Blessed is the Child

By Lyn

EMAIL: Lyn

This is the fourth and final story in the Merging of Souls series. Hope you enjoy it. The case story is based on the Diane Downs case but with a twist.

Huge thanks to my sister, Annie, who provided the plot bunny when my muse went on vacation, and for her encouragement and stellar beta. And thanks to Kathy and MaryEllen for their support and patience. The zine is available with beautiful artwork by I. M. Mueller from DEPress.

He was hot. Blair tossed and turned on his bed, throwing his covers off and lifting his head to seek a cooler corner of his pillow. His heart was racing and he felt inexplicably frightened. A familiar voice drifted to his ears.

"One child is lost, her soul drifting. Help her find her way home."

"Sandburg! Wake up!"

Jim's stern command roused him from his restless sleep. Blair sat up in bed, squinting as Jim turned on the bedroom light. "What's up?" he asked groggily.

"Not sure," Jim said. He was already shrugging into his jacket. "Got a call from Simon. A woman just ran into the ER at Cascade General, saying she and her kids had been shot by a carjacker."

Blair's eyes widened. If there was something he'd never get used to, it was kids being hurt. He quickly climbed out of bed and grabbed for his jeans, pulling them on hurriedly. "Are they okay?"

Jim shrugged. "No details yet. Get a move on, huh?"

Blair dragged a sweater over his head and grabbed his cell phone from the nightstand. "I'm ready."

~o0o~

Both men were silent on the drive to the hospital. Jim put in a call on the radio to let Simon know they were on their way then concentrated on getting them to their destination as quickly as possible. He glanced over at Blair, who sat staring out the window. "You gonna be okay with this?"

"Huh?" Blair turned and stared at him for a moment. "Oh yeah. Just… kids, you know."

"Yeah."

"I had a strange dream tonight," Blair went on.

"Dream or vision?" Jim asked.

Blair shrugged. "Either/or."

"And…?" Jim prompted when Blair feel silent again.

"It's all a bit foggy, but it was something about a child."

Jim glanced over at him. "You think you had some precognition about this case?"

"Honestly? I don't know. I think Incacha spoke to me about a child being lost, but then you woke me so suddenly, it vanished before I could make sense of it."

"Guess we'll find out soon enough." Jim steered his truck into a Police reserved parking space outside the hospital's emergency entrance and turned off the engine. "Let's go see what we've got, Chief."

Striding into the ER, Jim saw Simon waiting outside the Trauma bay, staring through the window. "What have we got, sir?"

Simon looked at him and nodded to Blair, his expression grave. "Three kids, all shot at close range." He shook his head. "One child was D. O. A."

"Oh god," Blair murmured. "Why would someone shoot a kid?" He closed his eyes briefly for a moment and Jim knew he was remembering his childhood friend, Jamie.

"What about the mother?" Jim looked into the trauma room, but it difficult to see much; a multitude of medical staff surrounded each bed. The far end cubicle though was blocked off by curtains, and Jim knew that was where the dead child lay.

"Gunshot wound to the arm," Simon replied. A grim expression of distaste twisted his mouth. "She'll live."

"Don't tell me…" Jim shook his head as an unpleasant thought came to mind. He held out his arm and pointed to a spot midway between his wrist and elbow. "Entry wound is right here."

"Yeah." Simon nodded. "Look, I called you in on this because we have no evidence that it was anything other than a carjacking gone wrong. I want you and Sandburg to head out to the scene, see what you can pick up."

"Wait a minute." Blair reached out and grasped Jim's arm. "What do you think happened?"

Jim looked at him for a moment. Again, he held out his arm and indicated the place where the mother's bullet wound was. "I've seen it before, Chief. If you're going to shoot yourself to avert suspicion, this is where you'll aim."

Blair paled visibly. "Like Jamie? You think a mother shot her kids - all of them?"

"We have no evidence, Sandburg," Simon said. "That's what makes cases like this so tough. The children are in too serious a condition to talk to us, providing they even could. The surviving kids are only eight and four. That's why I want Jim to take a look at the crime scene, see if there's any evidence to back up the mother's claim of a stranger. If there is, I want him caught before he tries again."

"Can we talk to the mother?" Jim asked. "I'd like to get more details from her."

Simon nodded and indicated a room two doors up. "Her name is Melinda Cluskey."

~o0o~

Walking into the treatment room, Blair was surprised by the woman laying on the examination table. He'd expected to find a grief-stricken, sobbing woman. Instead, Melinda Cluskey sat propped up on pillows, awkwardly applying makeup to her face. Her injured arm rested across her chest, supported in a sling.

Jim stepped over to the bed and Blair followed. "Ms. Cluskey, I'm Detective Ellison and this is my partner, Blair Sandburg." Blair sketched a small wave. "I wonder if we might ask you a few questions about what happened tonight. I know this is a very difficult time for you -"

"Oh, no, that's fine." Melinda sat up straighter in the bed, and Blair was certain her gaze lingered on him for a moment too long. She smiled at him, her expression at odds with the grimness of the situation. "I want to talk about it. It was just so awful, you know. I've never been so scared in my life, and when he shot me… I didn't know how much it hurt to get shot." She ran a finger over the sling. "The doctor said it won't leave much of a scar, luckily."

Blair had the sudden horrifying thought that perhaps she didn't know that one of her children was already dead.

Jim nodded, but Blair could see the tension squaring his jaw. "That's good to hear. If you could perhaps tell us what happened?" He pulled his notepad and pen from his pocket and held them poised in his hands.

"I was taking the kids out to my friend, Sheryl's house. Her dog just had puppies and we were thinking about getting one."

"You were going to visit a friend at this late hour?" Jim asked.

She looked a little puzzled by the question. "Yes." Her face cleared a little and she nodded, wincing a little and holding onto her injured arm. "Oh, we do this all the time," she said. "Sometimes, when we're bored, we just pile into the car and drive around. Anyway, the kids were real excited about seeing the puppies, so I thought, why not?"

"I see. What happened next?"

"Well, we were driving along, listening to the radio. One of Sarah's favorite songs came on and we were singing along -"

"What about the other children?" Blair cut in. Hairs rose on the back of his neck and he felt suddenly queasy.

"Oh, Kelly and Chris were asleep."

"Where were the children sitting in the car?" Jim asked.

"All in the back seat," Melinda said. "I won't let them ride up front. It isn't safe. Anyway, I'd turned onto the backroad that leads out to Sheryl's house. She's in one of the new housing developments on the outskirts of Cascade." She rolled her eyes. "Very exclusive. Suddenly, this guy just ran out in front of my car, waving his arms around. I slammed on the brakes and got out of the car -"

"Why?" Jim asked. At her puzzled expression, he pressed, "Why did you get out of the car?"

"Well, I thought maybe he'd had an accident. Anyway, he ran up to the side of the car, screaming at me, telling me to give him my keys. I mean, I yelled back, saying no way. He pushed me and I fell to the ground, and I saw him opening the driver's side door. I got up and grabbed at his arm. I mean, I was telling him my kids were in there but he just kept pushing me back. He was really strong." She looked down at the blanket covering her and then looked up, staring directly at Blair, unshed tears shining in her eyes. "So… so I pretended to throw the car keys into the bushes, so he'd go after them and he… he just turned and shot me! God, it hurt so bad. I fell to the ground again, and the pain was just so bad, I couldn't get up, and then he just kinda turned back to the car and shot my kids." The tears streamed down her cheeks now and she folded in on herself, sobbing.

Blair felt sorrow and sympathy overwhelm him and he took a step forward, wanting to comfort her. Jim grasped his arm and shook his head, ignoring Blair's questioning look.

"What happened then, ma'am?" he asked, his voice emotionless.

Blair was stunned. Jim had always told him to check his emotions at the door when they were investigating a crime, but this woman had just seen her children shot in front of her, possibly didn't even know that one was already dead, and Jim was just pushing her to continue.

Melinda sniffed and pulled a tissue from the bedside table, dabbing at her eyes. "He ran and I just got in the car and drove here as fast as I could."

"You gave a description of your attacker to the uniformed officers?"

"Yes." She looked at Blair again and held out her hand. "I feel better having talked about it, thank you."

Blair shook her hand and almost reared back as a sharp, agonizing pain shot through his arm. Quickly, he released his grip and stepped back. One glance at Jim showed his partner had noticed Blair's reaction.

Jim pocketed his notebook and pen. "Thank you, Ms. Cluskey, that will be all for now."

She nodded and dabbed at her eyes with the tissue. "Looks like I'll have to redo my make-up."

~o0o~

"What do you think?" Blair asked once they were in the truck, driving out to the crime scene.

"She did it," Jim said flatly.

Blair looked at him. "Why are you so sure? I mean, she seems a bit flaky, but those were real tears she was crying."

"For herself, Chief, not for her children." Jim glanced at him then turned his concentration back to the road. "Not once, when we were there, did she ask how her kids were, and why the heck take this route out to the new estate?" Jim gestured at the windscreen, indicating the darkened road ahead. "There's a perfectly good, paved and lit street just over there that leads to Bentley Estate."

"There's something else," Blair said softly.

"What did you see, when you touched her hand?"

Blair shook his head. "I didn't see anything, but I got this tremendous pain in my arm, right in the same place her wound is. My visions…" He had to force the words out around the lump that had risen in his throat, threatening to choke him. "I experience what the killer does."

"What about with Jamie?" Jim asked. "You saw what he saw."

"No, Jim, those were memories, remember? My memories of my own abuse." One hand strayed to his head, to the scar hidden beneath his hair, and he forced it down onto his lap. He peered through the window. "This is a really creepy place to bring kids, Jim."

Jim merely glanced at him and nodded, his mouth set in a tight line. He pulled the truck to the side of the road just behind a patrol car. A uniformed officer was just finishing setting up a police tape cordon of the area.

He straightened when Jim and Blair approached. "Detective Ellison, Blair." He waved a hand over the area. "As far as we know, nothing's been disturbed, but it took us a while to get the exact location from the mother."

"Thanks, Riley." Jim lifted the tape and ducked under it then stood and gazed around.

Even with Jim and Riley there, Blair felt positively creeped out. There were no streetlights here, the darkness only cut by the headlights of the patrol car. Something rustled the bushes at the side of the road and Blair almost jumped out of his skin when a mangy cat leapt from the brush and ran across in front of him. He could only imagine the terror the children must have felt, stranded here with either a homicidal mother or a violent stranger. He wrapped his arms around his chest and watched Jim. "You getting anything?"

Jim looked at him with what seemed almost a glare. "Give me a minute, Sandburg. We just got here."

"Right. Sorry." Blair began to edge around the perimeter of the tape, searching for any clues to the crime. Illuminated in the headlights, he could just make out the tread of car wheels. He dropped to rest on his haunches, trying to see them more clearly. "The ground's pretty hard-packed but I can see tire tread here," he called to Jim.

Jim crossed quickly over to him and Blair was startled when Jim grasped his arm and hauled him back to his feet. "What the-"

Jim took his place by the marks, giving Blair only a cursory glance and again Blair detected a hint of impatience or anger in his demeanor. "Don't want you scuffing the evidence, Chief." He was silent for a moment, going back to his perusal of the tire treads. "Looks like a small vehicle," he said. "Tell Riley we need a CSU team out here to make a cast, and get him to find out the make and model of the Cluskey's car."

"Got it." Blair jogged away, glad to have something to do. He was ready to dismiss Jim's unusual behavior. He was picking up enough unpleasant vibes himself to feel seriously on edge. He imagined it wouldn't be any easier on Jim, seasoned cop or not.

By the time he delivered the message to Riley and headed back to Jim, his partner was combing carefully through the bushes, a flashlight raking over the area as he searched. "Problem with your sight?" Blair asked.

"We don't need Riley wondering why I don't need a flashlight to search, now, do we?" Again, there was that hint of ice in Jim's voice.

"Forgot," Blair whispered.

Jim straightened suddenly and Blair ran into his back with a soft "oomph."

"Jesus, Sandburg," Jim ground out. "If you're gonna get in my way, go stand over there with Riley."

"I'm sorry," Blair said. "Unlike you, I can't see much."

Jim sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "No, I'm sorry, Chief. It's just… There's something bugging me about the whole thing."

"Did you find anything to indicate there was someone else out here?"

"No, nothing. No footprints, no cigarette butts." Jim looked back at the tire marks. "No sign of a struggle." He stared at Blair and this time, there was no anger in his expression. "She said she pretended to toss the keys, right?"

"Yeah. And…?" Blair prompted when Jim didn't continue.

Jim shook his head. "I'm not sure. There's something weird about that, but I can't put my finger on it. Okay, I want to do a detailed sweep of the area before CSU gets here, then we'll go talk to the residents nearby. See if anyone saw or heard anything out of the ordinary."

"Okay."

~o0o~

They'd discovered nothing more at the scene and none of the residents claimed to have heard anything out of the ordinary, except for the people who owned the house nearest to the back road. They'd assumed the sharp pops they'd heard were a car backfiring and had ignored it.

Back at the station, Blair wondered aloud why Melinda hadn't driven straight to one of the houses and asked for help, instead of driving with an injured arm all the way to the hospital.

Jim stared at him with a grim expression. "Well, if she shot them herself, Chief, she'd want to look like the heroine, rushing her kids to help, right?"

"I guess." Blair slumped back in his desk chair. "What's next, man?" He was hoping Jim would suggest they head home. It was almost 4 a.m. The news from the hospital hadn't been good. Sarah, the oldest child was still in surgery. There had been complications. She had almost exsanguinated by the time she reached Cascade General and now, the rapid infusion of donor blood had caused a stroke. The doctors were guarded about the prognosis on Chris, the four-year-old boy. It appeared he had been lying sideways on the backseat and the bullet had pierced his spine. He almost certainly was paralyzed from the waist down.

Again, Blair felt nausea rise and he forced it down. He'd seen a lot of horrible stuff since he'd been working with Jim. While he'd never get over cases like this, he was learning to put it aside for the present, in order to help Jim to the best of his ability.

Jim seemed to sense his exhaustion and gave him an apologetic smile. "We need to check out the Cluskey's car. If you want, you could check out the description the mother gave the uniforms."

Blair appreciated Jim wanting to spare him from the unpleasant task of searching the blood-spattered car, but he shook his head and stood, stretching the kinks from his back. "If I sit here any longer, man, I'll fall asleep. Let's go."

~o0o~

Jim reared back as the overwhelming stench of blood, urine and gunpowder assaulted his sensitive nostrils. He cracked his head on the driver's side doorframe and swore. Reaching up to rub at the small lump already forming, he breathed through his mouth and backed away for a moment to refocus.

"Try to dial down first," Blair admonished.

"Didn't think," Jim said. "Aren't I lucky you're here to remind me?"

Blair gaped at the open sarcasm in Jim's tone. "What's up with you tonight?" he asked, feeling righteously offended.

Jim seemed as surprised by his outburst as Blair. "Sorry, Chief. I don't know where the hell that came from. It's just such a bad one, I guess. You're right," he said, squeezing Blair's shoulder. "I should have it ingrained by now. Okay, I'll give it another shot."

Blair watched for a couple of minutes while Jim checked out the interior of the car then walked over to where the contents of the car had been lain out on a bench by the wall, ready for Forensics. Pulling on a pair of disposable gloves, he picked up a coloring book that sat on top. Turning the book over, he studied the carefully colored in picture of a laughing clown.

He glanced around quickly. Jim was absorbed in checking out the car, and a patrol officer stood by the door, looking bored. Taking a slow, deep breath, Blair brushed a hand lightly over the garishly bright crayon colors. He felt suddenly hot and dizzy. Closing his eyes, he breathed past the discomfort and concentrated on conjuring up a picture of a child in his mind's eye - and was swept into a vortex of visions.

It was so hot, and the car radio was blaring too loud. She was so tired. As much as she'd wanted to go see the puppies, all she wanted to do now was go home and snuggle into bed.

Instead, when she'd told Mommy that Chris was already asleep, her mom just glared at her and told her to stop whining. Tears burned her eyes. Lately, that's all Mommy seemed to do. Shout at them, and hit them for being in the way. She'd overheard her telling Sarah that she'd wished they'd never been born.

She tried to peer out the window but could see nothing in the darkness. She didn't know why Mommy had stopped here. It was too scary. She thought she could hear voices over the music on the radio but she couldn't understand what they were saying.

Then Mommy screamed, and she shifted closer to Sarah, wrapping her arms about her big sister's waist.

"S'okay, Kelly," Sarah soothed in her big sister voice. "Mommy will be back soon."

The driver's door opened and she turned to look, relief filling her that Mommy was back and they'd soon be home. A dark face peered in through the opening, frowning at them.

There was a loud bang and a terrible pain in her chest. She couldn't breathe. Someone was screaming and more explosions shattered against her eardrums, then there was nothing…

"Sandburg!"

Blair shuddered and sucked in a deep, shaky breath.

"Blair?"

A hand shook his shoulder, none too gently and his head flared with sharp pain. He reached up and grasped the hand, stilling its action. "I'm okay."

"You don't look okay." Jim crouched down in front of him and looked at him with a worried expression.

Blair frowned. When had he sat down? "No, really. I'm all right. Help me up."

Jim didn't look convinced but he grabbed Blair's hand anyway and hauled him to his feet, then kept a steadying grip on his arm. "What happened?" he asked.

Blair massaged his forehead, attempting to rub away the pain but it throbbed mutinously beneath his fingertips. He felt enormously tired. He glanced over Jim's shoulder. The cop was still standing by the door, taking in the proceedings with interest. Blair sighed. Another story that would be around the precinct by the end of the day. How wimpy Sandburg had fainted checking out the murder car.

Jim nudged him. "Sandburg?"

"I had a vision," Blair muttered.

"And?"

Blair thought for a moment, trying to collect the jumbled images into some sort of order. He'd been in the back of the car, the music was blaring, he was cold and tired and - "I don't think she did it," he said.

"The mother?"

Blair nodded then wished he hadn't when fresh agony burst behind his eyes. God, he felt sick. Determinedly, he swallowed back the rising nausea.

"Chief, I don't know what you saw but this is text book," Jim said. "The position of the wound, no sign of a struggle, no witnesses, and I guarantee that when we look into Mommy dearest's background, we're gonna find some nasty stuff."

"Like what?"

Jim shrugged. "Reports of child neglect or abuse, that kind of thing. We need to talk to the father too."

"But I saw…" Blair trailed off, seeing the tense set of Jim's jaw.

"Tell you what, Chief," Jim said, his voice sounding harsh. "You investigate it your way and I'll do it my way."

"But, Jim, you know my visions-"

"Are sometimes wrong," Jim cut in. He sighed. "Come on, Sandburg, they're not foolproof. What about the Sanders' case or the one with the husband who was murdered by the jealous neighbor? You swore it was the wife."

"I know but this time -"

"Look, it's getting late," Jim interrupted again, "and you look like shit. We'll go home and grab a bite to eat, get some sleep. I want to check in with Simon and see if there's any news on the surviving kids. Tomorrow we'll go over your vision, and check out Melinda Cluskey's background. Okay?"

Truth was, food wasn't high up on Blair's list of priorities, given how he was feeling but bed certainly appealed. "Yeah, okay."

Jim led the way to the door. Blair looked down at the coloring book in his hand then rolled it up and stuck it inside his jacket. If Simon or Jim discovered he'd taken evidence without permission, there'd be hell to pay, but he needed the chance to see more, to see if it had truly been Melinda Cluskey who'd shot her children.

~o0o~

The news from the hospital had been heartening at least. The two surviving children were out of danger and their conditions had been upgraded to serious. Jim had asked the doctor if it was possible to interview the oldest child, Sarah, but the doctor had vetoed the idea for at least a couple of days. Jim wasn't happy to hear that Melinda Cluskey had been discharged from the hospital and was alternating her time between the bedsides of her children. Jim wondered aloud if she was hoping to make sure that neither child could point the finger of guilt at her.

Blair merely shrugged and went on desultorily preparing spaghetti for dinner. He'd been mostly silent since they'd left the PD, responding to Jim's offer to get take out on the way home with an 'I couldn't care less' shrug then had simply muttered that there was pasta left over from the night before and they shouldn't waste it.

"Wouldn't surprise me," Jim said now as he sat down on the couch and took a long drink of his beer. "She'll either want to regain their trust or shut them up; threaten them."

"Maybe. If she did it."

Jim set his beer bottle on the coffee table. He really wasn't in the mood for this discussion again right now, and Blair looked worse than Jim felt. He was still pale and looked exhausted. Jim knew the visions drained him. His emotions were often fragile, his mood edgy for a time afterward. "Let's talk about it in the morning, okay?"

"Sure, whatever."

Jim sighed. "Look, if this is about what I said earlier - about your visions sometimes being wrong-"

"Nope." Blair turned to face him then, arms crossed over his chest, a tense set to his jaw. "It's about you suddenly deciding they're wrong before we know anything for sure. That's not like you, Jim."

"It's just that I've seen these types of cases before, and you saw Melinda Cluskey at the hospital. She couldn't care less about her kids."

"Doesn't mean she shot them."

"Doesn't mean she didn't," Jim couldn't help firing back.

Blair glared at him for a moment then seemed to give up, his body sagging in on itself. "I just know what I saw," he said quietly. "I think it needs to be checked out."

"You're right," Jim conceded. "It should be. I want to check on Ms Cluskey's background, talk to her neighbors, that kind of thing, in the morning. What say you see if you can find any similar incidents in the last month or so - carjackings, assaults or robberies in the area? Okay?"

"Okay." Blair turned back to the food and turned off the stove. "Dinner's ready. I'm not hungry. I'm going to bed."

"All right. Good night, Chief."

"Night."

Jim stood and walked into the kitchen. He dished up his meal and ate it mechanically, barely tasting it, his concern for Blair ratcheting up again, bringing back memories of those early days when the visions had first begun, and not for the first time, wishing that things could just go back to what passed as normal for a sentinel and guide.

~o0o~

"You did what?" Two incredulous gazes speared Blair and he took an involuntary step back.

"It's just a coloring book," he said lamely, then added more firmly, "not exactly a smoking gun."

Simon rolled his eyes, clamped his cigar back in his mouth and turned to Jim. "Explain the finer points of evidence tampering to your partner, Detective."

"Simon's right, Chief," Jim said. "Anything found at or around the crime scene is evidence, regardless how innocuous it looks."

Blair slumped into a chair and rubbed his forehead. "I know that, Jim." He glanced from Jim to Simon. "I'm sorry, okay? I just thought I could get a clearer vision once I got home and meditated for a while." He leaned forward, an exciting thought coming to mind. "I've never seen what the victim sees before! I mean, this whole thing is getting better all the time. When I first had the visions, I needed contact with Jim, and I could only see what the killer saw. Now I'm seeing what she saw… Kelly, the dead child!"

"You can't exactly go into court and tell them you know Melinda Cluskey isn't the killer because you had a vision," Jim replied. He hitched a hip onto the edge of Simon's desk and stared at Blair somberly. "If we do get a conviction, the DA's liable to approach you as a hostile witness."

"Well, it's not going to go to court unless we have hard evidence anyway-" Blair began.

"Exactly," Simon put in. He sighed. "Let's not worry about the coloring book for now. It wasn't logged in as evidence. Any blood on the book, Sandburg?"

"No."

Simon nodded. "All right. Let's leave it there. You find anything more on the Cluskey woman, Jim?"

"Just about to go and talk to her neighbors. Her ex-husband flew in yesterday. He'd been out of the country and only just got the news about the kids. I'm interviewing him at the hospital at 4."

"Good. Let me know what you come up with."

Both Jim and Blair stood, and Simon spared Blair another glare. "Follow Jim's lead on this case, Sandburg. There'll be hell to pay if we get this one wrong. Public's already in a flat panic over some stranger running around Cascade, shooting innocent kids."

"Yes, sir." Blair resisted the urge to salute and followed Jim out into the bullpen. "So, we go talk to the neighbors."

Jim shook his head, his jaw tense, the muscle in his cheek twitching, telegraphing his anger. "I talk, Sandburg. You take notes."

~o0o~

"I never liked her," Ruby Edwards said, her dainty mouth pursing in a moué of distaste. "Makeup slathered on, coming and going at all hours of the night."

"What about the children?" Jim asked.

Ruby's lips turned up in a smile. "Little darlings is what they were." She dabbed at her eyes with a lace handkerchief. "Such a terrible thing to happen. Young Sarah, the oldest one, was like a little mother to the others." She gave a huff of displeasure. "She had to be. Her mother could barely look after herself, let alone three kids."

Jim glanced at Blair, giving him what looked to be a small 'I told you so' smile. Blair chose to ignore it for now and continued to scribble in his notebook. "Was she seeing anyone?" he asked then realized that he wasn't supposed to be asking the questions. He sighed. His headache was back, and the cloying scent of Ruby Edwards' floral perfume combined with the stifling heat in her apartment wasn't helping any. He wondered how Jim was tolerating it. Jim gave him an admonishing glare and Blair sighed. "Sorry," he said subvocally. "Force of habit."

Jim gave him a small shrug that seemed to say, 'So what else is new?' and turned back to Ruby, who was still talking about the children and how she baked cookies for them and how, one day, little Kelly, god rest her tiny soul, had brought her a picture she'd drawn in school. "She said they had to draw a picture of someone they loved, and for her, that was her grandmama, but they hadn't seen her since Christopher was a baby, and because I was so nice to them, she drew me. I still have it. Would you like to see it?"

"In a moment, yes," Jim said. "Now, about Ms. Cluskey. Was she seeing anyone? Did she have a boyfriend?"

Ruby hesitated for a moment then leaned toward Jim and Blair. "No one was supposed to know," she whispered conspiratorially, "but in an apartment block this size, it's impossible to keep secrets. He was older than her by a good ten years… married." She sat back with a satisfied look on her face as though the weight of the world had been lifted from her shoulders.

"Do you know his name?" Jim asked.

"Of course. He manages the local supermarket. She works there. Donald Williams."

Jim stood. "Thank you, Mrs. Edwards, we appreciate your help."

Ruby rose as well. "I'll get the picture." She hurried off to the bedroom and Blair took advantage of her absence. "You think the boyfriend did it?"

Jim shrugged. "Or maybe she wanted the kids out of the way. Let's go talk to Williams, see what he has to say."

"I have to admit I'm surprised he hasn't been to the hospital," Blair mused. "The nursing staff said there's only been one visitor, Sheryl Adams, the friend with the puppies, and she verified that Melinda had arranged to take the kids there that night."

"He's married, remember?" Jim said. He fell silent when Mrs. Edwards emerged from the bedroom with a piece of paper clutched in one hand. "Here you are," she said, holding the drawing out proudly, first to Jim, then Blair. "Isn't that the sweetest thing: To my other grandmama, love Kelly." She sniffed and dabbed once more at her eyes.

"It's lovely," Blair said.

"You won't need to take it, will you?" Ruby asked. "For evidence or something?"

Jim smiled and shook his head. "No, ma'am. You keep it. Thanks again for your time."

She showed them to the door and opened it, first indicating the multitude of locks. "One can't be too careful," she explained. "I had the locksmith come out and add two new ones yesterday."

~o0o~

"It's against company policy for management to date employees," Donald Williams said but there was a nervous quality to his voice.

Jim focused in on the man's heartbeat. A little too fast for someone seated behind a desk. There was a fine sheen of sweat on his upper lip and his gaze kept flickering to the left as though the bland watercolor hanging on the wall there held inspiration.

"We're not here to report you to your superiors for seeing Ms. Cluskey," Jim said, keeping his own tone neutral. "We're just gathering information on the family in the hopes of uncovering who might have wanted to harm them."

Williams sighed. Reaching out, he fiddled with the papers on his desk, rearranging them. He spoke without looking up. "We dated a few times, that's all. Dinner at her place, that kind of thing, a movie."

"How serious was the affair? Were you planning on getting a divorce?" Jim asked.

Williams' head shot up at the question. "No! I love my wife! Did Melinda tell you that?" He went on without waiting for a reply. "My wife, Libby, is a wonderful woman. It's just… we're not intimate. Haven't been for years. Is it wrong for a man to want to appease his need for intimacy?"

"Did you argue with Melinda over the fact that you wouldn't leave your wife?" Blair asked. He cast a quick, almost apologetic glance at Jim and Jim gave him a small nod.

He had to admit he'd been tough on Blair earlier. Just because his partner didn't agree with his gut feeling was no reason to cut him out of the case. And while Blair's visions weren't always spot on, he had to admit, there was always some hard evidence in them, even if they didn't lead to solving the case.

Williams was speaking and Jim pulled his attention back to the matter at hand. "She wasn't happy about it. Seemed to me she was looking for a new daddy for her kids. I told her I wasn't interested. I've never wanted kids."

"And she left it at that?" Blair asked.

Williams shrugged. "She didn't seem real happy about it at the time but she never brought it up again."

Jim stood. "Thank you for your help, Mr. Williams. If there's anything else, we'll be in touch."

"Just one more thing," Blair said as he stood and shoved his notebook and pen into his jacket pocket. "Where were you on the night Ms. Cluskey and her children were attacked?"

Williams looked affronted at the question. "At home, with my wife." He looked suddenly stricken. "You won't need to speak with her, will you?"

Blair opened his mouth to respond but Jim cut in. "Not at the moment, no, but it may become necessary later."

Blair gaped at him but kept quiet until they'd left the office and were back in the truck. The moment Jim steered onto the street, he started. "Why did you tell him we wouldn't need to check his alibi?"

"Because I don't think he did it," Jim replied. "He had no reason to want to shoot three little kids. Unless we get evidence suggesting otherwise, I don't think it's necessary to let his wife in on his indiscretions."

"He was cheating on her!"

"Doesn't make him a killer," Jim replied doggedly.

"And what if Melinda threatened to tell his wife about their affair? You think that might be motive enough to want to get rid of her?"

"Sure, so why'd he go after the kids?"

"To punish her. Maybe he set it up, knowing she'd be suspected."

"And instead of her telling us it was Williams, she pretends it was some bushy-haired stranger," Jim said, unable to keep the sarcasm from his voice.

"She never said he had bushy hair," Blair replied mulishly. He stared out the passenger window for a long moment then turned his attention back on Jim. "What's up with you lately, man? Have I majorly pissed you off or something?"

"Why is it just because I don't agree with your theories, it's because I'm pissed with you? You don't hear me asking you that, when I know you don't agree with me."

"It's not a theory, Jim," Blair replied, his voice soft and sounding hurt. "They're visions. You've never doubted them before."

"And I'm not now," Jim said. He reached out and patted Blair's shoulder contritely, pulling his unfounded impatience back. He didn't know why this case seemed to be getting under his skin so much. It wasn't the first time he'd had to arrest a parent for harming their child, and he doubted it would be the last. "I just want to cover all the bases, and you have to admit she's not the poster child for Good Parenting."

"Neither was Naomi but I know she'd never harm a child." Blair took off his glasses and rubbed at his eyes. "You're right, I know, and this kind of case is just the worst of the worst."

Jim's cell phone rang and he held up a hand then pulled it from his pocket. "Ellison. That's great. What does the mother think? Yeah, okay, we'll cross that bridge when we get to it. Thanks, Brown." He closed the phone and looked over at Blair. "Sarah Cluskey is conscious and the doctors say she's strong enough to answer a couple of brief questions." Not waiting for a response, he took the next exit for the hospital.

~o0o~

Sarah Cluskey looked fragile and tiny in the hospital bed. She was still attached to a multitude of wires and tubes and her skin looked almost translucent. A brief conversation with her doctor had revealed that the stroke she'd suffered had left her paralyzed on the left side and her speech was slurred. He had high hopes though for her eventual recovery but added that she would be left with some severe disabilities and he doubted she'd walk again. Little Christopher was doing well, though he too was permanently paralyzed from the gunman's bullet.

Melinda Cluskey was seated at her daughter's side, her makeup marred by tears. Her left arm was still held in a dark blue sling. She stood when they entered the room. "Have you found him?" she asked.

"Not yet," Jim replied. "The doctor said it would be all right to ask Sarah a few questions. We'll keep it brief and you're welcome to remain in the room with her."

"No!" Melinda shook her head. "She's been through enough! Watching that madman shoot us. Kelly died right beside her," she whispered. "I won't let you make her relive it."

Blair stepped forward. "Ms. Cluskey. Could I speak to you in private for just a minute?" She gave Jim a venomous glare. "Detective Ellison won't speak to Sarah without your permission, I promise you." She finally nodded. Taking her arm, Blair led her from the room and into the corridor. He stood, facing the window to Sarah's room and watched as Jim seated himself at the child's bedside and reached out to stroke her hair. "Ms. Cluskey, I understand your concerns for Sarah, but she may be able to give us more information about your attacker. There's an all points bulletin out, together with the sketch made by the police artist based on your description, but it's not enough. If Sarah can supply even just the smallest bit more, we have a better chance of catching this man before he hurts someone else."

"You believe me, don't you?" she asked. Tears welled in her eyes and spilled in fresh rivulets down her cheeks and Blair had the overpowering certainty that despite her flaws, Melinda Cluskey was indeed innocent.

"Yes, I do," he said sincerely.

She glanced over her shoulder at Jim. "He doesn't."

"He's just investigating the case as thoroughly as possible," Blair said.

She turned back to him and touched his arm. "I know what the neighbors think of me. I know they think I'm a bad mother. But I love my children. I would never hurt them." She took a deep breath then dabbed at her eyes with a balled up tissue. "You can talk to Sarah, not him."

"Thank you."

~o0o~

After a whispered conversation with a reluctant Jim, Blair entered Sarah's hospital room with Melinda and took a seat at the girl's bedside. "Hey, Sarah, my name's Blair. I'm really sorry that you got hurt, but your mom said it would be all right for me to talk to you for a minute about what happened."

He thought for a moment she was sleeping but then she turned her head and looked at him. "'Kay," she whispered.

Blair smiled and reached out to take her hand in his. "Just tell me what you can remember and if you get scared, it's okay to stop."

"Ma-ma shot…"

Oh god! Did she mean what she said? Blair felt sick to his stomach and he heard Melinda give a small gasp. He kept his attention on Sarah. "Did your mom shoot you, Sarah?"

She shook her head slowly, weakly. "Man… shot… mama. Shot us."

Blair felt suddenly faint and he heard Melinda crying. Then Sarah reached up with her good right hand and rested it against Blair's cheek. The warm touch seemed to sear his suddenly chilled flesh and he fought not to flinch away. There was a flash of brilliant, blinding light…

It was too hot to be sitting in the car. Kelly was fidgeting with her coloring book and digging her in the side with her elbow as she drew. Chris was sleeping already, taking up some of Kelly's space, which meant that she was squished into the side of the car.

She froze as she heard her mother scream. There was an explosion of sound and Kelly squealed in fright. She leaned forward and pulled on the door handle, her heart pounding in her chest. There was another loud bang, then another and another and she felt a pain in her chest so great that her breath was sucked from her lungs. She couldn't breathe. She felt herself falling back, the darkness around her growing, taking her with it…

"Sandburg!"

Blair felt himself falling, heard Jim's voice coming from a long way off. He felt himself caught in a strong grip and lowered to the ground. His chest was aching, his head pounding in concert with his heart. He shivered, feeling cold sweat dampening his shirt.

A hand tapped his face and he opened his eyes, blinking to dispel the blurriness. Jim was crouching in front of him, his face creased with worry. For one awful moment, Blair thought he was going to throw up but he managed to push the nausea back. Distantly, he could hear a child sobbing and the soft sounds of a woman's comforting words. He pushed himself up from the floor and accepted Jim's help to make it to his feet. He felt as weak as a newborn baby.

"I'm okay," he managed to gasp out though he was grateful that Jim kept a supporting hand on his arm. "It was a stranger," he said shakily. "A man."

~o0o~

Blair had a headache the size of Texas by the time they made it back to the loft. Jim silently helped him into his room and Blair didn't bother to protest when his partner stripped him of his jeans, shoes and jacket then pulled back the bedcovers and pushed him down onto his pillows.

"I'll get you some water and Tylenol," Jim finally said. "You think you can keep them down?"

"I'll give it a shot," Blair replied tiredly.

Jim gave a curt nod and left, back within minutes with the promised water and pain meds. After Blair swallowed the pills, he took the tumbler and turned to leave. "Wait, Jim, we need to talk."

"You need to rest," Jim said. "We can talk later when you're feeling better."

"I need to talk now, while it's still fresh in my mind."

Jim hesitated then nodded. He sat on the edge of Blair's bed and crossed his arms over his chest, looking defensive and angry. "All right. What did you see this time?"

"First up, let's talk about what's bothering you about this case."

"What's bothering me?" The nerve in Jim's jaw twitched. "What, kids being shot to death isn't enough?"

Blair reached out and rested his hand on Jim's. "Of course it is, but there's more to it. It's to do with my visions, isn't it? Why are you so loathe to trust them this time? I know you had your doubts in the beginning. Hell, we both did, but you came to accept them the same as you accept your own hypersenses, for the gift they are."

"Maybe that's why it's bothering me." Jim sighed and rubbed at his eyes. He looked every bit as weary as Blair felt. "It wasn't until this case that we haven't seen eye to eye. Your visions are telling you one thing and my cop instincts are telling me something else."

"And that's a problem because…?" Blair prompted when Jim didn't immediately continue.

"Because I can take my cop instincts into a court of law. You can't do that with your visions."

Blair finally got it, or at least he thought he did. "So, this isn't about my visions being flawed at all, is it? This is about you worrying that I'm going to get caught up in your nightmare, of having 'superpowers', of being labeled a freak, of having your evidence doubted because you can't tell anyone what you really saw."

There was a long moment of silence then Jim spoke again, his voice hushed. "I don't want you to go through that, Chief. If we can get the same evidence with police work, let's leave it at that."

"And if we had, Melinda Cluskey would probably be sitting in a jail cell right now."

"You still don't know if your vision is correct."

"I know that little girl told me that a man shot her mother!" Blair said forcefully. Pain shot through his head and he forced himself to calm down. Lying back on his pillows, he closed his eyes. "So, do you want me to tell you what I saw?" The phone rang and he swore. "Shit! Not now! I need to get a handle on this before I lose it."

Jim rested a hand on his shoulder. "Just focus on your vision. I'll be right back."

Blair nodded and began to sort through the flashes of memories, some sharply defined, others blurred, that he'd seen through the eyes of a frightened, hurt little girl.

A few minutes later, he sensed Jim's presence in his room and opened his eyes, immediately taking in the frown on his partner's face. "What's up?"

Jim shrugged. "Probably nothing. I need to go into the station for a little while."

"Why?"

"Simon called. Some guy just confessed to the Cluskey shootings."

Blair scrambled out of the bed, reaching for his clothes but Jim held up a restraining hand. "No need for you to come with me, Chief. It's probably just some whack job wanting his fifteen minutes of fame."

Blair continued to pull on his jeans. "If that's the case, why would Simon bother you with it?"

"You sure you feel up to it?" Jim asked as Blair pushed past him. "How's your head?"

Blair waved his concern away and headed for the front door. "My head's fine. While you were on the phone, I got a pretty clear picture of what Sarah saw. I want to see what this guy looks like."

"Sandburg…"

Blair turned to face Jim, impatient to get moving. "What?"

"Just… don't get your hopes up, okay? It might be nothing."

But it's not, Blair thought. And I have no idea how I know that, I just do.

~o0o~

Jim knocked at Simon's office door and waited for the brusque invitation to enter. As they did so, a tall, well-built man with graying hair stood up from the chair opposite Simon and turned to face them.

"Jim," Simon said, "this is Father Michael James from St. Ignatius church. Father, this is Detective Jim Ellison and his partner-"

"Blair!" The priest stepped forward and reached out to shake Blair's hand. "It's been a while since we've seen you at St. Ignatius. I heard you'd been unwell but you're looking fine now."

Jim gave Blair a covert nudge. "I thought you were Jewish," he whispered.

"Lapsed," Blair responded sotto voce. "I'm fine, Father," he said to the priest. "Just been a little busy." He looked at Jim then Simon. "I help out at the shelter sometimes."

"Ah…" Jim nodded. "So that's where you go on your nights off."

"Blair's been an inspiration and a boon to the shelter," Father Michael said, beaming.

"So, Father," Jim said, getting back to the business at hand, "I'm assuming you're not the man who's confessing to the shootings."

Father Michael shook his head and retook his seat. "It's a terrible thing, and this young man's story is equally as distressing. I'm just relieved I was able to convince him to come in with me. His name is Duncan Richards, 24 years old. He's not a member of the congregation but our doors are open to all."

"That's good to hear, Father," Jim said. He leaned back against the office door. "So, why did he come to you?"

"He was seated in the church this morning when Sally, the cleaning lady, arrived. She came to let me know he was there. When I spoke to him, he said he wanted to make a confession. Of course when I heard exactly what he wanted to confess to, I asked him to come to the station with me. He agreed immediately."

"How do you know he's not just trying to get some notoriety?" Jim asked.

Father Michael gave him a sad smile. "I don't, but he seemed genuinely distraught and repentant. Would you rather I had let him go, Detective?"

"Of course not." Jim pushed himself away from the door. "We appreciate you coming forward." He looked at Simon. "All right if we interview the guy, sir?"

"He's in interrogation room 2."

"Thank you, sir, and thank you again, Father," Jim said. He opened the door and waited for Blair to say his goodbye to the priest before preceding him out the door.

~o0o~

"Duncan Richards?"

The man seated at the table lifted his head as Jim and Blair entered the interrogation room. He'd been handsome once, but now his complexion was sallow and pockmarked by the sores of addiction. His blue eyes were underscored by dark shadows, the lids puffy as though they held the baggage of a life gone wrong. His blond hair hung to his shoulders, as limp and lifeless as the man himself.

Jim took a seat opposite him and motioned for Blair to do the same. "You have some information for us?"

Tears immediately began to flow down Richards' cheeks. "I killed those kids. God help me, I'm so sorry."

"Let's start at the beginning, Mr. Richards," Jim said. "Tell us what happened."

Richards buried his face in his hands for a moment then took a deep, shaky breath. "I'm an addict, sir. Have been for some years. I managed to kick the habit a few times but I couldn't resist the pull for good. A week ago, I was on a bender. I was so blind from the stuff I could barely see. But it wasn't enough. I was coming down too fast and I needed more. I was heading home, taking a shortcut through that fancy new estate and I saw the car coming. I figured I could just take the car, sell it to a chop shop and make some money for another hit.

"I ran out in front of her and waved her down. She got out of the car - I didn't expect her to do that. It threw me a bit. I told her to give me her keys and she tossed them into the bushes. I lost it! I was so desperate, man! I pushed her to the ground but she came back at me and the next thing I knew my gun had gone off and she was on the ground, screaming." He raked both shaking hands through his hair.

"What happened to the kids?" Blair asked. "Why'd you shoot them?"

Richards raised his head and stared at Blair, his features stricken with grief. "I didn't mean to, I swear. I shot the woman. I was panicking. It had all gone wrong so fast then I heard the car door open. I turned and fired at the car. I didn't… Forgive me, I didn't know it was kids!"

"Why didn't you turn yourself in right away?" Jim asked, leaning forward, his voice cold. "Why didn't you help those kids?"

"I didn't know till I saw the newspaper, man, I swear." Richards crumpled then, sobbing. "I saw in the paper the next day that three little kids had been shot. I knew I'd done it."

"So why come forward now?" Blair asked. He felt incredibly sick to his stomach, unable to imagine anyone leaving children dying on a lonely road.

"I saw her picture in the paper," Richards sobbed. "The one who died. She looked just like my Janie. My wife left me four weeks ago, took my little girl with her. I just bombed, man! But when I saw her, I couldn't live with that. I knew I had to come in, had to face what's coming to me." He shook his head. "I never meant to kill a baby."

Blair glanced at Jim. The room was entirely too hot and he was sure he was going to throw up. He pushed back his chair and stood. "I'll wait for you outside."

Jim nodded but his gaze never left Richards' face. He pushed a pad of notepaper across the table. "Write it all down," he said, his voice tight, "and sign it."

~o0o~

Blair leaned back against the wall of the elevator. He felt tired beyond belief, though thankfully his headache had finally receded to just a slow throbbing behind his right eye. He was glad that Melinda Cluskey had been innocent of hurting her children, but his relief was mixed with concern that the woman definitely needed help, that her children weren't entirely cared for the way children should be.

He thought about Naomi and how often she'd either left him in the care of supposed friends, some of whom hadn't been nearly as caring as they should have been, or, once she thought him old enough, on his own, and how he'd struggled through, subsisting, unsure and afraid, desperately wishing for someone to rescue him from his lonely existence.

Had it really been that bad? he wondered. He'd managed, hadn't he? But deep down, he knew he'd questioned if Naomi truly loved him, if her causes and her own life were more important to her than caring for her son.

"Tough one, huh?" Jim's voice cut through the haze of his despair.

"Yeah."

"Glad to be going home."

"Actually…" Blair pushed himself away from the wall. "Would you mind dropping me off at the hospital? I want to check on Sarah and Chris."

"We can do that tomorrow, Chief," Jim said, giving Blair a critical once-over. "You look out on your feet."

Blair shook his head. "I need to do this tonight, Jim. I need to say thank you to a brave little girl who allowed me to see through her eyes."

Jim stared at him for a long moment then nodded. "I'll wait for you in the truck." He reached out and patted Blair's shoulder. "I'm sorry, Chief, for doubting you. I guess… I was just trying to protect you. I don't want you to deal with the crap I have."

Blair reached up and squeezed Jim's hand. "I know. I appreciate it. So…. Where do we go from here… with the visions, I mean? I don't know that I can stop them. Guess they really are as much a part of me as your senses are of you."

The elevator bell dinged and Jim ushered Blair out of the car then wrapped an arm around his shoulders. "I guess we take it one step at a time, Chief, and since I've already trodden this path, maybe it's my turn to be the guide."

Blair shook his head. "Are you sure, man? It's a tough, thankless job." He didn't bother to duck away from the whack to the back of his head, welcoming it as a step back to the partnership, the quid pro quo he and Jim shared.

"Smart ass," Jim said, his voice warm with affection.

Blair grinned. "Yep, that would be me."

END