Production No. CVT523

written by:

edited by:
Karen and Urban Angel

There are some scenes in this episode that may not be suitable for our more sensitive viewers.
Viewer discretion is advised.

She watched the knife blade glisten in the firelight, catching the reflection of the flickering flames and casting a faint orange glow onto the face of her murderer. Like the knife reflecting the light of the flames, his eyes reflected the light of his madness. His face gleamed with ecstasy as he held the knife high overhead, poised above her heart. Time slowed and took on a surreal quality as the blade began its descent. Unable to move, she couldn't take her eyes from the instrument of her death as it carved its way through the night towards her breast. Her scream rent the air like the knife that sliced her skin.

The sound and the victim died simultaneously, suddenly enveloped by a silence as soul- shattering as the scream had been. A soft chanting began, growing in both its volume and intensity until the surrounding forest echoed with the sound and joined the ghastly chorus.

The Master held the knife aloft and watched as droplets of blood slid languorously off the curved tip, glistening sickeningly in the flames of the alter fire and landing on the earth in an ever- increasing pool. He closed his eyes and sighed in contentment, completely sated.

All would be as it should be again.

Jim Ellison sank gratefully into the thick cushions of the sofa and sighed deeply. After taking a long swig of his beer, he leaned his head against the pillow at his back and closed his eyes.

A sniffle and the shuffle of socked feet heralded the arrival of his spring-cold stricken partner, Blair Sandburg. "Hey, Jim," he rasped, diverting into the kitchen to fix himself a cup of tea.

Ellison's only response was raising his bottle in a half salute before taking another long draw.

"Jim?" Concern clouded Sandburg's face as he gazed at the back of his partner's head. The teakettle whistled for his attention, and he paused to pour the boiling water into his cup. Dunking his tea ball in the steaming liquid, he crossed to sit on the couch next to Ellison. "Jim, what's wrong, man?"

Jim forced his eyes open and locked his ice blue eyes with Blair's slightly bleary dark blue ones. "How are you feeling?"

"Better. I'll be back at work tomorrow. And don't change the subject. What happened today? What's wrong?"

"Did you watch the news tonight?"

Blair blinked, slightly disconcerted by Jim's seemingly abrupt change of gears. "No, I took a nap this afternoon and just now woke up. Why?"

"There's been another one..."

"Oh, man! Not another one! Dog, cat, what?" Blair took a sip of his tea to calm his indignation. "I was hoping we could find this creep before he killed another animal." Blair shuddered, recalling the recent string of animal mutilations that had all pet owners in Cascade concerned. Some of the more prominent owners in the community were putting a great deal of pressure on the mayor's office to find and arrest the demented offender. Bowing to the pressure, the mayor had tossed the hot potato to Major Crime. Captain Simon Banks had then assigned it to his own particular bloodhound, Jim Ellison. A couple of days into the investigation, Blair had come down with a nasty cold, and his sentinel had relegated him to the warmth and safety of the loft, complaining that Blair's herbal cold remedies were wreaking havoc on his senses. Blair suspected the complaining was a thinly veiled disguise for Jim's Blessed Protector mode, but since he really did feel like crap, he wisely chose not to push the point. Thus, Jim had spent two days, alone, tracking down virtually non-existent leads in an effort to locate the perpetrator.

Jim massaged the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. "It wasn't an animal this time," Jim broke into Blair's tirade.

"What?" Blair's features registered his shock at the revelation.

"It wasn't somebody's pet, it was somebody's daughter," Jim reiterated. "A 21-year-old Rainier co-ed. Melissa Wakefield, 5'2", brunette, green eyes. According to those who knew her, a very pretty girl. She's not pretty anymore. Mutilated, just like the pets." Jim grimaced. "Psycho cut out her heart, removed her eyes and ears, and butchered her breasts and genitals."

Blair paled. "Oh, God."

"Yeah, oh God," Jim sighed bitterly. "And we've got no leads. Nothing. Just a tip from an anonymous caller on where to find the body. Not one damn thing else!" Jim sprang to his feet and paced the length of the living area. "And now this monster's progressed to human beings."

"Are we sure it's him?" Blair asked, "I mean, could it be a copycat?"

"He's gotten too many of the details right for it to be a copycat. Things we haven't published to the media. And, as bad as it sounds, I hope it's not a copycat. One of these sickos is bad enough; two is unthinkable. No, it's him and he's escalating. God, the things he did to that poor girl..." Jim shuddered involuntarily, glad that his partner had been spared viewing the grisly scene. He couldn't shield him from horrors such as this forever, but he would be grateful for each missed "opportunity."

Draining the last of his tea, Blair carried his cup into the kitchen and began rinsing it out. "You know, Jim, I've been thinking about this a lot the last couple of days. Jeopardy! not withstanding, it's not like there's a lot of quality daytime television available to stimulate the mind. And don't even get me started on the talk shows. Anyway, some things have been bothering me about this case, like those strange scents you picked up at each of the scenes, and the nature of the wounds. They seem more ritualistic than random."

"Like some sort of religious ceremony or something?" Jim's interest was piqued. Blair frequently picked up on the small details in ways the other detectives didn't, and his insights were frequently right on the money.

"I'm thinking cult, actually," Blair expounded, tucking an errant curl behind his ear and dragging a tissue under his reddened nose. He returned to his previous position on the couch and tucked his feet comfortably beneath him. Funny how it worked: his head had the cold, but it was his feet he couldn't keep warm.

"Cult? As in Satanic?"

"With the news that he's now killed a person, it's more like Satanic-wannabe," Blair clarified.

"You've lost me, Chief." Jim shifted his position on the couch and faced his partner. He massaged his pounding temples, attempting to will away the impending headache.

"It's a complicated topic, Jim, that's for sure, and a lot depends on whose research you choose to believe. Some hold that Satanic cults are not so much true Satan worshippers as they are disillusioned Christians. They rebel against the tenets of Christianity in the worst way they know how, which is by worshipping the Devil. It's kind of a conundrum, really. To believe in the devil, you have to believe in God. So, following that line of thinking, those who worship Satan are really just practicing a form of reverse Christianity." Blair frowned and dragged a hand through his hair as he sought to capsulate the conflicting information.

"On the other hand," he continued, "'true' Satanists or members of the Church of Satan, founded by Anton LaVey in 1966, don't actually believe in the Devil or in any God. LaVey's Satanic Bible, or the Demonic Manifesto, as it's called, defines the philosophies of Satanism as man being the master of his own universe. A Satanist believes he can blame no higher power for his success or failure. They choose to celebrate the strength and pleasures of the flesh, rather than despise them."

"However, there are isolated sects that take LaVey's 'pleasures of the flesh' to the extreme and practice rituals that are very carnal in nature. And then there are a few short-lived groups that practice their own form of Satanism, based on misinterpretation of The Satanic Bible, combined with a little Hollywood imagery and their own fertile imaginations. They tend to play at it for a while, then let it go."

"That's fascinating Chief, but how does that help us?"

Blair stood and began to pace, slipping unconsciously into lecture mode. Jim mentally cringed, still sensitive to reminders of Blair's personal and professional sacrifice. No matter how often Blair assured Jim he was where he wanted to be, Jim couldn't help but feel guilty that Blair had given up his academic dreams and reputation to protect his sentinel. With a mental shake, Jim quickly tuned back in to his partner's explanation.

"...but, something just doesn't feel right about this. He's not following LaVey's Satanism, and he seems to be embellishing on the rituals laid out in Conrad Robury's Black Book of Satan. It's almost as if he's combining elements of different cult-based religions or even making them up as he goes along. But one thing's for sure: he's not a 'true' Satanist. In fact, he's worse than what most people imagine Satanists to be. While research does provide some conflicting data, it's generally accepted that true Satanists do not go around performing sacrifices- - animal or otherwise. There are some documented cases of animal sacrifice, but their human sacrifices tend to be more symbolic than actual. In other words, someone is symbolically sacrificed, but they get up and walk away at the end of the ritual."

"Sounds sort of like you're defending them, Sandburg."

"I'm not condemning or condoning, Jim. I'm simply stating the facts, as I understand them. Whether or not I agree with their beliefs doesn't negate their right to hold them any more than someone has the right to tell a Christian, a Jew or a Buddhist that they're wrong."

"So, killing someone's pet is okay, as long as it's all in the name of religion?" Jim snapped.

Blair held his temper, realizing that Jim's anger wasn't totally directed at him. "Of course not, Jim! Have you even been listening to me? I just told you that this guy isn't a true Satanist, that Satanists don't conduct sacrifices, and that I don't have the right to tell someone whom they can and can't worship. Don't you think that's just a bit neo-Nazi, man? It doesn't mean I agree with it, it just means I acknowledge their right to believe what they want. It's a tough subject, Jim."

"Not according to the law, Sandburg. Killing someone's pet is illegal, and murder is a felony. End of story."

"No disagreement from me there, Jim. This guy has got to be stopped. Whatever he believes, he's gone over the edge. In a way I kind of feel sorry for the Satanists, because he's going to give Satanism a bad name."

Jim shook his head in wonder at his roommate's thought processes. "'Gonna give Satanism a bad name'," he muttered, then quickly raised his hand to stop the anticipated retort. "I know, I know, Sandburg; freedom of religion and all that. First Amendment rights aside, how does this information help us find this psycho?"

Giving up on the diversity lecture, Blair frowned. "I wish I had a clue, Jim, but I don't. I'm going to have to do some poking around on the Web to get a feel for where this guy's coming from. Maybe then I'll have some better answers for you."

"A sick mind is where he's coming from," Jim pronounced as Blair busied himself setting up his laptop. "Before you get started on that, how about eating something?"

"Yeah, whatever," Blair confirmed absently, already losing himself in his intended research.

Jim scrounged in the refrigerator for something quick and easy to prepare. His hand drifted toward the leftover spaghetti, but he immediately flashed back on the image of Melissa's horribly mutilated body and quickly opted for chicken soup - much less graphic and easier on his stomach.

The phone rang and Blair swore, "Damn! Thirty seconds later and I'd have been online already! You can never beat a telemarketer to the punch!"

Being closer to the phone, Jim grabbed it on the second ring and barked out a gruff "Hello?" A genuine smile crossed his features, "Hey, Naomi, how are you? Or, more appropriately, where are you?... Really? For how long?... That's great!...Yes, I'm sure, Naomi... All right, let me give you to Blair before he yanks the phone out of my hand."

Blair flashed a glare at his roommate, but immediately grabbed the phone. "Mom? Hi!" He rolled his eyes tolerantly. "I'm fine, Mom, it's just a cold. Trust me, Jim's making sure I take care of myself. In fact, he's driving me crazy." He swiftly ducked the unseen, but nonetheless expected, swat to the back of the head. "Hey, really? That's great, Mom! When will you be here?... Yeah, that's cool." Blair's face grew serious. "C'mon Naomi, if Jim says he doesn't mind, then he doesn't mind. It's over, water under the bridge. We've moved on, so should you." He listened for a moment, then gave a quick laugh. "Well, yeah, I guess you've definitely physically done the moving on thing. Maybe now it's time you emotionally moved on, too... We're fine, Mom, really. We'll be glad to see you. Do you need me to pick you up at the airport?... Aw, c'mon, that's not necessary... Okay, okay, I give up. Why don't you have the cab drop you at the station? That way you can say hi to everybody. They've all been asking about you... Okay, see you tomorrow, then." He turned to Jim, "She's coming tomorrow," he informed him needlessly.

Jim smiled indulgently, "I figured that part out, Chief."

"She's still nervous about everything that happened."

"I know. I don't know how to make her understand that I'm fine with it all. I thought we had that all straightened out when she visited before."

"Yeah, well, that was in the middle of that business with Allison, you know. Being targeted for murder because some psycho chick thinks you're your son's girlfriend sort of takes your mind off other things, I imagine. And she pretty much just passed through that time. This time she'd like to stay a while. Hang in there with her, Jim, she'll come around in time."

"How about you, Chief?"

"Huh?" Blair wondered if the cold was making him a little slow on the mental uptake. Jim seemed to be talking in non-sequiturs tonight. "How about me what?" Then it hit him. "Oh. Are you feeling guilty about the dissertation again, Jim? Man, you have got to get over that! It's done, finished. I don't know how to convince you that I'm okay with where I am! We all made mistakes, the shit hit the fan and I did what had to be done to fix things. Let it go, Jim. I have."

"Okay, Chief. I've got you. No more guilty feelings," Jim promised, ruffling Blair's curls. Yeah, right. "Now, c'mon, Darwin. I'm starved and you've got research to do. And you're going to go to bed at a reasonable hour tonight. If you're determined to go to work tomorrow, I want you as rested as possible. I don't want to have to drag your sorry ass from place to place." Jim's light tone and smiling eyes belied any malice in the statement.

"Yeah, yeah. You're going to make someone a good mother, someday, Jim."

"Watch it, Sandburg."

The next morning saw a much-improved Blair Sandburg breezing through the doors of Major Crime, smiling and fielding the various calls of well-wishers. True to his word, Jim had insisted he eat some chicken soup and a grilled cheese sandwich and had virtually disconnected Blair's Internet connection at what he deemed a "reasonable hour." However, Blair wasn't about to admit to Jim that he felt better for the full night's sleep. The overly protective sentinel did not need that kind of positive reinforcement.

As Blair settled at his desk and powered on his PC, Simon Banks, Major Crime's captain, appeared in his doorway, surveying his territory with satisfaction. A place for everyone and everyone in their place, he mused, sipping his new vanilla-hazelnut flavored coffee blend and sighing in contentment.

"Ellison, Sandburg. A moment of your time, please, gentlemen." Without waiting for acknowledgement, Banks turned back into his office and settled himself behind his desk. As Ellison and Sandburg entered, he waved toward his ever-filled coffee pot in invitation.

"No thanks, sir," Jim declined, barely concealing his aversion to the flavored brew. "Another new blend?"

"Yep. Vanilla hazelnut. Delicious. Would you like some, Blair?"

"Uh, no thanks, Simon." Blair thought quickly for an excuse and beamed when he came up with, "With this cold, I wouldn't be able to fully appreciate its unique flavor."

Not fooled for a moment, Banks growled, "Your loss, gentlemen. Now, what have we got on this maniac?" Simon knew he didn't need to elaborate on which maniac.

"Blair has a theory, sir." Jim winced as Blair chose that moment to sneeze noisily into a ragged tissue.

"Sorry," Blair snuffled.

Simon waved off the apology, handing Blair another tissue. "What's your theory?"

"Well, it's kind of thin right now, but I'm thinking we're dealing with some sort of cult. It's not just some disturbed creep taking out his frustrations on helpless animals. It's deeper than that. I spent some time on the Web last night..." Blair paused to toss a glare at this partner and Simon elected to let the incident pass without comment. Sometimes it was better to let them live in their own world than to be a party to their convoluted explanations. "...I was researching Satanic cults, trying to confirm my suspicions. It's been a while since I studied the subject, so I needed some backup. Anyway," he continued hurriedly, catching Simon's impatient glance, "I was thinking about the nature of the mutilations..." he shuddered at the memory of the poor, defenseless animals that had been reduced to evidence in a sickening murder case as well as the latest victim as described to him by Jim. "...and it struck me that the wounds were consistent from animal to animal. All of them had their hearts cut out, as well as their eyes, ears and sexual organs. And, according to Jim, so did Melissa Wakefield. What at first seemed like random violence now appears to follow a pattern."

"Damn," Simon swore. "We had noticed the pattern of mutilations, but you're the first one to suggest a cult connection, Sandburg. So, proceeding on the assumption that you're right, how do we find this guy?"

Blair shrugged morosely. "I haven't figured that part out yet, sir."

"Well, start thinking about it Sandburg! You know, I think the rest of Major Crime would benefit from this knowledge, too. Why don't you write up a quick synopsis of your theory? We'll distribute it to the uniforms and the rest of the team. Maybe it will generate some input from someone's snitch."

"Glad to, sir."

Banks turned his glare on his top detective and demanded, "What's on your agenda today, Jim?"

"Well, now that Sandburg's with me, I thought I'd take another look around the murder site. It was pretty... overwhelming...yesterday," Jim admitted reluctantly, stoically fighting the urge to close his eyes against the memory.

"That's putting it mildly, Detective," Simon commiserated. "Okay, if that's everything, get out there and catch this creep."

As they exited Banks' office, Jim lowered his voice and sought his guide's assistance. "If you're feeling up to it, Chief, I'd like to go out to the murder site now, before anyone has a chance to disturb anything. I know Forensics has been over it already, so there's that to contend with, but I think I can filter them out with your help. There was just so much blood and gore yesterday that I couldn't get the dials under control."

Blair practically beamed. His sentinel needed him. What better affirmation of his decision could he ask for? "Sure, Jim. I'm fine. It's just a cold, man. But, if it'll make you feel better, I'll wear my fur hat," he offered.

"It will not make me feel better, Sandburg. You wear that fur hat and some dumb, unsuspecting poacher's likely to take a pot shot at you, and I'm going to have to arrest him," Ellison teased as they headed for the elevator.

"Man, don't get me started on that whole killing Bambi thing!" Sandburg warned as the elevator doors closed behind them, swallowing Ellison's chuckle.

Yellow police tape fluttered lazily in the cool spring breeze, warning all who approached: Police Line -- Do Not Cross. As if anyone would really want to, Blair thought darkly, pulling his jacket tighter about his body. He ducked beneath the tape to follow his partner into the scene of the most recent crime-- a hike-in campsite about 30 minutes outside of Cascade. Under other circumstances, it would have been a tempting place to visit. Surrounded by towering lodge pole pines and underscored by the faint gurgle of a nearby stream, so lovely a place should have conveyed a sense of peace. But Blair could feel none of that. His soul ached with the sadness that a young, vibrant life had been forfeited there and with the conviction that there would be more before the case was solved.

"You okay, Chief?" Ellison's concern for his partner was clearly etched on his face.

"Yeah, fine," Blair lied. They both knew it and ignored it. "Where do you want to start?"

"The body was over here." Jim moved cautiously, trying not to disturb the dense carpet of pine needles under his feet. Unbidden, memories of the previous day's scene flooded his mind and senses. The stench of blood, the almost unrecognizable mutilated body of the victim, seasoned forensics personnel dashing from the scene in horror. Jim had very nearly had to join them. It had simply been too much sensory information to deal with, and Jim had found himself incapable of effectively filtering through it all. He had given up in frustration and had resorted to searching for clues the pre-sentinel awareness way.

He stopped in a clearing and waited for Blair to join him. When he did, and viewed the area, Blair's breath caught in his throat. Even the day after, there was so much blood! He choked back a groan and swiftly closed his eyes, fighting to keep his breakfast where it belonged.

"Chief?" Jim's hand on his shoulder comforted Blair more than he cared to admit.

"I'm okay, Jim," he lied again. "No wonder you couldn't focus yesterday. This is horrible!"

It wasn't the clearing, as such, that elicited Blair's response. It was large and flat, perhaps 20- feet square. The packed earth bore testament to the recent passage of many feet. A fire pit marked the center of the square, the blackened embers carelessly kicked about, as if to hurriedly extinguish the flames. But it was the blood-soaked earth that underscored the grisly scene. There appeared to be several pints of it spilled-- long since dried, but which had obviously run in rivulets from the body. Blair wondered how long the poor girl had suffered to lose that much blood and shivered at the thought.

"Yeah," Jim acknowledged softly. "It's horrible. You gonna be able to handle this, Blair? 'Cause it's ok if you can't, buddy."

"I'm okay." Blair tried to infuse his voice with a confidence he didn't feel. "But thank God I can't smell anything with this cold, though. I'm not sure I could take it if I could smell it and see it. What about you?"

"I've got smell turned down to almost zero. Like I said, it was all pretty overwhelming yesterday. With your help, I think I can handle it today, though."

"Let's do it, then," Blair declared, ready to complete their task and get the hell away from the disturbing scene before him. In a well-practiced move, Blair placed his hand on Jim's back to ground him, and Jim cast his sensory net out, one sense at a time, beginning with sight. Blair waited patiently, knowing Jim would alert him if he found anything significant, and kept his eyes carefully averted from the blood-soaked ground ahead of him.

Finally, Jim shook his head in frustration. "Nothing new," he pronounced sullenly. "A few threads of cotton and some black candle wax scattered throughout the blood, but Forensics probably already has samples of those."

"Definitely lends credence to my cult theory," Blair mused.

Jim simply nodded his agreement and took a deep breath. "We'll go ahead and collect the ones they missed, just in case, but I don't see anything earth-shattering." He sighed resignedly. "I'm going to have to use smell."

Blair barely suppressed a shudder at the thought. He'd smelled much less blood at other crime scenes and it hadn't been pleasant. He couldn't imagine how awful the sight before him must smell. "I'm here, man," he assured his partner. "Just take it slow, one notch at a time. Don't let it overwhelm you." Easier said than done, Sandburg, he chided himself. But Jim simply nodded and closed his eyes, lifting his head slightly as if to catch the various scents on a passing breeze. He suddenly shuddered, and Blair quickly stepped in to steady him with both hands.

"Filter it out, Jim. You can do it. Catalog the smell and cast it aside. The blood doesn't exist anymore. Tune it out and concentrate on the other scents." Jim noticeably calmed and Blair continued a soft litany of meaningless assurances-- anything to distract his partner from the overpowering stench.

Jim frowned, his olfactory senses assaulted by a myriad of odors.

Blair dug in his jacket pocket with one hand, making sure his other hand continued to firmly grip Jim's shoulder. He wrestled a small notebook free from the confining fabric and clenched it between his teeth while he dug for a pen. Tucking the notebook under his thumb on the hand that rested on Jim's shoulder, Blair instructed, "Tell me what you smell, Jim. Talk through it, man. Use me as your catalog. I'll write down what you tell me. Then you can discard that odor and move on to the next. You can do this," he assured his partner.

But Blair almost dropped his pen when Jim whispered, "Fear. I smell fear." Oh, God. Then he quickly composed himself and wrote it down. They would analyze what had triggered that response in Jim later. "Sweat. Lust." It was definitely not a pretty picture Jim was painting. "Wood." Jim cocked his head a bit, struggling to separate and identify the odors. "But not pine. It smells like the wood I used to build your bookcase last year... oak. Wax, from the candles. And some sort of fragrance or spice. I've smelled it before, but I can't place it."

Blair waited, and then realized that several seconds had passed since Jim had identified a scent. "Whoops," he muttered as he glanced at his partner. He recognized the slack jaw and canted head as the beginnings of a zone out. "Hey, Jim. C'mon back, man. You did great, but now it's time to let it go and come back. Follow my voice, Jim."

Jim shook himself and opened his eyes. "Sorry, that's all."

"That's all?" Blair snorted in amazement. "I'd hardly describe this much information as 'all', Jim!"

"Yeah, well, I don't feel any closer to figuring out who this madman is," Jim groused, turning and stalking back through the forest toward the truck. Blair jogged a few steps to catch up with him and they continued the hike out of the woods in silence, each pondering the meaning of the clues they'd found.

The partners strolled into the station later that afternoon after finishing a late lunch. Between his cold and the lingering effects of the crime scene, Blair had felt anything but hungry, but Jim had insisted they eat. Blair had finally acquiesced, but had adamantly refused to even consider Wonder Burger as an option. So, they'd ended up at one of Blair's favorite health food restaurants, and Jim had obligingly listened to yet another Sandburg nutritional treatise with ill- concealed good humor. As long as Blair ate, Jim could put up with anything.

They settled at Ellison's desk, attempting to decipher the significance of the information Jim had gleaned at the murder scene.

"The black candles and the oak scent definitely support the cult theory," Blair reflected aloud, rocking back in his chair. The angle was so precarious that Jim had to fight the urge to jerk the chair back onto all four feet.

Instead, he opted to pursue his partner's line of reasoning, "I understand how the black candles figure into the equation, but how does the oak fit in?"

"Oak is commonly used as an altar material in Black Masses, usually covered with a black cloth."

"Black Masses? This is getting weirder all the time, Sandburg."

"I told you it was complicated, Jim, and kind of hard to explain."

"Then don't bother. I'll take your word for it. Let's just go on the assumption that we're looking at some sort of ritual here. Now that you mention an altar, I do recall seeing a couple of pretty deep indentations in the ground near the center of the clearing. I guess that could have been where the altar sat, huh?"

"Probably. I would assume the victim lay on the altar during the ritual. But I can't imagine that she'd just lie there and let this psycho cut her up. She had to have been drugged or something."

"Give the boy a kewpie doll," Serena Chang announced, dropping an autopsy report on Ellison's desk. "Drugged to the teeth, according to her blood work. Not that we had that much blood left to work with." The crack earned her a black look from Ellison and a slightly sick one from Sandburg. "Sorry, a little morbid humor there," she apologized.

Jim waved off Serena's apology with an apology of his own. "We just got back from the scene, so we're a little sensitive right now. Could you tell what she was drugged with?"

"It appears to be an extremely complicated combination of natural herbs and roots, but I haven't been able to break it into its individual components yet. I'll let you know as soon as I make any progress. I just needed a break, so I decided to walk the information I have so far up this way."

"Thanks, Serena. I appreciate your quick turn around on this. Keep up the good work and let me know if you find anything else, okay? This creep's really starting to get under my skin."

"I'll assume you didn't mean that as a joke, Jim," Serena kidded as she walked away. Ellison frowned at his unintentional pun and made a great show of examining the file in front of him. He was distracted a moment later by a disturbance in the bullpen and smiled as he recognized the familiar voice at the center of the commotion. He looked up in time to see Naomi Sandburg breeze into the room and smiled. Is the ability to dominate a room upon entering it a Sandburg thing? he wondered. So far, he'd seen Blair do it, Blair's Uncle Obediah do it, and now Naomi had done it. Definitely a Sandburg trait.

"Mom!" Blair exclaimed in delight, coming around the desk to deliver an enthusiastic hug. "You made it!"

"Of course I did, Honey, was there ever any doubt?" Naomi beamed at her son, and then noticed the dark circles around his eyes, the reddened nose and the dull look in his eyes. "You look worn out, Sweetie," she fussed. She turned to Jim, who had risen to greet her, and said, almost accusingly, "Jim, he looks worn out!"

Blair blushed in embarrassment and quickly stepped in to save his nonplussed partner. "Mom, it's just a cold, I promise. And it's just been kind of a long day, that's all. Jim's been taking good care of me, have no fear." He grinned at the glare his partner sent his way, knowing he would hear about breaking the unspoken Blessed Protector Code of Silence. Like it was any secret how he hovered whenever Blair was sick!

"Well, it's obvious you're not getting enough rest. And how long has it been since you've cleansed with burned sage?"

"We don't burn sage, Mom. Remember? Jim's allergic to it."

Naomi studied Jim, who managed to look anywhere but at her. "Yes, well, I don't understand how anyone can be allergic to such a cleansing herb, but what can you say. He is, so there it is." She turned in delight as Simon entered the bullpen. "Ah, Captain Banks! I must say you're looking much better than you did the last time I saw you!" She held out her hand disarmingly and Simon took it with a smile.

"Thank you, Ms. Sandburg, you're looking well, too. To what to do we owe this pleasure?"

"Oh, just got lonely for my beautiful baby boy." Naomi turned to beam at her son, who was blushing furiously at the attention they were attracting and wondering how long the bullpen razzing would last once Naomi's visit was over. "So I thought I'd drop in for a few days."

"Wonderful! Well, I have some business I must attend to for now, but I hope to see you again while you're here." Simon directed a quick glare around the bullpen as a non-verbal "get back to work" signal and disappeared into his office.

Taking their cue, the Major Crime detectives returned to their tasks.

Blair pulled a chair to the side of his desk. "I need to finish a report before we can leave, Mom, so why don't you make yourself comfortable?"

Naomi seated herself with a flourish and assured her son, "You go right ahead and do what you have to do, Sweetie. I'll be quiet as a mouse-- you'll never know I'm here!"

That'll be the day, Jim thought fondly as he busied himself with his own report.

That evening Blair insisted that he prepare a special dinner for his mother and partner. After handing Jim a beer and pouring his mother a glass of chilled water, he made shooing motions with his hands. "Go sit on the balcony and enjoy the fresh air or something," he instructed. "Out!"

Jim threw an arm around Naomi's shoulders and steered her toward the balcony doors. "Come on, Naomi. I've learned that you can't do a thing in the world with him when he gets bossy like this."

Blair snorted, muttered something about it taking one to know one, and loudly banged a few pots and pans for good measure. Soon the loft was filled with the heady aroma of simmering pasta sauce and chopped garlic and parsley.

On the balcony, Jim sipped his beer and listened semi-attentively as Naomi chattered about her latest adventure in Tibet. "I truly learn so much from the monks every time I'm there, Jim. It's just so amazing how cleansing meditation is for the soul. You really should try it, you know. It gets the mind and body back in sync and just sets everything back in place." Finally running out of adventure stories, Naomi desperately sought a "safe" topic. "So, tell me, what's been going on with you?"

"We need to talk, Naomi," Jim advised her gently. His eyes were compassionate as he locked his gaze with hers. If he had ever wondered what was meant by a deer-in-the-headlights look, he was pretty sure Naomi's qualified. Her eyes were wide and not just a little frightened and she seemed frozen in place. He couldn't recall ever having seen her so discomfited before.

"I--I don't know what you mean, Jim," she stammered. "I thought we were talking."

"No, we were doing a verbal dance, with you leading," Jim pressed quietly, "talking about everything except what we need to talk about the most-- the dissertation."

Naomi dropped her eyes and took a hitching breath. "Oh, Jim, I am so sorry," she began. "I shouldn't have..."

"Waited so long to come back and visit us," Jim finished for her with a small smile. "Naomi, I'm fine," he assured her, leaning forward to squeeze her twisted fingers encouragingly. "Blair's fine. We've worked through our feelings." Well, okay, so it's a small lie for a good cause, he mused, recalling Blair's admonition that it was time for him to get over it as well. "I think maybe you're the one with the most unresolved issues here."

Naomi stared at her hands, clenched painfully in her lap. "How can you ever forgive me for giving away your secret, Jim? After you and Blair worked so hard to prevent anyone from knowing, I just pressed a button and threw it out there for the world to see." Naomi paused to gaze into the kitchen where her son continued to busily prepare dinner and then turned tear-filled eyes to his best friend and partner. "How can Blair ever forgive me?"

"You and Blair will have to work that one out, Naomi. All I can tell you is that I'm fine. You didn't know what you were doing. I won't tell you that I wasn't totally blindsided by what happened, and I admit I reacted badly, but it's over and we've all survived. We all made mistakes: you, Blair and me. You meant well, Naomi." Jim lurched to his feet and turned to face the bay, his eyes closed in pain. "I would never have wished for Blair to give up his academic career, but, God help me, I'm just selfish enough to admit that I wanted him by my side all the time." He turned back to face the woman squarely. "I've never had a better partner in my life, Naomi," he declared. "He's a good cop and a better man. He's smart and strong and compassionate and I'm proud to have him with me."

Jim suddenly found himself with his arms full of sobbing Naomi. He squeezed her tightly and looked up to see his grinning partner, whose eyes looked suspiciously wet as well.

"If you're groping my mom, man, I'm gonna have to defend her honor!" he declared playfully.

Naomi released Jim with a quick kiss and a tearful "Thank you" and then threw her arms around her son.

"Whoa!" Blair huffed wrapping his arms around his mother to draw her closer. "I love you, Mom," he whispered, knowing that, finally, no other words were necessary.

Jim, with a lighter heart but a brain on emotional overload, reached out to turn his family toward the living room. "I'm starving. Let's eat!"

Jim stretched languidly in his bed the next morning, feeling more at peace than he had in several days. The emotional talk with Naomi had been quite cleansing for both of them, he admitted to himself. Almost unconsciously casting his senses about the apartment (certain that Blair would have called it monitoring the well-being of his tribe or something equally anthropological), Jim smiled. Two heartbeats. Blair was still deep in slumber on the couch and Naomi was examining the inside of the refrigerator while quietly muttering imprecations against the men's eating habits.

Slipping on his gray bathrobe, Jim padded quietly down the stairs and greeted Naomi with a soft "Good morning."

She turned the patented, dazzling Sandburg smile his way and returned his greeting with enthusiasm. "Good morning, Jim! I hope you slept well."

"Very." Jim angled his head toward the refrigerator. "Nothing edible, I gather?"

"Depends on what you consider edible," Naomi chuckled softly.

"What with Blair's cold and my working on a case, neither of us has felt like doing a grocery run," Jim admitted. "Tell you what. As soon as Sleeping Beauty over there wakes up, we'll do a big Saturday breakfast out."

"Try to kiss me, Prince Charming, and I'll be forced to slug you," came a muffled voice from the direction of the couch.

"Then get your ass up off that couch, Princess, before I'm forced to do it. Your mom and I are hungry!" Jim winked at Naomi as he stealthily crossed the room and flung the covers off his half-awake partner, shouting "Kiss, kiss!"

Blair leapt off the couch with a surprised yelp and dashed into his room. "Jeez, man, give a fella a chance to at least get his eyes open before you start threatening to kiss him!" He grabbed his clothes and disappeared into the bathroom. "I'll be out in 15!" he promised before pushing the door closed.

Thirty minutes later, the trio slipped into a booth at a corner diner and smiled gratefully at the waitress as she poured three cups of steaming coffee. Blair attempted to stifle a huge yawn while perusing the breakfast menu.

"I think I saw your navel on that one, Chief. What time did you finally hit the sack last night?" Jim teased, closing his menu and tucking it back behind the ubiquitous condiment cluster.

Blair thought for a moment then shook his head. "One-thirty, maybe. I wanted to get a good start on that paper Simon asked me to do. It was fascinating stuff, and once I got started I just couldn't quit. I'm almost done."

"You're setting a bad example for me, Sandburg," Jim growled good-naturedly. "Reports should be delayed as long as possible. It's in the cop code."

Blair snorted in amusement and turned to his mom. "I found this terrific new shop not far from the loft. It's really eclectic. They've got all sorts of natural foods and carry tons of unusual herbs and spices. I immediately thought of you."

"I'd love to see it, Sweetie. I'm all out of sage," Naomi agreed, tossing a teasing look at Jim, who dutifully frowned.

"I'll pass, Sandburg. You always manage to think up some test for me at those places. I think I'll wash the truck instead."


A small bell over the door jingled a merry welcome to the Olde World Spice and Herb Shoppe as Blair pushed the door open and paused to toss a wave at his departing partner. True to this word, Jim was headed to wash the truck and would meet Blair and his mother back at the loft, which was only a short walk from the shop. Upon entering the store, Blair and Naomi were surrounded by the heady aroma of a myriad of herbal and spice combinations. Both paused to inhale and enjoy the rejuvenating scents.

"May I help you?"

Startled, they turned to face a man Blair assumed to be the owner, since he certainly didn't project the image of an employee. Blair blinked in surprise-- the man had appeared from seemingly nowhere. Tall and slender with brown hair, an angular face and dark, penetrating eyes, he had certainly made a striking first impression, if Naomi's reaction was any indicator.

Blair opened his mouth to state they were just browsing, but then snapped it shut as Naomi glided over to the man and began working her magic. "Oh, we just had to come in and investigate this wonderful shop!" she enthused. "It just has the most marvelous aura about it! I can almost feel the positive energy vibrating within these walls. My son," she waved in Blair's direction, "says you have a wonderful assortment of herbs and spices."

The proprietor's expression quickly turned from bemusement to pleasure as Naomi continued to sing the praises of his shop. Blair smiled. Another one bites the dust, he chuckled silently.

"Thank you very much," the man replied, bowing slightly at the waist and extending his hand. "I do pride myself on maintaining the most diverse and freshest stock of herbs in Cascade. I'm Darien Cantwell. Welcome to my shop."

Naomi smiled happily and took the proffered hand in her own. "Naomi Sandburg. And this is my son, Blair."

Blair grinned, casually threw up a hand and murmured, "How ya doing?" since it was obvious the man only had eyes for his mother.

"Are you looking for anything in particular?" Cantwell inquired, coming around the counter to stand closer to the vivacious redhead. "I'm sure I have whatever you need."

Blair almost laughed at the flirtatious dance going on in front of him. He'd seen his mother wrap many a man around her finger, and he always found it amusing. It appeared she had met her match in Darien Cantwell.

"Well, I'm in desperate need of some fresh sage..." Naomi began, looping her arm through Cantwell's and drifting toward the herb aisles. Blair grinned again and took up a position leaning against the counter near the cash register. It wouldn't do to trail along behind his mother and cramp her style.

"You should have seen her, Jim!" Blair chortled, flinging himself across the couch upon their return to the loft. "She practically had the guy eating out of her hand by the time we left!"

"Oh, Blair, you're exaggerating," Naomi admonished gently as she hung her shawl on the coat rack near the door. She placed her newly acquired bag of fresh sage on the kitchen counter and turned to regard her son with an expression which was meant to be serious, but which actually fell somewhat closer to pleasantly embarrassed.

"Am not!" Blair returned playfully. He turned to Jim. "She already has a dinner date with him- - tonight!"

Jim shook his head in amusement. "I dunno, Naomi. Sounds like pretty fast work to me," he smiled.

"Oh, you two!" was the best retort Naomi could manage in the face of the dual onslaught. "Now, I simply must figure out what I'm going to wear. I didn't come prepared for a dinner date!" Naomi paused as a thought struck her. "You don't mind if I go out tonight, do you, Sweetie?" she asked in sudden concern. "You didn't have plans, did you? Because I can always cancel..."

Blair rose to his feet and crossed the room to hug his mother. "Of course I don't mind, Mom! You go and have fun! I need to finish this report I'm working on for Simon, anyway. We'll have plenty of time to be together while you're here because you're going to stay a while this time. Right?"

Naomi flashed a quick look at Jim, who nodded encouragingly. "Yes, Sweetie, I'm going to stay a while this time." She smiled gratefully at her son's best friend.

Taking a break from putting the finishing touches on his report, Blair stretched in the kitchen chair and watched in amusement as Naomi fluttered around the apartment like a nervous teenager before her first date. "Mom," he laughed, "you're going to be exhausted before he ever gets here! I've never seen you this nervous before."

"I know. Silly, isn't it? It's just that we seem to have so much in common, it's almost frightening." Naomi paused to regard her son with a wry smile. "I hate being out of control like this."

Blair groaned. "Oh, please Mom, don't you turn into a control freak! I don't think I could deal with two of you!" He grinned, grabbed a wadded-up piece of notepaper and lobbed it at Jim, who sat quietly reading on the couch. Ellison casually captured the missile without lifting his eyes from the page and tossed it back toward Blair's position at the dining table. "Careful there, Khrushchev," he warned. "Don't start a war you can't win."

Darien Cantwell arrived promptly at 6:00, knocking firmly on the loft door. After smoothing her dress and casting a last, nervous smile at her son, Naomi opened the door to admit her date. "Darien!" she greeted him warmly, no trace of her previous nervousness evident. "Please come in."

Smiling at Naomi, Darien entered the apartment, his sharp eyes casting about him in a quick assessment. As his eyes fell on Jim in the kitchen, clad in his flowered apron and busily chopping vegetables for stir-fry, he frowned in confusion. Sensing Cantwell's bewilderment, Blair swiftly performed introductions. "Darien, this is my roommate, Jim Ellison. Jim, Darien Cantwell."

"Ah, nice to meet you Mr. Ellison."

Jim wiped his hands on a dishtowel and shook Darien's hand. Blair watched as Jim's nose twitched and a frown creased his brow. Wonder what that's all about. "Nice to meet you, too. Can I offer you a drink?"

"Thank you, but no. Our dinner reservation is at 6:30, so we'll need to leave shortly."

Nodding his understanding, Jim returned to his vegetables. "So, what's on the menu for tonight?" he asked casually as Blair took a drink of beer. Blair almost choked in shock.

"Tortino's for dinner, then perhaps Valhalla for drinks and dancing." Darien replied, smiling at Naomi, who returned his smile.

Jim raised an eyebrow and whistled softly. "Pretty swanky places. Herbs must pay well."

"Jim!" Naomi swatted him on the arm, "Can't you stop acting like a detective for even a few minutes?" she chastised.

"Sorry," he grinned an apology at Cantwell, "old habits are hard to break."

"Detective?" Cantwell asked with interest.

"Cascade PD, Major Crime division," Jim clarified. "Didn't mean to give you the third degree, though. I think it's in the blood or something. Just can't help myself sometimes."

"Oh, think nothing of it," Darien waved off the apology. "It's nice to know someone cares enough about Naomi to ask."

Blushing like a schoolgirl and throwing a quick frown at Jim, Naomi grabbed her sweater and announced brightly, "Well, hadn't we better get going, Darien? I certainly don't want to be late for what sounds like a perfectly wonderful evening!"

Taking his cue, Darien took Naomi's elbow and gently guided her toward the door. "Good evening, gentlemen. It was nice to meet you, Jim."

"Good night," Blair responded with a smile and a wave.

"Have fun," Jim replied, reapplying himself to his meal preparation.

As the door closed behind the couple, Blair turned to his partner, who was now staring thoughtfully at the carrot he had previously been chopping. "Okay, Jim, what gives? What was with that routine?"

Jim shook his head and admitted, "I don't really know, Chief. There's just something about him... I can't put my finger on it. You should have heard his heart when he found out I'm a cop. I thought he was going to have a heart attack for a minute there."

"You were listening to his heartbeat?" Blair asked in surprise. "Why?"

His partner shrugged and admitted a bit sheepishly, "I always do, now. It's just sort of second nature to me."

Blair pumped his fist in the air. "Yes!"

"Don't let it go to your head, Chief," Jim advised with a smile. "And there was a strange scent about him..."

"You sniffed him too?"

Wrinkling his nose, Jim retorted, "You're making me sound like some sort of dog, Sandburg."

"Not a dog, Jim, a sentinel! That's your job, man, protecting the tribe. And that includes my mom," Blair grinned, then became serious. "So, what did you smell?"

Jim shook his head. "I don't know. It seemed familiar, but I couldn't place it. It just smelled strange, that's all." Then he made a face. "But then, he does spend his day cooped up with a bunch of weird roots and herbs. I'd be surprised if he didn't smell odd."

Making a face at his partner, Blair turned back to his laptop to finish his report.

"I'd love to ask you in, but Blair's sleeping on the couch while I'm visiting," Naomi whispered, as Darien walked her to the loft door late that evening. She dug in her purse for the key Jim had given her earlier in the day.

"I understand," he smiled pleasantly then grasped the hand that held her purse and looked deeply into her eyes, staying her search. "I'd like to see you again while you're here, Naomi."

"I'd like that too. Very much," Naomi breathed, feeling as if she was drowning in the intensity of his dark gaze.

"If I could be so bold..." Darien began softly then completed the sentence by taking Naomi in his arms and kissing her gently.

Simon closed the manila file folder and leaned back in his chair. "This is a very thorough report, Sandburg," he congratulated his newest detective.

"Thanks, Simon. I had the department psychiatrist go over it quickly to make sure I hadn't made any erroneous assumptions. As I told Jim, there's some conflicting information out there about Satanic cults. I wanted to be as accurate as possible."

"Well, it certainly gives us a lot to think about," Banks admitted. "I never looked at Satanic cults that way before."

"Most people don't. They prefer the Hollywood melodramatic image."

The police captain rose and crossed to his office doorway. "Rhonda," he called softly. When she joined him at the doorway, Simon handed her the file folder and quickly outlined his plan to copy and distribute the report to each division in the Cascade PD. Rhonda acknowledged his instructions and swiftly moved to begin her task.

Ellison entered the office and stood by the window, resting a hip against the window frame. He frowned at Simon's coffee pot. "Still working on that weird brew, Simon?"

Directing a glare at Ellison, Banks snapped, "No, I'm not 'still working on it', Jim, and it's not weird. I happen to be savoring it. I like it. Now, do you have something useful to share or did you just come in to malign my choice of coffee flavoring?"

"Nothing definitive," the detective admitted with a sigh. "I've just finished plotting the locations of each of the pet mutilations as well as the murder." With Simon and Blair following, he moved into the adjoining conference room and unrolled a large map of the city. Blair helped him tack it to a large, portable bulletin board and they all stood back to silently contemplate the information before them.

"Well," Banks groaned finally, rubbing his eyes, "if there's a pattern here, I'm not seeing it."

Ellison and Sandburg admitted that they could see no pattern either and the impromptu meeting broke up so Simon could communicate their lack of progress to the mayor and Ellison and Sandburg could visit Serena in the forensics lab.

Serena looked up as the pair entered and sighed. Jim raised his eyebrows at his partner and joked, "Well now, there's a greeting designed to make a guy feel welcome, huh, Sandburg?"

"Sorry, guys," Serena smiled. "Nothing personal. It's just that I was hoping I'd have some good news to share with you." Serena sighed again. "But I don't."

"Well, why don't you tell us what you do have," Ellison prompted, moving to peer into the microscope Serena had just abandoned. Blair idly wondered if sentinel senses were even more enhanced when combined with microscopic magnification and made a mental note to test his partner on that very theory later.

"The black candle wax was nothing special other than it was made out of beeswax. But beeswax isn't unusual, it's readily available anywhere you can find candles."

"But black? Are they that widespread? Black candles, I mean," Jim asked, glancing up from his microscopic inspection.

Serena shrugged. "I don't have any experience in that area, Jim, so I have to say I don't know."

"I wouldn't think so," Blair mused. "Party stores maybe-- you know, to celebrate that 'over- the-hill' birthday you're swiftly approaching, Jim." Blair grinned at the glare his partner threw in his direction, then continued, "Or some specialty candle shops. I can make some calls when we get back upstairs."

Jim nodded and Serena continued, "Some cotton fibers-- from a rough-hewn fabric it appears. There were some black fibers and some white ones, as well. Again, it's difficult to tell where they might have come from. But if I had to hazard a guess, I'd say the fibers almost looked hand spun."

"Any progress on the 'compliant cocktail' the victim apparently ingested?" Ellison furrowed his brow as he scanned the list of ingredients the head of forensics handed him. "What the hell is all this stuff?"

"Mostly herbs, many of which we still haven't been able to identify," Serena explained. "So far we've picked out traces of Valerian Root and Cherry Laurel, both of which can cause some loss of muscle control in sufficient doses. As best I can tell, most of them are essentially inert, but I can't guess their function as yet. Sorry, Jim, that's all I've got. I'm still working out the particulars."

"Well, it's a start, Serena. Thanks." Jim grasped his partner's shoulder and steered him toward the door. "C'mon, Chief. Let's get busy trying to track down some more leads."

"Oh, Jim?" At Serena's call, both men turned. "The blood work turned up one more thing." The forensic scientist's face grew grim. "She was pregnant."

Jim summed up his feelings in one heartfelt word. "Shit."

Back in the bullpen, the partners scoured the business directory section in the Cascade telephone book and then divvied up the party and candle stores. After his sixth unproductive phone call, Blair sighed in frustration and leaned back to eye his equally unsuccessful partner. "Not to be a stick in the mud or anything, Jim, but it just occurred to me that all of these items are readily available through the Internet. And the chances of tracking that source down are mind- boggling."

Jim twirled his pen between the fingers of his right hand as he unconsciously rubbed his temples. "Yeah, I had that same thought a couple of minutes ago. But this is what we have to work with right now, so maybe we'll get lucky." In an effort to lighten the mood for a few minutes, Jim ventured, "So, how did Naomi's date go?"

Blair grinned. "You jealous, Jim? Worried that Darien might be horning in on your territory?"

Ellison snorted and retorted, "As you're so fond of reminding me, Sandburg, she's your mother. I'm not too likely to get involved with my best friend's mom, for Heaven's sake." Then he guffawed as Blair looked at him with an evil glint in his eye and muttered, "And she's way too normal for you, too, man."

"Yeah, that too, Sandburg." Jim was still chuckling when Sandburg went on with his story.

"Anyway, she says she had a great time. The dinner was wonderful (her words) and he's a divine dancer (her words again)." Blair grinned and shook his head. "She's so totally smitten, man." His face turned serious as he studied his suddenly solemn partner. "Jim, what is it, man? You keep going all hazy whenever we talk about Darien."

"I don't know, Sandburg. It's just that every time we talk about him, I find myself trying to place that scent. It just keeps hanging with me, for some reason. It's really starting to bug me."

"Well, don't try so hard, Jim. The harder you try to think of it, the farther away it gets. Just try thinking about something else and it'll come to you. That's what I used to do when I'd freeze up on a test answer. I'd go on to the others questions and come back to that one. Most of the time the answer would just come to me out of the blue."

"If you've ever forgotten a fact in your life, I'd be surprised, Sandburg," Jim countered. "I don't know where in the world you keep all those tidbits of information you keep popping out with." Blair smiled in surprised pleasure at the off-hand compliment, but was forestalled from replying when Jim held out his coffee cup. "If you feel like taking a walk, Chief, I'd appreciate some more coffee. You're still the junior detective you know." His smile quickly assuaged Blair's potential indignation.

"Yeah, yeah, senior detective Ellison," he groused. "As soon as I figure out when I'm not a rookie, you'll be getting your own coffee... and waiting on me!" Then he grabbed his own cup and bounced off toward the break room.

After a spine-cracking stretch, Jim rose and wandered into the conference room to stare morosely at the map on the bulletin board. There has to be a pattern here somewhere, he mused, regarding the street guide from different angles. After a few minutes, Simon Banks joined him in his perusal, the ubiquitous coffee cup and unlit cigar in hand.

"See anything?" the big black man asked quietly.

Ellison shook his head. "I know there's a pattern there, I just can't see it."

Banks clapped his best detective on the shoulder and declared, "Well, Jim, if you can't see it, I suspect nobody can!" Both men laughed at the inside joke as Blair joined them, handing Jim a steaming cup of coffee.

"Is this a private joke or can anyone join?" he asked.

Simon's eyes twinkled as he pronounced, "It's a sentinel thing."

Recognizing his captain's reference to all the times he'd been averse to hearing explanations that dealt with "sentinel things," Blair grinned in response then touched his nose in acknowledgement, ala Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting. He then turned his attention to the large map. "There's a pattern there, I just can't see it," he declared, unknowingly echoing his partner's statement. "Hey, Jim, mind if I take it down and make a copy of it? I'd like to look it over some more tonight at home."

"Knock yourself out, Chief," Jim sighed. "I'm not seeing anything, that's for sure."

As Blair reached to remove the pushpins and roll up the map, Jim wrinkled his nose again and regarded Simon's coffee cup intently. Picking up on the detective's scrutiny, Banks demanded, "What is this sudden fascination with my coffee, Ellison? You don't like it? Fine, you don't have to drink it. I happen to enjoy it!"

Without answering, Ellison suddenly strode into the captain's office, bent low over the coffee maker and inhaled deeply. He exhaled, closed his eyes and inhaled again. He stood that way for several seconds while Blair and Simon looked on in puzzlement. Simon cast a look at Blair and raised his eyebrows. Blair simply shrugged and turned to regard his partner in concern. "Jim?" he asked hesitantly as Simon simultaneously asked, "Ellison, what in the hell are you doing?"

The sentinel ignored them both and demanded without preamble, "What kind of coffee did you say that was?"

"What in the hell..." As if he could read the answer to his question in the bottom of his cup, Simon stared into the dark brew. Then he decided to humor his sentinel detective and replied in his best long-suffering tone, "Hazelnut Vanilla. Do you have a problem with that?"

"That's it!" Ellison declared, turning to his partner.

"That's what?" Banks demanded.

"Really, Jim? You've placed it?" Sandburg broke in excitedly.

"Yeah! Hazelnut! It's hazelnut!"

"Will someone please tell me what in the hell is going on here?" Banks bellowed, losing patience with the cryptic conversation. He slammed his mug down on his desk to get their attention (along with the attention of every other detective in Major Crime) and turned a belligerent stare on his men.

"The odor at the murder scene, sir. I haven't been able to place it, but your coffee just triggered my memory sense. I smelled hazelnut. It was all over the murder scene. Well, that and blood."

Simon had retrieved his mug and was lifting it to his lips when he paused and regarded the brew with sudden distaste. He gently set the cup back down and crossed his arms across his chest. "So, what does this tell us?" he asked, his hopes for a quick resolution to the case rising.

"Not much at the moment," Jim confessed, "but it continues to lend credence to Sandburg's Satanic cult theory." He turned to his partner.

"Pseudo-satanic cult," Blair interjected.

"Okay, Sandburg, pseudo-satanic cult," Jim snapped. "I still think we're splitting hairs here."

Blair opened his mouth to respond, but Banks stopped him with a look. "So, gentlemen, I assume this means we still have work to do, right?"

Recognizing the dismissal, both men quickly chimed, "Right!" and headed for their desks to continue the mundane task of tracking black candles and, compliments of Simon's coffee flavoring, hazelnut incense.

As he eased into his chair, Jim noted an addition to the paperwork pile on his desk. Marked Confidential, the report carried the title Satanic Cults -- Conceptions and Misconceptions, by Detective Blair Sandburg. A memo, ostensibly from Simon Banks, but actually created by his secretary Rhonda, offered the report as a resource in the department-wide effort to track down the perpetrator of the pet mutilations and, more recently, the murder of one Melissa Wakefield. He urged each officer to read the report to become more familiar with the mindset of the perpetrator, to keep their eyes open for items listed in the report that might prove evidentiary, and to touch base with their snitches for street chatter.

Jim was proud to see his partner's name gracing the cover of the report. It certainly wasn't on a par with publishing a doctoral thesis, but it was tangible evidence of Blair's importance within the department.

"Maybe we should check with Sneaks," Ellison mused, leaning back in his chair and steepling his fingers beneath his nose as he grinned at his partner.

"Maybe you should check with Sneaks," Blair retorted. "I don't have any shoes to spare!"

"That's what the snitch fund is for, Sandburg."

"Yeah, well, I seem to recall sacrificing my best pair of Nike's to the cause, man, and it taking forever to get the money back! This time I'm not buying! So, if we're going to see Sneaks, we're going shopping first-- with department money."

Sneaks leaned back in the diner booth and patted his stomach. "That was good, Ellison. Thanks." He eyed Blair. "What cha' wearing?" Blair felt like the recipient of an obscene phone call. "Hiking boots," he responded shortly.

"You're no fun," Sneaks pouted.

"Doesn't mean we didn't bring you something," Ellison smiled, indicating a bag on the floor next to his chair. Sneaks excitedly reached for the bag, looking like a kid at Christmas, but Ellison quickly swept it out of his way. "You know how it works, Sneaks," he admonished. "We ask, you give and then maybe we give."

Sneaks slouched dejectedly in the booth. "Like I said, you're no fun."

"We need some answers, Sneaks," Ellison pressed. "Heard about any new religious groups in town? Or, more precisely, un-religious groups?"

"Un-religious groups?" Sneaks thought for a moment. "Hey, you're talking about that creep that's offing people's pooches, aren't you?"

Grimacing at the blunt description, Ellison snarled, "Heard of anyone?"

"Well..." Sneaks eyed the prize by Ellison's feet and drew a deep breath. "I ain't heard much," he admitted, then squawked as Ellison moved to leave, bag in hand. "Wait! I heard as how there's this new dude in town, workin' the Rainier campus. Claims to be one with the horned dude himself." Sneaks punctuated his statement by placing his forefingers on either side of his head and wiggling them slightly.

"You mean the devil?" Blair pushed for clarification.

"Yeah, yeah, pointy tail, cloven hoof and all that stuff. That stuff gives me the creeps."

"C'mon, Sneaks, tell me something I don't already know," Ellison growled.

"I don't know any more, Ellison! I promise! All I know is, he's been hanging out at Rainier, recruitin' converts."

"What's his name?"

"If I knew, I'd tell you, man. I would! I ain't never heard his name or even seen his face. I just know he's new in these parts, that's all."

Ellison frowned for a moment, then handed Sneaks his prize. "Don't get used to this, Sneaks. That wasn't enough information to warrant these shoes, so consider this a payment on account. The next time I come to you for information, don't be looking for new footwear. Got it?"

Sneaks snatched the bag from Ellison's outstretched hand and clutched it to his chest, nodding solemnly. "Got it. Thanks, Ellison. You won't regret this."

"I already do. C'mon, Chief, let's hit the streets."

"Rainier?" Blair questioned as the climbed into the cab of the blue and white pickup truck.

"Yeah. You gonna be okay with that?"

"Man, I was okay with that a long time ago. This is my world, now, Jim. I can go back, no problem." He stared intently at his friend. "I've done it before and I can do it again, Jim."

Jim reached over to grip his friend's shoulder. "I know you can, Chief." Then he turned the key in the ignition and pulled away from the curb, headed for Rainier University.

Rainier proved to be yet another dead-end. Either no one knew anything or no one was talking. Ellison wasn't sure which. He and Blair had split up, deciding they could canvas the campus better individually, and had agreed to meet back at the student union building in two hours. So Ellison had prowled the northern half of the university, stopping everyone he could, even wandering the halls of the various buildings in search of faculty and students with information, while Blair covered the southern half.

Two hours later he sat on a bench outside the student union, reflecting on the relative youth of the student body and waiting for his partner to return. His feet hurt and his head hurt. He'd dutifully tuned into the heartbeats of everyone he'd spoken with in an effort to determine whether or not they were hiding information, and he was now paying the price. He massaged his temples and smiled noncommittally at a young co-ed he remembered chatting with a bit earlier. She hadn't known anything about any cults on or off campus, but she had promised to keep her eyes and ears open and to call if she heard anything. Her blushing and stammering led Jim to suspect she was more interested in getting his card than anything else, and he was flattered by the attention.

"And you call me a table leg!" his partner teased, dropping to the bench beside him. "She's way too young for you, man."

"Spare me, Sandburg," Jim growled good-naturedly. "You're just trying to get her for yourself."

Blair eyed her swinging hips as she departed and laughed out loud. "Well, I wouldn't turn her down, that's for sure!" He turned to his partner. "Find out anything useful?"

"You mean aside from the fact that that co-ed has a crush on me? Not really," Jim admitted. "A few students have heard something about a new group around, but nobody has any viable information. How about you?"

"Same. Did you..." Blair wiggled his fingers next to his ears and Jim rolled his eyes in amusement at the clandestine gesture.

"Yes, Chief, I did. And I've got the headache to prove it."

"I've got a great tea for that," Blair offered.

"We'll see," Jim was making no promises regarding Blair's herbal remedies. " So, nothing useful?"

Although he didn't need to, Blair opened his notebook and scanned his notes. "Nope. A few kids remembered seeing a guy hanging around the psych building a while back, but this is a university, you know? There are always people hanging around. But they thought he looked a little old to be a student and didn't act like a member of the faculty..." he grinned at his partner. "Wonder what a member of the faculty is supposed to act like? Anyway, one girl said she thought he was tall with dark hair, but that's about all she remembers, other than he was dressed in black."

"That's not going to help us much," Jim agreed, rising to his feet. "I'm ready to call it day, Chief. How about you?"

"More than ready. You cooking tonight?"

"I'm dialing and paying tonight, Sandburg. Does that qualify?"

Blair laughed and thwacked his partner on the arm. "That qualifies, Jim."

The loft was quiet when the two men entered. "Guess Mom went shopping or something," Blair mused as the men went about their business of removing their jackets and storing their equipment.

Reaching for the phonebook, Jim spied a sheet of notepaper on the kitchen island and handed it to his partner. "Or something. I believe this is for you."

Blair took the note and read out loud, "Blair, gone to meet Darien for an early dinner. Hope I didn't mess up any plans. Don't wait up. Mom." He shook his head and chuckled, laying the note aside. "Like I said, seriously smitten."

While Jim called for Thai take-out, Blair spread the contents of the cult murder case file across the kitchen table and settled his glasses on his nose. He quickly became engrossed in the evidence before him and failed to notice his partner handing him a glass of iced tea until Jim bumped him in the shoulder with it. "Oh, thanks, man."

"What are you finding in there that's got you so riveted?" Jim asked leaning over his partner's shoulder to regard the papers scattered across the table's shining surface.

"I'm trying to determine the pattern," Blair explained, pointing at the map. "I'm going back through everything we have to see if it can help me find it. It's right here, in front of my face and I can't see it!" he growled in frustration, raking his hands through his hair.

Jim pulled up a chair, settled next to his partner and pulled a forensics report from the stack. "Maybe two heads are better than one, even if one of those heads still has a splitting headache."

"Oh hey, I'm sorry, Jim! I totally forgot about making you that tea!" Blair pushed his chair back, lurched to his feet and turned toward the kitchen, but Jim reached out and snagged his arm, stopping him. "Better living through pharmacology," he grinned. "I already took a couple of aspirin and this is the only tea I'm interested in at the moment." He staved off Blair's protest by squeezing his arm and assuring him, "If this doesn't do the trick pretty quickly, I'll take you up on the offer, okay?"

"Okay." Blair settled back into his seat and both men bent to pore over the evidence in front of them until their dinner arrived.

The next morning Jim and Blair were sitting at their desks in Major Crime, scouring the Web for any information that would help them predict the murderer's next move, when Captain Banks strode through the bullpen. Without a sideways glance, he bellowed, "Sandburg! My office-- now!" and disappeared into his office.

Casting a curious glance at his partner, who was equally as puzzled, Blair quickly complied with the brusque order. Ellison, although not included in the invitation, had no intention of missing the party and followed Sandburg into the captain's office.

Banks glared at Ellison. "I don't recall including you in my invitation," he snapped, unknowingly echoing the detective's silent analogy.

Regarding his superior officer steadily, Ellison replied, "We're a team," as if that explained everything, which Banks suspected it actually did.

"Fine," he growled, clamping his cigar between his teeth and pinning his newest detective with a withering stare. Blair fleetingly thought, Yesterday about this time he was praising my report. Now it looks like he's going to bite my head off. What'd I do now?

Visibly attempting to calm himself, Banks ground out, "The mayor just had the better part of my ass for breakfast, Detective Sandburg, and I thought I'd share that less-than-pleasant experience with you."

Blair's confused look did nothing to mollify the captain's mood. "I'm afraid I don't understand, Si--, sir," he quickly amended, realizing that Banks would cast a dim view on his tendency toward familiarity at this moment.

"Let me phrase this another way, then," Banks snapped. "Have you seen the paper this morning?"

Blair shook his head in the negative, wondering where Simon was going with his question. "No, we wanted to get in early this morning, so Jim and I skipped the paper," he explained, feeling totally adrift.

"Well, perhaps you should have read it," the irate police captain growled, tossing the early edition onto the desk in front of his puzzled detectives. "Care to explain that to me, Sandburg? Just what part of 'confidential' did you not understand?" he demanded, motioning toward an item on the front page.

Blair leaned forward and blanched as he took in the headline in front of him: Satan Comes to Cascade. Turning shocked eyes to his employer, he declared, "Sir, I don't know anything about this!"

Jim pulled the paper away from his stunned partner and scanned the offending article. "Damn," he muttered, folding the newspaper and carefully laying it back on Banks' desk. "Sir," he began only to be drowned out by his superior's continuing roar.

"Is that or is that not an almost verbatim account of the contents of your report?" Lunging to his feet, Banks moved to tower over the smaller man who, to his credit, didn't flinch and met his captain's gaze directly.

"You read the report, so you know it is," Blair responded. "But..."

"And are you or are you not directly quoted in this article?"

"Yes, but..."

"But what, Sandburg? What grand story are you going to tell me this time?" Banks strode to the window, spun to pierce Sandburg with a glare and angrily waved his cigar in the air.

Equally enraged, Blair leapt to his feet and faced Banks squarely. "What's that supposed to mean?" he demanded, the veins in his neck standing out in stark contrast to the paleness of his complexion. "You think I leaked this to the press, don't you? Of course you do! I mean, who else could have done it, right? There are probably only, what, 100 copies of that damn report floating around this building? But no, it had to be me, didn't it?"

Jim started to rise to his feet to protest, but his partner waved him off with a sharp motion and continued to defend himself. The floodgates had opened and they wouldn't be closed until the flood had dissipated. "This isn't the first time you've accused me of leaking information to the press! I could sort of understand it the first time, you know? I mean you hardly knew me then. But, after four years, I thought maybe I'd proven myself to you. Sorry, my mistake-- again! Oh, and let's not forget that whole dissertation thing, shall we? I thought that was behind me, but obviously I'm the only one who thinks that. Jim and my mom are carrying a truckload of guilt over the whole thing and you apparently still don't trust me not to go around blurting out every secret I know! Well, you know what?" he yelled, "I didn't leak information to Lash; I'm sorry as hell that my mom fucked up and released my dissertation to Sid Graham; and I did not leak this story to the press, either!" Blair stood ramrod straight, literally gasping and shaking in anger. "And if that isn't good enough for you people, then you can all just go to hell!" With that, Sandburg yanked his gold shield off his belt, threw it on Banks' desk and then pushed past his startled partner to yank the door open. He froze as everyone in the bullpen turned stunned eyes on their normally passive teammate. Of course they'd heard the commotion. It would have been impossible not to.

"You're right."

It was the apologetic tone of voice, more than the words themselves that stopped Sandburg's angry departure. He stood, framed in the doorway, feeling the weight of the stares from both directions and closed his eyes. He breathed deeply, trying to calm his pounding heart and settle his raging emotions.

"I'm sorry." There was that tone of voice again, one you didn't often hear from Simon Banks.

Blair sighed and slowly stepped back into the office, closing the door and shutting out the concerned expressions on his co-workers' faces. He turned to face his boss and his partner, who was regarding his captain with open hostility, but said nothing. In a silent show of support, Jim moved to stand beside Blair, not touching, yet lending strength through his presence.

"I was wrong, Blair, and I'm sorry," Banks repeated quietly, wearily running a hand across his lower face. "I was embarrassed and angry and I took it out on the handiest target."

Seeing the sincere regret in the man's eyes, Blair wanted to tell him it was okay. That he understood. But the words wouldn't come.

"I do trust you, Blair," Banks continued, his gaze never wavering from Sandburg's. "You're an asset to this department and you've proven yourself worthy of our trust time and time again. That's what I told the commissioner when I fought to get you on the force and I still say it. I had no right and no reason to accuse you like that. I apologize for my behavior." He stepped to his desk, retrieved the brown vinyl case and extended it towards Blair, his warm brown eyes never leaving Blair's pale face. "If you can forgive me, I believe we have a madman to catch and an informant to find, Detective Sandburg."

Silence bathed the room, seeming to freeze time as Blair stared out the window over Simon's shoulder. After several seconds, he sighed deeply, stepped forward to take the badge case from Simon's hand and turned back to the door. He paused and looked back over his shoulder. "I accept your apology, sir, and I'll work on the forgiveness part."

The fury built slowly at first, gaining momentum as he continued to read. The deeper into the article he delved, the hotter the fire burned. His breathing shortened, his lungs constricting under the weight of his anger. His teeth clenched, causing the muscles in his jaw to contract painfully. But his anger was so great that he failed to notice the pain. He pushed himself back from the breakfast table and paced from one end of the small dining area to the other, clutching the newspaper firmly in his fisted hands.

"'Satanic wannabe'?" he snarled, repeating just one of the many phrases in the reprinted police report which had infuriated him. "Playing?" he roared in his anger and flung the newspaper into the living room, scattering pages across the floor. "How dare you! You know nothing!" Breathing hard, he retrieved the front page from the floor and quickly scanned the first paragraph to make sure he had read the name correctly. Yes, there it was. Blair Sandburg had written the offending report.

Detective Blair Sandburg.

He closed his eyes and took several deep, calming breaths. When he opened them again, the penetrating, dark brown eyes now reflected a cold, calculating fury.

Darien Cantwell began to plot his revenge.


"Blair?" Ellison stood next to his partner's desk, shifting from foot to foot. Those who knew Ellison might normally have been amused by the uncharacteristic nervousness the detective demonstrated. But following the window rattling shouting match that had taken place in their captain's office just minutes before, no one was feeling very amused.

"What?" Blair snapped, pausing in his out-of-character abuse of his computer keyboard to pin his partner with angry, deep blue eyes. Then he lowered his eyes and sighed. When he raised his eyes again, the hostility was gone, replaced by a deep sadness. "I'm sorry, Jim. I shouldn't snap at you. Unless you've come to plead his case." Some of his anger returned as the thought occurred to him.

Raising his hands in denial, Jim rested a hip on his partner's desk. "Not me, Chief. Now don't take this the wrong way, partner, but you're a big boy and more than capable of fighting your own battles. You didn't need me to stand up for you in there and Simon doesn't need me to defend him, either. He was wrong and he admitted it. You'll work this out and come out the stronger for it."

"Yeah?" Blair sneered. "And on what do you base this sudden sagacity?"

"Experience," Ellison said softly, regarding his best friend seriously. "Lots and lots of experience."

Taken aback, Blair studied his partner for a long moment and then leaned back in his chair, grasping each end of a pen between his thumbs and forefingers. "Okay, who are you, and what have you done with Jim Ellison?" he demanded. Although the smile was wan, it was a beginning and it warmed Ellison's heart.

"I don't know what you mean, Sandburg," he said gruffly, his warm expression belying the tone of voice.

"To coin your phrase, Jim, don't take this the wrong way, but since when do you play the wise sage to my angry warrior?"

"It's what partners do, Sandburg." As if enough had been said on the subject, Ellison rose from his partner's desk and turned toward his own. But he couldn't resist tossing off a parting shot. "But don't make a habit of it, Conan. I'm allergic to sage, you know."

Chuckling at his partner's joke and suddenly feeling much better, Sandburg turned a pensive gaze on the shuttered window of Simon Banks' office and regarded it thoughtfully for several minutes. Then, shaking his head and smiling at his partner, Blair stood and crossed to Simon's door. At the soft "Enter" that greeted his knock, he pushed the door open, and could have sworn he heard a collective sigh of relief from the room behind him.

"Blair," Simon greeted him in surprise, his expression clearly showing that he didn't quite know how to proceed.

Blair strode the short distance from the door to Simon's desk and extended his hand. "I'm sorry for overreacting, Simon." Blair calling him Simon told the police captain the statement was delivered on a personal and sincere level. "While I can't say that I'm not still angry at your automatic assumption that I leaked that report to the press, I can say that I forgive you. And, looking at it from your side of the desk, I suppose it had to look pretty bad."

Simon came around the desk to take the extended hand and grasp it warmly. "Thank you, Blair, I appreciate that more than you know. You had every right to be angry and, in honesty, I don't think you overreacted. I'm more than ready to put this behind us, but, if you don't mind my asking, what changed your mind so quickly?"

Blair chuckled softly, "Jim."

"Excuse me?" Simon queried in disbelief. "Did you say Jim?"

"Yep. He shuffled his sentinel deck and played a shaman's card on me."

Simon returned to his oversized desk chair and settled comfortably into its depths. He reached for a cigar and drew it under his nose, appreciating the rich scent of his favorite tobacco. "Oh," he nodded, "another one of those sentinel things?"

"Actually, it was one of those friend things," Blair smiled. "Now, you're right, we've got a madman to catch. Think I'll go work on that for a while."

Blair drew the office door closed behind him and grinned at the rest of the bullpen who regarded him expectantly. "Don't you guys have anything better to do than listen to petty arguments between your co-workers?" Then he returned to his desk and drew the Cascade map with the crime scenes marked on it over for closer inspection.

Two hours later he was still deeply engrossed in his study when his partner tapped him on the shoulder and suggested an early lunch. Sandburg eyed Ellison suspiciously. "Not Sneaks."

Ellison laughed and clapped his wary partner on the shoulder. "No, not Sneaks," he confirmed. "Just lunch this time."

"Okay, you're on, Ellison." Blair reached over to grab a jacket to guard against the slight chill that had followed the overnight passage of a cold front, but hesitated when his phone rang. Ellison glared at the offending instrument, certain it was going to curtail his lunch plans. Sandburg rolled his eyes and delivered a long-suffering sigh as he lifted the receiver. "Major Crime, Detective Sandburg speaking."

"Mr. Sandburg?" the caller inquired nervously, although Blair had clearly answered the call with his name and title.

Choosing not to correct the oversight, Blair simply responded, "Yes. Who is this?"

"Um, you probably don't remember me, Mr. Sandburg. My name is Cody Atkins." He was right, Blair didn't remember him. "I was in your Anthro 101 class a couple of years ago."

The prompt jogged Blair's memory and he vaguely remembered a quiet student with passable grades. A frown creased his brow and he settled slowly back into his chair. Concerned at Sandburg's reaction to the call, Ellison crossed his arms and pretended indifference while shamelessly tuning in to the other side of his partner's phone conversation. "Oh, yeah, Cody. Right. Good to hear from you. What can I do for you?"

Cody's voice dropped to a whisper. "I, uh, heard you were on campus the other day. You know, um, asking about new, you know, religious groups?" His voice trailed off on the last phrase, sounding more and more uncertain as the conversation progressed.

"Yes. Yes, I was. Do you have some information for me, Cody?" Blair sat up straighter in his chair, cast an interested glance at his partner and wiggled his fingers next to his ear in what was apparently his new signal that Jim should use his sensitive hearing. Jim nodded, as if he hadn't already been listening and Blair turned his attention back to the subject of his call. "Cody? Are you still there? Do you have something you want to tell me?"

Blair (and Jim) could hear Cody breathing on the other end of the line, so they waited impatiently while he made up his mind. "Yes," he admitted quietly. "But I can't talk here. My roommate might come in. And I can't... I just can't come to the police station. Can you meet me somewhere later tonight?"

Jim shook his head vehemently, wagged his finger in a negative gesture at Blair and then glared when he responded, "Sure, Cody, no problem. My partner and I were just headed out for lunch. How about we meet you somewhere and kill two birds with one stone?" Blair winced at his own phraseology, but pressed on. "How does that sound, Cody?"

After another few moments of silence Cody acquiesced. "I... I'm supposed to be in class in 20 minutes, but I guess I can skip it. I... I just can't stand this anymore!" Cody's voice broke on a sob.

With absolutely no certainty at all of the validity of his next statement, Blair assured his former student, "It's gonna be okay, Cody. Look, why don't we meet you at the Goofy Goose?" Jim raised his eyebrows at the proposed location, but Blair waved him off. "It's about halfway between the precinct and the campus. It should be far enough away from campus that the chances of anyone you know seeing you are pretty slim. Do you know where it is?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I know where it is, Mr. Sandburg. I can be there in about 45 minutes, if... if that's okay?" he asked hesitantly

"That's cool, Cody. We'll see you at the Goofy Goose in 45 minutes." Blair placed the receiver on its cradle and turned excited eyes to this partner. "This could be the break we need, Jim!"

"Let's hope so, Chief, because so far we've got zip and I'm getting nervous this creep is gonna strike again soon." He reached over Sandburg's head to snag both their jackets and tossed Sandburg his as he enquired, "What do you know about this kid, Sandburg?"

"Not much, really. I remember he was a so-so student, passable grades, nothing stellar, less than avid enthusiasm for anthropology. Pretty much my usual Anthro 101 student. Out for an easy elective. Wonder what he wants to tell us?" he mused, absently slipping his arms into the sleeves of his jacket and checking to make sure he had his weapon. He didn't think he was ever going to get used to that. "He sounded scared."

"Which leads me to the question of your agreeing to meet him like that."

"C'mon, Jim. It was clear he wasn't going to talk to us here and he was scared silly to talk to us on campus. What's the big deal? You do it all the time. I had no intention of meeting him somewhere isolated, late at night, by myself, so I offered him an alternative. It's in a public place, in the middle of the day, with my partner and senior officer..." Blair glanced quickly around and added quietly, "not to mention my sentinel, present. How much safer than that can it get? Now, c'mon, if we get there fast enough, maybe we can eat before he shows up."

"But The Goofy Goose?" Ellison grimaced. "With a name like that, am I going to find anything on the menu fit to eat?" He trailed his partner out of the bullpen, repeatedly suggesting a side-trip through the Wonder Burger drive-thru.

"Why didn't you tell me they had home cooked food, Sandburg?" Ellison grunted, leaning back in his chair and happily patting his satisfied stomach. "That was great."

Blair had ignored Jim's continued requests to stop for some "edible" food and had barked out "turn left here" and "take the next right" instructions until they'd pulled up in front of The Goofy Goose Home Style Diner. Their arrival had beaten the lunch rush, and Jim had been pleasantly surprised when they were quickly served plates nearly overflowing with hearty, stick-to-your-ribs home style fare.

"It was too much fun to listen to you whine," Blair teased, finishing the last bite of his enormous vegetable platter and wiping his mouth with a napkin. Any further response was forestalled when Blair announced, "Cody's here."

Jim twisted in his seat to follow the direction in which Blair subtly pointed. A young man, perhaps 23 or 24, stood by the hostess stand, anxiously scanning the crowd assembled in the dining room. He was slim with blonde hair combed away from his face and soft brown eyes that currently looked extremely frightened. His clothes, though clean and well fitted, were wrinkled and not well matched.

Having spied Jim and Blair's corner booth, Cody cast a nervous glance around the restaurant and politely refused the hostess's seating offer. He approached the table and slid into the booth on Blair's side. "Thanks for coming, Mr. Sandburg," he greeted Blair, then dropped his head slightly and peeked uneasily through his lashes at Jim.

"It's Detective Sandburg, Cody," Blair corrected, "and this is my partner, Detective Ellison." Jim nodded and kept his expression neutral, satisfied to let Blair take the lead while he monitored Cody's responses.

Cody swallowed hard and opened his mouth to speak, only to jump in panic when the waitress asked him if he'd like to order. He offered an apologetic, chagrined smile and asked for a draft beer. "I'm not really very hungry," he explained to both the waitress and the other men at the table.

"What did you want to tell us, Cody?" Blair prompted gently when it seemed that Cody's courage to talk had waned. "You said it was something you couldn't stand anymore."

Cody's eyes roamed the dining room, refusing to rest anywhere for more than a second. The waitress brought his beer and he took a large gulp, as if using the cold, bitter liquid to bolster his courage. Then he stared at the glass for a long moment, watching as a bead of condensation wound its way from the rim to the base and pooled in a ring on the table.

Cody raised his eyes to take in the warm, concerned expression on his former teacher's face and choked back a sob. "Oh, God," he groaned softly, leaning forward and touching his forehead to the cool rim of the glass in front of him. "Melissa."

Jim's eyes met Blair's over the blonde man's bowed head and knew that his expression mirrored his partner's shocked one. Whatever they had expected from the meeting with Cody, an immediate reference to Melissa Wakefield had not been it.

Cody raised his head, took another drink of beer and then took a deep breath. "Melissa and I were in love," he explained. "We were planning on getting married once we got out of college in another year or so. She was so excited." He paused and smiled softly. "So was I. I'd never met anyone like her, so warm and caring and giving. She was really something." Jim got the impression that that was a high compliment from the grieving college student sitting across from him. "I'm an anthropology major, Mr... uh, Detective Sandburg. Did you know that?"

Startled by the swift change of subject, and reminded of his earlier erroneous assumption, Blair stammered slightly, "Uh, no, Cody, I didn't know that. That's, uh, great. Of course, I'm a little biased." He smiled briefly then urged Cody to continue. "So you and Melissa were going to be married?"

"Yeah. Anyway, Melissa was a psych major and I'm a anthropology major, so we found that a lot of our interests overlapped."

Jim bit his tongue to keep from demanding that the young man simply get to the point and forced himself to be patient. He was uneasy, the feeling that something bad was going to happen growing by the minute.

"We had lots of deep discussions about the nature of God and the Devil, paganism, ancient tribal religions, the druids, all that stuff. She sure could make you think about things. So one day she came to my apartment and started telling me about this guy she met on campus. Tall guy, dressed in black. She said he was telling everyone how he believed that man was meant to savor life to the fullest and to bow to no one save the almighty. She said at first she thought he was from some high profile evangelical group and was talking about God. But as she continued to listen, she realized he wasn't talking about God, he was talking about the Devil. To him, Satan was the almighty."

"Did she mention his name?" Blair asked, trying to contain his excitement. He was ever cognizant of the fact that the man beside him had recently lost the woman he loved and deserved sympathy and respect, even if he had valuable information to give.

Cody shook his head and Blair's spirits plummeted. "No."

"What happened after that?" Jim prompted, finally entering the conversation.

Cody regarding the large detective for a moment, took a dejected breath, then resumed his contemplation of his beer glass and continued. "Mo," he paused and smiled affectionately, "that's what I called her, had been searching for just the right thesis topic for her psych class. She decided that the opportunity to join a Satanic cult and analyze the mindset from the inside was just too good an opportunity to pass up."

"So she joined," Blair supplied.

"Yeah. He was waiting outside the psych building again the next day, and she stopped to strike up a conversation with him. She joined him that afternoon, fully intending to get the inside scoop for a few days and then bail, write her paper and collect her degree."

"What happened?" Blair asked quietly as Jim unobtrusively waved the approaching waitress away. He didn't want Atkins spooked again.

"I... I was afraid for her and well, more than a little curious about the whole thing myself." His eyes searched Blair and Jim's faces for understanding and then settled on Blair's. "I mean, anthropologists are supposed to be curious about subcultures and stuff like that, aren't they? You know, get in and get down and dirty with 'em?" he demanded.

Doubting Cody's motives were anthropological in nature, but not wanting to pass judgment, Blair murmured, "I've always thought so," then urged Atkins to continue. "So you joined, too?"

"Yeah. And it was really cool at first, you know? There were about a dozen of us and this dude had the whole shtick down-- the gowns, the incense, the chanting. You name it, he knew it. Said we had to call him Master and wouldn't tell us his real name. He told us if we wanted to come to know the Dark Lord and the pleasures he had to offer, we had to bow to the Master's will. That Satan only came to those who obeyed the Master. Besides, there was this really cool side benefit in that almost every ritual ended in an orgy. It was so kinky, but exciting, too. So we played along, going to the rituals, chanting the chants-- you know, playing the game."

"But it stopped being a game, didn't it, Cody?"

Atkins squeezed his eyes shut and replied to Ellison's query in a strained voice. "Yeah, it did. The Master said we had to give blood offerings to Satan, that he (Satan) would be angry if we failed to appease him. So, we started taking people's pets." Cody shook his head in despair. "Then we'd go out in the woods somewhere just outside the city and conduct this sacrificial ritual to Satan. God, the things he did to those poor animals-- it turned my stomach! Mo hated it, too, but we justified it in the name of research. Then one day the Master announced that Melissa would be his priestess. He started, I dunno, acting like Satan should be worshiping him instead of the other way around or something. Things were really getting freaky by this time and Mo and I decided it was time to get out. We had more than enough research for both of our papers and... and... Melissa was pregnant." Silent tears began to stream down Cody's face, but he continued his story. "We went to the Master and fessed up about the pregnancy. We didn't tell him we weren't true believers, just that Melissa was pregnant and that we'd had a change of heart and thought it was time to think about someone other than ourselves."

"How did he take it?" Blair asked, glancing around the restaurant to make sure they weren't attracting unwanted attention. Satisfied that the other patrons were deeply ensconced in their own conversations, he turned his attention back to Cody.

"He kind of ranted about it for a while, telling us that we were to think of no one but Satan and him. He said that our child should be born and raised into the sect-- to know him as Master and to be destined for greatness in Satan's eternal darkness. He literally begged us to participate in just one more ritual-- one guaranteed to ensure the good health and long life of our baby. Hell, neither one of us really believed in his crap. We'd both studied enough about satanic cults to realize that this guy wasn't a true Satanist and that he really was a head case. But it seemed harmless enough, if it got us out from under him. So we figured we'd have to sacrifice another poor animal, make some promises we had no intention of keeping and then we could be on our way." Cody's voice dropped to a mere whisper. "The ritual was Wednesday night, at a site in the Lange campground east of Cascade."

Blair glanced at Jim. The anonymous call reporting Melissa's body had come Thursday morning.

"Melissa and I showed up, figuring things would go like they always did. We'd all drink a little wine, do a little chanting and dancing, perform our sacrifice, play our little game of swearing to serve the Master and Satan, have some kinky sex and then go home. But it was different this time."

Neither detective needed to ask what the difference was, so they remained silent as Cody continued. "When we got there, we all changed into our robes and formed a circle around the fire, just like always, while the Master lit the candles and prepared the alter with the incense and the black drape. The Master had a chalice of wine and he did the usual incantations dedicating it, and us, to Satan before he passed it around for us to drink. Then he prepared a special chalice for Melissa, saying it was a non-alcoholic version that wouldn't harm her or the baby. He insisted she drink the whole thing before he went on with the rest of the ritual. She made some terrible faces, like maybe it tasted awful, but she drank the whole thing."

Cody took another long draft of his beer and shook his head at the recalled horrors his memories were dredging up. "The Master started chanting and we started dancing around in a circle, calling Satan's name. I always felt kind of silly doing that, but then something in the wine would kick in and it was nothing but fun."

"You think he drugged your wine?" Jim asked, making a notation in his notebook.

"I'd like to think I wouldn't be so amenable to twirling around in circles screaming Satan's name without some sort of help," Cody smiled grimly. "And then suddenly everything changed. The next thing I knew, the Master had Melissa lying on the sacrificial altar instead of the usual dog or cat. She was naked. I remember thinking there was something not right about that, but my brain was getting all caught up in the ritual and I just kept dancing. She wasn't moving, but her eyes were open, so I thought she was okay, you know? I mean, she didn't look or act scared or anything, so I thought maybe she was just playing along with him.

"Then he started screaming about how she had been intended to be his but that she had been defiled by another and was no longer worthy of him. That the evil had to be destroyed." Silent sobs wracked Cody's body and it took him a minute to regain his tenuous grip on composure. "I remember laughing at the way that sounded and wondering what it took for Satan to consider something evil. I wondered what the Master meant when he called on Satan to guide his hand, and then I saw the knife!" Cody hid his face in his hands and shook his head in denial of the events he was recalling. "Oh Dear God, he was cutting her and Melissa was screaming and he was screaming that she'd betrayed him and would never betray him again and he just kept cutting her and cutting her and..." Cody's voice began to rise, and he broke into deep, wracking sobs. Jim swiftly looked around and realized that a few of the remaining lunchtime patrons were beginning to dart curious looks their way.

"Chief," he warned quietly, managing to catch Sandburg's eye. Blair's eyes echoed the horror that Jim felt.

Visibly shaking himself, Blair reached out to clasp Cody's bicep. "Cody. Cody!" he whispered hoarsely. When he was sure he'd gotten the young man's attention, he asked, "Why didn't somebody do something, Cody? Why didn't you stop him?"

"I don't know about the others, but I couldn't stop dancing. It's like I was hypnotized or something. I knew I should stop what was happening, but I didn't seem to have any control over my body. It's like part of me was in control of myself, but the rest of me wasn't. I couldn't stop dancing to save Melissa's life," he concluded softly. "I couldn't stop dancing and she couldn't stop screaming."

Later, back at the station, Jim and Blair were once again in the conference room, staring at the map of Cascade and updating their captain on Cody's confession.

Jim could tell Blair was badly shaken by Cody's description of the events that night. Staring fixedly at the map, he was pale and quiet and occasionally shook his head as if still unable to grasp the details of Cody's gruesome tale.

Simon clenched his teeth around his unlit cigar and leaned back in his chair, rubbing his forehead. "God, what a story," he sighed.

Able to come up with no good response to the statement, Jim chose to remain silent.

"What else was he able to tell you?" Simon inquired, leaning forward again and using the momentum to fall back into the relative mental safety of a policeman's analytical mode.

Sensing that Blair was still too disturbed to talk openly about what they'd learned, Jim quickly stepped in to fill in the blanks. "When we asked Atkins why he didn't come forward immediately, instead of calling it in anonymously, he said he was afraid. Afraid of the Master, whoever in the hell he is, because he told him he'd kill him, too, if he told what he knew. And he was afraid he'd go to jail as some sort of accomplice. But he said he couldn't live with the guilt, so he had to tell us. I couldn't assure him that he wouldn't have to shoulder some legal responsibility in this whole mess, but I told him I'd see what I could do, given the likelihood of his being drugged."

"Where is he now?" Banks questioned.

"Downstairs in lockup for the moment. I didn't really know what to do with him," Jim admitted. "He was pretty much out of it after spilling his guts, so I was kind of afraid to leave him alone, and until we know who this 'Master' is, I'd feel better if we had him in custody as a material witness, anyway. I tried to get him to tell us who some of the other members were, but he clammed up on that. Said he didn't want to get anyone else in trouble for something that was his fault."

"How did the members of this cult know where the rituals were being held?" Banks turned to gaze at the map once again, as if it were a giant Ouija board waiting to magically spell out the answer for him.

"According to Cody, this Master character left notes and maps to the sites in their home mailboxes, but he says he never saw him do it and he doesn't have the notes anymore. They were instructed to burn them at each of the rituals. Cody says he never called them on the phone, so there aren't any phone records to trace or a caller ID to track down."

"Thorough," Simon growled. He pushed to his feet and moved to stare out the window into the bustling bullpen beyond. "Damn it, gentlemen! This guy is foiling this investigation at every turn, and I'm getting damn tired of it!"

Jim had just opened his mouth to echo the sentiment when Blair suddenly leapt out of his chair with an angry, "Sandburg, you're an idiot!" Startled, he and Banks watched as Blair stalked to the map, grabbed a marker and swiftly connected the locator dots on the map with bold, ragged lines. With seconds, the pattern became clear. The sites of the pet mutilations and Melissa Wakefield's murder formed a perfect inverted pentagram.

"It was staring me right in the face!" Blair declared, slamming the marker onto the table in disgust and turning to glare at the offending symbol. "Given the nature of this case, you'd think that would have been the first thing that would have occurred to me! Stupid!"

"Lighten up on yourself, Chief. Yours haven't been the only pair of eyes staring at this thing for the last few days and it didn't occur to any of the rest of us either," Jim pointed out, moving to stand by the map and tracing the pattern with a hyper-sensitive finger. He could almost feel the individual fibers that composed the paper and could detect the uneven edges of the marker lines. Feeling himself sinking into the sensations, he stepped back from the edge of the zone out and addressed the map. "Now that we see you, you son of a bitch, what in the hell can you tell us?" he murmured. "You might tell us approximately where the next ritual will occur, but we need you to tell us when." He sighed and turned, expecting to see his co-workers looking at him as if he'd lost his mind. Instead, he was surprised to note they, too, suddenly appeared to regard the map as if it were a living entity.

That evening found them no closer to an answer than they had been at lunchtime. Still fighting off the effects of his cold, Sandburg tired easily and had only halfheartedly protested when Jim suggested that they continue their study of the facts at home. Jim had then played his trump card and pointed out that Blair hadn't been able to spend much time visiting with his mother.

"Hi, Sweetie!" Naomi greeted her son with a hug and a kiss on the check as he entered the loft. "How do you feel today?" she asked, laying a hand across his forehead.

He smiled and gently pulled her hand away. "Tired," he admitted. "But, other than that, I'm feeling pretty good." He slid past her into the kitchen to get a glass of orange juice and noted an odd assortment of items scattered across the kitchen counter. "Uh, Mom? What's this stuff?"

"Oh, Darien wants to take me on a moonlight picnic this evening, isn't that romantic? I told him I'd go tonight, but that he had to let me spend some time with my son after that. You don't mind do you, Blair?"

"Of course not, Mom! Like I said, I'm kind of tired tonight anyway, so stretching out on the couch and imitating a slug sounds pretty good to me right now. You enjoy yourself and we'll talk tomorrow evening, okay? Maybe by then I'll have licked this stupid cold and I'll be better company."

Naomi kissed her son again and began gathering her picnic items as she declared, "You're wonderful company all the time, Blair! I'm glad you got home before Darien picked me up so I wouldn't have to leave you a note like I did before."

Jim, meanwhile, had been rummaging in the kitchen cabinets for Blair's favorite herbal tea. "Hey, Blair, where's that tea you like so much when you're sick?"

Surreptitiously grinning at his mother when she raised an eyebrow at Jim's solicitousness, Blair answered, "I'm out, Jim. I made the last Thursday evening and keep forgetting to get any more."

"How about I run out and get you some more?" Jim offered.

"Nah, that's okay, Jim. I can do without it."

"It's no trouble, Sandburg," Jim persisted. "You don't sleep well without it when you're sick and when you don't sleep well, I don't sleep well. I'll just call in a pizza, grab your tea on the way to pick up the pizza and be back before you know it."

"You know, Jim, at some point we really are going to have to buy groceries," Blair chuckled as Jim grabbed his keys from the basket and pulled the loft door open.

"I know that, Suzie Homemaker, but not tonight!" Then Jim was off on his mission.

Still looking at the closed door, Blair shook his head fondly as Naomi put her arms around him once again. "He takes good care of you," she pointed out.

"Yeah, he does," Blair acknowledged. "But tonight he's also in the market for a major dose of grease. As if he didn't have more than enough at lunch." Blair's face fell as he recalled their emotional and shocking lunch.

Naomi noticed and reached up to touch her son's cheek. "What's the matter, Sweetie?" she asked softly, concern clouding her normally vibrant eyes.

Without Blair really intending them to, the horrors of the day came tumbling out. It was an abridged tale, to be sure, but even the edited telling was a form of catharsis. Of course, there were confidential things about the case that he couldn't tell Naomi, and then there were the horrific details that he refused to tell her. But she got enough of the gist of his day to pull her son to her and hug him fiercely. "I'm so sorry, Baby. Look, when Darien gets here, why don't I tell him I've changed my mind? I'll just stay here with you."

"I really appreciate that, Mom, but no. I'll be okay. I think I really just need to eat some of that greasy pizza, drink some of my magic herbal tea and sleep for three days." He smiled to ease the worry reflected in his mother's eyes and reached out to tap her gently on the nose. "You go have a good time tonight. But, I am going to hold you to that promise to spend more time with me over the next few days."

Blair heard the knock on the door as Naomi hugged him again and promised, "I will, Sweetie." He pulled the door open and greeted his mother's date warmly. "Hey, Darien, c'mon in. Well, if the kitchen counter's any indication, Mom's more prepared for a week's hike than a moonlight picnic."

"Your mother is a very special woman, Blair." Darien's words were warm enough, but his voice was cold and his eyes seemed to bore into Blair's, making him shift uncomfortably.

"Yeah, well, you won't get any argument from me there."

Naomi pushed an armload of picnic items at Darien and chided, "Will you two stop talking about me as if I'm not here? It's enough to make a girl blush." She gathered her own armload of supplies and effectively ended the conversation by heading for the door.

"I'll see you again soon, Blair," Darien said, and Blair had the insane urge to ask him if that was a promise or a threat. Then he silently admonished himself for letting the events of the day get to him and closed the door behind the departing couple.

Thirty minutes later, when Jim returned with the pizza and tea, he found Blair stretched out on the sofa sound asleep, the contents of the Wakefield file once again scattered around him. "Guess he can sleep without that tea after all," Jim chuckled to himself, sliding the steaming pizza from the box onto a baking sheet and placing it in the oven, which Blair had obligingly turned to 'warm' before succumbing to the siren's call of the sofa. The loft quickly filled with the fragrance of oregano, tomatoes, sausage and cheese, which had teased Jim's senses all the way home from the pizza parlor.

Jim quietly ascended the stairs and removed his shoes. When he came back downstairs, he efficiently swept the paper melee back into the manila folder and moved it into the kitchen, out of harm's way. Taking care not to wake his partner before it was necessary, Jim cautiously pulled two plates from the cupboard, retrieved the pizza from the oven and doled out portions for each of them. Grabbing the plates, some napkins and a couple of beers, he set up an impromptu buffet on the coffee table next to the couch on which his partner slept. Then he reached out to gently roust Blair from his nap. "Time to eat, Chief. You'll sleep even better on a full stomach."

Blair grunted and then stretched himself into full wakefulness. "I wasn't asleep," he vowed, "I was just resting my eyes."

"If they'd been any more rested, Chief, you'd have been comatose," Ellison retorted, sliding a plate in front of his partner. "Eat."

Halfway through his first slice of pizza, Blair noticed that Jim seemed distracted by something. He'd eaten only a few bites of his own pizza slice and then had placed it carefully back on his plate, a pensive look on his face.

"What is it, Jim?" Blair asked, abandoning his dinner as well.

"It's that smell again. The one I picked up on Darien Cantwell the other night."

"So? He was here, you know, to pick Naomi up for their picnic," Blair explained patiently. "He got here about five minutes after you left, I guess. Why are you just now picking it up?"

"I'd been cooped up in the truck with oregano and Italian sausage," Ellison pointed out defensively. "My nose was still full of that scent when I came in. Then, when I put the pizza in the oven, it permeated the loft. I guess I've finally acclimated to the pizza scent enough to pick up the other one. And it's not really that big a deal, Chief, it's just that I know I've smelled that scent before," Jim insisted. He frowned and concentrated harder. Then his eyes widened and the face he turned to his partner was stark white.

"Jim! What's the matter, man?" Blair demanded, jumping to his feet and leaning over to grasp his partner's shoulder.

"Hazelnut," Jim said simply. "Cantwell smells like hazelnut."

"Like Simon's coffee?" Blair questioned, his weary mind still trying to get its figurative arms around Jim's statement.

"No," Jim said softly, his eyes never leaving Blair's face. "Like the Melissa Wakefield murder scene." He watched Blair's expression change from confusion to shock as the significance of the statement sank in. Blair dropped heavily back onto the couch. "Darien?" he queried in shock. "You think Darien has something to do with the murder?"

"I think it's got to be more than simply a coincidence, Chief, don't you?"

"C'mon, Jim!" Blair desperately tried to rationalize the coincidence. "The man runs a business that specializes in herbs and spices. Wouldn't it stand to reason that his body might assimilate some of the stronger scents in his shop?"

"I stopped by his shop to get your tea, Sandburg. I assume he'd already left to come here, because a young woman filled my order. I didn't smell hazelnut in his shop, Blair. I only smelled it on him!" His dinner forgotten, Jim strode into the kitchen to grab the Wakefield file. Pulling out the crime scene location map on which Blair had also superimposed the inverted pentagram, he returned to the living room. Blair followed his partner's actions with a worried eye but didn't move from his position on the couch.

Jim sat next to him, pushed the remnants of their dinner out of the way and laid the map across the coffee table. After taking a quick look, Jim pointed to a spot on the map. "You said you couldn't believe the pentagram was staring you in the face all this time, right Chief?" Blair nodded, leaning forward for a closer view of the map. "Well, I can't believe I missed this!" Jim's finger stabbed at a point on the map. Blair was forced to don his glasses to read the tiny type that designated the streets, then he stood to get an even closer look. His breath caught in his throat as he realized where Jim was pointing. In the center of the pentagram, shining like a beacon now that they knew that it was there, was the intersection of Prospect Avenue and Vista Drive. The corner on which The Olde World Spice and Herb Shoppe sat.

"Oh, my God, Jim," Blair breathed in horror. "He's with my mom!"

Naomi Sandburg and Darien Cantwell walked hand-in-hand through the dense forest, following a trail only faintly visible in the dwindling evening twilight.

"It's not much further, my dear," Darien assured Naomi, steadying her when she stumbled over an unseen tree root. "And the view will be well worth the walk. I promise."

"I'm all right, Darien," Naomi smiled as they resumed their walk. "I can't wait to see this wonderful clearing you've described."

"Yes," Darien Cantwell said softly, glancing away so Naomi couldn't see his sneer in the fading light. "It's to die for."


Blair was nearly frantic. He was pacing the loft, running his hands through his hair and exhorting Jim to "hurry up, damn it! We have to figure out where he's taking her!" Blair stalked into his room and returned carrying his gun and a spare clip of ammunition. "What the hell are you doing, anyway?" he demanded, standing in the middle of the dining area and glaring at his still-seated partner's back. "We're wasting time!"

"Trying to figure out where he's taking her," Jim explained patiently, echoing his partner's words. He peered at the map, homing in his sight to read the text beneath the tip of the only point of the pentagram not already marked as a crime scene.

Blair took a deep breath and tried to find his emotional center. "I'm sorry," he apologized, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes. "I'm not helping things here by panicking, am I?"

"She's your mother," Jim said, as if that explained everything. After another moment, he stood and refolded the map. He handed it to Blair, saying only, "Let's go get your mom, Chief."

"Oh, Darien," Naomi breathed, standing in the clearing with her head flung back and staring rapturously into the clear, starlit night sky. "It's lovely! What a marvelous spot! How did you ever find it?"

"In a business like mine, it pays to know your geography. I often wander the woods around Cascade in search of wild roots and herbs. I frequently discover little gems such as this." Darien gently took the blanket Naomi had been carrying and set about spreading it across the ground. Naomi admired the stars for another moment then settled to her knees and busied herself organizing the picnic items that Darien had toted. He paused in his work to watch her, a distant look on his face and only seeming to come back to the real world when she touched his arm and inquired softly, "Darien? Is something wrong?"

"Just the opposite," he assured her with a cryptic smile, "I was simply thinking that tonight is going to be a very special night."

Naomi felt herself blush and was glad the bright moonlight painted everything with the same pale blue light.

"Wine?" Darien offered brightly, pulling a wine bottle and two glasses from the hamper he had provided.

The blue and white pickup truck skidded to a stop in the gravel parking lot, throwing rocks and dust in its wake.

Blair's head literally swiveled on his shoulders as his eyes darted about, peering into the darkness, seeking confirmation that they had found the right area. "I don't see anything, Jim. Are you sure this is the right spot?"

"I'm a sentinel, Blair, not Superman," Jim admonished gently. "The last point on the pentagram ended in this general area. Given his previous choices, this seemed the most likely region for Cantwell to choose. I won't pretend it's not like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, Chief, but I think this is our best chance. Now we've got to get out there and find him."

"Right. Right. Sorry, Jim. I'm just really scared, you know?" Blair turned wide, frightened eyes on his partner and raked a hand nervously through his hair.

"I know, Chief." Jim opened his door and stepped from the truck, reaching to ensure that his gun still rested snugly in its holster at the small of his back. "I am, too. You ready?"

Blair straightened and slid from the passenger side with a soft, but audible self-admonition. "Cop mode," he instructed himself harshly. The face he turned toward his partner now reflected the strength of will and purpose that Jim had seen so many times before and never doubted he could depend upon. The guide moved to stand beside his sentinel and touched his arm in spiritual and physical support. "Ready."

Jim inhaled deeply then released the breath in a long, cleansing exhalation and closed his eyes. Starting slowly, he extended his hearing slightly, cataloging and dismissing the undesired sounds he encountered; pushing farther and farther into the forest. He filtered out the sound of the traffic on the freeway located less than a mile off the road they had just traveled. He mentally muted the nocturnal creatures that proclaimed their availability to perspective mates with loud chirps, whistles, hoots and songs. Also discounted were the multitude of heartbeats, life giving, but too sharp and rapid to sustain human life.

His eyes still closed, Jim frowned, cocked his head and murmured, "Human heartbeats, a couple of miles northeast." Blair was too worried to be amazed at the range Jim was demonstrating. He was getting ready to demand that they start moving when Jim's frown deepened and he stated, "Two more heartbeats a little over two miles due north. And five to the northwest." He paused and pursed his lips. "Nobody's talking. I can't pick up any voices."

"Damn!" Blair thought quickly, and then instructed, "Okay, Jim. Piggyback your sense of smell onto your hearing. Try to find the hazelnut scent you say identifies Darien. And you know Naomi's scent. She likes to wear patchouli oil. Hunt for that, too. You can do this, man," he assured his friend.

Jim nodded slightly and followed Blair's instructions, mentally sliding his sense of smell along the path his hearing had just followed. After a moment, he rejected the northeastern path and traced the northwestern one. No hint of hazelnut or the slightly minty fragrance of patchouli oil greeted his olfactory inquiry. "North," he pronounced, after detecting both scents. Locking his senses on that location, Jim burst into action, taking off into the woods at a run, Blair reacting only a fraction later to follow his partner. The moonlight may as well have been streetlights as far as the sentinel was concerned, enabling him to see and avoid many of the forest pitfalls. He heard Blair's labored breathing as he strove to keep up with his partner who sported an unfair advantage and also heard him swear occasionally when he would trip or stumble. Ellison momentarily debated slowing the pace to better enable his partner to keep up. At this pace, the flashlight Blair carried would be of little value. But he recognized that time was of the essence and knew that Blair would manage, so he maintained his breakneck speed, certain that Naomi's life hung in the balance.

Lying on her back, gazing into the sky, Naomi frowned and disclosed in a distressed tone of voice, "I think I must be drunk."

"Why is that, my dear?" Darien asked, propping himself on an elbow and lightly brushing his fingers across Naomi's cheek.

"I suddenly feel so strange. Things are blurry and my body feels like it weighs a ton." Naomi's eyes closed briefly and she dragged them open with an effort, protesting, "But I can't be drunk, I've only had two small glasses of wine." Her voice was slightly slurred.

"Perhaps we should go, then," Darien said solicitously, pushing himself to his knees and leaning over to examine Naomi closely. "Can you get up?"

After what was obviously a Herculean, but unsuccessful effort, Naomi turned terrified eyes to the man beside her. "No!" she exclaimed in terror. Her voice was rough and tinged with panic. "Oh, my God, Darien, what's happening to me?"

Without answering, Darien rose to his feet and began gathering the remains of their meal, packing them neatly back into the baskets and hampers scattered across the clearing. "Well actually," he finally responded, turning to regard her seriously, "God has nothing to do with this. Nothing at all. You see I drugged your wine with an extremely powerful sedative. Being an herbalist comes in very handy, doesn't it? I have something else for you to drink a little later, but I've been told it has a very unpleasant taste and I don't believe you would have drunk it willingly. So I employed a little medicinal subterfuge to ensure your cooperation. In your current condition, you'll be quite unable to refuse the libation."

"Dar'n..." As hard as she fought, the syllables of his name came out garbled and indistinct. Her body seemed to grow heavier and heavier.

As if he hadn't heard her, Darien continued, "You see, Naomi, God isn't my higher power. I serve a much more powerful master than your pitiful little God." His eyes took on a slightly manic look as he spread his arms and declared, "Satan guides my steps! And through him, I will be Master of the world!"

He dropped to the blanket beside her, grabbed her chin in a bruising grip and wrenched her head to face him. "But your little boy, my dear Naomi, your precious little Blair publicly mocked me! He called me a 'wannabe' and said I was 'playing' at being a Satanist. He said I didn't know what I was doing! He tried to humiliate me, to turn the world against me! So he thinks I'm playing, does he? Well, I think he'll realize I'm not playing when they find your body, sweet Naomi."

Cantwell rose to his feet and disappeared from Naomi's narrowing view, but he continued his monologue. "It's a shame, really. I quite like you, Naomi-- you're bright, vibrant and open- minded. A little too compassionate, but I was confident that would change once you came to know our Master's plan." Cantwell's voice hardened and Naomi willed her body to move. It steadfastly refused to obey. "This is the second time my chosen Priestess has been denied me. But I must punish your self-righteous son for his crimes against me. And when his grief has begun to fade, when he least expects it, I will appear again to exact my ultimate punishment. I will sacrifice him upon the altar to my Master, just as I am about to sacrifice you." He came to tower above her and made a show of checking his watch. "It's almost time, sweet Naomi."

Unable to move or speak and barely able to keep her eyes open, Naomi could only pray as tears streamed from her eyes.

Cantwell donned his black robe and pulled the hood low over his face. Naomi's terror grew, recalling the grisly story Blair had told her earlier. She knew he had edited the details, but it had sounded terrifying enough in its abbreviated form. The realization that she was about to experience it first hand was almost overwhelming. Oh, please let me die of heart failure before the pain starts, she prayed silently.

The sound of footsteps broke into her thoughts and her heart leapt. Someone was there! Someone had found her! Her elation turned to despair when Darien's voice proclaimed, "You're all here right on time. I am pleased. Come, let us prepare the altar." Gray-robed figures drifted in and out of Naomi's view. Two disappeared into the trees and reappeared carrying a long, wooden bench. They placed the bench in the middle of the clearing and stepped back, bowing their heads. Darien draped a large, black cloth across its surface and Naomi realized with horror that it was the sacrificial altar he had so casually mentioned sacrificing Blair and herself on earlier.

Preparations continued with some of the figures placing black votive candles in a large circle around the clearing and others placing tall, wooden candlesticks on the ground at either end of the altar. Darien fit black candles into the holders and positioned a small bowl and a glass of amber liquid at one end of the altar. Two other acolytes built a large bonfire behind the altar. Soon the clearing was bathed in the flickering light of a raging bonfire.

He motioned to two of his followers and they moved to stand at Naomi's head and feet. So far, no one other than Darien had spoken a word. Mechanically, they knelt and stripped her of her clothing, quickly leaving her naked-- physically and emotionally, unable to even shiver in the cool night air.

Naomi tried to struggle as they bent and lifted her into the air, but her muscles refused to respond. She tried to focus her continually blurring vision on the face of the robed figure holding her feet, but they kept their head carefully bowed. She couldn't lift her chin to try to see the figure at her head. She tried to force words between her lax lips, to beg them to stop, to plead with them to understand what it was they were about to do, but no sound emerged. As they stretched her lengthwise on the altar, she could do nothing more than weep her silent tears and pray that Blair wouldn't be the one to find her mutilated body.

Jim skidded to a halt and caught his partner as he stumbled into him. "What's the matter, Jim?" Blair panted, placing his hands on his knees in an attempt to catch his breath. "Why did you stop?"

Holding up his hand for silence, Jim tuned into the conversation now taking place only a few hundred yards distant. "I can hear Cantwell talking," Jim explained in a low voice. Then he smiled slightly and informed Blair, "She's still alive, Chief."

"Thank God," Blair breathed, his knees momentarily weakening in relief.

"We need to move quickly, but quietly," Jim continued softly, "They're only a couple of hundred yards ahead, but it sounds like things are getting ready to come to a head." Jim suddenly cocked his head, "They're not alone anymore." Realization hit him. "Those other heartbeats I detected. They were heading to the same place!"

"He's going to perform a ritual!" Blair exclaimed softly, "Jim, we've got to stop him!"

"We will, Chief. But we've got to be careful. We're talking 10 against 2 now and us with no backup." Seeing Blair's distress, he reached out to tap his shoulder and winked. "However, at least 2 of us have guns and I seem to recall that one of us is a crack shot."

Blair's smile was shaky, but slightly more confident. "Let's do it."

Motioning his partner forward, Jim again took the lead, moving cautiously and quietly.

Darien pulled several more bottles of wine from one of the hampers and poured wooden goblets full for each of his followers. They quickly and enthusiastically drained them of their contents and tossed the goblets haphazardly about the ceremonial area.

Darien moved to the center of the clearing, stood beside the altar, raised his arms and began to chant in a language totally unknown to Naomi and terrifying in its unfamiliarity. As Darien chanted, his followers formed a circle around the altar and began dancing, spinning randomly in circles, fast and then slow, chanting their own strange litany. The volume grew, as did the intensity of their dancing. Dimly, Naomi was reminded of dervishes, members of some of the more extreme Muslim orders who performed whirling dances and vigorous chanting as acts of ecstatic devotion.

Darien's face filled her vision and she realized he was holding the glass of amber liquid. "The time has come, sweet Naomi," he whispered and Naomi wanted to scream her defiance. The dancers continued to whirl as Darien raised Naomi's head with one hand and brought the glass close to her lips. "This is a combination of Hemlock, Cherry Laurel, Valerian Root, Calabar Bean and a host of other substances equally as lethal when mixed. I'd love to say you won't feel a thing, but I'm afraid that's not true. Both the elixir and the punishment you must endure on behalf of your son cause excruciating pain. I'm not sure which is worse." Madness shown in Cantwell's eyes. "Drink to us, sweet Naomi." He brought the glass closer to her lips and tipped it slightly. Naomi watched helplessly as the amber liquid slipped toward the rim.

"Freeze! Cascade Police!"

Naomi thought she'd never been so glad to hear Jim Ellison's voice and wished she could move her eyes to look at him, to let him know how very glad she was to 'see' him.

Darien's hand stilled and he raised his head to calmly regard the intruders. Ellison and Sandburg stood just inside the edge of the clearing, determination etched on their faces and their guns trained steadily on Cantwell. The ecstatic dancers continued to whirl and chant behind them, seemingly oblivious to the drama playing out nearby. "Ah, Detective Sandburg, so nice of you to drop in. You being able to observe your punishment for my public humiliation is more of a gift than I could ever have expected."

"You move a muscle and I'll kill you," Blair vowed, his gaze never wavering. Naomi heard the steel in her son's voice and knew for a certainty that Blair would kill Cantwell, if it meant saving her life. On the one hand, the thought filled her with dread. On the other, she was extremely proud of his courage.

Cantwell smiled at Blair. "But, the question is, can you shoot me before I manage to pour some of the elixir into her mouth? Even a small amount is quite lethal, I assure you. And the mixture is so complex, there's certainly no antidote for it. Even if there were, we're much too far away from civilization for you to obtain it in time."

"Give it up, Cantwell," Jim instructed. "Killing Naomi now gains you nothing."

"Ah, but I gain my revenge on your partner, Detective Ellison. That will be my final satisfaction."

Suddenly a gray-robed figure broke from the circle of dancers behind Cantwell, dashed across the clearing, grabbed a goblet from the ground and swung it at the cult leader, screaming. "No more killing!" The wooden vessel struck Cantwell's right shoulder and the cup flew from fingers suddenly gone numb to drop harmlessly to the ground. The momentum of the blow threw Cantwell forward, causing him to drop Naomi roughly back to the altar and to sprawl across her naked, immobile body. The attacker's hood fell away, revealing the enraged features of Cody Atkins, who threw himself at the fallen leader. He wrapped his hands around Cantwell's neck, trying to choke him, but his grief-driven rage rendered his efforts largely ineffective.

Cantwell reacted quickly, reaching just beyond Naomi's head to grasp the previously unseen sacrificial knife with his left hand. With a supreme effort, he twisted his body to the right, swinging his left arm in a wide arc that ended sickeningly with the knife embedded in the base of Cody Atkins' skull. Cody's eyes widened in fleeting shock, then closed and his lifeless body slipped to the ground.

The partners, shaking off the momentary shock that had kept them rooted to the spot, leapt toward the altar-- Ellison to grab for Cantwell, Sandburg to pull his mother to safety.

"NO!" Cantwell screamed, twisting away from Ellison's grip and slashing out with the knife. Ellison gasped in pain as the razor-sharp knife opened a deep gash on his right forearm and he involuntarily dropped his gun.

The followers, hearing the Master's cry, stopped their frenzied dancing and chanting and stared in astonishment at the bizarre tableau laid before them. Silence bathed the forest, broken only by the crackle and hiss of the bonfire. Then Cantwell's voice rang clearly through the night, "I come to join thee, Satan!" Before anyone could react, he raised the knife and plunged it deep into his heart. Falling to his knees, blood streaming from the fatal wound in his chest, Darien Cantwell stared directly at Blair and Naomi Sandburg. The light from the fire cast deep shadows across his demented face, accentuating his aura of evil. A ragged cough tore from his throat and blood poured over his chin as he vowed, "You will be punished!"

Then he pitched forward to sprawl lifelessly in the dirt.

Bedlam ensued. The previously stunned followers threw off the euphoric effects of their drugged wine and scattered into the forest, shedding their encumbering robes and ignoring the Cascade detectives' commands to stop. One of the acolytes had stumbled into the altar, knocking the wooden bowl into the blazing fire, igniting the contents. Overcome by the resulting cloud of hazelnut incense that enveloped the clearing, Jim fell to his knees, coughing deeply, unable to catch his breath and pursue the fleeing witnesses. Blair had draped his jacket over his mother's naked body and was trying to revive his largely unresponsive parent, fighting to keep his panic at her condition at bay.

Seconds after it started, the melee was over. The only living occupants of the clearing were the two Cascade detectives and Naomi Sandburg.

Blair sat on the edge of his mother's hospital bed, her hand clasped tightly in his. Although pleased at her swift rebound from the effects of the sedative, the doctors had decided to keep her overnight for observation. Blair hadn't moved from her side from the moment she'd been settled into her room. Jim's forearm had been cleaned and stitched and he and Blair were now wrapping up the details of the case with their superior officer while Naomi napped yet again. The paperwork would have to wait until tomorrow, as far as the detectives were concerned.

"I'll admit I was stunned when I realized it was Cody who knocked the glass out of Cantwell's hand," Jim confessed from his chair next to the window. He turned to his captain, who stood leaned against the bathroom doorframe. "Last I knew he was in custody as a material witness, Simon. What happened?"

"He demanded to be released, Jim, and there wasn't much we could do about it. It's not like he was under arrest, you know. We couldn't keep him if he didn't want to be kept. I tried to call you to tell you, but no one was answering at the loft or on either of your cell phones." He glared at his detectives. "Do I need to tell you how foolhardy it was to go tearing off on your own like that with no warning and no backup?"

"There wasn't time, Simon!" Blair protested quietly, glancing down to make sure he hadn't awakened his mother. She had naturally been terrified by the experience, but appeared to be quickly recovering her emotional equilibrium. Blair was amazed at her resiliency and, knowing that she would soon be off to some other retreat or sabbatical, was determined to provide all the love and support he could.

"I understand, Blair, but that doesn't mean I approve," Banks pointed out. "The two of you were alone out there, with a madman and ten of his followers, out of cell phone range, and nobody knew where you were! Yes, everything turned out okay, but that, gentlemen, could have been a disaster."

Although he wouldn't have changed a thing they had done, Blair had to agree with their captain. It could have been a disaster. Neither of them had realized they had gone out of cellular range until Jim had regained his senses and tried to call for backup after the departure of Cantwell's followers. With Jim still laboring to breathe after his hazelnut incense overdose and bleeding profusely from his knife wound, Blair had been forced to make the trek back to the truck to make the call on the more powerful radio while his partner watched over his mother. The entire way back to the truck, all Blair could think about was how close he had come to losing his mother as a result of his police work. He realized how Jim had felt whenever Blair had been endangered during his days as a police observer.

Instead of voicing his opinion, however, he posed a question that had been plaguing him. "We still don't know who leaked that report to the press, do we?"

"Yes, we do," Banks replied, wincing in remembrance of his accusation against Sandburg. "Donna in Records was dating the reporter in question. Apparently a little pillow talk led to her handing him the report. When she saw it appear in the paper, she came clean. She swears she didn't know he was going to publish it. Needless to say, she's been terminated."

Blair wished he could feel sorry for the clerk, but her mistake had almost led to his mother's death.

"Well," Simon Banks sighed, breaking into Blair's thoughts, "you two have certainly had your fair share of bizarre cases lately. A maniacal Satanic leader, the ghost of Lash... what's next? Don't answer that!" he quickly amended. "I don't want to know."

"I think I know what this is, Simon," Jim said, regarding his partner seriously.

"What's that, Jim?"

"It's a Sandburg thing. I mean, look at it. Every time one of them comes to town, something happens." He studiously ignored his partner's snort of amused derision. "Sandburg's first day in the station, it's taken over by the Sunrise Patriots; his mom comes to town and gets wrapped up in a car theft ring; his Uncle Obie arrives unknowingly toting a stolen gem; and now Naomi gets involved with a Satanic cult leader." He grinned at his partner to make sure he knew he was kidding and repeated, "It's a Sandburg thing."

"No, it's not!" Blair shot back with an evil smile, "It's an Ellison thing!"

"Oh?" Ellison crossed his arms across his chest. "And, tell me, Shaman of the Great City, how it can be an Ellison thing when it always happens with a Sandburg around."

"Payback, man, for all that covert crap you were involved in before I came along. You know, kinda like..."

"Karma backlash!" supplied a sleepy voice from the bed.

Ellison threw up his hands in surrender and laughed. He knew when he was defeated.


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