Act II

Crawling on my belly to the edge of the new hole, I peer down into the blackness. The beam from my flashlight illuminates Jim. He's sprawled on his back, his eyes closed. "Oh, my god, Jim, you all right?" There's no answer. "Shit." Digging my cell phone out of my pocket, I'm dialing PD dispatch even as I drag the ladder over to the opening and lower it down.

When my call is answered, I tell the dispatcher "officer down" and request an ambulance and the Cascade Rescue Squad to the dig site. Then I climb slowly toward Jim, careful not to disturb the already unstable surroundings. Reaching the bottom of the ladder, I test the floor before I cross cautiously to Jim. Kneeling beside him, I check first at his neck for a pulse, finding it strong, if a bit rapid, then visually examine him for injuries.

By that time, he's groaning and beginning to come around. "Don't move, man," I tell him, placing my hand lightly on his chest for emphasis.

Jim blinks at me, squinting in the glare of the flashlight, then says, "What in the hell happened?"

"You fell through the floor. I called for an ambulance already." Jim attempts to sit up, then slumps back, one hand held to his head. "Come on, Jim, I just told you not to move. Can't you listen to me just once?" I ask, trying to make a joke even though I'm so scared I think I'm going to pass out.

"Ow. I think I'll wait for my ride."

Now I'm really worried. Jim actually doing as I ask and not shrugging off the pain? He's gotta be really hurting. "Where does it hurt?" Like I'll actually be able to do something about it if he tells me.

"Head's pounding. Probably have a concussion. And my back is killing me. Can we talk about something else?" He rests his forearm over his eyes to block out the light.

Taking the hint, I point the flashlight in another direction, and find myself seeing the room we're in for the first time. I chatter just to keep myself calm. "Wow. That dig team must have thought there was a room down here, but just never found it." I play the light over the area, illuminating boxes and barrels and broken furniture. Jutting at an angle out of one of the brick walls is a set of doors, like the kind covering a coal chute or a storm cellar. "What is that?"

Jim lowers his arm enough to see what I'm pointing at. "Looks like some kind of cast-iron doors. I can see a plaque attached to it."

Curiosity sinks its claws into me. "Would you be okay if I take a closer look?" I ask.

"Sure. Give us something to talk about until the ambulance gets here." Jim sounds better, more aware.

Getting to my feet, I pick my way across the debris-covered floor to the doors. "These are really thick, man. You'd need a battering ram to get through them." Transferring the light to my left hand, I brush the dirt away from the plaque. Carved letters, or more accurately, runes, stand out in relief. "I don't recognize the language." Pawing through my coat pocket produces a piece of paper. "I'm going to take a rubbing of it." Setting the light down, I press the paper against the raised letters then rub dirt over it to transfer the imprint to the paper.

I hear sirens wailing in the distance as I finish. Folding the paper, I return to Jim's side. "You going to be okay if I go up top and flag them down?"

"Go, Sandburg."

With a last glance at my friend, I climb up the ladder and head toward the fire truck coming to a stop outside the fence.

Rushing into the emergency room at Cascade General Hospital, I scan the waiting area anxiously. I spy Blair slumped in a chair in the corner of the room. He looks like hell. His clothes and hair are drenched, his face is pale, his gaze slightly unfocused. He doesn't even notice as I come to a stop in front of him.

"Hey, Blair, what happened? I was heading home when I heard the officer down call over the radio."

He looks up at me then, his blue eyes worried. "Jim fell through the floor at the dig site. We just got here a little bit ago. They don't know how bad he's hurt." His gaze darts away then, toward the double doors leading to what I assume is the treatment area.

Taking the seat next to him, I reach over and touch his hand. It's ice-cold, and I can feel tiny tremors racing under his skin. "What about you? Are you hurt? You sure someone shouldn't be taking a look at you, too? You seem a little shocky to me, and you're soaked to the skin."

Blair shakes his head, then winces. "No, I'm okay. Just banged up a little. Jim pushed me out of the way before he fell."

"I'm going to go see if I can get you a blanket or some towels or something."

For a moment it looks like he's going to protest, then he says, "Thanks, Cassie."

Five minutes later I'm back with a towel, as well as coffee. After wicking the worst of the water out of his hair with the towel, he accepts the steaming paper cup from me, wrapping his fingers around it and slowly bringing it to his lips. As the hot caffeine hits his system, Blair begins to look more like himself--color returns to his cheeks, and I notice his hand doesn't shake when he rests the cup on his knee.

He's telling me about the room they found, and the mysterious writing on a door within, when a physician approaches. Blair gets to his feet and asks, "How's Jim?"

"Mr. Ellison is going to be spending the night with us. He's got a concussion, and though there was no serious trauma to his neck and spinal cord, the muscles in his back are sprained. We're moving him up to his room right now. You can go on up and see him for a few minutes."

"Thanks," Blair replies, then turns to me. "You coming?"

I hadn't planned on it, but…"Sure. Lead the way."

Once we're upstairs, Cassie chooses to wait in the hallway, while I go in to see Jim. He's lying on the bed, his eyes closed, a furrow creasing his brow. A puff of air escapes his lips as he shifts restlessly, trying to find a more comfortable position. His head turns toward me, alerting me that he's become aware of my presence. His eyelids open cautiously, and I can see his dilated pupils, wide and black with pain.

"How are you doing, Jim?" I ask in an almost-whisper.

"Back hurts like a son of a bitch," he replies.

Crossing the room to stand beside the bed, I lay my hand on his arm. "I'll bet it does, since you can't have the good drugs because of the concussion. Think you can turn it down?"

A grimace flickers across his features. "I've been trying, but the pounding in my skull is making it hard to concentrate."

I ponder that for a moment. "Okay, let's try this. Imagine the pounding is like the bass on a stereo. Picture a knob for it, and slowly turn it down."

Closing his eyes, Jim is silent for almost thirty seconds, then he looks up at me. "That's better."

"Now try adjusting the pain level." He's quiet a second time, and I'm once again amazed at the amount of control he's attained over the two years I've known him. Martial arts masters spend lifetimes training to reach the level of mind over body he's accomplished. Hmm, you know, that would make a good chapter in my dissertation.

"That's better," he says. "Thanks, Chief."

"Anytime. You need me to stick around, not that they'll let me stay in your room, but…"

"No, it's okay. I don't need a bedside vigil, and you need to change out of those clothes. You reek, Sandburg, and you're dripping on the floor." He gives me a teasing grin.

If he's feeling good enough now to pick on me, I know he's going to be fine. "Okay, I'm going to head home and change, then try and figure out what those symbols we found mean. Cassie's going to give me a hand."

Jim looks like his headache has returned with a vengeance. "Cassie?"

"Yeah, she heard about our accident over the radio and came by to see how you were. She's not the cold-hearted bitch you make her out to be, man. And she took some courses in cryptography in college."

He looks a little surprised at my somewhat vehement defense of our forensics chief, but then he nods slightly. "Point taken. Maybe I have been a little hard on her."

After a few seconds of slightly awkward silence, I say, "Okay, then. I'm going, and I'll stop by and see you in the morning. Maybe they'll let you out by then."

Jim tells me goodbye, and I head out in the hallway to find Cassie talking with Simon. The captain gives me a stern look. "What in the hell happened, Sandburg? Jim fell through a hole? That sounds more like your style."

Suddenly, I'm very aware I wasn't hurt. "He pushed me out of the way, Simon. I was the one standing on the area that gave way. I should be the one in there, not Jim."

I seem to be making everyone uncomfortable tonight. Simon looks taken aback, and stammers, "I didn't know, Blair. I didn't mean that the way it sounded, like I wanted you to be injured."

I shake my head. "Forget it, sir. I know what you meant." I hitch my shoulder in the direction of Jim's room. "He's still awake if you want to talk to him. Cassie and I are going back to the loft to work on translating an inscription I found in the hidden room."

Simon looks back and forth between us for a moment, then says, "Right. Let me know what you come up with, and if it has anything to with Gillman's murder."

"Shall we go?" Cassie asks as Captain Banks walks off.

Nodding, I follow her out of the building.

It's nearly three a.m. when Blair pulls his glasses off and tosses them onto the kitchen table. Rubbing his eyes, he says, "Five hours! We've been working on this for five hours and have gotten exactly nowhere. It's all just a mishmash. Some looks Greek, some looks Egyptian. I'm pretty sure there's even some Hebrew thrown in there for good measure. It's all mixed up."

I can't help but smile as I enter the living area from the kitchen, two glasses in my hands. "That's why they call it secret writing. In the old days, codes and secret writing were used to keep things confidential. People weren't any more trusting then than they are today."

He sighs, propping his elbow on the table and leaning his head against his hand. "I know, but now that I've started, I can't quit until I figure it out."

"You sound like me; I usually can't put a puzzle down either, but it's late, and we're both tired, and I know you've got to be hurting." He starts to protest, but I shake my head. "A break is in order, if not actual sleep." I deliberately walk away from the source of our frustration and sit down on one of the sofas. In a few moments, he follows, dropping onto the cushion next to me.

I hand him a glass. "What's this?" Blair asks, holding up the glass of burgundy liquid to the light.

"I confess. I snooped when I went to get more coffee, and I found a bottle of brandy in the cupboard. Hopefully it'll help you relax. I know you're worried about Jim, but you need to get some rest. That plaque's kept its secret for a hundred years. One more day isn't going to do any harm." I watch as he takes a sip, his eyes closing as he swallows. Setting the glass on the coffee table, he massages his temples with his forefingers.

"Think we can let that rubbing go until the morning? I have some friends I can call who are really into codes. Maybe they can help us out."

"Yeah, I guess so." He sounds disappointed, but resigned to the fact that we're getting nowhere. Blair leans forward to pick up his glass again, and his knee brushes mine. A charge of static shocks us both, and I feel a tendril of heat uncurl inside my belly.

He looks at me, wide-eyed, then grins. "Guess that means there is some electricity between us, after all."

Laughing, I shake my head, then turn slightly on the sofa so I'm facing him. "When you asked me out to lunch, were you just making time, or were you serious?"

He blinks those blue eyes at me, then says slowly, "I think I'm just trying to get back on the horse."

It takes me a moment, but then I get it. "Oh, coming off a bad breakup. I can relate to that."

Blair smiles at me again, but this time it's bittersweet. "Last girl I asked out took me hostage, and I spent
24 hours being tossed back and forth between her and her partners and a drug dealer she'd stolen half a million dollars worth of heroin from. I figure you being a member of the force makes it pretty unlikely a date with you will end up that way."

A shiver runs down my spine, and I unconsciously rub my shoulder, even though the scar's faded so much I can't even feel it now. "You never know what can happen," I say softly. "The world is a strange and dangerous place sometimes."

Sensing there's something behind my words, Blair regards me seriously, his gaze curious, but sympathetic. I find myself starting to lean in, drawn by the intimacy of the moment and the mutual spark of desire. He meets me halfway, and our kiss is both tentative and tender, and all too brief.

When we part, Blair can't meet my eyes. "I'm sorry," he stammers. "I told myself I was going to take it slow the next time I was interested in someone and I'm rushing, and I always screw things up when I rush. I want…hell, I don't know what I want anymore…I just…" He lifts his hands in an aborted gesture, then lets them fall back to his lap. "I'm sorry."

"I'm just as guilty as you are. Don't beat yourself up over it." I get to my feet, needing to leave before I start something I know neither of us is ready for. "We're both tired. I'm going to go home and get some sleep. I suggest you try and do the same." He follows me to the door, watching as I put on my coat, his eyes full of regret. I know he thinks he's ruined what might have been. I pause in the doorway, my fingers tracing lightly over his upper arm. "And Blair…slow is good. Slow is very good."

The memory of his smile keeps me warm the whole way home.

I spend a restless night tossing and turning. Every time I start to fall asleep, I'm back at the dig site, feeling the ground shift under my feet. I look around for Jim, but he's nowhere to be found. "Jim?" I call plaintively. Without warning, the ground drops out from under me. I'm falling endlessly, screaming in terror. When I hit the ground, I jerk awake, my heart racing, my skin wet with sweat.

After going through the cycle for the third time, I decide enough is enough and drag myself out of bed. Stumbling into the bathroom, I stand under the shower, letting the hot water beat against my aching back and shoulders.

Cassie was right; I am hurting all over. Silly me, I expect being hit by a 200-lb sentinel in full protection mode isn't going to leave a mark. I check myself over in the mirror when the hot water runs out. There's a purple bruise over my right hip where Jim's shoulder hit me, and my back is a rainbow of colors. Downing a couple of aspirin, I get dressed and head over to the hospital.

Jim's sitting up in bed when I get there, pushing what's left of his breakfast around on his plate. "Hey, Chief," he says, frowning as I lower myself gingerly into the chair next to the bed. "What's the matter with you?"

Wincing as I try to find a comfortable position, I answer, "Just the aftereffect of being hit by the Ellison bullet train. Not that I don't appreciate what you did." I give him a smile. "So when are they going to spring you?"

He looks down at his plate. "They're not. The doc wants to keep me another night for observation."

Worry swiftly knots my stomach. "Why? Is it anything serious?"

"No, no, just a little residual dizziness, that's all. Well, that and my back is spasming so badly I can hardly move."

I don't know what to say. It's a scary feeling, seeing Jim this vulnerable. I mean, I'm the one always getting kidnapped or beat up. Jim's not supposed to get hurt. He's the hero.

"…Sandburg? Did you hear what I said?"

"Huh? No, sorry, man."

"I asked if you found anything out about that writing?"

"Oh, that. Well, Cassie and I did a bunch of research on the net last night, and I think we've almost got this mystery writing thing figured out."

"At least we think we know who may have written it," Cassie says from the doorway.

"Really? You know who put the plaque there?"

I nod. "In 1893, a fire wiped out the Cascade waterfront."

Cassie comes to stand beside me. "And instead of clearing the remains of the old buildings, they just built right on top of them."

"Where the dig is now is right on top of where an old Masonic lodge was."

"Masons?" Jim asks.

I shift in the chair again. "Yeah. The modern ones do public service and stuff like that, but they grew out of a secret society dating back hundreds of years ago."

"Sacred rites, ceremonial costumes…" Cassie adds.

"Their own fraternal alphabet," Jim finishes.

"That's right. And the writing that we found may belong to a sect of Illuminati."

Jim's confused again. "Illuminati?"

"Yeah. They were subversives. Their main purpose was to infiltrate Masonic lodges and to use the memberships and the resources to affect governments and sway the balance of world power and stuff like that," I answer.

Jim smiles. "Huh. That's pretty ambitious for a group of guys in furry hats with antlers."

I make the mistake of laughing. "Oh, ow. Well, come on, Jim, we're not talking about Fred Flintstone and the Loyal Order of the Water Buffalo here. I mean, these guys were serious."

"Yeah," Cassie agrees with me. "Some of the most famous men in history were Free Masons. There's like 16 presidents and what, 53 of 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence."

"That's quite interesting, but I doubt any of our founding fathers had anything to do with Martin Gillman's death," Jim replies.

An idea strikes me. I don't know why I didn't think of it last night. Maybe because I had other things on my mind? "Maybe the killer was looking for something Gillman uncovered at the lodge."

Jim doesn't look impressed, but Cassie says, "I called a friend of mine in DC this morning. He's emailing me an up-to-date cryptography program. If we can crack the mason's code, unravel the writing, we might be able to find whatever the killer was looking for."

Unconvinced, Jim says, "Have your people finished with Gillman's car?"

"It should be done by tomorrow, but all they've come up with are a couple of partial prints that are probably Gillman's. Whatever the killer's looking for, it isn't there."

"How do you know that?" he asks. "What if the killer was looking for something small or something that was disguised as something else, like a radio knob or a piece of carpet that had a little secret writing on the bottom?"

She sighs. "Okay, I get your point. I'll tell em to take another look at it. If it'll make you happy, I'll even look at it."

"Yes, it would make me happy, especially since it looks like I'm going to be stuck here at least until tomorrow."

Cassie looks like she's going to say something, but her pager goes off. "Can I use your phone?"

"Help yourself," Jim says.

When she hangs up a few minutes later, Cassie turns to me, her hand dropping to rest on my shoulder. "That was Captain Banks. I'm sorry, Blair. Emily Watson is dead."

Act I