Warning: Unbeta'd, unfinished work in progress. Even the title may change by the time this puppy is finished. Yes, it had a plot, the end of which now will be totally revised...don't ask.
Rating: Strong R for violence.


Part One

"Damn it!"

Jim Ellison's voice was a loud bark of anger that momentarily froze all activity at the crime scene. The ME was there to pronounce death (a stupid legality -- the bloody, mutilated corpse that once had been a human being couldn't be anything else but dead). Three forensics technicians searched, photographed and bagged evidence, while one uniformed officer, so decidedly pale it was a miracle he was still on his feet, stood frozen in place doing absolutely nothing at all.

A body, the report had said. A body. No one had bothered to mention it had been tortured, mutilated and butchered by some demented pervert.

Jim's outburst had been partially his own shock at walking in unprepared for what he would see. But mostly, it was prompted by a sharp intake of breath behind him, the wildly accelerated pounding of a heartbeat that sounded as if it would burst right through the chest wall, and the hasty footsteps of retreat.

Blair had seen.

"Sorry," the fingerprint technician, Sean Doyle, murmured apologetically. "Simmons is supposed to be outside to warn you."

Simmons. Yeah, he was outside all right, puking his guts into the bushes. Well, detective, that should have been your first clue. Simmons was an experienced officer; it would take a lot to make him heave his lunch. At the time, when Jim had first seen the officer's distress, he'd felt satisfaction that a bastard like Simmons was having such a rough time of it. He hadn't considered what might have caused the patrol officer's reaction. Jim took a breath, not easy in that charnel house, and tried to calm his anger. Only his clenched jaws and stern face betrayed how seriously upset he felt.

Blair had been on shaky ground this past month. Too much had happened to him. Although he seemed to bounce back each time, there were still moments when a shadow would dart across his eyes or his body would become suddenly still, as if a memory had momentarily carried him to another time and place, a place of limitless terror and pain. Now this, a murdered young man, obviously the victim of a demented, sexual deviant. There but for the grace of God....

Jim stepped through the doorway from the hall and entered the room, being careful to walk on the plastic sheeting that had been laid to make a path to the corpse while disturbing as little potential evidence as possible. Close up, the body was even more horrific, and no one was comfortable working in that room. "OK, what have we got?" he asked the officer.

The young cop looked panicked for a moment, as if pulled back from wherever his mind had gone to avoid the gruesome present. "Uh, 9-1-1 call came from a UPS driver -- you saw his truck outside?" Off Jim's curt nod, the officer continued, "He was making a delivery, thought this was the right address, peeked through the window and saw -- " One hand waved feebly in the direction of the corpse.

"Where is he?"

The officer frowned. "Who?"

The detective tried to be patient. Obviously, this cop was unfamiliar with the ugliness of violent death, and this was one of the worst crime scenes Jim had ever seen. "The UPS driver."

"Oh. Sorry. They took him off by ambulance. Chest pains." Again, a vague wave toward the body. "He wasn't going to need it."

"No," Jim agreed mildly, silently cursing Officer Simmons, who waited outside while his rookie partner endured this horror. He read the kid's nametag. "OK, Vaughn, why don't you go outside for awhile. Write down everything you remember -- everything you saw when you first arrived, everything you remember the UPS driver saying, however insignificant you think it is, what your first impressions were of the room and the body. Can you do that?"

Vaughn nodded. "Yes, sir, I can do that." Gratefully, he hurried toward the door.

Jim turned to the photographer, who was just changing the film in one of his cameras. "Did you get some pictures from outside, Cat?"

Catarini, whose first name was unknown to everyone but perhaps the staff in personnel, nodded absently as he labeled the used roll of film and stuck it in his bag. He was a short, bow-legged man whose appearance always reminded Jim of a plumper version of the reporter from The Night Stalker. Cat preferred one of his hundreds of ball caps to a fedora, but the resemblance was still remarkable. "Yeah, I took two rolls facing toward and away from the house, plus close-ups of all the doors and windows."

"What about the view through the window?" Jim asked.

"In or out?"

"Looking in, the way the UPS guy would have seen."

"OK, I'll do it right now. Anything else?"

"Yeah, the ground beneath the windows. If you see any footprints, call Sean or one of the others, OK?" It had rained heavily the night before; the ground was still soft and would hold an impression well. "And the package the UPS guy was trying deliver is in the mud outside the door. Take a couple of shots of it, too."

Cat nodded. "Already done. Also took some of the truck and path leading from it up to the door. I'm gonna have to call for some more film."

"Yeah, it's probably going to take a couple of days to document this place," Jim commented sympathetically.

Nearby, Sean snorted in disagreement.

"Longer?" Jim asked mildly.

The tech nodded. "We could set a new record with this one," he commented, standing up and stretching a bit to relieve muscles cramped from squatting. "Look at this mess -- food wrappers, magazines, newspapers, condom wrappers, clothing." He nodded toward a doorway leading to another room. "Come on back here."

Jim followed him along another plastic trail to a small bedroom. An old mattress lay on the floor. More crumpled clothing littered the floor, along with more food wrappers and newspapers -- Jim saw the date on one was from 1995 -- and a scattering of used condoms. And this room stank even worse than the bloody and skewered entrails of the body in the front room; a putrid miasma of urine, feces, rotted food and sex. Hung on the wall was an assortment of metal and leather bondage paraphernalia, including wrist and ankle restraints, masks, and items designed to bind parts of the body never meant for constriction.

Jim was grateful Blair hadn't seen this room.

"There's a small kitchen, equally disgusting," Sean went on, "and a bathroom I don't even want to talk about. There's a drawer in there filled with some of the weirdest sex toys I've ever seen, and I thought I'd seen most of them at one time or another in this job."

Jim did not envy the task ahead for the lab crew. Everything would have to be photographed, documented, and collected before it left the scene and was taken to the lab for analysis. It was a meticulous process to do it right, and Sean and the rest of them would be stuck in here for days. "When you're done with the windows and curtains, go ahead and open things up a bit, see if you can't get some air in here. Just be sure Cat has all the pictures he needs first." He'd already noticed all the windows were nailed shut and boarded over, but he didn't care. If the lab crew had to destroy a little private property to get some fresh air, then so be it. No one should have to work in these fetid confines.

His thoughts returned to the body -- how long had the teenager been bound and tortured in this stinking hovel before enduring his final agonies?

Shivering, he pushed his imaginings aside.

Sean misinterpreted the gesture. "Hey, I'm glad it's cold," he said. "Can you imagine what this place would be like in the summer?"

Jim shook his head. "Don't even want to try," he answered softly, giving a cursory once-over to the filthy kitchen and equally filthy bathroom before heading back to the front room.

He didn't want this case, didn't want to be anywhere near the ugliness and horror. It would be a long time before he scrubbed the stench from his pores, even longer before he scrubbed the images from his mind. And he definitely didn't want his partner working on the case, not after Hicks had kidnapped him just a month ago. "Have you found anything I can use right now?"

"No ID on the victim, obviously," Sean replied, then grimaced. "Strike that stupid remark, please, Jim. I'm not at my best when I'm knee-deep in gore. We've examined the clothing as well as we can without disturbing it, and there doesn't appear to be any wallet or other ID anywhere. Lots of fingerprints, though. If our victim or perp has a record, we'll find out who he is."

They walked back to the body, and Jim stopped beside the ME. "Dan, any estimate yet on time of death?"

Dan Wolf finished entering some notations in his notebook and closed it with a sigh. "Three hours, max. I think he was killed just minutes before the UPS driver showed up."

"Three hours," Jim echoed, glancing around the room. It was clear the forensics group had arrived only recently to begin their work. He didn't sound upset, merely curious.

Sean managed a smile. "UPS driver called the County Sheriff, who drove all the way out here, took one look at the scene and called in our guys, who had to drive all the way out here, see what they had, and call for Forensics and Major Crime."

"Bureaucracy at work," Jim agreed glumly. He glanced at the body again and winced. "Are you ready to take him down yet?"

Dan nodded. "I've got everything I need, and Cat has plenty of pictures of the placement of the body." He looked slightly uncomfortable for a moment. "I was going to wait for the coroner's van so I could get some help getting him down from there."

Sean added calmly, "In a nice way, Dan's trying to say he couldn't find anyone here willing to help him."

Jim pulled a second pair of latex gloves on over the ones he was already wearing. "OK, Dan," he said grimly, "I'll help you. Sean, lay out a plastic sheet."

Part Two

Blair walked quickly out of the crumbling wooden farmhouse, his footsteps carrying him away from the horror, which was firmly imprinted on his mind despite Jim's sudden realization and attempt to shield him from the sight.

God, that poor kid!

He slowed and finally stopped at the edge of the overgrown front yard. A few deep breaths helped settle the nausea threatening to rise in his throat, and he berated himself for fleeing the scene. No one wanted to be in the room with that butchered body, but only Blair had the privilege of leaving. Well, perhaps not so much any more. After all, he was a paid consultant to the department now. He was no longer free just to turn his back when things got ugly.

And things certainly had gotten ugly.

He huddled in his jacket against a cold that wasn't entirely external. The sight of that tortured, mutilated body had stabbed into his mind and ripped open memories he thought he had controlled.

It could have been his body, hanging naked and eviscerated at the hands of a sadistic pervert.

He knew the memories of Hicks were buried just beneath the surface of his consciousness. He dreamed almost nightly of the old warehouse -- no, it had been an old aircraft hangar -- where he had been strapped to a metal chair and tormented by a madman whose only goal was to inflict emotional and physical suffering. Hicks had been making videos of his tortured prisoner, videos that would have culminated in Blair's death in some climactically painful, bloody fashion.

Perhaps just like that kid inside the old farmhouse.

Who had been near to hear his cries for help, his pleas for mercy? Why couldn't everyone have a Blessed Protector to save them, as Jim had saved Blair?

Resolutely, he turned to go back inside, but his determination faltered after only a few steps. The weed-infested and garbage-strewn yard was crowded with vehicles -- two patrol cars, the ME's truck, Jim's truck (a basic sport utility issued by the department, since Jim had yet to buy new transportation after wrecking his truck), two sport utilities from forensics, and a UPS truck.

An officer leaned against the side of his patrol car. Blair had seen him earlier, throwing up in the bushes, but the man didn't look as if he'd welcome sympathetic company; for that matter, Blair wasn't feeling very sociable, either. A minute later, he saw another officer come out of the house and walk over to the patrol car. The older officer, the one who had been throwing up, said something and laughed, but the younger one ignored him and started writing in a small notebook. No strong bond of partnership there, Blair noted absently.

Blair continued to stand at the edge of the yard, relieved to be separate and apart from the activity. It was breathing space, in both literal and figurative senses. With detached calm, he watched all the activity and tried not to focus on the reason for it. Quite possibly, the corpse was getting more attention now than it had ever received in life. Would there be anyone besides Blair Sandburg who mourned for the young man, whose life had been cut agonizingly short to satisfy the base cravings of a madman?

He closed his eyes and fought back the faint beginnings of a depression that would become overwhelming if he succumbed to it. When he opened them again, he saw a man in a rumpled suit and sports cap had come out and begun taking close-up photographs of the outside the house.

He needed to go back into the house, he knew. There were a thousand sensory inputs in there that could cause Jim's senses to go haywire; Blair needed to be with him in case it happened.

Only he couldn't make his feet obey his thoughts. All he wanted to do was find a quiet corner and hide himself away, allow himself to fall into the dark depression, embrace the fear that still haunted his dreams, and grieve for all the lost souls who suffered and died while society went about its daily business. He longed to wallow in self-pity for his own brushes with the dark side of the human psyche.

Except he was afraid to let go. He was afraid the intensity of emotion would overwhelm him; it would certainly alarm and repel Jim, who couldn't possibly understand such an outpouring of feelings more than a month after the fact. No, it was better to shut it all away, put the horror of today inside with memories of Hicks, which were crowded in with memories of Lash...damn, but it was getting awfully cluttered in those dark spaces in his mind. How long would he be able to keep them contained before they spilled over and consumed him?

Indecisively, he turned away from the house and walked further across the open scrub land. There was a gully ahead, its banks crumbled and washed away by recent flash floods that had scoured the landscape after the heavy rains of the previous night. The mud was still soft and deep, and Blair crossed it carefully, curious to see the damage, ready to welcome any distraction that would help him harness his morbid thoughts.

The stench was strong and caused him to wrinkle his nose. The floodwaters had torn away much of the channel, stirring up old decay and moldy growth, exposing half-rotted tree limbs and gnarled roots. The mud was dark gray, almost black, and it glistened with a slippery, sickly sheen. All in all, it was not the sort of scene to make one think of cleansing rains and bubbling brooks. This place had a sour, rancid smell to it. He looked at one of the branches poking from the fetid mud...it looked like a skeletal human hand.

It was a skeletal human hand.

He stared some more, and other tree limbs resolved themselves into images from a surrealist's nightmare -- hands, arms, feet, and legs, some with bit of flesh still clinging to the bone, all mud-covered and unreal-looking in the stark grayness of the gully.

Abruptly, he turned around, putting his back to the sight. His breath caught in his chest, and his whole body began to tremble as if with ague. Clenching his fists at his sides and squeezing his eyes closed, he recited a calmly mantra, his lips moving silently as he sought to steady his thoughts and breathing. It was just his imagination, he told himself; it was just the remnants of his nightmare visions. When he looked again, the macabre remains would reshape themselves back into innocent tree limbs.

He hesitantly turned to look again. What had first appeared to be a moss-covered mound was actually the top of a half-buried skull with short, matted hair still clinging to the scalp.

In the same moment, he was overcome with the absolute certainty that someone was watching him. Frozen in terror, unable to look away from the black orifices that had once contained human eyes, he almost gave in to the urge to scream, although he was certain no sound would emerge from his constricted throat.

A strangled gasp broke his paralysis. Coughing, he spun away and walked shakily back to the truck, where he sat down on the front bumper, his legs out to brace his weight against the narrow perch. He knew he should go inside and get Jim, but he was too numb to think clearly. He had to stay numb or risk losing control right here, and he wouldn't -- couldn't -- succumb now, not in this horrible place. Thoughts tumbled haphazardly through his mind: Lash had gotten hold of him, but Lash was dead and Blair had survived; Hicks had gotten hold of him, but Hicks was also dead and Blair had survived. But what about this new madman? He wasn't dead yet, and Blair felt an irrational but horrible certainty their paths were destined to cross. Third time a charm? Third time would finish what the first two had attempted, the destruction and death of Blair Sandburg?

A minute later, Jim walked out of the house and over to the patrol car. He talked with the younger officer for several minutes, ignoring the older man for some reason. When he was through, he came over to the truck. "How are you doing, Chief?" he asked quietly, worriedly noting his partner's pale cheeks and wide-eyed, glassy stare.

Blair shook his head, trying to reconnect his brain with his voice. "We're surrounded by bodies," he murmured at last, his tone flat with feigned calm.

Jim was perplexed. Had Blair gone into shock? Why was his partner looking so emotionally detached? "What?"

"They're everywhere." Blair nodded in the general direction of the gully, then raised anguished but cognizant eyes to meet his friend's anxious gaze. "Please tell me I'm hallucinating. I'd rather be crazy than have seen what I just saw."

Jim looked at him oddly, then started slowly across the clearing, following Blair's footprints in the mud. He stood on the edge of the washed out gully for a long time, then finally reached for his cell phone.

A minute later, Sean came out of the house and hurried across the field to join him.

No, Blair had not imagined it. With a sigh, he stood up and went around to the passenger door. Climbing inside the truck, he rolled up the window and locked the door, as if perhaps these gestures would protect him from the horror outside. Except it was no longer outside. It was now seared indelibly into his mind. Locking the door couldn't keep it out, couldn't keep him safe.

Huddling deeper into his jacket, he shrank against the seat and struggled to find some emotional balance amid the chaos of his thoughts.

Part Three

Thirty minutes later, more squad cars arrived, followed closely by Rafe and Brown in an unmarked. As the officers left their vehicles and trailed toward the riverbank, Blair resolutely climbed out of the truck and followed.

They gathered around Jim and the forensics team within sight of the first grisly remains.

"OK, here's the drill," Jim briefed them, his hands thrust into his coat pockets for warmth, his neck burrowed into his collar like a turtle. "We have multiple bodies, at varying stages of decomposition. I want you to spread out all along the riverbank and streambed and look for more. If you spot something, don't go near it." He held up a slender wooden stake with a bright yellow strip of cloth tied to its tip. "Put one of these in the ground with an arrow pointing toward the evidence. The ME's already here, so let him see anything you find. His team will make the actual recovery, and the forensics unit needs to photograph and document everything before it's moved. All the bagging and tagging is going to be done by only one or two techs so we don't confuse the evidence trail." He looked at Sean. "Anything else?"

Sean just shook his head, shivering inside his parka.

"OK, divide into two groups -- one goes down stream with Rafe, the other upstream with Brown," Jim concluded. "Any questions?"

Almost everyone was still staring in grim fascination at the bones protruding from the mud. A couple of officers looked faintly ill. No one had any questions.

"OK -- "

Blair cleared his throat softly and Jim looked at him.

"Sandburg? You want to add something?" he asked so smoothly no one got the idea it hadn't been Jim's intention all along.

Blair nodded slightly. His voice was tense and low, but he spoke loudly enough for everyone to hear. "All the remains may not be above ground, probably aren't in fact. Look for grave-size depressions in the soil, especially ones where the grass or other ground cover seems more lush. If the grave is shallow and fresh, you might see a bare depression with an area of black-looking soil toward its center, where expanding gases forced blood and other bodily fluids to the surface. Look for signs that scavengers have disturbed an area." He shrugged. "That's it."

Jim nodded. "OK, you know what to look for," he told the others. "Let's get started."

Brown began to divide up the officers. Sean and his team handed out lots of little yellow flags and went back to work on the remains already visible.

"What will you be doing, Jim?" Rafe asked.

Jim looked sourly around the barren landscape. "I'm going to start the house to house," he replied, his tone indicating he didn't expect much success. He touched Blair's elbow. "Let's go, Chief."

As they started back toward the truck, he said, "That was good input."

"There's probably more," Blair replied, "but I'm not really familiar with -- uh -- fresh burial sites."

"It's OK, you still did good."

They reached the truck and climbed inside. Jim pulled out his cell phone and called Simon. In answer to a query, he said, "Yeah, it's a real mess out here. It'll take days to collect all the evidence." Then he added, "Captain, I'd appreciate it if you'd have someone check some things for me. I need the ownership of this property as far back as you can go. I need a background check on our witness, the UPS driver -- what made him peek through the window? He was taken away by ambulance before anyone could question him. I want to know everything he saw or heard -- especially in regards to another vehicle leaving the scene. Ask the post office about the last date any mail was delivered to this address." Jim listened, then chuckled. "Actually, I think that about covers it, although you might send a mobile command post out here -- the guys are going to be cold and hungry before they get done with this one." He glanced at Blair. "Anything else?"

Blair shrugged. "Check missing persons reports?"

Jim winced at his oversight. "Yeah." He added the request to Simon's growing list and then disconnected the call. Starting the truck, he backed up in a partial Y-turn, then headed down the long dirt drive to the unpaved road. He turned right, back toward the paved two-lane that had brought them to this narrow finger of old farmland.

"Where are we going?" Blair asked curiously, feeling much calmer as the grisly crime scene receded behind them.

"There's one of those post office neighborhood box units at the end of the pavement. I want to see how many addresses and names we can get off it before we hit the houses." Jim thumped the steering wheel in irritation. "Just our dumb luck. A half-mile either way, that farmhouse would have been in county jurisdiction. What idiot was responsible for annexing this sorry valley as part of the city?"

Blair smiled slightly, glad for the distraction from his grim thoughts. "Do you remember Hazeltine Development?"

Jim frowned in concentration. "Big tract home builder, went belly-up back in the late eighties."

"Yeah, well, back in the seventies, the company had a lot of clout. They figured to build a middle-class suburb out here, create a bedroom community. They greased a lot of palms to get this land annexed inside the city limits."

"I think I remember that -- there was a big corruption investigation or something, a bunch of the city council got fined."

"Yeah. Anyway, it turns out this valley is not a good prospect for the kind of development Hazeltine had planned -- it's more of a flood channel, really. The cost to divert the spring runoff from the mountains was just too high, plus there something wrong with the ground itself, something about friability, whatever the heck that is."

Jim stopped the truck where the dirt turned to pavement. As he'd remembered, there was a neighborhood box unit located at the end of the asphalt. It allowed the postal carrier to open a large front panel and deliver mail to many addresses at once. When the panel was closed again, smaller doors allowed individual residents to retrieve mail from their own box with their own key. It saved time for the post office, especially since they'd decided it was no longer safe to leave the pavement to deliver mail up the dirt roads.

"How do you know all this stuff?" he asked absently, driving past the box and executing another Y-turn on the narrow road so he could pull up beside it.

"I dated Virginia Hazeltine for awhile a couple of years ago. Remember? She's the granddaughter of the founder of the company."

Jim grinned. "The earth muffin?"

Blair laughed in shocked surprise. "Jim!"

"I didn't call her a meadow muffin, Sandburg," Jim chuckled. "She was that New Age flower child with all the scarves, right?"

"Right." Blair dug into his backpack and pulled out a notebook. As Jim had suspected, the mail unit bore a wealth of information concerning addresses for the homes back in the valley. Some people had even put their names on their box. He began writing down the information while Jim savored the memory of the odd, willowy young woman who had wafted so briefly through their lives. He was always amazed at the women who caught Blair's interest.

"OK," Blair said at last. "I've got it."

"How many addresses are we looking at?" Jim asked, pulling his thoughts back to the case. The brief respite into memories of lighter times and a bit of distance from the actual crime scene had allowed him to refocus his thoughts and energy instead of dwelling on the horrors of the murders themselves. He hoped the same was true for Blair.

Blair counted down the list. "Twelve," he answered finally.

"Let's hope a couple of them are on this side of the farmhouse," Jim commented, starting down the dirt road again. "They're the ones most likely to have seen something."

There were two, both of them as ramshackle and depressing as the old farmhouse where the most recent body had been discovered. The first had a pair of large, unfriendly dogs that snapped and barked to announce the arrival of the police. For a moment, Jim thought he was going to have to shoot one or both of them before he could get out of the truck. But the dogs slunk away under the even more strident bark of the suspicious, care-worn woman who came out of the house to investigate all the noise.

Sullenly, she answered Jim's questions while Blair dutifully took notes. No, she'd never heard any suspicious sounds during the day or night. No, there hadn't been any strange vehicles on the road. No, she didn't know any of her neighbors (although she and her husband had lived in the run-down old house for six years). No, she hadn't seen the UPS truck go by that morning or any other morning. When was the city going to do something about flood control? The rain had washed out part of the hillside behind her property and swept six inches of mud into her barn. Yes, she'd have her husband contact the police as soon as he got home from the feed store with the chicken feed, but he hadn't seen, heard or smelled anything either.

When Jim was done with his questions, he thanked her a little coolly, gave her one of his business cards and headed back for the truck. Blair scrawled something on a sheet of notebook paper, tore it out, and handed it to the woman with an encouraging smile. She accepted it with a frown, as if suspicious it might bite her.

As Blair climbed inside the truck, Jim asked, "What was that you gave her?"

"The phone number for the city planner's office," Blair answered simply. "Maybe they can do something about the flooding."

Jim just shook his head. "Come on, Sandburg, you know she's never going to call, and even if she did, the city's not going to do a damn thing to help her."

"I know," Blair answered calmly. "It's part of why the whole damn system is so screwed up."

There was no one home at the second house. Jim left his card and a brief message tucked into the sagging screen door; usually, a request for help "concerning a crime in your area" elicited a lot of responses from concerned or curious residents. Out here, Jim figured no one gave a damn if a serial killer had been living just up the road. The whole area reeked of hopelessness and distrust.

As he passed the drive leading to the murder scene, Jim longed for the comfort of a fireplace, a cold beer, and maybe a mindless comedy playing on the VCR. He knew he was going to be frustrated and depressed by the end of the day.

"You OK, Sandburg?" he asked, thinking his own feelings were probably reflected in his partner.

"Yeah," Blair replied, but his tone really didn't match his answer. He sounded as downhearted as Jim was feeling. "I was just thinking about how strange life can be sometimes. When you're a kid, you always imagine you'll grow up to be someone rich and famous -- an astronaut, a movie star, a best-selling novelist, a great doctor. You're gonna change the world, you know? When you get older, you set your sights a little lower -- the Ph.D., a tenured teaching position, a grant large enough to let you do some fieldwork. Then you suddenly wake up and you're almost 30, you're chasing a crazed serial killer, and you know even if you catch him, there are fifty more out there just like him."

Jim winced at the sad resignation he heard in his partner's voice. "It's not always this bad, Chief. I think you know that. We see humanity at its absolute worst, and that's partly why cops have so much trouble with booze and drugs and divorce. If you let it, the work preys on your mind until you see ugliness everywhere, even where it's not. If you can't take the stress, distance yourself from the job, it'll drag you under until you drown." Bad choice of words there, Ellison. Drown? Think maybe you can work the words "snuff film" into a metaphor, really cover all the bases?

"I know that, Jim. I just don't know if I'm strong enough to fight the tide."

"Then maybe you should quit." Jim spoke softly, but he felt a strange foreboding inside.

His partner considered the suggestion seriously. "You think I should?"

The older man pulled the truck over at the end of the next driveway, put it in park, and turned sideways in the seat to face his friend. "I think it's important for you to do what you need to do," he answered. "Don't base your life on what you think others need you to do."

Blair refused to look at him. "Jim, you're a sentinel. I made the choice to be your Guide."

"I know, but I'm also a cop. That doesn't mean you have to give up your life to be a cop as well."

"I haven't -- "

"You're a cop in everything but name only," Jim interrupted. "Your credentials say you're a consultant, but you've been with me all day every day since Simon handed you the ID. I can't tell you how much that kind of loyalty means to me, but it's wearing you down."

Blair wanted to protest this observation, although he knew it was true. He stared out the side window at the bare branches of the trees and brush lining the verge. The silence lengthened as he tried to find a response that wouldn't be a lie.

Finally, Jim asked quietly, "Will you tell me something?"

Blair glanced at him, his expression wary and defensive. "What?"

"Tell me what you want -- not what you think I need to hear or what you think you should be doing -- but what you really want."

Blair fidgeted with his notebook, rolling a corner of a page between his fingers, smoothing it again. "Umm, I want to teach," he confessed quietly, then added hastily, "which I do, two nights a week."

"OK, you told me before that they're introductory courses," Jim said. "Is that what you want to be doing for the next twenty years?"

Blair winced at the thought, shook his head.

"Then what's stopping you from teaching other classes as well?" Jim already knew the answer, but he wanted his friend to say it.

"You know," the young man finally answered softly.

"The dissertation."

Blair nodded. "Except we already know that's not possible," he said bitterly, recalling how nearly his research had been disastrous for them both. Still could be, for that matter, as the FBI probed a case involving stolen research and murder at the university.

"I can't believe you don't have a thousand bits of esoteric knowledge floating around in that sponge-like brain of yours to do another dissertation," Jim pointed out.

"I do, but it would mean a lot more research, more fieldwork -- "

"Things you love to do anyway."

"I don't have the time -- "

"Make the time."

"Jim, it's not that simple, and you know it." Blair sounded faintly irritated.

Jim sighed. "Blair, I haven't zoned out on the job in a long time. It happens when we can't predict it, like when I zoned out in the fog. You can't be with me twenty-four hours a day. You can't give up your life just to try to protect me all the time. I've been selfish enough to let you do it. I like having you with me; you're a buffer when my temper gets the better of me, you have a lot of insight into people, and you see things a regular cop might not notice. You're an asset to me as a detective and as a sentinel. But it's destroying you." God, he really hadn't planned on having this discussion here and now. The thoughts had been with him for awhile, and he'd been looking for an opening to bring up the subject; but why here, sitting inside the truck in the middle of nowhere, in the midst of a gruesome murder investigation? When it was clear Blair wasn't going to offer a comment, he relented with a sigh. "OK, but just think about it. Think about yourself for a change, and not about me. We'll work it out somehow. OK?"

Blair nodded, unable to look at him. The faint blue lines on the notebook paper suddenly seemed very interesting, and he concentrated on them, doodling with his pen.

Jim put the truck in gear and went up the rutted drive to the next fruitless interview.

Part Four

Locating the twelve houses in the valley, interviewing the people they found at home and leaving messages for those who weren't took the rest of the afternoon. The sun was low on the horizon, and the chill wind cutting down from the mountains had turned even colder when Jim finally called a halt.

"Well, that was a tedious waste of time," he observed when Blair had closed his notebook on the final interview. "Hungry?"

Blair nodded. They'd caught a quick lunch at the mobile command post Simon had sent out to the crime scene, but the sandwich and chips had long since ceased to stave off his growing appetite. Besides, he wanted something normal, just a typical sit-down dinner between friends. "Yeah. How about that Moroccan restaurant Simon recommended? It's on this end of town, and we've never bothered to go there before."

"Sounds good," Jim agreed, hoping they carried domestic beer. "It's not one of those places where you sit on the floor and eat with your fingers, is it?" He turned the truck out of the last driveway and headed back down the road. He'd been up and down this muddy stretch so many times today, he had every pothole and rut memorized.

"I don't know," Blair confessed, smiling at the thought. "I guess we could give them a call first." Abruptly, he said, "Jim, stop the truck."

Jim hit the brakes, and the sport utility swerved a little as it slid in the mud before stopping. "What is it?"

"Back up a bit."

Confused but curious, Jim complied, backing up a few yards until Blair told him to stop. "Yeah?"

"Thirteen," Blair told him.

"Thirteen?" Jim repeated blankly. And then he saw it -- the row of old, traditional mailboxes nailed along the length of a 4x4 post. Quickly, he confirmed Blair's count. Thirteen. The boxes were old and weathered, some sagging open, others battered by stones or shotgun pellets. They'd been the source of mail delivery before the post office had installed the multi-box unit at the end of the asphalt. "Damn, I've driven past this thing half a dozen times today and never really noticed it." The truck was already part way off the road, so he set the brake and climbed out. A moment later Blair joined him, buttoning his coat against the chill.

"Can you spot the thirteenth house?" he asked, shoving his hands into his pockets.

Jim looked up and down the valley, his eyes missing nothing on the sparsely wooded hillsides. Then he pointed to his right. "There." Blair's gaze followed the pointing finger. After a minute, he spotted a small cabin about halfway up the slope. It was partially hidden in the trees, and its weathered logs made it almost invisible.

"Do you think anyone lives there?" he asked doubtfully.

Jim nodded. "Yeah, I can see the front bumper of a truck parked on the far side of the cabin."

"OK, do you see a road?"

Jim tracked the faint trace of a winding drive until he had fixed its intersection with the road they were on. "Yeah, come on."

They climbed back into the truck and drove ahead about a quarter mile, then Jim slowed until he found where the other road branched off. It was almost hidden by thick brush. "OK, here we go." He turned off, downshifted into four-wheel drive, and started up the narrow, deeply-rutted track.

It took ten minutes to jounce up the nearly washed-out road, and that was with Jim driving with no real attempt to spare the rugged suspension of the truck. Without four-wheel drive, they never would have made it. As it was, they were both thoroughly battered after being bashed around in the rocking interior. Blair was amazed to remember some people actually went four-wheeling for fun. He only hoped the view from the top was worth all the punishment.

It was. As Jim finally cut the engine in the dirt clearing in front of the small cabin, Blair gazed out on an incredible vista. The cold air was crisp and clear, so visibility seemed about as unlimited as it could get. He could see both ways along the valley, but the most spectacular view to toward the valley mouth. The ground sloped away in a series of decreasing foothills all the way to the ocean, which glowed as a thin silver swath at the juncture of land and sky. The tallest high rises of Cascade rose majestically above the farthest range of hills, while nearer, vast tracts of subdivisions spread with checkerboard precision between field and woodland. Roads crisscrossed the scene, the nearest freeway appearing as a thin line populated by regimented rows of sparkling cars that looked like busy ants. The view of the nighttime skyline of Cascade would be breathtaking.


"Yeah," Jim agreed quietly, "some view."

There was an odd note to his voice, and Blair pulled his focus in a little nearer. Through the barren limbs of the winter woodland, he could see the crime scene far below in vivid relief. Every vehicle stood out clearly, and Blair even thought he could recognize Rafe, Brown and Sean as tiny figures on the riverbank. He felt an odd chill as he remembered his earlier certainty of being watched; perhaps it hadn't all been his imagination.


Jim climbed out of the truck and walked around to the front. As Blair climbed out to join him, a man came out onto the cabin's porch and walked ponderously down the steps. He was huge, not much over six feet in height but built like a fullback. He wore a tee shirt that might have been white in a previous incarnation, and baggy, faded overalls. Old leather shoes were worn sockless over his massive feet.

The rifle looked almost tiny held negligently in his huge fist. At the moment, the weapon was held casually, its barrel pointing downward. But the eyes that appraised them were suspicious and veiled.

"You cops?" he asked, his voice raspy from too much hard liquor or too many cigarettes. Blair noticed the heavy face was coarse and sagging, the close-set eyes peering from beneath drooping lids that gave him a sleepy appearance.

"Yes, sir," Jim said politely, moving forward to stand next to and slightly in front of his partner. He wished he could have kept the truck between him and hulking brute, but Blair was in a bad position in the event things turned ugly. "We're investigating a crime in the house below you. You must have noticed all the activity."

The man shrugged. "No interest to me," he stated flatly, but his heart rate was much too fast for someone who appeared so outwardly calm. "I mind my business, expect folk to mind theirs."

"Normally a good philosophy," Jim agreed, trying to keep it casual, "but I'd like to ask you a few questions about what you might have seen down there."

"Didn't see nothing," the man grumbled, then heaved a long-suffering sigh, "but you can ask."

"First of all, may I have your name?"

The man looked ready to object, then said sullenly, "Gipley."

"I notice you don't have a box down at the end of the paved road."

"Keep a box in town," he replied. "Don't get much mail. Don't send much neither."

"Do you know who owns the property below you?"

"No one, far as I know." Gipley gazed through the trees at the cluster of cars and looked faintly annoyed. "City took it over years back. Something to do with a flood plain."

"Have you ever seen anyone staying there, maybe living there?"


Jim figured he'd talked enough to appear satisfied. It was time to make a graceful retreat and check Gipley out more thoroughly. If a return visit was indicated, he'd bring backup -- lots of backup. "Well, thanks for your time," he began, but then his keen hearing picked up the faint, muffled sound of crying. It was so soft, he had trouble identifying it at first. It came either from under the cabin or behind it.

The abrupt shift in his concentration was all it took for Gipley to act. The rifle rotated upward, and a flash from the barrel preceded the sound of the shot by a moment too infinitesimal for the human brain to register.

There was no time to react. One moment, Blair was standing nervously next to Jim; in the next, he was falling, the weight of his partner's suddenly boneless body dragging him down. He tried to break the fall, his left knee wrenching as it took the brunt of the effort.

Only after they hit the ground did Blair finally process the sound of the shot, the sharp crack! coming to him as an echo that reverberated up and down the valley. That Jim had been hit finally penetrated his momentary confusion, and he shifted out from beneath the body and scrambled to his knees to examine the extent of the damage.

Jim was unconscious, lying on his left side, the right side of his head swathed in blood that continued to flow freely from a wound above his temple. Practically lying across the still form as if to shield his partner from further assault, Blair felt for a carotid pulse and found it, strong but rapid beneath his fingers.

"Is he dead?" the shooter asked calmly, as if he didn't care one way or the other. Bullets were cheap.

Blair struggled to control his disjointed thoughts. He couldn't tell if Jim's wound was superficial, or if the bullet had actually penetrated the skull; there was just too much blood.

"Is he dead?" the man repeated a little more forcefully.

Angered by the quaver in his voice, Blair said, "Man, you'd better get out of here. This place will be swarming with cops any second. They must have heard the shot"

Gipley actually chuckled, a deep, rumbling sound that rattled in his chest. "They heard it all right, but they don't have a clue where it come from. Look at 'em down there, running around like crazy."

Blair didn't look. Instead, he became aware that his attempt to break his partner's fall had resulted in his left hand being under Jim's jacket -- and resting on his holstered weapon. Without thinking, he inched the pistol free, keeping it hidden beneath the fabric. It felt awkward and unwieldy in his grip.

To keep Gipley distracted and talking, he asked, "Why did you shoot him?"

"He heard the kid," the man answered. "I don't know how, but he heard something."

Was the safety on the left or right? "The kid?"

"Yeah, I took him and his buddy together. I got 'im down in my cellar." He glanced toward the house in the valley. "You already met the other one."

Although Blair had suspected the awful truth, hearing it confirmed so casually caused a flush of weakness to course through his body. Third time a charm?

Not only that, but the damn gun seemed to have a safety lever on either side! Blair had a sudden image of raising the pistol -- and ejecting the magazine right onto the ground, making the weapon useless. It would be funny if such a mistake didn't carry with it such fatal consequences.

The man gestured impatiently with the rifle. "Damnit, I asked you if he was dead!"

"Yeah," Blair said softly, not having to feign the despair in his voice. He pushed himself slowly to his feet. Already, his left knee felt sore and stiff. By tomorrow, if he survived the day, it would be difficult to move at all.

Straightening suddenly, he hauled the pistol free of the jacket and pointed it, catching his adversary by surprise.

Oh man, don't make me do this, he silently implored as he stared down the barrel of Jim's 9mm at the hulking figure menacing him with the rifle. He didn't want to shoot -- didn't know if he was capable of pulling the trigger. He was terrified at the thought of killing, equally terrified at the thought of dying. And he still didn't know if he'd managed to disengage the safety.

All of his conflicting emotions must have registered on his face, because Gipley's eyes suddenly narrowed in determination and a tiny smile of feral satisfaction creased the thick, dry lips.

The sound of gunfire once again echoed up and down the mountainside.

On to Part Two (no promises, it needs some major work...)


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