ROSES ARE RED…
Note: This story follows immediately upon my story, 'Nothing Happens in this Universe Randomly…'
'Roses are red, Violets are blue, I killed the flowers…and I'll kill you.'
Her fingers trembled as she read the note, and she felt cold with fear. Swallowing, her gaze left the frightening words and drifted again to the wilted flowers and brown curling petals that littered her desk, and overflowed to scatter in drifts on the floor. The office reeked of the heavy perfume of the dying blossoms, nauseating her. Who was doing this? Terrorizing her. Who could violate this inner sanctum, get past locked doors and the security patrols?
She jumped, and hated herself for her reaction of unconscious fright as the door behind her was pushed open without warning. The note slipped from her stiff fingers and fluttered to the top of the heap of broken flowers on the desk.
"Dr. Edwards, I have your files for the…oh, oh, my! What happened in here?" Mina T'Ngali, her executive assistant, stared with wide-eyed horror at the mess.
And she hasn't even seen the note, Edwards thought with an inner shudder. Getting a grip on her shocked emotions, stiffening her back and resuming her cloak of cold hauteur, Dr. Josephine Edwards shrugged as if there was nothing here to cause alarm, only irritation. "Someone has made a mess, that is what happened," she snapped. "Call Housekeeping and arrange to have this litter cleaned up…and Security to install a new lock on the door."
"But…" Mina hesitated, looking from her superior to the littered desk and carpet. It wasn't just that the flowers were heaped everywhere…it was that they had been torn apart, mutilated so that they were but ugly vestiges of what had once been beautiful. This wasn't just a matter of littering or mischief. Someone very angry had done this. Yet the Chancellor was acting as if it were no more than a minor annoyance.
"I don't have time for nonsense, Mina. Do as I ask," Edwards interrupted briskly. "Give me the files…the meeting starts in a few minutes."
As if dazed, Mina stepped forward and handed over the folders. Edwards took them and swept out, heading for the conference room down the hall. Left alone, fighting back a queasy surge of nausea, Mina's gaze roamed the desk and spotted the note. Moving closer, she leaned down to read it and swallowed the bile that burned in the back of her throat. Stepping back as if the paper might somehow attack her with the malevolence inscribed upon it, she whirled to the door and her own desk outside.
Trembling, she called Security and wasn't surprised to have them tell her they would be informing the police. It wasn't just a simple case of vandalism; the Chancellor had been threatened. Sitting back in her chair, her eyes again taking in the devastation she could see through the open door, she bit her lip.
The Chancellor had told her to have the mess cleaned up.
But Security insisted that the police should see it first. How can the Chancellor be so calm about it? she wondered as she hugged herself tightly, feeling suddenly cold and sick with fear.
"Ellison, Sandburg…my office, NOW!" Simon bellowed.
Exchanging mute looks with raised brows, both men stood from their desks and swiftly entered their Captain's office.
"Sandburg, close the door," Banks directed as he waved them to chairs while he leaned back against his desk.
"What's up, Captain?" Ellison asked, wondering why Simon's heart was beating a little faster than usual, as if he was nervous about something. Simon Banks wasn't a nervous man.
Grimacing, Simon shook his head, as if still in the throes of making a decision, and then sighed as he turned to them. "A new case…a murder threat against a prominent citizen. I'm assigning the case to the two of you."
Ellison frowned as he cut a quick glance at Sandburg who shrugged, leaving it to him to get the details. "Uh, Captain, wouldn't that normally fall to the guys in Homicide?"
"Normally, yes, but you are better suited for this particular investigation. Well, actually," Simon clarified as he shifted his gaze to Sandburg, "you're the one who has the inside knowledge that we may need to sort this out."
"Me?" Blair exclaimed, surprised and more than a little curious.
His eyes narrowing, Ellison said quietly, "Maybe you'd better give us the details, sir." He didn't like cases that began with a focus on his partner. Nor did he like Simon's skittish behaviour as he skirted around the details, delaying getting to the point. Something wasn't right here.
Blowing out a breath, Simon nodded as he circled his desk and sat down. "I just got a call from Patrol. They picked up the initial call and went out to get the details. Someone broke into an office, left a heap of mutilated flowers on the desk and floor and a note, some doggerel, with a threatening message. Given the circumstances, the desk sergeant decided it would be best to send the case to us for follow up if we'd accept it. Which I have."
"Just where is this office, Captain?" Ellison asked, losing patience with the runaround.
"At the University," Simon replied, looking tired.
"Whose office are we talking about?" Blair asked suspiciously at Simon's too obvious reluctance to spit it out, wondering if he really wanted to know.
"The Chancellor's," Banks admitted.
Sandburg just looked at him for a moment as if not believing his ears. "Chancellor Edwards?" he clarified. When Simon nodded, Blair shook his head as he lifted his hands in a non-verbal gesture to fend off the assignment. "You can't be serious. She won't have anything to do with me."
"You have the inside track at the university, Sandburg…you'll pick up nuances and problems or conflicts that most of us might miss…" Simon explained with unusual patience, but Ellison cut in.
"Just hold on a minute," he objected, holding up a hand. "You can't actually expect Sandburg to…"
"I can and I do, Detective," Simon interrupted sharply. Rubbing a hand over his mouth, he shook his head, then with a milder tone continued, "Look, I know there are complications here, and that it might not be easy. But we all know Sandburg is the best bet we have of getting to the bottom of what's going on out there. Apparently, the Chancellor was not pleased that the police had been informed, and she's not inclined to cooperate…"
"Great," Blair sighed. Rolling his eyes, he threw up his hands as he sagged back in his chair. "And you think sending me will impress her? Simon, she's the one who threw me off the campus! She only agreed to let me obtain my doctorate because of the implied threat of a lawsuit for improper dismissal."
"Yeah, I know," Simon replied, his jaw tight. He hadn't liked the way Edwards had treated Sandburg, not one bit. "Well, she won't be able to throw you off the campus this time, will she?"
"Power? This is about power?" Blair demanded, sitting up straight again, shaking his head. "Captain, I don't think this is a good idea…"
"No, well, that's too bad," Simon replied with a sharp look. "I think it's rather fitting that she should have to deal with the man she treated so badly. Besides, I'm right and you know it. Like it or not, this incident has centred on the university. Someone got past the security guards and into a locked office. They had to have access to the keys and know their way around. My bet is that it's someone on the staff out there. You know these people, how they think, what their normal behaviours are, who might have a grudge…"
"You mean, besides me?" Blair cut in, but there was no sting in his words. It was just an observation.
"You have no 'grudge' now. You have your Ph.D., and you are employed by the Cascade Police Department as an expert consultant. She has no further power over you or your future," Simon countered with a growl. Relenting with a sigh when Blair just threw him a caustic look, Simon softened his tone. "Sandburg, I know this won't be easy, but I need you on this case."
Swallowing, not happy about it, Sandburg accepted the inevitable with as much grace as he could muster. Nodding resignedly, he stood as he looked at his partner. Ellison searched his eyes and when Blair shrugged, he, too, stood with a weary sigh. "All right, Simon. We'll let you know what we find out."
The two partners left the office and headed out to beard the lioness in her den.
The Chancellor was not in a good mood. Indeed, she was furious that the Cascade Police had been involved, and seriously irritated by the inconvenience of not having access to her office until the preliminary investigation had been completed. Mina was stepping carefully, keeping her head down and conversation to a minimum when she provided documents for the various meetings during the day, and took instructions for follow up actions. The assistant felt as if she was wearing a path in the carpet between her cubicle and the conference room down the hall where the Chancellor had set up shop for the day.
When Ellison and Sandburg walked in, she looked up to greet them, freezing a little in surprise when she recognized Blair. But only for a moment, and then she gave him a slow, almost gentle, smile of welcome. She also recognized Detective Ellison from his earlier visit a little more than a month ago with Dr. Stoddard, and all the times he'd been on the local news. On balance, she wasn't sure whether to be relieved at the sight of the two of them or cringe in trepidation of the Chancellor's reactions. A bit of a fatalist, she accepted that the situation was out of her control as she rose to greet them formally.
"Detective Ellison, Dr. Sandburg, how good to see the both of you again," she said, her voice low and musical with a slight accent. "I guess you're here to investigate the threat…"
"Yes, er…" Jim began.
"Mina," Blair supplied with a grateful smile for her welcome.
"Mina, that's right," Jim began again to the tall, elegant young woman with exotic eyes, dark colouring and a mane of glossy black hair. Her glowing beauty was set off by the brightly coloured and long, loose flowing layers of garments she wore. Jim cocked his head a little, as if listening to something only he could hear and glanced at her hands, noting the absence of rings. "Sorry, I should have remembered," he said with an uncertain, almost tentative, smile.
"No reason you should have, Detective," Mina replied easily, unoffended. "Did you want to see the office first, or would you prefer to speak with the Chancellor?"
"Let's take a look at the evidence," Ellison decided, not unhappy about postponing the confrontation with the SheDemon.
Mina nodded and turned to open the door to the Chancellor's office, stepping aside to let them precede her.
The stench from the decaying blossoms almost knocked Jim over, and Blair placed a supportive hand on his back as he murmured softly, "Dial it down, man."
"Whew!" Jim exclaimed with a grimace, one hand covering his nose and mouth, his eyes watering a little, and then he began to sneeze.
"Allergies," Blair explained hastily to Mina reflexively, before murmuring, "Separate the odours and block the flowers, Jim…try to see what else you might pick up." He'd spoken softly, so that only Jim could hear him, not yet used to being open about the Sentinel's capabilities.
The three of them stopped just inside the doorway while the detective and the consultant took in the scene. It looked like a truckload of flowers had been dumped over and around the desk, everything from roses to daisies, lilies to carnations and mums, baby's breath and fern…all of it broken and lying in ruin.
"There was a note?" Jim asked, sniffing as he wiped his eyes.
"I left it on the desk," Mina replied. "I didn't want to touch it."
"Good thinking," Blair commended her and won another slow smile. Jim pulled an evidence envelope from his pocket and shook it out as they approached the desk, both of them leaning over to read the anonymous, typewritten note.
"Short and to the point," Ellison muttered as he pulled a plastic glove from his pocket and, once he'd put it on, picked up the note and placed it in the envelope.
"How would someone get so many flowers in here?" he wondered, looking at Blair and Mina. He glanced at the door and could clearly see the lock hadn't been forced.
The executive assistant shrugged. "The doors to both my office outside and this office are kept locked after hours, and we have different keys. Security does rounds about every two hours, so I guess if someone could get copies of the keys, it wouldn't be that difficult to bring in a couple of bag loads of the flowers. But…"
When she hesitated, Blair encouraged, "You're thinking that it would have to be pretty late at night for no one to notice someone bringing in large garbage bags to these offices."
"Yes…I mean, the place would have to be deserted. Given the hours students keep, that would mean sometime after midnight," she agreed.
"Mina," Blair asked, "do you know of any other threats to the Chancellor?"
She looked away briefly, then replied quietly with a wry look, "Only every other day or so. There's always someone with a complaint…professors who aren't receiving tenure, staff whose term of employment is ended for one reason or another, parents who aren't happy with the way their kids are being treated, students who get expelled…"
Her voice caught a little in embarrassment as she recalled Sandburg's history, and her gaze again shifted away.
"People actually threaten the Chancellor's life for those kinds of things?" Blair exclaimed. "But…those are just normal occurrences in any academic institution."
"Not every one is as easy going as you are, Chief," Ellison murmured, trying to isolate the scents in the room. "There's something here, a scent I can't quite get…"
Mina looked at the detective with raised brows, a look of startled surprise on her face. Though she, along with everyone else who watched television or read a newspaper knew of his admission of being a 'sentinel', she'd not considered how powerful his senses might be. The rank, nauseating odour of rotting vegetation overwhelmed everything else and she was amazed that he could even begin to identify any other scents. Unconsciously pressing a hand against her still unsettled stomach, she wondered what he might perceive that others would never notice.
"Who would have access to the keys?" Blair asked. Though he had a good idea of the routines of the institution, he'd noted her almost mesmerized fascination as she studied his partner and he wanted to distract her from her intent observation. Since Jim had gone public, Blair was conscious that his partner was sensitive about being stared at because Jim still struggled with his fear of being seen as some kind of freak.
"Uh, well, Security, Housekeeping…and the Chancellor and myself, of course," she replied with a slight shrug.
Jim started to sneeze again, and decided he'd had enough of the office. Waving to the other two, he led the way out, relieved when the door closed between him and all that pollen. "Where can we find the Chancellor?" he asked with a sniff.
"She's in the conference room down the hall," Mina replied, moving to lead them there.
"Uh, it's okay, Mina…I know the way," Blair supplied, saving her from having to be the one who took them to the Chancellor.
"Thank you, Dr. Sandburg," she replied, understanding that she was being let off the hook, at least briefly. Her boss was very unhappy with her, as if it was her fault that Security had decided to call in the police.
As they turned to go, Jim asked, "Mina, if you have any of those other threats…letters, transcribed phone messages…whatever. I'd like to see them."
"Of course, I'll pull our 'Roses and Thorns' file," she offered, and then smiled at their looks of confusion. "Roses for compliments and thorns for those that prick," she explained, a slight glint of laughter in her dark eyes.
"Yeah, right," Jim nodded in acknowledgement, then turned to follow Sandburg down the hall.
As they moved along, Blair asked quietly, "What other scent did you think you were picking up, Jim?"
Ellison made a face and shook his head. "I'm not sure…there were a few different smells…cleaning fluid, a cologne…nothing definitive that I can put my finger on…sandalwood, I think…but that might have just been from the scent Mina was wearing."
Blair gave his partner a teasing look as he observed, "Ah…so you noticed the perfume the lovely lady was wearing. And I noticed that you seemed rather taken with her when we first arrived."
"Uh huh," Jim grunted, with a sideways look at his best friend. "Stop with the match-making, Junior. I'd be seriously surprised if she isn't already involved in a relationship."
"Yeah," Blair sighed, philosophically. Mina was a knock-out, not to mention nice to be around. "You're probably right."
"Trust me, kid," Jim replied as he laid a hand on his partner's shoulder. "Sometimes I just have a 'sense' for these things." He chuckled when Blair snorted in amusement.
As they approached the closed door, Sandburg wondered whether to march in boldly or stand in Jim's shadow. Much as he was dreading the next few minutes, he decided that he needed to establish his right to be there as a bonafide police consultant. There was no need for him to be uncomfortable around her. Simon was right; she no longer held any power in his life.
Accordingly, when they reached the door, he rapped on it once then opened it, leading the way inside.
Chancellor Edwards looked up at the knock, her eyes widening as she recognized who had just entered. Her face stiff with disapproval, she demanded coldly, "What are you doing here?"
"Chancellor," Blair replied with an even tone and a slight nod, "I think you probably remember my partner, Detective Ellison."
Another of her least favourite people. "Detective," she replied stonily. Of course she knew very well who he was, whether from any number of news reports on his police work, or from his role in 'persuading' her to give Sandburg the opportunity to obtain his doctorate. Between the two of them, they'd managed to make the University look ridiculous in the eyes of the public. First, Ellison was apparently a Sentinel according to the information allegedly drawn from Sandburg's document, then Sandburg denied it all in a nationally broadcast news conference, and then Ellison announced that everything in Sandburg's paper was in fact true. But, after all that, Sandburg had refused to make the full paper available…a 'no win' for the University.
"Chancellor," Ellison acknowledged, keeping his own expression carefully neutral. "Dr. Sandburg and I have been assigned to look into the threat against you."
Leaning back in her chair, her fingers tapping the conference table with unconscious irritation, she did not invite them to sit down. "This is a waste of time and tax-payers dollars," she snapped. "I see no reason, whatsoever, for the involvement of the police for what is no more than some foolish prank."
"Perhaps," Blair interjected. "But it doesn't hurt to be cautious. You have an important and difficult role, one that can be a target for discontented people."
"Discontented people make threats…they aren't necessarily dangerous," she snapped back.
"Well, we'd like you to humour us until we can be sure there is no basis for concern," Jim intervened. "The fact of the matter is that we have both the jurisdiction and the responsibility to investigate this threat, and we intend to do so, with or without your cooperation."
Rolling her eyes, she replied with a flat tone barely concealing her irritation, "Fine. Then let me make this as easy as possible. I have no idea who put those weeds in my office or who wrote the note. I have no idea how they got into the office, but the doors do not appear to have been forced…my office door was locked when I arrived this morning. I have no idea who might have a personal grudge against me, and sincerely doubt that this is an attack of a personal nature. In my view, someone is apparently disgruntled with the University or its administration and my position is simply a proxy for their wrath. Is there anything else?"
"Have you received any other threats, of this nature or of any kind, either here at the university or at your residence?" Ellison asked, determined not to react to her rancour.
She waved a dismissive hand as she replied, "From time to time, we receive calls or notes suggesting displeasure in a decision the faculty or management has taken. They aren't personal."
Jim studied her for a moment, long enough for Blair to realize his partner was picking up on something. Finally, Ellison said quietly, "It's our job to protect you if your life is in danger. It's a lot easier to do that job if you're honest with us."
"Are you challenging my veracity, Detective?" she demanded, her eyes flashing.
"Yes, ma'am, I am," Jim replied candidly. "When you're ready to talk with us, give us a call." He leaned forward to drop a business card on her desk and then turned away as he said, "Come on, Dr. Sandburg, let's go. She's wasting our time."
Blair hesitated a moment, then said softly, "Whatever is going on, we're on your side. We want to help you. Remember that." Then he turned and walked through the door his partner held open for him, a little amused by Jim's blatant use of his new title of 'Doctor' and the way Jim was pointedly holding the door open for him, as if deferring to him, no doubt to yank the Chancellor's chain.
After they'd left, she slumped forward, her elbows on the table, one hand rubbing her forehead. Annoyed, she realized she was shaking. It was ridiculous. This was just a prank. No one really wanted to do her harm. No, she would not give this incident, nor those late night anonymous calls to her residence any credence. Taking a breath, straightening her back, she reached for a file and went back to work.
"She's lying?" Blair asked as they strode back down the hall.
"Like a rug," Ellison replied. "Her heart rate spiked and I'd be willing to bet she's had threats at home as well as here. She's scared and doesn't want to admit it."
"It would mean she wasn't in control," Blair murmured thoughtfully.
"What?" Ellison asked.
Sighing, Sandburg looked up him. "What 'what'? You think you're the only one with control issues in Cascade, man? That woman likes to believe she runs the world…or at least, her little corner of it. From her perspective, this has to be a prank or hoax. Who would dare to threaten her?"
"You're saying I'm like her, Chief?" Jim demanded, not in the least bit happy with the comparison.
"Only in the sense of liking to be in control, Jim," Blair replied with a grin.
Ellison shook his head as they returned to Mina's work area, where she had the file of complaints ready for them. They headed from there over to the Security Office, but didn't find out anything useful. Giving the clearance for the office to be cleaned as soon as the crime lab folks had taken pictures and samples, they went next at the Administration Office to obtain information on anyone whose employment had been terminated in the last few weeks. In addition, they enquired whether any faculty members were being denied tenure, or if any students had been expelled in the past month. They were advised that as soon as a warrant was presented to permit the release of confidential information, a file would be prepared and provided to them Nodding, Jim called in the request for the warrant and then they headed back to the parking lot.
"Not much to go on, is there?" Blair reflected.
"Well, we'll see what's in the file Mina gave us, and the information from Administration should be available in the next day or so…and then we wait," Jim replied.
"Wait?" Sandburg repeated.
"Yeah…I doubt this will be the last incident. Whoever it is, he or she seems to want to terrorize first, so it's likely there will be other incidents before this escalates, Chief," Jim explained. "Unless of course, whoever it is just kills her, and then we can hand this back to Homicide."
Blair blew out a breath as he shook his head. Sometimes, Jim's cut and dried, unemotional evaluation of a situation left him speechless.
But, as it turned out, Jim was right.
The next day, in place of flowers, the desk was drenched in blood.
Sandburg wrinkled his nose as he preceded Jim into the office. The sickly sweet, slightly metallic stench was worse than the flowers had been. Jim, forewarned, had already dialed down his sense of smell. The Sentinel shook his head as he looked at what resembled an abattoir more than an executive's office. Blood was congealed on the desk and had drenched the carpet beneath it, turning the cool gray a muddy, reddish brown.
"Animal blood?" Blair asked, figuring it had to be. There hadn't been any corpses suspiciously drained of blood reported in the last few days.
"Maybe, more than likely," Ellison replied. "The lab will figure that out. And, I can see why there was no note this time…the message is pretty clear."
"Any other scents present?" Sandburg asked quietly.
Jim made a face as he enquired, "You mean besides the residual odour of the flowers, the overlay of cleaning fluid following yesterday's clean up or…"
But he paused as he tilted his head a little to the side, frowning in concentration.
"What have you got?" Sandburg asked.
"That cologne again," Ellison replied. Squinting a little, he described it, "A bit spicy, some wood tones…"
"A man's cologne?" Blair mused.
"Yeah, I think so, maybe, I'm not sure…and it doesn't smell cheap," Jim replied, shaking his head. "It's subtle, but it's the same thing I smelled yesterday. Doesn't necessarily mean anything though…there'd be any number of people in here with legitimate reason, cleaning up the mess from yesterday."
Shrugging as he looked around the office, Blair said with scarcely a hint of reluctance, "Guess we might as well have another chat with the Chancellor."
Jim's lips thinned, but he nodded and turned to lead the way out and, with a reassuring nod at Mina who had appeared to be more shook up by the blood than the flowers, he continued down the hall to the conference room, Blair on his heels.
Rapping on the door and receiving the imperious command to 'enter', they pushed the door open and found the Chancellor much as they had the day before, sitting at the conference table, surrounded by files…except she was somewhat paler, and Jim could detect the tremor in her hands. The woman was badly frightened but was still trying very hard not to show it.
"Ready to give us a little more information, Dr. Edwards?" he asked, his tone clearly a tad sarcastic.
Swallowing, she looked from Jim to Blair and back again, as if wondering what to say. Finally she replied, her voice stiff and a little hollow, "I'm afraid I still have no idea what this is about, though I'm prepared to acknowledge it seems extreme and may be more than a prank or simple vandalism."
"Uh huh," Jim grunted, moving forward to sit uninvited across the table from her. Blair followed his example and though her lips thinned, she didn't object. "Who would want to frighten you like this?" Jim asked then. "Who might have a reason to want to kill you?"
"I have no idea," she replied, looking away. "This is clearly the action of someone deranged."
"I won't argue that for now," Ellison replied dryly. Buckets of blood were a little over the top, even in his extensive experience of dealing with the twisted minds of psychotic or sociopathic murderers, let alone the common, every day, garden variety of people who killed for gain, revenge, or simple hate. "Who have you had run-ins with lately that have reacted strangely or bizarrely?"
She lifted her hands in an unconscious gesture of helplessness as she shook her head. "I'm sorry…I can't help you. I really have no idea who would do such a thing," she replied, still not making direct eye contact. She knew she had to deal with these two men, but she didn't have to like it.
"All right," Jim allowed, though he was monitoring her accelerated heart rate. "Who has a grudge against you? Anyone whose employment has been terminated recently?"
She shrugged. "You'll have to get that information from Administration. This is a large institution and I would have no idea of those kinds of details," she replied coldly.
"Has any professor been refused tenure recently?" Blair asked. "Or have you had any threats like this at home?"
Swallowing, her lips thinned with the necessity of having to acknowledge his presence. "Dr. Samuel Wiseman, in the Sociology Department was advised that he would not receive tenure, as was Dr. Abrihim Hussein in Physical Sciences and Dr. Andros Zamir in Engineering. None of them have met the requirements for publication to fulfill the conditions of their contracts," she replied with little expression and no evident regret for what were potentially devastating events in the lives of the academics. "And, no, I have had no threats of any nature at my home."
Blair flicked a look at Jim and caught the slight shaking of his head. She was lying again.
"Are you married, Dr. Edwards?" the detective asked.
"What does my personal life have to do with…" she objected, or tried to, but he cut in sharply.
"Most murders, or threats of murder, arise out of domestic situations," he advised her. "The question is relevant."
She blew out an irritated breath, her jaw tightening. "I'm presently living alone," she replied, shifting restlessly.
"Divorced? Separated?" he pushed.
"Separated," she snapped, but a faint blush of embarrassment betrayed her.
"For how long?" he demanded.
"Two weeks," she replied, looking away.
"What is your husband's name and where can we find him?" Jim asked, feeling as if he was pulling teeth.
"Martin Elridge," she replied. "I have no idea where he is living right now…somewhere in Cascade."
"Where does he work?" Jim asked, hoping that might give them a place to start.
"He's not employed," she replied with a sniff of distaste.
"Who might benefit from your death?" Blair asked then.
Startled, her gaze snapped to his and for a moment he saw astonishment, as if the question had surprised her, before the flat look returned. "What do you mean?" she snapped.
"Who is your beneficiary?" Blair elaborated patiently. "Or is there anyone who is after your position here at the University?"
Sighing, she again looked away. "My husband," she replied almost absently, as if unconcerned, and then she shrugged. "People don't kill other people to become the chancellor of a university, however much they might covet the position."
"Would your husband have keys to your office?" Sandburg asked.
"Possibly," she allowed, then shrugged again and shook her head. "If you think Martin is responsible for this…atrocity, you're wrong. He hasn't the initiative to be bothered," she told them, her tone dismissive and a little disgusted. But she bit her lip, as if wishing she could take back the harsh words and blushed again, almost as if she were embarrassed.
"Have there been any other strange occurrences here at the university in the last few weeks?" Blair asked then.
Frowning, wondering what that would have to do with anything, she stared into the distance as she thought about it. "There was a theft a few nights ago," she replied. "Some artifact from the Library…I'm not certain of the details."
"Are there any staff you've had personal confrontations with in the last few weeks?" Jim asked.
Another expression of distaste passed fleetingly across her face as she sighed again. "There was a janitor who made improper and inappropriate comments to me a week ago," she revealed grudgingly. "I reported it to Administration. They would have the details as I indicated he was to be suspended for disciplinary purposes."
"Do you know his name?" Jim asked.
"No, I'm afraid I don't recall," she replied with a slight shrug.
Jim sighed as he realized she was telling the truth. She'd instigated disciplinary measures against an employee that would likely impact on his income, and she couldn't be bothered to remember the man's name. Why was he not surprised?
When the flow of questions seemed to falter, she immediately moved to regain control of the interview. "If there's nothing else, I'm very busy," she informed them, dismissing them as she reached for a file even before they'd stood to leave.
"If anything else occurs to you, or if you hear from your husband, let us know," Jim said, his own voice now distinctly cool as they stood and left the conference room, not bothering to wait for any reply.
As they strode down the long corridors toward the exit, Blair flipped open his cell phone and called Administration, asking them to add the information on the suspended janitor to the package they were compiling, and then he called Security to ask for details of the recent theft. Once outside the building, they paused just to the side of the entrance, so as not to impede the constant traffic of students, professors and other staff in and out of the building. Rubbing the back of his neck, Ellison looked down at his partner.
"So, Chief, this is your old stomping ground…what do you suggest we do next?" Jim asked.
Blair stood a little hunched in his coat, his hands pushed into his pockets and he shivered a little against the chill November wind that blew in from the sea. His eyes narrowed, he stared into space for a moment, thinking about what he'd just learned. He frowned a little, not particularly enjoying the experience of being back on the University's grounds and having to force those mixed feelings away to focus on the case.
"Chief?" Jim prompted, cocking his head a little as he watched Sandburg 'process' the information.
Pulling his thoughts back, Blair looked up at his partner. "Security just told me that the artifact that was stolen was an ancient ceremonial sword from Macedonia."
"Uh huh," Jim muttered. "And that's relevant because…?"
Frowning, Blair replied slowly, as if still putting pieces together, "The mutilated flowers, the blood…they have certain ritualistic overtones. Destruction, symbols of mutilation and death…a sword used in sacrifices…I don't know, Jim…maybe it's nothing…"
"And maybe it's something else?" Ellison probed.
"Maybe it's meant to facilitate the cleansing of the spirit…" Blair murmured, still thinking about the incidents.
"Oh, that's great," Jim groaned. "You're saying we have a wacko on our hands."
Sandburg sighed, and then smiled a little wryly as he retorted, "Yeah, well, that's not exactly news, is it? Most people don't beat up on innocent flowers or dump a couple of gallons of blood over a desk. Still, it could be someone who only wants it to look like a ritualistic crime."
"Trying to confuse and mislead us?" Jim considered with a frown.
"Could be. We don't have enough information yet to know one way or the other," Sandburg allowed.
"But, whoever it is, it has to be someone who would know about these rituals, either to enact them because he believes in them or to create false trails," Ellison replied. "Right?"
"Uh huh," Blair agreed with a sigh. "But, that doesn't help much either, at this point. This is a University, Jim…there could be hundreds of people who would fit that profile."
"Hundreds is better than the thousands who study or work here, Junior," Jim noted, seeking some glimmer of hope in the gossamer threads that were beginning to emerge. "So, I repeat, where do we go next?"
"Let's meet with the three professors who have been refused tenure," Blair replied, moving down the steps, leading the way to the Physical Sciences building.
As they walked, Jim reviewed the notes he'd taken on his palm-sized pad and frowned. "Chief, does it maybe mean anything that each of these professors has an exotic sounding name?"
"You mean, like 'Sandburg'?" Blair muttered, "as in, is the lady or the institution racist?"
"Yeah, I guess that's what I'm wondering," Jim replied soberly, not having considered before that that might have been part of the reason for the Chancellor's animosity toward his partner…and not liking the idea at all.
Shrugging, Blair shook his head. "I doubt it, to tell you the truth. I never had any indication that my heritage ever entered into the equation. And I have to say, any faculty is going to be broadly representative of the world…it's the nature of academia. So, no, I don't think there is any racist subtext here, but it won't hurt to keep an ear open. Whether or not the decisions about tenure were ethnically or racially based, the guys who don't make the grade may ascribe discriminatory motives and act accordingly."
"This could get very messy," Jim observed wearily, reflecting that either racism or a bizarre, ritualized crime were disturbing but that both were beginning to emerge as distinct possibilities.
Thinking about the congealing blood in the Chancellor's office, Blair replied hollowly, "It already is, man."
Leaning into the sharp wind, they jogged between the two buildings and gratefully entered the warmth of the large Physical Sciences building. Immediately, Jim's nose wrinkled in response to the pervasive order of the various chemicals used in the labs.
"Dial it down, man," Blair murmured as they strode down the corridor to the reception desk. Getting the directions to Dr. Abrihim Hussein's office, they rode the elevator to the eighth floor. Fortunately, they found Dr. Hussein was available and were grateful they wouldn't have to track him down or wait until a class ended.
Knocking on the open door, Jim waited until the thin, austere, dark-haired professor looked up. Abe Hussein looked to be in his mid-thirties, pale and composed, as his gaze lifted from a journal he was studying and then he frowned slightly, not recognizing his visitors.
"Can I help you?" he asked, his voice warm and mellow, surprisingly at odds with his aesthetic appearance.
"I'm Detective Jim Ellison and this is my partner, Dr. Blair Sandburg, from Cascade Police Department. We'd like to ask you a few questions," Jim replied as he led the way into the cramped office, his gaze automatically taking in the shelves of books and specimens of rock.
"Police?" Dr. Hussein replied, obviously surprised, but Ellison detected no physical reaction of alarm, only confusion. The scholar's gaze shifted to Sandburg and recognition came into his eyes. "'Doctor?'" he repeated. "I hadn't heard that you had completed your studies. Congratulations."
Blair nodded in acknowledgement. The difficulty with having one's life paraded in front of the world by the media was that perfect strangers seemed to know more about him than he knew about them. It was disconcerting and he hadn't yet gotten used to it.
"Thank you," Sandburg replied, but then briskly turned the conversation to the business at hand. "Have you heard about the incidents in the Chancellor's office?" he asked.
Nodding, his expression shifting to impersonal concern, Dr. Hussein replied, "Yes. It's a tasty bit of gossip for the perpetual rumour mill, as I'm sure you know. But what has that to do with me?"
"We're looking into any situation that might lend itself to resentment toward the Chancellor," Jim explained. "And we've learned that you have recently been denied tenure…"
Dr. Hussein looked astonished for a moment, and then surprised them by laughing outright. "You think because I wasn't granted tenure that I've began a campaign of terror against Edwards?" Shaking his head, he waved them to sit in the chairs on the far side of his desk. "No…I harbour no personal ill will toward her. While I might decry the arcane requirement to publish as more important than the work one does in the lecture hall, the rules are quite clear. The decision came as no real surprise."
"You seem to be taking the decision well," Jim observed mildly.
"Yes, well, if I had wanted tenure badly enough, I had only to publish more to achieve it," Dr. Hussein waved off the issue, clearly comfortable with the decisions he'd made. "The truth is, I have acquired another position with the federal government, in the Department of the Environment."
"Great," Blair replied with unfeigned enthusiasm, as it seemed clear that the scholar was pleased about the change to come, instinctively liking the man and his easy candour. "When will you start…and will you be going to Washington?"
"I'm taking a month after this term ends, and then I'll be moving to a lab in Texas," Hussein replied. With a slight smile, he added, "I'm looking forward to a warmer and drier climate."
Shivering a little in mock envy, Blair grinned as he replied, "Well, I can understand the allure. Congratulations. I hope your new assignment works out well for you."
Glancing at Jim, who nodded and stood, Blair followed his lead and they took their leave.
Back outside, they found the day had darkened as heavy clouds driven by the wind moved in from the sea.
"Looks like rain," Blair sniffed, leading the way to the Engineering Building next door. Unconsciously, he pulled his collar up against the damp chill.
"Yep," Jim agreed. "He seemed to be giving us the straight goods, Chief. I didn't pick up on any signs of anxiety or lying."
"I gathered that," Blair replied. "He was right, you know. The rules around tenure are no mystery and it's up to the academic to determine whether they want to remain in a university environment enough to juggle both the research and publication requirements along with the teaching load. It would be surprising, really, for any of these guys to take the decision personally or feel it unfair."
Jim nodded as they loped up the steps and inside. Following directions from the posted information on faculty and their office locations just inside the entry, they made their way to the second floor. They were just in time to catch Dr. Andros Zamir as he left his office to head to a class.
"Dr. Zamir?" Jim asked, moving in front of the short, stocky man. "Would you have a few minutes? I'm Detective Ellison from Cascade PD and this is my partner, Dr. Blair Sandburg. We've a few questions…"
"I'm sorry," the swarthy man replied briskly. "I'm just heading downstairs to give a lecture. Perhaps you could make an appointment."
"We'll walk with you," Blair interjected. "It's about the incidents of vandalism in the Chancellor's Office. We're following up on anyone who might have a grudge…"
"Really?" Zamir replied a little coldly as they strode down the corridor toward the stairwell. "You'll have a busy time of it. I suppose you wonder if I'm aggrieved because of the decision about not being granted tenure."
They both noted the hostility that seemed to seethe beneath the professor's cold hauteur. "Are you aggrieved?" Jim asked, his voice a little tight as he monitored heart rate and breathing. But, there was no anxiety here, no sudden spike at learning the purpose of their mission to speak with him.
Shrugging, Zamir turned to hustle down the stairs. "Not particularly," he replied.
"You indicated there might be a lot of people with a grudge against the Chancellor," Blair suggested.
Pausing on the landing, Zamir looked back up at them and nodded crisply. "The woman is a harridan, cold as a Siberian wasteland, pitiless as a rock and has as much charm as a snake. She is not well liked, and respected only for the position she holds. There are many people who I would think have 'grudges' of one sort or another against her…yourself included, if I'm not mistaken."
Blair's expression flattened, but he didn't rise to the bait. "So, why don't you have a 'grudge', then?"
Turning to head down the last flight of marble steps, Zamir replied, "Because I have a much more lucrative and hopefully satisfying post awaiting me. I haven't much enjoyed this little sojourn into academia. Too many students are disappointing and research for research's sake is…tedious. I'm a builder…I'm going back to building things."
"Where will you be going?" Jim asked. "And when will you be leaving?"
Turning into the corridor, Zamir replied, "I have accepted a position with an engineering firm, Gatling Consulting International, and I'll be taking charge of a project in Kuwait as soon as this interminable term ends. Now, if that's all…this is the lecture hall and I have to try to instill some knowledge into these thick skulls."
"That'll be all for now, thank you, Dr. Zamir," Jim replied, his expression and voice carefully neutral.
Blair's eyes were flashing a little though, at the disparaging tone the engineer had used toward his students. As the man disappeared into the lecture hall, Sandburg murmured, "No wonder they aren't learning much…with an attitude like that…"
"Easy, professor," Jim soothed. "Not everyone gets the same charge out of teaching as you did."
"Yeah," Blair acknowledged, turning away, his eyes dark for a moment with the sorrow of what he'd given up.
Sensing Blair's shift in mood, Jim's lips thinned and he sighed, kicking himself mentally for his last observation. Sandburg had never once complained about what he'd given up…hadn't ever really even spoken of what it had meant to him after those few moments in the hospital shortly after his press conference. But Ellison knew that neither of them had been overly dramatic when they'd each acknowledged that Sandburg had given up his life, professionally speaking. And Ellison hadn't lived with Sandburg for more than four years without realizing how very much Blair had loved teaching.
"No love lost between him and the Chancellor," the detective observed, to change the subject.
"No," Blair sighed. "But it didn't sound like he'd waste any time, or risk his own interests, by harassing her, either."
"True enough," Jim agreed as they headed back outside and into the icy blast of a rain squall. Still, he thought, Zamir clearly detested the Chancellor and had been quick to shift attention from himself to Sandburg. Emotions and intellect were often out of sync, as Jim well knew from personal experience. Intellectually, Zamir might be fully inclined to wash his hands of a bad business and move on as quickly as possible. Emotionally, he might want to exact a certain retribution before he went.
But, retribution for what? The man clearly didn't find any personal satisfaction in the university environment. It was a long way from believing the Chancellor was a harridan to pouring blood all over her desk or threatening her life.
The Sociology Department was located in Hargrove Hall along with her sister science, Anthropology. Since that was far on the other side of the grounds, they loped back to Jim's truck rather than brave the elements there and back.
Dr. Samuel Wiseman, an attractive man in his early thirties, looked up from the papers he was grading when Blair knocked on the door of his office.
"Blair!" Wiseman exclaimed, surprised to see the former grad student. They hadn't known each other well, but the close relationship between the two departments had meant that they had run into each other several times over the two years that Wiseman had been at Rainier. "Come in!"
"Sam," Sandburg acknowledged. "This is my partner, Detective Jim Ellison with the Cascade PD. Do you have a minute? We've got some questions we'd like to ask."
"Questions?" Sam repeated, waving them to seats.
Looking around, Jim thought this office looked like Sandburg's old office. Books filling the cases and overflowing onto the window ledge, desk and floor. Papers stacked all over the desk, along with journals and computer CDs and disks. The single painting on the wall near the window was a strong, evocative study of a group of homeless people hunched over a fire in a barrel under an expressway.
"Yeah," Blair elaborated. "We've been assigned to look into the vandalism in the Chancellor's Office."
"Oh, lucky you," Sam snorted, shaking his head. "Her ladyship must be livid."
Blair gave a wry half smile as he shrugged in silent agreement. "Sam, we're checking into any situation that might lend itself to a grudge or a desire for vengeance."
Sobering, Wiseman sat back as he studied Blair and then Jim. "This has to do with the tenure issue, right? You wonder if I resent the decision?"
"Do you?" Jim asked.
"Well, I'm not all that happy about it," Wiseman replied with a slight frown. "Though it wasn't, truly, a surprise, I suppose. Time just got away from me. I was so busy with preparing the lectures, coaching the kids, guiding them on assignments…well, I just didn't spend enough time doing my own research." He blushed a little as he looked away and admitted, "And, well, I've been seeing someone this past year…and I've spent whatever free time I've had with her."
Blair nodded in commiseration. He knew how that could happen, how relentless the schedule could be…how much time original research took. If one didn't write easily or well, the crafting of an article could be painstakingly frustrating. And he knew what it meant to devote all your spare time to someone else. "What are you going to do, Sam?"
Shrugging, Wiseman shifted a little to gaze out the window at the dark, rainy day. "I'm not sure, to be honest," he answered quietly. "Not a lot of call for sociologists these days outside of the University. I've considered appealing the decision."
"On what grounds?" Sandburg asked, knowing those grounds were limited.
Sighing, Sam lifted a hand dejectedly as he turned his gaze back to Sandburg's empathic eyes. "I don't really have any, I know that. But I'm a hell of a good teacher, Blair, and my students have started a protest to try to keep me. That means a lot to me, and suggests that maybe I ought to do something to earn that support… to warrant reconsideration. So, I've written up a couple of articles and submitted them for publication. Nothing earthshaking, more a literature review. But, they've been accepted, so I rather hope the powers that be will take that as a good sign and give me another year before turfing me out. I'd really rather not have to move away just now. The woman I'm hoping will marry me won't consider leaving Cascade right now because of family obligations."
Jim saw Sandburg nod, accepting the statement. "Well, you wouldn't be the first to win a reprieve because of student lobbying. I wish you luck," Blair replied. "But…how do you feel about the Chancellor's role in all this?"
Grunting a little at the memory, Sam shook his head. "The decision isn't hers alone…she's just the figurehead, really. But…I have to say, she is one cold piece of work. I don't hold her responsible…it was my responsibility to fulfill the conditions, but I have to admit that I find her manner obnoxious."
"Obnoxious enough to dump torn up flowers over her desk?" Jim asked. Somehow, he had difficulty picturing Sam Wiseman spilling blood.
"No," Sam replied sharply, then once again visibly forced himself to calm down. "No. I'm hoping for a stay of execution here. I'm not going to do anything that could risk my chances," he said sincerely.
Jim glanced at Blair, saw him nod again, and decided they'd gotten as much as they were going to get. Standing, he said, "Well, thank you for your candour, Dr. Wiseman. Like Blair, I wish you luck."
"Thanks," Sam murmured, then found a smile as he turned to Blair, who had also stood. "Blair, I'm glad things worked out for you. I really am."
"I appreciate that, Sam," Blair replied, reaching out to shake the man's hand, and then they took their leave.
Their route out of the building took them past Sandburg's old office. Though he didn't say anything, Blair stiffened and averted his eyes, as he had when they'd passed it on the way in. Ellison picked up on his elevated heart rate and sudden tension, realizing belatedly but with a pang of sorrow how hard it must be for Sandburg to be back at Rainier after all that had happened, let alone here in his old building. Silently, he laid a comforting hand on his partner's shoulder as they moved past the office and on along the corridor.
Any number of people recognized Blair, waving to him, stopping to say a quick 'hello' and congratulating him on the receipt of his doctorate, while casting quick appraising looks at Ellison. Everyone, it seemed, had seen Ellison's news conference a month ago, or had read about in the newspapers since, and those who had treated Blair like a pariah only two months before now seemed eager to pretend they'd never believed a word of his own press conference. Ellison was glad his best friend was so warmly welcomed, but it was a little like running a gauntlet, for both of them.
Sandburg didn't say anything as he got into the truck and fastened his seatbelt, but his gaze was locked on the fountain, not far from where Jim had parked. Jim could see the pallor and the haunted look in Sandburg's eyes and knew that however much Blair claimed that he was alright with all that had happened, that it was all in the past now and over, that he was not being entirely honest. The pain of it all was still there.
"Are you okay, Chief?" he asked quietly as he started up the engine.
"Yeah, sure, I'm just fine," Blair replied, his tone clipped and tinged with sarcasm.
Ellison frowned in concern but wasn't really sure what to say. Finally, as he put the truck into gear, he murmured, "I'm sorry."
Sandburg seemed to deflate somehow at those words, his gaze leaving the fountain as he cut Ellison a quick look, reading the sorrow and regret in the line of the tight jaw and the look in Jim's eyes. Sighing, he gave a short, sharp nod of acknowledgement and then pushed his hair back and sat a little straighter, his throat tight with his own grief at what he'd given up. It was the teaching that hurt most, the loss of the opportunity to influence how the students thought, what they believed to be truths, what excited their passions. But he also missed the interaction with colleagues like Sam Wiseman, who shared his love of learning, understood the drive to explore ideas. Looking out at the campus as they drove past, Blair bit his lip, then tightened his own jaw. Regret was a waste of time and emotional energy.
"Do you want to stop by the Admin Office and see if they have the documents ready for pickup?" Blair asked, returning his attention to the case at hand.
"Good idea," Jim agreed as he took a cutoff back to the far side of the university grounds.
Back at their desks, they opened the files they'd gotten from Mina and from the Administration Office. Before delving into the paper, Jim called Motor Vehicle Licensing to get a lead on Martin Elridge and then put an APB out on his car.
Mina had been right about the numbers of complaints that flowed routinely into the Chancellor's Office. It could take weeks to follow them all up, and both knew the chances of actually finding out anything relevant was low. Sorting the paper into piles of roses (very few, as it turned out), and complaints for a variety of reasons, such as disgruntled students or staff, miffed parents, those with a more than usual tone of threat and 'anonymous', they found the 'anonymous' pile had the most interesting complaints, but insufficient information to even begin investigating them.
The files from Administration at least contained the information on the janitor who had been suspended because of the Chancellor's complaint, though her concerns about his behaviour weren't the only infractions on his file.
"Jeb Jones doesn't seem to enjoy his work much," Blair observed dryly.
"No, he doesn't, at least not from the look of his attendance records, warnings about being late and discipline for poor work," Jim agreed as he stood to pull his jacket from the hook behind his desk. "But, we've got his address, so let's go get his side of the story."
"Old witch," Jeb Jones snorted, when they asked him about the incident leading to his suspension.
They'd found him in his rundown trailer in the seedy trailer park on the edge of town. A sallow-skinned, almost emaciated man on the far side of fifty, disheveled and smelling like he hadn't bathed in a while, he'd greeted them with a beer in his hand. Obviously not his first brew of the day. With a dramatic sigh, he'd waved them inside out of the rain and vaguely motioned toward the worn and none too clean chairs in the cramped living space. Deciding that the chairs looked like they might harbour an interesting variety of other life forms, both elected to remain standing.
"Would you care to clarify that?" Jim asked with a sniff and a grimace. The place stank of unwashed dishes, garbage and old sweat.
Waving a negligent hand, Jeb slurred a little as he replied, "She's the Queen Bee that one. Uptight, snooty, better than ordinary folks, she acts like she needs a good man to sort her out, if ya get my drift."
Jim and Blair exchanged looks, and Blair took up the questioning. "You didn't happen to offer your services, did you, Mr. Jones?"
Snickering drunkenly, then giving them a sly gap-toothed smirk, he nodded. "Tol' her I could warm her up some…take the frost out of 'er britches."
"I see," Blair replied, his lips compressing in an effort not to giggle at the outrageous remarks from this unlikely Don Juan as he rolled his eyes toward Jim. Quelling his admittedly inappropriate flash of humour, Sandburg reflected to himself that the situation really wasn't amusing. The man was offensive and the Chancellor had been well within her rights to take exception to his insults. Blair might not like the woman, but she was as entitled to simple courtesy as was anyone else.
Biting his lip for a moment, Jim sighed and nodded his unspoken agreement to the observation in his partner's eyes. They were wasting their time here. The man might be obnoxious, but he didn't seem to have the intelligence or the capacity to organize something as complicated as the vandalism in the Chancellor's office. Nor, despite his words, did he seem to bear any heated grudge.
"Thanks for you time, Mr. Jones," Ellison said. "We'll let ourselves out."
They stood a moment in the rain, letting it wash away the cloying sense of filth they'd felt inside the trailer.
"I can see why the Chancellor objected to his remarks," Jim observed dryly.
"Yeah," Blair sighed. "She had every right to insist he be disciplined. His remarks were 'way out of line, man."
Shrugging against the bad weather, made weary by their lack of progress, Jim led the way back to the truck. "It's late. Why don't we call it a day?" he suggested.
"Works for me," Blair agreed, equally discouraged. They were getting nowhere, and they both knew it.
She stood a moment, frozen, one foot on the step up to her front door, the other still on the walk, as her mind tried to make sense of what she was seeing. Then the horror of it burst like a bubble in her mind, sending a tidal wave of revulsion through her body. She twisted away, one hand gripping the ornate, wrought iron railing, the other pressed over her mouth as she bent forward, gagging as she fought the roiling nausea that threatened to overwhelm her. Her breath tight in her chest, she lurched back to the sanctuary of her car, and once inside, locked the door. Trembling, striving for control, blinking back the tears that threatened, she reached for her handbag and rummaged through it, her movements jerky with panic and the feeling of having been violated.
Finally, she found the small card and her cold fingers gripped it like a lifeline, but she paused, hating to have to use it. Hating to admit to the weakness, the fear. Taking a breath, she pulled her cell phone from the bag and punched in the number.
Her mouth dry, grimacing against the sour taste of bile in the back of her throat, she pushed shaking fingers through her hair as she listened to the distant ringing. Finally, her call was answered.
"Detective Ellison?" Chancellor Edwards choked out, her voice tight, close to a sob. "This is Josephine Edwards. Please…would you come to my residence immediately? 11 Cromwell Circle."
They found her huddled in her car, shivering but not from the chill damp of the early dusk. When she saw that they had arrived, she opened the car door but didn't get out of it. "The front door…" she whispered, gesturing distractedly toward the house.
Jim frowned as he shot a look at Sandburg. She was ghostly pale and obviously in shock. "Wait here," he told her, unnecessarily, as it was clear she had no intention of going with them.
The two of them crossed the walk, stopping when the motion sensitive light flashed on, illuminating the horror in harsh detail.
"My God," Sandburg breathed, swallowing hard as his eyes snapped away reflexively. Taking a breath, he looked back, forcing himself to take in the details.
Silent, his jaw tight, Jim's eyes narrowed as he took in the small, mutilated corpses of innumerable headless rodents dumped in front of and into the entryway, the front door unlocked and hanging slightly open. There was no sign of forced entry, no splinter of wood, no scratches around the burnished brass lock. "I'm going to check around back," he muttered. "Wait here."
A few minutes later, Jim appeared at the entrance, having moved through the darkened house. Opening the door wider, he told his partner, "The window in the backdoor was smashed, so that's how they got in. The heads are in a pile on the kitchen floor." Opening his cell phone, he called for a crime scene team to come and do their thing. Frowning, he again looked at the mutilated bodies. There was no blood…they'd been killed somewhere else and dumped here long after they were dead.
"Jim, this isn't a good sign," Blair murmured, shaking his head, not liking the direction the various acts of escalating vandalism were going.
Ellison shot his partner a hard look, caught by the tone. "I agree that it's nasty, but what do you think it means?"
"Ritual exorcism," Sandburg replied, his voice taut as he swallowed again in revulsion. Looking up at his partner, he said quietly, "I understand what this means, Jim…and her life is very definitely in danger."
"Care to explain it to me?" Ellison grunted, impatient.
"Not here. We need to get her away from here," Blair replied, looking back toward the Chancellor who had gotten out of her car and was leaning against it for support, her arms crossed tightly over her chest. "She can't stay here…not alone, anyway. Whoever is doing this has killed…repeatedly," he added with a glance at the headless rodents. "The Chancellor could well be next."
"Why don't you go talk to her while I check out the rest of the house," Jim suggested, turning back into the darkness.
Blair nodded and turned to walk back to the Chancellor. Her eyes were wide and dark with fear, and he could see her trembling. Instinctively, he reached out to lay a strong, reassuring hand on her shoulder to steady her. "Do you have someone in town you can go to stay with?" he asked with quiet gentleness.
Swallowing, she shook her head, not meeting his eyes. "No," she said tightly, fighting to keep her voice steady. "My family is back East. Martin's family is in San Francisco."
"Okay," Blair replied, keeping his voice steady and calming. "We'll take you to stay in a hotel for a few days, until we can sort this out. Once Jim is done, you can go in to pack some things…"
Shuddering, she shook her head. Taking a breath, fighting the sense of panic but unable to overcome it, she almost whimpered, "I can't…I can't go in there…"
"Easy," Sandburg soothed. "You're all right. Jim's checking the house to make sure it's safe…"
"I can't…" she protested again, her tone escalating in evidence of her fear.
"Okay, okay," he reassured her. "I'll get some things for you from the house. Okay?"
She lowered her head, hunched into herself, hating her inability to just deal with this…hating even more her need for help from this man, a man she despised. The thought of him in her bedroom, rifling through her closet and dresser…but she couldn't bring herself to face that mess on the steps again, not now, not tonight. Finally, beaten and humiliated, she nodded jerkily.
Not wanting to leave her alone, now that he thought he understood what the vandalism meant, Blair waited with her until Jim came back out of the house. Just as he came down the walk toward them, the crime scene van pulled up on the street. Blair realized that his partner must have called them from inside the house.
"Jim, will you wait with Dr. Edwards while I go in to get some clothes and stuff for her…and then we'll get her settled in a hotel. We might want to call Simon, to arrange someone to stay with her…" Blair suggested quietly to his partner, though his concerned gaze remained on the shaken woman.
"I'll call," Jim agreed, trusting his partner's instincts. Blair flashed him a grateful look, glad that Jim wasn't demanding an explanation of his theory just yet, and then he moved away, back to the house. Skirting around the macabre piles of bloodless corpses, he disappeared inside.
"Can you tell me what happened?" Jim asked Dr. Edwards. "Did you see anyone lurking around, any strangers, when you drove along the street earlier?"
Shaking her head, she sniffed, then replied, "No. I didn't see anyone. I just parked and went to the door. When the light came on, I saw…" her voice caught as she flinched at the memory. Swallowing, she continued in a breathless rush, "The door was open and I was afraid someone might still be in the house. I…I just came back to the car, locked myself inside, and called you…"
"You did the right thing, Dr. Edwards," Jim assured her. "Why don't you get back into your car? It's chilly and this drizzle isn't helping you. I need to talk to my colleagues for a minute."
Nodding numbly, she climbed back into her vehicle while Jim went to meet the technicians.
Blair had moved through the large elegant home to the staircase and upstairs he quickly found the Chancellor's bedroom. Finding a suitcase in one of the spacious, 'his and her' walk-in closets, he opened it on the bed and then went back to the closet to pull out a couple of suits and several blouses, and then added a terrycloth bathrobe. He went back for slacks and two sweaters for casual wear. His lips twisting in distaste at having to invade her privacy, he moved to the dresser and found lingerie and a soft woolen nightgown. She was in shock and would need something to keep her warm that night. In the ensuite bath, he found shampoo, conditioner, make-up, her hairbrush and a comb. He took a quick look through the medicine cabinet, not finding any prescription medication, but added a bottle of aspirin to his armful of supplies. He neatly packed everything quickly, put a pair of slippers along with shoes to match the clothes he had chosen in the outside pouch of the bag and zipped it closed. He paused for a moment, gazing at her jewelry case, but wasn't prepared to rifle it for all the appropriate accessories. The pearls she was wearing would have to do.
A few minutes after he'd gone inside, Blair emerged with a suitcase in his hand. When Jim met him on the walk, Sandburg said, "I think I should probably drive her…I don't think she's up to driving herself, but she'll likely want her car in the morning."
"Fine," Jim agreed. "I talked to Simon after I gave the guys from the crime scene team their assignment for the night. They'll secure the house when they're done. Simon said he'd arrange a room at the Marriott by the University, and he'll have a uniform assigned to her protection for at least the next day or so."
"Good," Blair nodded, relieved. "I'll see you at the hotel," he called over his shoulder as he walked across the grass to the Chancellor's car.
He put the bag in the back seat, then asked Chancellor Edwards for her keys. She hesitated a moment before handing them to him as she slid across the seat, allowing him to enter the vehicle. Huddled away from him, she stared into the night as he started up the engine and backed the car out of the drive. On the way, he explained the arrangements that had been made for her, and she nodded to indicate that she'd heard him.
The ice of shock gave way to a feeling of helpless despair as they drove across the city. Sniffing, she brushed an errant tear from her cheek and shook her head, unable to understand what was happening. "Why?" she whispered forlornly, as if to herself, but she turned her gaze to him, as if he might have the answer.
"I don't know," Blair replied quietly, and then continued with as much confidence as he could muster, "but, we'll find out…and we'll keep you safe." She shivered a little, rubbing her arms with stiff, cold hands. After a moment, Sandburg asked, "Have you received any other threats at home?"
She closed her eyes and swallowed, but her resistance to the probing about her personal life, and their insistence that what had happened in her office was directed at her and not simply at her position, had eroded. Sighing, she nodded wearily. "Some phone calls…no words, just a mad shrieking. And an unsigned, typed note on a scrap of paper in the mailbox."
"What did the note say?" Blair asked. "Do you still have it?"
Shaking her head, she murmured, "I threw it away, thought it was nonsense. It said…it said that I deserved to die and that if things didn't change, I would. I didn't know what it meant. Change what? I don't understand."
"When did you get this note?" Sandburg asked.
"Last week," she replied, her eyes staring sightlessly at the dark streets they were passing along. "The phone calls have been coming for two weeks…every night now, for two weeks."
"A man or a woman's voice?" Blair asked.
She shook her head and shrugged. "I don't know," she murmured. "Just…just a terrible hoarse screaming…"
Blair called room service for a pot of tea and a bowl of soup for her as soon as they arrived in the hotel room while Jim encouraged her to take the next day off work. Too distraught to fight with him about it, she agreed to call in ill the next day, and not to tell anyone where she was. Relieved for the moment to believe she was safe, they left her under the observation of the uniformed cop and headed home.
As they drove away from the hotel parking lot, Jim asked, "You want to tell me what you think is going down here, Chief? You said something about an 'exorcism'? What's that about? Do we need to call in a priest?"
Blair blew out a breath and shook his head. Pushing his hair behind his ears, he swiveled in his seat to face his partner. "No…it's not that kind of exorcism," he said, biting his lip. "It's like…it's like someone is trying to scare a djinn out of the Chancellor…."
"A what? What's a djinn?" Jim cut in with a frown. "You mean like some kind of genie?"
Sighing, Blair wondered where to begin explaining his theory, knowing it sounded far-fetched. "Some cultures believe that there are invisible beings, called djinn, who were created around the same time as man was created. Normally, they live in their existence and we live in ours, with no contact between us. But, sometimes, evil djinn take over a human body, like a demon. When that happens, they need to be exorcised. The mutilated flowers…all the heads torn off. The blood. The headless corpses. The stolen artifact…a ceremonial sword, remember? From Macedonia? The way to exorcise a djinn is either to scare it out of the body…or to decapitate the human who has been taken over."
Rolling his eyes, Jim snorted. "Don't tell me you believe this stuff, Chief."
Leaning back in his seat, Blair shook his head. "It's not a matter of what I believe, Jim," he replied quietly. "It's what our perp believes that scares me."
"Demon?" Simon growled as he pulled his unlit cigar from his mouth. "You're saying the Chancellor is possessed by a demon, or djinn, or whatever you called it?"
Blair couldn't help but grin at Simon's aggrieved tone as he shook his head. "That's NOT what I said and you know it," he replied with exaggerated and amused patience. "I SAID that it looks like someone is trying to scare a djinn out of the Chancellor, and failing to do so, may try more drastic action."
"Why is it always something weird with you, Sandburg?" Simon complained, shaking his head. "Why couldn't this be something simple and straightforward? Like an angry employee or an estranged husband?"
"Well, it still could be," Jim allowed, rubbing the back of his head. "The rest of it could just be an elaborate way of distracting us…but that doesn't mean she isn't in real danger."
"Yeah, I know," Simon replied, tightening his jaw. "Have you found the husband yet?"
"I got a call from Traffic just before coming in here," Jim replied. "They've spotted his Lexus at the Hilton. We're going to head over there now."
"Lexus? The Hilton?" Simon reflected. "Doesn't sound like the guy is hurting for cash."
Jim and Blair nodded in agreement and headed out. "We'll keep you posted, Sir," Jim called back over his shoulder.
Simon shrugged and reached for a file from the stack on his desk, wondering if other captains in other mid-sized American cities had to deal with the kinds of craziness that seemed to routinely occur in Cascade. "Not likely," he muttered to himself. "They don't have Sandburg…"
"Mr. Elridge?" Jim asked the tall and definitely dapper man who opened the door of the Presidential Suite, and held up his badge. "I'm Detective Ellison, Cascade Police Department, and this is my partner, Dr. Blair Sandburg. We'd like to ask you a few questions."
"Police?" Elridge replied, obviously startled. Though he looked confused about why they wanted to speak with him, he opened the door and waved them in. "I've heard of the two of you," he confessed, the ghost of a smile playing upon his lips. "Please, have a seat. How can I help you?"
Jim and Blair moved into the airy and spacious, well appointed salon, with a view out over the harbour and the channel islands beyond. Elridge followed them into the room and moved toward a side table that held a silver pot of coffee and some fine porcelain cups. "Would you like a cup of coffee? Or, there's juice in the kitchen, if you'd prefer," he offered.
"Thank you," Blair replied. "Coffee would be great." He studied the fit, sun-bronzed middle-aged man who was dressed in a freshly pressed, pristine white shirt with the cuffs folded back and well-tailored navy, silk trousers. Martin Eldrige's thick gray hair was short and neatly styled, and there were laugh lines around his eyes and lips.
It was hard to imagine him as the husband of Chancellor Edwards.
Once the beverages were taken care of, Elridge sat down on a comfortable chair across from them, a look of inquiry in his eyes. "Why did you wish to see me?" he asked again.
"Mr. Elridge, are you aware that your wife has received some disturbing threats on her life?" Jim asked.
The bland look of casual interest was chased away by an expression of clear and apparently sincere concern, as Elridge exclaimed, "Josey? Threatened? Is she all right?"
"Yes, she's fine," Jim assured him, certain that the man was honestly worried about her welfare. Either that, or he was a very good actor.
"What's happened?" Elridge demanded. "How can I help you?"
"There has been some ugly vandalism in her office and residence," Blair shared, "as well as a couple of notes threatening her life and some disturbing phone calls at night. We understand the two of you separated a few weeks ago…"
"And you're wondering if I'm responsible," Elridge interjected, shaking his head. "I assure you, I'd never do anything to hurt Josey."
"You seem to genuinely care for her, Mr. Eldridge," Blair observed. "So, uh, why are you separated?"
The urbane man smiled a little sadly. "Well, it's something we do from time to time. I get weary of her passionate dedication to Rainier and she tires of my exhortations that life is short and meant to be a little fun from time to time. So…I wander off to amuse myself or just to get away from the endless rounds of fundraising and schmoozing with senior professors, alumnae, donors and the like. I find it all very tedious after a while, but she thrives on it. Lives for that institution, frankly…worries over it and cherishes it like a child."
Looking up at his two 'guests', he added wryly, "It's the two of you who led to our latest round of disagreements, if you want to know the truth. The nonsense over whether or not you are a Sentinel, Detective Ellison, the embarrassment that whole debacle brought to the university, the threat of a possible lawsuit being initiated by you, Dr. Sandburg, over unjust dismissal and the negative press that would occasion…well, it all worried her greatly and she just kept going on and on about it until I'd grown tired of her preoccupation and inability to just see it for what it was. A situation that, frankly, had very little to do with the University and everything to do with your job in protecting the citizens of this city and your private life. I told her to leave it, to let it go and stop fixating on it all and she told me that if I ever bestirred myself to do something worthwhile, I'd understand what it felt like if it was ever threatened."
Taken aback, not having had any idea of how they'd figured into the Chancellor's private life and marriage, Jim and Blair couldn't hide their astonishment at his candour.
Chuckling a little at their discomfiture, Elridge took a sip of his coffee, and then continued mildly, "Oh, I expect you see her as a bit of a harridan. Many people do, I'm afraid. She's like a bear protecting her cubs whenever anyone threatens the greater glory of Rainier University. She doesn't mean to be unfair or unfeeling, but Josey's a mathematician, brilliant actually, but not really adept at handling the emotional side of relationships." Sighing, he shrugged as he added, "She has to work hard at dealing with people, which is what her job is largely about these days, but she perseveres because she believes in the institution, in the importance of what Rainier is, as a place of learning and research. I know she was harsh with you, Dr. Sandburg, and I regret that, but I assure you, it was never personal."
Ellison and Sandburg exchanged a quick look, both thinking that this was certainly a different perspective on a woman they, and most everyone they knew, thought of as a witch, at best.
Turning his gaze back to Martin Elridge, Blair offered quietly, "I'm sorry to know we've been a disruptive influence in your life."
"Oh, if it wasn't you, it would have been something else," Elridge graciously waved off the apology. "Like I say, we do this little dance from time to time. It gives us breathing room and a quiet time to reflect on the fact that we do miss one another's company. I shouldn't begrudge her passions. She does good work and makes a difference. And…she's right. I've never had to work for a living," he continued with an engaging grin. "Inherited wealth, you see…and an inclination to enjoy it rather than pour the hours of my life into work that might well be satisfying, but would also distract me with worries, as her work distracts her. I've always believed that it helps a relationship if one spouse can afford to focus their time and attention on their partner. If both of you have demanding outside interests, then, well, before long, you can drift apart. In almost any relationship, if it is profound, it will have tensions and at one time or another, one must give more than the other if it is to survive. I love my wife, gentlemen…I'm not willing to risk my marriage for the sake of some passing satisfaction in one career or another. Luckily, I don't have to."
Again, they found themselves at a loss for words. Nor did they need to look at one another to acknowledge that his words had hit home.
Wondering, however, if they were just getting an elaborate snow job, Jim asked, "If you wouldn't mind, I need to know where you've been the last few days and nights and if anyone can confirm your activities."
"I've been in San Francisco with my sister and her husband since a week last Monday…just got back last night," Elridge replied with no hesitation. "I can give you their names and number and they can provide you with the names of others that we saw for dinner, or the theatre, this past week."
"Thank you," Jim replied. "I'll take that information now, if you don't mind."
"Of course," Elridge murmured as he stood and moved to the well-crafted desk in the corner. Flipping through an appointment book, he extracted a card and turned to hand it to Jim. "Here are their names and contact information," he said.
Standing, Jim took the card and slipped it into his shirt pocket. "Well, I guess that's all we need. Thank you for your cooperation."
But Elridge wasn't finished with them yet. "No, wait, please…is Josey in any real danger, do you think?" he asked. "There are always some who take offense to what her work demands…"
"I don't want to worry you unnecessarily," Jim replied, rubbing his chin, "but we are taking the threats very seriously. We have her under protective supervision."
"At home?" Elridge asked. "I'll call her as soon as you leave."
"No, not at home," Blair replied. "I'm sorry, but we can't reveal her location just now. I'm sure you understand."
Elridge paused for a moment, clearly disturbed that he wouldn't be able to call his wife immediately. "Would you tell her that I'm worried about her, and ask her to call me?" he asked, sounding a little lost.
"We'll let her know," Jim assured him as they made their way out.
As the elevator door closed, Sandburg glanced up at Jim. "Was all that for real? I mean did you pick up any indication that he was lying?"
"Nope," Jim replied, pinching the bridge of his nose. "One more possible suspect just came off the list. As unlikely as it seems, that guy really does love her. He was shocked to hear about the threats, more worried still to know they were serious enough for us to assign protection."
"We're getting nowhere on this case," Sandburg sighed dejectedly as he leaned against the elevator wall, his hands stuffed in his pockets.
"Yeah, I know," Ellison murmured in disgust as the doors opened and he led the way through the busy lobby to the exit. "We'll have to go back over that 'roses and thorns' file…"
When they got back to Major Crimes, they found that the lab analysis on the blood had come back. Jim flipped through the report and then froze a moment before looking up at Sandburg with a frown. "It was human blood," he said, unable to keep the surprise and sense of revulsion from his voice.
"What? On the desk?" Blair demanded, reaching for the file to read it for himself. Mumbling as he scanned the document, he noted, "Various types…O positive predominately. It's the most common, the 'universal donor'," he reflected, as if it mattered. Putting the folder on Jim's desk, he turned to his partner as he asked, "Where would anyone get that much human blood and we wouldn't have heard about it?"
Making a face, Jim snorted, "Well, it didn't have to be acquired through human sacrifice, Chief…there are other sources. Blood banks, hospitals, clinics, labs…"
"Labs!" Blair interjected, wheeling to his own desk where he grabbed up the phone. Punching in the number for Security at Rainier, he asked whoever finally answered, "Hello, this is Blair Sandburg at Cascade PD. Have you had any reports of stolen blood samples? Human blood…uh huh. Look, what departments would have stores of human blood?" Leaning forward he grabbed a pen and started to write. "Okay, thanks…we'll check it out."
Turning back to Jim, he advised, "Well, they haven't had any reports of inventory losses, but I've got a list here of possible sources."
"Then let's go, Junior," Jim replied, turning back towards the elevator, Blair on his heels.
They eventually found the research lab that had lost units of blood they kept stored in a refrigerator. It was located in the Physical Sciences Building, in the Human Biology Department, Genetics Research Lab. Since no one had checked and confirmed the inventory yet that week, the loss had gone unnoticed. As to who would have access to the blood samples, it seemed it could be anyone with legitimate business in the building as there was little security and no locks on the cold storage units.
Walking back to the truck, Blair shook his head, frustrated by their lack of progress. "It could be Hussein, I guess," he muttered. "He works in that building."
"Could be," Jim allowed but shook his head. "But the guy didn't seem upset about not getting tenure. If anything, he seemed eager to move on to his new job."
Standing for a moment by the truck, letting his eyes drift around the campus, Blair mused, "It's like they're invisible, whoever it is. Nobody sees anyone with bags full of mutilated flowers. Nobody sees anyone taking the blood. None of the neighbours out on Cromwell Circle noticed anyone suspicious. The locks haven't been picked or broken, not at the university anyway. None of the most likely suspects seem to have sufficient motive… dammit. What are we missing here? Someone invisible…"
"Maybe it's one of your djinns," Ellison teased as he got into the truck. "Didn't you say they're invisible?"
Sandburg snorted and shook his head. "Go ahead and mock me if it makes you feel better, oh great detective," he retorted. "But…well, I'm coming up dry here. Do you have any ideas…any other line of inquiry we might try?"
Jim's lips twisted as he thought about it, his fingers playing unconsciously with his keys before he started the truck up. Sighing, he shook his head. "No, unfortunately…if it's not a djinn, I'm stumped."
Blair secured his seat belt and leaned back, his fingers drumming on his knee. "Okay, I guess we trace the source of the mutilated rats and mice…damn, I should have thought to ask about that at the lab." Pulling out his cell, he again called university Security while Jim drove them back toward the city.
Ellison listened to the conversation, having no difficulty hearing the speaker on the other end of the call. So he learned when Blair did that, indeed, thirty of the research animals had been lost. But they hadn't been considered stolen, the cage door having been found unlocked two days ago. The lab techs had thought the little beasts had made a bid for freedom and had only reported it in case Security was besieged by hysterical calls about rats being spotted running all over the university grounds.
"Whoever this djinn is," Jim reflected as Blair terminated the call, "it definitely lives at the university. All the trails lead back there."
"You're going to make me sorry I ever told you about the djinn, aren't you?" Blair pretended to whine.
"Hey, I'm not mocking you, Chief," Jim teased with a grin. "I'm sure they exist…really!"
"Yeah, well, just remember, you're the one who sees ghosts, man," Sandburg shot back.
Taking the hit in the spirit that was meant, Jim chuckled and nodded. "Well, you've got me there, Junior."
"Not to mention, visions," Blair added for good measure, "of a dead shaman and spirit animals, who morph into the shapes of their human counterparts."
"Alright, alright!" Jim conceded, but gave Sandburg a playful smack on the head nonetheless.
"Oww!" Sandburg called out, laughing. "Police brutality, man. I'm going to have to report you."
"Oh, I can just see Simon's face when he reads that report," Jim snorted. "In the course of a discussion about djinn, ghosts, visions and spirit guides, Detective James Ellison, self proclaimed Sentinel, assaulted his erudite and long suffering partner and Guide, Blair Sandburg."
Snickering, Blair shook his head as he gazed out the window at the passing traffic. It would be worth the look on Simon's face to write it up, he thought impishly. But then his mind returned to the case at hand. No djinn had trashed those flowers or decapitated the innocent animals.
"Someone invisible…" he murmured again, under his breath, frowning, knowing they were missing something. Something probably very obvious.
"Invisible, who screams over the phone lines late at night," Jim added, remembering what Blair had told him after having gotten the Chancellor settled the night before. Unfortunately, she hadn't been sure if the voice was male or female. His fingers tapping on the steering wheel, he continued, "Someone with keys, who can wander around the university and not be noticed. Someone who maybe believes in djinn…"
Blair turned to face his partner, though his eyes were unfocused as he thought about it. "A lot of the people we've encountered on this case might have heard about djinn," he reflected, wondering if that gave them something more to work on. While it wasn't necessarily unheard of for anyone to be aware of the mythical beings, not many would be expected to know about the idea of exorcising them or of how that was said to be done, by decapitation. That argued for someone familiar with the cultural folk tales and superstitions, old beliefs…someone of the culture or who had studied it, as he had.
But that only led them back to the professors who hadn't obtained their tenure.
And that seemed a dead end.
Josephine Edwards was fast losing patience with being cooped up in a hotel room, with a policeman standing guard outside her door, however comfortable it might be. As she paced the room with restless energy, she kept thinking about all the work that wasn't getting done while she was hiding away here, like a helpless old fool who couldn't take care of herself. Or worse, like one of those disgustingly sentimental Victorian or southern belle heroines with the vapours, afraid of her own shadow. None of those images fit well with the way Edwards liked to think of herself as a competent, capable and essentially fearless individual. The idea that fearlessness, especially in the face of real threat, might also be considered foolish didn't occur to her.
She shook her head as she thought about her inexcusable loss of control the evening before. It was ridiculous to have allowed the sight of those poor mutilated creatures to have so terrorized her that she hadn't even been able to enter her own home. She was disgusted with her weakness, embarrassed that Sandburg had had to go through her personal things and pack a bag for her. Squaring her shoulders, she decided that she wasn't going to let anyone scare her away from doing her work or from living in her own home. And that was that.
Having decided to retake charge of her own life, and feeling better for it, she quickly dressed and packed. Going to the door, she told the police officer in no uncertain terms that she would not be needing any further 'babysitting' and was going back to work. Heedless of the officer's protests, she strode down the hall, suitcase rolling along behind her and barely remembered to call out a 'thank you for your concern' as she got on the elevator. Caught somewhat flat-footed, the officer had stood stunned a moment, watching her leave, and by the time he had recovered and raced to follow her onto the elevator, the door was closing in his face.
Pulling out his cell phone while he waited for another elevator, he called back to the station to ask for instructions. Since there was no way of forcing her to accept protection, he was told by his sergeant to report back in for another assignment.
They were just heading back to the office after lunch when the call belatedly came in to inform them that Chancellor Edwards had ditched her guard and had, apparently, headed back to the University.
"Damn it," Ellison grunted as he flipped the cell phone closed and shoved it into his pocket. In response to Sandburg's raised eyebrows and look of inquiry, he growled, "Your Chancellor Edwards has decided she doesn't need protection and has gone back to work."
"She's not 'my Chancellor'," Blair retorted as they both strode to the elevator. She wouldn't likely pay any attention to them, but they had to try to persuade her to accept protection at least for a few days, to give them a decent chance to find out who was threatening her life.
When they got to her office, they were surprised to find a stranger sitting at Mina's desk. "I'm Detective Ellison," Jim said, flipping open his badge. "We'd like to see the Chancellor."
"I'm sorry but she's not in her office just now," the young woman reported. "Would you like to make an appointment?"
"No, I wouldn't," Jim snapped back. "Look, it's important that we see her immediately. Do you know where she is?"
A little flustered, the pretty blonde bent her head to consult the daily appointment log. "It says here that she's conducting one of her inspections…"
"What inspection?" Jim cut in.
"Well, she likes to ensure that she personally inspects every foot of this campus at least once a year, so she has regularly scheduled times to do her 'walkabouts' and take notes of anything that needs attending to," the replacement assistant informed them. "Today," she continued, glancing back down at the log, "she's walking the tunnels and service corridors under the Physical Arts and Engineering buildings, you know, to check the heating and cooling systems, to ensure everything is well maintained…"
Jim rolled his eyes as he looked at Sandburg. "Do you know where to access these tunnels?"
"Yeah, they're often used as an underground network when the weather outside is too miserable to brave," Blair replied as they turned to go. But he paused for a moment, turning back to ask, "Where's Mina today?"
"Oh, she said she had a personal errand and would be gone for the next couple of hours. I cover the phones here when she has to be away from her desk for any length of time," the young blonde replied.
"Sandburg, are you coming?" Jim called from further along the hallway.
"In a minute," Blair called back. Frowning a little, he asked, "Have you had to cover for her much this past week?"
"Yeah, a few times. Yesterday afternoon, for an hour and a couple of other times for an hour or so, why?"
"What's your name?" Blair asked.
"Patty Wilkins," she replied.
"Thanks, Patty," he said quickly. "We may need to talk to you again…"
"Why? What's going on?" Patty called out.
But he'd already turned and was jogging down the hall toward his partner. "We have to hurry," he said in a rush.
"You think Mina…?" Jim began, having overheard the conversation, frowning in thought as he considered the idea.
"Who is invisible, has access to the keys and the Chancellor's office, could come and go around the University, at any time day or night without being noticed, and just might know something about djinn?" Blair asked as they hurriedly took the stairs down to the ground level. "People don't notice servants, man, and in today's society, too often people in jobs like hers get overlooked in the same way that servants used to be virtually invisible in the past." His tone reflected his self-disgust for never even having considered her a potential suspect. He could well be wrong, but for the first time, a lot of the pieces had fallen into place.
"Yeah, yeah," Jim cut in to stem the flow of a fascinating lecture on the subject of modern day servitude. "But what's the motive?"
Blair shrugged as they raced down the last flight of stairs. "Who knows? Besides, since when do I do all the work…you're the cop, man. You figure it out."
Jim snorted as he pushed through the door behind Sandburg, onto the ground floor level.
As they loped along the corridor toward the exit, Blair explained quickly, "The tunnel network is pretty huge, Jim, and she could be anywhere in it. I'll show you to the closest access point and then head over to the Engineering Building to begin searching from that end. Use your hearing, sense of smell…"
"Fine," Jim agreed as they pushed past students thronging in the doorway and raced along the path toward the Physical Sciences building.
Jim paused to get his bearings once he'd reached the tunnels that ran through the bowels of the earth under the University campus. But, though he tried to sort out the sounds, the clank of machinery, rush of water through the pipes, echoes of innumerable footsteps from various directions and the hum of electricity in the conduits defeated him. Resorting to his sense of smell, he thought he could detect the barest trace of the subtle perfumed scent the Chancellor favoured, and he set off at a run down the brightly illuminated corridor.
Mina, garbed in a long, black, hooded cloak, had gone to her car to get the bundled up sword that she'd hidden in the trunk, and then had entered the maze of tunnels ahead of where she judged the Chancellor would be in her inspection tour. Taking refuge in a supply closet, she swallowed and forced herself to calm her breathing, to focus on the duty she must now perform. She'd tried everything to chase away the demon but nothing had worked. She should have known better, she castigated herself. Her great-uncle, a holy man, had told her the stories when she'd been no more than a child and had been clear that the worst demons couldn't just be frightened away…that only decapitation would finally destroy them. But she'd never killed anyone and the idea frightened her, so she'd hoped it wouldn't be necessary. She shuddered. Killing those poor rats had been horrible and she was sick at the thought of what she was about to do.
But when the Chancellor had signed the final termination documents that morning right after she'd come into the office, Mina had known no other choice remained. She'd hidden the documents away, and would destroy them later and then everything would be all right.
But, first, she had to kill the demon that was ruining her life.
Hearing the clip of heels on the cement flooring, Mina peered through the narrow crack of the unlatched door and saw that, finally, the Chancellor was approaching. Gritting her teeth, Mina gripped the sword hard with sweaty hands, dreading what she must do. Taking a breath, she closed her eyes, consoling herself that it would all be over quickly.
Blair wheeled around the bend in the tunnel in time to see the Chancellor just a few feet ahead of him. He skidded to a halt, relieved, only to feel his heart start to hammer again as the door of the closet she'd just passed opened slowly behind her. Pouring on the speed again, he called out as he ran toward her, "Dr. Edwards! Look out!"
Edwards was making notes on a clipboard as she walked and was oblivious of the action around her until she heard Sandburg yell her name. She looked up, startled to see him racing toward her, her first instinct to be irritated, and the second to be afraid. She didn't have time for any further reactions as the microseconds passed.
Blair had barely a glimpse of a black-cloaked figure emerging from the closet, sword held high in the air, before he dove toward the Chancellor to knock her out of the way. The sword flashed down, its sharp and deadly blade cutting through his jacket and into his side as he twisted and rolled, covering Edwards with his own body.
Mina overbalanced as she lunged forward and they rolled away, under the blade and past her. She stumbled, and screamed in frustration as she whirled to bring the blade down again.
Shoving and scrambling, Blair pushed the Chancellor further back along the corridor and then stood, one fist grabbing her arm as he unceremoniously dragged her to her feet. "RUN!" he shouted at her as he turned to face Mina, to block her from killing Josephine Edwards.
Edwards, shocked and stunned by having been knocked about the tunnel, pushed and dragged, wasn't into following orders blindly. "What's going on?" she demanded from behind Sandburg's shoulder, her eyes widening as she recognized her executive assistant. "Mina? What are you doing? Stop this right now!"
Blair kept moving backward, herding the Chancellor back along the corridor. "JIM!" he yelled out. "I've got trouble here, man! HURRY!!!"
Mina came toward them, the sword held high over her head, her eyes wild with fury. "Get out of the way!" she screamed at Sandburg. "I must destroy the demon!"
"Easy, Mina," Blair replied, letting his voice drop to what he hoped was a calming tone. "There's no demon here. Put the sword down…"
"She's possessed!" Mina argued, stalking them. "This is the only way! I tried…I tried to frighten the demon away, but it won't go!" she wailed.
"What is she talking about?" Edwards demanded, crouching a little behind Sandburg, clutching his arm.
"Lady, for once would you just do as you're told and get out of here?" Blair growled under his breath. "She's trying to kill you and I don't have anything to stop her. Just RUN!"
"Now, see here…" Edwards argued instinctively, but was cut off when Blair shoved her back hard, away from another lunging downward swipe of the blade.
"RUN, DAMMIT!" Blair ordered her, shoving her roughly back along the corridor before he again turned to face Mina, liftng his hands, trying still to reason with her. "Mina, please…you don't want to do this. You know it's wrong. Put the sword down," he implored. Gratefully, he heard sound of the Chancellor's steps receding down the corridor behind him. "Come on, Jim," he muttered under his breath. "Could use a little help here, man."
"NO!" Mina screamed when she saw the Chancellor getting away from her, a terrible guttural sound, as if she was in agony. Careless of Blair, seeing him as no danger, she tried to push past him to go after her quarry, but he grabbed her around the waist, one hand reaching to grip her wrist and pull the sword down as he dragged her to the ground.
Mina struggled with the strength of the crazed, squirming and biting, kicking and screaming in her bid to get away. In her mind, she decided now that he must be possessed, too, and she'd have to kill him as well.
Blair struggled to restrain her, but the wound in his side was making him awkward and inhibiting his own speed and ease of reaction. He had a handful of her cloak, but she squirmed out of it, rolling away from him and lurching to her knees, the sword slashing toward him. With a startled yell, he lunged backward, his eyes wide as he watched the weapon blur past his face, and he realized she had just tried to decapitate him. "JIM!" he yelled again as he hastily flicked the cloak at her, to distract and confuse her, trying to trap the sword in its voluminous folds, even as he scrambled back onto his feet.
The slashing sword cut the cloak into ribbons as Mina continued to advance on Sandburg, intent upon fulfilling her duty, determined to kill the demons.
"Mina, tell me why you're doing this," he called to her, to try to get her talking…and to stop the mindless advance. "Please, explain this to me…I don't understand. Why do you want to kill Chancellor Edwards?"
"She's not Dr. Edwards anymore," the frenzied woman keened as she lashed out again with the deadly blade. "She's a demon and she's put spells on me!"
"Spells? What kind of spells?" Blair asked, backing away, his hands, lifting in a gesture of calm and peace; his only protection now that the cloak had been rendered useless.
"It's her fault!" Mina screamed as she lunged again, making Blair dance back, out of the way of the blade. "Her fault that I fell in love with an infidel! My family will be shamed. Her fault that he has to go away! She's heartless and cruel… cold. She doesn't care!"
"Mina, stop, please!" Blair implored, wondering what was taking Jim so long. "You're wrong…there's no djinn, no demon…"
"It's taken you now, hasn't it?" she seethed, her eyes narrowing as she stalked toward him. "You're possessed now, too, or you'd help me kill her!"
"NO!" Sandburg protested, waving his hands in a gesture of negation, though he kept one elbow pressed tightly to his side, against the wound that was beginning to distract him with pain. "I swear I'm not possessed by anything but a desire to have you stop waving that sword around! Tell me about the man you love. Maybe I can help…"
But she'd tired of talking and lunged again in a wild fury of madness, slashing again and again in her desperate desire to destroy the demons only she could perceive. Sandburg scooted backwards, but stumbled in his haste and sudden dizziness from the loss of blood. He crashed to the concrete flooring, rolling desperately away as the sword swept down.
The Chancellor careened around a curve and ran into Jim, who grabbed her, having heard Blair's yells and the sound of her rushing steps coming toward him. He steadied her quickly against the wall, as he cried, "Stay here!" And then he was racing along the corridor toward his partner, his gun in his hand.
"He saved my life," Edwards called out, trembling now as reaction set in, but Jim was already gone. "He saved my life," she whispered again with a sense of wonder and wordless but immense gratitude, hugging herself as she leaned against the wall, feeling sick at the attack and her too close encounter with death. Taking a shuddering breath, she straightened and followed Jim back down the hall.
Jim skidded around the final corner and, off balance, slid down onto one knee. "Stop! Police!" he shouted as he saw the sword flash down toward Sandburg, too late to stop it.
But Blair managed to evade the killing thrust one more time, suffering only a long, shallow gash along his left arm as he rolled out of the way.
Mina was too focused on killing to hear Ellison's shout, or his next as she again lifted the sword above her head, Blair at her feet.
"I'll shoot!" Jim warned a last time, as the blade began to fall.
Sandburg kicked out at her knee, pushing her off-balance just as the shot rang out and she was blasted back against the wall, the sword falling from her grip.
Jim raced along the last length of concrete to kick the heavy, gem-encrusted sword away and knelt beside her, knowing she was still alive from the sound of her breathing. But she was unconscious and no longer an immediate threat. He secured her wrists with cuffs anyway, just to be on the safe side. Straightening, he stepped back and away from her, half turning to look down at his partner. "You okay, Chief?" he asked as he turned, worried, aware that he'd smelled blood before he'd shot Mina.
"Uh, basically, yeah," Blair replied, pushing himself to his feet. "Sooo good to see you, man," he added with slightly hysterical enthusiasm. Pulling his jacket aside, Sandburg winced as he touched his side, grimacing at the pain and the sight of the blood. "She nicked me a couple of times," Blair explained then, his voice a little strained. He'd gotten up too fast, and now that the adrenaline rush was subsiding, he was overcome by another wave of dizziness.
Alarmed, Ellison reached out to grab him as he swayed and forced him gently back down to the floor. "Looks like a lot of blood for a 'nick'," the detective observed dryly, concealing his flash of fear with an off-hand tone, all the while rapidly checking Blair's vital signs with his senses. But he relaxed at the steady, strong beat of Sandburg's heart.
"That's a wicked blade, man," Blair muttered, looking at the sword lying a few feet away, while Jim pushed his coat back and pulled his shirt up to examine the wound. Blair hissed a little, but bit his lip to keep from groaning when Jim probed the injury with a deliberately light and delicate touch to determine how bad it was. Sandburg was also aware of his partner's soft soothing chant of 'easy, kid, easy' and 'you'll be all right'. With a soft smile as he shifted his gaze to Jim, Sandburg thought he was probably more aware of Jim's words than Jim was of speaking them. Ellison was suspiciously pale for someone who hadn't been wounded and Blair knew his best friend was worried about him.
"Looks like you'll live," Ellison grunted as he leaned back and pulled out his cell phone to call for back up and two ambulances. He didn't want Blair traveling in the same vehicle with the psychotically dangerous woman.
"Oh, good, glad to hear it," Blair quipped, swallowing against the slight sense of nausea as he leaned against the wall. He panted a little with the pain as he pressed his arm against the wound to contain the bleeding with his shirt and coat, but he managed a reassuring grin for his friend. Jim gave him a slightly quizzical look, but relaxed, accepting the reassurance.
"Dr. Sandburg?" Edwards called as she turned the corner of the corridor behind them. "Oh, God…you've been hurt!" She hurried along the tunnel to kneel at his side, reaching out tentatively toward the blood staining his left arm.
"I'll be okay," Blair assured her, a little surprised by the depth of concern in her eyes. "How are you doing?"
"Me? I'm fine," she said, her voice a little tight. "Thanks to you, I'm just fine."
Blair needed twenty stitches in his side and ten in his arm, and a shot to protect against tetanus, but after that he was 'good to go'. When Jim entered the treatment room just as the doctor was finishing up the bandaging around his chest to hold the dressing in place, Blair asked, "How's Mina?"
Ellison blew out a breath as he shook his head. "That is one seriously disturbed woman, Chief. The shoulder wound wasn't serious but they're going to keep her in for observation, under police guard, and a psych evaluation." As the doctor stood back, Jim turned to him to ask, "So, how's he doing? Any special care instructions for the wounds? Any medication I need to pick up on the way home?"
Smiling, the doctor patted Sandburg's shoulder as he replied, "Oh, your partner will be just fine. The wounds were clean and should heal without much scarring…must have been a sharp blade."
"You don't want to know," Blair mumbled as he rolled his eyes and slid off the examining table.
Jim helped him into his shirt as the doctor continued, "The wounds will be sore, though, for a day or two. And, there's always some chance of infection, so I'll leave a couple of prescriptions for pain medication and antibiotics at the desk for you. The sutures will dissolve on their own…just change the bandages three times a day, clean them with disinfectant and they should heal just fine." Turning to Blair, the physician concluded, "No running around for a couple of days or you'll pull out all my fine work. And you should go home and rest now…you lost a fair bit of blood and that will leave you feeling a bit weak, but you'll be fine in a few days."
"Thanks, Doc," Blair smiled in response. "Appreciate your help."
"It's what I'm here for," the Emergency doctor quipped back as he left to see who needed his attention next.
Draping Sandburg's coat over his shoulders, Jim moved with him, staying close beside him in case he got dizzy, as they walked along the corridor. They picked up the prescriptions and headed out to the truck.
Jim helped Blair into the passenger side and since his partner's arm was in a sling, he leaned in to fasten Sandburg's seat belt. "You sure you're okay, Chief?" he asked, knowing it was a stupid question. If Sandburg wasn't all right, the doctor wouldn't have let him leave, but still…he'd lost a lot of blood and the wounds had looked nasty. As a minimum, his partner had to be suffering a fair amount of pain.
Blair gave him an indulgent smile, appreciating and understanding the concern. "I'm good, big guy," he replied lightly, reassuringly, the local anesthetics he'd been given still dulling the pain. "Oh, I'll need you to do the cooking and fetch and carry my tea and juice, and maybe write up the whole report on this one on your own, because I'll be weak and need coddling, and you might want to stop by 'The Good Earth' to pick up some of my favourite tea and those special noodles they make for the soup you'll brew for me to keep up my strength, and I wouldn't mind some fresh bread from the bakery down the street…"
Jim grinned as he clipped his best friend's head lightly, and then ruffled his unruly curls. "Don't push it, Junior," he growled for effect, but chuckled at the sound of Sandburg's soft laugh.
Despite his assertions, however, Sandburg was worn out by the action of the day. Half asleep by the time they got home, he put up no protest when Ellison hustled him right to his room and helped him get into bed. He roused to eat some soup and drink half a cup of tea along with the pain meds Jim insisted he take, but then fell back to sleep again right after Jim had changed the dressings on his wounds.
"'S the drugs, man," he slurred as his head hit the pillow. "Knock me righ' ou'."
"Uh huh," Jim grunted as he pulled the blankets up and tucked them around his partner's shoulders. "Likely story, Sleeping Beauty," he murmured fondly as he lightly brushed the errant curls back from Sandburg's brow. He was amused to see that his best friend was already asleep, and relieved to know that he was really all right, or would be in a day or two. "Couldn't have anything to do with engaging in unarmed combat with a sword-wielding maniac or bleeding all over the University's tunnels…."
Blair was surprised to learn the next morning that Chancellor Edwards had called to ascertain that he was all right and had suffered no lasting damage.
"She was quite civil, actually," Jim observed as he poured the coffee. "Sounded genuinely concerned about you."
Blair smiled as he shook his head. "I guess she's not so bad…" he offered, half-heartedly.
Jim shot him a disbelieving look, but then shrugged. "Like her husband says, she's not great with people, I guess. She probably didn't mean to be so cold, heartless, nasty, vindictive…"
Laughing, Blair held up his hand to stop the flow of discerning adjectives, all of which he'd used at one time or another in describing her to his best friend in the years gone by. Knowing Jim was mocking him a little, he snickered as he said, "Well, it's not like I don't know other people who are similarly challenged… you know, in expressing their softer side…"
Jim winced as he groused, "Ow…that hurts, Chief. Surely you don't put her and me in the same category?"
"Oh, no," Blair assured him with a wicked grin. "You could give lessons…she's just difficult to get along with."
"One, I know where you live," Jim threatened with a steely glare. "And, two, I'm the one changing those dressings. Does the word 'pain' mean anything to you?"
Blair lifted a hand in surrender, laughing until something pulled in his side and he winced as he bit off a low moan. Immediately, Jim was beside him, hovering, as he asked, "Are you all right? Do you need anything?"
Blair looked up through his curls and chirped, "Got ya! Threaten me with pain, will you? Likely story, man…you don't scare me."
Snorting, realizing he'd been had, Jim shook his head and turned away, moving back to the stove to finish making their breakfast. "You do live dangerously, Chief," he observed. "I'll get you for that, you know."
Blair snickered again, then sipped more of the good, rich, freshly ground and brewed coffee. Jim couldn't stand the sound of the grinder, but he'd made the coffee anyway that morning knowing that Blair liked it. Oh, yeah, his roommate was a real tough guy. Returning to the conversation at hand, he reflected, "It was nice of her to call. She didn't have to, I guess."
Turning back, Jim replied, "Oh, yeah, I almost forgot…she wants you to make an appointment to see her when you're feeling up to it."
"Really? Did she say why?" Blair asked, curious.
"Nope. Probably just wants to thank you for saving her life," Jim replied as he turned back to the eggs.
"Just doin' my job," Blair said, shrugging, neither expecting nor requiring gratitude.
"About that, Sandburg," Jim said as he flipped the eggs onto two plates and added the freshly buttered toast. "You mind explaining why you didn't just run like hell? Facing down a maniac with a sword isn't the smartest thing you've ever done."
Unsurprised by the question, though grateful that Jim hadn't gone into full 'Blessed Protector/Enraged Sentinel' mode to ask it, Blair picked up his fork as he answered, "Edwards wouldn't have been able to out run her, Jim…I had to give her a chance to get away. And who knew who else might be down in those tunnels, who Mina might have hurt…"
Nodding, Jim took a breath, determined to maintain his promise to himself not to get all bent out of shape about this, though the specter of that sword lashing down at Sandburg was bound to give him nightmares for months. Picking up his own fork, he halfheartedly pushed the eggs around on his plate, then sighed.
"Look, Chief," he said, setting the fork back down again. "It was one thing when you were a civilian observer and I could tell you to stay behind me…not that you listened all that well. But that's not the point here. You're on the force now, a paid member of the team and this won't be the last time, I'm sure, when you'll be in trouble when I'm too far away to do you much good, at least not right away. So, I think it's time that you took those self-defence courses I've been after you to take, that you've always been 'too busy' to take or didn't think you'd ever need to take, because you were just a civilian observer."
Blair studied Jim, reflecting that that had been a long speech by 'Ellison' standards…and it had been delivered in a moderate, reasonable tone. Firm, but not an order. Respectful…but obviously concerned. "Okay," he replied, accepting the advice. "You're right. But I don't need a course. You can teach me everything I might ever need to know."
"Good," Jim replied, relieved, picking up his fork and digging into his food, now that his appetite had returned.
It was a week later, and Sandburg was back at work on light duties, when the call came from the Chancellor's office.
"Hello?" he answered a little absently as he finished up a report on the computer screen.
"Dr. Sandburg?" the pleasant voice asked.
"That's me," Blair replied, looking down at Jim's handwritten notes, frowning a little to discern the squiggles. "What can I do for you?"
"This is Patty Wilkins from Chancellor Edwards' office," she explained.
"Oh, right," Blair replied. He was, in fact, in the process of typing up the report of Jim's interview with Patty, tying up loose ends about when Mina had been absent from her desk doing little things like swiping blood, or depositing the remains of murdered rodents on the Chancellor's doorstep. "Sorry, I forgot to call Dr. Edwards back. I appreciated her call…"
"No problem, Dr. Sandburg," Patty assured him, and then continued, "but the Chancellor would like to see you."
"That's not necessary, really," Blair replied. "Jim followed up on all the information we need for the case…"
"Yes, I believe she's aware of that," Patty persisted. "Dr. Edwards and her husband wonder if you and your partner, Detective Ellison, would be available for cocktails one night this week? At their residence?"
"Oh," Blair stammered, taken by surprise. "Uh, yeah, I guess that's all right, I mean, it's very nice of them to invite us. Is there an evening that would work better for her?" He waved to get his partner's attention and mouthed, 'Chancellor Edwards'.
Jim tilted his head, evidently beginning to listen to the caller, which he rarely did unless signaled. A little 'Sentinel' etiquette.
"Tomorrow evening at 6:00 would work well for her," Patty confirmed. "I understand you know where she lives?"
"Yes, thanks," Blair replied. "We'll be there."
As he hung up, Jim asked, "What's that about tomorrow at 6:00, Chief?"
"Cocktails with Dr. Edwards and her husband," Blair replied, looking a little like a deer that has just been trapped in the headlights.
Jim winced and shook his head. "Do I have to? I mean…you're the one she wants to thank, Sandburg."
"If you think I'm going alone, you're certifiable, man," Sandburg drawled. "Besides, you're invited, too, and it didn't seem like 'no' was an option."
"Wonderful," Jim sighed as he turned back to the files on his desk. He liked schmoozing about as much as Martin Elridge did…which wasn't much at all.
She might not be the SheDemon they'd always fondly imagined her to be, but neither of them much looked forward to spending more time in her company. Still, Jim thought, Martin wasn't a bad guy. How bad could it be?
Feeling a little like boys who'd been called to the principal's office, they'd both made an effort to clean up for the 'cocktail hour' with the Chancellor and her husband. Jim was wearing a fine linen shirt and tie, with a blue cashmere sweater and tailored fine wool gray pants, and Blair had tied back his hair in an effort to look more distinguished, after he'd donned his own fresh shirt, tie, soft red woolen v-neck pullover and black tailored slacks.
Martin Elridge greeted them at the door, smiling broadly and welcoming them in with warm bonhomie. "Our heroes," he said, quite seriously, as he took their coats and hung them in the hall closet. "Thank you," he murmured quietly, "for all that you did."
"There's no need…" Blair began, but Martin touched him lightly on the shoulder to stay his words.
"Yes, there is," the older man insisted with simple sincerity, then shepherded them into the living room. A fire was burning in the fireplace, lending a touch of engaging warmth to a room that was otherwise a bit too formal for Sandburg's tastes. Black on white seemed to be the theme, everything pristine and the dark wood floor and the side tables gleamed in the soft light from the lamps and the flames.
Dr. Edwards turned from the fireplace as they entered the room and moved to greet them. "Welcome, and thank you for coming," she said with evident sincerity. "Please, have a seat, make yourselves comfortable."
Martin saw to the drinks, approving of their choice of single malt over something frothy and sweet, while the Chancellor had a Dubonnet with a twist of lemon, on the rocks.
Once they were all settled, Dr. Edwards took the conversational lead. "Have you learned any more about what made Mina go berserk?" she asked, gazing from one to the other.
Nodding, Jim replied, "Yes. It seems she and Dr. Wiseman had been seeing one another discreetly. Mina's family is traditional, and she lived at home, caring for her parents…they wouldn't have approved of her falling in love with a man not of their culture. Anyway, apparently, she found out she was pregnant and had just worked up the nerve to tell them that they would be getting married when he learned his tenure wasn't going to be approved. Mina felt trapped. She couldn't leave her parents; at least, she felt she couldn't. And if he lost his position at Rainier, he'd have to move to another part of the country and she'd be left behind with an illegitimate child. I guess she snapped under the pressure. Her father's uncle had been a holy man in the old country, and he'd filled her head with stories and myths when she was a kid…"
"Myths about djinns and demons," Chancellor Edwards murmured, shaking her head. "I'm sorry for her. I wish she'd have confided in me." The woman paused a moment, then admitted with a certain chagrin, "Though I don't suppose I'm the sort one easily confides in."
Martin patted her hand consolingly. "You had no way of knowing about her troubles, my dear. It's not your fault the Board refused his appeal."
She sighed as she looked into the fire. "No, perhaps not. But given the support of his students, I could have intervened."
"You may still wish to do so," Blair interjected. "Sam was devastated when he found out what was going on. He really loves her and is willing to stand by her, see all this through. Given the psychological report, she's unlikely to go to prison, though she will be confined to a treatment facility here until she's deemed well again. He still hopes to marry her, if she'll agree."
Smiling, relieved to be able to do something to make the situation better, Dr. Edwards nodded. "I'll look into his case in the morning. If he agrees to meet the publication requirements, then I think we can give him an extension."
"Thanks," Blair replied with a smile of his own. "He's a good guy and a great teacher…he'll appreciate your help."
The conversation died for a moment as they all thought about Mina and Sam. Jim stirred restlessly, wishing someone would think of something to say. It was awkward to be in the home of the woman who had treated Sandburg so badly, though she was civil enough now.
Once again, it was Dr. Edwards who picked up the conversational gauntlet, clearly having things to say. It was why she'd invited them, after all.
"Dr. Sandburg," she began.
"Please, just call me Blair," he interjected.
Nodding, she resumed, "Alright, Blair. I owe you an apology for the way I have treated you in the past."
When he lifted a hand to stave off what was bound to be a difficult conversational topic, she shook her head. "Please, let me continue," she said quietly. When he sat back and nodded, she said, "I know we've crossed swords. First over that wretch, Ventriss. I know you felt that I was blind to his wrongdoing, about the paper he'd fraudulently submitted. That I took his part over yours…and, well, I did. For you, the situation was very clear. A student had cheated and warranted discipline. That was all I knew at the time, only learning later that he had done much worse than that. But at the time of our confrontation, the issue at hand was the matter of his dishonesty over a single paper, and it was a matter of supporting him or you. I had to weigh your very apparent outrage at the unethical behaviour of a single student against the reality of the millions his father had donated to the University and could be counted upon to donate in the future."
Blair's lips thinned and he looked away. He didn't need to hear how the rich got special privileges. If this was an apology, it sucked.
She paused a moment, reading his expression and glanced at Jim, correctly assessing his own thinly veiled look of disgust. "Ventriss deserved to be put on probation if not expelled, but that might well have cost the donations that would have been used to put other deserving, but impoverished, students through school. Do you have any idea how many students would have lost their chance without that financial support?"
Blair frowned as he cast a quick look at his partner. He hadn't thought about those possible repercussions. She was right…from her perspective, he'd only been thinking in terms of one cheating, abusive student. At the time of their confrontation, she hadn't known anything about the alleged rape and neither of them had known Ventriss was a murderer.
"I'm sorry," he murmured quietly. "Those implications had never occurred to me." He might still have wanted Ventriss expelled, but he could understand that the matter wasn't, perhaps, as simple and straightforward as he'd thought it to be. Sighing, he reflected that he might well have been one of those impoverished students who had benefited from the donated Ventriss money, uncomfortably realizing he'd never given a second thought about where the resources that supported such university grants came from.
"No apology is necessary," she replied, her voice a little tight. "I would be concerned about any professor who tolerated cheating and fully understood your indignation. But, you wouldn't let it go…and Ventriss' lawyer made the choices painfully clear. I'm sorry, very sorry…but sometimes my job makes things that should be black and white very messy shades of gray."
Blair looked around the room again, beginning to understand the clean austerity of the decor. The absence of gray. As much as he'd like to stand on his principles, her choices hadn't been easy ones. He could understand that disciplining one cheating rich kid, which was all she'd known Ventriss to be at the time, might not appear to be worth the loss of opportunity for hundreds of other kids who needed and deserved a chance to get a good education. And, in all honesty, he had been in violation of the terms of his teaching fellowship. The ethical nuances were uncomfortably thorny. Nodding thoughtfully, he accepted her apology. "Thank you for explaining your perspective to me," he said then. "It wasn't necessary and I appreciate it."
She nodded crisply, but continued doggedly, "I'm not finished. I also treated you badly when your Sentinel paper was improperly released, and then when you subsequently recanted it. Again, I was motivated by what was good, or damaging, to Rainier, but you deserved better. You acted honorably and within the tenets and ethics of your profession. I was wrong to terminate your employment."
Recognizing how hard this was for her, Blair smiled then to reassure her. "It's all right," he replied. "It all worked out."
Briskly, she shook her head. "No, it isn't all right. You more than met all the requirements for your dissertation and, as a teaching fellow, you could have expected a position on the faculty. You had earned it, and your records show that you were an outstanding teacher, as well as a skilled researcher and a frequently published writer. I wish to correct that injustice and offer you a position now, if you would still consider a career in academia."
Blair blinked in surprise and Jim stiffened as his gaze shot to his partner. But when Blair's eyes met his, Jim gave nothing away, nothing of the sudden sinking feeling or the anxiety that clogged his throat and squeezed his heart. He'd thought Blair would be his partner, always be his partner…hadn't thought something like this would ever happen. But he couldn't in any way show his own dismay. Blair loved teaching and was great at it…had been hurt so badly by all that had happened. This had to be his decision and his alone.
But Ellison didn't consider how well his partner knew him. The very absence of emotion in his eyes and on his face coupled with the stillness of his body gave him away. Searching his eyes for a moment longer, Blair smiled slowly as he turned back to the Chancellor.
"Thank you, Dr. Edwards," he replied. "You have no idea how much that offer means to me. But…I have a position with the Cascade Police Department. I appreciate it, but really, you don't owe me anything…"
"I owe you my life," she stated firmly in a no-nonsense tone.
Feeling the tension in the room, Martin decided it was time to intervene with his own thoughts on the matter. "It wouldn't, necessarily, have to be a full-time position, Blair. But, as I understand it, you have a great deal to offer as a teacher. If you're not interested in being a full time academic also engaged in research, perhaps you could consider taking a few classes…?"
Martin might not wish full time employment of any kind for himself and might even be a bit of a dilettante, but he was no fool. He'd followed the story in the press and media, if only because the whole situation had caused his wife such turmoil, and he figured he understood something of this business of Sentinel and Guide. Certainly, it was clear that Sandburg was very aware of his partner's reactions and must certainly be swayed, at least to some extent, by them. He hoped his suggestion would give some room to arrive at a 'win-win' outcome.
Jim had relaxed as soon as Blair had refused the offer, but felt a stab of guilt at knowing this was yet another gesture for him. He grabbed at Martin's suggestion as if it was a kind of lifeline. "That might be doable, Chief…that is, if you wanted to get back to some teaching…" he encouraged, leaning forward, his elbows on his thighs as he regarded his friend intently.
Blair could read the open encouragement in Jim's eyes, but more, he could see the almost desperate hope that this would make him happy. He felt a lump suddenly constrict his throat at knowing how much this mattered to Jim, how much it mattered that he be able to return to doing what he'd so loved to do. Teach. Inspire. Encourage young minds and hearts. Share the mysteries. If he'd ever wondered if Jim fully appreciated what he'd given up, he knew now that his friend had known, and had regretted it deeply.
Swallowing, Blair blinked quickly and turned back to the Chancellor. "If, uh, if that's an option, then, yes, I'd be very interested in taking a few classes, Dr. Edwards," he finally replied, his voice a little husky.
"Call me Josey," she replied. "All my friends do…and I rather hope that since you'll be back on our faculty, even if only part-time, that we can be friends."
Sandburg's smile blazed out then, lighting the room with charm and grace. "All right, Josey…thank you, I accept your offer," he said warmly, pure and perfect happiness dancing in his eyes.
Martin stood to refresh their drinks, then offered a toast to the newest member of the Rainier faculty.
When they took their leave a half hour later, and ambled toward the truck, Blair glanced over at Jim as he said quietly, "Thanks…"
A little mystified, Jim tilted his head as he gazed back. "For what?" he asked.
Blair stopped for a moment beside the truck to gaze up at the stars as he thought about how to answer. "For letting me decide without trying to influence me," he replied quietly, looking back at Jim. "I know the offer had to have surprised you… and probably gave you a moment of grief though you tried your best not to let me see that. But, Jim, you have to know, if it's ever a cut and dried choice between either a career in academia or being your partner, you'll always win, man, hands-down, no contest."
Jim swallowed and looked away, uncomfortable with the emotion he was feeling. "Yeah, I guess I do know that…you keep proving it to me. But…I could tell, when we were at Rainier last week, how much you missed it all…and, well…you deserve the right to do what you love to do, Chief."
"I am doing what I love to do," Blair replied softly. "Working with you isn't some kind of sacrifice, Jim."
"Yeah, well, sometimes I wonder about that, Sandburg," Jim replied tightly as he moved around the truck.
"Well, stop wondering, man!" Blair ordered him sharply, but his voice was warm with good humour.
Jim caught his eye before they both ducked their heads to climb into the truck. He smiled slowly. "Okay, Chief, I'll stop. Thanks."
Inside the truck, Blair fastened his seatbelt, and then turned to face his best friend. "You don't need to thank me, you know."
Jim bobbed his head but didn't respond as he started up the truck.
"Besides," Blair continued, "I was in the process of thanking you. For leaving the decision to me…and for encouraging me to take up the part-time offer."
"Well, it makes sense, Junior…lets you play in both worlds," Jim replied lightly, not looking at his partner as he pulled away from the curb.
"That's not what I'm talking about and you know it," Sandburg continued quietly. Swallowing, he continued a little hoarsely, "It means a lot to me to know it matters that much to you that I be happy. And that you understand how important being able to teach is to me. I've sometimes wondered if you did."
Jim's eyes narrowed for a moment and his lips thinned at that. He pulled up at a stop sign, and then turned to his partner, a slight smile gracing his lips. "Well, then, I guess you can stop wondering, too," he replied. His smile widened in response to the smile that lit Blair's face. Reaching over, he deftly pulled the band off that constrained Sandburg's hair and ruffled the curls. "There, that's my partner, all wild and crazy," he teased as Blair protested and pushed his hand away.
When Sandburg reached up to smooth his hair back behind his ears, snickering at his best friend's silliness, Jim studied him thoughtfully. "I mean it, Blair," he said, his voice low with sincerity. "I don't say it much…I'm not easy with words like you are…but I do want you to be happy. Don't ever wonder if I know what you gave up for me, or what that cost…or if I'm grateful. I am. I always will be. I'm glad, really glad, if you can get some of that back."
Blair looked down at his hands for a moment, and then his wide gaze turned back to Jim. "I know," he said, his own voice low with emotion. "I guess…I guess that's what I was really thanking you for, Jim. For understanding…and for being so ready to encourage me to accept the offer to teach again."
Embarrassed by the emotion, Jim shrugged a little and then put the truck in gear. Trying for humour, he said, "Well, Junior, like they say, 'Love means never having to say 'thank you'."
"No, that's not right," Blair corrected, shaking his head. "The saying is, 'Love means never having to say you're sorry."
"Good…does that mean I'll never have to apologize for anything ever again?" Jim quipped back.
"Oh, no, man, not with your record," Blair teased. "Stubborn, opinionated, controlling, bossy, pushy, short-tempered…no, you'll always have lots to apologize for, man."
"Ah, geez, Sandburg," Jim groused. "And, here I thought you loved me."
Laughing, happily, Blair settled back in his seat. "Keep wondering, Jim…you just keep wondering about that, man," he teased.
Ellison snorted as he steered the truck toward home.
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