Thanks to Danae, beta reader supreme, for catching so many of my goofs. You've saved me much embarrassment. Lory, thanks for the idea for this story. To MaryEllen, my new cyber pal, my gratitude for your encouragement and input.To MaryLynne, my thanks for your encouragement and all our long 'cyber talks'. It's great to have a new friend! Merci beaucoup, ladies!
The name of the tribe mentioned in the story -Guale-is pronounced 'Wally'. The poem, "The Marshes of Glynn", is by Sidney Lanier.
Last Man Standing
In the sultry heat, the predator waited. It had killed three victims already, yet, it was not satisfied. Each taste of blood, each act of violence had only whetted its appetite. The predator knew that its hunter would come, the one sent to slay it before it could kill again. It smiled, its white teeth glistening in the hot sunshine. The hunter would fail. It would kill again. For vengeance was not yet complete. As the heat rose in waves on the parched earth, the predator waited patiently. It was not yet time. The summer was young. It could wait. The hunter would come.
Sometimes, just when you least expect it, opportunity comes pounding at your door, Blair Sandburg thought, hanging up the phone with a broad grin. He resisted the urge to indulge in a victory dance, in consideration of the detectives hard at work all around him. There's a time and a place for everything, after all, and the bullpen of Major Crimes was hardly the place for an anthropology professor and part-time police consultant to celebrate.
Even if it had just become one of the biggest days of his life.
Blair checked the clock on the wall. Half past three o'clock. Jim should be back anytime. Court had been back in session since the lunch break, and Jim's testimony in the murder-for-hire trial had been scheduled first in the afternoon. Sandburg picked up a pencil and began tapping out a syncopated rhythm on Jim's desk, humming quietly to the up-beat music playing in his head. He couldn't wait to tell Jim. Oh, man! What a day!
Looking over to his left, Blair caught Rafe watching him over his computer with an amused smile. The witness the young detective was interviewing had his back to Blair, and apparently, whatever the talkative middle-aged woman had to say wasn't holding Rafe's attention very well. The interview was in its second hour, and from Rafe's body language, Blair deduced that whatever relevant information the woman had to provide had already been revealed for quite some time. Feeling exceptionally daring, Blair stuck out his tongue at Rafe while simultaneously crossing his eyes. Biting back a laugh, Rafe reluctantly turned his attention back to his witness and the notes he was taking, his shoulders shaking.
Simon Banks stood at his office door, staring at Blair with a glare that could boil water. "My office. Now!"
Knowing he was busted, Blair headed toward the captain's office, risking a look back at Rafe on the way. He caught the grin his co-worker flashed him as he passed. Blair couldn't help smiling back. Nothing could spoil his good humor today. Not even Simon Banks on a rampage.
"Shut the door, Sandburg," Banks barked. Seated behind his desk, Simon glowered at his computer screen. "I swear, if I could only throw this damned thing out the window..."
Sensing an opportunity to calm troubled waters, Blair moved quickly to peer over Simon's shoulder. "Hey, I see your problem, man. You need to..."
Whirling around in his chair, Simon nearly knocked Blair off his feet. "Oh, no, you don't!" He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes wearily, then snapped at the younger man, "You're not going to distract me, Sandburg. I saw you out there. This is not a playground for children. You're an official, paid member of my team now, and I expect professional behavior from you, just as I do from every other person in this office. Rafe is interviewing a witness, damn it! What kind of impression do you think you would have made out there if that witness had turned around and had seen your behavior just now?" Banks replaced his glasses. "I thought Jim had taught you better than that."
"I'm sorry," Blair apologized sincerely in an appropriately chastised tone. The captain's final words had hurt. "I didn't think, Simon. I'd just received some great news, and I guess I was just a little wired. You know me. I tend to get a little hyper sometimes, especially when I'm excited. I didn't mean anything disrespectful toward you, man. You know that. I'm sure no one but Rafe saw me, so there's really no harm done, right? It won't happen again; you can count on that." He shifted gears without a moment's hesitation. "I'm sure I can help you with your computer problem, though, if you want me to. It's very simple really." Blair moved closer to Banks, talking continuously. Simon moved out of his chair and let Blair take over the computer.
As Sandburg worked, Simon Banks stood off to the side, watching and listening with a bemused smile. When he'd seen the face Blair had made at Rafe in the presence of a citizen witness, he'd had every intention of giving the young man one of his patented, Captain Banks tongue lashings. He'd barely had time to warm up when Blair had diffused the situation with his wide blue eyes and talent for talking nonstop without taking a breath.
Ever since Jim Ellison had first brought the long-haired anthropologist into Simon's office almost six years before, Blair Sandburg had managed to get by with things that no other members of Major Crimes dared attempt. In the beginning, Banks had tolerated Sandburg merely because Ellison needed him to help him master his newly activated sentinel senses. Simon had no doubt that Jim had had every intention to kick the talkative young man out as soon as he had established the control he so desperately had needed. Yet somehow, by the time weeks turned into months, then into years, and Jim's mastery of his senses was nearly perfected, there was no doubt that Blair Sandburg was in the sentinel's life to stay.
And by that time, Simon wouldn't have changed the situation at all.
Along with all he'd given Jim, Blair had been good for Major Crimes - and its notoriously hard-edged captain. His enthusiasm and insights into human nature and behavior had given Simon's team a shot of new life and energy. No doubt about it. Blair Sandburg was an asset to the department, first as an observer, and now in his position as part-time consultant.
"Hey, Sandburg," Simon said suddenly. "What was that great news you were so enthusiastic about? Had to be something pretty spectacular to have you making clown faces across the bullpen at Rafe."
Excited blue eyes shone up at Simon. "Yeah, it is, man! Really spectacular! At least, from a career standpoint."
"What about your career, Chief?"
Both men looked around to see the figure of Detective Jim Ellison filling up the doorway. Dressed in what he only half-jokingly called his 'funeral and testimony attire', Jim looked noticeably tired. As he slipped gratefully into one of the chairs facing Simon's desk, he loosened his tie and tossed his coat wearily on the conference table.
Glancing from Simon to his best friend, Blair hesitated. "I was going to tell you when we got home tonight, Jim, but since Simon sorta...figured out...that something was up, I might as well go ahead and fill you in now." Sliding the desk chair back from the computer, Blair perched excitedly on the edge of the chair next to Jim.
"Remember that grant I told you about? The one I put in for last semester?"
Ellison nodded. "Yeah. It had something to do with Indians, right? A study about some tribe?"
Blair grinned good naturedly, as he looked at Simon and jerked his head toward his partner. "That's Jim. Mind like a steel trap. Rusted shut."
The tired detective's hand darted out to deliver a well-placed swat to the back of the curly head.
"Ow!" Blair protested, rubbing his head in mock pain. "Watch it, man. Don't damage the guide, okay?"
Exasperated, Simon shook his head. "Would you two cut out the comedy routine, please? Some of us have work to do this afternoon."
Blair grinned sheepishly as Ellison nodded his acknowledgment of his captain's request. "Sorry, Simon. You're right, Jim. The grant does involve the study of a Native American tribe. The Guale, to be precise. They lived in coastal Georgia prior to the arrival of European settlers there. They..."
Jim interrupted Blair's discourse with a wave. "Chief, we're sure you know unbelievable amounts of information about this tribe, but Simon's right, we don't have all day here. What about your grant?"
Beaming, Blair announced proudly, "I got it!"
"Hey, Sandburg! That's great," Simon heartily congratulated the younger man. "Does this mean you get money for your study or something?"
Jim answered for his guide, his expression devoid of emotion as he stared out the window. "It means he's leaving." Jim got up and headed toward the door. "I've got reports to write. Finish filling Simon in, Chief. You can give me the details tonight."
And he was gone.
Simon stared at the back of his retreating detective in stunned silence. Blair hadn't turned around to watch his partner's departure and sat staring at the tops of his shoes in silent fascination.
"Talk, Sandburg," Banks ordered, easing into his desk chair and returning his attention to the quiet young man sitting across from him. "Jim's wrong, isn't he? This doesn't mean you're leaving?"
The light had gone out of the blue eyes. Blair shrugged. "If I accept the grant, yes." He glanced out the window at the chiseled profile of his sentinel and best friend. "I discussed this with Jim when I applied. It's something I've really wanted to study, Simon. I won't go into the details now, but it's quite a prestigious grant. It would involve about six weeks of field work on a barrier island off the Georgia coast. Fredrica Island. I'd be working in conjunction with a friend of mine who's already involved in archaeological work at a site there. That's why I thought this would be a perfect study - so much of the time-consuming groundwork has already been done. I'm just going to take Kirby's findings off in a different direction. Anyway, after six weeks there, I can complete my analysis and conclusions at Rainier."
Blair looked again at Jim, stoically working at his desk in the bullpen. It was obvious he knew there was an excellent chance his friend was listening. Jim never eavesdropped on personal conversations between his friends, but this time, the odds were the sentinel was hearing every word.
"I'd never leave Jim. It's just that in order to keep my position at Rainier, I've got to do some field work and publish. My teaching's no problem, but in the academic world, publication's everything." Blair's frustration was obvious as he rose to pace around the room, no longer able to stay seated. "I can't go off to some distant site for my work, and leave Jim for months at a time. That's why this seemed such a perfect set-up! An interesting and important study. Only six weeks gone. But..." His eyes wandered back to Jim, and his next words were quieter. "Sometimes..." Blair ran his hand through his hair, pushing it back from his face. "Sometimes, I just don't know how to balance it all, man. Being a professor at Rainier...Jim's partner here... guide to his sentinel...roommate and best friend. I mean, I love Jim. You know that, Simon. But when do I get to...?" Blair broke off and paced to the window and stared out, unmoving...unseeing.
"...Get to live your own life, Chief?"
Blair turned around to face his friend, now standing once more inside the doorway. He didn't answer, but turned back to gaze out Simon's window in silence, shoulders slumped in obvious pain.
Simon Banks jerked his head toward Blair. He left the office, closing the door quietly behind him. "Take care of this, Jim," he whispered once he was outside, knowing the sentinel would hear.
Jim took a deep breath, then moved to stand behind his partner. "I had no right to act that way, Chief."
Blair shrugged but said nothing.
Jim stared out the window over the curly head for a few moments. When he spoke, his voice was quiet. "I didn't mean to take the wind out of your sails. I know this is a big accomplishment, and believe it or not, I'm very proud of you."
"Then why the hell do you act like that, Jim?" Despite his words, his voice was so soft even the sentinel had to strain to hear. Blair turned around to look up at Jim, hurt shining from his blue eyes. "You know I'll be back. After all we've been through, man, don't you know that much is true?" His level gaze held steady. "I'm not gonna leave you, Jim. Ever." When long moments passed with no answer, he turned back toward the window.
Ellison took a half-step closer to Blair, standing so close behind him that he could feel the warmth from his partner's body without using his sentinel senses at all. "I know that, too," he replied quietly.
This time, Sandburg didn't even attempt eye contact. Maybe this would be easier for Jim if he didn't have to look at him directly. "So, you got any theories here, man? Any idea why you wanted to ruin one of the most exciting moments in my professional career?"
Jim was silent for so long that Blair had almost given up hope of getting an answer. Then, Jim's soft reply stunned him with its intensity.
"Remember that old fear response you wrote about? It's back again. Full force." Not giving Blair the opportunity to object, Jim pushed on. "I know you never intend to leave permanently, Chief, and you've gotta know how much that means to me. Still..." He hesitated a moment before continuing. "Look at what your life's been like the past six years or so since you met me." His troubled eyes moved from the skyline of Cascade to the back of his partner's head as he ticked off the memories. "You've been shot...kidnapped...drugged...dropped in an elevator...beaten. Not to mention drowned. Compare that to the life of your typical university professor, and..."
Jim swallowed hard against the tightness in his throat. "I'm afraid, Sandburg. Afraid that if you get a full-time taste of what your life could be...would have been...if you weren't stuck with me and my life...you won't come back. Hell, Chief, a roller coaster's one thing. The ride I've taken you on has been a different trip altogether."
Blair had to wait for the cannonball that had suddenly struck him in the gut to dissipate before he could speak. "Do you have the slightest idea how totally wrong you are, man?"
He kept his voice low and calm, hoping its very timbre would serve to reassure Jim of his absolute conviction. "When are you going to get it through that thick, Neanderthal skull of yours that I'm not going anywhere?" Blair felt the light swat to his head and smiled. "Sorry about the caveman crack, Jim, but sometimes you just get me so damned frustrated. We settled all this after the dissertation fiasco, didn't we? I'm your partner. Today...tomorrow...as long as you want me. I didn't hold that press conference, and you didn't reveal your sentinel abilities to the world just for the hell of it, right? We did all that to save us, man. If you think I'd just trash all that after a few weeks out in the field..." He took a deep breath and shook his head, still staring out the window at the traffic below. "I thought you had more faith in me than that."
Jim's reply was so soft, Blair had to strain to hear him.
"I do, Blair. I've got all the faith in the world in you. It's faith in myself I'm sometimes a little short of, I guess. I know you're not going anywhere. Sorry I sometimes forget."
Sandburg turned around and looked up at Jim, his eyes shining with affection. "S'okay, Jim." He reached up and grasped the leather cord around his neck, pulling out the carved stone pendant lying beneath his shirt. Blair laid his other hand on the matching pendant resting hidden against Jim's chest. "You gave me this, Jim, the night I turned thirty. Look at it again. What do you see?"
Ellison lightly traced the familiar carved images on the face of the pendant, the taller man behind the younger, his hands resting lightly on his shoulders as he gazed out toward the horizon. The image was one of powerful strength combined with protective tenderness. Jim looked from the pendant back to Blair. "Sentinel and guide...us...standing together. Your spirit guide, the wolf, on the back."
Blair nodded. "Right. Same images on yours with the jaguar on the reverse, right? Sentinel and guide. Together. Incacha left this for me, and Imaru gave you the matching one for a reason. So that we'd have a tangible reminder of who we are. Of what we are. Together." Blair slipped the pendant back under his shirt. "I'm not going anywhere, Jim. You're not going to lose me. Ever." Tapping Jim's pendant beneath his shirt, Blair smiled patiently. "Remember?"
The blue of Jim's eyes softened as the warmth of his affection for Blair flamed in his heart. He gently tucked a stray curl behind his friend's ear, letting his fingers linger for a long moment behind Blair's neck. "Yeah, Chief. I remember now. Thanks for reminding me. I'll try not to forget again, okay?"
Pressing into Jim's hand at the back of his head, Blair reassured him. "I won't let you forget, man. I promise."
A light cough from behind them reminded the pair of their surroundings. Jim dropped his hand, squeezing Sandburg's shoulder as he did. They turned around to face Simon Banks, who had slipped back into his office and was standing in front of the closed door.
"Everything okay here?"
"Fine, sir," Jim answered. "Everything's fine."
Banks sat down in his chair, eyeing the partners carefully. "So, Jim, you're okay with Sandburg taking off for six weeks to... What was the name of that island again?"
"Fredrica," Blair reminded him. "Fredrica Island."
"Yeah. That's it. You don't have any problems with that, Jim?"
A look of irritation flashed across Jim's features. What was Simon trying to do? They'd just settled the issue, and now it seemed he was trying to bait Jim with Sandburg's leaving. "No, sir," he responded coolly. "No problems."
"That's funny," Simon mused, leaning back in his chair. "I thought you told me a sentinel needed his guide, Jim. To watch his back. To help him control his senses. Now, you act like you'll be fine on your own for six weeks. Just strikes me as a little odd, that's all."
Jim's temper flared. "I'm not exactly looking forward to it, sir. I just want Sandburg to have the chance to do this, that's all. He deserves to put his own career first for a change, don't you think?"
Beside him, Blair looked from one man to the other in confusion. Jim was acting like it had been his idea all along that he should go to Fredrica Island, and Simon was the one playing devil's advocate against the trip. What the hell was going on?
Simon's warm chuckle filled the office. "Sorry, Jim. Just couldn't resist raking you over the coals a bit. How would you boys like it if the old captain could arrange things so that sentinel and guide don't have to be separated at all?"
Blair looked up at Jim questioningly, but the sentinel merely shrugged. He had no idea what Simon had in mind.
"That would be fine, sir, but how...?" Jim looked at his captain and friend, his curiosity evident in his face and voice.
"Sit down," the captain ordered, indicating the two chairs opposite his desk. Once Jim and Blair were seated, Simon crossed his arms behind his head, the very picture of relaxation. He was obviously pleased with what he was about to share with his two friends. "I thought the name of that island off the Georgia coast sounded awfully familiar to me, Sandburg. While you two were... sorting things out...I made a phone call." He waited, apparently wanting to savor each moment of his surprise announcement.
Blair was unable to wait. "A call to whom, Simon? About what?"
"An old buddy of mine, Sandburg. Isaiah Johnson." Simon smiled as he reminisced. "We were in the same class at the academy, then we went on to work together here on the force for several years. Isaiah and I were good buddies. He was a good cop and a great friend. There weren't that many blacks on the force back then, so we kinda gravitated together. Our wives became close, too - shopping together, sharing recipes, talking babies. Daryl was born just a couple of months after his son, Darnell. The boys grew up together and were best friends for years."
"So what does he have to do with Fredrica Island?" Blair asked curiously.
"Who's telling this story, Sandburg? Me or you?" Simon shot the young man a disapproving look at the interruption. "I'll get there. Give me time."
"Sorry, Simon," Blair apologized quickly.
"That's better," the captain said approvingly. "As I was saying, Isaiah and I were close. We figured eventually we'd end up partners, but that never happened. He decided to go back home. Isaiah was born and raised in Georgia, on a little island off the coast."
"Fredrica?" Blair asked, his eyes sparkling.
Simon nodded and smiled. "How'd you guess? Anyway, he missed his family there, and truth be told, I don't think he was ever happy with city life. He only ended up in Cascade because Sarah, his wife, was from here. They met in college in Atlanta. She attended Spelman; he was at Morehouse. They wanted their son to grow up in a small town atmosphere. That's Isaiah. Only the best for his son. That boy's quite an athlete, and Isaiah wanted to be sure he could concentrate on school without some of the problems living in the city can bring. Anyway, when the boys were about ten, there was a deputy position open back on Fredrica. Isaiah got the job, but he wasn't satisfied with that. He got himself appointed chief of police a couple of years ago."
"That's great for your friend, Simon," Jim said. "But what's that got to do with Sandburg and me?"
Simon waved a warning finger at Ellison and cautioned, "What did I tell your partner about interrupting?"
Jim nodded in apology, a tiny smile teasing his lips.
"I talk to Isaiah about once a month or so. I think there have been some problems with Darnell, but he's not the type to talk about his troubles. Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, he was telling me about this series of murders that has him totally stumped. Said he sure could use the help of big-city detective on this one. Someone used to solving murders. I don't guess he gets many homicides out there. From what Isaiah says, Fredrica's a pretty small island." Simon cut his eyes toward Blair. "You putting this together yet, Sandburg?"
Grinning, Blair replied, "Oh, yeah, Simon. You're gonna let Jim go out there and help out your buddy for a few weeks while I'm doing my research." The smile faded a little. "But will the department go for that?"
Simon jotted a quick note on a memo pad. "Shouldn't be a problem. The chief tries to honor requests for temporary assignments to other departments when he can. Since Isaiah's a former officer here, and Jim has special training with serial murder cases..." He shrugged. "All I need is a formal request from Isaiah, and I'm sure the brass will sign off on it." Simon looked across his desk at Jim Ellison. "Assuming all this meets with your approval, Jim."
"How many murders so far? Is he sure they're related?" Jim already had the look of a detective on a case. Intense. Totally focused.
Simon chuckled. "I assume that's a 'yes', Detective?"
Jim glanced over at his guide, sitting quietly beside him. "Is it okay with you, Chief? This is really your call, after all. You're going out there for research. For your work. You may not really want..."
"Shut up, Jim," Blair ordered kindly. "I want you there, okay? I think Simon's idea is totally cool. You'll be helping solve those cases, and I'll be close by in case you need me." After a moment's pause, he added, "You'll be there for me, too, of course."
"Then it's settled," Simon said, sounding very pleased with himself. "I'll call Isaiah right away and get the paperwork started. When were you planning to leave, Sandburg?"
Blair leaned over and studied the monthly calendar on Simon's desk. "My classes end next Friday after finals are over. I'd like to get on out there the next week after I get my grades turned in. Can you release Jim that soon?"
"If we get the paperwork completed and Jim's 'loan' approved, I'm okay with that. It will leave us short-handed, but I think I can wrangle a temporary assignment for one of the vice detectives for a few weeks, if we need the help. Maybe we'll get lucky and crime in Cascade will take a vacation."
All three men chuckled at the unlikely possibility of that ever occurring.
As Jim drove from Savannah, where their cross-country flight had landed early that afternoon, to St. Mary's, where they would catch the Fredrica Island Ferry, Blair kept up a steady stream of informational chatter. The countryside was flat. Tall, skinny pines, interspersed with saw-toothed palmetto and the occasional wild magnolia dotted the land between the salt marshes. In those marshes, spartina grass grew tall, stretching out as far as the eye could see. The sinewy curves of tidal creeks wound through the marshes like arteries providing a constant supply of life-giving energy to the wetlands.
It was early June, but already the South was sweltering under the summer's heat. Over the asphalt, heat waves danced and undulated, always staying just ahead of the rented Jeep.
Blair's eyes glowed with excitement as he talked. Jim had to admit, Blair's non-stop lecture was fascinating. Sometimes he wondered how on earth Sandburg remembered all the stuff he did. Surely there must be a limit to the sheer volume of facts the human brain could contain. If so, he thought with a smile, obviously Blair hadn't come close to reaching his quota.
"Oh, man, these are the Marshes of Glynn, Jim. Can you believe the size of them?" Blair peered out the window of the rented Jeep. "Looks like they go on forever! Sidney Lanier, Georgia's poet laureate, wrote about them once."
"Glooms of the live-oaks, beautiful-braided and woven
With intricate shades of the vines that myriad-cloven
Clamber the forks of the multiform boughs,--
Virginal shy lights,
Wrought of the leaves to allure to the whisper of vows,
When lovers pace timidly down through the green colonnades
Of the dim sweet woods, of the dear dark woods,
Of the heavenly woods and glades,
That run to the radiant marginal sand-beach within
The wide sea-marshes of Glynn;--
By a world of marsh that borders a world of sea.
Sinuous southward and sinuous northward the shimmering band
Of the sand-beach fastens the fringe of the marsh to the folds of the land.
Inward and outward to northward and southward the beach-lines linger and curl
As a silver-wrought garment that clings to and follows
the firm sweet limbs of a girl.
Vanishing, swerving, evermore curving again into sight,
Softly the sand-beach wavers away to a dim gray looping of light.
And what if behind me to westward the wall of the woods stands high?
The world lies east: how ample, the marsh and the sea and the sky!
A league and a league of marsh-grass, waist-high, broad in the blade,
Green, and all of a height, and unflecked with a light or a shade,
Stretch leisurely off, in a pleasant plain,
To the terminal blue of the main.
Oh, what is abroad in the marsh and the terminal sea?
Somehow my soul seems suddenly free
From the weighing of fate and the sad discussion of sin,
By the length and the breadth and the sweep of the marshes of Glynn."
Jim glanced over at his friend with a quick, approving smile. "Nice, Chief. They are beautiful, aren't they? A man could get lost out there, in more ways than one."
Blair studied him curiously. "You think the marshes have something to do with the murders? Or did you mean that in a more figurative sense?"
Shrugging slightly, Jim looked out at the sea of grass again. "I don't know enough about the case to have any opinions yet. I just meant that those marshes are sort of hypnotizing, y'know? The motion of the grass...the variations of the colors...the constantly changing patterns of light. It's intriguing."
"They're important to the local economy and ecology, too," Blair pointed out, slipping easily back into his lecture mode. "The marshes serve as breeding and nesting grounds for lots of animals, including shrimp, birds, fish, and turtles. The babies stay in the protection of the tall grasses and these gentle tidal creeks until they're big enough to go out into the open air or ocean. If it wasn't for these marshes, the shrimping industry would go down the tubes."
"They protect the mainland, too, along with the barrier islands, like Fredrica. When a hurricane hits, the islands block the strongest waves, and the marshes act like a giant sponge, soaking up the excess water and helping to prevent flooding on the mainland. Not only that, the anaerobic soil acts sort of like a big filter, taking out lots of pollution before it can reach the freshwater creeks or ground water. Birds use them as resting spots on their migratory patterns, too."
"The Guale tribe were part of these marshes and islands. They recognized the concept of limited resources even back then, knowing that if a place was over-hunted or fished, soon there would be nothing left. They never lived on the island of Fredrica as they did some of these other islands. Instead they used it only for hunting. That way, there would always be plenty of resources for the future. We should learn from them, man. My friend, Kirby Rutherford, has located the site of one of their old camps. He's excavating all sorts of amazing artifacts and wants my help in interpreting the social aspects of their tribe. Hopefully, we can learn more about how the Guale lived and died."
Blair fell silent, staring out at the seemingly endless expanse of marshes.
Jim, too, looked at the wetlands with a new appreciation. "Pretty amazing places, aren't they?" he mused. Turning to Blair, he smiled. "Thanks, Chief. Interesting stuff." He returned his attention to the road ahead.
Blair's face was alight with pleasure at the compliment. One of Jim's favorite running jokes was about how he ran off at the mouth, and it was nice to know that his friend did occasionally enjoy his little lectures. "Thanks, man. You're welcome to come out to the site any time. We'll show you around and explain what we've found."
"I just may do that, Sandburg. Assuming this case doesn't occupy all my time. I hope Simon's right about this buddy of his really wanting my help. Cops can be possessive about their...territory...sometimes."
Blair chuckled. "Really, man? Never noticed. Haven't seen any signs of that at all."
Hidden in the forest, the predator jerked its head up. Deep in its belly, there was an uneasy stirring. Recognizing the emotion for what it was, the predator nodded in satisfaction. The hunter had arrived. It could already taste the excitement of its next kill beginning to rise within. The final contest was about to begin at last.
Jim needn't have worried about Isaiah Johnson. The tall black police chief welcomed Jim and Blair at the dock as they drove their jeep off the ferry that had carried them from St. Mary's to Fredrica. Nearly as tall as Simon, Isaiah Johnson was an imposing figure. His broad smile and firm handshake erased Jim's concern immediately. Simon's friend seemed eager to get Jim's insights into the murders that had plagued his island.
"It's past four now, so I don't think there's much point in your coming down to the station this afternoon. Rest up from your flight, settle in, and we'll get to work tomorrow morning," Johnson suggested as they all climbed into Jim's rented Jeep. "I'll ride out with you to the cottage. The owner, Mrs. Henderson, is in a nursing home now, and her son's up in Augusta. They were glad you wanted to rent the place for the time you're here. Gives him a little more time to make some decisions about what to do with his mama's house. It's small, but it should do fine for the two of you. Plus it's about halfway between town and the archaeological site."
A few minutes later, they were driving along South Beach Road with Jim at the wheel, Isaiah Johnson in the passenger seat, and Blair cocooned in the small luggage area with their suitcases. "Tell me about the bodies," he said. "Might as well know the basics before I come in tomorrow."
Johnson grinned at Jim's choice of topic for the ride to the cottage. "Simon said you're a dedicated one. All business. Guess he was right. Okay, here's the bottom line. Three bodies so far. All male, between thirty and forty-five. All white, with no wife or kids in the immediate picture. A variety of jobs between them - plumber, coach, and shrimp boat captain. Two of the victims lived near each other, but neither of them knew the third."
Jim stared out at the gnarled live oaks lining the opposite side of the road from the beach. They wore heavy drapes of twisted Spanish moss from their limbs, lending them a rather dark and mysterious air compared to the brightness of the sandy beach to their right. "What makes you think the three murders are related?"
"Other than the fact that this island's not had even one murder in the previous decade and suddenly, within the space of six months, we've had three?" Isaiah Johnson studied Jim's profile. "This is a quiet place. A safe place. That's why Sarah and I moved back here with Darnell. Most of the time, my job consists of a few break-ins, some shoplifting, and maybe a little trespassing by hunters. That's it." Johnson looked out at the ocean. "Three murders? There's gotta be a connection. Turn left here."
Jim turned down a narrow road paved with oyster shells through the maritime forest. The Jeep crunched its way slowly down the twisting path. "Tell me about the causes of death and anything else you've got."
"The same for all three. Strangulation, along with exactly five stab wounds to the chest and abdomen. That's one of the few similarities so far, along with the fact that all three victims were dumped out in the marshes, although they were killed elsewhere. Not enough blood on the ground around the bodies for the murders to have occurred there. Terrible way to desecrate those wetlands." Johnson sighed regretfully before he continued. "The M.E. says the same weapon was used for each victim. A large knife, maybe one used in the kitchen or for hunting and cleaning game. One last thing. We found motorcycle tracks in the mud not far from each victim. Fresh tracks. I think the perp brought them there on his bike, dumped the bodies, then sped off. That doesn't really give us much, at least not yet. Lots of folks around here ride motorcycles. I don't know how useful that's gonna be until we get a tire to match with the imprints we've made at the scenes."
Johnson waved at a small white cottage standing a short distance off the road. It nestled among the huge live oaks as if it had always belonged there in its forest home. "That's it. Your home away from home, gentlemen."
The three men piled out of the Jeep, carrying their gear inside. Blair immediately began exploring his new environment.
The tiny cottage had only five rooms - two bedrooms, a tidy kitchen, and a living area, along with a small bathroom. A screen porch out back housed a set of old wicker furniture, long ago painted a creamy white. The furnishings were basic, but comfortable - overstuffed chairs, a worn couch, and a bookcase filled with well-read books in the living room, all centered around a stone fireplace. In each bedroom, there was a double bed with pine headboard, a single maple chest-of-drawers, and a rocking chair. Except for the colors and patterns of the quilts on the beds, the rooms were almost identical, down to the circular braided rugs on the floors. The kitchen contained an old gas stove and refrigerator, a small oak dining table, with a narrow countertop and sink running along one side. Throughout the cottage were small knick-knacks and mementos of a life simply lived. Comfortable, Sandburg decided. Not the loft, but a place in which they could definitely feel at home.
He dropped his belongings in the bedroom across from the one Jim had already claimed. Compared to previous research sites he'd known, this was heaven. He grinned in anticipation of the weeks ahead.
After checking the lights, stove, and refrigerator, Isaiah Johnson walked to the door. "I'll leave you two to settle in. Blair, the dig site's down the main road to the left about three and a half, maybe four miles. Jim, town's about the same distance in the other direction. Turn right when you get to the first stop sign. That'll take you right by the station."
"How are you getting back?" Blair asked.
"I'll walk up to the main road. My wife's picking me up there..." Isaiah checked his watch. "...five minutes ago. I'd better get a move on." Before closing the screen door behind him, he added, "There are some basic supplies in the refrigerator and kitchen. Milk, juice, some cereal...a pack of steaks and a couple of potatoes. Grill's out back. I stuck in a couple of beers, too. That should tide you over until tomorrow, then you can run into town to the grocery store. My home and office numbers are by the phone. Don't hesitate to call if there's anything you need."
Johnson waved as he jogged down the steps from the front porch. "See you tomorrow, Jim, and thanks again for coming. Looking forward to working with you."
"He sure seems glad to have some help," Blair commented as he thumbed over some of the titles on the bookshelf. "Nice guy. No wonder he and Simon became friends." Turning back to Jim, he asked, "Does he know?"
Jim didn't have to ask about what. Ever since he had revealed his abilities as a sentinel in order to restore Blair's academic reputation, every new person who entered their lives had been put into two categories - those who knew and those who didn't. If the person lived in or around Cascade, there was usually no doubt. They knew. The news coverage after Jim's press conference had been too intense for even those who rarely turned on a television or picked up a newspaper not to know. In the following months, however, the media coverage of Jim's abilities had trickled to near invisibility. Apparently, Jim's use of his senses in his police work wasn't exciting enough to hold the attention of the press for long. A man sniffing the air doesn't make for exciting 'film at 11:00'. The media had moved on to more provocative stories.
For those outside the Cascade area, it was a more difficult judgment call whether or not they had heard about Jim's senses. While the story had received some national coverage, it had quickly dropped from the headlines, receiving at most, two days worth of coverage. Normally, when meeting an 'outsider', Jim and Blair assumed the person hadn't heard and went on from there.
This was different. Isaiah Johnson was Simon's friend, and Jim's senses weren't exactly a secret any more.
"Yeah, he knows," Jim answered, moving to the back door and looking out at the screened porch and the live oaks beyond. "I told Simon to clue him in, but he asked Isaiah not to tell anyone else. I'd rather not have to work in the glare of the local spotlight, if you know what I mean."
Blair nodded. That arrangement suited him fine. After years of covering up Jim's abilities, it seemed more normal to operate in secrecy than in the open.
Jim glanced down at his watch. "Hey, Chief. I know that on local time, it's just past 5:30, but my stomach's operating on Cascade time, and back home, it's lunchtime. We sure didn't have much in the way of food on the flight. You want to fire up that grill, and I'll go put the potatoes in?"
Smiling broadly, Blair agreed full heartedly. "I'm down with that, Jim. My stomach's been growling for the last hour. Bring on the steaks!"
Blair's friend, Kirby Rutherford, was at the cottage door by seven the next morning. After the introductions were made, the two researchers climbed into Kirby's old Bronco and headed off to the dig.
"Do I need to rent a car myself?" Blair asked as they bumped along the oyster shell lane leading toward the main road. "With Jim busy helping Chief Johnson, I know I can't count on using the Jeep."
Kirby waved off the question. "Shouldn't be a problem. I can swing by here on my way in, or..." Kirby's dark brown eyes grew thoughtful. "I've got an idea. There's a motorcycle out at the site. It belongs to Jeff, one of our researchers, but he had to fly back to California unexpectedly. His dad had a really major heart attack and surgery. He's not sure when he'll get back here. Probably be after you're done and gone, Blair. I'll give him a call and see if he minds your using his bike while you're on the island. You ride, don't you?"
"Used to, but it's been a while. Guess it's like riding a bicycle, though. You never really forget how." Blair nodded gratefully. "That would be great. It's always nice to have your own wheels, right?"
"I hear that, man," Kirby said with a broad grin. "Wait 'til you see this Kawasaki, Blair. It's an awesome ride. Jeff bought it out here off a guy on the mainland who really needed the money. Got a super deal on it."
Chatting comfortably about motorcycles and their research, the two young men headed down the main road toward the dig site on the banks of the Satilla River just as the sun rose gloriously in the east.
From the shadows of the maritime forest, cold eyes watched the newcomer as he was greeted by the other scientists. These people were outsiders; they were not at home in the woods and marshes. The predator laughed silently as it disappeared back into the cloak of trees. Before the killing was done, none would dare venture alone into the marshes or forests. In time, they would all hide in fear.
The Fredrica Island Police Department was small, Jim thought as he looked around the place, but efficiently run. He would have been surprised to find it any other way, given his early impressions of Isaiah Johnson. The receptionist, Penny Morgan, greeted him when he arrived, insisting that Jim take a cup of her freshly brewed coffee and a fresh danish. A middle-aged woman with graying black hair, she insisted on showing off the photos of her grandchildren displayed prominently on her desk and soon was giving Jim the in-depth history of everyone in the community.
"Of course, I think the murderer has to be a mainlander," Penny insisted, backing Jim into the corner beside her desk as her words flowed unceasingly. "I mean, no born islander would behave in such a despicable manner! We're like a family here, Detective Ellison. Look at Chief Johnson. He left this place, sure, but he came back to raise his family. Granted, he's had his share of troubles, but what man hasn't?"
Jim found himself staring helplessly at the endlessly moving lips, coated with their thick application of orange lipstick. Did this woman ever manage to get any work done?
"I know for a fact that sweet Sarah has forgiven him his trespasses, and as for the trouble with the boy - why that's been over a year ago! And the troubles the Chief's had pale in comparison to those that poor Hattie O'Brien has had to face with her twins. They simply pale. To think that both those girls got themselves...in trouble...at the same time!" Penny plunged tirelessly onward. "Everyone has problems, is what I'm saying, but on this island, we all support each other. I just know for a fact that the man you want doesn't live on Fredrica, Detective Ellison. You need to be looking at the mainlanders. Have you talked yet with..."
Penny Morgan stopped abruptly when Isaiah Johnson came in. The tall chief of police shot his receptionist a look of warning, then motioned for Jim to follow him down the hall. Thanking Penny politely for her kindness, Jim took his coffee and pastry and slipped gratefully into Isaiah's office.
As soon as the door closed behind them, the police chief smiled sympathically. "Sorry about Penny, Jim. She's an excellent receptionist, really good with the public, but sometimes she can be a bit overwhelming." He sat down at his desk, shaking his head. "The department couldn't survive without her, though. She knows every procedure, every form, and knows every single person on the island."
Jim settled down in one of the old wooden chairs across from Isaiah's desk. He glanced at the photos displayed behind Simon's friend. An attractive, smiling woman, obviously Sarah, posed with a young teenaged boy, evidently Darnell, looking into the camera with a slightly bored expression. The photo appeared several years old, as Darnell would be the same age as Daryl, now a college sophomore. If the Johnsons had experienced family difficulties, as Penny Morgan had implied, it wasn't evident in the photos. "I'm sure Mrs. Morgan's quite an asset," Jim commented on the enthusiastic receptionist. "Tell me about the rest of your staff I'll be working with."
Isaiah considered. "Really, I'm the only guy you'll be involved with directly. I have two officers, Phillips and Taylor, but I'm heading up the murder investigation. They're doing the routine patrols and handling the daily calls, freeing me to do the detective work." He regarded Jim closely. "We're a small department, Jim, compared to what you must be used to. No on-site lab. No stable of detectives and plain clothes officers. As far as this investigation goes, we're basically it. That's why I have such high hopes for your...abilities. Simon's filled me in, but still..." He shook his head. "It's hard to believe."
Jim smiled tolerantly. "I understand that. It was hard for me to believe at first, too, and I was the one with the senses."
Isaiah nodded. "I imagine that would be a difficult adjustment to make." The older man hesitated, looking first down at his desk, then back up at Jim. "Jim...? Since we're going to be working together, and I've sort of gone out on a limb with the mayor - bringing you in and all - would you mind giving me a...demonstration? Just so I can see what we're dealing with here?"
The sentinel considered. He was reluctant to debase his abilities with cheap parlor tricks, but this man had taken a chance in bringing him to Fredrica. Isaiah Johnson knew nothing really about what Jim could do. And he was Simon Banks' friend. Looking around the office, Jim thought for a few moments. "Okay, tell you what. Call your wife. Tell her you're stopping by the store on your way home, and ask what she needs you to bring."
Looking slightly doubtful, the chief did as he was told. He listened to his wife's reply for a minute, writing down what he heard on a small notepad, then hung up the phone. "She said we needed..."
Jim interrupted. "Two percent milk, a dozen eggs - large -, a quart of orange juice - extra pulp -, some fresh strawberries, and a bottle of Thousand Island. Oh, and pick up some pork chops, but only if they have some that look lean. The last ones weren't very good." Bemused, Jim watched the play of expression across the other man's face. An intensely private man, it wasn't often he demonstrated his abilities, and Jim had to admit, it was interesting watching the reaction.
"That's...impressive," Isaiah commented with a wry smile after he'd recovered enough to speak. "Do you see as well as you hear?"
Jim walked to the window and looked across the street. A feed store was directly across from the police station. He focused his sharp eyes through the large, plate-glass window for a few moments. "Call up whoever's on the register at Island Feed and Seed Store, Isaiah. I believe his name's Tom, if the embroidery on his shirt's correct. Ask him how much money is lying on the counter where the last customer left it while he went back to the rear of the store to get a bag of mulch. You'll find it's..." Jim looked carefully through the window. "It's five dollars and sixty-eight cents."
Without stopping to question the Cascade detective as to how he knew so much about a business he'd never been in, Chief Johnson did as he was told. "Tom, this is Isaiah. You're gonna think this sounds nuts, but just humor me, okay? How much money you got lying on your counter right now?" He waited. "Yeah, that's all. Thanks, Tom." He replaced the receiver and stared at Jim. "Five dollars, sixty-eight cents." Leaning back in his chair, he grinned at the sentinel. "Man, I am impressed! You are something else, my friend. How about your other senses? Are they as strong as your hearing and vision?"
Jim nodded. "They are. Blair says he thinks my sense of hearing is the strongest, although sight and smell are pretty close seconds."
"Simon says that Sandburg is some kind of...what?...helper?...to you. That he's the one who helped you learn to use your senses."
"That's right. We call him my guide, a term that a rogue CIA agent actually coined. We found that it's a pretty accurate description." Jim shrugged. "Whatever I can do today, I owe to Sandburg."
Isaiah appraised Jim's expression as he talked about his friend. "You two are close." It was a statement, not a question. He never questioned the obvious.
"We are. Closer than brothers." Ready to change the topic before he was expected to reveal any more than he already had, Jim asked, "When can I see the evidence?" Convinced of his new detective's abilities, Isaiah Johnson rose from his chair. "It's in the evidence room, really just a spare storage room I've devoted to this case. Come on."
"Victim one was a guy I knew pretty well - Robert Connerly. Bob was our plumber here on the island. Nice guy. Attended the same church as the second victim and was a neighbor or his. Bob had done some work for us, and we ran into him occasionally at the beach."
Isaiah continued down his mental checklist of well-researched facts.
"Victim two was Jerry Thomas, a softball coach over in St. Mary's at the high school. Lived one place over from Robert and attended the same church. He also coached Bob's oldest kid in softball. Jerry did a lot of work with kids, not only at school. He was a Big Brother for a kid on the mainland, and in the summers, he did mission work in Mexico for his church. Who'd want to kill a guy like that?" He shook his head in disbelief.
"Anyway, victim three was Joe Venters, shrimp boat captain. I'll be damned if I can make a connection between him and the first two. Joe lived on the far side of the island, didn't go to church, and pretty much kept to himself. No kids, so he wouldn't have known Jerry through school or sports. If he had any dealings with Bob or Jerry, I can't find what it was."
Isaiah looked at Jim shrewdly. "You're the one with the hyper senses. I'm hoping you can find something I missed." He nodded toward the evidence. "It's all yours." He stepped back and watched the Cascade detective at work.
There wasn't much for either man to see. Jim examined the clothing each victim had worn, and the miscellaneous items found at and around each crime scene. He'd been hoping for a break, something of the killer left behind. Moving slowly, Jim used each of his senses to scour the evidence, but he turned up nothing. Isaiah had already established that all the fingerprints found on the items had been accounted for by the victims or their friends and family. No one with the motive or inclination to kill three innocent people.
"I'd like to visit each of the crime scenes," he said at last, turning from the evidence to face Isaiah Johnson.
The older man nodded. "That'll be easy. Each body was found within a mile of the others. Out in the marshes near a large tidal creek." He pointed to a spot on the map hanging behind him. "Here. The Satilla River."
Blair listened carefully to the morning strategy meeting held to map out the day's work. Besides his friend, Kirby Rutherford, there were two other archaeologists. Chris Sellers and Joy Rivers were graduate students and under Kirby's direct supervision. This dig would form the basis of his doctoral dissertation, and the two students both understood the importance of their work to the pleasant, dark-haired grad student. Blair would work with Kirby to investigate how his archaeological finds could help interpret the social make-up of the Guale tribe.
Chris and Joy greeted Blair warmly.
"Nice to have you with us, Dr. Sandburg," Joy said, her arm looped loosely around Chris' waist. The two were an item, according to the briefing Kirby had given Blair on the way to the site. An attractive brunette, Joy's smile was infectious.
Chris held out his hand for Blair to shake. "Looking forward to working with you. My minor's anthropology, so I'm interested in hearing your views on what we're finding here."
"You've been doing some fascinating work," Blair commented. "I hope I'll be able to add something to your findings."
The young people moved on to their work near the banks of the Satilla River, while Blair joined Kirby at the tent that served as their field office. "You ready to get down to it?" he asked Blair.
Blair Sandburg looked around with a satisfied smile. He was back in the field again, and it felt good. Nothing in his life would ever fulfill him as much as being Jim's guide, but anthropology would always be important to him. This field study brought home again the fact that as a part-time professor at Rainier and part-time consultant to the department, he had the best of both worlds.
He grinned at Kirby. "I'm ready. Show me what you've found."
The sweltering June sun was almost overhead by the time Jim and Isaiah reached the location where the third body was found. Sweat trickled down Jim's back in slow, uneven rivers. The searches of the first two sites had proven futile. Jim had turned up no new evidence at all. He'd found it difficult to filter out all the scents and signs of the people who had visited the scenes since the murders. By the time he stepped out of Isaiah's F-250 at the third scene, he found himself wishing fervently for his guide.
The sentinel had caught a scent at both sites, however, wafting through the air from deep in the forest beyond the marsh margin. It was the same both times, a scent of something - rather someone - old and more than a little used up, accompanied by the unmistakable smell of alcohol. Extending his hearing, he picked up a heart beat, one unfamiliar to him. Each time, Jim began to mention it to Isaiah, but both times, something stopped him - an instinctual feeling that if he waited, the mysterious person hiding in the woods would come to them.
So he remained silent about what he had seen and sensed.
Now they were at the third site, but thus far, he had not caught the scent of the stranger. Luckily, it was still low tide, so the salt marshes were relatively dry, even alongside the banks of the Satilla River, making their search easier.
"We found him right over here." Isaiah led Jim over to a spot by the creek where the spartina grass still lay flattened and broken. Stepping back, the police chief allowed Jim room to look around.
Jim squatted on the ground, running his hands along the bent grasses. Feeling nothing unusual, he progressed to his sense of smell. Filtering out the strong smell of rotten eggs so common in the anaerobic mud of the marshes, Jim tried to pick up on any scents that seemed out of place. Nothing.
Look around, Jim. Filter out the common colors...the greens...the browns. Look for something unusual, something that shouldn't be there. It is there, man. You can find it. Focus, Jim. Keep your focus on finding the abnormal within the normal."
Jim listened to the low, calming sound of his guide's voice in his mind. He knew exactly what Blair would say, if he had been beside him. The inner voice wasn't Blair, but maybe it would be enough.
And it was.
There. Hanging beneath a bent over strand of spartina, was a tiny thread, a sliver of man-made blue in a sea of natural browns, golds, and greens. Jim stared at it closely. There appeared to be a dark stain of some sort about halfway down. Jim smiled at last. Thanks, Chief.
"Isaiah, over here!" he called, bringing the older man running with an evidence bag.
They bagged the fiber, and Jim continued his search. Running his fingers slowly along the ground once more, he felt something out of place in the contours of the marsh mud.
Traces of a footprint.
Hidden within the sheltering green of a sea of spartina, the print would have been nearly invisible to normal eyes. It was not surprising that Isaiah and his men had missed it.
Jim and Isaiah worked quickly to make a cast of the print before the returning tide destroyed even more of its outline and details. Already, Isaiah worried, so much of the print had been lost that it might prove worthless as evidence.
When the plaster used to make the cast of the print had dried enough to lift, they were pleasantly surprised to find a partial print of the sole of a shoe. Isaiah smiled when he saw it. Obviously from an athletic shoe, it definitely wasn't the kind worn by any of his officers on the scene after the body had been discovered. It wasn't complete, but it was certainly enough to demonstrate the make of shoe the person who made it, hopefully the killer, had worn.
When Jim felt he'd done all they could, the two men headed back to the truck. Ellison was quiet. He was worried that the print might well have been that of someone unrelated to the crime. Hell, the same thing could be said of the blue fiber. They had to come up with a lead to the murderer independent of those clues. Then, if they found articles of clothing matching the evidence, it would only add to their case.
Just before he opened the passenger door, a breeze brought a familiar scent. The stranger in the forest was back.
"Isaiah," Jim said casually. "Don't look around, but there's someone watching us from the woods. Whoever it is has been at all three scenes."
The police chief didn't take his eyes off Jim. "What do you want to do?"
"Get in the truck," Jim said.
Once they were inside, they closed the doors, and Isaiah started the engine. "Drive on down the road a little. Slowly. I'll get out and double back and see if I can flush him out."
Isaiah nodded. "Will do."
After they had driven up the road a short distance, Jim quietly opened the door and stepped from the slow-moving truck. He slipped quietly into the forest and stood still, opening his senses to track the stranger who had been watching them all day.
Jim followed the sounds and scent to the edge of the forest overlooking the spot by the Satilla River where the third body was found. He stopped behind the trunk of a large live oak tree and watched.
An old man, his shoulders stooped with age, crouched behind the cover of a palmetto palm, peering out down the road where Isaiah's truck had disappeared. Keeping one hand on the gun Isaiah had provided for him, Jim stepped from behind the live oak tree.
"Looking for me?"
Startled, the old man tried to twist around, but he lost his balance and tumbled back, landing on the hard ground with a grunt. Trying to scamper backwards on his hands and feet like a desperate crab. "Oh, no...no...no. Mustn't see me...can't see me. Not supposed to know I'm here. No...no...no." The watery blue eyes filled with tears.
Isaiah appeared at Jim's side. "Harvey?"
"You know this guy?" Jim asked, letting his hand drop from the holstered gun. The old guy certainly seemed harmless enough, more frightened than anything.
Isaiah nodded and spoke quietly to Jim. "Yeah, I know him. This is Harvey Simmons. He's...kind of an icon around here. I'll fill you in later."
Turning his attention to the old man on the ground, Isaiah asked, "Harvey, would you like to come down to the station with me? Penny's got some fresh gingerbread she baked this morning. I bet she'd be glad to give you a slice. You'd like that, wouldn't you Harvey? Nice, sweet gingerbread." When Harvey scrambled quickly to his feet, Isaiah looked over at Jim and grinned. "Works every time. Harvey's renowned for his sweet tooth."
A few minutes later, they were on their way into town, Harvey Simmons in the back seat, muttering happily to himself.
Leaving Harvey to devour his gingerbread, Isaiah filled Jim in on the old man.
"Harvey's been around this island forever. He's definitely mentally retarded, and there may be some emotional problems as well, but he's not dangerous at all. The most old Harvey's ever done is to steal clothes from laundry lines or pilfer fruit from the grocery store. He panhandles on the street occasionally, but he doesn't really bother anyone."
Jim watched the old man out the office window. "Where does he live?"
Isaiah shrugged. "He's got a tiny cabin out in the woods, but he's been known to wander all over the island for weeks at a time."
"What do you think he was doing by the marshes where the bodies were found? Do you think he saw anything?"
"Maybe." Isaiah shook his head. "But whether or not he can tell us what he saw, that's another story. Harvey's communication skills are...rudimentary...to say the least. I'm really not sure if he's in touch with reality or not."
Jim opened the door. "So let's ask him."
Seated on the couch in Isaiah's office, Harvey carefully peeled open the paper on the candy bar Penny had given him from the snack machine. Jim and Isaiah sat facing him.
"Harvey," Isaiah began in a calm, friendly voice. "We know you've been hanging out down by the marshes. I need to know what you've seen."
The old man began to rock back and forth slowly and took a huge bite of the candy bar. "I see lots of things...bugs and snakes and birds with wings." His childlike grin was ringed with chocolate.
Patiently, Isaiah nodded at the old man's observations. "Yep, lots of creatures in the marshes. I bet you've seen them all, too. But we know about all the animals, Harvey. Now, how about the humans? Have you seen any people in the marshes recently? People who...didn't belong there? Who did bad things?"
In a singsong voice, Harvey chanted, "Bad man, bad man...catch him if you can." He cackled with laughter.
More gentle questioning revealed no new information. Thirty minutes later, Harvey wandered back onto the street.
Jim and Isaiah watched from the station's front window. "We'll keep an eye on him. Maybe pull him in to talk again and hope he's having a more lucid day."
Jim stared after the old man's hunched shoulders. "He knows something. I just feel it. Only problem is, does he understand what it is that he's seen and can he tell us?"
"What do you say we run by the house for a late lunch?" Isaiah Johnson suggested after their interview with Harvey. "It's close by, and Sarah has some fried chicken and fresh beans all ready for you. I kind of dropped a hint last night that you might be joining us."
"Sounds good to me," Jim agreed readily. "Sandburg will be eating with the archaeology team, so I figured I'd grab a sandwich or something. Home cooking sounds good to me."
The Johnson house was a neat, middle-class box nestled in among a dozen or so similar homes in a small subdivision a few miles out from town. A compact car was parked in the driveway beneath a basketball goal that hung beneath the eve of the garage.
"Sarah? Honey, we're here," Isaiah called, leading Jim into the bright kitchen. He gave the small, attractive woman a quick peck on the cheek. "Sorry we're late."
Sarah Johnson turned around, greeting Jim warmly. "Anyone Simon Banks thinks so much of is more than welcome in our home. We're glad you're here, Jim."
If there was any friction between husband and wife, Jim Ellison couldn't detect it. Probably a combination of Penny Morgan's overactive imagination and the result of too much small town gossip. Before long, Jim had forgotten the rumor altogether. The food was wonderful, and Jim was on his second helping of mashed potatoes when the kitchen door flew open. "Mom! I'm starved! When's...?"
Darnell Johnson stopped in his tracks at the sight of Jim and his parents at their kitchen table. The smile he'd worn when he'd entered turned cold as he glared at his father. "Sorry," he mumbled. "Didn't know we had company." The powerfully built young man stood sullenly, his interest in food seemingly forgotten.
"Jim Ellison, Cascade P.D." Jim stood up, offering his hand to Darnell. "I'm a friend of Simon Banks, here to give your dad a little help with these murders."
"He could use some help," Darnell jibed, shooting his father a sharp look. "Last I heard, he wasn't any closer to figuring it out than he was after the first killing. How many more bodies is it gonna take, Dad, until you catch this maniac, huh?"
"Darnell!" Sarah snapped. "Don't you dare talk to your father like that."
Brown eyes dropped. "Sorry, Mom," he muttered. "But everyone on this island's asking the same question." He grinned coldly at his father. "Guess you got no answers though, do you, Dad?" Snatching a chicken leg, the young man headed out of room. "I'll grab some leftovers later. Got no appetite any more."
When Darnell's footsteps had faded, Isaiah looked apologetically at Jim as Sarah stared silently at her plate. "Sorry. He and I...haven't been getting along for a while now. Simon says he went through the same thing with Daryl, but..." He shrugged helplessly.
"It's okay," Jim said, smiling at the couple. "Simon's right about Daryl, but he's matured a lot in the last couple of years, and they're very close again. Hang in there."
He didn't miss the harsh looks exchanged between Isaiah and his wife. The rest of the meal was eaten in virtual silence.
On the way back to the station, Isaiah was uncharacteristically quiet. About halfway there, he turned to Jim with a sad smile. "Sorry about the scene back there."
"No problem. We already covered that."
"I know," the police chief agreed. "But it's tough, you know, having a kid who turned out so..." His voice cracked as he struggled for the right words. "...so not like his parents." After a moment's silence, he added. "Darnell's had problems."
Jim studied his profile, instinctively understanding the words not spoken. "Drugs?"
Isaiah nodded. "Yeah. Last year. Got arrested buying some cocaine in Atlanta in the worst part of town. We couldn't believe it. He was attending the University on a football scholarship, and his grades were good enough to qualify for a Hope grant. That's a state program that pays tuition for a public college or university. After the bust, he just lost interest in everything. He had to drop out of college and moved back in with us while he served his probation. Even if he eventually goes back, he's lost his scholarships and will never play ball again. Broke his mother's heart. Mine, too, if you want to know the truth."
"How's he been since the arrest?"
"We thought maybe things would get better, but so far..." Obviously disappointed, Isaiah Johnson took a deep breath. "He's even more withdrawn than ever. We try to keep a tight rein on him, and at least it's a small place and tougher to get to the drugs, but he's twenty years old now. There's only so much we can do."
The older man's eyes were as sad as any Jim had seen. "He absolutely hates being here. He hates me and my job. Darnell never wanted to leave Cascade, even as young as he was at the time. He loved city life - the lights and the constant motion of the place. The whole time he was growing up after we moved here, we kept thinking he'd adjust, but he never did. When he got out at last to go to college, Sarah and I breathed a sigh of relief. Why the hell he screwed it up with drugs, I'll never know. It landed him right back here under my supervision for the duration of his parole. He's got another two years to go, and it's eating away at him from the inside. He's furious at the world. Most of all, at me."
Chief Johnson cut his eyes over to Jim. "I'm sure Penny told you about my...affairs." At Jim's silent nod, he shrugged. "Stupid. I know. It's not that I don't love Sarah. I do. I've been to counseling. We've been to counseling. Sarah and I are all right again. I'm determined to prove to her that that part of my life is over. Finished. Darnell will have no part of it, though. He saw the pain I caused his mother, and he'll never forgive me for that." Isaiah laughed bitterly. "As far as Darnell's concerned, I screwed up his entire life. Sometimes I think he truly hates me."
There was nothing Jim could say to that. Hearing the raw pain in the older man's voice, Jim waited quietly, giving him time to master his feelings once again.
Isaiah forced a smile. "Sorry, Jim. Didn't mean to unload on you."
"No problem. Maybe he'll straighten himself out in time. Whatever happens with Darnell, don't you two blame yourselves. There comes a time when kids have to take responsibility for their own lives.
The other man nodded. "I know. You're right. It's just hard, y'know? I appreciate your listening, Jim." He hesitated, then added, "Look, I haven't told Simon any of this. It's tough, you know, telling an old friend that you've nearly wrecked your marriage and that your kid's had drug problems. Especially when you're both cops. If you don't mind, let me be the one to tell him."
Jim understood. Besides, Darnell Johnson wasn't really any of his business, except where the troubles he'd had affected the cop he was currently working alongside. "Sure. Simon won't hear it from me." Jim thought for a moment, then added, "He'd understand, though. Beneath that tough exterior, Simon Banks is a very compassionate guy. He's had marital woes of his own, y'know."
Isaiah flashed a smile. "I know. He didn't self-destruct the whole thing, though. Let's cut a deal, Jim. You won't tell Simon about Darnell, and I won't tell him you just said he's compassionate."
They drove on for a few miles in silence. Jim glanced over at Isaiah questioningly. "You can tell me to butt out if you want, but I've had an idea."
The police chief asked, "About Darnell?"
"Yeah. Sandburg's great with kids. He's just about the most popular professor at Rainier with his students, and it's because he knows how to talk with them." Jim chuckled. "I think it's because he's still such a kid himself. Not in years, maybe, but in attitude. I don't think Blair will ever grow old. Not really. Anyway, I'm sure he'd be glad to spend some time with Darnell. See if he can get the kid to trust him enough to open up."
Isaiah considered the idea. After a minute, a slow smile brightened his worried face. "Thanks, Jim. I think it's worth a try. If Sandburg wouldn't mind, that is."
"Blair's always ready and willing to help out," Jim assured him. "He loves to get involved in people's problems." He winced at some of the memories of the trouble his friend's openness had brought. "Sometimes, that's a good thing, but other times..." Jim shook his head. "Let's just say that compared to some of Blair's 'causes', taking on helping Darnell should be a breeze."
"It's definitely a nylon fiber," Isaiah informed Jim after hanging up the phone back at the station. "The lab over in Savannah says they can do a probable match, if we find the garment we think it came from. Which of course means we need a suspect. At least it's certain that the fiber didn't come from the third victim's clothing, and the odds of anyone else but the killer being out in those marshes at that particular spot are slim to none. The dark stain you saw was blood. Not enough to do a match, so it could have come from our victim or an unrelated party for that matter."
They had sent an officer to Savannah immediately to take the thread to the state crime lab. Officer Phillips had phoned late in the afternoon to inform his boss of the results. No ground breaking revelations, but at least it was a start.
Jim took a few moments to digest the information. "Okay, we've got a fiber, probably from our killer. That's not much in the way of forensic evidence. What do you know about the strangulation patterns?"
"The M.E.'s best guess is a rope or cord, probably nylon. Same pattern on all three victims. Meaning the killer used the same type of rope on each. We've checked the hardware store, but do you realize how many people buy nylon cord on an island? Almost everyone. We even checked Tom's stock patterns and yes, we got a match. But what does that tell us? It's a local, right? That's not narrowing down the suspect pool much." Isaiah sighed in frustration.
"We can eliminate the women, I'd think," Jim mused. "Strangulation's a man's method of choice. Most women couldn't be certain of overpowering a male victim. They tend to use surer methods. Plus, the size of the partial print we found seems too large."
"Good point," the police chief agreed. "But that still leaves us with about half the population."
"What does your gut tell you, Isaiah? Who had a grudge against any of these victims? Who might, for whatever reason, have wanted them dead?" Jim watched as the emotions played across the other man's face.
At last, Chief Johnson nodded. "I did find one connection between two of the men. Doesn't explain the third victim, but..."
Jim prodded, "What? Tell me."
Isaiah outlined the facts. "The first two vics were involved in a land dispute with one of our more...ornery...residents, Charlie Satterfield. Charlie's about forty-eight, and he owns a large tract of land on the ocean side of the island. The first two victims, Robert Connerly and Jerry Thomas, owned the land on either side of Charlie. They wanted to buy him out, combine Charlie's land with theirs, and develop a resort complex. They needed his land to have enough to interest any of the big hotel chains."
Johnson got up from his chair and paced over to the window where he stood still for a time, staring out. "There was a major confrontation after church about six months ago. Charlie was baiting Robert and Jerry, telling them they'd never get their hands on his land. Witnesses heard Robert tell Charlie that sometimes land has to be condemned, or the land is reassessed for taxes at a rate the owner could never afford to pay. A man can loose his land for all sorts of reasons. The witnesses said Charlie was furious when he wheeled out of the church parking lot."
Jim looked interested. "Angry enough to kill?"
Isaiah shrugged. "I didn't think so then, and I still don't have a connection to the third victim. Joe Venters didn't know either of the other victims or Charlie Satterfield, as far as I can tell. I haven't followed up because Charlie had a good alibi for the days of the first two crimes. He was at home with his wife both days, all day, looking after Irene after her cancer surgery. Charlie may be a hot head where his land's concerned, but I've known him all my life. He's not a murderer."
"I'd like to talk to him anyway," Jim said. "Mind if we run over to see Charlie Satterfield?"
The barn door creaked open to reveal the dark, musty interior. Isaiah called out, "Mr. Satterfield? You in here?"
Jim sneezed as he inhaled the dust-laden air and immediately dialed back his sense of smell. "Sorry," he explained to the police chief. "Sometimes the simplest things just sneak up on me."
Isaiah smiled and shook his head, then called out once more. "Mr. Satterfield?"
From the back of the barn, an irritated voice answered, "You don't have to yell! I can hear you!"
A hulking figure emerged from a small room behind the old, beat-up tractor parked at the rear of the huge old barn. Dressed in faded overalls and blue denim shirt with straw sticking out at wild angles from his clothing and hair, Charlie Satterfield looked more the part of overgrown scarecrow than farmer. A half-week's growth of whiskers covered part of the wrinkles on his face, but what was visible bore witness to a life lived in the hot Georgia sun. Standing over six feet tall, there was no doubt that this was a man who could handle his own problems, no matter what might arise.
"What do you want, Isaiah?" the middle-aged man snapped, wiping his brow with a worn handkerchief. "Thought I'd told you all you needed to know already."
Taking a conciliatory tone, Isaiah explained, "I know you did, Mr. Satterfield, and I appreciate it." Nodding at Jim, he introduced the Cascade detective. "This is Detective Jim Ellison, from Cascade, Washington. He's here helping out with the investigation. I'd appreciate it if you'd answer a few questions..."
Charlie Satterfield's dark brown eyes turned furious. "I'll be damned first! I've already told you that I was caring for Irene! My wife's dying of cancer! Do you think I've got murder on my mind right now?" He spat on the barn's dirt floor, then turned back to Jim and Isaiah, furious. "This land was my daddy's and his daddy's before him. It's mine now, and nobody's got the right to take it away from me. Now get off my property! Come back with a warrant, and maybe I'll talk to you again. 'Til then, get the hell off my land!"
As Satterfield raged, Jim listened carefully to the man's heartbeat and breathing as he denied his involvement in the crime. Both were elevated, but considering how angry he'd become, that was perfectly normal. He wouldn't be able to tell if Charlie Satterfield was lying or not. "Let's go," he said softly to Isaiah. "I can't tell a thing."
The two men climbed back into Isaiah's truck and drove away. As they pulled out of the drive, Jim tuned back in once more to Charlie's barn, listening to the angry voice in the distance.
"Any cops try to take me off this land, they'll be dead, too..."
Jim didn't tell Isaiah Johnson what he'd heard.
The roar of the motorcycle engine turning off the main road down the oyster shell path leading to the rented cottage brought Jim Ellison to the front porch. When he'd first started tracking the bike, he'd figured it would pass on by their lightly-traveled road, but once he heard it turn off to head toward the cottage, Jim immediately went to see who was arriving. By the time the motorcycle stopped right beside their front porch, he was smiling in greeting.
Blair removed the borrowed helmet and shook out his long hair, grinning back up at Jim on the porch. "Hey, man! What's for dinner?" Swinging one leg over the bike, Blair jogged up on the porch.
"Where the hell did you get that, Chief?" Jim eyed the motorcycle appreciatively. "And when do I get a ride?"
Blair laughed as they walked into the cottage. "Borrowed it from one of the archaeologists at the site. He won't be back for a couple of months, so it's mine for the duration of our visit. Cool, huh?"
Jim reached over and grabbed the back of Blair's neck, squeezing him tightly. "Yeah, Chief. Very cool. Just be careful on that thing, okay?"
"I'm always careful, Jim. You know that," Blair teased with a mischievous glint in his eyes. "Besides, what could happen to me on the quiet roads of Fredrica Island?"
Maintaining his grip on Blair's neck, Jim pulled him close against his side, tucking Blair's head under his arm. "I used to ride, remember, kiddo. I know those machines are a thrill, but they can also be dangerous. Just watch yourself." He pulled Blair toward the kitchen. "As for dinner, that's up to you. It's your night to cook and mine to wash. I went to the store on the way home, so there's lots to choose from." Releasing his guide, Jim gave him a little push into the kitchen. "While you're preparing our gourmet cuisine for the evening, I'm going to look over some lab reports and notes on the homicides. Have fun."
Blair headed to the sink to wash up. "Gourmet cuisine," he muttered. "I've been out in the field all day, and he expects a seven course meal."
From the living room, Jim called, "I heard that, Junior."
"Yeah, yeah..." Grinning, Blair began to hum softly as he began to wash the lettuce for the salads.
Jim decided he'd talk to Blair about helping Darnell during dinner. He was sure the young man would be eager to assist. Settling down on the couch with his files, Jim smiled at the familiar sounds. Blair in the kitchen, contentedly humming as he prepared their meal. A comfortable silence between them as they worked. Even a continent away, thanks to Sandburg, he was at home.
Their lives fell into a quiet routine over the next several weeks. Days were spent at their respective jobs - Blair at the dig site working with Kirby, Jim pouring over notes and evidence with Isaiah, interviewing islanders who might know something about the homicides, and generally becoming more and more frustrated with the case. They had the blue fiber, the motorcycle tracks, and the shoe print. They had the cause of death and the type of cord used. They had a possible culprit with an alibi, but they had no idea how the third murder might be connected to Charlie Satterfield. That was it. Nobody had seen anything, and nobody knew anything.
Jim's frustration grew by the hour.
Luckily, the weekends provided time for relaxation. They had a cook-out at the beach with Isaiah and Sarah. Darnell showed up late and said little to anyone but Sandburg. For some reason, the young man seemed friendlier with Blair. That didn't surprise Jim. His guide could charm the most savage of beasts. Although Blair hadn't yet tried talking to Darnell about his problems, Jim was confident his friend would make an opportunity. For now, Blair seemed content to bide his time and allow Darnell the chance to get to trust him a little.
It didn't take long for Jim to discover that the fishing on Fredrica was excellent, and he and Blair spent hours trying their luck on the tidal creeks that flowed through the marshes of Glynn.
It had rained the night before, and the unexpected deluge had brought a welcome surcease from the summer's heat. Jim and Blair got to the banks of Turtle Creek early in the morning, just as the sun was breaking the line of the horizon, painting the sky with a pastel palette.
Wading their way cautiously through the mud left by the tide's retreat, they took their places and prepared for a morning of fishing. Jim glanced at Blair as he prepared his line. "How's the research coming, Chief?"
In a satisfied tone, Blair explained, "Kirby's made some fascinating discoveries, Jim." He scanned the marshes surrounding them. Finding what he was looking for, he laid down his pole. "C'mon," he said to Jim, gesturing for his friend to follow him.
Ready to fish, but curious about Blair's actions, Ellison laid his rod and reel down in a clump of tall spartina grass next to Sandburg's and followed his guide.
Leading the way carefully through the tall grasses, Blair talked as they moved closer to a elevated group of small bushes and trees. "Remember I told you that the Guale used Fredrica as a hunting ground? Well, that included the marshes. Kirby's found this really cool site out in the marshes across the Satilla River. If my guess is right, we may just find a similar spot right here."
They stepped from the brightness of the marshes into the subdued light beneath the cedars and pines. "This is called a hammock," Blair continued. "It's an elevated area in the marsh where there's been enough accumulation of detritus - decayed plants and animals - to form soil for trees and bushes to grow." He turned to Jim. "Look around. Call me if you see anything that doesn't seem to belong here." With that, Blair left Jim and began scouting the hammock.
"Anything that doesn't belong..." Jim repeated, watching his partner. With a bemused smile, he started to wander around.
Blair was kneeling to watch some tiny fiddler crabs skittering around in the mud at the edge of the hammock when he heard Jim call his name. "Be right there," he answered.
When he reached his partner, Ellison gestured toward his left. "Does that belong here?"
Grinning, Blair shook his head. "You found it, man. Now, do you know what it is you found?"
Skeptically, Jim cocked his head and eyed his discovery. "A colony of oysters?"
Blair laughed out loud, his eyes twinkling with delight. "Think, Jim. Where do oysters live?"
"The ocean," Jim realized with dawning understanding. "We're quite a ways from the ocean. Even from the river. So, how...?"
Patiently, Blair instructed, "You tell me, man. Think about what you know about the Guale."
Jim stood quietly, looking at the large pile of oyster shells before him. Bleached white by the sun and weathered by long years in the rain, they were about as high as his waist. How had those shells come to be in the marsh?
Then the connection hit him, and Jim turned to Blair. "You said that the Guale used this area as hunting grounds. I bet they also fished here and gathered oysters. After a long day of hunting, they came here, to this hammock, gathered wood for a fire, and..." Jim was smiling broadly now, as if he'd solved an important case. "...had an oyster roast. This pile is where they tossed the shells when they were done."
Blair nodded and smiled proudly at his prize student. "You got it, man. This is an old trash dump, basically. Kirby's found a couple more around, but I don't think he knows about this one. We'll have to come back and do some looking. Sometimes you can find interesting stuff buried around these sites. Things the Guale dropped or abandoned when they left." Reaching up, he punched Jim lightly on the upper arm. "Watch out, Jim. I'm going to make a scientist out of you yet."
"No chance, Chief. All that took is a little detective work. You'd already given me the clues I needed." He regarded Blair thoughtfully. "That's a lot of what you do, isn't it? Put together pieces of seemingly unrelated information so they fit. Guess our jobs aren't so different after all."
Blair's face looked like it would crack from the pressure of his smile. "Now you're getting the picture, man. We're both detectives. You in the present, me of the past."
Satisfied, Ellison lightly draped his arm around Sandburg's shoulders and led him from the hammock back toward the river. "Those poles are waiting, Chief. I'd like some fresh fish for lunch today."
"I catch 'em; you dress 'em," Blair teased, dodging the incoming swat aimed at his head.
They walked on through the tall grasses, laughing and joking as they went.
From a distance, the predator watched the scene carefully through binoculars. It had been watching the hunter since his arrival on the island, studying his habits, learning his every move, his every strength and weakness. Now, it discovered that its instincts had been correct. The predator sensed at last, with absolute certainty, where the hunter's greatest weakness lay. All that remained was for the predator to decide how best to exploit that weakness. As it watched the sentinel and his guide, endless possibilities played in the predator's mind. It smiled.
As the weeks passed, Blair tried to get to know Darnell Johnson, but the task was monumental. He and Jim had been asked for dinner at the Johnson home two times now. Each time, Darnell had eaten sullenly, his conversation consisting of little more than single syllables. Twice, after the meal, Jim and Isaiah had purposefully come up with something to work on in Isaiah's small office while Sarah straightened up the kitchen. This left Blair the opportunity to talk to Darnell.
Once, the young man flatly refused, heading straight to his room and locking the door. The second time, Blair suggested a game of one-on-one. Darnell eyed Sandburg coolly. "You really think you could take me?"
Blair shrugged. "That's not the point, is it? I just thought it might be fun." He patted his stomach and grinned. "Plus work off some of your mom's good cooking. How about it?"
Darnell threw up his hands. "Why not?" He headed out the kitchen door. "This way, man."
By the time the game was over, Blair was regretting his choice of getting-to-know-you activity. Darnell was good. His talent, plus his youth and size, quickly convinced Blair that his beating the young man was about as likely as a snowstorm in July. He settled for staying in the game, making the occasional shot when he could, and avoiding Darnell's intentional shoves and elbows in the ribcage.
After Darnell made the winning shot, Blair collapsed panting on one of the lawn chairs beside the back driveway. "You're...good...kid," he conceded with a smile, sweat pouring down his face. "I've...gotta fix...up a game...between you and Jim." He chuckled at the image as his breathing began to return to normal. "You'd whip him, man, and that's something I'd pay to see."
The young man remained standing, one arm balancing the ball on his hip. "What do you want anyway?" His gaze appraised Blair carefully. "My daddy send you to talk to me?"
Blair shrugged. "He's worried about you, Darnell. I work with students your age every day. When Jim told me some of your dad's concerns, I just wanted to listen to your side of things. That's all." He held out his hands, palms upward. "No judgments, man, and I won't tell your dad anything you say. That stays between you and me."
Darnell's defensive expression lifted slightly. "It's...complicated." He leaned back against the wooden garage behind the house.
"Tell me," Blair said quietly, his warm eyes focused on Darnell.
The young man shook his head. "It's impossible living with him. He's so focused on his job, what he wants... He's had other women, y'know. Lots of them. Imagine how knowing that made my mama feel. Everyone on the island knew, man! Everyone! But did he care?"
Darnell looked at Blair hopelessly. "He's always right, y'know? It's his way or the highway. That's his mentality. My room has to look like a Marine barracks." Darnell mimicked his father. "A place for everything and everything in its place. Do you have any idea what it's like living with that?"
Blair chuckled softly. "Actually, I do."
Darnell cocked his head curiously. "Ellison?"
"Yeah. Jim's the original OCD, man. You should hear his house rules."
Raising his eyebrows, Darnell asked incredulously, "And you stay? You put up with that crap? You're an adult, man! You've got a Ph.D. and everything. You could be out in your own place, living your own life! Why the hell don't you bail on the bastard?"
Blair fought down his natural instinct to jump to Jim's defense. This was about Darnell, not Jim. "What would that have gotten me? I would have lost the best friend I ever had. Instead, we've worked things out. Compromised, and..."
Darnell slammed the basketball to the ground, sending it flying through the air. "Damn it! You're like all the rest of them!" He paced over to stand hovering over Sandburg, his furious dark brown eyes sparkling angrily in the night. "Just be patient, Darnell. He's your father, Darnell. You're in his house, Darnell."
"I don't want to live in his house!" Darnell shouted. "I started using just to make life bearable here! When I went off to college, I thought I was finally getting out from under his thumb, and look where I ended up, man! On probation and stuck right back here under his supervision !"
Blair instinctively leaned back in his chair, away from the fury that was Darnell Johnson. The young man raged on.
"If I had wanted to talk to someone, believe me, I would have said something. He never asks me what I want! Just sends some stranger, some stupid professor, to try to straighten me out!" Darnell leaned in closer, his hot sweat strong in Blair's nostrils. "I'm gonna tell you this once, man, so listen up. I don't want you here. I don't want to talk to you. My father doesn't run my life, no matter what he thinks. So just leave me the hell alone!"
Whirling around, Darnell Johnson disappeared into the forest, the sound of his angry footsteps fading away in the night as they blended with the sounds of the treefrogs, katydids, and crickets.
Blair sat a long time in silence before getting up slowly to go inside and face Isaiah Johnson's disappointment that one more person had failed to reach his son.
On Monday morning of their fourth week on the island, Blair brought their eggs to the table, studying his friend's face out of the corner of his eye. Jim was definitely stressed. There was no mistaking the tightness around his lips, and the frequent tightening of his jaw muscle.
"Why don't we take today off, Jim?" Blair sat down across the table from his friend and took a sip of coffee. "We could go down to the river and get in some quality fishing time. Been a long time, man, and I feel those fish calling."
"Can't, Sandburg." Jim attacked a piece of toast. "We've gotta get a break in this case soon. Isaiah's getting plenty of heat from the locals. Not to mention the press over on the mainland. He's up for reelection next fall, and if these homicides are still unsolved..." He smeared a glob of grape jelly on his bread. "...there's no way he'll win the election."
"Yeah," Blair quipped, "and your boss might frown upon his friend being defeated at the polls when his best detective was sent out here to lend a hand. Better get going, man. You've got a case to crack."
Jim glared at Blair across the table. "You think this case is so easy, Chief? Why don't you come on down to the station today and crack it for us, then?" He pushed away from the table so fast, the ladderback chair almost toppled to the floor. "I'm late. See you tonight."
Grabbing his keys from the kitchen counter, Jim hurried to his Jeep and was gone.
"What did I say?" Blair wondered aloud, staring at the half-open door where Jim had disappeared.
All morning, Jim's mind kept returning to the scene at breakfast that morning. He'd snapped at Blair for no good reason, and he knew it. No way was it Sandburg's fault that this case was at a standstill. Looking up from the file he was reading on the first homicide, Jim glanced at the clock on Isaiah's office wall. Nearly noon. Sandburg and his team would be taking their lunch break soon, and they'd probably come into town to eat at the diner down the street from the station. He could go over there, sit with Blair, and smooth things over. The kid would understand the pressure he was under. He always did.
The phone rang on Isaiah's desk. Jim let it ring a couple of times, waiting for Penny to pick it up in the outer office. Isaiah had gone out to assist one of his officers with a breaking and entering investigation and wouldn't be back until after lunch. When the phone rang for the third time, Jim stretched out his hearing. Penny wasn't at her desk. He picked up the phone.
"Isaiah Johnson's office. Jim Ellison speaking."
A cold voice responded, "It's Darnell. Is my dad around?"
"No, Darnell. He's out with Officer Phillips, but he should be back in a couple of hours."
Jim could hear the muted curse on the other end of the line. "That figures," Darnell answered angrily. "He was supposed to meet my mom for lunch, and he's late. As usual."
Knowing it was none of his business, Jim tried to smooth the waters anyway. "He's on a case, Darnell. I'm sure your mom understands."
"Yeah, right," the young man muttered. "She's always supposed to understand."
"Do you want me to tell him you called?" Jim knew cell phones were unreliable on the island. The closest tower was on the mainland, and many parts of Fredrica were totally inaccessible.
"I don't care what you tell him."
The connection was broken.
"You can't go in there!" Penny Morgan's insistent voice followed the sound of determined, loud footsteps down the corridor.
The footsteps stopped at Isaiah's door, and Jim looked up into the furious face of Charlie Satterfield. "It's all right, Penny," Jim reassured the flustered receptionist. "I'll talk with Mr. Satterfield."
Muttering under her breath about pushy people and the lack of manners in the modern world, Penny Morgan closed the door behind her.
Satterfield didn't give Jim time to speak. "I know you and that Chief of Police been prowling 'round my place late at night! What you hoping to find, anyway? A murder weapon or something?" Venom dripped from his voice.
Calmly, Jim leaned back in the chair. "If anyone's been hanging around your property, Mr. Satterfield, it hasn't been anyone from this department. We don't operate that way."
A barely restrained guffaw greeted Jim's comments. "I seen the footprints, Ellison." His brown eyes regarded Jim shrewdly. "I'm a suspect, ain't I? You think I might be the one who killed those three men."
"Yes, you're a suspect," Jim replied frankly. "You had motive, at least in two of the cases. Robert Connerly and Jerry Thomas wanted your land for their development. You certainly know the territory around here well enough to have pulled it off. On the other hand, you also have an alibi, and so far, we can't figure out why you'd want to harm Joe Venters." He shrugged. "We're keeping you in mind, Mr. Satterfield, but we certainly aren't ready to make an arrest. To be honest, I'm far from convinced that you're the killer."
Charlie Satterfield stared at Jim for a long moment before nodding slowly. "You're an honest man, Ellison. I like that." His voice was solemn as he spoke. "I had nothing to do with those murders, do you hear me? My Irene's dying, damn it, and I wouldn't do anything that might mean I couldn't stay with her until...the end." Tears filled his brown eyes, and the big man roughly wiped them away on the sleeve of his worn shirt. "I ain't no killer. Period." With that, he opened the office door and left, closing it softly behind him.
Jim stared for a long moment at the door, thinking. Then he left to go find Sandburg.
As Jim approached Gordon's Cafe on Main Street, two blocks from the station, Jim spotted Sandburg's motorcycle parked outside. Good. The kid was here. Now if he could manage a few moments in private to let Blair know he regretted his harsh words that morning.
When Jim opened the door, Kirby, Chris, and Joy were clustered by the cash register, talking in hushed tones. Kirby spotted Jim and hurried over to him.
"Detective Ellison!" He grabbed Jim's arm, a look of relief on his face. "Am I glad to see you!" Chris and Joy quickly joined them.
Jim glanced around the cafe, but he didn't see Sandburg.
"What's going on? Where's Sandburg?"
Kirby shook his head in bewilderment. "He was here a couple of minutes ago with us. We were waiting here for a table, then Joy said she needed some stuff at the hardware store across the street. I told her that it usually closes down for lunch, and Blair glanced out the window. To see if it was open, I guess."
Chris jumped in. "He got really pale, man. Like he'd seen a ghost!"
"Then, he just took off out the door," Joy finished. "Didn't even take his bike, just started running south down Main Street away from the hardware store as fast as he could run."
Jim ignored the other comments from the three young people as he turned quickly to look out the window.
His blood ran cold.
Parked on the street was a dilapidated red pick-up truck, its paint long faded by the hot Georgia sun. The sign painted on its door read:
David Lash Construction
"Oh, my God..." Jim murmured. Leaving Blair's co-workers standing in stunned confusion, he flew out the door and onto the street, stopping only a moment to stare again at the truck. The terrifying name was still there, real and coldly taunting in its simplicity.
The nightmare was back.
Jim turned up his hearing to near maximum. Methodically separating out every other sound of man and nature, he zeroed in on the two sounds he needed to find - Blair's frantically beating heart and the broken sounds of his labored breathing.
Rushing to the Kawasaki, Jim breathed a sigh of relief to find the keys in the ignition. You should know better, Chief, he chided the young man inwardly. Flinging his leg over the bike, he had the engine started and was halfway down the street before Kirby and the others hit the sidewalk. Blair's black protective helmet rolled unnoticed into the street. Kirby picked it up and watched as Jim disappeared down the road.
Jim's eyes scanned the roadside as he left the town behind. He couldn't keep a lock on Blair's heartbeat over the roar of the engine, so he tuned down his hearing and relied on sight alone. Then, an idea occurred to him, and little by little, Jim tuned up his sense of smell. He discarded the mechanical odors of the motorcycle, the smell of the sea, and the woodsy fragrance of the forest. There...right around the curve...the scent burned so deeply within his sense memory that he could not forget it if he lived forever.
The younger man heard the sound of the motorcycle behind him. Leaping from the roadway, he tumbled into a ditch, recovered and staggered to his feet, climbing quickly out, then heading for the cover of the maritime forest a few yards beyond the roadway.
Sandburg never looked behind him, but Jim could hear his heart beating in terror, and he could visualize the look of panic on his friend's face too clearly. "Blair!" he cried. "Sandburg!" No response. His guide couldn't hear his voice over the loud engine.
Jim leapt off the bike, letting it fall over without a thought, and took off at a full run. He cleared the ditch in one powerful leap. He landed in a crouch on the far side. "Sandburg!"
Blair was running toward the forest, his pace becoming a broken stagger as exhaustion set in.
Jim's longer legs brought him up behind Sandburg in only a few strides. Grabbing the younger man's shoulders, Jim spun Blair around to face him. "Slow down, Chief. It's okay. It's okay."
With wide, terror-filled eyes, Blair stared up at Jim, not yet seeing who it was holding him. Sweat poured down Sandburg's face, running in rivulets through the dust covering his skin. He panted heavily, gasping for breath as he struggled to escape.
"Chief..." Jim whispered the familiar endearment as tenderly as he could. "Blair, it's me. It's Jim. Look at me, please." He maintained his grip on the trembling shoulders, gently kneading the tense muscles as he spoke.
Then, a light of recognition appeared, and with a tiny cry of relief, Blair flung himself into Jim's arms. His breath came in short, quick gasps, and Ellison could feel the frightened man's heart pounding wildly against his chest. Tightening his arms around Blair, Jim bent his head to whisper into the sweaty curls. "Blair, easy. You're going to hyperventilate, Chief."
One hand found its way up to stroke Blair's hair, while the other anchored Sandburg to him. "It's all right, Blair. I'm here now. I'm right here. You're safe. I've got you now. Relax...take it easy." Over and over, he repeated the litany of reassurance, waiting patiently for his words to sink in.
After long minutes, Blair's breathing slowed to a rhythm approaching normal. Jim monitored his heart, and was relieved when it, too, resumed a normal pace. "That's the way, buddy. Breathe deeply...slowly...nice and easy."
Blair pulled away a little, just enough to look up into Jim's face. "You...saw?"
Jim nodded. "I did. But, Chief, it's just a coincidence, that's all." At the doubtful look on Blair's flushed face, he added, "Lash is dead. You know that. I put five bullets in that bastard, saw the autopsy report myself, and watched them slide him back on the slab in the coroner's office." He stared hard into the doubt-filled eyes, willing his friend to believe the obvious truth of his words. "David Lash is dead."
"No!" Blair shook his head forcefully. "I saw it, Jim. His name was on that truck. I always knew it wasn't really over, and I was right. Then..." He shook once more in horror. "I...saw...him! Lash! He's here...now." Once more, Blair's blue eyes grew darker and wild with fear. "He's the one you've been looking for! Lash is the killer! I was the only one who lived, Jim, and if he knows I'm here, he'll want to finish what he started."
Blair's face was contorted by cold terror. "If I stay here, I'm as good as dead. I have to get off this island, Jim. Please!" He tried to pull away from Ellison's embrace, but Jim only lowered his hand from Blair's head to pull him close again.
"I...saw..him! Lash! He's here...now." The words taunted Jim maliciously as he struggled for an answer to his friend's fear.
"Blair, listen to me, please." He wasn't sure what to say, how to reason with such terror. "You're safe, Chief. Whoever this guy is, he's not David Lash. I promise you."
Still, the younger man tried to escape Jim's arms, seeking the cover of the forest. The sentinel could feel his muscles quivering, and Blair's heart pounded once more with the renewed rhythm of fear.
Not knowing any other way to reassure his friend when the words he'd chosen to that point had proven so completely inadequate, Jim Ellison acted purely on instinct. Pressing his lips firmly to Blair's temple in a kiss that spoke louder than mere words ever could, Jim breathed, "I love you. Do you think I'd let you stay for one second anywhere near that psycho, if I thought he might really be alive?" Smiling against the soft skin where his lips lingered, Jim asked softly, "What kind of Blessed Protector would that make me, huh?"
Beneath the shelter of his embrace, Jim felt Blair's breath catch in something that was half-laugh, half-sob, followed by a small nod against his shoulder.
At last, a soft voice whispered, "I'm sorry, man." Blair burrowed his face deeper into the curve of Jim's neck. "You must think I'm a complete idiot, reacting like this over a name on the side of a truck and a guy who, from a distance, looked like..." It took a moment before he could continue. "I mean, how weak can a guy be, right?" In spite of the self-deprecating words, Blair's voice trembled with emotion.
Jim rested his cheek on the soft curls. "Not an idiot and definitely far from weak. Blair, five years ago, a man with that name kidnapped you, drugged you, and very nearly killed you." Jim's arms tightened of their own accord around his guide. "You survived. The only one of his victims who did. You've gone on to live your life without fear, in spite of what that bastard did to you. I don't call that weak, Blair. I would call it one of the greatest demonstrations of courage and determination I've ever seen. As for your reaction today, it was pretty natural, if you ask me. Seeing that name out of the blue like that would freak anybody out, if they'd been through what you have." Pausing for a moment, he added, "Forget it, okay? Let it go."
Content to stand there and allow his words to sink in, Jim waited, one hand carding through Blair's hair, the other holding his partner to him firmly. Out of habit, he allowed his senses to stretch out enough to monitor their surroundings. The ordinary sounds of birds, insects, the ocean, and the light breeze greeted him, and underlying it all, the life-sounds of the young man in his arms. They were safe.
Blair tilted his head up to look at Jim. His face was hot and flushed, but at least his eyes seemed calmer. "Thanks, man. Can we go back to the cottage for a while? I don't think I'm ready to face Kirby yet, and if you can break away long enough..."
Jim wouldn't let him finish. "Let's go, Chief." Keeping one arm around his shoulders in a loose embrace, Jim led Blair to the toppled motorcycle. "Mind giving me a hand here?"
They pulled the bike upright and inspected it for damage, relieved to discover that the soft sand of the roadside had protected it from damage. Jim swung his leg over. "Climb on."
Blair eased himself on the seat behind Jim. "You sure you remember how to ride one of these things?" he joked.
Turning around to flash a grin at his partner, Jim cautioned, "You just hang on back there, Junior, and leave the driving to me." Cranking the bike, he felt Blair's hands grasp his waist obediently. He pulled onto the road and headed in the direction of the cottage. Jim smiled as Blair's arms slipped around him and he felt the press of his guide's face against his back.
Above the noise of the engine, the sentinel heard clearly, "Thanks, Jim."
Jim's answer was to twist the throttle hard. The bike jumped forward and roared down the shore road toward the safe haven of their island home.
With the shades drawn, the cottage settled into a peaceful darkness. The rain of a welcome late afternoon thunderstorm cooled the hot, humid air, then settled into a steady shower.
Inside the quiet little house in the forest, the sentinel kept watch over his sleeping guide.
Blair had taken a long, relaxing shower while Jim heated soup on the gas stove. After lunch, the young man stretched out on the comfortable couch and immediately fell into an exhausted sleep.
As Blair slept, Jim Ellison sat in one of the overstuffed chairs beside his head. Everything had been going so well, he thought ruefully. Blair was doing the work he loved, the job he'd spent almost his entire life training to do. He himself had been helping a good cop, the friend of his captain, with a difficult and important case. Sure, it had been mostly a series of frustrations thus far, but Jim had no doubts that they would eventually get the break they needed. They'd both been enjoying the beauty of the island - its brightly golden beaches...the darkly peaceful forests...its abundant, life-filled marshes. Along with the work had been long walks beside the ocean, fishing in the meandering tidal creeks, lazy, hot Sunday afternoons canoeing on the Satilla River. Once more, the illusion of calm had been shattered. Why the hell did this have to happen and turn their lives upside down once again?
Stirring in his sleep, Sandburg whimpered, a soft, helpless sound. Jim reached out to lay his hand alongside his guide's face. "It's all right. Sleep now. You're safe." When Blair slipped back into a deep sleep almost immediately, Jim's heart swelled at the simple evidence of the trust between them, so evident even in sleep, and leaned back again in his chair, watching and thinking.
The kid didn't need this. Not after all he'd been through. For more than five years now, Blair had been at his side, enduring more pain and fear than most men trained for such a life ever encountered in their entire careers. Even worse, at times, the sentinel himself had been his partner's worst nightmare. As much as it tore at his soul to admit it, Jim knew that it was the times when he had doubted Blair, when he'd turned on his friend in distrust, that had caused Blair the most pain.
Yet, they had refused to surrender to the forces seemingly conspiring against them, refused to abandon all they had built together. With hard work and the healing effects of time, they had managed to put it all behind them. Sentinel and Guide had grown together, strengthening their bond as the years flowed by. Jim and Blair had grown as well, learning that within their very friendship lay the stability and security each had craved so long.
After the initial adjustments to their newly forged bond, the time after returning from Peru had been the calmest and most peaceful they had known. Jim had harbored a secret hope, one that had been strengthening daily, that at last, the fortress walls had been breached, and Blair and he had emerged victorious. Of course, there would always be the dangers and stress his job entailed, but between them at least, harmony reigned.
Until today...when the shadowy ghosts of the past had returned to haunt them both.
Caught in his own thoughts, it took a moment for Jim to realize that sleepy blue eyes were watching him.
"Hey, there," Jim said softly with a smile.
Blair stretched and yawned broadly. "Oh, man. I was out of it, wasn't I?'
"Pretty much, yeah. You slept about an hour. Feel better?"
Sandburg rolled to his left side and curled up, twisting his head a little to look up at Jim. "I guess. Calmer, anyway. Sorry about this afternoon."
"Already told you. Natural reaction. Forget it."
Blair's eyes closed again, and for a time Jim thought he was asleep again. Then a soft voice asked, "What are we gonna do, Jim?"
There was a vulnerability in the quiet question that brought an ache to Jim's heart. His response was equally soft. "We'll do whatever you want, Chief. This one's your call. You want to leave the island right now, we'll take the bike back into town, pick up the Jeep and be on the evening ferry. Catch the next flight out from Savannah to..." Jim shrugged. "To wherever. Doesn't matter. You just say the word, and we're gone."
He paused a moment, letting his words sink in. "But if you want to stay, finish your work here and publish the results, I'll see to it that you're safe. Check out the guy with the truck, find out who he is and what he's about. I won't leave you alone for a second until we're sure. Isaiah issued me a weapon, and trust me, Chief, if there's any danger to you out there, I won't hesitate to use it. It's your call."
He waited patiently for Blair's decision, although he had an idea what it would be.
"Jim? I wanna stay, man, but I've gotta be sure..." Haunted blue eyes stared up at him, hoping...trusting.
Smiling, Jim playfully batted the top of Sandburg's head. "You got it, kid. You got it."
His instinct had been correct. Blair Sandburg had never been one to run when the going got tough.
The next morning, the two friends stood in front of the rather run-down metal building about a half-mile out of town where the business of David Lash Construction was located. Jim had attempted twice to phone, but both times, he'd received no answer. He'd mentioned questioning Isaiah Johnson about the name, but Blair had put his foot down. He didn't want anyone knowing about his ordeal unless it was absolutely necessary. These people had no idea what he'd been through at the hands of David Lash, and he had no desire to see the familiar looks of pity in their eyes.
That left Jim with no choice but to go to the business in person. His suggestion that Blair spend the time down at the station had met with more resistance. As much as Blair did not want to go anywhere near the place, he refused to allow Jim to walk in there alone.
So there they stood, staring up at the sign above the door.
That long-despised name brought a heavy feeling of dread to Jim's heart. He'd never forget the helplessness he had experienced that night, coming home to a wrecked loft to find his new partner and guide missing. Never forget the hatred he'd felt when he realized that the crazed killer he'd been pursuing had deceived them all, violated his home, and stolen his guide. Even now, the memories sent his pulse racing.
And if he was feeling so much at the mere sight of the name, what must Sandburg be going through?
"Jim? You okay, man?" Beside him, Blair looked up nervously, seeking the strength he needed to find in the presence of his sentinel. He took a step closer to Jim.
Pushing the thoughts of the past firmly from his mind, Jim laid a supportive hand on the small of Blair's back. "It's okay, Darwin. Let's just get this over with, all right?"
He turned the doorknob and they went inside.
A buzzer sounded to announce their presence, and Blair jumped slightly at the unexpected noise. Pressing his hand more firmly against Sandburg's back, Jim whispered, "It's okay, Chief. Easy."
Out loud, Jim called out, "Hello? Anybody here?"
From a door to their left, a man emerged. He stood still, regarding the strangers curiously.
His face was that of David Lash.
Under his hand, Jim felt Sandburg sag, his knees nearly collapsing beneath him. Slipping his arm around Blair's waist, Jim supported him, feeling the uncontrolled tremors that wracked his friend's body.
"Jim?" he whispered. "How...?" He pressed even closer to Ellison, tucking himself close to his Blessed Protector's side. "Let's go, please. I just want to get out of here."
"May I help you?" the man asked as he took a step closer, obviously confused by Blair's violent reaction. "Is he all right?"
Jim tightened his arm protectively around Blair's waist. "He's just a little startled, that's all. You look a lot like...someone he once knew. Someone very dangerous."
A look of understanding passed over the man's eyes. "I see. I think I can clear this up for you." He smiled and nodded toward the door he'd come through. "My office is in there. Would you come in and have a seat? Maybe have some water or a Coke? Then we can talk."
"No!" Blair whispered urgently. "Jim, we can't go in there. Please..."
The man with Lash's face looked at him calmly. "It's all right. I won't hurt you. I really would like to explain, if you'll just give me the chance."
Jim looked down at Blair. "We can leave right now, Chief, but if we stay, I promise I won't let anything happen to you. I think we should listen to what this man has to say, don't you? Clear this thing up, once and for all?"
Blair gazed into Jim's calm eyes, searching for the truth he always knew would be there. After a long moment, his trust in Ellison won out over his fear and Blair nodded. "Let's go."
A few minutes later, Jim and Blair had introduced themselves and were seated in the small, dingy office in two straight backed chairs. An antique Regulator clock ticked steadily on the wall. Sitting across from them, behind his old oak desk, was a stranger. A stranger wearing the face of Blair's worst nightmare.
He began to talk. "My name is Devon Lash. I believe you must have known my older brother, David. Am I right?"
Blair could only nod, his wide eyes staring at the dreaded face of the man who nearly killed him.
Seeing his discomfort, Jim answered, "Yes. I'm a detective with the Cascade P.D." He hesitated a moment, then added quietly, "I'm also the man who killed your brother." There was no reaction on the face of the man seated across from them.
Nodding toward Blair, Jim continued. "David Lash kidnapped my partner, and he would have killed him, if I hadn't found him in time. I had no choice." Beside him, Jim could feel Blair shiver, and he reached over to rest his arm casually on the back of Sandburg's chair, letting his fingers slide into the long hair. Buried beneath the thick curls, his hand gently rubbed Blair's neck to reassure him of his presence.
"I understand," Devon said with a sympathetic smile. "We were close, Davey and I, even though we were pretty far apart in age, but he...had problems. We've always looked enough alike to be twins, though, so I can understand your discomfort." Looking directly at Sandburg, he apologized, "I'm sorry, Blair, for your ordeal."
Jim's natural curiosity kicked in. "I thought David Lash only had one brother. Jimmy. We interviewed your father during the investigation, and he said Jimmy was found dead. Why keep David Lash's name on this business, if you knew what he'd done?"
Devon chuckled. "The name on the business isn't my brother's. It's our grandfather's, David Lash, Senior. Dad died nine not long after..." He cut his eyes toward Blair. "Our father passed away after Davey died, but I kept the name out of respect to my grandfather. He founded this business, and it's been good to me in the past few years. My father probably didn't mention me because I hadn't lived with him in several years."
Understanding now, Jim nodded. "Sorry. I just assumed..."
"It's all right. You have a right to be defensive, Detective Ellison. Let me explain, if I can, our rather disturbing family history." He leaned back and took a swallow of his drink. "My mother suffered from mental and emotional problems all her life, not to mention alcoholism. She met my dad when he was in the service, and Davey and Jimmy were born during the next two years. I came along much later. He was stationed aboard an aircraft carrier, so he didn't see much of his wife and kids. It wasn't until he left the Navy that he discovered what kind of existence we'd had."
The look in Devon Lash's eyes grew distant. "I got off easy, I think. Davey was my mom's 'favorite', but being chosen wasn't the honor you might think it would be. She beat all three of us whenever she thought we'd done the slightest thing wrong, which was pretty much all the time, but Davey..."
Devon shook his head. "She was determined to mold him into her perfect son. She expected him to wear all the hats at once - honor student...respectful son...man of the household...excellent athlete...even...," Devon Lash's voice faltered. "...even 'husband', if you get my meaning. She'd push him from one thing to another in a heartbeat, always expecting perfection at each one. By six, he was doing all the laundry and ironing. At seven, he was answering the phone when the bill collectors called because there wasn't enough money to keep up with her extravagant spending. At eight, she was dressing him in specially tailored adult clothes and calling him 'my little man'. We used to hide out in the woods or the marsh, but she always found us and dragged us back screaming. The beatings we got when we ran were far worse than those we got if we just stayed put and took it."
Devon Lash's eyes were haunted by the painful memories. "When Jimmy died, Davey finally just gave up. Surrendered. When she went on the warpath, I remember him telling me to run, that if she had him, she'd leave me alone. So I did. I hid out and let my brother take the brunt of her madness. It took its toll on him. He used to escape into a fantasy world. He told me that when she was abusing him, either physically, emotionally, or sexually, that he'd just...leave. His mind would go away, leaving only his body to take the abuse. He would pretend to be somewhere else...pretend to be someone else. By the time they left, I don't think David had a clue who he really was anymore. He sure didn't when he began to dress and behave like...Jimmy. He grew more and more violent. He even killed a pet duck my dad had given him. It wasn't long before I was afraid of him, too." Devon Lash looked away quickly, a trace of moisture in his eyes.
As the partners digested his words, Blair stared ahead at the calendar hanging on the wall behind Devon's head. The old Regulator clock ticked loudly in the silence as Jim's hand kept up its soothing massage on his neck.
"What happened to your mother and brother?" Jim prodded at last. He'd been monitoring Devon Lash's heart rate and breathing, but so far, he'd found nothing to suggest any falsehoods.
"We'd settled in Cascade eventually after drifting around for a while. My dad came home from the service at last and was home long enough to figure out what had been going on. All of it. It ate him up inside, knowing what had been done to Davey, even though he could see that my brother...wasn't normal. I think Dad was scared of him, if you want to know the truth. I know I was by then. Davey was...strange. Cruel. Dad knew it was Mom's fault, but some small part of him resented Davey, too, I think. When he realized how bad things had become, he packed me up and sent me here to live with his father. I guess that saved me. My grandfather was a good man. By then, Mom was hearing voices most of the time and was exhibiting some really outlandish behaviors, but she refused to go for treatment. She turned so violent when he talked of having her see a doctor."
Devon sighed deeply. "He finally had no choice but to ask for a divorce, but Mom refused. In those days, divorce wasn't as easy as now. He could have brought in her illness, but Dad had a kind heart. He didn't want to drag her reputation thought the mud that way. At last, she agreed to go, but she wanted to take David with her. At first, Dad protested, but I think he was secretively relieved to get away from them both. He told me later that she begged him not to take her last son away. I guess maybe that, along with the fact that Davey scared him, finally convinced him. That and the knife she held at Davey's throat, threatening to kill him if she couldn't have him with her. So Dad moved out, I stayed with my grandfather, and Mom and Davey..." Devon remained silent for a few moments, then added, "I never saw either of them again."
"Dad began drinking right after that. Heavily. My grandfather's health began to decline, and I basically started taking over more and more of the business here. He died a few years ago. My dad finally just gave up. They found him dead in his bed one morning last year, a bottle in his hand. The doctors said it was heart failure." Devon shrugged. "I think a broken heart was more like it. He told me once that he wished Mom had killed Davey before..." Devon Lash looked down at his desk and added softly, "...before he killed all those people."
"How could he do that?" Blair blurted out unexpectedly. "Turn a child over to a woman he knew was abusive?"
Devon met his eyes, and Sandburg shivered, looking away quickly. Those eyes were identical to those that had peered down at him, murder written in their disturbed depths. He felt Jim's hand squeeze his neck...reminding him...steadying him with his touch. But he still could not look in those eyes.
"My father was a good man, but he was far from perfect. Knowing the things Mom had done to Davey...seeing how...disturbed...my brother had become. Losing Jimmy the way they did, and Davey starting to act so strange afterward. That combination of guilt, fear, and resentment was a hurdle Dad just couldn't get over. He just wanted it finished, I guess. Even if it meant sacrificing Davey to her madness. I think by then it was too late for Davey. The damage had been done."
"That explains a lot," Jim said. "Sounds like you didn't have such an easy time of things either."
Devon Lash shook his head. "Depends on how you look at it. I certainly had it easier than David. Dad's drinking on his infrequent visits was nothing compared to Mom's...madness. I had to grow up fast, but at least I survived. My grandfather was very good to me." He looked around his office. "This may not look like much, but it's mine. I keep a low profile, Detective. Nobody in this town knows about David, and I'd like to keep it that way, if you don't mind."
Jim nodded. "I have no problem with that. You've done nothing wrong, right?" Again he monitored Devon's heart rate and breathing. No change in either one.
"Thanks, Detective Ellison. I appreciate that." He stood up. "I understand that seeing me is difficult for you both, but you I'll do my best to stay out of your way." Devon Lash looked directly at Blair. "I'm sorry for the stress seeing my name on the truck and seeing me may have caused you. I hope you understand now some of the circumstances that made my brother...what he was."
Blair stood up quickly, almost knocking his chair over in his haste. "Thank you for your time," he murmured. "Jim, let's go. Please."
Hearing the note of near panic in Blair's voice, Jim stood up. "Okay, Chief. We're on our way. Devon, thank you for your time." Resting one hand on Blair's shoulder, Jim followed his partner out the door of the metal building into the bright Georgia sunshine.
Behind them, he could hear Devon Lash's footsteps as he moved to the window to watch them get into the Jeep and drive away.
Blair was quiet on the way to the police station. Jim glanced at him repeatedly as he drove. His friend's face was drawn and tired, as if he hadn't slept in weeks instead of only one night.
"What'd you think?"
Blair's quiet question caught Jim off-guard. "I don't know," he answered honestly. "I monitored his heart rate as he talked, but I didn't catch him in any lies. I think he was telling the truth about his parents and...his brother."
Blair's haunted eyes turned to Jim. "He's still my bet as the murderer, Jim. I mean, just think about it. Devon's upbringing wasn't that much different from...his. Who's to say he hasn't turned out as screwy as his brother? Don't forget, you couldn't tell that he was lying either."
After the initial, painful surge of guilt Blair's words evoked, Jim considered the possibility. "It could be," he conceded at last. "Like I said, I found no physiological signs he was lying, but you're right, a sociopath wouldn't show any remorse or guilt for his lies. "When we get to the station, I'll do a records check. Isaiah doesn't have to know who I'm running through the computer. He'll assume it's for the investigation, and I guess it is. David Lash's brother is definitely a person we should consider." Jim looked over again at his partner. "Would you rather go out to the dig? I can run you there first."
"No way, Jim." Blair shook his head emphatically. "I'd just as soon stick with you for now, okay?"
Reaching over, Jim squeezed his friend's knee. "Okay, Chief. Definitely okay."
In the small office next to Isaiah's, Jim pushed the old oak desk chair away from the computer. He looked over at Blair, waiting anxiously behind the desk, and nodded. "Good instincts, Chief. This guy's definitely not one of the good guys. He's served a total of ten years on assault and battery charges along with armed robbery. That line about the business was only partially true. Yeah, his dad founded it, but Devon ran it before and after his prison time." Leaning back in the chair, he studied Blair carefully. "I have to tell Isaiah now, Chief. This guy's definitely a suspect at this point."
Blair stared at Jim for a moment before replying softly, "Does he have to know everything?"
"I'm afraid so, Chief. It's too important at this stage. I'm sorry. I know I promised you I'd keep what happened to you under my hat, but..."
"S'okay, Jim," Blair said sadly. "I'm just dreading reliving the whole thing, y'know? I really thought it all was behind me by now."
"I know," Jim said sympathetically. "Want to get it over with? Isaiah's in his office."
Nodding, Blair got up slowly, and the two friends walked to the room next door. Jim knocked on the door, and at Isaiah's invitation, they went in to explain the nightmare that seemingly had no end.
Isaiah Johnson looked at Blair Sandburg with a look of newly found admiration. "Man! What a headcase! Why the hell didn't Simon ever tell me about this guy? And what are the odds of his brother being here in my town? Too strange, isn't it?"
Jim nodded. "Simon probably wanted to forget the whole ordeal almost as much as we did. That wasn't a time any of us ever wants to remember." He looked at his guide with eyes filled with sadness. Retelling the Lash case was always an emotionally draining task. "Especially Sandburg."
"I can understand that. Do you want to conduct the interview about the homicides, Jim, or would you prefer I do it?"
"I'd prefer never to lay eyes on anyone who looks that much like David Lash again," Jim said bitterly. "But, my senses might come in handy in telling how truthful Devon's being with us. Why don't you do the interrogating, and I'll just listen?"
"Fine with me," Isaiah agreed.
Turning to Sandburg, Jim asked, "Blair, I know you don't want to be here when we bring Devon in for questioning. Why don't I have Officer Philips run you on out to the dig site and stay there until I'm done?"
After a moment's consideration, Sandburg agreed. "I haven't even explained to Kirby why I took off yesterday. Guess I need to go straighten things out with Kirby after the scene at the cafe. I don't need the officer, though. If you're going to be with Devon Lash, I'll be fine on my own for a few hours. See you back at the house when you're done?"
A few minutes later, Blair turned the motorcycle toward the archaeological site, while Jim and Isaiah Johnson went to bring in Devon Lash for questioning.
"Would you tell us where you were on those three dates, Mr. Lash? In the evenings. After ten o'clock." Isaiah asked politely, taking a sip of the Coke he'd brought into the interrogation room. He preferred keeping an interview relaxed and friendly, at least as long as he possibly could. His grandmother's old axiom about flies and honey rang true to his sensibilities.
Devon Lash sat across the table, a Coke bottle in front of him as well. Jim Ellison sat quietly in the corner of the room behind Isaiah, watching and listening.
"You want to know if I have an alibi," Lash replied with a smile. "I wondered when I'd show up on your suspect list." He shot a look at Jim waiting in the corner. "After Detective Ellison and his friend figured out about my...family history...I knew it was only a matter of time." He drummed his fingertips nervously on the table. "I live alone, Chief Johnson. As you know, my family's all dead. I keep to myself. I don't cause any trouble. I have no reason to be able to recall those particular nights, but I am sure I was doing what I do every single night of the week. I was at home. Alone. I had dinner, then I watched TV until eleven o'clock. Then I went to bed. That's it. No witnesses, but also no motive to want those three men dead. I didn't even know them."
"You do have a record, Mr. Lash," Isaiah pointed out. "Assault and armed robbery. Did you have a motive for those crimes?"
Devon Lash rested his elbows on the conference table. "I was a very angry young man. After my father passed away, I wanted nothing more than to vent that anger." His voice turned frustrated. "Yes, I made some mistakes, but I paid the price. I served my time. I did my parole. When I got out of prison, all I had left were my daddy's old pick-up and the tools of his trade. I came here to Fredrica Island to start a new life, and I don't think you'll find a single misstep on my part since the day I arrived." Lash's voice grew softer. "I'm not the man you want, gentlemen. I understand your suspicions, but you're wasting your time with me. Just hope you don't end up with another victim while you two dogs are barking up the wrong tree." He smiled calmly and took another sip of his Coke. "Any more questions?"
"What did you think, Jim?" Isaiah asked after Devon Lash had departed.
Discouraged, Jim shook his head. "Just like when Sandburg and I met with him at his office, I detected no signs he was lying." Jim ran his fingers through his hair. "What do I think? I think we've got nothing on him, Isaiah. Nothing except his family tree, and you sure can't convict a man on that. I'd appreciate it if you'd put a watch on him, though. I know you're short-handed, but..."
Isaiah waved off Jim's concern. "I'll call over to St. Mary's and borrow a team from them. We try to help each other out when we're short on manpower." While Jim waited, he picked up the phone and made arrangements. When he hung up a few minutes later, Isaiah assured Jim that there would be two men on the island within an hour to keep an around the clock watch on Devon Lash.
Relieved, Jim thanked the chief. "That will help both Sandburg and me sleep better tonight."
Isaiah Johnson stood up. "I'm going back out and talk to Charlie Satterfield again. That man still strikes me as having enough anger to..."
Penny Morgan burst into the room. "Chief Johnson! Detective Ellison! They've found another body!"
Isaiah cringed. "Damn! Where, Penny? Any idea yet who it is?"
The receptionist nodded, her eyes wide with shock. "It's Zeb Fields. Those college students found him near their place out on the Satilla River, just like the others."
Jim's eyes widened. "The college students? You mean Blair's team found the body?"
Penny confirmed Jim's words. "Yes. One of them just called it in. Are you...?"
The two men were already out the door before she completed her sentence.
Isaiah's F-250 pulled to a quick stop at the research camp, with Jim Ellison already out the door and at a full run. "Sandburg!" he called, looking anxiously around the camp.
"Jim, I'm over here!"
Ellison looked up to see Blair standing at the edge of the marsh waving. He breathed a sigh of relief. Jim wasn't sure why he'd been so concerned about his friend's safety. Maybe it was just the interview with the man who looked so much like David Lash that had his nerves on edge.
"You okay?" he asked when he reached his guide.
Blair smiled reassuringly. "I'm fine, Jim. Chill."
Ellison took a deep breath to settle his nerves. "Just so you'll know, we've got a 24/7 watch on Devon Lash. He won't make a move without our knowing it."
Blair shot a relieved look up at his partner. "Thanks. He's our man. I just know it."
"Maybe. Seems like a good bet to me, too." His mind returning to the events at hand, Jim asked, "Who found the body?" Ellison's sharp eyes scoured the scene, taking in the three other researchers and their site.
"It was Kirby. He was down by the river, then he ran back to the camp, out of breath and pretty shaken up. He said there was a body lying by the river, that he was certain the man was dead. I wouldn't let the others go down there, and we called you."
Jim rested his hand on Blair's shoulder. "Good work, Chief. This is the first crime scene I've been able to see before anyone else contaminated it." He glanced at the marsh. "Want to come in there with me?"
Blue eyes dancing, Blair nodded. "Sure. It's been a while since we've been a team, right?"
Grinning, Jim slapped his back gently. "Then c'mon, partner. Let's see what we can find."
The body of a man in his early forties lay crumbled in the dark mud alongside the Satilla River. As Jim and Blair approached, millions of tiny fiddler crabs scurried for their circular holes. Zeb Fields lay face down, one arm outstretched, dangling in the murky waters as they flowed in with the tide.
"We don't have much time, Jim," Blair pointed out. "The tide will be high here in another two hours or so." When his partner didn't reply, Blair moved closer, resting his right hand on the small of Jim's back, glad to be back in his accustomed position as guide.
Jim Ellison was focused entirely on the scene at hand. The detective in Ellison concentrated on the layout of the crime scene while the sentinel part of him reached out his senses to draw in any small pieces of evidence left behind by the killer. His face was a portrait of total concentration.
Blair never ceased to be fascinated watching Ellison at work. The combination of detective and sentinel was a perfect blend of talents. Whoever the killer was, Blair thought proudly, his days were numbered.
The first half hour passed in silence as Jim checked out every inch of the crime scene and the body. Blair couldn't see that he'd found anything of importance. Then, Jim's look of concentration intensified, and he squatted down in the almost dried mud. Running one hand along the ground, he looked up at Blair and smiled victoriously. Digging his gloved fingers a half-inch or so into the mud, he pulled out a small object, stood up, and held it out for Sandburg's inspection.
"What is it?" Blair moved closer to inspect the mud-coated object.
"A key. We'll have to get it cleaned up to see if it's labeled or if it's got prints." He looked up as Isaiah approached. "Any luck interviewing the researchers?"
The police chief shook his head. "No. I didn't expect anything earth shattering. If anybody had seen anything, Blair would have already told us. We did find another set of motorcycle tracks over there at the edge of the marsh. My men are making the imprints now." Looking at Jim's muddy hands, he asked, "You find anything?"
"Maybe. There was a key buried in the mud about two feet from the body. I bagged the hands and feet, and I think we'll find some tissue under the fingernails. If we're lucky, we'll have a DNA sample to work with, too." Jim smiled at Isaiah. "I think our killer may have finally tripped up and left us something to work with."
Suddenly, Jim's head tilted slightly to one side, and his eyes locked on a sandy path leading away from the marsh.
"Jim? What is it?" Blair recognized the sentinel's familiar listening pose.
Ellison's eyes didn't leave the road. "A motorcycle. Just cranked up a little piece up the path." Turning to look at Isaiah, he asked, "You got anybody up there?"
"No. Both my officers are here." He jerked his head toward the two police officers roping off the crime scene.
Jim broke into a run. "Sandburg," he called out. "Your keys in the bike?"
"Yeah!" Blair answered, jogging after his friend. "But what...?"
His question came too late. Jim was already firing up the Kawasaki and a moment later, he was speeding down the sandy path toward the mystery bike.
The huge live oaks and their draping moss hung low over the narrow path. Jim had to keep his head ducked to prevent a collision with one of the heavy limbs. He could hear the other motorcycle ahead, and he twisted the throttle for more speed, ignoring the dangers of the sandy soil and the crooked path with its overhanging branches.
It wasn't long until he caught sight of the other rider. Dressed entirely in black, including the helmet, the biker turned around just long enough to see Jim in pursuit. Gunning his own engine, he sped away, leaving a greater distance between himself and his pursuer.
Ellison cursed under his breath. Ahead of him, the fugitive quickly turned onto another path, this one even less defined than the first. Without time to slow for the turn, Jim knew it was going to be close.
As the motorcycle's tires spun out from under him, he knew he hadn't made it. He managed to dial back his sense of touch before the earth flew up to meet him.
"Jim!" Blair rushed up to his partner as Jim came limping down the path, pushing the motorcycle beside him.
Wincing at the pain his attempt to smile caused, Jim reassured his friend. "I'm okay, Chief. Our mystery rider took a quick left, and I didn't quite make the turn."
Blair moved closer, inspecting the cuts on Jim's face. "That's why Georgia has a helmet law, man. Are you sure you're all right?"
"I'm fine, Sandburg. Irritated at letting the guy get away, but other than that..." He shrugged. "We'll get him, though. At least now, I know he's riding a black bike. Probably a Harley, from the sounds of it."
Blair rode the motorcycle back into town, staying long enough for the department's mechanic to take a look at it. The guy worked another full-time job, but he ran by the station during a break at work and made sure no damage had been done to the borrowed motorcycle. When everything checked out okay, Blair headed back to the dig site to finish the day.
Although Jim had his doubts still about Devon Lash, as long as Blair was in the company of others and the around the clock watch was in place, he felt safe enough leaving his guide to his work. Isaiah had sent one of his officers into Savannah with the evidence for the crime lab there to evaluate it. They should have some of the results by the next day. The key in its protective bag was with them on its way to the station. They could check for prints then use the computer to check for possible matches.
An hour after they returned, Jim had pulled a partial print from the key. It might indeed provide a match to further connect a suspect with the crime scene evidence.
"It's not a house key or car key," Isaiah commented as they studied their newest evidence.
Jim turned it over. "More what you'd find on a locker. Maybe in a school or health club."
Placing the key carefully back in the evidence bag, Jim asked Isaiah, "What about the bike? Who on the island has a black motorcycle?"
Johnson looked uncomfortable. "A lot of people," he replied vaguely. "We can't go accusing people just because they own a black Harley, Jim."
"Who said anything about a Harley?" Jim's cool, level gaze held Isaiah's.
For several long moments, Johnson did not reply.
The door opened, and the police chief turned around quickly, obviously welcoming the interruption.
"Chief Johnson," Penny said. "I hate to bother you, but Harvey's out in reception, and he's insisting he has to talk with you."
Isaiah smiled quickly. "You thinking what I'm thinking, Jim?"
The sentinel's blue eyes were still studying the other man carefully, even as he answered. "Maybe he was at this crime scene, too, and this time, maybe he can tell us what he saw."
Harvey Simmons was nervous as a cat, pacing the floor and constantly munching on the chocolate covered raisins Penny had provided for their sweet-craving witness. He muttered under his breath as he paced, words intelligible only to him.
"Harvey?" Isaiah asked quietly. They had decided once again to have Isaiah question the old man as his was a familiar face. "Were you down by the river last night?"
"River, river," Harvey chanted in his singsong voice. "Yep, I was there. I saw the man with the hair."
"The hair?" Isaiah looked curiously at Jim.
"I think he means the victim, Zeb Fields. He had long reddish hair."
Harvey looked approvingly at Jim. "Right, right, right. Give the man a cigar."
Jim grinned. He was starting to like the crazy old man, and somehow that didn't bother him as it probably should. "What else did you see, Harvey?"
Once again the nervousness appeared in the old man's eyes. "Can't, can't, can't...tell, tell, tell."
"Are you afraid, Harvey?" Isaiah asked kindly. When the old man only nodded vigorously, Isaiah reassured him. "If you tell us what you know, we'll find this man and lock him up. He won't be able to hurt you or anyone else again. You've gotta tell us, Harvey. What did you see last night?"
Popping another handful of raisins into his mouth, Harvey chewed fitfully. "Same thing...same thing...nothing changes, everything remains the same."
"You saw the same man, didn't you? The same person you saw bring the other three bodies down to the river." Jim was piecing it together now. In his night wanderings, Harvey had seen the first body dumped on the banks of the Satilla River. Curious, he returned again and again, seeing the killer each time as he disposed of his victims.
"Smart man, smart man, figures out all he can!" Harvey chortled.
Isaiah proceeded cautiously. "What did the man look like, Harvey? Did you know him?"
A cloud passed over Harvey's watery blue eyes, a heavy sadness that intensified as he gazed at Isaiah. "I know, you know the dark child of the night. A big child, an unhappy child, who steals away life in the night." He stared unblinking at Isaiah. "The children break the hearts of the parents. The answer is so close...so very, very close to you."
Jim Ellison felt a stab of painful realization. He looked at Isaiah, and realized the older man had reached the same conclusion.
"No," Isaiah said softly. "Harvey, you're wrong. It can't be him."
Returning to his singsong, Harvey whispered, "D...D...D...J...J...J...the marsh man is D.J., D.J."
"He's crazy, Jim!" Isaiah protested, jumping to his feet. "He doesn't know what he's seen!"
Slinking into the far corner of the room, Harvey insisted, "Truth hurts...hurts...hurts. Sorry...sorry...sorry."
Calmly, Jim asked, "Harvey, can you tell me what Darnell was wearing when he brought the third body to the marsh?"
Harvey nodded quickly. "Sure, sure, sure! Blue jacket...blue, blue, blue. Go Braves! Play ball!"
Numbly, Isaiah stared at the face of his son's accuser. "His Atlanta Braves jacket. It's the same color blue as the thread..." His chin quivered as he added, "The key, Jim. He has a locker at the gym over in St. Mary's."
"He has a black Harley, too, doesn't he?"
When Isaiah nodded silently, Jim asked quietly, "Where is Darnell, Isaiah?"
The older man shook his head. "I...I'm not sure. He doesn't tell us anything about his plans anymore."
Harvey spoke up from his corner. "Followed him...follow, follow. Your house...house...house."
Now it was Jim Ellison who stared in shock at the strange old man. "What are you saying? Darnell went to our house last night?"
Giggling, Harvey nodded his head vigorously. "Hid his rope in the woods, he did. Out in the woods, the rope waits."
Jim was already at the door. "Let's go. I've got to get to Sandburg."
"Thanks for the ride, Kirby. I'll see you tomorrow." Blair closed the cottage door, checked the lock, then dropped his backpack on the floor by the couch. He went to his bedroom to change clothes, pulling off his dirty t-shirt and dropping it in the laundry basket. Before he could change into a clean shirt, he heard a knock at the door.
Moving cautiously into the living area, Blair looked out the side window and smiled with relief when he saw the familiar figure standing there. Opening the door, he gestured toward the living room. "Glad you dropped by, Darnell. Come on in."
Jim's Jeep bounced down the narrow road, Isaiah Johnson sitting silently at his side. Jim could only the guess the turmoil Isaiah was feeling, but at that moment, he could only hope they weren't too late to prevent a fifth murder. Why Darnell Johnson had snapped...how he'd chosen his victims...those questions would have to wait until he knew that Blair was safe.
It seemed hours before they arrived at the small cottage that had become their temporary home on Fredrica Island. Jim ran up the front steps, Isaiah right on his heels. When the door opened without his key, Jim's heart fell. Blair would never have left the front door unlocked, not with David Lash's brother on the same island.
"Sandburg!" he called out, rushing into the back of the house to check the bedrooms. "Blair!"
When there was no response, Jim ran back into the living room to find Isaiah. "Nothing. Let's check outside."
By the time the two men had circled to the back of the cottage, Isaiah's two officers had arrived. "Check the woods around the house," Johnson ordered, his voice tight. "Stay in contact by radio. Let me know immediately if you find Darnell."
Isaiah turned to Jim. "Can you use your sense to find them? The way you did Harvey?"
Jim nodded. "Maybe. Give me a minute."
The sentinel took a deep breath to center himself, the way Sandburg had shown him. Closing his eyes, he played out his sense of hearing, filtering out the sounds of nature and the men around him. Nothing. Frustrated, Ellison's eyes flew open, and for a minute, he almost lost control. Sounds threatened to overwhelm him - the chattering of a squirrel rang as loudly as cymbals...the sounds of the distant surf pounded like tympani.
Turning down the dials on his hearing, he tried using scent. Immediately, he picked up one scent that didn't belong. Darnell. The young man had definitely been here, and not long before they arrived, if the strength of his scent was any indication. Then, sifting through all the other odors was the familiar scent of his guide. Testing the air around him, Jim turned north. "This way," he ordered, and took off through the woods at a full run.
Jim turned around at Isaiah's voice, his impatience clear.
"I think I know where they are." Johnson still appeared grief-stricken, but clear headed enough for the investigator in him to come through. "Darnell built a little shack in the woods when he was a teenager. He always goes there when he's...in one of his moods. I think he's using it again now."
"Where?" Jim snapped.
"If you go south down the main road about a mile, you'll see a trail heading off to the right. You'll have to look for it closely. The cabin's about a mile down that trail, off on the left in the woods. Look for the Harley. He rides it everywhere. If he's there, you'll see it." In the voice of a man totally defeated by life, he added, "Take Blair's bike. We'll come behind you in the truck."
The Kawasaki roared down Beach Road, a missile on a desperate mission. Jim kept one eye out for the trail. Isaiah had said it would be easy to miss, and he didn't intend to waste one second getting to Blair. Behind him, about a quarter mile back, he heard the F250 carrying Johnson and his officers.
There...off to the right. It was a barely noticeable path leading into the woods. The bike could make it, Jim knew, but the men in the truck would have to come on foot. Not about to wait on them, Jim peeled the motorcycle off the road and hit the sandy trail, sending up a silent prayer that the bike would not become mired up in the soft sand.
He dodged low-hanging branches and moss, keeping his head low. The heat inside the forest away from the ocean breeze was stifling, and the drone of countless insects buzzed in his ears, even over the sound of the engine. Then, on the left, he saw it. Jim killed the engine, jumping off as the bike slid down on its side. To hell with the machine. If the owner was upset, he'd buy the kid a new one.
Darnell's Harley was parked out front. Jim knew he'd been heard and frankly didn't care. His rage sent adrenaline pumping through his body, and he had no doubt that he could have torn down the walls on the ramshackle shack as easily as a house of cards. Running toward the hut, he bellowed, "Darnell! Darnell Johnson!"
The front door opened, revealing the powerful figure of the young athlete. "Stay back!" he shouted. "I've got him right here, and I have a gun!"
Jim stopped, his sentinel sight revealing the .45 in Darnell's right hand. Probably one of his father's. That explained why the kid hadn't used the gun to commit his crimes. Too easy to trace, and with a body like his, overpowering his victims and the strangulation that followed would have been easy.
He could hear the Ford stopping at the entrance to the path. Isaiah and his officers were running up the path, but it would take a few minutes for them to arrive. Jim couldn't afford to wait.
Forcing the anger from his voice, Jim said calmly, "Darnell, it's over. We know everything. We have evidence to tie you to the crimes, and we have a witness who saw you every time you dumped a body. There's no reason to hurt anyone else. Let me come in and get Blair."
"No!" The young man held up the gun. "If I come out, he'll kill me!"
"Nobody's going to kill you, Darnell. I promise." Jim took a couple of cautious steps closer to the cabin. "Your father and his men are on their way. They'll be here in a minute. Please, come with me now. I'll see to it that you're taken in safely. You have my word on that."
For a moment, Darnell wavered, obviously indecisive. Jim could see the weariness in his face. Not only was the kid desperate, he was on the edge of exhaustion.
Jim pressed on, taking a few more small steps. "Darnell, is Blair all right? Have you hurt him?"
Darnell shrugged. "I don't know. He went down like the others, but he's still breathing."
Jim's heart sank, even as the rage flamed within him. From behind, he heard Isaiah and his officers rush out of the forest. Quickly, in a low voice, Jim filled them in. "I don't know about Blair," he finished. Turning to Isaiah, he added forcefully, "I have to get in there, Isaiah."
"Let me try," Isaiah said, moving in front of Jim. He didn't wait for Ellison's acknowledgement.
"Darnell? It's time to come out, son. It's over."
The young man's laughter rang through the forest. "Come out to what? You slapping cuffs on me and hauling me off to prison? You gonna strap me in the chair, too, Dad?"
Isaiah shook his head. "Why?" he cried out desperately. "Why the hell did you do it, Darnell?"
"You want to know why? Okay, Dad," he spit out the words bitterly. "I'll tell you. I set you up, old man. Do you have any idea how much I've hated it here? I could have gone to a powerhouse school, if I'd been at a big city high school. Instead, I got stuck at a school in the boondocks and got a two-bit scholarship to a nothing college. No chance for the pros there, Dad. So I took everything I'd learned from you - how to commit the perfect crime - and used it against you. It was perfect, wasn't it? Four totally unrelated victims. No gun or bullets to trace, just a common, ordinary rope used by almost everyone on this forsaken island. I knew you'd suspect old Charlie for two of the killings, but not the third or fourth. How'd you like the exact number of stab wounds? Five for each. You'd think there'd be a pattern there, wouldn't you? A reason for that number?" The young man laughed bitterly. "Nope. No pattern. Just me, setting you up, Dad. Perfect."
"But why, son?" Isaiah's voice was filled with anguish. "Why would you do something like this?"
"You really don't get it, do you?" Darnell called back. "You're dumber than I thought, man. I knew if you couldn't solve the killings, you'd lose that all-important election this fall. All I had to do was keep the case fresh in the public's mind." He shrugged. "All that meant was a few more bodies between now and November."
"You wanted me to lose?" Isaiah sounded dumbfounded, unable to comprehend his son's words.
Darnell laughed coldly. "Like I said, it was perfect, Dad. You totally screwed up my life. Why shouldn't I ruin yours, too?"
"Why'd you go after Sandburg?
Darnell contemplated the question. "He wasn't in the original plan, of course. Then, when you told Mom and me about Devon Lash and his brother, I knew I'd have another possible suspect if I offed old Blair here, too." He laughed coldly. "There's more. You brought Ellison in to hunt me, and I figured killing his friend here would break his concentration. Might buy me more time to pull off a few more hits. More dirt to rub your nose in. Pretty smart, huh, Dad? You deserve some of the credit, of course. All those years listening to your stupid cop stories taught me a lot."
Isaiah took a step backward as if slapped. "Jim," he said softly. "I don't know who he is anymore. I don't think I can help you here."
Ellison stared at him. "You knew a motorcycle was involved the entire time. You knew this afternoon it was black. You must have had a clue." Jim could fill the anger building inside. He took two quick steps forward, standing in Isaiah's face. "He might never have touched Blair if..."
"I'm so sorry. I just didn't believe he could do something this...horrible. I'm...sorry." There was defeat in Johnson's voice, complete and utter defeat.
Jim stepped back, his anger suddenly gone cold. The time for regrets and recriminations was past. Sandburg was in that shack, and although he could hear his guide's heart beating, the pulses were irregular and weak.
"I have to get in there, Isaiah," Jim said firmly. "If you can't get him out, I'm going to do it. One way or another."
Isaiah's eyes were drawn to the gun at Jim's side, then to the coldly determined look in the sentinel's eyes. "Let me try one more thing," he said weakly.
"Darnell?" he called to his son. "I understand why you might hate me enough to do this, but what about your mother? Do you hate her enough to kill again?"
Jim heard the young man's heart rate spike. He whispered to Isaiah, "Keep going. You've got him thinking."
"Since when do you give a damn about her, huh, Dad? You've been screwing every skirt on this island for years! I used to smell them on you, Dad! Their cologne. Their sweat. Their sex. I'd come by the office after school, and I'd see you straightening your tie as some pretty young thing hustled out the back door. Hell, everyone in town knew! Mom knew! But you didn't give a damn, did you? The world revolves around you, doesn't it? Your needs. Your desires." Darnell laughed coldly. "Just look where all those years of self-centeredness have brought you! Look what it's got you!"
The father's voice faltered as he fought for the right words. The words that would convince his son to release his hostage and maybe, just maybe, get him out of the small shack alive. "Your mother's at home, son, not knowing about any of this. She likes Blair. How do you think she's going to feel if he dies at your hands? He tried to help you. Blair Sandburg cared enough to try to help you. Just let Jim come in there and bring him out. Please." Isaiah took a deep breath. "This is an island, son. You're not going to get away. If I have to bring in the state troopers and the FBI..." His voice broke from emotion at last. "I can't guarantee your safety. You're holding a hostage, Darnell, and you've killed four people. You think the feds are going to just let you walk out of there and go on your way? Let us come in and get Blair, then we'll go to the D.A. together. Please, Darnell!"
As Isaiah spoke, Jim crept to the edge of the forest and along its perimeter, keeping a careful eye on Darnell. So far, the young man hadn't noticed his movements. His attention was totally focused on his father and his attempts to convince him to surrender.
Jim reached the side of the cabin at last. Darnell had taken two steps out from the doorway, still holding the gun in his hand, but it was at his side now, no longer pointed at his father and the officers. Darnell was talking again, and Jim seized the opportunity.
He charged around the corner of the cabin, his eyes locked on the .45. Darnell whirled around in surprise, raising the gun to point it at Jim. Ellison kicked out, catching Darnell's hand hard, sending the .45 flying through the air. The young football player was quick on his feet, one step away from taking off away from the cabin at a full run. Jim threw himself forward, tackling him around the waist and driving him into the ground. Darnell fought back hard, struggling against the big man who had thrown him to the ground. But the sentinel had grown impatient. Drawing back one powerful arm, Jim drove his fist into Darnell's face, knocking him out cold.
Isaiah and his officers came running up just as Jim stood up. With a long look at Darnell's father, Jim turned and ran into the shack.
It took his eyes a few moments to adjust to the dimness. Turning up his vision a notch, the interior of the dark shack became clear. Jim immediately found the broken figure lying on the dirt floor in the corner. "Sandburg!" he breathed, covering the distance between them in three long strides.
Sensitive fingers searched Blair's still body, immediately finding the cruel bruises from the rope around his neck, already turning purple. Jim pressed his fingers to the windpipe, relieved to find it intact. Sandburg's breathing sounded labored, but at least his trachea hadn't been crushed.
The hot, coppery tang of blood filled the sentinel's nostrils, sending a wave of nausea through him. Blair's blood... It was seeping into the dirt floor, covering Sandburg's bare chest and dripping down to soak his jeans. It coated Jim's own hands as they roamed over Blair's body searching desperately to establish the extent of his injuries. Fighting back his own weakness, Jim took inventory of the stab wounds. Five in all, to the chest and abdomen. Just like the other victims. But Sandburg wasn't like the others. He had managed to survive Darnell's brutal attack.
"Chief," he whispered in a voice tight writhing barely restrained emotion. "Hang on, Blair. Help's on its way." He gently slid his arms beneath Blair's shoulders and pulled him to his chest, cradling him close. His skin felt so cold...so clammy. Jim forced down the bile rising in his throat. "Easy...easy. Just keep breathing for me, okay?"
Isaiah appeared at the doorway. "A copter's on its way from the mainland to airlift him to County General. How...?"
Ellison's worried blue eyes rose to meet the guilt-filled brown ones of Isaiah Johnson. "He's alive. Barely. Can you find out how long he..." Jim's voice cracked a little. "...wasn't breathing?" If Sandburg's oxygen had been cut off too long... Jim shuddered at the possibilities.
Nodding silently, Johnson slipped out the door.
While he was gone, Jim slowly rocked Blair in his arms. "I'm sorry, Chief," he whispered. "I'm so damned sorry. Don't you leave me, you hear? You promised, remember? Remember? I'm holding you to that promise. You can't leave me, Blair."
Isaiah knelt beside them. "Darnell said he's not sure. He...strangled Blair back at your cottage. I guess Sandburg trusted him and let him in. Darnell must have slipped up behind him, taking him by surprise. Anyway, he said he wasn't breathing when he loaded him on the motorcycle and brought him through the woods to the cabin. He said when he got him here, he discovered he was still breathing. That's when he started stabbing him. That was just about the time we showed up. He didn't..." Isaiah stopped and cleared his throat. "...have time to finish the job. I'm so sorry, Jim. I don't know what to say."
Blair moaned softly, and Jim bent his head to whisper in his ear. "Easy...easy, Blair. I'm here. I'm right here." Looking up, he said to Isaiah, "It's not your fault. I don't blame you for this. Neither will Sandburg."
The sound of a helicopter landing on the road a mile away reached Jim's ears. "They're here," he announced.
"Phillips is up at the road. He'll bring the EMTs here. The state police are on their way to...take custody of Darnell. My other officer's with him now." When there was no reply from the man hunched on the floor, Johnson slipped out the door. "I'll be outside, Jim. As soon as they get here, I'll bring them in." Then he was gone, and once more, sentinel and guide were left alone.
Jim barely heard his words. Every inch of his being was focused on Blair, still cradled in his arms. His universe had narrowed to include only the two of them. All else was meaningless.
As Blair struggled to breathe, the fear of losing him churned in Jim's heart. Suddenly, it seemed overwhelmingly important to experience Blair as completely as possible, in case these might be their last few moments together. Ordinarily, Jim would not have allowed such a thought to enter his reality, but Blair's breathing was so labored, his heart beat so weak. He was dying, and even Jim Ellison couldn't deny that heartbreaking truth.
Jim turned up his hearing, allowing the unsteady rhythm of his guide's heart to beat through his body. The rushing of blood through his veins, the labored intake of air into straining lungs, and the sound of his weak exhalations filled Jim's ears and flowed through his body.
His eyes raked over Blair in a desperate attempt to commit everything about him to memory. The burnished highlights in his hair...every whorl of the pads of his fingers...the feathery eyelashes lying closed against his pale cheeks. Jim never wanted to forget.
Jim's sensitive fingers traveled lightly through Sandburg's hair, committing its softness to his sense memory. Wandering downward, he touched the soft skin of his temples, then brushed his thumbs over the hollows beneath the closed eyes. One hand clasped around Sandburg's, entwining their fingers. He knew he would soon have to let go, release his guide into the care of others, but for these final few minutes, Blair remained his to hold.
He breathed in his guide's scent, its familiar sweetness tainted now with the stench of the intruder, the one who had dared hurt him. Touching his lips to Blair's cheek, he tasted salty sweat, mixed with the tang of blood. Yet, beneath those disturbing tastes was the unmistakable flavor of Blair, and Jim let the memories flood over him - memories of home and laughter, friendship and love.
"Don't leave me," he whispered roughly, as the door behind them opened again. They were here now, the others, to take Blair to the helicopter and on to the hospital. From this point until he was given the final word on his guide's fate, Blair would be beyond Jim's reach. Just before the hands touched his shoulders to gently pry him away, he whispered, "Don't you go. Do you hear me? Don't you dare go, Chief."
He passed the hours alone. Upon their arrival at the hospital in St. Mary's, Jim had been ushered into a tiny, private waiting room. Apparently Isaiah's position had secured him a measure of privacy in which to await Blair's fate...and his own.
Jim had no doubt that if Blair died, his own life would end. Not in the physical sense, although that would have been infinitely easier to endure. He was too disciplined, too practical, to turn to thoughts of suicide. He would go on without Blair, but it would be an empty existence at best. The light, the movement and the music, the laughter would be forever gone. Jim had caught a glimpse of what that life would be like twice now. Once beside the dancing waters of a fountain...once beside the rushing rapids of a mountain river. He'd caught a glimpse of the hell that would consume him should he lose his guide, and he dreaded beyond words the day when he might be plunged into those merciless flames for a lifetime. Now, alone in the tiny waiting room, he could only beg whatever force had brought Sandburg into his life to spare the life of his guide, and his own in the process.
Jim was grateful that no one had shown up to wait with him. He'd half expected Kirby, Chris, and Joy to appear at the door at any time, to show their support for Blair. They had not. He'd asked Officer Phillips to let them know what had happened but ask that they not come to the hospital, that Jim preferred to wait alone. Apparently, they had honored his request.
He'd almost called Simon several times, but had held back. What good would it do to worry their captain and friend now? There was nothing he could do all the way across the country in Cascade. Jim could phone him later. When he knew his fate. Still, a nagging guilt plagued him. Simon would want to know. Not only about Sandburg, but about Darnell. Jim sighed. Not exactly the outcome he'd hoped to share with his captain when this case was finally solved.
The waiting room door opened, and a tall black man in a white lab coat stepped inside. He glanced at the chart in his hand. "Mr....Ellison?"
Jim rose to his feet immediately. "Yes. How's Blair?"
"I'm Dr. Edmondson, Dr. Sandburg's attending physician. Why don't we sit down?"
Jim returned to his seat in the uncomfortable plastic chair and tried to focus on what the man was saying. "Blair suffered a variety of wounds, as I'm sure you are aware. Our first concern was that his trachea had been damaged, hindering his breathing. Luckily, while it has been severely constricted, it was not crushed. There should be no lasting damage, although he will find it painful to swallow and difficult to talk for several weeks." Dr. Edmondson smiled, obviously genuinely relieved.
Jim found himself liking this doctor. Any man who took his patient's interest to heart so sincerely had to be all right.
"The stab wounds present a different concern. Blair received five separate stab wounds, all to the midsection and upper region of the body. We have done some tests to determine what internal damage these may have caused." The doctor shook his head in wonder. "It's amazing, but four times that knife entered his body and missed any vital organs. It bypassed the liver and spleen by mere centimeters."
Jim's blood ran cold. "Four times?"
Dr. Edmondson's smile faded, and he shook his head in regret. "He almost escaped serious injury. If only he hadn't been stabbed in the heart."
Stunned, Jim could found he could barely speak past the lump in his throat. "In the heart?" He could feel his own heart pounding, and a loud roar filled his ears, making it difficult to hear the doctor's reply.
"The fifth stab wound damaged the aorta. Luckily, there wasn't too much damage. It could have been far worse. Less than a centimeter to the right, and Blair would surely have bled to death before reaching the hospital." Looking closely at the man sitting across from him, Dr. Edmondson added, "Mr. Ellison? Are you all right?"
Jim nodded weakly. "What can you do?"
"Blair's already in pre-op. Our top cardiologist is already prepping. He'll go in, repair the tear in the aorta and clean up the internal bleeding. I can't make any guarantees, you understand, but Dr. Bernard's one of the best surgeons in this part of the country." Again, Dr. Edmondson smiled. "Blair Sandburg is a very fortunate young man to have him for a doctor."
"Can I see him?" Jim asked hopefully.
The doctor shook his head. "I'm afraid not. They're already getting him ready for surgery. While the situation isn't immediately life-threatening, he's already lost a significant amount of blood. We really don't have any time left to get him to the OR." He stood up. "I'll be monitoring the surgery, Mr. Ellison, and I'll have a nurse keep you updated. He'll go to recovery afterwards for a time, then to a private room. You'll be able to be with him then."
Jim's final question was the most difficult to ask. "I told the admitting nurse that he was without oxygen for an indeterminate amount of time." The words seemed to stick, thick and heavy, in his throat. "What about...brain damage?" He spat the words out, as if the taste of them was too bitter to remain on the tongue for long.
A concerned line appeared between the kind doctor's eyebrows. "We don't know for sure yet. I don't feel any damaged suffered will be major; he's responding too well to stimulus, even in his light coma. However, there could be some temporary effects from the oxygen deprivation, perhaps even some permanent losses in the areas of short-term memory and fine motor coordination." Dr. Edmondson's warm brown eyes locked with Jim's worried blue ones. "I know it's hard to live with the 'I don't knows', Mr. Ellison, but I'm afraid that's the best I can do for now." He paused for a moment, contemplating the man before him. "I always like to know a little bit about my patients. It makes me feel more in touch with their needs. What can you tell me about Blair?"
Jim leaned back in his chair, the worry fading a bit from his face as a small smile turned up the corners of his mouth. "He's amazing, Doctor. Blair has more energy than any two people I've ever known. He's eternally curious. Always learning, always asking questions. Sometimes it drives me crazy as hell, but I wouldn't want him ever to lose that zeal." Jim's expression grew softer as he thought about his friend. "He's the most compassionate man I know. Blair's risked his life for me more times than I can count."
Looking at the emotion in Jim's blue eyes, the doctor asked, "He's very important to you, isn't he?"
"Blair's my roommate, my partner at work, my best friend, my family..." Jim shrugged helplessly, as words failed him. Looking up at the doctor with glistening eyes, he added simply, "He's my life."
Standing up, Dr. Edmondson rested a supportive hand on Jim's shoulder. "Thank you for helping me get to know my patient better. I promise we'll do everything we can." He gathered his charts and left the room.
Less than an hour later, a nurse knocked, then opened the door. "Mr. Ellison?"
Jim looked up quickly from the magazine he'd been staring at blindly, looking but not seeing. "How's he doing? What's happening?"
The nurse shook her head. "I'm sorry. I don't have any news yet from the OR. It's just too soon. You have a phone call at the nurses' station. Line four."
Jim followed her to the telephone, picked up the receiver, then hit the button for line four. "Ellison."
"Jim, it's Isaiah."
Even through the phone line, Jim heard the guilt and anguish in the other man's voice.
"How is Blair? I wanted to call sooner, but things have been...hectic."
Ignoring the reference to Darnell for the moment, Jim replied, "He's in surgery now. There's been some damage to his aorta. The trachea is intact, but they're not sure yet about possible brain damage." There. A calm, succinct description exactly what this man's son had done to his best friend. Jim forced down the momentary flare of anger. None of this was Isaiah's fault. He was a good man, a good cop. Isaiah Johnson certainly would never have wanted any of this to happen.
A long silence followed. At last, Isaiah said quietly, "I don't know what to say, Jim. I'm just so damned sorry about this whole mess. I...know how much Blair means to you. If I'd thought for an instant that Darnell was behind all this...that he might be a danger to Blair, I..."
"This isn't your fault," Jim said woodenly. "You didn't know. You couldn't have known." Almost as an afterthought, he added, "Where's Darnell now?"
Isaiah's grief-filled voice replied, "In the county jail, awaiting arraignment. He'll be facing four murder charges, plus one attempted murder...for Blair. The key fit his locker at the health club, Jim. They found the rope he used inside, along with the shoes he wore to dump the bodies. The treads matched the partials we got out in the marsh. I've retained a very good attorney for him, mostly for Sarah's sake. Not that it will do much good." He paused. "I'm not sure I'd be helping him at all, if it wasn't for her. Jim, would you mind calling Simon for me? I know I need to tell him what's happened, but I...just don't know if I can talk about it right now."
Jim closed his eyes for a moment. "I know. I should have done it myself earlier. I'll give him a call and tell him everything. Listen, Isaiah...if there's anything I can do for you and Sarah...please, just let me know."
"Thanks, Jim," the broken voice replied. "That means a lot...to us both. I'll check back with you later about Blair. I sincerely hope he will be all right."
Jim let the receiver fall back in place. Now, he had to face an even more difficult task - telling Simon Banks that the happy little boy he remembered had turned into a murderer, and that his last intended victim had been Blair Sandburg.
Jim stepped out into the late afternoon sunshine, his cell phone in hand. He hadn't been able to face talking to Simon on the waiting room phone. Using a cell phone inside was against hospital policy, so he'd told the nurses on duty that he'd be in the small garden to the side of the hospital for a few minutes. It seemed a peaceful place to be for a time.
"Simon?" Jim couldn't help smiling when he heard his captain's gruff voice answer the phone. He could visualize Banks clearly - stacks of papers cluttering his desk...unlit cigar clenched between his teeth...a look of irritation on his face at having to answer another phone call.
The gruffness disappeared immediately. "Jim? 'Bout time you called to check in. It's been - what? - ten days since I heard from you. How's the case progressing? You and Isaiah made any arrests yet?"
Reality set in again. "Simon," Jim said quietly. "There are some things I need to tell you."
"Jim, what's wrong?" Simon asked immediately. The tone of Jim's voice left no doubt as to the seriousness of the situation. "Is Blair all right?"
Jim shut his eyes against the sudden pain as Simon's question unexpectedly brought reality home to him. "No, he's not all right."
"What the hell's going on there, Jim? What's wrong with Sandburg?"
Slowly, Jim began to explain everything from the first few days of their investigation. He told him about their first primary suspect, Charlie Satterfield, and the strangely helpful hermit, Harvey Simmons. Then, he dropped the first bombshell - the story of Devon Lash.
"Lash? David Lash's brother?" Simon sounded incredulous. "There on the island? How did Sandburg deal with that?"
"It's been tough," Jim admitted. "We were just beginning to deal with it when the fourth victim turned up."
From that point, Jim explained the evidence he and Isaiah had found - the footprint...the blue thread...the key. The second bombshell was next - the attack on Blair by Darnell and the reasons the young man had given for his killing spree, along with how the evidence they had found linked Darnell to the crimes.
There was complete silence on the other end of the line. If Jim hadn't been able to hear Simon's breathing, he would have thought the connection had been broken.
At last, Simon breathed, "Damn, Jim! I...I just can't believe it. Darnell Johnson? Isaiah and Sarah must be crushed." He hesitated a moment, then asked, "Jim? Tell me about Blair."
Emotionally exhausted by the retelling of the events of the past several weeks, Jim slumped forward on the park bench, resting his elbows on his knees. "He's in surgery now, Simon. The aorta was damaged, but according to the doctor, it could have been much worse. I'm mainly worried about oxygen deprivation. Even though his trachea wasn't crushed, it was damaged enough to cut off Sandburg's oxygen. Darnell said he thought he had stopped breathing before he loaded him in his truck and carried Blair to his shack to...finish him off with the knife. He realized Blair was breathing again right before we arrived and had already stabbed him. Five times."
Jim faltered, too overcome by emotion to continue. He fought for a moment to establish control. "So we don't really know exactly how long his brain was without oxygen." Jim rubbed his forehead wearily. "Oh, God, Simon... What if...?"
"Don't think that way, Jim!" Simon commanded in a no-nonsense voice. "Blair's going to be okay, you hear me? He's going to be fine." His voice softer, Simon asked, "How are you doing? You want me to fly out there, Jim?"
"Thank you, sir, but I'm okay. Just...tired."
And scared half to death, aren't you, Jim?
Out loud, the captain said, "I can be there by morning, Jim. You'll let me know if you want me to come out there?"
Jim glanced at his watch. He'd been gone too long already. "I will, sir. I need to get back inside and see if there's any word from the OR."
"Listen, Jim. I'm expecting a call from you as soon as you know anything, understand?" Simon added quietly, "I gripe a lot about the kid, Jim, but you know I care about him, too."
Jim managed to whisper past the tightness in his throat, "Thanks, Simon. I know you do. I will call you when I know something."
He broke the connection and hurried back inside to check on Sandburg.
Two hours passed with no word from the operating room. Jim Ellison spent the time restlessly, alternating between pacing the halls and sitting quietly in his tiny waiting area. He longed to be able to reach out with his hearing to see if he could locate Blair's heart beat, but the risk of zoning was too great. Without anyone around who knew anything about bringing him back, he just couldn't take the chance. So he settled for waiting alone and in silence.
He must have dozed for a minute, because when he opened his eyes, Dr. Edmondson was standing in front of him. Jim straightened up so quickly that his neck protested the sudden change in positions.
Edmondson sat down in one of the chairs across from Jim and smiled reassuringly. "He came through the surgery fine, Detective Ellison. They repaired the aorta and cleaned up the bleeding. Right now, he's in recovery. I suspect they'll transfer him to a room in a few hours. It's still touch and go, however. This was heart surgery, after all, and with the amount of blood loss..." The doctor shrugged. "No one can be sure, I'm afraid. If he continues to hold his own tonight, then I'll feel better about making a prognosis in the morning."
It took a moment for the doctor's words to sink in. Blair was still alive. His heart - the same heart Jim had come to rely on so much - had been repaired and continued to beat. If only he could hold on through the night.
Forcing the words out past the huge lump in his throat, Jim asked, "Did he wake up? Could they tell if he...is all right?" Somehow, he still had trouble even saying the dreaded words, 'brain damage'.
"Not yet. He's in a light coma. It could be a few hours or even a few days before he awakens. Until then, we really won't be able to assess how much damage might have been done." He smiled kindly at the worried detective. "We're going to have to adapt to Blair's timetable now, Jim. He's been through a severe trauma, and his body will have to heal at its own pace. There is really nothing we can do to speed up the process. He's receiving all the meds he needs. Beyond that..." He shook his head then checked his watch as he stood up. "I have another family to see. A nurse will take you to Blair's room. You may wait there until they bring him up."
Before Jim went to wait for Blair in his hospital room, he stepped outside and called Simon to give him the news that the police consultant had come through the surgery. Jim knew that the hours ahead would be the longest of his life. He might as well get some air while he could. He had no intentions of leaving Blair's room until the young man was completely out of danger.
After they'd completed their conversation, Jim stood for a long minute, staring at his cell phone. He'd promised to keep Isaiah Johnson posted on Blair's condition as well. Taking a deep breath, Jim dialed the number.
Jim waited outside the hospital room while they brought Sandburg in. He'd caught a short glimpse of his friend as he was wheeled through the door, but that was all. A few minutes later, the orderlies left, and the nurse came out of Blair's room to give Jim permission to go in.
The room was crowded with an array of machines, all hooked up to Sandburg to monitor his condition. The hisses, beeps, and hums left Jim momentarily disoriented. He adjusted his hearing down a notch, bringing the noise to a more manageable level. It was evening now, already dark outside, and the room's only illumination was the low light from over the small sink to the left of the bed.
The sentinel moved to stand beside the narrow hospital bed and gazed down at his guide. His heart tightened at the sight. Blair was so pale, nearly as white as the flat pillow beneath his head. A tube ran down his throat, helping him to breathe. The bruises on his throat were ugly now, hideously purple with violent slashes of yellow. Even with the sheet pulled over him, Jim could see the top of the bandages covering the incision in his chest. Jim's heart lurched at the thought of the scar his friend would bear the rest of his life, a never-ending reminder of all Blair had endured this day.
Every instinct Jim Ellison possessed screamed to him to reach out and touch his friend, yet somehow, he could not. Blair looked so fragile lying there, dependent upon that plastic tube for his every breath, bruised and cut, a victim of violence and a hatred so deep that Jim couldn't begin to conceive of how its depth. He was so pale, so weak, and illogically, Jim was afraid that even his light, caring touch might bring more pain. He wouldn't have been able to bear that, being the cause of Blair's pain.
Lifting the heavy, vinyl covered chair from the far corner of the room, Jim placed it beside the bed, next to Sandburg's head. Easing down into it, Jim leaned forward, studying his friend's face. "Hey, Chief," he said softly. "I'm here, buddy."
The long lashes lay unmoving on the pale cheek. Jim hadn't expected him to awaken yet, but a part of him longed to see some sign of awareness from the unmoving form. The energetic young man, so filled with life, lay far too still for his partner's liking.
Unable to hold back his touch any longer, Jim reached out tentatively, running the backs of his fingers along Blair's cheek in a gentle caress. "I'm here, Blair. You're going to be all right. You came through the surgery just fine." Jim tried to force a smile, then realized his effort would do Blair no good and settled for a long, shuddering breath instead. "I called Simon. He said to tell you to get better fast and get back to work. He cares about you, kid. I guess you know that, though, don't you? You've always been able to see through us both."
Jim's careful touch moved from stroking Blair's cheek to his hair. "You need a shampoo, kiddo. Bet that's the first thing you ask for when they take that tube out." Jim's sensitive fingers ran over the curls in long, soothing strokes. "Kirby came by earlier. They're all worried about you. I told him not to finish that research without you, that you'd be ready to go back to the site as soon as the doctors give you the okay. You'll finish your study, Chief, I promise you. I'll stay right here with you until you do."
Leaning closer, Jim's eyes were drawn to Blair's throat, the bruising and swelling visible proof of the ordeal his friend had endured. "I'm sorry, Chief," he said quietly, his voice thick with emotion. "I'm so very sorry. We thought we were keeping you safe, didn't we? Put a twenty-four hour watch on Devon Lash, and it turns out we had the wrong guy. Guess your Blessed Protector...failed again."
He ran his fingers lightly over the violated throat. "Blair...," Jim whispered brokenly.
His own body betrayed him. Try as he might, the words would no longer come, even though Jim knew his friend needed to hear his voice. He settled for simply being there, hoping Blair somehow knew that he was beside him.
The hours passed.
"Why hasn't he awakened yet?" Jim sat down in the uncomfortable plastic chair next to Dr. Edmondson in the small waiting room down the hall from where Blair Sandburg slept, still caught in his coma.
The normally optimistic doctor looked was obviously concerned. Small lines of worry appeared between his knitted brows. "Frankly, Detective Ellison, we're concerned. It's been eight days since Blair's surgery. We had hoped he would have awakened much sooner than this." Edmondson consulted his chart. "His fever's been steadily increasing, despite the antibiotics, and the two times we've tried to extubate him, he's experienced breathing difficulties. I really don't want to attempt to remove that tube again until the fever's lower and he's conscious."
Dr. Edmondson appraised Jim frankly. "I think you should prepare yourself for a couple of possibilities. First, the coma appears much deeper than we first thought. Blair may not come out of this. Second, if he does awaken, I think there's a very good chance that we're looking at some degree of brain disfunction."
Jim stared blankly at the man beside him. "No...," he whispered.
"Would you like to talk with our staff minister or priest? Perhaps a counselor?" the doctor offered compassionately. "Is there anything we can do? Anyone we can call for you?"
His body felt disconnected somehow, Jim thought irreverently as he stood up. Almost as if he was one of those string puppets - loose-jointed and awkward and almost on the verge of collapse. He shook his head in denial. Whether it was of the doctor's offer or of his prognosis, Jim wasn't sure.
Without a word, he strode down the hall to Sandburg's room to resume his vigil.
Jim Ellison had never considered himself a man of deep introspection. He was a man of action, a man who could cut to right down to the bare bones of a problem and take appropriate action without hesitation. Sandburg had certainly provided him with the need to participate in more soul-searching in the past five years than in all other years combined, but still Jim found introspection uncomfortable.
Now, with Blair lying before him unmoving and unresponsive, he was left with nothing but his own thoughts for company.
It had been ten days.
Ten days of thinking and probing his own heart and soul for truths he had never dared face before. At last, despite the raw terror the realization induced, Jim knew he had his answer.
He knew what he must do.
Taking in a deep, broken breath, Jim leaned forward in the chair placed beside Sandburg's bed. He buried his face in his hands for a few minutes, drawing on his inner strength and the discipline cultivated during years of training. He knew he would need every ounce of courage he possessed for what would come next. He would do this with dignity, with honor, if not for his own sake, then for Blair's. His friend deserved that much at least.
At last, he was prepared. Jim stood up, lowering the bed rail to sit beside his guide. He studied the peaceful face for a few minutes. There had been absolutely no change of expression on that normally animated face. That alone should have told him all he needed to know.
Jim captured Sandburg's hand in his, then reached up with his other hand to gently touch the purple and yellow bruises on Blair's throat. "Chief?" he asked tentatively. He took another shuddering breath, releasing it slowly. "This is so hard, Blair. I hope you know that."
Staring intently down at the motionless features, Jim watched for any sign that Sandburg could hear him.
"Blair? I've been doing a lot of thinking the last few days." He chucked sadly in spite of his grief. "Yeah, I know. Jim Ellison thinking. A dangerous situation if there ever was one." He smiled briefly, listening to the teasing voice of his guide whispering in his memory.
"I've come to a realization, Chief. I can be a selfish bastard. We both know that, right? I'm wondering if..." He paused, summoning the strength he needed. "What I'm wondering is...do you think I'm trying to keep you here for all the wrong reasons?"
The words flowed now, as if released from the confines of the dam holding them at bay. "You wouldn't want to stay here like this. I know that much is true. A life like this...it wouldn't be a life at all for you, would it? I need you, Blair. You know that. But if you're ready to...leave...if that's what you need to do for yourself...then I..." The last words were spoken so softly they were little more than a whisper. "I won't try to hold you back any longer. I won't try to keep you here. God knows, this isn't easy for me, Chief, but I want what's best for you. You've given me your best since the first day we met. The least I can do is give a little of it back to you."
Jim studied the still face, so achingly familiar and cherished. "I'm not going anywhere, I promise. I'll be right here as long as you need me. I just wanted you to know that you're free to go, if that's what you need."
Exhausted, Jim slipped back into his chair, but he didn't relinquish his grip on Blair's hand or his touch on the battered throat. If his friend left him, it seemed important somehow that he depart this world still connected physically to his sentinel.
Lowering his head to the thin mattress, Jim closed his eyes, ignoring the wetness on his face. "I'm here, Chief," he murmured as he drifted to sleep. "Whatever you decide, my heart goes with you."
It was a deep sleep, almost the sleep of the drugged. When the whisper of awareness came, Jim fought against it. He didn't want to emerge from the protective darkness. While it was not a conscious thought, he knew in the depths of his soul that all that awaited in the light was pain.
Something kept drawing him upward, however, out of the comforting nothingness of his sleep. Sighing hard with regret, Jim forced himself awake.
Something wet and warm touched his fingertips. Taken by surprise, Jim stared at Sandburg's face. What he saw there broke his heart.
Blair's eyes were open, and tears were spilling down his cheeks. The hot tears ran unchecked down his face to cover Jim's fingers, still resting lightly on Blair's bruised throat, baptizing Jim with the visible sign of his pain and fear.
"Chief..." Jim breathed.
Gently, Jim wiped the hot tears from Blair's face. "It's all right," he reassured him. "Everything's okay."
Blair tried to speak, and panic filled his eyes when no words would come.
Jim leaned over him, cupping his face in his hands. Staring directly into Blair's frightened eyes, he spoke as calmly as he could. "Chief, it's all right. You have a tube in your throat to help you breathe. That's why you can't talk right now. Your throat's okay. Once they remove the tube, you'll be able to talk again. It's going to be painful for a while, but the doctor says there's no permanent damage." His thumbs tenderly caressed the soft hollows beneath Blair's eyes, drying the remnants of his tears. "Everything's all right, Blair. Trust me."
Slowly, the curly head nodded once, and Blair leaned heavily into Jim's hand, still cupping his face. Ellison smiled at the trusting, helpless gesture. Blair was leaning on him, trusting Jim to take care of him while he couldn't care for himself. It was a responsibility Jim accepted willingly...gratefully.
"That's right," he whispered. "I'm here. I promise everything will be all right again, Blair. Lean on me for now, Chief. I won't let you fall."
Doctors and nurses came and went, checking Blair for every possible reading they could obtain. As they hovered around his friend, Jim Ellison remained close, within Blair's range of vision, so his guide could see that his sentinel was with him. Much of the time, the younger man slept, drifting in and out of his slumber. Each time he awakened, his clouded eyes searched immediately for Jim's face.
As it approached nine o'clock, the nurse on duty for the night shift came in alone. She recorded Blair's vital signs, then turned to Jim. "You'll need to leave now. We'll call during the night if there are any changes."
Jim felt Blair's grip on his hand tighten. Awake now, Sandburg's eyes were wide and pleading. He shook his head from side to side, silently begging Jim.
"Easy, Chief," Jim said quietly. "Give me a minute here, okay?"
Turning to the nurse, Jim smiled. "Nurse..." He glanced at the name tag. "Nurse Miller, I'd like to stay with him. He's been through quite an ordeal, and with that tube in his throat, he's a bit scared. You can understand that, I'm sure."
The older woman's face remained firm. "It is hospital policy that all visitors must leave at nine. We'll take good care of him, I assure you."
Once more, Blair's hand gripped Jim's like a vise, refusing to let go. Squeezing back, Jim reassured Blair silently. Trust me...
"I don't think you understand." Jim tried again patiently. "This young man was nearly murdered less than two weeks ago. He's been through too much for me to leave him alone tonight. He's just awakened. I..."
Nurse Miller interrupted again. "I understand perfectly. While he was...asleep...it did no harm for you to be here. Now he's awake and needs his rest. You must understand that there are procedures I must uphold. You have ten minutes, then you must leave."
Jim protested, "I can't do that." He looked down at Blair's frightened eyes. "I won't leave him like this."
An authoritative voice asked from the doorway, "What's the problem here?"
Dr. Edmondson walked into the room.
The nurse explained. "I was telling Mr. Ellison about the nine o'clock visitation policy. He doesn't seem to understand that..."
The doctor brushed by her to stand over Blair's bed. "Hello, there," he greeted his patient. "I've been seeing a lot of you lately, but I doubt you remember." Laying a gentle hand atop Blair's head, he continued, "I'm Dr. Edmondson. I've been taking care of you since you were admitted. How are you feeling?" He watched Blair's face carefully.
Sandburg's pleading eyes darted to Jim then back to the doctor.
Dr. Edmondson's voice softened. "I spoke to your Mr. Ellison a few days ago. I told him that I like to get to know my patients and asked him to tell me about you. I could tell from the way he talked about you that you're very important to him. Am I right?"
Blair nodded and slowly closed his eyes. When he opened them again, Edmondson smiled and resumed quietly talking to his patient. "I think that he is just as important to you. I also think you'd rest better tonight if he was here with you. Is that a fair medical analysis?"
The fear in Blair's eyes lifted a little as he nodded.
Patting his patient lightly on the head, Dr. Edmondson turned to Nurse Miller. "I'm leaving orders that Jim Ellison is allowed in this room whenever he feels he should be here. If that turns out to be twenty-four hours a day, fine. Any questions?"
Picking up her notes, the woman replied, "I understand, Doctor." The door closed softly behind her.
"Thank you." Jim smiled, his voice warm with gratitude. "We both appreciate this very much."
Satisfied with Blair's condition, the doctor moved to the door. "No problem. I never understood that rule anyway. Being with a loved one is better medicine than any we can prescribe. Take care of him."
As Edmondson left, Jim smiled down at Blair. "Better now?"
When his friend nodded, his eyes calm once more, Jim asked, "Would you be okay if I stepped out for a minute to talk to the doctor? I want to ask him a question. I'll be right back."
Blair nodded slowly, and his eyes closed, his breathing already deepening with sleep.
Jim gently stroked his hair. "That's it. Rest. I'll be back in just a minute, I promise."
He found Dr. Edmondson waiting outside the door. The genial black man smiled as Jim emerged from Blair's room.
"I figured you'd be out here. How do you think he's doing?"
Jim ran one hand over his short hair and smiled wearily. "I thought I was supposed to ask you that question."
"I find that the people who know a patient best can shed valuable light on how they're feeling. I'd like to know how you think Blair's doing."
Jim glanced back toward Blair's door, extending his hearing to monitor his friend. Even though the artificial sound of the machine breathing for his friend made it more difficult to tell, Jim heard no sound to indicate distress. He turned his attention back to the doctor and considered the man's question. "He seems pretty alert. He dozes a lot, but I guess that's normal with the pain meds and all he's been through."
Edmondson concurred. "I agree. He's still running some fever, but that's to be expected, and it's been dropping steadily the last few hours. It's not high enough to cause concern at this point. He obviously knows you and is able to communicate his wishes clearly enough, even with the breathing tube. We should be able to remove that tomorrow morning, by the way. We'll be able to assess better then any signs of brain damage."
Jim winced visibly at the words he most dreaded.
Dr. Edmondson cocked his head, giving Jim a shrewd look. "That possibility still disturbs you," he observed. "Do you think you'll be able to give Blair the support he needs should he need on-going therapy as a result of his oxygen deprivation? You obviously care about him, but will you be able to accept him, if he's changed permanently after this? He may never be the same, you understand."
For an instant, Jim felt a surge of anger fueled by denial. Blair's brilliant mind couldn't be damaged forever. It was not an option. As suddenly as it had flared, the heat of his anger cooled. Dr. Edmondson was only doing his job, helping Jim face the reality of the situation for the good of his patient.
Taking a long, cleansing breath as his guide had taught him, Jim said, "I appreciate your concern, Doctor, but that won't be a problem. It would be quite a blow if Blair should have...problems...after this, but I assure you, it won't be an obstacle for me. There's nothing on the face of this earth that could keep me from Blair when he needs me." Jim waited, his gaze steadily holding the doctor's, to see if a challenge to his sincerity would come.
There was none. Dr. Edmondson only smiled slightly and grasped Jim's upper arm in a gesture of support. "His heartbeat's steady, and he seems to be gaining a little more strength. If we're lucky, none of that will change overnight. I'll see you in the morning. We'll take out that breathing tube and see where we stand. Try to get some rest tonight."
Jim acknowledged his comment with a brief nod. "Thank you, Doctor. For everything you've done." Then, Jim went back inside the hospital room to be with his guide.
Blair slept through the night without waking. The nights since Sandburg had discovered that David Lash's brother lived on the island had been anything but restful. Even though he'd done nothing but watch Sandburg sleep for days, it relieved his mind to watch Blair in a deep, natural slumber at last.
Jim dozed in the vinyl covered visitor's chair that converted into a small recliner. It wasn't the most comfortable accommodations he'd ever had, but it was far from the most uncomfortable as well. He's was actually becoming accustomed to the chair that had been his bed ever since Blair had been admitted to the hospital. Jim awakened periodically as nurses entered to check on Blair and whenever the young man would stir in his sleep. Jim had noticed in his too-numerous hospital vigils at Sandburg's bedside that his senses seemed to go into an automated heightened state of alert when he was keeping watch over his injured guide. He'd have to mention that to Sandburg sometime. Jim grinned as he imagined his friend's excitement over such a revelation.
When Jim awakened in the morning, light was already streaming through the blinds covering the room's small window. Outside in the hall, he could hear the morning sounds of a hospital already in full swing. Breakfast trays were being distributed, and doctors were making their morning rounds.
Jim went into the tiny bathroom. Looking into the mirror, he groaned at his appearance. Even though he'd had two changes of clothes since he'd been there, thanks to care packages sent by Isaiah and Sarah, and he had showered a couple of times in the doctors' lounge, but he still looked like something that had crawled out from under a rock. A full day's growth of beard shadowed his face, and the dark circles under his eyes didn't help relieve the unkempt look. Why hadn't he shaved the day before? He couldn't remember.
"You really look great, Ellison," he muttered as he brushed his teeth with the tiny travel toothbrush one of the nurses had brought him. He combed his hair, tried to shake out some of the wrinkles in his shirt, then gave up. Until he could get another shower and another change of clothes, things weren't going to get much better.
Blair was awake when he came out of the bathroom. Jim smiled broadly when he saw the wide blue eyes watching him. Moving his chair back close to the bed, he sat down, capturing Blair's hand and squeezing it firmly between both of his. "Hey, Chief," he greeted the younger man. "You're looking more alert this morning. You slept well last night."
The young man's eyes darted around the room, and his free hand made a movement toward his mouth and the breathing tube. Jim gently brought the hand back down again. "They're going to take that out this morning, Chief. It's been helping you breathe, remember? Just try to relax until it comes out, okay? I know it's frustrating not being able to talk, but it won't be long."
An expression of near panic widened Blair's eyes and once again, he looked anxiously from side to side.
"Blair? What's wrong? Are you having trouble breathing?" Jim felt suddenly helpless, unable to figure out what Sandburg was trying to tell him. "What do you need, Chief?"
Sandburg pantomimed the motions of writing, his hands fluttering like birds in his excitement.
Jim grabbed a napkin from the small table next to the window, along with a pen from his jacket pocket. Holding the pen out to Blair, he rested the napkin on a magazine for support and held it out so his friend could reach it. "Okay, Chief. Here you go." He watched as Blair began to write:
His hand began to shake, and the pen fell to the sheet. Pleading blue eyes gazed anxiously up at Jim.
Ellison took away the notebook and pen, then he leaned in closer, smoothing the hair back from Blair's brow. Whatever Blair had been trying to write, it made no sense to Jim. He had a hunch, though, about what had been worrying the younger man. "Easy, Chief, easy. It's okay. We know. Darnell's in custody right now. You can relax. It's all over."
Jim watched as the tension drained from Blair's face. His hunch had been right. "I'll fill you in on all the details later, buddy. You don't need to worry about all that right now, okay? Just know that you're safe."
The door opened, and Doctor Edmondson walked in. "You ready to get that tube out now?"
Blair's nod and alert eyes were all the answer either of them needed.
Jim waited outside Blair's room as he was extubated. He knew how uncomfortable the procedure could be and had wanted to remain with Blair for moral support, but Edmondson had insisted that Jim wait in the hallway. A few minutes later, the doctor emerged along with the nurse who had assisted him.
"He's breathing on his own now. Blair's throat will be extremely sore for some time. I've suggested to him that he not try speaking for a while." Dr. Edmondson smiled. "I'd order you to go get some rest now that he's off the breathing tube, but I know you won't listen. So, you can give him as much ice as he want, along with clear liquids, such as apple juice, to help soothe his throat. He's still getting nutrients through the IV, so I want him to stay on clear liquids for the time being. He doesn't need to try to swallow more than that. Now, I've kept you long enough." He jerked his head toward the door and smiled. "Get in there and take care of Blair." He paused a moment, then reached out to squeeze Jim's arm. "While you're at it, take care of yourself, too."
It was good to see Blair without the tube, Jim thought as he slid back into his chair at his partner's bedside. "Hey, kiddo, you're looking good."
Blair nodded, smiling a little. He opened his mouth as if to talk, but Jim quickly pressed two fingers to his lips.
"Uh, uh! Stop that, Chief. As difficult as this is going to be for you, no talking. You want that throat to heal, right?" He waited for the tiny nod of agreement. "Then that means you've got to rest it. Understood?"
Once again, Blair made a writing motion. This time, Jim was prepared. Grinning broadly, he pulled out a pad and pencil. "I picked this up at the nurses station while the doc was in here." Handing it to Blair, he used the controls on the bed to raise the young man's head a little.
Immediately, Sandburg began scribbling rapidly then held out the pad for Jim.
The sentinel took it, then stared at the page, dumbfounded. The marks on the paper were unreadable. He could make out a few letters, but none of the combinations made any sort of sense. Oh, my God...no...
He looked down at Blair, waiting patiently, and fought to control his rising fear. Clearing his throat, Jim forced a weak smile. "Chief," he said in what he hoped was a calm tone. "I think we need to wait a bit before we try the writing thing, okay? Let's..."
Blair's hand shot out, tapping vigorously on the pad. He looked up at Jim, insistent.
Jim couldn't conceal the truth any longer. Taking Blair's hand in his, he explained softly, "Blair, I'm sorry. What you wrote, I..." Jim's throat tightened, and it was a long moment before he could continue. "It didn't make any sense, Chief. I couldn't understand it."
Blair's face crumbled, and a low keening moan forced its way from his tortured throat.
A knife stabbing into his heart couldn't have caused Jim more pain. "Blair, no," he whispered, bending low over his friend. Blair's mouth gaped open in an attempt to speak, but beyond a gasp of pain, nothing came out. Slow, hot tears fell from his frightened eyes.
The sentinel couldn't take any more. Lowering the rails on the bed, Jim eased himself onto the mattress beside Blair. Reaching out, he slid his arms beneath Blair's shoulders, then gently lifted him from the mattress, being careful of the tubes and wires still connecting him to the array of machines. As soon as Blair realized his intentions, the younger man reached out for Jim, pulling himself even closer into the cocoon of Ellison's comforting embrace.
As soon as Blair was settled in his arms, Jim began rocking him slowly. "Shhh...shhh...Blair..." He heard a series of tiny whimpers as they escaped the injured throat. "Blair, I want you to listen to me carefully. When Darnell strangled you, your heart stopped beating for a while. We're not sure how long you were without oxygen, buddy." Instinctively, Jim nuzzled the curly head tucked beneath his chin. "Dr. Edmondson doesn't think the effects will be severe, and hopefully, they will fade in time. You're going to have to be patient until they do, okay?"
He waited for the small nod before continuing. "You're thinking clearly, you seem to remember everything that's happened, and you're getting stronger all the time. I think that whatever it is that's interfering with your ability to write will eventually go away. You just have to give it time."
As he spoke, Jim could feel Blair begin to relax in his arms. "That's it...breathe for me...slow and easy. It's okay...shhhh..." When his guide's breathing began to slow to a deep, steady rhythm, Jim knew he was asleep at last. Not yet willing to relinquish his cherished burden, Jim stayed where he was, quietly murmuring his slow litany of reassurances and rocking Blair gently.
At last, Jim carefully lowered Blair back to the bed. The exhausted young man never awakened. The sentinel remained at his side throughout the day, keeping watch.
Each day brought new improvements, to the delight of Blair and the overwhelming relief of Jim Ellison. The ugly bruises on Blair's throat gradually faded, and its soreness lessened daily. The chest incision became less painful, and Dr. Edmondson began to cut back on Blair's pain medicines, so his alertness began to return. The five stab wounds healed nicely, although their scars, physical and emotional, would never completely fade.
By the end of the first week after he'd awakened from the coma, he was able to whisper without too much discomfort, although the concerned doctor still ordered him not to attempt to speak aloud and to limit his whispers as much as possible. Resting his throat was the best medicine.
With those instructions, Dr. Edmondson signed Blair's release papers.
Even though it wasn't the loft, Jim was pleased to be taking his partner home to the cottage on Fredrica Island. He had offered to arrange a flight back to Cascade; the doctors there could take over Blair's care. But Sandburg had refused. In his hoarse whisper, Blair explained that he wanted to finish what he'd started. He had another two weeks to go on his grant. If Jim didn't mind, he wanted to see it through.
At that point, after all he had come so close to losing, Jim would have followed Blair to Antarctica and back. He agreed to the plan and called Simon to arrange for the time.
The captain didn't argue. Banks knew no force on earth could bring Ellison back to Cascade now, not if Blair wanted to stay. Deep inside, Simon felt some strong twinges of guilt at having been the one to get Ellison and Sandburg involved with Darnell Johnson in the first place. The least he could do was give them the time they needed. Cursing the troublesome forces that seemed to plague his best team, Simon hung up the phone and began the paperwork to keep the vice detective on temporary assignment to Major Crimes a while longer.
"Home!" Blair whispered, his blue eyes shining, as Jim helped him walk slowly toward the cottage in the woods. Walking could still be painful. The chest incision never quite let him forget his ordeal, as constant a reminder as the ever-present pain in his throat. He knew he resembled the Hunchback of Notre Dame as he moved carefully up the front steps. Not to mention the sound of his voice. Most of the time, Blair stuck to a subdued whisper. When he did try out his voice by attempting to speak louder, the hoarse roughness was unpleasant even to his own ears. He could image the effect on Jim's sensitive hearing. He had decided to stick to whispers for a little while longer.
Jim was relieved that returning to their rented cottage wasn't proving too difficult emotionally for his friend. He'd been concerned that the memories of the attack would be strong, ruining the peace they had found in their temporary home.
He helped Blair to the soft couch, easing him down and propping enough pillows at his back to make him comfortable. "You okay?"
"Yeah," Blair reassured him softly with a smile. "Fine."
A knock on the door signaled the arrival of visitors. Kirby, Chris, and Joy plunged in when Jim answered the door, their arms filled with food, magazines, herbal teas, and flowers. Blair's face brightened with pleasure when he saw his friends, and Jim slipped back to his bedroom, leaving them alone for a while.
Ellison stretched out on his bed with a grateful sigh. He hadn't spent a single night away from Blair's hospital room, and the soft mattress was a welcome respite. Closing his eyes, Jim extended his hearing slightly so he could determine when the young people were ready to leave. Until then, he could use the rest.
When he awakened, the room was dark, and the cottage was quiet. He'd been sleeping for hours.
Jim shot out of bed and into the darkened living room. The young researchers were gone, their gifts deposited in their appropriate places. The sweet scent of roses filled the cottage.
Blair lay on the couch, a hand-crocheted afghan pulled up over him, and a pillow tucked beneath his head. Jim knelt beside him, his senses scanning for any signs of discomfort or pain. A moment later, sleepy blue eyes opened to meet his.
"Hey," Sandburg whispered lazily.
Jim smiled softly. "Hey, yourself. Think I went to sleep on you for a while."
Blair nodded drowsily. "...needed to sleep. I know you're tired. Go back. Sleep..."
"I'm fine now. It won't be long before bedtime anyway now. I need to put on some soup for dinner. Chicken noodle sound okay?"
"Sure. Not too hot."
"I know," Jim said with a smile. "You'll be okay here while I'm in the kitchen?"
Again the quick nod.
Jim stood up. "Rest. Dinner will be ready soon."
Blair set his spoon on the placemat and smiled. He'd made it through his first meal sitting up at the table, and the small accomplishment gave him a great sense of satisfaction. Maybe things really would return to normal after all.
"Paper," he whispered to Jim. "Pen."
Ellison hesitated. "Blair, don't push it, okay? Everything else is going so well. Give writing and reading a few more days. Give yourself time to heal."
Sandburg shook his head slowly, careful not to stretch his bruised neck. "Need to try...want to see if I can write. And read. Can't...teach if I can't write. Can't research if I can't read." The worry in his eyes was intense and painful to see.
Jim acquiesced, and he brought Blair's notebook and pen from his backpack. Handing them silently to his friend, Jim sat down in the chair next to him and mentally crossed his fingers.
Slowly, laboriously, Sandburg printed a few letters on the page. He stared at it for a moment, then handed to page to Ellison.
He looked up at Sandburg, and the results were plainly written in his eyes.
Blair closed his eyes in despair. "Jim..." he whispered. "What am I going to do?" Slowly, carefully, he got to his feet.
Jim reached out a helping hand, but Blair brushed it away. The younger man shuffled over to the window and stared out into the night. Even though his whispered voice was still rough and difficult to understand, the sentinel heard each word plainly. "What if it never comes back? Can't teach...can't do reports for you." There was a pause, then he whispered brokenly, "Useless..."
Jim had taken all he could. He moved to stand behind Sandburg, wrapping his arms around him from behind, then pulling his guide back against his chest. "You're wrong, Chief," he said simply, his head lowered so he spoke quietly in his friend's ear.
Blair shook his head slightly. "No. Teaching means reading and writing research...notes on board...grading papers. Have to write!" He swallowed hard against the pain from talking. "You need me...write reports...read evidence...use computer. Oh, man, it's all over..."
"Is that what you think?" Jim's voice was soft in Blair's ear, his breath stirring the soft curls as he spoke. "The doctors think - I know - that your ability to read and write will come back. You'll need some therapy, sure, but you will recover. But just for the sake of argument, let's say you don't. I'm not sure about the teaching, but I think you'd still be a great lecturer. Hell, you'll always know more about anthropology than any other professor at Rainier, even if you never read another article. You could lecture, still conduct research...just have an assistant or partner to do the writing part."
When there was no argument or denial, Jim pressed on. "As for me, you know you do a hell of a lot more for me than merely fill out reports. We'll cope, Chief. Like we've done with this sentinel thing all along, we'll adapt. Figure it out as we go. Nothing's over, Darwin, unless you want it to be."
Blair's hands came up to clasp Jim's arms, still wrapped tightly around him, and he rested his head back against the broad chest. "Scared..."
"I know, Chief." Ellison rested his chin on the top of the curly head and stared out into the darkness. A raccoon scampered by, its soft velvet paws padding without a sound on the forest floor. Overhead, an owl swooped down from a tree to capture a small mouse, its great wings beating silently as it flew away.
"Blair," Jim said at last. "I told you something very important a few days ago, when you were so upset about seeing that truck and the man you thought was Lash. Do you remember what it was?"
His mind swept back to that terrible day, to the fear and the painful memories it brought back. "You said lots of things," Blair whispered brokenly.
Jim smiled softly. "Yeah, but I told you something I've told very few people in my lifetime, Chief. In fact, if I had a dollar for every time I've said it, I couldn't make change for a five. Any ideas?"
"You...love...me?" His reply was less than a whisper.
The sentinel heard the words easily. "That's it." Jim tightened his arms around Blair, as he mused. "I've figured out something about myself over the years. I don't love easily. Hell, you know that by now. It's not a simple thing for me to trust, to give my heart to someone else. But what I do love, I hold onto. Tightly. I don't let go easily. I didn't have the chance to make the decision to open my heart to you, Chief. You already had it, right from the beginning, from the first day we met. There was never a choice to make where you were concerned. Do you understand what I'm saying here?"
This time, Blair's answer wasn't a question but a clear, unmistakable affirmation. "You love me. Right?" His voice was stronger, and Jim could hear the trace of a smile.
"Got it in one, Chief, and it doesn't matter whether you ever write another word in another damned report or not. You are my partner. Period. End of discussion. Understand?"
"Right," Blair whispered. "Got you, Jim."
Jim nodded at the unintentional rightness of Blair's words. "Yeah, Chief. You do."
Jim Ellison opened the door to the construction office hesitantly. He still had misgivings about coming to this place, but he supposed it was too late to back out now.
A voice greeted him. "Back here!"
Jim followed the sound of hammering until he located the source.
Devon Lash was bent over two sawhorses, hammering a nail into what appeared to be the beginnings of a kitchen cabinet. "Thanks for coming," he said simply. He put down the hammer and leaned against the wall.
"When you called to ask me here, I wasn't sure that I would, " Jim admitted. "Sandburg's with his friends from the archaeological dig having lunch. I can't stay long."
Lash shrugged. "Can't say I blame you for hesitating. My name...my very face...must be terribly painful for you. And for Blair."
Jim grimaced at the images the simple words conjured up in his memory. "That's putting it mildly. I know that you're not the monster your brother became. I had to question you, though."
"I understand. It's part of your job, and I know I must have made an attractive suspect. And you're right. David did become a monster. He wasn't always, though, and I hope maybe that can make you hate him a little less." Devon's eyes grew distant. "I know you can't live a life filled with 'what ifs', but I can't help but wonder..."
Jim understood completely. "I know. I've had my own share of 'what ifs', but you said it. You can't live your live wondering. Your dad did the best he could at the time. You did the best you could with the childhood you were given. Today, you've got a good business. You're respected in the community." He smiled. "Not bad considering how you started out."
Devon returned his smile. "Thanks. Guess you're right. Anyway, I just wanted to tell you again how very sorry I am for what David did. The little boy, the brother I grew up with, would have apologized to you, too. That David Lash would never have wanted to hurt anyone. He'd been hurt enough himself. Maybe something good can come of all this after all. Do you think what's happened here will help your friend heal the pain my brother caused him?"
Considering, Jim didn't reply for a time. "Maybe," he admitted. "When he's had time to process it all." Jim grinned at the familiar words coming out of his mouth. "I'm sounding like Sandburg now. Seriously, he's a very compassionate man. I think when he has time to think back on what you told us about David's childhood and your mother...maybe it will help him understand. Maybe even forgive."
"I hope so," Devon said sincerely. "If there's anything more I can do..."
Jim headed for the door. "I'll call. Thanks. And good luck."
Devon Lash waved. "And to you."
The loft welcomed them home with open arms. As Jim settled Blair into the softness of his futon bed, he thought that if he never left Cascade again, it would not bother him at all. In fact, never leaving the loft again was beginning to sound like a reasonably good idea. At least here, he could protect Sandburg.
Except when Lash came for him...
The inner voice taunted him quietly. I wasn't here! Jim argued inwardly. If I had been here, everything would have been different. I could have protected him. I would have protected him.
Jim closed the French doors behind him and leaned heavily against the wall. He closed his eyes, suddenly exhausted by the long flight and the stress of caring for his injured partner during the trip. Would the damned voices in his head ever leave him alone?
The therapy was intense and frequent. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning, Jim drove Sandburg to his visits with his therapist. Blair hadn't bothered to argue with his cop roommate about driving himself. Until he could once again read the roadsigns, there was no way he would be getting behind the wheel of a car.
Jim returned to his job, and for the most part, their lives fell back into an almost-familiar routine. Blair spent part of his day with his partner, the rest back at the loft resting. His strength was returning but he still had some distance to go before he'd be totally recovered physically.
Blair could see his own progress. He was already reading short words, even a few simple phrases, but the ability to write had so far eluded him. He tried to console himself by focusing on his growing reading vocabulary. Still, it worried him that writing seemed beyond his grasp.
"You'll get there," Jim reassured him almost daily. "Have some patience, Sandburg. Remember when you were teaching me about the dials? I thought I'd never get it. You told me to be patient, to keep focusing, and I'd get it. Then, one day, something 'clicked', and there they were. It'll come back to you. Just take it easy on yourself, okay?"
Two months after their return from Georgia, Jim was reading a magazine in the waiting room while Blair was in his mid-week therapy session. He was interrupted by one of the therapists leaning in the door and calling his name.
"Mr. Ellison? Rick would like to see you."
Jim tossed the magazine on a chair and followed her into the back room. Blair and his regular therapist, Rick Oates, were seated at one of the small tables. Around them, other clients worked on the variety of pulleys and machines scattered throughout the room.
"Jim," Rick said with a welcoming smile. "Blair has something to show you. Pull up a chair."
Curious, Jim settled in beside Blair. "What's going on, Chief?"
Blair grinned at him, obviously pleased at whatever was happening. "Watch." His voice was back to normal, a blessing the younger man was truly thankful for.
Picking up the pencil lying on the table, Blair touched the point to the yellow tablet in front of him. He held one arm wrapped around the tablet, shielding it from Jim's direct view. Blair's eyes narrowed as his brow furrowed in concentration. Slowly, laboriously, his hand moved across the paper. Seconds ticked by, then turned into minutes.
Behind Blair's hunched shoulders, Jim and Rick exchanged glances. The therapist winked at Jim conspiratorially.
At last, Blair took a deep breath and laid the pencil back on the paper. He looked over to Rick first for reassurance, then when the therapist nodded and smiled at him, Blair held the tablet out to Jim. "There!" His wide blue eyes shone with pride.
Jim took the tablet from Blair's outstretched hand and looked down. His eyes filled with tears at the single word printed there in block letters, each one formed with Blair's halting hand.
When he didn't speak, Blair's look of pride turned to one of puzzlement. "Isn't it right?"
Jim's long fingers buried themselves in the silky curls at Blair's neck. "It's perfect, Chief. Absolutely perfect."
Five months later
"Jim! It's here!" Blair Sandburg's excited voice rang through the loft.
"Out here, Sandburg," Ellison called from the balcony. He smiled broadly as his roommate burst outside, dragging up a chair beside his.
He held out a magazine, Anthropology Digest. "It's out, man! My article about the Guale." Flipping pages quickly, he pointed to the by-line.
Blair Sandburg, Ph.D.
Jim took the magazine from his hands and scanned the pages. "This is great, Chief!" he said with genuine pride. "I want to read the whole thing, but it really looks good."
Blair snagged the beer Jim had been drinking and took a long sip. "Oh, man," he marveled. "Just think. It's all over now. I'm back to normal again, I fulfilled my grant, the article's out, and my colleagues are suitably impressed." He grinned at Ellison and took a sip. "This should buy me another year without too many complaints about the time I spend with you at the station."
His expression sobering, Jim reflected bitterly, "Damn hard-earned, I'd say."
Blair's fingers absently traced the scar on his chest through the fabric of his shirt. "Yeah. It was." Taking another drink of beer, he changed the subject. "Heard anything from Isaiah recently?"
Nodding, Jim reclaimed his bottle and took a slow swallow before replying. "As a matter of fact, yes. He called yesterday, but there wasn't time last night for me to fill you in. Darnell finally changed his plea to guilty. Got a sentence of 25 to life. Isaiah won reelection. Seems his constituents didn't hold his son's behavior against him. I think they respected Isaiah for arresting his own son. He and Sarah plan to stay on Fredrica."
"That's good. They have lots of friends there." Blair stared out at the darkening skyline of Cascade. Long minutes of comfortable silence ticked by. "You went to see Devon Lash, didn't you? Before we left?"
Taken off-guard, Jim turned to study Blair's profile. "Yeah. I did. You okay with that?"
His friend considered for a moment. "I guess. He's not the one who attacked me, after all, even though their resemblance is...eerie."
A few minutes of comfortable silence passed as both men stared out at the skyline of the city that was their home. The familiar sound of end of the day traffic drifted up from the street below. "They're not so strong now, you know. The hate. And the fear."
Knowing immediately what his best friend was telling him, Ellison asked softly, "Why? What changed?"
"I guess I got a picture of what he was like. Before. Just a little kid trying to survive a horrible home life. No wonder his head got screwed on wrong. I mean, I'll never completely get over that awful night..." He shivered slightly. "It still terrifies me when I think of what almost happened, but I know it's over now. I really know it, and....I just don't hate him any more. Maybe it was worth getting spooked by Devon and his truck to get rid of the hate." Blair cocked his head quizzically and looked over at Jim. "Y'think?"
Jim's eyes were warm with affection. "Yeah, Chief. I think it was." Jim got up and went to the kitchen, returning with a full bottle of beer and handed it to Sandburg.
"To you," Jim toasted, raising his bottle.
Blair stood up, a broad smile lighting his face. "To us," he corrected, touching Jim's bottle with his own. "We're a team, remember? I couldn't have done any of this without you." Taking a sip, he reflected, dark blue eyes growing serious again. "Can you imagine what would have happened if you hadn't been there, Jim? If I had seen that truck...that name...that face...all alone? If Darnell had picked me as a victim without you there?" Blair shivered at the possibilities.
"But I was there, Chief," Jim reminded him gently. He looked intently into the worried blue eyes. "What I love, I don't let go easily, remember?"
Slowly, the smile returned, and Blair took a step closer to his sentinel. "I remember," he whispered. "I won't forget, Jim. I promise."
They leaned over the railing as the sun began its descent into the bay, leaving a purple and orange wake behind. Jim's arm came across Blair's shoulders, anchoring the younger man to his side. The day was ending, and another chapter in their lives had been written. Sentinel and guide watched the sunset, content in their knowledge that whatever the new day might bring, they would face it together.
Some things can never be forgotten.
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