall was about three feet high. If he levered himself just right...

"Don't even think about it," Jim growled, his hands clenching into fists. "Touch me, and you're a dead man."

Blair held out his hands. "All right. It's okay. I won't -- touch you. Just tell me who was calling."

Glancing down at the phone that he still gripped in his clenched fist, Jim shook his head. "I'm doing what she wants! Finally! I can't let her down again!" Jim shouted, turning back toward the open space, staring up into the sky.

Blair saw him tilt his head slightly and slowly bring the cell phone up to his ear. Knowing that Jim's attention was momentarily distracted, he took a careful step to the side so that he had a clearer field of vision. He could see Jim speaking in a hushed voice, but with the wind's howl, as much as he strained to hear, he couldn't make out the words. Afraid that who- whatever was on the other end could be giving Jim some kind of instructions or, even worse, his final orders, Blair almost panicked. With Jim's focus diverted, he decided that it was now or never. He moved forward quickly, wrapping his arms around Jim's thighs.

Jim moved just as swiftly. His hand grabbed a large handful of Blair's hair and he yanked upward forcefully. Blair yelped, his eyes instantly filling from the sharp pain. He dropped his arms and wrapped his hands around Jim's wrist. He pushed up, trying to release some of the tight hold and alleviate some of the pain. But Jim's grasp wasn't affected in the least by Blair's hands. In fact, he tugged harder, and started to sway, his balance almost thrown off kilter. Blair panicked, terrified that Jim would fall, and also terrified that he'd be dragged over the ledge right along with him. He dropped one hand to grab onto the ledge, steadying himself and Jim in tandem. With a small moan, he tried to take a breath. His head ached from Jim's tight grasp and his heart pounded in fear that he wouldn't be able to get through to Jim in time to save him, to save them both.

"Jim, please! You're hurting me!" Blair pulled sharply on Jim's wrist. "Please!"

Jim grunted, releasing his hold while shoving Blair hard. He stumbled backward, falling to his butt with a hard thump. Rubbing his damaged head, he watched Jim through wide, disbelieving eyes. Jim, his Jim, would never hurt him. He felt a momentary harsh stab of depression. His Jim was gone.

"No!" Blair shouted, rising. "I won't let you have him!" he screamed, turning with his hands outspread, shouting toward nothing in particular. "I know you can hear me! You'd better listen to me! He's a good man. He's not for you! I'll fight you! Whatever you do, I'll fight you for him!" Walking back to the ledge, Blair ordered, "Jim, look at me! Look at me!"

Jim's breathing was heavy and raspy. He turned his head slowly and glanced down, but his gaze didn't meet Blair's. Sadly, he said, "She wants me. Finally! I hurt her so much, but she's going to forgive me. All I have to do is this one thing... To prove I'm worthy. That I understand what I did to destroy her. And then she'll understand too. She'll come back, and we'll be a family."

"Jim, who? A family? Your mother? Jim, please... Your mother isn't talking to you. There's nobody on the phone. It's not your mother, it's -- something bad. Please, Jim... Do you want to talk to your dad? I can have him come right over. I can call him. You know he'll-"

"No! He's always hated me. She told me what happened! How she had to leave because I was -- different." Jim's face looked pained when he admitted, "I'm a freak. She left because she couldn't live with a freak! Don't you understand? If I wasn't what I am... This damned freak, she'd be here now! My father would love me and I wouldn't have lost my family!"

"Jim, you are not a freak! You're special. You're very special, and I love you!" Blair put out a hand. "Please, Jim... Please come down."

"She likes talking to me. She says she likes -- me. And she wants me to be with her. All I have to do is..." Jim turned back to stare into the empty space in front of his feet. "It's so easy... One step, and I'm forgiven. I need to be forgiven..."

Blair's heart pounded. "No, no. I need you! You're important! She's not real, damn it! I'm real!"

Jim didn't turn back toward Blair, but he did shake his head. "She loves me. She needs me. I have to..."

Blair rubbed a hand down his face. He had no idea how to fight this. How could he convince Jim that the voice he was hearing wasn't his long-lost mother, but evil, pure and simple? He knew Jim, his Jim, loved him, and would never hurt him. But what about this strange, almost possessed Jim? With renewed determination, Blair walked a few feet down from where Jim stood, tossed a leg over the ledge, and with his heart pounding in his throat, he briefly straddled the wall before he forced himself to pull the right leg over also. He stood on shaky legs, trying not to look down.

Of course, his eyes were dragged exactly where he didn't want them to go. The city street below looked far away. The multi-colored cars, huge trucks, blue buses and bright yellow taxis seemed to zip along like tiny toys from a child's playroom. Specks of people hurried to and fro, not even noticing the two men who stood ten stories above them, their lives hanging in the balance. Blair briefly wondered if he fell, if he would kill any people when he landed. With a noisy gulp, he blinked to relieve the dryness in his eyes. The wind whipped at his body constantly, cold and biting. He swore it had grown colder since he'd walked out onto the roof a lifetime ago. He blinked, surprised that he could even register the thought in his terrified brain that the sun was hidden behind some clouds and the sky was growing darker by the minute. Soon it would be as black as the darkest night.

"What are you doing?"

The deep, soft, forceful voice startled Blair. He quickly glanced over at Jim, who, for a brief moment, looked like his Jim. His eyes were clear and blue, but his face was tight and drawn, fear clearly etched in the strong lines.

"What?" Blair blurted.

"Get out of here! Run while you still can!" he ordered.

"Jim?" Blair scuttled closer to his partner, his hands tightly grasping the cold stone. "Please, Jim, please. I'm scared!"

"Blair," Jim mouthed, his words yanked away by the howl of the wind that again increased in intensity. "Please..."

"No," he said, vehemently shaking his head, "I'm not going anywhere. In fact," he added, moving even closer until his elbow touched Jim's, "if you go, I'm going with you."

Jim looked puzzled for a moment before he shuddered violently. He shook his head and erratically waved a hand in front of his face as if he was trying to bat something irritating away. If Blair hadn't been this close, he would never have heard the whispered, "Mom?" He brought the dreaded cell phone up toward his ear, but Blair moved quickly. He batted the phone from his hand, and both men dazedly watched in silence as it tumbled through the air toward the ground. It disappeared from Blair's sight quickly. When he chanced a glance at Jim, his eyes were focused intently on the dot that fell to the pavement far below. Taking the opportunity of his distraction, Blair hooked his right arm through Jim's left.

Jim jerked, making Blair clutch the wall with his free hand even harder. "Get away from me!" he begged, trying to yank his arm away.

"No! I'm going with you! If you go, I go too!"

Jim cocked his head, staring blindly. "No," he muttered. "No, no, no. I don't want him. I don't want him. I don't want to hurt him. Please, please, please..." The pleading tone of Jim's voice made Blair let out a small moan. Even without the phone, it was clear that Jim was still hearing the echoes of whatever voice had spoken only to him.

Blair grimaced, realizing how simple the logic had been. The -- entity, force, whatever, had been using something familiar, commonplace, acceptable -- a cell phone -- to gain access to each of its victims. Something they could readily accept. If the force appeared as a malevolent demon with red glowing eyes, sharp claws and horns, people would scream and hide. They would call for their holy men to exorcise the evil, and would see it for what it was. This way, it was so simple. Use a device that everybody seemed to own these days. Young, old, and in between. Everybody scurried around with their cell phones attached to their ears. That was then Blair knew he was right, after all. The person never realized that the commands emanating from the phone were from a force bent on destruction. They blindly accepted the voice because it touched something deep within each person's soul. It masqueraded as something from each person's past, something painful and haunting, something they tried to forget, but something they felt immense guilt and shame over. It knew their weaknesses, and it preyed on them. With cold, calculating, destructive pleasure.

"I'm so cold," Blair murmured.

"I don't know what to do. I... I don't want to do this!" Jim pleaded yet again, tightly closing his eyes.

"Jim, don't listen to it. Please, Jim. It's not your mother. It's something bad. It's been hurting people. Think, Jim. It's been making people hurt themselves, sometimes after they hurt innocent people! People they loved! You've seen it! And now it's trying to take you. You're the prize, Jim. The only Sentinel that we know of. If it can turn you, if it can make you do something bad, then it wins!" Blair held tightly onto Jim's arm. "It wasn't hard to turn the first two. You remember? Brenner and Bartholomew? They were bad men, but then it made the priest and the school teacher, both good people, do bad things! Remember Father O'Malley, Jim? He was a good man and this -- thing hurt him! And Mrs. Lane! She was a nice woman. All the kids loved her! Please, Jim. You have to listen to me. It wants to hurt you!"

"I don't know what to do."

"I know what to do, Jim. Trust me. I know what to do."

"But my mother... She wants to see me again." His head turned and when his gaze met Blair's, he smiled, looking angelic. "She's waiting. I miss her so much!"

"I understand. I know how much you miss her! If she were here, she wouldn't want you to hurt yourself. She'd want you to be happy."

Jim shook his head. "No. If she loved me, she'd be here. She never loved me."

"I love you, Jim. I'm sorry she's not here, but I love you. More than anything." Blair glanced down once again before he swallowed loudly and blurted out, "If you jump, you'll take me with you. In fact, I'm going with you! Do you understand? I'm staying with you, no matter what!"

Jim's eyes turned sad, and they pleaded for understanding while he whispered, "Please, Chief... I don't know... Please..." He looked down toward the street again. "Once it's over, there will be no more pain. No more. My dad won't think I'm a freak any longer, and mom will come home."

With a sad cry, Blair felt his heart break. "No! Jim, I need you so much. You are not a freak! You're a wonderful gift. Your senses are special. You are special! Do you hear me!" Blair jiggled the arm that he had hooked through Jim's. "I love you!" He took a deep breath before he released the hand that still held onto the ledge. "I love you enough to trust you, Jim. I'm cold and scared, and I want you to take me home! Do you hear me?"

Jim glanced down again before he slowly raised his eyes. When his gaze met Blair's, he whispered, "She's calling me, Chief."

"Jim, I need you. More than she does. I don't want you to die, and I don't want to die either."

Jim's face fell. "I'll always be a disappointment. She says I'll always be-"

Blair vehemently shook his head. "No, Jim! None of that is true. You're a good man. You're a great friend, and you've given me so much! You're Sentinel of a Great City. All of us need you!" When Jim seemed to be listening, Blair held onto his arm tighter. "I'm your partner. I'm your lover. And I want you to take me home and make love to me. Now, Jim! I need you to hold me, and tell me you love me. I need you, damn it!"

"You love me?" Jim asked tiredly.

"Yes, more than anything."

"And you -- trust me?"

"With my life."

"No," Jim whispered, "I killed you. I hurt you. I'm not a good person. You can't love me. They all left, Chief. Every one of them..."

"Look at me!" Blair held out his left hand, showing Jim that now his only tether to the building was his hold on Jim's arm. "Look at me!" he repeated. "I'm not holding on here, man. I'm leaving my life in your hands. Do what you want, but whatever it is, we're doing it together. You and me, Jim. That's the way it is. We're in this together."

"For better..." Jim blinked, shivering in the cold air. "...or worse?"

"Yeah, that about sums it up."

"I think..." Jim looked down yet again before glancing at where Blair's hand clutched his sleeve. He looked like he was considering what to do next. Finally his gaze caught Blair's while his right hand covered Blair's hand where it clutched his sleeve. "I think -- I think I want to go home as well."

Blair almost cried. "Me, too," he said around the lump in his throat. "I want to go home more than anything. What do you say that we get off this roof?"

Jim slowly nodded. Blair carefully watched for any sudden movements while Jim helped him back onto the safety of the firm roof. Carefully, he slipped one leg, then the other over the wall, while he kept his fingers tightly clenched around Jim's sleeve, sure he was tearing holes in the material, terrified that it was a trick, and that at the last second, once he was safe, Jim would take that final step off the edge.

As if reading Blair's thoughts, Jim said quietly, his voice tired and sad, "It's okay, Blair. I'm taking you home."

"Come on, man. Put your arm over my shoulder." Blair wrapped an arm around Jim's waist while Jim slipped his arm across Blair's shoulders. Jim swung his legs over, left first then right, and in what seemed to be a lifetime to Blair, he finally planted his feet on the firm surface. They both leaned back against the wall for a few moments, catching their breaths. Blair briefly closed his eyes, feeling the sun's warmth on his face. Blinking rapidly, he glanced upward for a moment, surprised that the black clouds were gone, and that the sun now shown brightly in the clear blue sky. With a sigh of relief, Blair gently tugged Jim into motion. "That's it, Jim." They walked one step, then two before Jim stumbled. "Jim, are you okay?" Blair cried, feeling Jim's full weight sway against him. He stumbled himself, and lost his hold on his partner's body. Unconscious, Jim crumbled to the ground.

"Jim! Oh, God! Jim!" Blair reached into his pocket, yanking out his cell phone. He stared distastefully at the item for a brief moment before he gulped noisily and hit the recall button to call Simon's office phone. Almost expecting to hear some evil spectral voice ordering him to put a bullet in his and Jim's head, he almost cried when instead, the voice on the other end barked, "Banks!" Relieved, he asked for help.

~o0o~

Blair didn't feel as if the day's incident was over completely until he and Jim were finally home, safe and secure, and under the blankets in their own bed. Even though Jim had regained consciousness within a few minutes, and even though he waved off Simon's help, his face was white as a sheet. Blair could tell that he was definitely feeling out of sorts after his brush with death. He brushed off Simon's questions with a curt excuse that he'd been feeling sick and came up to the roof for some fresh air. At Simon's raised eyebrow, Blair nodded, backing up his partner, casually saying that Jim had said he felt dizzy and had passed out. He offered the excuse that there was a bad bout of flu going around. He didn't say anything to Jim about what had just occurred, not in front of Simon. Simon hated hearing about mystical or spiritual incidents regarding Jim's Sentinel abilities anyway, and Blair doubted that he wanted to hear that some nameless evil had tried to convince the world's only known Sentinel that killing himself was a good thing to do. Not to mention the brief moments when killing the Sentinel's Guide was a real possibility.

In spite of Jim's dismissal of his help, Simon nonetheless clamped a hand under his elbow, and with Blair on Jim's other side, they had led him down the stairs to the floor below where Simon directed the three of them into the nearest elevator. While he allowed Jim and Blair to return to the bullpen, it was only for their coats. He immediately sent them on their way with a curt, "go home", which they both gladly did without protest.

Now, several hours later, after having a quick dinner of chicken noodle soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, and after hot showers, the men lay under thick blankets, cuddled closely, weary but reluctant to sleep. Blair needed to be close to Jim, to reassure himself he was truly okay, and he was sure Jim felt the same.

"Are you sure you're okay?" Blair asked yet again.

"I'm fine," Jim said reassuringly, his voice soft and even. Blair had to smile. Usually by now, Jim was snapping at him for asking the same question ten times in a row. But tonight, he knew Jim needed his lover's attention. "Really, Chief. I'm good." Jim lifted his head from Blair's shoulder and looked into his eyes. He smiled, running a finger down Blair's nose. He tapped the end and said quietly, "I love you."

Blair smiled, squeezing Jim's upper arm with a warm hand while the arm he had wrapped around the back of Jim's shoulders pulled him even closer, if that were possible. "I was so scared," he said softly.

Jim snuggled closer to his naked lover, sighing happily. "I still don't remember much," he said just as softly, the fingers of his right hand lacing with Blair's left. He gave Blair's hand a reassuring squeeze.

"Don't worry about it," Blair said comfortingly, returning his lover's squeeze with one of his own. "Everything worked out the way it was supposed to." Blair kissed the top of Jim's head before he brought their entangled hands up to his mouth to kiss the back of Jim's hand. While the hand on his lover's shoulder slowly caressed the warm skin, his mouth again placed more kisses across Jim's scalp and the top of his forehead, paying particular attention to the places where the hairline insisted on marching backward in a receding line.

"You're being very -- touchy tonight," Jim murmured drowsily.

"And you've had a rough day. Go to sleep."

"Uhmm. I am tired." He fell silent for a moment before he said, "Blair?"

"Hmmm?"

"Are you sure I didn't... you know, do anything to try and hurt you?"

"Jim, man, you'd never hurt me. I was terrified, though, that you were going to hurt yourself. I don't know what I'd do if anything happened to you."

"You'd be fine," Jim whispered. "You're a strong person. That's one of the things I admire about you. Adaptable. Smart. And sexy," he added with a chuckle.

"Shhh," Blair ordered softly. "Go to sleep."

"Night, Chief."

"Night, Jim."

While Jim drifted off, Blair felt sleep skitter out of his reach. He lay, comfortable and warm and content, with his lover's breath huffing against his skin. His eyes were drawn up to the skylight and he admired the stars twinkling against the dark sky. Cold and clear, the tiny pinpoints looked like so many specks of diamonds scattered on a blanket of black velvet. When Jim let out a muffled snore, he craned his head sideways to peer down into Jim's sleeping face. He smiled, admiring the peaceful look that softened the strong features. Carefully slipping his hand out of his partner's clutch, he brought it up to lightly run the tips through his short, soft hair before lacing his hands together, holding Jim close.

"You'd never hurt me, Jim. And you just fought through some kind of -- hell today to prove it. I love you, too."

Blair sighed happily, relishing the feel of his lover in his arms. For the moment, he was unable to quiet his wandering mind, and his thoughts were filled with the day's events. He considered Jim's brush with death, and his triumph over whatever had been determined to destroy him. Together, they had proved that the ultimate prize -- a Sentinel, the embodiment of righteousness -- could not be turned to evil. A vision of Alex flashed across his mind. He grimaced, realizing that given the right circumstances, even a Sentinel could be -- unsavory, wicked. But not his Sentinel. Not Jim. Today proved that Jim Ellison was a good man, and a Blessed Protector to all. Relieved, Blair smiled, but the smile quickly faded when another unhappy idea niggled in. Was today the end of it? Would whatever had been gleefully tormenting these people try again? After a moment, Blair realized that although there would always be pain and suffering in the world, and that evil would always fight for the souls of good men and women, that Jim's strength had laid to rest this particular evil -- at least for now. And he was pleased that he had played a small helpful part in the victorious outcome. With a contented smile, Blair followed Jim into a restful sleep.

END

 

Author's Notes: First, thanks to Lyn and Annie for inviting me to join the Thin Blue Line. I am truly honored. Next, I would like to thank the wonderful artists for their contributions to making my story look just beautiful. And finally, many thanks to Chris and Lyn for their beta work. I appreciate everybody's help over at TBL, and I'm having a great time.

Comments/Feedback: LilyK

 

Coming Next Month!

Sins of the Father

By Lyn

Coming on May 1st 2006.

 

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