Response to Holiday Challenge from Jen and Suzie. Why did you subject me to this? I had no intention of writing a holiday story, and now you've got me thinking Thanksgiving...Christmas... New Year's. And then there's Veteran's Day, Hanukkah, Boxing Day, Arkansas Admission Day... the possibilities are endless!

Thanks as always to Shellie for comments and encouragement during the tough bits. And to Maura (a *non-Sentinel* aberration -- boo! to you, woman!) who mentioned "haunted house" and helped get this thing kick-started. (But I still love you, old friend...)

Ice
-- by Mackie

The loud crackle of an electrical discharge brought Jim Ellison instantly awake from the depths of a sound sleep. The afterimage of a bright flash against his eyelids lingered even after he'd come fully alert, and he knew without even thinking about it that the transformer up the block had blown.

The loft was preternaturally silent, with none of the hums, ticks and appliance growls that made up the normal background noise of his residence. And it was much darker than usual.

From below, he heard a thump followed by a muttered curse.

"Sandburg, you OK?"

"Yeah," came the disgruntled reply. "I fell over the coffee table. I thought we had emergency lights for when the power went out."

"So did I," Jim agreed mildly, getting up and pulling on sweat pants against the night chill. His clock had stopped at 2:03 a.m., and he figured he probably wouldn't be getting any more sleep tonight. Ignoring the cold, he padded barefoot to the window and peered outside. There were no lights anywhere. "Looks like most of the city's gone dark," he commented, slipping a sweatshirt on over his tee and pulling heavy socks on his feet before sliding into the warm boots he'd been wearing to work for the past several days. "I think a lot more than a transformer went."

He trotted downstairs and found his loftmate on the sofa, its cushions covered in test papers. Blair was rubbing anxiously at one raised knee.

"Are you sure you're OK?"

"Yeah, I just cracked my knee a bit," Blair answered, grimacing. "I can't see a thing. You know where the flashlight is?"

"Getting it now," Jim promised, heading for the kitchen. A soft glow from the bathroom doorway assured him the emergency light in there was working fine; the one in the living room appeared to have malfunctioned, and he made a mental note to check it out later.

He pulled a flashlight out of a kitchen drawer and checked the beam. The batteries were strong, and he winced against the sudden glare. "Here you go," he said, handing over the light. "Are you up early or still up from last night?"

"Still up," Blair admitted, gathering up the papers. "These needed to be graded by Monday morning. Guess the university will be closed if there's no electricity." He carted the armload into his bedroom, the flashlight tucked under his arm casting odd patterns of light and shadow against the walls. "Looks like Halloween started a little early. I didn't think we had to worry about the boogieman until tonight."

"Yeah, it looks like a major outage," Jim agreed. He kept a good supply of fully charged batteries on hand, so he loaded up the boombox and tried to find a working radio station. The nearest proved to be in Seattle, which reported a huge power outage affecting much of the area. Initial reports indicated transformers and lines were down throughout the county, as were phone lines and even some microwave towers. Many of the power substations had been affected as well, so repair was estimated at days rather than hours. Traffic signals throughout many of the bay cities flashed red or were out altogether, and motorists were urged to stay home. All businesses except emergency services were advised to remain closed until the power was restored.

All in all, it promised to be a miserable few days for everyone, but especially for the city employees who would have to deal with the crisis.

Jim tried his cell phone anyway, only to have the call not completed. With a scowl, he muttered, "It doesn't matter. With a problem like this, they're going to need everyone on the job." He'd already mapped out the course of his morning: first, check with residents of the building, reassure the nervous, make certain everyone had adequate food and blankets. He'd urge everyone to stay inside, and he'd appoint a building monitor to make any necessary supply runs. Evans on the lower floor had a four-wheel-drive; the ex-Navy Captain would probably welcome the responsibility of looking after his neighbors. Someone had to brief everyone on the hazards of kerosene heaters and untended candles.

Then, he had to figure out a way to get to work -- if it was as cold as he suspected, he doubted his old Ford truck would show even a glimmer of life. Blair's Volvo? Maybe...if the Ford's snow chains would fit the tires.

"What do you think caused it?" Blair asked, emerging from his room bundled in his warmest sweats. Mentally, he reviewed their situation. It wasn't bad, considering. They would still be able to cook on the natural gas range, but the forced air heating system had automatically shut down because it used an electric fan to deliver warm air throughout the loft. Still, they had the fireplace, which also utilized natural gas, and it didn't need electricity. They wouldn't freeze to death. He didn't know if the hot water unit required electricity to make it work. What about getting the water up three floors? Was it simply a matter of water pressure, or did it have to be pumped into the water heater? Then again, thermostats were electrical, right? And the water heater had a thermostat, didn't it? It was a simple equation: No electricity + thermostat = cold shower. Right?

With a frown, he realized his knowledge of the mechanical aspects of his everyday life was woefully lacking.

Jim took the flashlight from him. "Come on and I'll show you." He put on his heavy parka and handed a coat to his roommate, then led him onto the balcony, quickly closing the door to keep the heat inside. He pointed the beam toward the roofline. "There."

"Wow!" Blair exclaimed, startled by the sight of huge icicles, some as long and big around as his forearm, lining the eaves. They glistened in the bright light. Jim moved the beam to the telephone pole to the left of their balcony. Its northwest surface was heavily coated with wind-driven ice, its lines sagging dangerously under the enormous weight of more icicles.

Blair shivered. "Oh, man, we must have set a record for an overnight low," he murmured. The weather forecast had been for cold wind and freezing rain, but no one had predicted this level of freezing. At least the wind and rain had stopped, but the air was so cold, it felt as if it had frozen in place.

"The rain froze on everything it touched," Jim agreed. "The roads are probably slick as well. We'll have to be careful going in." Absently, he reached up and touched one of the longest icicles. "It's times like these I miss having a four-wheel-drive. The intersections are going to be a nightmare -- let's kill the bitch while the power's out -- and I don't look forward to putting on chains in this weather."

He saw Blair looking at him very oddly.

"What is it?"

"If you're trying to spook me, you're not doing a very good job of it," Blair said calmly, but his eyes were wide with undisguised surprise.

Jim frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Why did you say that?" Blair countered.

Jim shook his head, thoroughly confused. "Why did I say what? We're going to need the chains -- no one will ever find the body." He almost dropped the flashlight as he jerked back in alarm. "What the hell was that?"

"Oh, man, do not do this, OK?" Blair urged, hiding his growing fear behind his irritation. "This isn't funny."

Only it wasn't a joke, he knew with certainty. Jim couldn't have faked his sudden paleness or the fear etched in his expression.

Blair immediately placed a soothing hand on his friend's arm. "Jim, it's gonna be OK, just calm down."

"Calm down!" Jim retorted. "You're not the one who just had weird words tumbling from his mouth. Where the hell did they come from?"

"I don't know," Blair answered honestly. "Maybe your hearing is still ultra-sensitive since the doctor cleaned out your ears. Focus for a minute. Maybe you picked up some voices at the limits of your hearing and automatically repeated what you heard."

Jim didn't really buy the explanation. It was true his hearing had been very sensitive these past few weeks, but he'd never involuntarily blurted words before.

Both of them were growing colder by the second, but he didn't want to go back inside until he'd figured out what had caused his strange behavior. Closing his eyes, he relaxed his thoughts and opened his hearing the way his partner had taught him just one year ago, at the very beginning of their relationship. The silence was unnatural, and his ears eagerly sought anything to fill the void. In the far distance, he heard traffic snarling in the downtown area, and the rising wail of emergency vehicles mobilizing to deal with the catastrophic power outage. Some of the people awake in nearby apartments were discussing the unusual weather. The night was filled with other sounds as well -- the creak of the frozen pavement, the moan of roofs and utility poles buckling under their burdens of ice. The sharp crack of breaking tree limbs rattled like pistol shots. Far out in the bay, a ship's horn carried loud and sweet on the still air.

There were no voices plotting murder.

"Nothing," he sighed at last, frustrated. "Damnit, that was just too weird."

"Tell me about it," Blair returned, smiling nervously. "I thought you'd been possessed or something."

Jim scowled. "Don't let your imagination run away with you, Chief. This power outage will have everyone spooked, and you don't need to start throwing in the supernatural, OK?"

Blair ignored him, thinking back over what had happened during the past few minutes. "We walked outside, and you showed me the icicles," he murmured, remembering. "You said we'd need to put chains on the truck before going in to the station." Abruptly, he said, "You touched the icicle."

"Is that significant?"

"I don't know," Blair admitted. "Try it again, and see what happens."

Frowning, Jim started to comply, but his partner stopped him.

"No, Jim, you were relaxed and distracted when you touched it. Get relaxed again before you try."

"All right." Resolutely, starting to shiver even in his heavy parka -- if he was getting cold, how was the temperature affecting Blair? -- he took himself back into a calm, relaxed state and then reached out to touch the huge icicle again. It felt dry beneath his fingers -- the temperature must have dropped even further after the icicle had formed, he realized, or the ice would have felt wet. Instead, it felt powdery, like fine velvet, and his sensitive fingertips picked up the temperature change in its surface as his body heat passed along its length....

A woman's voice suddenly echoed in his head. " -- I loved you once -- " and then a man's voice, ringing in his mind as clearly as if the speaker were right beside him. " -- blood everywhere -- "

Again, he jerked back in surprise. "Damnit, Sandburg, what is this?"

Blair was shivering from head to toe, but he looked excited as well. "Let's get back inside. I have a theory."

"We don't have time for theories," Jim fumed, following his partner inside and closing the French doors against the cold. The loft was cooling rapidly with the furnace shut down, but it was infinitely warmer than outside. "Someone's planning to kill a woman."

"I know," Blair said patiently, "and it has to be close by, or you never would have picked up the words."

Jim grabbed up his badge, gun, cell phone and keys. "Tell me on the move, Chief."

"OK," Blair agreed, adding a knit cap to his head and passing another to Jim, who snugged it down over his ears. As they left the loft and hurried down the stairs, he fumbled with his gloves, which he kept in the pocket of his parka.

They reached the street, and Jim paused in indecision. Blair turned off the flashlight. He could barely see, but at least he could make out large objects in the meager light pollution cast by their neighbor city far to the south. It reflected faintly off the canvas of lowering clouds shrouding the sky overhead.

Jim hurried to his truck. The lock on the driver's side was frozen solid with ice, but he was able to insert the key in the passenger door. The cold had stiffened all moving parts, and he was afraid he might break the key before the sluggish lock released. Successful at last, he opened the door, its hinges shrieking with resistance.

Jumping into the passenger seat, he tried the police radio, but the truck battery was dead. Since no one had anticipated this sort of weather, Jim had not disconnected the leads or wrapped the battery in a thermal shroud to protect it from the cold.

"Damn," he muttered, climbing out and locking up again. He tried the cell phone to no avail; his call still would not go through. "We're on our own."

Blair had stuffed the flashlight and his gloved hands into the voluminous pockets of his parka. He had the coat's collar turned up against the cold, and he was practically jumping up and down in an effort to stay warm. "Which way?"

"You pick," Jim said. "You're the one with the theory."

"OK -- resonant frequencies," Blair answered with more assurance than he felt. "The icicle happened to resonate at the frequency of the voice you heard, and -- "

"Voices," Jim corrected.

Blair frowned. "What?"

"There were two voices -- a man's and a woman's."

Now Blair was doubtful, his theory deteriorating along with the temperature. "The chances of overhearing two voices with the same resonant frequencies at the same time must be astronomical," he mused quietly.

"But not impossible?" Jim countered, urging him to continue.

"No, maybe not impossible," Blair admitted. "Anyway, your sensitive fingers picked up the vibrations. Vibrations create a tiny amount of electrical energy, which your nerves transmitted to your brain." He paused. "How your brain translated that energy into words is something my limited knowledge of physics can't explain. Maybe it's some sort of sentinel ability we haven't discovered yet, piggybacking sound on touch."

Jim looked unimpressed. "A direction, Sandburg."

"Line of sight to the icicle," Blair replied simply.

Jim hurried around the corner until he stood directly under the balcony of the loft. Across the street was the mouth of an alley. He crossed to it immediately, Blair right behind him, and they strode quickly along the pavement. The alley was long and narrow. It ran behind two long rows of apartment buildings, with underground parking garages exiting onto it along its length. The pavement sloped inward toward the center for drainage, and it was here the ice was thickest. In these conditions, it also provided the most level walking surface. Footing was treacherous, but the heavy tread of their boots gripped the slippery ice pack with assurance. As long as they were careful, the chances of a mishap were low.

In the still, frigid air, their breath froze immediately, leaving little puffs of fog suspended behind them like a jet plane's condensation trail.

Jim paused occasionally, stretching his hearing to pick up the elusive voices he'd heard in his mind, and his frustration grew with each failure. Resolutely, he pushed on.

"Jim, you know what's at the end of this alley?" Blair asked abruptly.

"Another street?" Jim guessed sarcastically.

"On the other side of the street," Blair replied, not taking offence.

His partner spared him a glance. "What?"

"The Norton Haunted House."

This brought Jim to a halt. "The what?" he asked incredulously.

"It's that old Victorian behemoth the owners have been trying to unload for years. Every Halloween, some entertainment outfit rents it and sets up a haunted house. It's open on weekends all through October, and then every night the week before Halloween. You probably picked up part of one of their recordings."

"At two o'clock in the morning?" Jim countered.

"Someone forgot to turn it off or something," Blair reasoned. Yeah, sure, the power went out, and some sort of battery-backup gizmo came on....

"We'll check it out anyway," Jim said, moving more quickly now that he had a firm destination in mind.

Their path brought them out at the rear of the house. A high fence enclosed an overgrown back yard, choked with weeds and virtually impassable. Ice crystals coated every leaf and stem, muting everything to a surreal, glistening gray. The windows of the old house were black and empty, either shuttered or painted over on the inside.

To Blair's over-active imagination, it looked like a scene from "Psycho" meets "The Shining".

Without hesitation, Jim strode around the block to the front of the place. By any standards, it was an impressive edifice, built during the last century. Four stories tall, its many gables suggested numerous small rooms. A half-dozen chimneys spouted from the multi-leveled roof. The yard here was well maintained, although the entertainment outfit had put in piles of tumbleweeds, scarecrows and other props to help set the mood for the haunted house experience. As with everything else, each surface was shrouded with ice crystals that damped color and smoothed textures.

A real estate sign sitting somewhat askew just inside the front gate had a brand new, bright red sticker plastered across its face -- SOLD!

"Guess this'll be the last year for the haunted house," Blair murmured in disappointment.

"Big attraction for you?" Jim asked absently, looking up and down the deserted street.

"My dates seem to like it," Blair admitted in embarrassment. "As long as you're in the right mood, it can be kind of creepy and spooky."

"Uh-huh, and your dates get all frightened and clingy."

"Like I said, you've gotta get in the mood." Blair was grinning at the memory of the last date he'd brought to the haunted house. It had been a fun time, no matter what old Mr. Stick-in-the-mud thought.

"Car coming," Jim warned abruptly, automatically slipping around the edge of the fence and crouching in the shadows.

Blair huddled down beside him. "A car," he repeated flatly, unable to control his shivering.

"You'd either have to be a fool or have urgent business to be out in this weather," Jim whispered back.

I wonder which category describes us? Blair thought, wisely keeping silent. The adventure was losing glamour with each new chill that shook his body.

A Lincoln Towne Car came into view, moving slowly on the slick pavement, its tires crunching as snow chains fought to grip the road through the ice. The frozen particles coating every surface glittered like silver dust in the beam of the headlights as the car pulled up in front of the old Victorian and parked. The headlights went out, returning the night to darkness.

"When you're right -- " Blair murmured as two men got out and passed through the gate toward the front door. Then again, neither man could have been the voice Jim had heard...

He felt a shiver of fear at something he couldn't explain.

One of the men had a large, battery-operated lantern, and he used it to find the door lock and insert a key. Even Blair could hear the ponderous thunk of the massive lock as it disengaged.

The men went inside without a word. In the bobbing glow of their lantern, Jim saw they were both middle-aged, neatly dressed in suits and ties, with heavy, expensive topcoats to ward off the cold.

Perhaps this was all nothing, he thought idly.

But if that was true, why was one of the men carrying a pickax and a large, black plastic trash bag?

As the door swung closed, Jim slipped through the front gate and ghosted up the sidewalk, Blair at his elbow. He crept onto the porch, mindful of creaking wood, and tried the door. It was still unlocked, and he opened it cautiously until it was wide enough to pass through. Closing it behind them, he stood in the dark foyer, where he felt Blair grip the sleeve of his parka.

"Sorry, man, I can't see a thing," the younger man whispered.

"Just hang on to me," Jim assured him quietly, listening for the two men. They had gone up to the third floor. "Come on."

Keeping to the inside of the stairs to create as little noise as possible, Jim started up to the next landing. Although Blair couldn't see much, he could make out odd shapes, some of them alarmingly human, that formed part of the haunted house scenario. Hulking figures loomed out of the darkness, everything motionless and silent without the mechanisms that gave them movement and voice. Somehow, the props looked menacing to his straining eyes, and he resolutely forced aside his fanciful thoughts.

They reached the next landing without making a sound, and now Blair could hear the men above him. They sounded as if they were moving furniture.

Taking out his weapon, Jim held it ready as he led the way upward, Blair still clinging to his coat to keep his bearing in the dark.

At the third floor, they paused. Light flickered from beneath a closed door to their right, and Jim crossed to it cautiously.

"OK, hand me the pickax," a voice said from inside, and Jim's eyes widened. It was the man's voice he'd heard echoing in his mind when he'd touched the icicle!

Without hesitation, he kicked in the door and lunged inside to cover the two men. "Police officer!" he barked. "Don't move!"

The two men looked stunned, one of them dropping the pickax he'd held outstretched to his companion and raising his arms automatically. The implement thudded heavily to the floor, jarring the lantern and causing it to throw odd shadows around the room.

The other man wasn't so easily intimidated. "What are you doing here?" he demanded angrily. The voice...he was the one with the voice Jim had heard.

Quickly, Jim scanned the room, but there was no one else -- certainly no woman about to be murdered. "We saw intruders entering the house," he explained quickly.

"Intruders?" the man echoed. "I own this house, at least until escrow closes next month. I have every right to be here!"

"Even though you've rented the place to the organizers of the haunted house?" Jim countered. He gestured with the gun. "Move away from there, across the room." He was curious to know why the furniture had been cleared away from the wall, and why they were planning to take a pickax to the plaster.

Hesitantly, the men obeyed, and Jim moved toward the wall, his eyes never leaving his suspects. When the men came up against an old, faded settee, he said, "Sit down, and lace your fingers behind your head."

"Just one minute -- " the man protested.

"Do it!" Jim ordered firmly. The second man, the one most easily intimidated, sat down abruptly and put his hands behind his head.

After a long moment, the first man did the same.

Jim handed his gun to Blair. "Cover them."

"Uh -- " Blair started uncertainly, accepting the weapon nervously.

"I'm staying right here," Jim assured him. "Just cover them."

Freed of his pistol, he placed his hands lightly against the wall, extending his sense of touch until his fingertips fairly vibrated with every nuance of paint and plaster. "There's brick behind this plaster," he said at last, exploring further. The plaster felt thin and brittle, as if it had been mixed poorly and applied in haste. In his mind's eye, he saw the exterior of the house. "You bricked up a fireplace and made a new wall."

Both men looked stunned.

"I don't see where that's any of your business," the first man sputtered indignantly. "I own the house, and I put in that wall years ago. This whole house is one huge draft -- we closed off some of the fireplaces once central heating went in."

Jim felt frustrated. "Why were you going to tear it down?"

"What makes you think I was going to tear it down?" the man countered.

"You moved the furniture, and you have a pickax," Jim reasoned. "I don't think you were planning to hang a picture."

"I repeat, whatever we were doing is none of your business," the man continued, gaining confidence. "You have no right to be here. Now that I've identified myself as the owner, I'm asking you to leave."

"Norton," Jim recalled abruptly. "The Norton house. You're Andrew Norton?"

"That's correct. I have ID if you'd care to see it."

"Who's Andrew Norton?" Blair asked, thinking the name sounded vaguely familiar.

"One of our more famous missing-persons cases," Jim explained, his eyes focused totally on Norton. "It happened over twenty years ago, during a massive power outage just like the one we're having now. The wealthy widow of a major Cascade financier disappeared a month after marrying a local playboy -- Andrew Norton."

"I'd resent the description," Norton responded smoothly, "but at my age, it's something of a compliment."

Jim searched his memory. "What was her name -- Mavis or Enid, one of those upper-crust names." Unable to remember, he finally finished, "Seven years later, he had her declared legally dead and inherited her estate."

"Including this old cash cow," Norton added with a smile. "I've never been able to sell it until now, and it's been bleeding me dry for over two decades."

Jim nodded. "And now that you've sold the place, you need to move the body," he said, feeling a sense of satisfaction as his acute hearing detected Norton's heart rate increase dramatically. "What's the matter -- are the new owners planning to renovate?"

"You come into my house," Norton sputtered, "and make all these wild accusations without a shred of proof."

Jim tapped the wall. "The proof is behind here."

Norton laughed. "Do you really think you'll be able to get a warrant to authorize tearing down that wall?"

Angrily, Jim reached for the pickax.

"Jim," Blair said urgently, "don't do it. Even if there is a body behind the wall, you'll never be able to get any of the evidence admitted into court because you're here illegally. Norton will never go to trial."

Just for a moment, it looked as if Jim would ignore Blair's warning, but the smug satisfaction on Norton's face added weight to his partner's advice. With a grunt of disgust, Jim let the pickax drop back to the floor.

God, he knew he was right! He could almost feel the corpse hidden behind the plaster. Automatically, he turned toward the wall again, his fingers tracing where he was certain the woman had been concealed. The evidence he needed was only inches away, but he couldn't reach it, not legally.

He needed a warrant, just as Blair had said. How was he going to get one at three in the morning, with the power and phone service dead, and no means of transportation except Norton's own car, which he was unlikely to lend them?

Blair shifted a bit to give his partner more room, and his foot accidentally tipped the battery-powered lantern. It fell over, its beam flickering ominously, and he automatically glanced down at it, afraid the light would go out.

For a middle-aged man, Andrew Norton acted with surprising swiftness. As Blair's attention wavered, the man lunged from the settee and bulled into him, knocking the young man into Jim and slamming all three of them into the wall.

The plaster, thin and brittle with age, gave under their combined weight and crumbled away. Behind it, equally poor mortar holding together the bricks that covered the opening to the old fireplace shifted and toppled free.

The next few seconds passed in a blur.

A moldy, rancid stench assailed Jim's nostrils as the bricks fell away, and he reeled under its effect. Automatically, he raised his hands to shield his face and swung aside, collapsing as he struggled to breathe past the noxious odor. Even choking, he reached for Norton, but the second man smashed a brick into the side of his head, spiraling him down into unconsciousness.

Blair dropped the pistol and grabbed for Norton, but the desperate man swung a massive fist that connected solidly with the younger man's forehead. Blair fell backwards into the collapsing brickwork, his weight carrying him through into the fireplace opening. The old firebox couldn't take the strain, and the bottom of the structure gave way instantly, sending him plunging downward amid an avalanche of brick and plaster.

Barely pausing for breath, Norton grabbed up the lantern and rushed out the door, his silent accomplice hot on his heels.

**********

Automatically, Blair covered his head with his arms and tried to flex his knees to avoid serious injury when he landed. He felt as if he was falling through endless darkness, bricks and plaster pummeling him from all sides as it rained down upon him and bounced off the sides of the chimney. He hit the floor of the fireplace on the next floor. It stopped him for a moment, then gave way, plummeting him further downward, swallowing him, suffocating him in a dense cloud of dust and debris.

He landed awkwardly atop the rubble that had beaten him to the bottom floor and slammed sideways, jarring his shoulder as he collided with more brickwork before crashing through into the room beyond. He sprawled at last to a firm surface, the breath knocked out of him by the force of the fall, his thoughts confused and disoriented.

********

Upstairs, Jim regained consciousness gradually, aware of the plaster dust that tickled his nose with each, the faint scent of decay that hovered in the still air. Gingerly, he sat up, one hand automatically touching an intense pain just behind his right temple. The fingers came away sticky with blood. His right ear felt hot and tender where the brick had struck him.

Dazed, he stared at his fingers, only his enhanced sight enabling him to see in the darkness, but he was too groggy to fit together any of the puzzling images that filled his head.

He looked around. The room was empty, one wall partially collapsed, bricks and bits of plaster still coming loose and falling, some into the room, some down the shaft -- a chimney, he realized.

There was supposed to be a body behind the wall, wasn't there? He hadn't caught a glimpse of it, but he'd certainly smelled it, the decay of twenty years surging free as the wall crumbled.

And there was something else....

"Blair?" he called tentatively, wincing as the sound of his voice caused his head to throb painfully. "Sandburg?"

There was no sign of his partner.

He staggered to his feet, his ears still ringing from the blow, his balance off kilter. Desperately, he tried to listen through the irritating buzz in his head, but the effort only brought on a wave of dizziness.

He leaned against a part of the wall that was still standing and held his head, willing the noise in his ears to stop.

"Jim?" a tiny voice called uncertainly.

He jumped and swung around, which of course put his nose an inch from the plaster. "Blair?" he called anxiously.

"Jim, where are you?" The voice had a murmuring, dreamy quality to it, as if the speaker were mumbling in his sleep. It echoed inside the walls, giving him no sense of which direction it had come from.

"More importantly, where are you?" Finally, he realized the voice was reverberating up the collapsed chimney and not coming from inside the walls. A small comfort.

"I don't know."

"Well, stay put, and I'll come find you."

"Okay." The voice sounded listless, perhaps dazed, and Jim doubted Blair even understood what he was saying. He remembered his partner falling into the fireplace, which must have collapsed. Blair could be lying seriously injured somewhere in the old mansion.

Pushing away from the wall, Jim paused to pick up his fallen weapon. Dizziness assailed him when he straightened, but he resolutely ventured out the door onto the third floor landing. His hearing was still not working properly, and he couldn't try to tune in to his partner's breathing or heartbeat without getting even dizzier.

Well, he knew Blair was somewhere beneath him, so he grabbed hold of the banister and urged his trembling legs to carry him downward to the second floor, where he would begin his search.

********

Blair returned to awareness lying on his back. He knew Jim was close by. After all, they'd just had a conversation, hadn't they? He was fuzzy on the details, but he could remember they'd spoken.

Instead, he realized he was surrounded by silence and darkness. If Jim had ever been there, he was certainly gone now, which meant he hadn't been there at all. Blair was certain of this-- Jim never would have left him behind.

He became aware of something large but unusually light pressed across his body, and his mouth was full of brittle straw. Absently, he reached up to brush it away.

With horrifying clarity, he suddenly realized he was lying beneath a decaying corpse. With realization came an onslaught of sensations -- the smell of decay, faint but pungent, the slippery feel of rotting fabric covering mold-slick bone and leathery sinew.

It was the remnants of her short hair that clogged his mouth, and in a single moment of blind panic, he shoved the abhorrent thing aside and scrambled away, retching helplessly.

Before he could even gain his feet, his left ankle buckled beneath his weight, the pain radiating up through his body. He sprawled again with a moan of agony, landing face down on the floor. Panting with fear, he curled up tightly into a tiny bundle as his terrified brain fought to make some sense out of his predicament.

He huddled motionless in the darkness for a long time. The rational part of his mind tried to tell him he was being silly. After all, he was an adult, and there was nothing lurking in the dark. OK, a desiccated corpse was not his first choice for a roommate, but there was nothing inherently evil about it. Then again, a fearful little voice murmured inside his head, a lot of cultures held very strong beliefs about what happened to the spirits of dead people whose corpses were not buried in the prescribed manner. These uneasy spirits were lost on an earthly plane, their intentions potentially malevolent toward all living creatures.

Why did he have to be such a font of information concerning primitive death rituals, especially at a time like this?

Still, he didn't move. The child in him remembered the monster that had hidden under his bed, and all the other horrific evils that had prowled his bedroom after the lights went out, when he could no longer see to defend himself or flee from their menacing presence.

It took several minutes that felt like an eternity for reason to reassert itself, and even then, he couldn't stop trembling.

It was just the cold, he told himself.

Resolutely, he took stock of his situation. OK, the floor beneath his fingers was carpeted, so he'd obviously crashed through the bricked up fireplace opening on the first floor. He wasn't trapped between the walls or stuck in a chimney, for which he was extremely grateful. Yes, he was lost in the near-absolute darkness of a huge mansion, but except for the lack of heat, he wasn't too bad off. His heavy parka would keep him warm, and Jim would find him shortly if circumstances permitted.

Where was Jim?

Sitting up cautiously to explore his body for more injuries, he was able to piece together what had happened. When the bricks had shifted, Jim had smelled the corpse and been unprepared for the intensity of the stench. It had unbalanced him just long enough for Norton and his silent partner to jump them. Blair vaguely recollected the unidentified man slamming a brick against Jim's head.

Realizing Jim could be upstairs unconscious and badly injured, Blair struggled once again to his feet. Beyond a bad sprain to his ankle, he seemed to have survived the fall with only moderate bruising. By tomorrow, he'd be stiff and sore, but right now, he had to get moving.

Then he remembered the flashlight in his pocket. Hoping it had survived the fall, he fumbled for it and switched it on. The beam flickered, revealing first the horror of the decayed body, and he jerked away instinctively. The corpse had mostly skeletonized, but what little was left of flesh and tendon was black and rotten looking. The cloth fragments clinging to the remains were sickly green beneath the damp and mold that had eaten at it through the years. Most of the hair was gone from the rotting scalp, and Blair wiped urgently again at his mouth, feeling phantom strands still clinging to his lips.

Then he took a deep breath and murmured, "I'm sorry, Enid or Mavis or whoever you are. You shouldn't have been murdered, and I'm sorry you haven't found peace. I promise you my partner and I will get the man who did this to you, and we'll have a proper burial for you, too. I'm just a little nervous around dead people, you know? I shouldn't have gotten scared; you can't help the way you look."

Absurdly, his apology made him feel a little better.

The light wavered dangerously, going out for several seconds and returning with feeble energy. It had been damaged in some way and probably wouldn't last long.

His ankle would not hold him, so he balanced precariously on one foot as he shined the flashlight around the room. It was decorated for the haunted house exhibit. Fake skeletons in Victorian finery sat in a disturbing tableau to mimic an afternoon tea party, complete with elegant china and fake cookies -- no, an English tea called them "biscuits", not cookies, he remembered irrelevantly.

The light started to go out again, and while he could still see, he spotted the door and hobbled toward it. The beam died before he'd covered half the distance.

Gave up the ghost, he told himself, trying to maintain the calm he'd so recently established.

He reached the door and paused to let his eyes adjust to the dark. It wasn't completely black. He could see the outlines of a painting hanging nearby on the wall and the elegant curve of brass sconces flanking it, but he was unable to see well enough to find his way. He felt for the handle and levered it downward. The door creaked open under his urging, and he used its support to venture into the even greater darkness of the room beyond.

********

On the second story landing, Jim had to pause to catch his breath. He felt weak and nauseous, and figured he probably had a mild concussion to add to the list of the day's events. Leaning into a wall, he allowed his body to slide downward until he sat on the floor, his knees bent.

As he rested, he tried to gauge his position to the upstairs chimney. If his reckoning was right, the second floor fireplace should be in the room one door to his right.

His hearing still wouldn't cooperate. It wavered in and out like static on a mobile phone, and the noise level increased every time he tried to stretch his hearing to detect his partner.

After a minute, he climbed slowly back to his feet and stumbled into the room where he thought the fireplace was located.

Although he could smell a lingering trace of plaster dust in the air, the wall where the fireplace should have been was still plastered over, although some of its surface was cracked from the stress of the avalanche that had cascaded down from above.

Blair must have fallen through all the way to the ground floor, and Jim felt a chill of anxiety. A fall of that distance could cause serious injury, even death.

No, he told himself firmly. He'd spoken to Blair; the younger man had sounded dazed but coherent.

He left the room and crossed the landing to the staircase. As he gripped the banister, another wave of dizziness washed over him, forcing him to sit down where he was or risk falling down the stairs. As he struggled to regain his equilibrium, he became aware of a gentle draft wafting against his face. Although the house was cold, he was feeling flushed from the dizzy spell, and the cool air felt good. He automatically raised his head to savor it...

...and saw a shimmering apparition at the bottom of the stairs.

********

Blair felt his way cautiously along the dark hallway, using his hands to guide him past furniture and other obstacles, seeking support where he could to take some weight off of his injured ankle.

Stumbling slightly, he was suddenly enveloped in a huge spider's web. Its fine, spun silk threads caressed his face, molding to his features. In panic, he frantically windmilled his arms to free himself, then forced himself to stop.

This is a haunted house exhibit, he told himself firmly, trying to subdue his ragged breathing after the fright, and you've just ruined one of their exhibits. Get a grip, Sandburg!

Still, he could feel the phantom tickle of tiny arachnid feet squirming beneath his cuffs and across his face. He kept brushing instinctively at the imaginary spiders. Damn, but he was really starting to hate the dark; it conjured all sorts of powerful fantasies. Straightening his posture and his determination, he worked his way around the giant web and continued cautiously along the hallway.

Because his eyesight was virtually useless, his other senses tried to compensate. Therefore, he was instantly aware when he stepped down on some sort of foot plate that gave slightly beneath his weight.

What he wasn't prepared for was the sudden rush of frigid air, the loud slam of a door, or the diaphanous figure that lunged at him out of the blackness. It collided with him, enveloping him in fabric and hair. With a cry of distress, he shoved the grasping figure aside, illogically convinced the corpse of the dead woman had reanimated and was now stalking him through the labyrinthine halls of the old house. Plunging away from it, his injured ankle gave way and he fell, momentarily losing himself in fear.

His mind finally processed that the foot plate had activated the mechanical part of a display, but this knowledge did nothing to dispel the thread of pure terror that wove through his body in that instant. As his rapid breathing slowed to something approaching normal and he was able to think again, he reached out for support. Something furry and sturdy met his questing hands, and he used it to pull himself back to his feet.

Grimly hanging onto it, he felt the outline of his new-found friend, then smiled slightly when he recognized what it was. To the werewolf mannequin, he murmured lightly, "Pity you couldn't be carrying a flashlight."

But the quiver of fear wouldn't go away, no matter how much he tried to reassure himself that he was safe, and that the darkness held no menace.

The fall had disoriented him, and he felt around, trying to figure out which direction he needed to go. Obstacles loomed wherever he reached, but he finally found an open space and figured it had to be the hallway. Cautiously, he took a step, unaware he'd diverted from his path and entered a cul-de-sac that at one time had been a huge walk-in closet. Although he couldn't see it, the exhibit showed a mannequin with an ax about to behead the young woman kneeling at his feet. Unlike the mannequin pretending to be a man, the ax was real...

...it was sharp...

...and it was perfectly aligned with Blair's carotid artery.

********

Jim stared at the apparition that floated gently at the base of the stairs. It appeared to be a woman of around forty, her short hair expensively cut, the soft folds of a green brocade dressing gown wafting gently around her slender figure.

Impossible! Jim's mind shrieked in denial. He stilled his frantic thoughts immediately, refusing to acknowledge either his sudden fear or the evidence right in front of his eyes.

It was a Halloween mannequin, he told himself firmly, and the illusion of movement was created by the heavy drafts circulating through the old house. After all, he'd felt the air move against his face, hadn't he?

The cold air had revived him, so he climbed to his feet and continued down the stairs, his eyes never leaving the ghostly form waiting for him at the bottom. His eyes narrowed with suspicion -- she certainly had an expressive face for a mannequin, and she looked very, very sad.

When he was close enough to reach out and touch the shimmering figure, it vanished abruptly, and he almost stumbled down the last few steps.

Desperately, he looked around for some sign of the woman. Surely, if one were to actually believe in ghosts (which he didn't, he was quick to tell himself), wasn't it better to know where it was rather than suffer the anticipation of where it might appear next?

Aware he'd been holding his breath, he let it out with a sigh, releasing his tension at the same time. Since he didn't believe in ghosts, there was nothing to fear...right?

Dimly, down the central hallway, he saw something move, and he headed toward it, hoping it was his partner, only to realize it was the same woman in the same green dressing gown. Explain this one, Sherlock, a little voice in his mind chided sarcastically. OK, he was looking at the real exhibit, and what he'd seen at the base of the stairs had been a reflection cast by a mirror or other shiny surface he simply hadn't noticed before.

Right, and that pale, beckoning hand is just a trick of the drafts.

Angry with the direction his thoughts were determined to take him, he forced himself to move toward the figure.

Around him, the old mansion was far from silent -- it creaked and groaned in protest of the cold. At least he could hear these subtle sounds, he realized abruptly -- the ringing in his ears had stopped. In fact, his headache was fading as well, which meant he probably didn't have a concussion.

What he didn't realize was that he was creeping forward silently, as if stealth would somehow make him invisible to the haunting eyes of the wraith gesturing him forward.

The figure did not vanish this time, but Jim continued toward it with unswerving resolve. His keen eyesight couldn't detect any of the wires or harnesses required to make the mannequin appear to "float" above the floor; he had to give the designer credit for creating one really convincing ghost!

When he was close enough to touch it, he noticed the shimmering specter was utterly translucent.

A hologram, he concluded.

Right -- a hologram projected during a power outage, his traitorous thoughts contradicted sarcastically.

She hovered before him, her essence as transparent as gossamer, her eyes following his every movement.

Taking a breath to still his trembling nerves, he tentatively reached toward it.

Abruptly, she turned her head in alarm, and he automatically followed her gaze. In that same instant, she vanished, but Jim wasn't even aware of it.

Instead, no more than a few feet away, he saw Blair stumbling into a small table and falling forward toward an ax held by a mannequin that looked surprisingly like a demented Jack Nicholson.

Without thinking, Jim reached out and yanked him back to safety, catching the younger man's weight as Blair's ankle gave way, toppling him into Jim's arms.

With a cry of alarm, Blair tried to wrench away, kicking out with his bad ankle, too surprised and frightened to consider the possibility of further injury.

"Easy, Chief! It's me!" Jim urged, grunting as a heavy boot connected solidly with his shin. "Damn, cut it out. That hurt!"

The words penetrated Blair's panic. "Jim!" he gasped, gripping Jim's arms in return. "Oh, man, am I glad you found me."

"Are you hurt?" Jim asked anxiously, feeling Blair's weight sag against him.

"I twisted my ankle in the fall. I can hardly walk on it, but it doesn't hurt as much as it did before."

Quickly, Jim crouched and assessed the injury. "I don't think it's broken, but we'll need to get it x-rayed. It's swollen against your boot, so you're feeling a bit of support, but it's gonna hurt like hell when you take that boot off." Straightening, he looked again at the display in the cul-de-sac and trembled for how close his friend had come to falling against the ax. And as for the apparition that had led him to his partner...

Well, there was no time to think about that right now.

Except Blair could feel Jim's nervous trembling. "Jim, what's wrong?"

Jim's grip tightened for a moment. "Nothing. Let's get out of here." But there was a catch in his voice.

Blair refused to budge. "What's wrong?" he repeated, gently yet firmly.

Jim didn't want to tell him about the ax, but he instinctively drew the younger man even closer, protecting him from whatever lurked in the darkness. He told himself it was to keep weight off of Blair's injured ankle, but he knew he just needed the reassurance of the strong, familiar heartbeat throbbing against his chest. Reluctantly, he murmured, "Just something I thought I saw."

"What?"

Jim fervently wished Blair wasn't so persistent. With a tiny chuckle of self-derision, he confessed, "I guess I could only describe it as a ghost."

Blair's grip around his partner tightened, but his voice was calm. "What did it look like?"

"A woman, maybe forty. She had short brown hair and a green bathrobe -- something like silk brocade."

"Oh." The word came out in a whisper. "What did she do?"

Still trying to make it sound ordinary, Jim answered, "She -- uh -- led me to you." He remembered the horror he'd felt as he'd seen his partner stumble against the table and fall toward the ax blade. His best friend had been just a heartbeat from death....

Blair shivered. "Jim -- the murdered woman, Mrs. Norton, had short hair, and she was dressed in green."

Instead of responding to Blair's observation, Jim eagerly let his thoughts sidetrack back to a more solid foundation. "You saw the body? What happened to it?"

Blair hunched tensely at the memory. "It fell down the chimney with me," he admitted very softly, suddenly wanting very much to be somewhere else. "It's in one of the rooms down the hall somewhere. Is your cell phone still out?"

"I don't know. I'll try it again when we get outside." Half carrying his partner, Jim led the way to the front door. "I need to get out an APB for Norton and his mystery companion, and we need to find a way to get you to the hospital."

"I'd rather elevate my foot on a pillow, light a warm fire, and drink a cup of hot chocolate," Blair countered.

Jim chuckled. "Sounds good to me, too." He opened the front door, and the cold assailed them again immediately. After all their exertions inside the old mansion, hypothermia was a definite consideration.

"That's weird," he said as they stepped onto the front porch.

Norton's car was still parked at the curb, condensation streaming from its exhaust as the engine idled.

Still holding onto Blair, Jim pulled out his pistol. "Stay alert, Chief," he said, helping him down the steps. "I may have to let go of you in a hurry."

"OK, I'm ready," Blair agreed, hobbling forward.

They reached the passenger door.

"I don't sense anybody inside," Jim admitted.

"Then why are the windows all fogged up?" Blair countered nervously.

Cautiously, Jim opened the passenger door. Warm air from the car's heater rushed over them, dissipating instantly in the cold air.

Andrew Norton was behind the wheel, his accomplice in the seat beside him.

They were both dead, their eyes locked wide, their mouths frozen in silent screams of terror.

"Ah, man," Blair breathed, shivering violently from a lot more than the cold. Unconsciously, he shifted around a bit to place Jim more firmly between himself and the unexplainable scene inside the car.

Jim just stared into the interior for a long time, his expression unreadable. Then he straightened and shut the door. "Wait here," he said, releasing Blair and walking around to the driver's door. Opening it, he reached in and turned off the ignition, then removed the keys and locked the door. He came back around and locked the passenger door as well.

"Come on," he said quietly. "We've gotta find some help." Although both of them were injured, neither one of them contemplated for an instant the possibility of shifting the bodies and driving Norton's car.

Blair accepted Jim's support again. "Jim, what killed them?" he asked anxiously as the two men started toward the loft.

"I don't know -- the car's warm inside, so it wasn't the cold. Maybe carbon monoxide."

"They were pale, not flushed," Blair pointed out, stating one of the obvious indications of carbon monoxide poisoning. Victims usually turned bright red from the affects of the gas.

"Something else then," Jim said, refusing to speculate. He wrapped his arm more tightly around his partner. "It's a long way back to the loft. Are you gonna make it OK?"

"Yeah, cuddling with you is keeping me warm," Blair responded lightly.

Jim chuckled. "Don't get used to it."

The good mood didn't last, and Blair sighed heavily. "You turned off the engine."

Jim looked at him oddly. "Yeah."

"Why?"

"So I could lock both doors and preserve the interior for the ME and forensics -- that car is technically a crime scene. Besides, I don't want someone coming along and stealing it."

Blair looked faintly guilty. "Oh."

"Why? What did you think I was doing?"

The young anthropologist looked over his shoulder at the sedan and thought about what they'd found inside. "You know, by the time the ME gets here, it will look like those two guys froze to death."

Now Jim understood, and he smiled slightly. "You thought I did it deliberately so the ME would buy that as the obvious answer."

"Well, you have to admit, it does eliminate a lot of questions about how they might have died, what happened to you in that haunted house, and why we were here in the first place."

"You mean all the supernatural nonsense."

Blair wasn't quite willing to let it go. "Jim, the voices you heard when you touched the icicle -- did you recognize either of them?"

It was a long time before Jim answered. "The man sounded like Andrew Norton."

"Except you heard him plotting a murder," Blair murmured. "A murder that took place over twenty years ago."

"I don't know -- maybe I picked up part of a program from a battery-operated radio or something," Jim insisted, refusing to venture into the dark, mysterious realms beyond his five senses. There were enough things in the real world he couldn't explain; he had no desire to contemplate the otherworldly.

"Except it was Norton's voice you heard."

"Maybe it wasn't."

"Maybe it was."

At this impasse, they fell silent. Each lost in his own thoughts about the strange, inexplicable events of this most unusual Halloween, they continued their slow, cold trek homeward.

THE END

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