"I don't know what to make of it, Simon." Ellison stood looking through the blinds into the bullpen. Sandburg was sitting at his desk gazing intently at the computer screen. "Those burns were real. At first I thought maybe they were cuts from having his fists clenched too tightly." He saw his partner suddenly sit straighter and wondered what it was that he had found. "I don't know what freaks me out more, that the burns were there or that they disappeared completely."
Simon had sat quietly listening to his friend's story. He knew that by now he shouldn't be too surprised by anything Ellison told him. Unfortunately, that was rarely the case. Once again he found himself at a loss for words. Or advice. "What does Sandburg say about all of this?"
The detective shrugged his shoulders. "He said he's heard about things like this happening. He said it was like the body acting out what the mind was telling it. Kind of like stigmata, I think. When he told me about it last night, it made sense." Sighing, he turned to look at the captain. "Maybe he was telling me the truth. Maybe he has heard about it before. All I know is that the look on his face was close to terror. He was as scared as I've ever seen him. As I ever want to see him."
"So what do you want me to do here, Jim? Yank him off the case?"
Ellison crossed his arms as he considered Banks' question. "He wouldn't go for it, sir." Reaching up, he pulled at an earlobe. "Besides, as much as Sandburg thinks there's a connection to the case, he hasn't figured out what it is. We're both just going on the fact that it all started about the same time."
"Hmph," Simon grunted as he folded his hands across his middle and leaned back into his chair. They were doing it to him again. Making him take that uncomfortable step into a place he'd rather not go. Sentinels, shamans, mysticism. What place did they really have in a city like Cascade? Closing his eyes, he indulged in a self-pitying sigh. What place did they have in his department? Hard questions he had asked himself numerous times over the last four years, but luckily the answers were easy. They were his men, his colleagues... his friends. "Okay, then. Go with your instincts. Just get this guy."
Favoring his captain with a crooked grin, Ellison nodded. "Don't we always, sir?"
Sandburg took the last bite of his sandwich, chewing thoughtfully. Phantom twinges of pain, from where the burns had been, still plagued his hands. "You told Simon everything?" He tried not to sound as nervous as he felt. Banks had always been tolerant of whatever situations he had gotten himself into as an observer, but the man usually seemed a little skittish when having to deal with the sentinel "stuff" as he had put it.
"Yes, Sandburg. Everything." The exasperation in the detective's voice wasn't masked by the smile that accompanied it. "He was fine about it. Concerned. Confused. But fine." Seeing his partner finally start to relax, he grabbed a stack of folders that sat on the chair beside him. Wonderburger may not have been the best place to go over the facts, but a man had to eat. "We're still on the case." He stood and tucked the files under his arm. "You about ready to head back to the station?"
Blair wiped the last of the juice from the burger off his fingers and smiled. "Yeah, that hit the spot. It's about time they started serving some decent food here. That veggie burger was one of the best I've ever had." Pulling the garish red tray towards him, he began to clear their booth. "Getting out for lunch was a good idea, Jim. I can almost think again." He nodded towards the folders his friend held. "We haven't missed anything, have we? Other than the three are students, they don't have anything in common." His stomach did an uneasy flip-flop at the thought that the campus might be the killer's hunting ground. "They didn't know each other. They were from different parts of the country. None of them were even from Cascade, so no connection there." He shook his head as he emptied the tray and placed it back on the caddy. "Dead ends at the end of every investigation."
"But there is a connection there... somewhere... Chief. It's obvious to the killer, and with digging, it'll be obvious to us." Resting a hand on his partner's shoulder, Ellison steered him towards the door. As they walked out onto the street, a thought occurred to the detective. "When you were doing the database search, back at the station, it looked like you might have stumbled onto something. What was it?" Blair's hesitation was only a fraction of a second, but to the sentinel it was much more pronounced.
"Just trying to follow up on a hunch." Sandburg gave his shoulders a slight lift. "Nothing really turned up." Blair looked up into his partner's concerned face and smiled. "Don't worry, if I come across anything that looks like it might go somewhere, you'll be the first to know." He raised an eyebrow and grinned. His friend's expression was full of doubt. "What? You think I can get into trouble searching the Net?" He couldn't repress a laugh and held both hands up in surrender. "No, wait. Don't answer that." Sobering, he got back to the case at hand. "How about his MO? Maybe the connection is there? Not with the victims?" Sandburg gave his partner a puzzled look. "What're you smiling at? Did I say something funny?"
The detective's smile deepened. "Not funny, Chief. Every once in a while you'll toss in things like MO. Guess I'm just not used to it yet." He walked on a bit more in silence. "To answer your question though. I don't know, Sandburg," Jim sighed. "We've gone over every scene with a fine- toothed comb. The only similarities are how he prepares his victims and that he hangs them." He fished his keys out of his pocket as he neared the truck. "Venue doesn't give us anything. Kathy Grady's body was discovered on a freighter that was dry-docked. All he used there was rope he found at the scene and overhead pipes in the engine room. We know he didn't bring his own rope because forensics identified it as being a section of rope that was discovered on another part of the ship." Reaching the late model Ford, he leaned against its hood as Sandburg headed to the passenger side. "Murder number three, Bridget Bishop, has some of the same elements. He used an abandoned warehouse and materials he found there. Rope he found on site and this time he used a catwalk instead of a pipe. Nothing elaborate about either one of them. So we have a utilitarian serial killer. Doesn't exactly help us in identifying him." He pulled a pair of sunglasses from his pocket, checking them for smudges. "And then there's murder number two."
Blair stopped and leaned against the other side of the truck. "Right. Martha Corey's murder was a little more involved. He took the time to build that scaffold in a field." Frowning, he traced random lines through the dust on the hood. "But again, it was old wood, so he was still using materials at hand. Just not things he found at the scene. He had to have planned this one out a little more. He needed a hammer and nails."
Ellison waited; watching as his partner chewed the inside of his cheek, lost in thought. "Transportation, too."
"Hmm?" Blair looked over at his friend. "Yeah, something big enough to carry long pieces of wood." He tapped his finger on the truck. "I was thinking. He really had to know what he was doing. That wood wasn't in the best condition but he managed to build something sturdy enough to hold the weight of the body. So maybe we're looking for some kind of handyman?"
Ellison chuckled. "You mean a near-sighted handyman, judging from the amount of blood he left on the scaffolding." He had an idea of where his partner's mind was headed. "You thinking campus maintenance?" Jim straightened, slowly stretching his cramped back muscles. "We went over the university staff, but I guess it wouldn't hurt to do it again." Unlocking the driver's side door, he climbed inside. "Let's go, Sandburg. You wanna call us back in and let them know where we're headed?"
The ancient Volkswagen van stood quietly idling on a deserted side street. Its tail end blocked the entrance to an alleyway that contained an industrial sized dumpster. Pocked and rusted green sides barely held everything that had been tossed into it and it overflowed with rubble and material from a nearby building that was being demolished. Splintered wood, steel girders and wire created a modern day sculpture that flowed from the bin and spilled to the pavement around it.
The stillness of the alley was shattered as a length of board shot from the dumpster, landing with a resonant bang. Building materials shifted as something forced its way to the top, stone and grit giving way to reveal a calloused hand gripping the edge. Fingers, blackened and bruised, curled around the lip of the rusted container. Another hand appeared, followed by a grunt, as a man heaved himself up and over the side to land lightly on the ground. He wiped the palms of his hands on his worn jeans, feeling each small cut and scrape as it traveled over the material. Brushing powder and small pieces of grit from his shoulders, he took in a deep breath of air. The air in the bin had filled his nose and lungs with its dust.
Smiling, he looked to see the van just as he had left it. Not that he had really worried it would become the target of a car thief or vandals. It was probably older than most of the kids he had seen hanging around the alleyway. Its dented body was covered with scratches and peeling paint but the engine purred as it had when he had bought it those many years ago. Opening the rear doors, he began to pile the materials he had collected onto the bed of the van. A firm believer in the old adage that one man's garbage was another man's treasure, he had been able to find everything he thought he might need. His chest swelled with joy as he loaded his cargo, knowing that the hand of God was certainly guiding him. Just as the Bible had promised, the Lord had provided.
The evil voices that sounded in his head would be silenced. One by one he would hunt them down. He knew their names. He would find them. He began to hum to himself as he worked. He knew that he would remain strong and upright. They would have no power over him. He would silence them and wash their foul smell from his skin. The Lord had called upon Samuel Parris and he had answered.
With a hard slam Parris closed the doors to the van. Leaning heavily against the side of the old Volkswagen, he ran long fingers through his blond hair. The afternoon sun beat down on him, causing it to mat against his scalp as perspiration tracked into his ice blue eyes. Closing them, he leaned his head against the warm metal and listened to the sounds of the streets. The sound of laughter reached his ears, making him smile. It brought back memories of the days he had been happy. A time past when he could relax and share a joke with a friend. He hoped he could again someday. Slowly opening his eyes, he looked for the source of the laughter and his heart nearly stopped. Two men were getting into a truck on the far side of the street. There was nothing remarkable about that, except for the shapes that swirled around the shorter man's legs. Parris blinked his eyes and then rubbed them furiously, trying to bring the images into focus. He prayed that what he saw was nothing more than the reflection of the sun's angry glare, but as he concentrated the blurs of grey and black began to take shape. A wolf. An incredibly large, black cat. Both animals seemed to step into and out of view as their forms faded then solidified once again. Parris' knees began to weaken as the reality of it all came to him. He had been shown the face of the enemy. The young one with the short curls and angelic smile seemed to command the ghostlike creatures that hovered round him. Needing to see the face of his enemy's companion, Parris took a tentative step towards the street. As he did so the cat's head swung in his direction. Its teeth were bared and the warning it hissed chilled him to his very soul.
With a weary sigh Jim Ellison flipped the last of the file folders closed. "I don't know, Chief, did you come across anyone that might be at least a little suspect?" Checking his watch, he realized that they had been poring over Rainier's personnel files for over two hours, paying special attention to their maintenance department.
"Nary a one, Holmes," Sandburg mimicked his friend's sigh. "Dead end, I guess." He shoved the stack of folders away from him. "It would have been a lot easier if Rainier had at least brought their Human Resources department into the computer age. I didn't think anyone used paper anymore." Groaning, he dropped his head into his hands. "What am I thinking? This is a university. Paper's a tradition."
Standing and stretching, Ellison smiled wanly down at his partner, as his bones seemed to creak back into place. "Well it was worth a second look anyway, kid. Unfortunately it left us exactly where we started."
"Yeah, nowhere." Collecting the folders from the table, the shrill ring of Ellison's cell phone brought Sandburg up short. Holding his breath, he watched his friend's face as he took the call. It was a brief call and judging from the detective's expression as he flipped the phone closed, it was hardly sweet. "We've got another one, don't we?"
Nodding, Ellison grabbed his stack of files, shoved them into his partner's hands and headed for the door. Sandburg quickly followed, depositing them in front of the departmental secretary. Walking backwards, he flashed the woman a quick smile. "Thanks, Kim. It was nice to see you again." Turning, he ran to the elevators. "Hey Ellison, wait up!" Breathing heavily he caught up to his friend. "What were you going to do? Leave me behind?"
"Thought about it." Jim grabbed the sleeve of his partner's shirt and dragged him into the elevator as the doors slowly closed behind them, not quite swallowing Sandburg's yelp of "police brutality".
Samuel Parris sat hunched over the steering wheel of his van. His chest heaved as he tried to draw in more air. This one had been more difficult than the last three. He knew it would be. The retired lawyer hadn't been too strong. His struggles hadn't amounted to anything, but this had been the first time he had met with real resistance. If this had been a test, then he had passed. He hadn't been sure he would.
"But I did it." Samuel's clipped words sounded hollow in the empty van. "I did it." Straightening, he reached for the keys that hung from the visor, wishing that the beating of his heart would return to normal. The ring of keys dropped into his shaking hand and he made a fist over them, trying to still the tremors. "Relax. Relax. This one's over." Taking another deep breath, he started the van and slowly pulled onto the road.
The sun had dropped lower behind the horizon and streetlights began to flicker to life one by one as he headed back towards town. Deep purple bands of color that stretched across the warm, rust-tinged sky were oddly calming and he felt a vague sense of serenity, finally, where only panic had been before. A four way stop was just ahead and he slowly braked as the headlights of an oncoming vehicle briefly blinded him. It had a flashing red light sitting on its dashboard. Taking a deep breath, Parris tried to remain calm. The police were arriving, but he knew that if he didn't draw attention to himself he would be all right. As his vision cleared he had to make an effort to keep the shock from his face. He was looking at the two men he had seen earlier that day. The enemy he had been shown was the police? Slowly pressing down on the gas pedal, he eased his van through the intersection, doing his best to avoid eye contact with them.
A yellow bug light illuminated the front porch of the old coastal home. It stood at the end of a long winding drive that was well hidden from the main road.
Leaning forward to peer into the encroaching gloom, Blair sighed. "This place couldn't be any further out of the way, could it? It's so secluded it's almost begging for something to happen." Squinting, he noticed some movement. "Looks like someone is standing out front, Jim." Rubbing the back of his neck, he let out a small snort. "Man, I must be tired. I'm telling you what's up ahead. You probably saw him when we first turned onto this road."
Ellison gave his partner a sympathetic smile. He knew that Sandburg hadn't been getting any real sleep for the last two weeks. "That must be the person who called it in. Dispatch said someone would be meeting us." He pointed further up the road. "There's a squad car parked up the road, too. The officer must be inside."
The detective eased the truck up the driveway, parking behind a silver BMW. The house looked quiet, except for the older man pacing along the front porch. "According to dispatch, the guy who called it in is a neighbor. A Peter Collins. They didn't have anything on him." Jim gave the car an approving glance as he climbed out of the truck. Letting out a theatrical sigh, he winked at his partner. "Someday."
"I don't know, Jim." The hint of a smile lifted a corner of Blair's mouth as he crossed in front of the truck and headed towards the house. "You just don't strike me as the BMW kind of guy." Shoving his hands into his pockets, he shivered slightly against the damp breeze that was blowing in from the water. "Perfect night for a murder," he murmured as their informant hurried down the steps to meet them.
Peter Collins was a large man with a mane of salt and pepper streaked hair held back in a ponytail. A full black beard lined with white covered a good portion of his face. He towered over both detectives as he approached them; a shaking hand held out in introduction. "Detectives, I'm Collins. I'm the one who called you about John." His words were rapid; coming out in short gasps. Their deep rumblings carried the hint of an English accent. His eyes held the look of someone who had just witnessed a scene that was almost too much to be processed. "I... I can't believe what's happened. Not to John." He led the way to the front door, only to be stopped by a restraining hand. His eyes travelled from the hand that gripped his arm to one of the detective's faces.
"Mr. Collins," Jim's voice was gentle as he steered the man to a chair that sat on the porch. "Why don't you sit down for a minute before we go in?" He could hear the man's heart racing and feel the blood as it rushed through the veins in his arms. His pasty complexion and the thin sheen of perspiration on his face had the Sentinel worried that Collins was very near to going into shock. "We can talk out here."
The older gentleman gratefully took the chair offered to him, slowly lowering his tall frame into it. "Thank you, detective. This has been... I can't begin to tell you." His square hands were clasped tightly in his lap as he stared off into the distance.
Frowning, Ellison tapped Sandburg lightly on the arm. "I'm going to go in and take a look around. I'll be back out in a couple of minutes. Don't start without me." Giving Collins another quick check he disappeared into the house.
"Are you going to be all right, sir?" Blair had caught his partner's worried look. "Is there someone we can call?"
Looking up, the older man smiled grimly. "No, no. I just need a minute to absorb all this. But, thank you. Sandburg, isn't it?" His smile gained more warmth as he went on to answer the surprised stare his question had received. "I recognized you from a seminar you attended. Doctor Stoddard, a good friend of mine, gave the lecture. You impressed us both with the intelligence of your questions. He told me that you had gone on to police work." Taking a handkerchief from his pants' pocket, Collins wiped at the sweat that had gathered along his brow. "Exciting work, police business. I've done some consulting from time to time. I suppose every anthropologist has a bit of the detective in him." Taking a deep breath, he turned to look at Ellison who had just stepped out onto the porch. "I think I can answer some questions now, Detective. Thank you for your solicitude."
The sentinel had heard Collins' comment about anthropology and detective work and inwardly winced. As much as his friend told him that he had accepted his new career, Jim knew that Blair couldn't have possibly surrendered his passion for anthropology that easily. He was sure it was still a tender point for his partner. Going to sit on the railing that surrounded the veranda, he raised an eyebrow at his partner, hoping Blair understood that he was asking if everything was all right. He relaxed when Sandburg nodded and moved to lean against the railing next to him.
"All right, Mr. Collins, I may need you to go back inside to look at the body, but why don't we cover the preliminaries first? At about what time did you discover the victim?" Sandburg had once called him a human crime lab and maybe he was. One thing his sentinel abilities had made him was a human lie detector. Everything he had seen in the house made it seem that they were looking at another victim of their serial killer, but this time the victim was male. This meant that the killer had broken his pattern, making it that much harder for them to uncover his trigger. His gut reaction was that Collins had no involvement in the murder but he couldn't afford to not treat the man as a suspect. A small part of him hoped, even if perversely so, that the seemingly gentle man that sat before him was the killer in this particular murder. If he was not, he and Blair had a new wrinkle to iron out.
"It was about an hour ago now. John and I usually play cards most Friday evenings. Especially now that we're both widowers. He was late," Collins continued. "I tried calling him, to see what was holding him up. I knew he was home. He had called earlier to ask if I still wanted to play." He stopped and rubbed at a gnarled hand. "I have arthritis, you see. It had been bothering me all day."
"Do you remember what time you spoke to him?" Blair asked the next logical question.
"Ah, yes. It was close to 4:00, I believe. I had just returned from driving Mrs. Campbell, she's a woman who comes in to clean, back into town. So it must have been very near 4:00." The older man ran a hand across his face. "Dear heavens. Two hours later and..."
The murderer's window of opportunity had been a small one, Jim realized. "Can you tell me anything of your friend's schedule or comings or goings for the day?" Had the victim been stalked? Or had the choice been random? The detective hoped that the man's answer would provide at least a clue.
"John was a creature of habit. Friday mornings he would meet with his old law partners. They would have lunch and trade stories of their days in practice." Collins smiled ruefully. "They invited me along after my wife died, but after a few lunches I knew that I didn't belong and begged off." Sighing, he addressed Blair. "They would make a wonderful study of the habits and preening rituals of the aging American male, Mr. Sandburg."
"I think I know the type, sir," Blair chuckled. "Do you know where he would go after lunch?"
"They would usually finish lunch by 2:00 or 2:30. Then John would go to his health club or take care of errands. He was always back by 4:00 at the very latest. He liked to catch his soap opera. Never missed it."
Ellison couldn't hold back his surprise. "Did you say soap opera?"
"Yes. According to John, any male our age is allowed at least one eccentricity. That was his. And it was a British one, no less." He watched as the detective wrote down the information. "Has what I told you helped at all?"
"It has Mr. Collins. Thank you." Getting down from the railing, Jim knew he could no longer put off the inevitable. After listening to the man's answers he was certain that he wasn't a suspect and regretted having to ask him to visit the murder scene again.
"It's all right, Detective," Peter Collins assured him as if reading his mind. "I'm ready to go inside. Let's just get this over with, shall we?" Rising from the chair, he took an unsteady step towards the house. "If this will help find the killer, then it's the least I can do for my friend."
Ellison and Sandburg followed the older man to the study. They stood by the man's side, ready to catch him if he showed any signs of collapse. Collins hesitated at the door to the den then pulled himself to his full height and entered. His hands that had hung loosely at his side became tight fists as he took in the scene once more. Reaching out to steady him, Jim shot his partner a look of regret. He hated to make an old man suffer to gain information.
Swallowing back a sigh, Sandburg knew what his friend was thinking. There had to be better ways to get the job done. And they were there to get the job done. Stepping around the older man, but still standing within arm's reach, Blair tried to get a get a better look at the room. One quick scan was enough to tell him that they were dealing with the same killer. A long board had been wedged between two beams that crossed the ceiling. It looked worn and rotting against the deep mahogany coloured wood that framed the room. The rope that had been flung across it and tied into a hangman's noose was frayed and soiled. It stood out in stark contrast to the high, white collar of the man's shirt. The room itself was neat and orderly. The only piece of furniture that seemed to be out of place, Sandburg noted with distaste, was the heavy wooden desk chair that lay on its side.
"Mr. Collins," Jim asked. "Is there anything about the room or your friend that seems wrong or shouldn't be here?"
Collins snapped around angrily and he thrust an arm out, pointing to the centre of the room. "You mean other than fact that... that..." His anger subsided almost as soon as it had begun. "I'm sorry. I realize that you need this information." Taking a deep breath, he made himself look more closely at the body that hung suspended from the overhead beams. "His clothing. I don't think I've ever seen him wear a shirt like that. It looks quite old. Out-dated. The pants as well."
"Is there anything else?" Ellison gently asked. Pulling a card from his shirt pocket when he received no answer to his question, he handed it to the now shaking man. "Why don't we head back to the porch? I'm going to give you my card. If you remember anything else, no matter how unimportant it seems, I want you to call me."
Ellison and Collins left the room, leaving Blair to his thoughts. He knew from Jim's treatment of the elderly man that he didn't consider him a suspect. He was glad for that. He had liked Peter Collins from the moment he had shaken his hand. But what did this do to their case? What did a retired male lawyer have in common with three female college students? So far their investigation had been focused on the fact that the victims were women and students of Rainier. Were they going to have to start all over again?
"Or look on the bright side, Sandburg," Blair argued with himself. "Maybe this means none of your friends will become targets."
"Talking to yourself, Hairboy?" Henri Brown's chuckle floated across his shoulder.
Blair turned to see Henri and Megan Connor standing at the door to the study. He grinned sheepishly, and looked down. "Caught."
Connor draped an arm around Sandburg's shoulders. "Don't pay any attention to him, Sandy. Jim told us that we'd probably find you in here." She walked over to the desk and gazed up at the body. "It looks like the same killer, doesn't it?"
"That puts all our efforts right down the tubes." Henri had moved to stand next to Blair, his hands planted solidly on his hips. "Two weeks of going over every file on every woman enrolled, employed or whatever at Rainier. Man, what a waste of time."
"Yeah, and now you know why I was talking to myself."
"Did you and Jim learn anything from the man who found the body?" Megan looked up from studying the papers that were lying on the desk. "Jim was just finding someone to drive him home when we arrived."
Not wanting to spend any more time looking at the body, Sandburg moved to the long corridor that connected the room to the front of the house. He waved at the other two to follow him. "Not much. Nothing that would tie him in with the first three, at least. About all we know is that victim number four is a retired lawyer, likes to play cards on a Friday night, and is named Rockford."
"Proctor." Ellison's voice came from behind them.
Slowly turning, Blair gaped at his partner. "What did you say? I thought on the way in you said his name was John Rockford?"
"I did. That's the name I got. Somebody heard it wrong, I guess. But Collins told me it's Proctor. John Proctor."
"Oh, man. I think we may have just found the connection we've been looking for."