Paula & Robin
edited by: Cindy, Shallan, Lori Wright, and Linda Chapple
Two weeks earlier
The ride in the yellow car took a far shorter time than Nya had envisioned. A sense of impending danger settled over him during the ride as scenes from his spirit journey ran through his mind. Most of what had happened, he had forgotten, but it started to reemerge. The black jaguar had led the wolf away. During the dream, it had seemed that he was both the wild dog and a spectator. He had felt joy when the wolf drank from the lake of knowledge with him. He had rejoiced when Blair had lay down beside him and experienced the spirits in all their wonder. Then the jaguar had come and led the wolf away. That scene was still very vivid in his mind. Nya remembered the feeling of abandonment, but also the rightness. The wild dog, left behind, had observed their departing forms through slit eyes. Nya, looking on from someplace else, had felt the danger lurking. He had wanted to warn his spirit animal, but the dog's focus had been on the disappearing wolf. A black adder had slithered along the ground. Nya had shouted a warning, but it carried no sound. With a rush of movement, the adder had struck, biting the wild dog in the belly. The snake had turned towards Nya; his golden eyes had mocked Nya's powerlessness. When Nya had looked at his spirit animal again, death had held him in her grasp, and the dog had looked at him with sad, defeated eyes.
A spasm of shivers racked his body. "Could you increase the heat?" Nya asked the taxi- driver.
"Almost there," was his only response.
Several minutes later they pulled onto the airport's main road. Shoving the vision from his mind, Nya pulled out the money to pay the driver. The taxi stopped behind at least six others, all discharging passengers. Nya gave the man his money, then closed the door. His legs were stiff from the trip, but also rubbery from the effects of his remembered vision. With hesitant steps, he slung the duffel over his shoulder and walked through the revolving doors. Each step felt closer to the danger his dream forecasted. He started towards the baggage check-in station, when a hand gripped his arm.
"Let me help you," a voice said.
Nya turned to see a well-dressed gentleman. He was immaculately groomed, wearing an expensive suit and shiny shoes. Even his fingernails looked manicured. It wasn't until the stranger had turned his head and smiled that Nya knew he couldn't escape his fate. The smile echoed in glowing gold eyes. The eyes of the adder.
The old Botswanan had hoped to face his destiny with serenity, but only dread filled his mind. Forcing himself to look away from the mesmerizing stare of the stranger, Nya searched the faces that hurried by him. He knew that he would find no help from a people who were afraid to make eye contact. They were too afraid of becoming involved with their fellow man. He and his plight might as well have been invisible. "I do not need your help, Nyoka." He felt the grip on his arm tighten as he tried to pull away.
The stranger's eyes narrowed and his head jerked back as if he had been slapped. "Nyoka?" He drew himself to his full height and considered the power of the man that stood before him. He felt his respect for the shaman grow and bowed from the waist. The old man had not only recognized his spirit animal, the adder, but had also spoken to him in his Swahili dialect. Awe now mixed with the jealousy he felt. He almost regretted that he would be sending the shaman to the spirits. "Mwalimu."
"I am not your teacher." Nya was taken aback by the title. It sounded perverse coming from the mouth of this deadly stranger. Closing his eyes, the shaman sought his centre. He pictured the grassy plains of his home and his old friend Kuguri. He knew that he would be joining the sentinel soon and his dread was replaced with joy. The old man began to feel the peace he would need to face his destiny and strengthen his soul. He finally recognized his dread for what it was. He was afraid for Blair Sandburg. The paths of the wolf and the snake would cross and he would be powerless to intervene or help. He did not know if the spirit world had yet revealed itself to the young shaman. Blair might not see the adder for what it was. The only hope he could find to ease his mind was that the black jaguar protected the wolf. Surely it would recognize the snake.
"You have nothing to fear from me, Mwalimu." The Bantu's face split into a bright smile. "I only want to talk. It is not often that I have the opportunity to benefit from the wisdom of one as powerful as you, Nyajiru." The golden colour of his eyes seemed to flash once more and then faded into their normal deep brown. "In fact, I have taken the liberty of cancelling your flight. You shall come with me," he added with hard determinism, then lightened his tone. "We shall talk, share a meal, and then I shall bring you back here so that you may return to your home." He shifted his hold on the old man's arm.
Gasping, Nya felt the sting of a barb as it pierced the rough fabric of his shirt. "What have you done?" He could feel the effect of whatever substance had been injected into his body take immediate effect. The grinning face of the stranger began to swim before him and he felt his legs begin to weaken.
"Done?" The tall African's voice seemed to waver and twist in Nya's ears. "Why, I have done nothing, Baba, except to give you something to ease your journey."
The elderly shaman felt his knees buckle. His vision began to narrow and darken. He didn't know if the poison that ran through his veins was lethal, but it had left him without a voice or the means to defend himself. It was with distaste that he felt himself fall into the embrace of his enemy. He heard the adder's voice, calm and soothing, explain to airport security that his father was feeling ill, that the trip had been too much for him. Nya's mind screamed its warning as it had done in his vision, but again his voice carried no sound. Strong arms encircled his shoulders and waist as the stranger and the unwitting security guard carried him to his death.
Blair picked up his fork and began eating again. Jim took a bite of meat and thought about what Blair had said. Neither of them had all the answers. They'd been flying by the seat of their pants for so long it felt normal. Considering he was a genetic throwback, as Blair had said when they had first met, it was only fair that the answers had been buried centuries ago. Jim took another bite. As much as he disapproved of Blair drinking the hallucinogenic tea, he was grateful for the way things had turned out. Blair wasn't considering himself a failure, yet nothing had really changed in their lives.
Blair dropped his fork. "Jim?" he said with stress.
"What?" he responded warily.
"One thing I don't understand. In your dream, Nya and I, or rather the dog and wolf were asleep. The jaguar came and took the wolf away. Remember?"
Jim thought back. Then it hit him. "When the jaguar went back, the wild dog was dead."
"-was dead," Blair said the same time as Jim.
They looked at each other.
"I should call," Blair said, jumping up from the table.
Jim followed Blair over to the phone where Blair called the Y.
"Can I talk to Nyajiru."
Jim listened in.
"I'm sorry," the desk attendant told Blair. "He checked out about an hour ago. He left a letter for a Blair Sandburg."
"It'll be here at the front desk when you want to pick it up."
"We'll be right there." Blair looked at Jim.
Quickly the two men cleaned off the table. Miraculously, someone had already returned the truck.
The old Ford roared to life and was quickly backed out onto the street. Blair grabbed for the dashboard with one hand as his partner took the first corner without braking. The truck seemed to travel around it on two wheels.
"I've got a really bad feeling about this, Jim." He groaned in frustration as the light ahead turned yellow. "We're already too late, aren't we?"
"I don't know, Sandburg, maybe." Without warning, the detective hit the siren to clear the traffic ahead of them. "I'm with you, though. I have a bad feeling about this, too. Hopefully that letter will give us some idea of what his plans are. If he hasn't left Cascade yet, we'll find him."
"Yeah," Blair said softly, almost to himself. "But in what condition?"
The truck shot through the quiet intersection and travelled to the downtown core. The Y was only a few miles from Prospect and the traffic was miraculously light. The two detectives pulled up in front of the old brownstone barely 15 minutes from the time Blair had finished speaking with the desk clerk.
The young Asian man behind the desk gave a startled look as two men jogged through the lobby to where he sat. The taller of the two dug into a pocket and flipped open a folder that held a gold badge and photo identification. Rising, the desk clerk bowed quickly from the neck. "Detective Ellison."
"We're here about one of your guests. Nyajiru." Blair couldn't contain his impatience. "I think we spoke to you earlier."
Nodding, the young man reached under the desk and pulled out a white envelope. "Yes. You're Blair Sandburg?" He waited a moment for confirmation and then placed the letter in the man's outstretched hand.
Blair quickly tore open the envelope and walked a few steps away from the clerk and his partner. He knew that Jim would collect any information the Asian man had. Unfolding the sheet, he began to read the elegant scrawl of the old shaman.
Looking up into his friend's face when he felt a hand on his shoulder, Blair sighed. "There's nothing here to tell us exactly what his plans are. It sounds like he must be heading for the airport. All it says is that it's time to leave."
"I didn't get much from the clerk either." Jim shifted his stance to read the letter over his partner's shoulder. "He left in a cab about an hour ago. C'mon, you can check flights and times on the drive over."
Nyajiru slowly came awake. He felt strangely disconnected from the rest of his body. The motion of the car he was travelling in had tossed him heavily into the passenger door. The pain that had erupted when his head connected with the thick glass felt distant through his drug-filled haze. Through still blurred vision he watched the scenery that whizzed past him. It seemed harsh and barren compared to his home on the Moremi Reserve or the Okavango. He found himself longing for the lush grasses of the delta that teemed with wildlife. The hard mountains that jutted out around him now blocked out the sky and seemed to cut him off from the living earth where he would always draw his strength.
"Ah, Nyajiru, you are awake!" The dulcet tones of the car's driver drew the old man's gaze to him. "I am pleased. Washington is very different from our Africa, but it is still beautiful. I am glad that you will be able to enjoy the drive. Very soon we shall be high in the mountains and away from the concrete bound cities. There we may talk and share our knowledge." The man turned to smile at the shaman. "I know that you are well versed in the use of herbs and that you may have some with you. I read about the misfortune at the airport. About the young man who smoked your tea. The poor fool."
The car made a sudden turn, sending the elderly man once more into the door. This time the pain that radiated from his elbow felt less numb. Nya wasn't sure if this was a blessing, but he took some courage in the fact that whatever his enemy had injected into him was beginning to wear off. Perhaps he hadn't been poisoned after all?
"Is that how you know about me, Nyoka? From the newspaper?" The Botswanan's tongue felt two sizes too large for his mouth and his words sounded slurred and lazy.
The driver of the car glanced briefly at the shaman. "Yes. Is it not strange how the spirits work, Nya? You were made known to me. It was not very hard to find you."
Squeezing his eyes shut against the headache that was starting, Nya asked, "What is it you hope to learn from me? There is nothing I can teach you."
"You are wrong, Mwalimu, there is much you can tell me. You and I share an interest. I am sure that interest is what has brought you half way around the world. Were you not here to witness the truth about the sentinel and his shaman? What did you learn from them?" Another glance at the old man proved that he had hit upon the truth. "Rest, Baba, it will not be very long now."
Dom Cantelmi put down the telephone and waved the two detectives into his office. The small room seemed barely large enough to hold the solidly built security chief and his ancient wooden desk.
"Gentleman, have a seat." He pointed to the chairs that occupied the small space between the piece of furniture and the filing cabinet. "I know it's a little cramped in here. They've been promising me a new place since I was made chief. And that'll be exactly 15 years, two months and 5 days... tomorrow." He shrugged his wide shoulders and laughed. "Hey, I'm a patient guy."
With a grin Blair moved into the chair that butted against the office wall and watched his partner fold his longer frame into the inadequate space next to him. He bit down on a chuckle when he heard Jim's knees whack up against the unforgiving side of the desk. "Mr. Cantelmi, my name is Detective Sandburg," Blair began the introductions, showing his badge and identification. "This is Detective Ellison. We're here trying to locate an African National that we believe was dropped off in the last couple of hours to catch a flight."
"This wouldn't be the same African National that ended up in the middle of that mugger's death, would it?" Cantelmi's strong Brooklyn accent didn't seem to have suffered in the 15 years or more of living on the Pacific Northwest. "I think I remember your name coming up in the case file as the investigating officer, Detective Sandburg. But I also remember that the case was closed and the man's death attributed to misadventure during a criminal act." He rocked back in his chair. "Have things changed?"
"No, nothing's changed," Jim offered. "Our reason for being here, at this moment, is unofficial. My partner and I have reason to believe that Nyajiru may be in danger."
The security chief scratched at his chin. "What? You think it's some kinda vendetta?"
"The threat isn't related to the death here at the airport." Blair checked his watch. They were wasting too much time.
"Well then, I don't see how I can help you."
"We've been able to trace Nyajiru's movements up until he arrived here at the airport." Sandburg looked to his partner to fill in the details.
"We know that he took a taxi from the Y and was dropped off here..." Ellison glanced down to check his notes. "He was dropped off here about two hours ago. We've checked the departure gates that we're assuming he might leave from and have come up empty."
"You're sure you know where he was headed? A lotta planes leave here every hour."
Jim heard his partner's heartbeat increase ever so slightly. He knew that worry was escalating his friend's frustration. "Right now everything we have is an assumption, but from a letter that the man left for Detective Sandburg we're assuming that he was returning to Botswana. There's a flight leaving for Gaborone in the next half hour." He closed his notepad and returned it to a pocket. "If Mr. Nyajiru is taking that flight he should be at the gate. Is there anyway for you to find out if he's there or if he's boarded the plane?"
"Yeah," Cantelmi said as he picked up the phone. "I can have him paged. Gimme a minute." The two detectives sat quietly as the information was quickly relayed. "Okay, that's done. They're not going to give me the passenger information from the gate over the phone. We're gonna have to go down for that in person. What's the gate number?"
"C 17." Ellison and Sandburg's voices were as one.
The head of security reached behind his chair and snagged his jacket. Before putting it on he checked the snap over his holster and gave it a pat. "Let's get down there. If your man answers the page, they'll forward the call to me." He opened his door and ushered the two men out. "So, how much danger do you think this Nyajiru is in?"
Blair looked up at his friend as they followed Cantelmi. Neither one of them could dismiss the sentinel's dream. Nya's life could be at stake.
12 days later
The bay window of the cabin faced the desolate stone side of the mountains. The jutting formations of rock seemed as alien to Nya as anyplace he had ever been. As he watched the trees sway in the strong wind he felt a heaviness form around his heart. He had never felt so spiritually or physically apart from the grasslands of his home. Not willing to surrender all belief that he would one day return to Moremi, he had watched vigilantly for signs along the road during their long drive up the North Cascade Highway. He had memorized names that had sounded foreign and strange to his ears. It had been his desperate hope that he could escape his captor and find help. A small chill had run through him when they had passed a large and brilliantly painted board that had announced they were heading towards Diablo Lake. The old shaman, familiar enough with the teachings of the Christians, recognized the named as meaning Devil's Lake. Christian devils and African evil spirits shared the same traits in both religions. They embraced chaos.
Sighing, he once again tested the ropes that held his wrists to the chair. For days he had been following the same routine. Long talks into the early hours of the morning with the man who held him captive, meals that consisted of foods from his homeland, and the long hours in between when he was left alone in the cabin. His "host", who he had come to think of as Nyoka when no other name was told to him, had proven himself to be more than hospitable. Nya had been denied nothing since his arrival. Nothing but his freedom. Resting his head against the soft cushion of the chair, he stared into the clear blue of the sky and wondered how long it would be before he was released. Released from his prison and from his time upon the earth. As solicitous and friendly as Nyoka had been, the old shaman had no doubt that his life was nearing its end.
The crunch of tires on the gravel road that led up to the cabin reached Nya's ears. With a grim smile he knew that the adder was returning to toy with his prey. The Botswanan hoped the man would tire of his game soon. So far he had been able to keep secret Blair's burgeoning talents as a shaman. As impatient and discouraged as the young man was in his lack of visions, Nya had felt the warmth of power he radiated. It wouldn't be long before Blair would realize his gift and talents. The old shaman felt it was his last duty to protect the young man from the adder for as long as he could. The soft slam of a car door made the old man tense ever so slightly. His vision of the wild dog, lying dead at the edge of the lake, was never far from his thoughts.
"Mwalimu," Nyoka's greeting of 'teacher' floated in on the cool draft of air from the opened door. "I hope you have spent a pleasant day."
Nyajiru watched as the tall and lanky African gracefully folded himself into the chair that sat across from him. The dwindling light from the large picture window glanced off the man's clean- shaven head creating a blurred white aura. His face was cast in deep shadows, making his eyelids seem hooded and his smile a tightlipped slit across his narrow face. Nya thought that everything about the man seemed serpentine. He was as Nya had first called him; Nyoka, the adder.
"I think," the younger man paused, his voice a pleasant, deep rumble. Smiling when he had gained Nya's complete attention, he continued, "I think that this evening you and I shall finally talk about the things that have drawn us together. You will tell me about the policeman. The sentinel. But..." He leaned forward to emphasize his next words. "I need to hear about his companion. The one who wrote the study. He is becoming, is he not?"
The old shaman sank deeper against the back of the chair, putting a few small inches between him and the leering face that was so close to his. "Sentinels were a myth of my tribe, Nyoka." Nyajiru surprised himself at how calm his voice sounded. "I have not met one in my eighty-three years. You are saying that one of the policemen I met in that young man's death is a sentinel?"
The Bantu leaned back in his chair, gracefully crossing his legs. His smile was slow and his eyes became mere slits. "Why is it that I don't believe your ignorance? Many have said that there is no true coincidence. There is no coincidence here. You have travelled far from your home to witness for yourself what was written about James Ellison. There is no myth, only fact. He is a sentinel. You will tell me about him."
The old man shrugged his shoulders. "I have nothing to tell you. I spoke with him only once. It was very brief. I cannot tell you what it is you seem so eager to know. I do not know if he is a sentinel." He looked his captor in the eye. "I can only tell you that he is a good policeman."
"Liar!" The word erupted from the other man in an angry roar. Rising from his chair with such force to send it tilting backwards, Nyoka stood trembling with rage. "You," he hissed as he pointed a well-manicured finger in the shaman's face, "will stop lying to me. You will tell me what I want to know." The finger was withdrawn and suddenly became a backhanded slap.
"I have told you what I know. You choose not to believe me." Nya winced against the stinging of his cheek, wishing he had a hand free to massage away some of the pain.
"What I choose not to believe are your lies. I shall hear the truth. I had hoped that we could talk as civilized people. We both live by the wisdom the spirits have given us. We are brothers in that respect." Turning to walk to the kitchen, the younger man sighed, "I see that this is not how it shall be. I will make us tea."
Nya's eyes widened as he watched the man's retreating back. He knew that the other meant no ordinary tea. If he were drugged he would have no hope of protecting Blair Sandburg or James Ellison. "Nyoka! Please wait!" He swallowed hard as his eyes met the golden stare of his captor. "I...I will tell you what you want to know. There is no need for tea." Now all he could hope was that his half-truths would be believed.
"I am pleased, Nyajiru," Nyoka cooed as he walked back to where his captive sat. Bending, he undid the restraints and offered his hand in assistance. "Come, join me in the kitchen. It is rare that you can find anything more exotic than a sardine in the Cascade markets, but today I found Blue Kurper. We will have a feast of grilled fish and corn cakes. It will be delicious."
Nya's thoughts were in a tumble as he was gently but forcibly led to the kitchen. The idea of enjoying a traditional braii with this man seemed too absurd to even contemplate, but he found himself nodding automatically at the continuous patter of the other man. The snake always did enjoy its dance before the kill.
They stopped before one of the heavy maple chairs situated around the table and Nya was silently directed to sit. With a sigh, he obeyed the command and watched dejectedly as a restraint was once again put around his wrist. "I have agreed to talk. Is this necessary?"
"Let's just say that this will remove any temptations and allow you to relax as I prepare our meal." Smiling, Nyoka went to the counter to start his preparations. "So please, begin. Tell me what you have learned about the sentinel Ellison."
"I do not know for certain that he is a sentinel," Nya began slowly; his eyes fixed on the brightly coloured pattern of tiles beneath his feet. "I did only speak with him once. Nothing happened that could prove or disprove it." The steady thwack of vegetables being sliced stopped, making Nyajiru look up.
"But," the other man prodded. "What do you believe? Do you believe he is one? Did you not get some feeling or intuition when you met?" He put the knife down and circled the small island to sit next to the shaman, his eyes large and questioning. "Sandburg believes that it is true. Did you speak to him of this?"
Gazing into the animated face of his captor, Nya could sense the man's genuine enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge. He wondered what could have corrupted it so to have brought them both to this point. "We did talk about it," the old man sighed. "You are correct in thinking that it was curiosity that brought me to Cascade. I wanted to see for myself if there was any truth to the story I had read. And I did sense some power in the police detective. Not as much as I had expected." He bit back a small smile. If his old friend Kuguri had been sitting next to him he would have recognized Nya's statement for what it was. A lie. "A sentinel needs someone to help him... guide him. I came to offer myself as that guide."
Clapping his hands together, the Bantu barked a short laugh and rose. "I knew it. It was the only reason for you to come. But you have chosen not to stay, but to return to Botswana." He went back to the chopping of vegetables. "I have to ask myself why, Mwalimu. Is it that this sentinel already has someone to help him?" He held the tip of the knife to his chin and tapped it as if in thought. "Blair Sandburg, I would think."
"Yes, you are correct again, Nyoka." Nya hoped that he could carry out his lie without betraying himself or the sentinel and his shaman. "Blair Sandburg is helping him. He has taught him some techniques to control his senses. Mostly relaxation exercises and ways to deal with the stresses Ellison's senses bring about."
"You make him sound like one of those new age gurus," Nyoka laughed, making quotation marks in the air as he said gurus. "Surely Sandburg is more than this. You would not entrust the safekeeping of one so revered in your culture to a mere amateur, would you?" With practiced ease he quickly seasoned the fish and placed them on the grill. "I think you would not."
"But that is only if I believed the detective to be a true sentinel. I am not sure that he is. As I said I only felt a small bit of power. Nothing like..." Nya hesitated.
"Nothing like your sentinel?" His captor finished for him with a smile. "Ah, but now I think that you are lying to me. I think that this James Ellison is a true sentinel. I think that Blair Sandburg is helping him, but using more than relaxation techniques. I think he is becoming."
Nya swallowed. "Becoming?" he asked. "You said this before. What is it that you think he is becoming?"
"Every culture has a different name for it, Baba. A shaman, medicine man, wizard, a spiritualist. He has the power." Nyoka's face grew feral when he saw the older man begin to shake his head. "I know that he has. He has not learned to recognize it or use it yet. What did you teach him?"
"I have taught him nothing." Nyajiru's heart sank as he realized that it didn't matter what he told the snake. Blair Sandburg and Jim Ellison would not be safe. "I don't understand why this is so important to you. They are not a threat, are they?"
"Why is anything important in a country like this?" Nyoka deftly flipped the corn cakes that were sizzling in a pan. "Power. One can never have enough if one is to be successful. I'm afraid that I cannot allow Blair Sandburg to become a shaman."
"Cannot allow?" Nya's voice rose. "Why? I don't understand why you fear him."
Nyoka slid a fork under the fish and turned them gently. "I do not fear Sandburg. I fear what he can take from me." He waved the fork in the air in a sweeping motion. "All this could be gone. A shaman is respected and honoured in his tribe. Here in the United States it is different. People are skeptical or worse. It has taken time to build their confidence in me. I use my herbs and salves to cure their minor ills and they think it a miracle. They come to me for advice and spiritual healing and hang on my every word. For many of them, all of whom are very rich and do not know what to do with their money, they will not do anything without consulting me first."
"But Blair Sandburg can take that from me. I will no longer be unique. They could turn to him. I have become very used to this lifestyle. I will not let it be jeopardized. It is sad that the reasons are so base. Money and position are worshipped here, Mwalimu. Power is important and I shall make his power mine."
Bowing his head, the old shaman could bear to hear no more. The wolf and the panther had walked away together in his vision. He had thought that he had seen the future of the sentinel and his shaman and that they would be safe from the snake. Nya now wondered if the vision had been about his future only, telling him that he would die alone at the hand of his enemy. The clatter of dishes broke through his thoughts and he looked bleakly at the meal that had been placed before him. He slowly raised his eyes to meet those of his captor who now sat across from him at the table.
"Eat, Nyajiru. The food will not taste as good if it gets cold." Nyoka smiled cheerily as he stabbed a piece of the fish with his fork and raised it to his mouth. "You have told me much tonight. I thank you for this. But the time for talking has ended. Let us enjoy this meal together."
The bullpen of Major Crime was its usual hectic arena. The ringing of phones and steady traffic of plain-clothed and uniformed police went virtually unnoticed by Ellison and Sandburg. Both men were focused on the strange disappearance of Nyajiru. It had been more than a week since the old man's abrupt leaving, making it as mysterious as his first appearance.
Through the dusty vertical blinds that shrouded his office, Simon Banks watched his two men. It didn't take a psychic to guess what they were discussing. While there was no official inquiry into Nya's whereabouts, he had allowed his two detectives to work on it unofficially between their caseloads. He had been willing to dismiss the whole affair as the eccentricities of an old man used to answering to no one. Simon hadn't been able to convince either of his friends of this possibility and had finally been swayed to their way of thinking. The captain had agreed that Ellison's vision had been disturbing, as much as he would allow himself to believe in visions. It made him uncomfortable when he was forced to consider the more ethereal world of a sentinel. But after the near tragic events that surrounded the arrival of Alex Barnes, he found himself less resistant to it all. With a shake of his head, and muttering to himself that he probably needed his head examined, he went back to his desk.
"I don't get it." Blair picked up the letter that sat on his desk and read it one more time. "This letter makes it sound like he's going back to Botswana. I mean, he checked out of the Y. His stuff is gone. Where'd he go? It was over a week ago!"
"You've got me, Chief." Jim leaned back in his chair and shrugged his shoulders. "Unless we're wrong and he did meet up with someone."
Rubbing his hand along his cheek, it occurred to Blair how long they had been working. His five o'clock shadow was developing into more than just a shadow. "No. I'm pretty sure he didn't know anyone else. He never mentioned it if he did and he wasn't here long enough to really meet anyone either."
Sighing, Ellison flipped open his notepad. "Nothing adds up. We know a taxi picked him up and brought him to the airport. So it looks like he was intending to leave. But if that was the case, why did he cancel his ticket back to Africa? That's the part that's got me stumped."
Getting up, Sandburg rolled his chair over to his partner's desk and studied the small notebook. "We've checked hospitals, the morgue, arrest reports, hotels. Airport security has looked in every nook and cranny. Nothing. How does someone just disappear?"
"People disappear all the time, Blair. Sometimes it's because they want to." The detective gave his partner a meaningful look. He hated bringing up the possibility, but he thought it was something for them to consider. His friend had interpreted the letter one way. It could be read another.
"No," Sandburg was adamant. "I know what you're getting at and you're wrong."
"The last part, about knowing how you were doing from the spirit world, was pretty cryptic, Chief. And..." Jim hesitated. He knew that his partner didn't want to hear the rest of his theory, but the look on Blair's face told him that he would have no choice but to finish his thought. "And in my dream there was no one else there. The haze lifted and the dog was dead. I didn't get any sense of someone or something else being there."
"That doesn't mean that's not what happened. He meant he was on his way home, Jim. I know he did." Sandburg turned away, his face twisted in a scowl. "It's the only thing that makes any sense. He didn't come all this way to just decide his life was over. He'd have too much respect for life for that. His own, included." Fighting down his frustration, and feeling that he was now standing alone in his belief that something had happened to Nya, he looked back at his partner. He was surprised to see a small smile on Jim's face. "What?"
Rising from his chair, Ellison gave his friend a firm pat on the back. "That's what I think too, Sandburg. He didn't strike me as the type either. I just thought we should get the other possibility out into the open and out of the way." His smile grew as he watched the tension and anger fade from his friend's face. "What say we go and get something to eat. It's way past dinnertime. I think better on a full stomach. You know that."
"You sleep better on a full stomach, you think better on a full stomach." Blair pushed himself up from his chair to follow his partner. "Is there anything you don't do better on a full stomach?" Busy doing up the buttons of his jacket, he yelped when he walked into the other man's back. Jim had stopped abruptly and turned to give him a smug grin. "Oh. Uh..." Sandburg cleared his throat and laughed, knowing that he had walked into that one with his eyes wide open. "So, Wonderburger okay with you?"
Jim stood at the edge of a small clearing that surrounded a lake. The soothing sound of the waves as they gently lapped against the shore drew him nearer. He could feel the light touch of moisture on the breeze and smell the musk-filled scent of the damp earth. Opening up his vision to take advantage of the distant light of stars and the full moon, he saw some activity on the far shore. Two figures, he guessed two men, stood silhouetted against the backdrop of trees and mountains. One was slight and seemed bent with age. The other was tall and lithe. From their stance alone, Ellison could sense that the taller of the two was dominating the encounter. His companion stood looking very fragile and cowed. Though the detective had the distinct impression that "companion" was probably not the best word to describe his relationship to the other man. The scene that spread before him held an element of threat or danger for the older figure. A sudden movement made the sentinel's entire body tense. He watched as the old man was violently forced to his knees and winced in sympathy as the man reached out to stop himself from falling forward and prone onto the sand. The other towered over him, holding out something that Jim couldn't discern. It suddenly dawned on him that there was something disturbingly familiar about the kneeling figure. Taking a step closer, Jim halted when he felt the cold touch of water on his bare feet.
Suddenly, the sentinel's thoughts took him to another time and a small sparse room where he had discovered his partner and another lying senseless on a threadbare rug. "Nyajiru?"
The detective squinted, trying to bring the two figures into focus. A mist from the lake had begun to swirl around the far shore, almost obscuring them. Ignoring the chill that was slowly creeping up his legs, he took another step into the shallow water of the lake. Ellison bit back a frustrated curse as the figures faded in and out of sight and tried to cut through the haze to see if it was indeed the old shaman. Barely conscious of doing it, he quietly called the man's name. "Nya?"
The word was hardly more than a whisper, but it drew the attention of both men. The old shaman looked at Ellison and the result was almost electric. The sentinel felt as if Nyajiru suddenly surrounded him. His sight told him that neither of the two men had moved from their spot on the other side of the lake, but he could sense the man almost as if he was being held in the old African's embrace.
The shaman's soft voice filled the sentinel's mind, dangerously pulling Ellison into a zone as he tried to understand the frantic jumble of words. "Stay away, Sentinel! I cannot protect you from Nyoka, the snake. I tried, but his strike is too fast and deadly. Beware and protect..." The last of the words were swallowed up by a tortured gasp.
Ellison's mind reeled as the rest of Nya's message was choked off and the shaman's presence was savagely ripped from him. The abruptness of it sent a brief, but searing, stab of pain through his head and he dropped to his knees in the frigid water, clutching at his temples. Fighting against the throbbing ache, he followed a deep-buried instinct that urged him to try to re-establish the link. He was desperate to maintain his contact with the old man. He looked once again across the water and silently begged for Nyajiru to look at him, but the African was being held firm around the neck by the other man. Slowly rising to his feet, the detective knew that he would never be able to cross the distance in time to save the elderly Botswanan. He watched in agony as Nya's head was bent backwards and his mouth forced open. It looked as if the man who held him wanted the old shaman to eat or drink whatever it was that he had in his hand.
The mist that had been swirling close to the ground in lazy waves became more agitated and dense. It circled the two men, crawling up their bodies in curled wisps until it blurred their shapes into undulating masses. Try as he might, the sentinel couldn't slice through the fog to see more clearly what was happening. The two forms seemed to be shifting, at times almost melting into each other. Up until this point, Jim had heard no noises from the other side of the lake other than Nya's voice in his head. It had seemed as if a large barrier had been erected between them, cutting off all sounds. But now he thought he could hear something and he strained his hearing to listen. The snarl of a dog and the snapping of its teeth reached his ears, reminding him of his dream of the wild dog and the wolf. He heard a low-pitched hiss and knew it was the snake that Nyajiru had warned him against. Frustration and anger at not being able to see what was happening or being able to go to the shaman's rescue had him clutching his fists until they ached from the strain. He felt his fingernails dig into his palms and the warm, sticky wetness of blood.
And then suddenly everything stopped.
The sounds of the snake and the dog were silenced. The swirling fog seemed to freeze. It was as if the world had stopped to take a breath and Jim Ellison felt himself hold his along with it. Fear for the old man had his muscles quivering as he waited for the world to breathe again. He didn't have long to wait. The high-pitched howl of the dog split the darkness and drove into his soul like a spike. The mist fell to the ground like shattered pieces of glass to reveal the other side of the lake. The detective couldn't restrain his moan. The wild dog lay at the edge of the water, its belly torn and oozing blood into the inky blackness. A large snake, its mottled skin marked with brown and black slithered across the dog's body and into the dense forest. But before it disappeared completely from sight, it turned to look at the detective. Its golden eyes blinked slowly at him as its pronged tongue darted out from a mouth that was open in an unnerving imitation of a smile.
Unable to bear the pain of the shaman's death and his helplessness at being unable to prevent that death, the sentinel screamed out his anger in a drawn out wail. "NO!"
Blair's eyes snapped open. "Jim?!" His friend's yell had made it through the many layers of sleep and set his heart pounding. Bolting out of bed, he jerked open the glass doors to his room and cringed as he heard them bang noisily against the walls.
"Jim? Answer me, man! Are you okay?" Even going up the staircase two steps at a time couldn't carry Sandburg fast enough to his partner's side. Every horrible scenario that his overactive imagination could come up with flashed through his mind in seconds. When he reached the top landing, he stopped his mad dash. His friend's body wasn't lying on the floor in a pool of blood, the victim of a silent killer. He wasn't writhing in pain from some unknown illness or attack as Blair's panicked brain had tried to convince him. His friend was sitting in bed, his knees drawn up almost to his chest. He was breathing heavily and doing his best to crush the heels of his hands into his eyes. "Hey, Jim, what's going on?" Reaching out a tentative hand, not wanting to startle him, Blair laid it gently on the sentinel's shoulder. "Nightmare?"
Ellison lowered his hands from his eyes and took in a deep breath. "Worse." He watched as his partner slowly sat on the edge of the bed. Sandburg's blue eyes stared hard and unblinking into his. It wasn't hard to read the dread that haunted his features. He knew how the younger man's mind worked and was sure that Blair had already made the logical steps to his distress being centred on something sentinel-related. Or, more likely, the problem that had been consuming them for the past week: Nya.
"Worse," Blair's voice was quiet. "You had better tell me about it, Jim. Does it have something to do with Nya?" Seeing his friend nod, he sighed wearily. "I was afraid of that."
"We're too late, Chief." There was no doubt in his mind this time about what the vision had meant. "I think Nya was trying to reach out to us. He was trying to warn us."
"What did he say?"
The detective could hear the bleakness in his friend's voice and shared some of what he was feeling. They had known from the outset that the chances of discovering that Nya had just wandered off and would return were slim. Neither of them had wanted or had been willing to voice their thoughts out loud. "He told me that I had to beware and protect. He never had a chance to tell me what to protect, but he said something about..." Jim paused, trying to remember the old shaman's words. "He said, 'I cannot protect you from Nyoka, the snake,' but that he had tried to." Leaning back against the railing, he wished that he could have spared his guide the rest of it. "I saw the snake, Blair, you were right."
Sandburg's brows furrowed. "I was right? About what? What snake? I don't understand."
"You said that maybe I just didn't see that there was someone else at the lake when I turned back to look. It was different this time. A different place and lake. Nya was there with someone else. I was too far away and it was too dark and misty for me to be able to see who it was, but this other guy was trying to make Nya eat or drink something. Then the fog got too thick and I couldn't see anything." Jim's voice broke as he relived the feeling of frustration. "But I could hear them fighting, the dog and snake. When I could see again, it was like the first time. The dog was lying at the edge of the lake. Only this time there was a snake." He felt a quick shudder run through his body as he remembered the backward glance the snake had given him before it had disappeared. "It had killed the dog."
"Then what we thought from the beginning was true. Nya's dead... murdered." Blair's knuckles turned white as his fingers dug and twisted into the blankets on the bed. It was several seconds before he said anything and when he did his voice was low and angry. "It just doesn't seem fair. He came here to help us." Meeting his friend's eyes, he was certain of only one thing. "I wanna get this guy, Jim."
"We both do, Chief," Ellison whispered earnestly. "We both do."
The two hikers walked slowly through the woods, holding hands and occasionally gazing lovingly into each other's eyes. They were silent, enjoying the soothing forest sounds that surrounded them-- chirping birds, rustling leaves, the peaceful sound of the babbling brook they followed. Butter, their hyperactive golden retriever, bounded gleefully ahead of them, enthusiastically investigating every hollow and rooting through each pile of leaves as if evaluating its suitability for a good body roll. Periodically, she would cease her investigations and dash happily back to the trail to sit, tongue lolling and her snout covered with the fruits of her burrowing, waiting for her people to arrive. Whenever she found a particularly scintillating item, Butter would grasp it firmly in her mouth and proudly present it to her owners once they caught up with her. They would praise her with an enthusiastic "Good girl!" and a pat on the head and she would race back into the woods to seek her fortunes once again.
On one such excursion, Butter discovered a prize that she couldn't take to her owners. She darted back to the trail and pranced happily, wagging her tail and barking excitedly.
"What's got her so worked up this time?" Don Grant wondered aloud, turning a puzzled grin to his wife Barbara.
"I dunno, but it must be something good," Barb theorized, bending to stroke the dog's now tangled and dirty fur. "What did you find, Butter? Buried treasure?"
As she had done so many times before on the hike, Butter spun and ran back into the woods. But she reappeared almost immediately, barking insistently and continuing to prance.
"Why do I suddenly feel like I'm in a episode of Lassie?" Barb joked, shooting her husband an amused smile. She turned to address the excited dog, "What is it, girl? Has the bridge washed out? Is Timmy in danger?"
Butter barked again and turned as if to go into the forest. But she paused and looked back at her owners, clearly communicating her desire that they follow her to uncover her most wondrous prize.
Rolling her eyes, Barb took her husband by the hand and pulled him into the woods with her. "C'mon," she insisted, "If I'm going to have to save Timmy from a bear, you have to come, too." They disappeared into the trees after their dog.
Less than five minutes later, the forest rang with Barbara Grant's horrified scream.
Jim Ellison's hand was reaching for his coffee cup when his phone rang. He revised his motion to grasp the receiver and lift it to his ear. "Ellison," he said succinctly. He listened for a moment then sighed heavily, turning sad eyes to his partner. Propping his elbow on his desk and placing his forehead in his hand, he acknowledged the caller with a soft, "Yeah, thanks for letting us know. It'll take us an hour or so to get out there." He gently replaced the telephone handset and lifted his eyes to the desk next to his. Blair sat staring at him, as still as death, his blue eyes wide.
Knowing that words didn't need to be spoken, but needing to speak them all the same, Jim said softly, "They've found him, Blair."
Blair's eyes closed tightly in pain and his chin dropped to his chest. "I was hoping..." Blair's voice trailed off and Jim finished the thought for him.
"...that I was wrong," he concluded.
"Yeah," Blair said quietly.
Rising to stand closer to his partner, Jim grasped Blair's shoulder and asked in concern, "You okay, Chief?"
Blair's eyes blazed briefly and he snapped a retort. "No! I'm not okay, Jim!" Then the fire died and the deep sadness returned. "No," he repeated. "A nice old man is dead and it's most likely got something to do with us. Your vision proves that. You said he was trying to warn us."
"Yeah, he was warning us about this nyoka thing, whatever it is." Jim couldn't disagree with his partner's reasoning and felt a disturbing sense of guilt at the thought that they were indirectly responsible for the elderly Botswanan's death.
"Where did they find him?" Blair asked, taking a deep breath and trying to regain his composure.
"Cascade National Forest. Couple of hikers and their dog discovered the body on one of their nature walks," Jim explained. "That was one of the park rangers with the National Park Service on the phone. He'd seen the APB on Nya and called us when the body was discovered." Jim hated to deliver the next part of his bad news to his already distressed partner. "Because they found the body in a national park, the case belongs to the Feds."
Blair turned incredulous eyes to his partner. "What?"
"It's not our case, Chief." Jim's expression radiated compassion as he regarded Blair and his grip on the younger man's shoulder didn't ease.
"They can't do that!" Blair declared hotly, shrugging off Jim's hand and pushing himself to his feet.
"I'm afraid they can," Jim confirmed sympathetically. "But..."
"Well, I'm not going to let them!" Blair broke in angrily, "I didn't know him very long, but Nya was my friend, Jim!"
"I know that, Blair. And I'm grateful to him, too, for helping you find your way. That's why I told the ranger we'd be up to talk with him in about an hour. It may not be our case, Chief, but that doesn't mean we can't poke around a little," he added with a sly wink.
Blair released the deep breath he'd inhaled preparatory to delivering his next tirade and smiled slightly. "Thanks, Jim."
"C'mon, buddy. We've got a long drive ahead of us," Ellison grasped the back of his partner's neck and gently steered him toward the elevator.
Ellison surreptitiously observed Sandburg, keeping one eye trained on the road and casting an occasional glance toward the passenger side of the blue and white truck as it sped toward its depressing destination. The first thirty minutes of their journey had passed in total silence.
"You're staring," Blair finally commented, never shifting his gaze from the side window.
"S'okay," Blair assured him, finally turning to face Jim. The young detective's face still reflected a deep sadness and his voice quavered slightly as he confessed, "I was just thinking about Nya."
"That's what I figured," Jim sighed, turning his attention to the road to navigate swiftly through a congested section of freeway. Once the truck cleared the traffic, Ellison regarded again. "Still feeling guilty?"
"Well yeah, Jim, I am. Aren't you?" Blair felt as if he and his emotions were strapped tightly into a roller coaster car, forced to helplessly ride the peaks and valleys at an outside operator's whim. Just when he thought he had himself centered, a rush of anger would send his temper racing out of control. Realizing that he had been abrupt with his partner, Blair waved a hand in a silent apology.
"Yeah," Jim admitted softly, accepting the unspoken apology. Truth be told, he was having as much trouble keeping his anger at bay as Blair was. "I guess I am."
"I mean, he left Botswana specifically to meet us, to offer his help. And now he's dead. If he hadn't come here, he'd still be alive." Blair's eyes misted over as he added mournfully, "It's my fault."
Ellison felt enormous guilt as well, but couldn't bear to let his partner shoulder the blame alone. "It's not your fault, Blair. How could it be your fault?"
"He came here to help me, Jim..."
"You said it yourself, Chief. He came here to help us," Jim corrected. "No one could have predicted any of what happened."
"I think Nya did," Blair said soberly. "There's another way to interpret his note, Jim. He didn't mean he was going to go off and die. He knew he was going to be killed. He probably saw it in a vision, maybe even the same one you saw."
It made sense Ellison had to admit. Perhaps he and Nya had shared a vision-- a very unpleasant one. He grimaced as he pondered how it would feel to "see" your own death. He'd been in many situations where he feared for his life, but he'd never had a vision or a premonition of his own death. He shuddered briefly as he recalled the dream that had shown him Blair's death, an image he would much rather have forgotten.
"I understand how you feel, Blair, and I feel responsible, too. But there's a part of me that wonders if we ever really had any control over the situation to start with." Jim shifted uncomfortably and focused his attention on the road ahead of them as Blair turned a confused look his way. "I mean, if I've learned anything over the last few years, it's that sometimes things happen and there's absolutely nothing we can do to alter them," he continued with a self- conscious shrug.
"Fate," Blair murmured in agreement, peering out the window once again and nodding. "Doesn't make me feel any better, though."
"No, it doesn't," Jim admitted sadly.
A little over an hour later, Ellison brought the truck to a stop in the gravel parking lot outside the Moss Creek National Park Ranger Station. The small station, nestled in a copse of pine trees and fronted by a gently fluttering American flag, certainly did not bustle with activity.
"Are you sure this is the right place?" Blair asked, looking around curiously. "Doesn't look like any murder scene investigation I've ever seen."
Ellison had to agree. He'd expected to see the parking lot filled with the ubiquitous four-door sedans that screamed "federal agent" and dark-suited minions hustling to and fro, speaking softly into their walkie-talkies and cell phones. Side-stepping a mud puddle left as a reminder of recent rains, he confirmed their location. "Yeah, this is the right place."
"Weird," Blair muttered as they reached the entrance to the station. "By the look of things, you'd never know a man was murdered, would you?"
It was a rhetorical question, so Jim didn't bother to answer. He pushed the door open and stepped inside, his eyes quickly sweeping the small office. The building consisted of a large room with a long counter at the back; a small office was tucked off to the right side and public restrooms off the left. The office end of the room sported a large relief map of the Cascade National Forest, with the area surrounding the Moss Creek Ranger Station highlighted. The restroom end held several literature racks displaying campsite and trail information and a broad selection of postcards. A large, slightly faded poster of Smokey the Bear adorned the wall behind the racks, admonishing all who regarded it to remember that only they could prevent forest fires.
Behind the counter, a female ranger regarded the disparate duo in momentary appreciation before asking politely, "May I help you?"
Pulling his identification from a pocket, Ellison approached the counter. "Detective Jim Ellison, Cascade PD. This is my partner, Blair Sandburg. We got a call from," Jim consulted his notes, "a Ranger Jack Donato telling us that the body of a missing person we've been looking for has been found."
Before the clerk could respond, a rather portly man in a national park ranger's uniform stepped from the small office adjoining the information counter. "I'm Jack Donato," he identified himself in a booming voice, extending his hand to each man in greeting. "You made good time."
"Traffic was light," Jim replied neutrally, not willing to admit that they had broken more than one speed limit in an effort to arrive before the scene could be totally corrupted by the Feds. "So, where is everybody?" he questioned, gesturing to the mostly empty parking lot. "I expected to see hoards of federal agents swarming the place."
Donato looked perplexed. "Why?" he asked, furrowing his brow and regarding the two Cascade detectives in confusion.
"Why?" Blair burst out, unable to contain his surprise. "Doesn't finding a murder victim register on federal radar anymore?"
"Murder?" Donato was obviously not following Blair's reasoning. "Who said anything about murder? If this is the old man you're looking for, he wasn't murdered. Looks to me like the old fella just wandered off into the woods, got lost and died of natural causes or something. There weren't any signs of foul play."
Blair snorted derisively, but heeded his partner's subtle shift of position and held his tongue. "Have the Feds even been here?" Ellison asked.
"Oh yeah, they were here and took the body down to the local morgue. It's in a small town not far from here called Moss Creek, just like my park."
Blair rolled his eyes and shifted impatiently, but Ellison gamely pressed on. "So, did they say anything to you?"
Ellison silently counted to five before calmly answering, "About the body or the location, Ranger Donato. Did they offer any theories of their own?"
Donato pressed his lips together in thought and then shook his head. "Nope. Pretty much came to the same conclusion I did. The old guy got lost in the woods and died."
"What about the autopsy?" Jim prodded.
Donato frowned. "Look, Detective Ellison. I only called you as a courtesy. The body was found in a national park and, as a result, it becomes a federal case. I just remembered seeing your APB and thought you'd appreciate knowing he'd been found. Any other information you want will have to come from the Feds." Donato crossed his arms across his barrel chest and assumed a defiant stance, which had little to no effect on ex-Army Ranger Captain James Ellison.
"I'd like for you to show me where the body was found," Jim plowed on, ignoring the ranger's bravado, "and are the witnesses still available?"
Realizing that he was overmatched, Donato deflated a bit. "Well, yeah, I guess I can show you where they found the body, but the couple that found it have long since left. The wife was pretty upset, you know?"
"They register for a campsite?" Jim asked, moving to regard the map on the wall.
"Yeah," Donato confirmed, uncertain what Ellison was driving at.
"It'll have their names and address on it," Jim said, turning to face the ranger, "I'll need a copy of that before we leave."
Donato opened his mouth to protest once again that the Cascade police department had no jurisdiction in the case and was, therefore, not privy to the information, but decided against it when confronted with Ellison's steely glare. "Glad to," was the best he could manage. He turned to the clerk behind the counter. "Susan, would you please make a note of the name and address of the couple who found that body this morning and give it to Detective Ellison when we return?" He did his best to make it sound as if it had been his idea all along.
"Sure," Susan smiled, openly admiring the man who could best her boss in the intimidation arena.
Donato grabbed his radio and shoved it into the holster he wore low on his left hip. "You know how to reach me if you need me," he snapped, glaring at his amused employee.
Gesturing toward the door, Donato indicated that the two detectives should precede him. While Donato's back was turned, Blair flashed a grin at Susan and winked. She smiled in return and gave the longhaired detective a small wave.
Donato wiped his brow with his handkerchief and tried not to look winded in front of the big city detectives. He knew the senior detective, Ellison, wasn't impressed with his handling of the case and he didn't want to exacerbate the situation by showing that he had gotten out of shape during his service with the National Parks Service. It had only been a three-mile hike, but damn it was warm, especially for this high up in the mountains! A dip in the cool, peaceful lake that bordered the crime scene looked pretty inviting to the overheated ranger.
Staring pointedly at the man's red face, Ellison none too subtly suggested, "We can take it from here, Ranger Donato."
"But, I shouldn't," Donato began to protest lamely. "I mean..."
"You said yourself that the federal agents didn't consider this a crime scene, so I see no reason why you should have to remain with us while we poke around," Ellison insisted. "We'll be able to find our own way back. The trail is clearly marked, after all."
Recognizing that he was once again out of his league, Donato grunted and turned to leave. "Don't forget to stop by the station so Susan can give you the witness information," he said gruffly. He began to walk back down the trail toward the ranger station. A few moments after he cleared the scene, Jim smiled and chuckled softly.
"What's so funny?" Blair demanded irritably. Reaching the scene of Nya's death had resurrected his earlier melancholy.
"Donato is muttering under his breath about overbearing city detectives," Jim informed him. "And he's certain I'm more brawn than brains."
Despite the situation, Blair smiled. "He does seem a little full of himself, doesn't he?"
"That's the impression I get." Jim shrugged. "Guess I just wanted to take him down a notch. I didn't like the way he talked to his clerk," he added off-handedly, pulling a pair of latex gloves from his pocket and stretching them over his hands. He didn't know what he expected to find out in the middle of the forest, but whatever it was he had no intention of contaminating it with his own fingerprints.
"Besides, we didn't need him hanging around while you used your senses, either," Blair added, following his partner's lead.
"That, too," Jim agreed, and then bent to his task of investigating the crime scene. He shook his head, faintly unsettled by his surroundings. "This feels so weird, Blair. I mean, this is exactly the spot I saw in my dream! Only, I was on the other side of the lake and the dog and the snake were on this side."
Blair's expression was disturbed as he regarded the area that Jim had apparently seen so clearly in his dream. When Jim had described the events that had taken place, Blair had assumed that the setting had been symbolic rather than actual. "When the snake disappeared into the bushes, which way did it go, Jim?"
Jim took a moment to gain his bearings, trying to banish the horrible images of Nyajiru's painful death as well as the feelings of helplessness that once again assaulted him. Turning slightly, Jim pointed to an area thick with underbrush, "It slithered over that way. I remember seeing the bushes there when the snake turned and, well, looked at me." Despite having experienced several visions since his senses had re-emerged, Jim was clearly still uncomfortable at the method of communication chosen by those on the spiritual plane. He was obviously discomfited by the image of the snake as well.
For several minutes the pair searched in silence, hoping to find some blatant clue to the physical circumstances of Nya's disappearance and death. But whatever clues might have existed did not announce themselves with neon lights or waving banners and Blair slapped his hand against a tree trunk in frustration. "Nothing!" he declared hotly then struck the tree trunk again.
"Easy there, Chief," Jim cautioned gently. "We've got to keep it together, here."
"Yeah, yeah. I know. Sorry, Jim." Blair took a deep breath and studied the surrounding terrain. "I don't think Nya was killed here, Jim, even though it's the area you saw in your dream."
Jim paused in his intent perusal of the ground surrounding the marked location of the body. Judging by the haphazard markings, Donato was right. The Feds had truly considered this a tragic case of a senile dementia. A confused old man had simply wandered off, gotten lost and had died a natural death. No foul play, no need for a long, involved investigation. Get in, document the scene and then get out. Case closed. As the meaning of his partner's words sank in, Jim regarded Blair intently, "Why do you say that?"
"Just checking the area," Blair shrugged. "No signs of a struggle. It looks kind of rough back that way." He motioned to his left, toward a steep bluff that rose several feet into the air. "But there's no indication that Nya's... body... was thrown or carried from up there."
"Good eye, Sandburg," Jim approved. He recognized the mountainous backdrop from his dream. "You're probably right. Nya was thin and frail, but had the murderer carried or thrown him from the bluff, the surrounding area would be much more disturbed than it is. Of course, the Feds haven't helped our cause any by trampling the scene to death, either. I guess I can't blame them..." he began then raised his palm to forestall Blair's response. "We're too close to the case not to see it for what it is, Sandburg. The Feds don't have the same inside knowledge we have. Unfortunately, the situation they've described happens all too frequently, so they've got quite a bit of precedent for their determination."
"I know," Blair admitted. "I just can't stand the thought that this guy is going to get away with this!"
"He's not, Blair," Ellison promised. "We'll find him somehow. Now let's see if I can't dig a little deeper and find us something useful to go on." Sandburg took his familiar position off Ellison's left shoulder in case he was needed to deter a zone out and the sentinel and guide spent the next several minutes in silence as the watchman delved deep into the minutiae that comprised the surrounding forest. Finally, the sentinel relaxed his vigilance and, indicating that his guide follow, began to move cautiously into the forest, away from the hikers' path Donato had shown them.
"Whoever he is, he's good," Jim commented as he picked his way through the trees and undergrowth to follow a trail only he could see.
"Is he still around?" Blair questioned, keeping close on Jim's heels, ready to assume a defensive posture if necessary.
"No sign of him, Chief. And he's done a good job of covering his trail. For all I know, right now I could be following a renegade groundhog." Blair's bark of laughter was a welcome change to the serious expression he had worn since they arrived. Jim knew the reprieve would be short- lived. The situation was far too serious to be taken lightly, but he wanted to divert Blair's thoughts from the intense guilt that he felt.
Less than ten minutes later, the sentinel stopped and straightened his posture, a sigh of frustration and a mild expletive escaping his lips as he stared morosely at the scene before them. "Damn."
"What's the matter, Jim?" Blair asked, coming from behind his partner where his vision had been obscured.
Ellison gestured sullenly at the wide expanse of rocky terrain that fronted a public campground packed with families enjoying the great outdoors. "I told you he was good. The trail ends here. Any semblance there might have been of a path will have been totally obliterated." As a precaution, he scanned the surrounding area in an attempt to prove himself wrong, but he could find no discernible path.
Turning back the way they had come, Ellison growled, "Come on, Chief. Let's get back to the ranger station and get the names of those hikers. Based on the lack of evidence at the scene, I don't think they're going to be able to tell us anything, but I don't want to take the chance. And I want to see Nya's body."
An hour later, after hiking back to the ranger station and retrieving the necessary information from Donato's clerk, Susan (Donato was conspicuous by his absence), the two detectives entered the Moss Creek Funeral Home and Mortuary, which also served as the small town's morgue. "I hate these places," Blair muttered. "They give me the creeps!"
Ellison started to agree, but refrained when he detected approaching footsteps. From an anteroom off the large entry stepped a skeletal man dressed in an old fashioned, ill-fitting black suit, charcoal shirt and black string tie. In stark contrast to the drab loose clothing, the face that topped the shirt was almost startlingly white, long and angular with a sharp nose. "May I help you?" he asked obsequiously, clasping his hands together at waist level.
"I'm Detective Ellison from Cascade PD. This is my partner, Blair Sandburg," Jim pulled his identification from his pocket and held it out for the cadaverous man to see. Blair followed suit and waited patiently while the mortician closely examined their credentials.
Having satisfied himself as to the authenticity of the credentials, the man raised his eyes to meet the tall detective's. "Bartholomew Abercrombie," he introduced himself, "What can I do for you?"
"You're holding the body of an elderly African man brought in this morning?" Jim asked as he tucked his identification back into his pocket.
"Yes, I am."
"We'd like to see the body, please."
"Of course. This way, gentlemen." Abercrombie led the way from the reception area back through a series of long, dark hallways and Ellison couldn't help but feel as if he was playing a supporting role in a B class horror film. Any moment, he expected a zombie to leap from the many darkened rooms they passed and drag one of them screaming into the night. Only it wasn't night. And this wasn't a horror film. It was real.
"Do you know if the deceased had any family?" Abercrombie inquired as he stopped in front of a large, gleaming metal door and fished in his pocket.
As Abercrombie pulled a set of keys from his pocket and concentrated on inserting the correct key into the lock, Blair turned startled eyes toward his partner. Neither of them actually knew if Nya had had any family or not.
"Uh, no we don't." Blair confirmed. "He may have had some family in Africa, but we don't know. He didn't mention anyone," he finished sadly.
"Oh dear." Abercrombie fretted, swinging the door wide and stepping into the chilly room. Ellison and Sandburg followed him into the room, pausing as he reached a long arm out to flick on a light switch. "That brings up the question of a funeral." Abercrombie turned a serious face to his visitors. "Don't think me a mercenary, Detectives, but I must make a living, after all." Moving to a wall of refrigerated storage units, he grasped the handle on one of the doors and tugged. The drawer slid out smoothly and quietly to reveal a sheet-draped figure. Jim heard Blair's breath catch.
"Chief," he began only to be stopped by Blair's soft response.
"I can do this, Jim. I owe it to him."
Jim nodded; understanding that the guilt his partner felt drove him to make amends any way he could. Identifying the gentle old man's body was but one way Blair could acknowledge his gratitude to Nya and his remorse that the shaman's death was almost certainly a direct result of his visit to Cascade's sentinel and guide.
Blair moved closer to the body and, with a small nod, indicated his readiness to the mortician. Abercrombie, with a reverence that belied the stern expression he wore, eased the sheet away from the corpse's face and stepped aside to give Blair a few moments of privacy.
The young detective remained rigid for several seconds after the victim was revealed, then reached out to hesitantly touch the cold, lifeless hand of Nyajiru. "I'm sorry," he whispered so softly that even Jim could barely hear him. "I can only hope that you have joined Kuguri, and that you and your sentinel will be together for all eternity." He held the hand a moment longer then turned away with a heavy sigh.
Ellison gripped his partner's shoulder firmly in silent support and then turned his full attention to examining the body. It was never a pleasant task, but it was particularly disturbing when you knew the body when it breathed and pulsed blood through its veins. As communicated by Ranger Donato, there appeared to be no visible signs of trauma. After a moment, Jim felt Blair's presence at his side and he looked up to acknowledge his partner with a sympathetic smile.
As he resumed his examination, careful to mask his more detailed inspection with generalized motions that could be interpreted as "routine," Ellison said conversationally, "Mr. Abercrombie, as my partner mentioned, we are not aware that the victim has any family to notify of his death." He carefully turned Nya's head to the side as he examined his neck and continued, "In fact, I believe Detective Sandburg and I are probably the closest thing to family or friends he had in the United States."
Blair wondered where his partner was headed with his casual conversation and tried to maintain a detached air as he watched Jim meticulously examine the body.
"So," Jim continued, transferring his attention to Nya's upper torso, "Perhaps you'd be willing to release the body into our custody?" He heard Blair's startled breath and knew he had made the right decision when Blair's hand briefly touched his shoulder then slid away.
"Well, I don't know..." Abercrombie mused uneasily, his face reflecting his indecision.
Jim pressed his point. "The FBI didn't indicate they intended to do anything with the body, did they?"
"Well, no," the thin mortician admitted, "but..."
"Then I see no problem with the Cascade Coroner's office sending someone to pick up the body while we try to find out if he had any family. Do you?" Jim paused to grace Abercrombie with an ingratiating smile and Blair's expression was openly pleading.
"No, I suppose not," Abercrombie agreed. "And seeing as how you're the closest thing to family that he has, I suppose it's only proper that he be given over to your care."
Blair released a pent up breath and reached to shake the mortician's hand. "Thank you," he said simply, letting his expression communicate the rest.
Later, in the truck, Blair repeated the phrase; only this time he said it to his partner. "Thank you, Jim," he said solemnly, knowing he did not need to elaborate.
"No thanks necessary, Chief. I meant what I said. And if we can't determine that he had any family to notify, then we'll be his family. He deserves a proper burial, according to his beliefs if we can. We're going to make sure he gets that burial."
Gratitude shone from Blair's eyes and he could think of nothing more expressive to say than another heartfelt "Thank you."
Despite the relative lateness of the hour, the Major Crime bullpen still quietly buzzed with activity when Ellison and Sandburg returned. Rafe and Henri were each on the telephone. Henri sat facing his computer, the telephone receiver tucked precariously between his ear and his shoulder while he worked to produce a document using the tried and true "hunt and peck" method of typing. Rafe was scribbling rapidly as he took down the pertinent information regarding another Major Crimes case, occasionally interjecting an "uh huh" or a question. Simon, as usual, was still in his office, unlit cigar firmly clamped between his teeth and a scowl directed steadfastly at the available manpower information he held in his hand.
Jim and Blair had made arrangements with Abercrombie and the Cascade Coroner's Office to have someone pick up Nya's body that evening and deliver it to the morgue for an autopsy. Dan Wolf had begrudgingly agreed to place a priority on the autopsy and had scheduled it for 8:00 the following morning, promising that Ellison and Sandburg would "owe him big" for his assistance.
Having taken care of claiming Nya's body, the detectives had turned their attention to locating and interviewing Donald and Barbara Grant, the hapless hikers whose dog had found the elderly Botswanan's lifeless corpse. As Ellison had suspected, while admirably composed following the ghastly discovery, the couple was unable to produce any information helpful to the case. Unless the autopsy produced at least a definitive cause of death, the investigation was going nowhere and that was unacceptable to Jim Ellison.
A restless night found the detectives up earlier than usual the next morning. Blair was quiet and withdrawn and the dark circles under his eyes attested to the sleepless night he had spent trying to avoid the specter of Nya's corpse now lying in the Cascade morgue. Jim, too, had had difficulty sleeping and was hoping the caffeine in the extra strong coffee he had brewed would boost his energy level to something at least above sloth.
Precisely at 8:00, the partners entered the chilly realm of the Cascade morgue and solemnly greeted Wolf. He returned the greetings with equal solemnity and continued to prepare his work area. Nya's naked body already lay on the hard, steel table, his lifeless expression serene and seemingly at odds with his cold, hard surroundings. Blair swallowed his sorrow as he and Jim pulled surgical masks over their faces and moved to stand by the body. Jim had given Nya's body a cursory (for a sentinel) examination at the Moss Creek Funeral Home, but wanted a chance to do a more detailed inspection before Dan began his more invasive procedures.
He caught Blair's eye and, with an almost imperceptible nod, indicated that he should distract Wolf while the sentinel worked. Wracking his brain for a diversion, Blair finally launched into a detailed description of Bartholomew Abercrombie that soon had Dan chortling with laughter, despite the seriousness of his impending task. Blair assured himself that, were Nya in a condition to care, he would not have been offended at the levity that assured that the sentinel would be able to conduct his examination without benefit of an audience or an explanation.
"Dan," Jim finally called the coroner back to the task at hand. "What do you make of this?" He made a show of squinting through a large magnifying glass at a small bruise on the inside of Nya's left bicep.
Pulling his own mask up to cover his nose and mouth, Wolf bent to examine the area Jim indicated. "There appears to be some bruising here," he murmured, shifting the glass closer and angling the overhead light to better illuminate the area. "And perhaps a tiny puncture wound, although I can't be certain about that yet." He raised his eyes to meet Ellison's. "How did you see this tiny spot without knowing what you were looking for?"
Ellison shrugged. "Hunch," he replied succinctly. "There were no outward signs of trauma and I just had a hunch the old fella didn't just wander out into the woods and die. So, I started looking for convenient areas to administer a drug of some sort. I was actually expecting to find a mark on the inside of his elbow..." he trailed off and shifted uncomfortably. He wasn't nearly as good as Blair at this obfuscation thing and he hadn't had to engage in it much since the majority of Major Crime's detectives either already knew or already suspected that Blair's dissertation wasn't falsified.
Wolf waved a hand and protested, "Never mind, never mind. Let's just call it a lucky guess, shall we?" He had heard the rumors around the station following Blair's press conference and had put his own Ellison experiences together and come up with his own conclusions. Whatever Ellison chose to share was his business. All he knew was that he and Sandburg solved cases and they were good men. That was good enough for him. "Have you finished your examination?"
At Ellison's nod, Dan pulled on his latex gloves with a snap, picked up a scalpel and reached to activate the voice recorder that would document his comments during the autopsy. Blair blanched and backed slowly towards the door, his hands waving nervously in the air. "I'll... uh... just... uh." He motioned vaguely toward the door and reached behind him to blindly search for the knob. Finding it, he gave it a quick twist and slipped through the open doorway to the hallway beyond. When Jim emerged a minute later, he found Blair leaned against the wall, arms crossed on his chest, his eyes distant and troubled.
"You okay, Chief?"
"Yeah, I'm okay, Jim. It's just the indignity of it all, you know? He was a proud man who only wanted to help. Now he's dead and some stranger is getting ready to cut him open and spread his insides all over some table," Blair said bitterly. "I don't think Nya would have been all that happy about it."
"Probably not," Jim agreed. "But it's the only way we have of hopefully finding out what killed him. And until we know what, we won't know who."
"I know," Blair sighed, "but I don't have to like it."
"C'mon," Jim urged his young partner. "Let's get upstairs and see what else we can dig up. Dan's promised to push the results through the lab as fast as he can and hopes to have some answers for us by late this afternoon. He promises we're going to owe him forever for this one."
"Just add him to the list of folks we owe, Jim," Blair smiled slightly. "It's getting to be a rather long one."
Six very unproductive, frustrating hours later the anticipated report was hand-delivered by the coroner. Ellison and Sandburg had been forced to devote a large portion of the day following up on the other cases they were working and had not been able to make any progress on finding out whether Nya had any family to contact about his death. They had checked with the desk clerk at the Y to see if Nya had provided any emergency contact information when he had checked in, but the clerk said the old man had simply indicated "none" on the registration form. Simon was going to have some hefty international phone charges to explain when the next bill arrived, but he had become quite adept at "tap dancing" as he called it.
Catching Wolf's approach from the corner of his eye, Blair practically leapt from his chair to stand next to his partner while Dan succinctly delivered the results of the autopsy. "Based on lividity tests, I'd estimate the time of death to be between 24 to 36 hours ago. As you saw, there were no outward signs of trauma, no blunt force appears to have been used. In fact, were he alive, I'd say he was an extremely healthy specimen for a man his age." Wolf shook his head. "Anyway. The only sign of trauma I could find was the bruise you found on his arm. As I suspected, it was a puncture wound, but it was so tiny, I can only assume it was made by a needle." He forestalled Blair's question by saying, "No, I don't believe that's what killed him, Blair. As far as I can determine, based on the depth of some necrotic tissue around the site, the puncture was no deeper than his biceps muscle. A poison injected into the muscle would most likely not be fatal. We did find traces of a chemical substance in the tissue, but we're still working to identify it. I can say it appears to be a natural substance, rather than artificial. I don't have a lot for you there, yet."
Jim took the folder from Wolf's hands and scanned it as he continued his narrative. "He did have some odd sores in his mouth, but he could have eaten some mildly caustic wild berries or leaves to cause that." He frowned as he noted an oddity in the report. "The initial report from the Moss Creek Funeral Home is that they were told by the FBI that the victim had wandered into the forest, gotten confused and died of natural causes."
"That's what they said," Ellison agreed at the same time that Blair growled "he wasn't lost!"
Wolf raised his hands in a placating gesture to Blair and returned to his report. "Well, his stomach contents certainly don't support the lost in the woods theory. While I can't be totally certain, it appears that shortly before his death, he ingested a fairly hearty meal of fish and some sort of cornmeal-based bread. Not the sort of fare I'd expect one to find while wandering helplessly in the Cascade forest."
"Hardly," Ellison agreed thoughtfully, looking to his partner and raising his eyebrows in surprise.
"Even odder is a mass of fibrous material I found. Chemical composition places it in a group containing cyanophoric glucosides." At Ellison's obvious impatience with the scientific information, Dan converted to layman's terms. "He appears to have eaten some sort of wild herb. Wish I could tell you more about it, but we haven't been able to identify it yet."
"What about his blood work? Anything unusual there?"
"Still working on that one too, Jim. I promise I'll get back with you when I have more."
"Thanks, Dan, this is a lot more than we had a while ago. We owe you one."
"You owe me more than one!" Wolf swore with a smile as he turned and left the bullpen.
Jim felt a small smile come to his lips as he watched Blair. He had noticed early on in their friendship that Sandburg could maneuver around assorted obstacles with his head buried deep in a book or file. He decided that his partner must have been born with some sort of internal radar system or that his thick curly hair was hiding an extra set of eyes. Blair had gone to the fax machine to retrieve some information and was now returning to his desk as he read it. He dodged around Rhonda's desk without looking up. Stepped over a stack of files on the floor by Henri's desk. He edged by a hurrying Megan Connor and then came to a stop by his chair. Glancing up, he looked almost surprised to find himself at his desk as he pulled his chair out with a foot and then sat. Ellison's smile grew when his partner got up again, almost immediately, and headed towards him. His eyes were still glued to the fax.
"I think this is the guy we need to see, Jim." Sandburg covered the few feet to Ellison's desk and put the fax down. "Graham Brooks. Simon told me that he was used as a forensic expert on a case a couple of years ago. It was the Mehler case. Ring any bells with you?" At his partner's quick shake of his head in the negative, he continued. "Didn't with me either, but Simon said that it was a domestic homicide where the wife used some kind of herbal concoction to save herself the cost of a divorce."
Jim's eyebrows rose. "Oh waitaminute, I do remember that one. Someone nicknamed it the "grass-is-greener" case. Ann-Marie Mehler had found this herb that she ground up and added to her husband's joints. He slowly toked himself to death," the sentinel smirked. "It was a tough one to prove. And, yeah, I think I remember this Brooks. He's fairly young to be an expert witness, but the guy knew his stuff and could identify what it was the woman used. Even helped the boys in Homicide track down her source."
"And that's just the kind of expert help we're going to need to pinpoint what was used to kill Nya. The labs still aren't having any luck with it." Perching himself on the corner of Jim's desk, he pointed to a phone number sent in the fax. "You want me to give Graham Brooks a call and make an appointment to see him or do you want to do it?"
"I can call him, Chief." Ellison handed his partner a scrap of paper with a name and phone number scribbled on it. "I took this call while you were waiting for that fax to come in. He said you'd know why he was calling and that he'd be at that number for the next hour."
Quickly glancing at the name, Blair's face broke into a smile. "This is the linguistics professor I was telling you about. He's been trying to find out if nyoka is a name or a name of something. He thought he recognized it as being African so he was going to start there. Maybe he's found it." Sliding down from Jim's desk, he headed for his own. "I'll give him a call now."
"And I'll try Brooks." Jim picked up the receiver and resisted the urge to sigh. The discovery of Nya's body had shaken them both badly. To the majority of Major Crime it seemed like a random and senseless act. Just another elderly traveller being victimized for the money he might have been carrying. Nya's involvement in the drug related death at the airport had others guessing that the old shaman's death was probably the result of a drug overdose. That forensics and the coroner were not having any luck in identifying the foreign substance found in the African's bloodstream wasn't helping. If Graham Brooks was as good as his publicity they might have a chance at tracking down the killer. So far, clues had been non-existent and leads just as bad.
Hello. The woman's voice on the other end of the receiver startled the detective. "Ah, I'd like to speak with Graham Brooks, please." Jim was asked to wait while the man was called to the phone. Either Brooks' phones were not equipped with a hold feature or whoever had answered the phone was unfamiliar with it. With little trouble he could hear the soft strains of music coming from within the house. It didn't suit his taste, but he found it strangely relaxing and almost hypnotic. The quiet beat of a drum flowed into the rising and falling lilt of some sort of pipe. Underneath this he could hear the hushed whisper of waves. Closing his eyes, he let himself absorb the calm the music created. It stirred up memories of Peru and the warmth and luxuriance of its jungles.
"Yes, may I help you?" Brooks' voice jolted the sentinel from his daydream. It sounded rushed and faintly annoyed.
Clearing his throat, Jim introduced himself. "Mr. Brooks, I'm sorry to have disturbed you. My name is James Ellison. I'm a detective with the Cascade Police. I'm working on a homicide right now that seems to fall into your area of expertise."
"And what area of expertise would that be, detective?" The man's tone had changed, becoming more conversational. "I have helped the police in other cases and would be happy to do so again. What is it that you need?"
"We think we're dealing with an organic poison, possibly an herb or other plant source. My partner and I would like to bring what we have and see if you can make any more headway than our labs."
There was a brief pause before Brooks gave his answer. "I could not see you before this evening. Detective Ellison, was it?"
"Right, Jim Ellison. This evening would be fine. Detective Sandburg and I could be there around 8:00 if that's convenient."
"That would be fine, detective. I shall see you and your partner at 8:00. I am curious to discover what it is that could have eluded your fine laboratories. Now if you would excuse me, I am with a client." A soft click immediately followed, surprising the detective at its abruptness.
"What did Brooks say?" Blair still sat at his desk, wearing a bemused smile. "You looked like you were off in dreamland for a little while before he came to the phone."
"Yeah, he was playing this music. It was... I dunno, soothing I guess. Sounded like something you'd listen to. Jungle drums, the ocean. That sort of stuff. Anyway, he said we could go see him tonight. I told him 8:00. How'd your call go?"
"Dr. Holden said he'd probably have it pinned down by tomorrow. He said it's definitely one of the African dialects. He thinks it might be Chichewa or maybe Yoruba, but he hasn't found nyoka yet." Sandburg shrugged his shoulders. "So, who knows? Maybe by tomorrow we'll have something we can work with."
"It may take a day or two to come up with something solid, but we will, Chief. Uh, Blair," Jim's face broke into a grin. "How do you know this Dr. Holden?"
Sandburg looked definitely wary as he watched his partner's grin grow into a smile. "He's an old friend of my mom's. Why?"
"Nothing, really. But when he called he did ask me how 'little' Blair was and if he was enjoying his new career." He watched his friend's eyes widen.
"Aw man, he didn't really say that, did he?" The young man hung his head down and chuckled when Ellison nodded yes. "He would. Paul Holden and my mom have been friends forever. In fact we lived with Paul and his wife, Summer, for a year. Mom was the maid of honour at their wedding. I got to carry the bracelets. I think I was about four."
"Oh yeah, Jim. It was one of those traditionally non-traditional hippie weddings. Under the trees, everyone in tie-dye." Blair laughed when his partner silently mouthed the word "oh". "They're great people. Next time they're in town you'll have to meet them. But, I just wish Paul would get out of the habit of calling me 'little Blair'."
Ravenscliffe Drive wound through the centre of the wealthy community that sat overlooking the Pacific. White brick mansions and rustic "log cabin" dwellings that rivalled the homes of some of the rich and famous lined the street. Graham Brooks' home sat on a bend of the winding road. Its gleaming white exterior caught the rose and violet rays of the sun's setting, giving it a warm and welcoming aura.
A low whistle broke the silence of the tree-lined street. Jim Ellison and Blair Sandburg stood at the end of the long driveway assessing the home of their hopefully expert witness. The old Ford truck behind them looked conspicuous among the BMWs and Mercedes that were parked in front of their double garages. "Wow, maybe I should be taking this shaman thing in some new directions." Blair's voice was awed.
Jim looked at his partner. "What do you mean, Chief?"
"Brooks." Sandburg frowned at his friend. "You didn't read the rest of that fax, did you? Brooks is a practitioner of natural healing and energy healing. He's a shamanic practitioner. I guess it pays pretty well."
Snorting and giving his partner a gentle shove towards the mansion, Ellison shook his head in mock dismay. "Try not to drool once we get into the house, Sandburg," the sentinel said dryly. "Let's go."
The two men strode up the long walk bordered by fragrant flowers and shrubs. "Ah, you're just worried that I'll forget about you when I'm rich. But I won't, Jim, don't worry. I won't forget that you took me in when I needed a place to live. I'll need a chief of security for protection and to protect my pile of money. You'd be a natural with your senses."
Giving his friend a lopsided grimace, Ellison rolled his eyes and pressed the doorbell. The door was opened almost immediately by a young man who looked to be in his early thirties and introduced himself as Graham Brooks. "Detectives, please come in." He ushered them into the house and led them through the main foyer. "I've set us up in the study. It's just through those double doors. Please, go ahead and make yourselves comfortable. I've made some coffee and I think the housekeeper left cookies or something equally as delicious for us. I'll join you in a few minutes."
The two detectives crossed the hallway and stepped through the double doors. The view that greeted them stopped them in their tracks. The study was a spacious glassed in room that stood two or three stories high. Large palm-leafed trees grew out from the tiled floor and brushed against the clear ceiling. Ellison was sure he had spotted a parrot sitting in one of them. Exotic plants, some easily identified as orchids and some completely foreign to both men, sprouted from beds that circled the room. The air that flowed from the vents felt warm-- almost moist-- was heavily scented with the flowers' natural perfumes. Hidden among the trees and plants and completely camouflaged was a long glass terrarium that spanned one wall.
A soft hiss drew Jim's attention to the container and he walked over to it to study it more closely. "Blair?" Ellison called over his shoulder. "Come and take a look at this." A large and thick-bodied snake slithered through the artificial jungle that had been created for its home. Its scales were brightly marked in triangles and squares of purple, tan and brown. Its broad head sported two horns on its snout. "Mean looking..."
The quiet rattle of cutlery and the clinking of cups announced their host's return. "I see you've discovered my pet. Impressive, isn't he?" Brooks joined them at the terrarium. "It's a gaboon viper. I've had him since moving to Washington."
"I'm surprised that you'd be allowed to get it through customs." Jim followed his host to the small table and chairs in the centre of the room.
"I didn't bring him into the country. I suppose you could say that I rescued him. I had heard about the snake from one of my clients. Someone had smuggled it into the country and it was going to be destroyed. I didn't want to see that happen so, I'm almost ashamed to admit this, I made two or three phone calls, spoke to the right people and the snake was delivered to me." The shaman smiled at Ellison. "It was all very legal, detective. I have a document signed by a congressman."
"I'm sure it was, Mr. Brooks." Blair took the seat to his partner's right and gave him a pointed look. Intimidating or annoying the one person who might be able to help them was not on their agenda. He turned back to his host. "I'd like to thank you for taking the time to talk to us."
"Not at all, Detective Sandburg. I'm happy to be of service. But before we start, tell me, how do you like your coffee?" The man's smile was disarming and Blair found himself responding to it.
"Both Jim and I take it black."
"Black it is then." The man poured coffee into the two mugs and handed one to each of the detectives. "I hope you'll try a cookie as well. I'm very fond of them. Mrs. Webster, my housekeeper, is a wonderful baker. I think these are her milk chocolate and macadamia, one of her specialties." He turned his smile on Ellison. "Detective? Can I tempt you?"
Not missing the message in his partner's look when he had joined them at the table, Jim thought it would be prudent to accept the offer. Even if he didn't particularly like cookies or want one. "Yes, thank you."
Taking a pair of silver tongs, Brooks placed one of the cookies on a small plate and handed it to Ellison. "Now, this case you're working on..." He placed another cookie on a plate for Blair. "You think that there is a poisonous herb involved?"
"Yes," Blair answered. "A body was found. There were no obvious wounds to indicate the cause of death. The autopsy could identify the presence of one or two foreign substances but couldn't identify what they were."
"I see. Do you have the lab reports with you? Could I see them?"
Jim placed his mug on the table and reached down for the file folder he had placed at his feet. "I hope you understand that most of the pertinent information about the victim has been removed for security reasons."
The shaman waved his hand. "Of course, of course. I understand completely, but it would help me to know the age, weight and general health of the victim."
"Adult male, age approximately early eighties, weight 140 pounds. His health was good. Some weakening of bones and deterioration of some functions that's to be expected with a person his age." Ellison handed Brooks the folder.
"I see." Graham Brooks accepted the file and sat back in his chair to read. Within seconds he seemed to be completely absorbed in what he was reading and appeared to have forgotten about his guests.
Jim and Blair looked and shrugged at each other, sitting in silence as they watched each page of the report being slowly scanned and turned over. Finally tiring of the silence and inactivity, Blair drained his coffee cup and grabbed a second cookie before he went to inspect the books neatly shelved in the numerous bookcases. The rich aroma of the coffee wafted up and reminded Jim that his mug was sitting untouched. Picking it up, he took a long sip. The brew tasted as good as it smelled and he took another sip, savouring it. Feeling himself start to fidget, he decided to taste the cookie as well. If it was as good as the coffee it would be worth the try. Smiling as the lingering taste of the coffee mixed with the nuts and chocolate, he took another hearty bite.
"Good, aren't they, Detective Ellison?" Brooks had looked up from his reading and saw the look of enjoyment on the other man's face. "Help yourself to more. I'm almost done reading the report and I do agree. It does seem that a poison of some sort was introduced into the victim's system. But let me finish this before I start asking my questions."
Taking another cookie from the plate, Jim decided to follow his partner's lead and investigate the massive study. Blair had his nose buried deep in a book so he knew he would find no distraction there. Meandering along the paths that wound through the flowering beds and around the palms, he tried to estimate how much something as lavish as the room would cost. Deciding that an indoor jungle would be beyond his means, he searched for something else to occupy his thoughts. A flutter of wings drew his gaze up into the trees. A flash of blue and red broke through the deep green and disappeared into the foliage that lined the outside windows. As the sentinel followed the bird's flight past the terrarium he saw and heard the viper move through the glass receptacle and went over to watch it. Its long body was slithering across a large rock as he approached, but stopped when the detective was almost up to the glass. Attracted by the movement, it swung its horned head around, prepared to attack if it thought it was threatened. The snake's eyes met his, making Jim swallow hard. The action was too much like his dream of the snake and the wild dog and he felt his heart skip a beat as the viper's mouth opened to hiss at him. Staggering a few steps away from the terrarium when the world seemed to tilt, he put a hand out to lean against a palm tree.
"Jim, you okay?" Blair was at his side within seconds. He had been returning a book to the shelf when he noticed that his partner was no longer sitting with Brooks. Scanning the room, he had seen the sentinel reach unsteadily for the tree.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm okay." Ellison tried to centre on his friend's face but it kept drifting in and out of focus. "Just got a little dizzy." He reached out to hold onto his partner's shoulder. "I'm okay."
"Like hell you are. I've never seen you get 'a little dizzy'." Blair's concern grew as he watched. His partner's face was wet with perspiration, but his skin looked pale underneath. The sentinel seemed to be having a hard time keeping his eyes focused on him. "Jim, can you see me?"
Swallowing, Ellison blinked hard and willed his guide's face to stop dancing in front of him. "You're a little blurry, but I can see you. Stop worrying. It's just the glare from the lights. I'm all right."
"You are definitely not all right," Blair insisted. "Come over..." The sudden flapping of wings and the squawk of a macaw interrupted him as he tried to lead his friend back to a chair.
Yanking his arm out of Blair's grasp, Ellison covered his ears. The sound of the bird had sliced through his brain with such intensity that he thought he would pass out. "God! Sandburg!" He forced his friend's name out through gritted teeth, sending more spikes of pain through his skull. His senses had gone wild and he couldn't find the dials. "Blair, please." He sagged against his friend, sinking slowly to the ground.
"I've got you, Jim," Blair whispered. Sandburg recognized the sentinel's sensory overload for what it was and lowered his voice to a level barely audible to even his ears. Sitting on the cold tiles he propped his friend up against him. He knew that any noise would probably cause the sentinel more pain, but there was no way that Blair could ignore his partner's pain-filled plea for help. "Talk to me, Jim. Tell me what's happening."
Afraid that the sound of his own voice would start the waves of agony in his head again, the sentinel could only clutch his ears more tightly and squeeze his eyes shut against the blinding and dizzying lights. His stomach was threatening to rebel and he felt himself slipping into the sensory void of a zone out. Only the gentle coaxing of his guide's voice kept him from giving in to it.
"I'm sorry if my voice is hurting you, but Jim, you have to listen." Blair fought back his fear. It had been so long since his friend had been the victim of such a severe attack on his senses. "Find the dials, buddy. I know it's been a long time since you've had to look for them, but find them." He felt the sentinel's body tense in his arms and instinctively held on tighter. "C'mon, Jim. You can do this. Picture it, turn it down."
The pain in his head was relentless and his blurred vision had him almost blind, but Jim desperately hung on to the sound of Blair's voice. He would find those dials. His friend had guided him to them so many times before.
"Detective Sandburg. Please, let me help."
Blair felt a hand on his shoulder and gazed up into the concerned face of Graham Brooks. "I don't know if you can. Jim sometimes..." He stopped, not knowing how to explain what was happening without revealing too much.
"I know." It was a simple statement, but delivered in earnest. "Please, let me try."
Not certain what to do, Blair looked down at his friend who was still curled up against him in pain. He had taken his hands away from his ears and now had them digging firmly into Blair's arms. Each quiet moan Sandburg heard as Jim tried to burrow his head into his shoulder went straight to heart. He had never seen his partner this bad before and it scared him. Maybe Brooks could help. Part of him prayed that he could while another part of him dreaded it. If Jim responded to this other shaman what did that mean for him? What did it say about him? Nya had made him think that he was on the right path. He, himself, had believed it. But his sentinel was in agony and he hadn't been able to reach him or do anything to ease his pain. Did it really matter who did? Jim needed help. His best friend needed help he couldn't give him. "Okay," he whispered. "Please try."
Nodding, Brooks squatted down beside Ellison and took both of his hands in his. He turned them palm up and with his thumbs he began to massage the pulse points on both wrists. He felt Sandburg's eyes on him and glanced up briefly to explain. "This should help to relax him and to create some positive energy." He moved his hands further up the detective's arms stopping at the crooks of his elbows. "That's it," he soothed.
Blair continued to watch the shaman's hands as they alternately glided over and massaged his partner's arms. The man kept up a soft stream of encouragement while he did this. "It's not working, maybe we should..." He had started to fear that Jim might need medical attention, that perhaps it wasn't his senses that were causing him pain.
Brooks looked up sharply. "Patience, my friend. Belief. Trust. Without these you will never understand."
Still holding on tightly to Jim, Sandburg began to dig for his cellphone. Brooks and his healing techniques be damned. He couldn't bear to listen to the moans being forced from his friend any longer. He had just managed to flip the lid open on the phone when he felt Jim jerk against him. "What..." he looked at Brooks in shock. "What happened?" His friend had slumped against him, his face relaxed in relief.
The other man sat back on his heels and smiled down at the sentinel. Taking a handkerchief from a pocket he began to wipe at the perspiration that streaked down Ellison's face. "I think your friend will be all right now."
Grabbing the man's wrist before he could do any more, Blair wanted some answers. "Tell me what you did. You couldn't just turn the pain off like that." He knew he should be thanking the shaman for what he had done for his partner, but the words stuck in his throat. The whole situation made him uneasy. He felt that something had happened with him right there and that he had missed it. Or maybe it's just your feelings of inadequacy that want you to see something twisted. The thought flitted through his mind before he could stop it and he could feel the flush of embarrassment and anger colour his cheeks. Was he so shallow that he couldn't express his gratitude? He opened his mouth to try once more but was distracted by his friend stirring against him.
"Blair?" Jim sounded tired and was looking around him in bewilderment. "Chief?"
"I'm right here," he said gently. "You're okay." Shifting his hold on his partner, Sandburg helped him to sit straighter and moved around to face him. The signs of the stress Ellison's system had been under had left their marks. The tight lines around his eyes and across his forehead hadn't faded and his face still glistened with a sheen of sweat. "How do you feel?"
"Like I've been hit by a Mack truck," Jim laughed softly and ran a hand through his hair. "That was some ride, Chief. Thanks for the rescue." He saw a flash of pain in his friend's eyes and his still sensitive hearing picked up the loud thudding of his heart. "Blair?"
"I didn't... It wasn't..."
Confused by what his friend wasn't saying, Ellison looked to Brooks, who was kneeling beside him.
"What Blair means is that I helped him. You were in great distress, Detective. I was able to help relieve some of it so you could find the control you needed." The shaman bowed his head slightly. "It was what I was born to do. What I have trained to do. I am glad that I was able to help."
Jim's gaze drifted from Brooks' serene smile to his friend's troubled face. He didn't have to ask to know how this had affected him. The hurt and confusion were clearly etched there. Blair was looking at him as if his world has just crumbled around him. Whatever peace his guide had found with Nya had been wiped away. Clearing his throat, he turned back to Brooks. "I was wondering if I could have a glass of water."
"Of course, Detective. I will be right back." Getting up, the shaman gave him a light pat on the back and directed a thoughtful gaze at his partner.
When Jim heard the soft swoosh of the doors close behind Brooks, he sighed. His partner's eyes were fixed on something just over his shoulder, avoiding eye contact. "You okay, Sandburg? You're awfully quiet." Reaching up, he gently turned his friend's face to look at him when he didn't get a response. "Blair?"
Blinking once, Blair met his partner's eyes and smiled sadly. "I'm okay. It just shook me a little, ya know? I don't think I've ever seen it hit you like this." Pulling in a deep breath, he let the academic in him take over. He could collect the data now and deal with the fallout later. "Do you know what triggered it? It was pretty sudden."
"I couldn't tell you right now, Chief. My brain's like jello." Digging into a pocket, Jim dug out his keys and tossed them to his partner with a smirk. "I think I need to crash. But you better drive, just so we don't."
Blair slowly rose to his feet and reached down to give his friend a hand up. "I actually get to drive," he joked. "You must be feeling pretty bad. Think you're going to be able to make it out on your own steam or are we going to have to carry you?"
"I can walk, smart guy," Jim answered as he finally made it to his feet. He swayed ever so slightly and closed his eyes waiting for the room to right itself again. "But I wouldn't say no to a shoulder to lean on."
Sandburg gave him a ready smile and a "sure", but the sentinel heard the quiet "I can at least do that" that he muttered under his breath. Frowning, Jim gave his friend's shoulders a quick hug before resting his arm across them. The kid was definitely hurting. Soft footfalls across the tiled floor drew both men's attention. Brooks was returning with the water.
"I take this to mean that you are leaving?" The shaman handed Ellison the glass. "Detective, if you feel any lingering effects from your attack this evening, please don't hesitate to call. I think it might be helpful if you came back to see me. Perhaps there is something we can do to prevent this from happening again."
The water was ice cold and crisp and the sentinel could almost trace its path down as he swallowed. Draining the glass, he smiled gratefully and handed it back to their host. "Thank you for the water and the offer. I'm sure I'll be okay now. I'm sorry about all this." He gave the man an embarrassed grin.
"No, no. There is no need for an apology. But I can see that you are tired. You should rest." He began to lead them to the door. "If I may keep your file a little while longer I would like to study it and do some research before I offer you my opinion."
"Sure, that'll be fine." Ellison turned his attention to his all too quiet partner. "Whaddya say, Chief? I'm ready."
The walk to the front door had Brooks hovering over them, offering advice and possible remedies for the detective should he have any more trouble that evening. Blair remained stone- faced through all of it, leaving Jim the role of the gracious guest. At first he feared the young man was going to follow them to the truck. He had had enough of the shaman for one evening. Much to the sentinel's relief, Brooks stopped midway down the path and watched as he got into the Ford.
"Detective Sandburg!" Brooks' call stopped Blair before he could get to the driver's side. "A minute please?"
Graham Brooks remained where he was standing, making Sandburg go to him. Jim saw the ever-present serene smile change to something else as Blair got nearer. When his partner had reached him, Brooks took him by the arm and turned them both slightly. Now his face was blocked from Jim's sight denying him the chance to read the man's lips. He couldn't rely on his hearing. Everything still sounded like it was coming through water if he tried to extend it too far. He sat back, completely frustrated. He wanted to hear what the two men were talking about.
"Yes, Mr. Brooks?"
"Graham, please call me Graham, Blair. I thought that I had better warn you."
Blair could feel his stomach roll. "Warn me about what?"
Brooks leaned in closer and his eyes narrowed. "It is a dangerous game you are playing at. There are many things that you do not understand."
Swallowing, Sandburg looked away. "I don't know what you're talking about. I'm not playing at anything."
"I am offering my help, Blair. You need direction. You need someone to guide you." The shaman paused and looked past Sandburg's shoulder to the truck and Ellison. "Before your ignorance destroys you or those you think you are helping."
Following Brooks' gaze, Blair looked at his partner sitting in the truck. Jim trusted him with so much. Too much. Giving his partner a salute and a smile, he turned back to Brooks. "I'll think about what you said." With that he jogged down to the road and the truck. Climbing into the driver's side, he reached for the seatbelt and started the engine, all the while working on keeping the fear he was feeling out of his voice.
"What did Brooks want to talk to you about, Chief?"
Jim had leaned forward a little to get a better look at his face. With a shrug, Blair gave him a mirthless grin. "Nothing much, just more advice on what to do if you have another sensory spike. He promised to call in tomorrow with some information about the herbs or poison used on Nya." His smile faded as he thought about what Brooks had said. Just looking at the strain on his friend's face proved that the shaman might be right with his warning. "Jim...?"
Ellison lifted both eyebrows, waiting for his friend's question. But rather than finishing it, Blair just shook his head. "Never mind. It can wait." Jim's frown deepened. He was sure that what was bothering his partner couldn't wait.
"You heading up?" Blair took his partner's jacket and hung it up on the rack by the door. It felt so good to be back in the loft. It felt like they had been gone for days when it had been barely two hours. He slowly took off his own jacket and put it on the hook next to Jim's. His friend's jacket hung just slightly askew and he reached up to straighten it and then his own, slowly running his hands down the sleeves when he was done. Looking at the two jackets hanging there, the knot that had formed in his chest tightened. Why did he feel like some little kid who had spent the day being lost and afraid that he would never find his way home?
"Sandburg!" Jim's voice came from behind him and was an unlikely mix of concern and exasperation.
Spinning around on his heel, Blair saw that his partner's face matched his voice. "What? I'm sorry, were you talking to me?"
"Yeah I was talking to you," Ellison gave his friend's head a gentle swat. "Where'd ya go? You asked me if I was going up and I said not yet. That special on the Jags just started a few minutes ago. I thought I'd stay up and watch it. You going to join me or spend the rest of the night guarding our coats?"
Sandburg's smile was gradual and just a little crooked. "I guess I can watch it with you. The jackets look like they're going to be okay. I'm just going to put on a sweater. It's freezing in here." He walked four steps toward his room and stopped. "Jim? Are you really okay?"
"I'm okay, partner." Jim stretched and lowered his tired body to the couch. "I still have a little bit of a buzz, but it's fading. It's just good to be home." Grabbing the remote, he turned the television on. "Better hurry up and grab that sweater, Sandburg, you're going to miss all the commercials."
It took his friend more than five minutes to find a sweater and Ellison had started to suspect that he would be watching the special alone. But finally the glass doors opened and Sandburg flopped down on the other couch. "Well, you missed all the good commercials, Chief." Jim gave his partner a wink. "I thought maybe you had changed your mind."
Stretching out the length of the sofa, Blair propped his feet up on the armrest and tucked a pillow under his head. "I made the mistake of lying down on my bed. I think I nodded off for a couple of minutes."
"So," Jim started out conversationally. "What do you think of this Brooks?"
"I don't know. Maybe he'll come through for us, maybe not." Blair shrugged against the pillow. "Hopefully we'll find out tomorrow."
"Aside from that, what did you think?" The sentinel heard his partner force air through his nose and then swing his feet to the ground to sit up and glare at him.
"You know, Ellison, subtlety is not your strong suit. What is it you want to know?"
"I, ah," Jim started, not sure that what he thought was a clever attempt at a fact finding mission was still a good idea. Sandburg was right; he had never mastered subtle. Giving up all attempts to pussyfoot around the topic, he asked what had been bothering him. "What's going on, Chief? I know you said you were shaken up by what happened, but there's more to it. Just the fact that you haven't been hovering and bugging me about it tells me that there's something up." He watched his friend's face carefully hoping for a clue. "No obfuscation, Sandburg, no lies. Just the facts."
In spite of the way his stomach was churning, Blair couldn't help but chuckle. "Still doing the Joe Friday imitations, Jim?" Leaning his head on the back of the couch, he ran his fingers through his hair and watched the lights from the television dance on the ceiling. "You wanna know what happened... just the facts. There's not much to tell. You had some kind of episode with your senses going wild, you just about begged me to help you and there wasn't a damn thing I could do." Straightening, he gave his partner a weary sigh. "So there you have it. The facts. Except for one very important fact. Graham Brooks knew exactly what to do." He looked down at his hands and absently rubbed at a knuckle. "What is it he told you? That it was what he was born to do. What he's trained to do."
"Blair," Ellison began.
"It's okay, Jim. I think I know what you're going to say and I appreciate the confidence, but..." Blair's voice drifted and he went back to staring at his hands. After a few seconds of contemplation he stood and started for his room. "I'm gonna turn in. I'll catch you in the morning."
Watching his friend exit, Jim called out a soft goodnight. When the doors to the small room closed he leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees and cradle his still throbbing head in his hands. Picking up the remote that lay by his side, he turned off the television, plunging the room into quiet darkness. "Whooo boy."
Billy McGregor strode into the offices occupied by Cascade's international airport security. It had been a long week or more of being bedridden with a mysterious "flu". His family doctor and three specialists could find no other reason for his sudden collapse at work. His "flu" had nearly killed him and would have if it hadn't been for two quick thinking travellers trained in CPR. One minute he had been walking into the airport's departures level and the next he had dropped like a stone. He had woken up two days later in a hospital bed, feeling incredibly weak and confused.
"Hey, Billy!" Dom Cantelmi's gravelly voice boomed from behind him. McGregor cringed and waited for the hearty slap on the back that he knew he would be getting. Dom treated all of his men as if they were his sons. Billy just wished he expressed that feeling with a little less gusto. He was sure he was going to be able to see the imprint of Dom's hand on his back for the rest of the day.
"Hi boss, ya miss me while I was off?" Checking his watch, McGregor's face broke into a smile. "You're in extra early. It's only 6:30. Are you my welcome back committee?"
Cantelmi leaned against the doorjamb and gave the younger man a wink. "You betcha. I just want to make sure you're fit for duty." The security chief's grin became a thin-lipped frown. "Seriously, Billy, you sure you should be back so soon? How ya feelin' kid?"
McGregor took a clipboard down from a hook. "I'm good, Dom. My doctor gave me a clean bill of health and the hospital turned me loose without a second thought. I got tired of staying home." He scanned the top page on the clipboard and paled. Eyes wide, he looked up at Cantelmi and swore under his breath. "Son of a..."
Moving to look over Billy's shoulder he saw the name Nyajiru. "You know something about this?"
"Yeah," he sighed. "You got a phone number for these cops here, Ellison and Sandburg?"
Two bleary and red-rimmed eyes cracked open to glare at the alarm clock. Even the soft pulse it emitted was too much for the headache that had settled just behind the sentinel's eyes. With a grunt he got out of bed and grabbed a robe. Another day, another headache. Or that's how it seemed that particular morning. Bathroom, coffee, get dressed, go to work. Repeating it to himself twice, he thought maybe he could actually accomplish that much. He couldn't even begin to think what came after that. Reaching the bottom of the stairs, he spotted his already dressed and "ready to hit the road" partner leaning up against the counter, eating a bowl of cereal. His sensitive nose and rolling stomach told him that it was something disgustingly healthy.
"Morning, Sandburg, you're up early."
"Couldn't sleep." Blair set the bowl down on the counter behind him and followed his partner to the bathroom.
"Uh Chief, I think I can handle this on my own." Jim hadn't realized his friend was behind him until he had almost closed the door on him.
"You look like hell, you know that." The younger man's mouth was set in a disapproving frown. "You're still suffering from last night. I thought you said you were feeling all right."
"Last night I was," Ellison replied, rubbing at a temple. "This morning I feel hungover. We didn't go out drinking, did we?"
"Well, I know I didn't. I can't speak for you though." Blair chuckled and pushed Jim into the bathroom. "Enjoy your shower. You want coffee this morning?"
"Oh yeah," Jim sighed as he closed the door. "And the way I feel, I'll take it intravenously. Mommy, can you write me a sick note and tell the teacher I'm not going to school today?" He heard his friend's "you're pathetic, Ellison" through the rush of the shower. Seeing that his friend was in a better frame of mind than the previous evening, the sentinel let some of his worry flow away with the cascading hot water. He knew he had to explain to Sandburg that it was his voice that he had latched onto for dear life. Not Brooks'.
Pulling a bottle of spring water from the fridge, Blair set about making a pot of coffee. He was sure he could use a good strong cup of it himself. Sleeping had been out of the question and now he was paying for it. He had stayed awake all night, listening for his partner to have another attack like the one at the shaman's home. That one had been like none of the others and Jim's not being able to pull himself out of it still made him uneasy. If Brooks hadn't been there, hadn't known what to do... Listening to hear if the water was still running in the shower, Blair took a neatly folded piece of paper from his pocket and went to the phone.
A sleepy voice answered after five rings. "Hello, Mr. Brooks... Graham. This is Blair Sandburg. I'm sorry about calling so early, but I think I need to talk to you. About what you offered yesterday. Could I come by later this morning?" A pleased sigh escaped him when he received the answer and he quickly jotted down the time. "Thank you," he said enthusiastically. "I'll see you then."
The elevator stopped on the fourth floor on its way up seven flights to Major Crime. The doors opened with a hush to admit Simon Banks. His eyebrows rose and his face lit into a smile when he saw the other two occupants.
"Jim, Blair, good morning, gentlemen." He then did a double take and looked more closely at his senior detective. "Well, let me rephrase that. It doesn't look like it's such a good morning for you, Ellison. Sick or hungover?" The question wasn't a serious one. He had never seen the man come into work less than fit for any reason other than being sick and stubbornly refusing to stay at home.
"He was out carousing last night, sir," Blair joked. "He didn't get home until just this morning. He'll try to tell you otherwise, of course."
The doors opened on the seventh floor and Jim beat a hasty retreat to the men's room to lose his breakfast.
Blair started to follow him, but Simon grabbed his arm. "Sandburg?"
"I'm not really sure, Captain," the young detective explained. "Last night we went to see that herbs expert you recommended. Jim had an extreme reaction to something when we were there and his senses went wild. But it's been like nothing in the past. This has stayed with him, making him sick. He insists it's nothing major, just like being hungover." Sandburg's brows furrowed as he kept watch for his friend's return. "All I can do is keep an eye on him, but it might be a good idea if he stayed close to the station today until whatever's wrong works itself out."
Banks put his hands on his hips and stared down at Sandburg. "What do you mean 'whatever's wrong'? You mean you don't know?" He was honestly surprised to hear the man admit it. It wasn't something Blair was ever ready to admit to without following it with numerous theories about what it could be and what they would do to combat it.
Sandburg just shook his head. "Not this time, sir. This is a new one." He let out a pent up breath when he saw his friend emerge from the men's room. "You okay, big guy?"
"Yeah," Jim lied. "You two have fun talking about me while I was gone?" He smiled to let them know he was joking.
"We always do," Simon countered. "Oh, Sandburg. I almost forgot. You have a visitor. He's waiting at your desk." He saw the younger detective start to ask a question and jumped in. "I don't know who he is. I didn't get his name. He didn't give me a chance, really. Friendly, eccentric, tall..."
"Intelligent, wise beyond his many years and a general all round nice guy." The amused voice came from the direction of the door to the bullpen, making all three men turn.
Blair's face broke into a wide smile and he went to the man to give him a hug, receiving an equally enthusiastic one in return. "Paul!" Taking a step back, he quickly introduced him to Jim and Simon. "What are you doing here? Didn't I just talk to you yesterday? In Arizona? I thought you were working at the Dineh College for a while."
"I'm here to see you. You did and I was and I am." Holden put a hand on Blair's shoulder and began to steer him into Major Crime. "I needed some materials on two tribes from this area and thought I would come and pick them up instead of sending for them. This gives me a chance to visit with you and deliver that information you asked for. And what else are those air miles for if not to take a spur of the moment trip?" Holden looked back to wink at Simon Banks who had started for his office. "Besides, I have to do something to keep up my reputation of being an eccentric."
"That's great, Paul, and it's always good to see you, but a phone call would have been okay, too." Blair pulled a second chair up to his desk. "Mom's been talking about heading down to Oregon in August to visit with you and Summer. I was thinking I might tag along for a day or two."
"And I'm going to hold you to it, Blair. It'd be great to get the family together again." The linguist smiled and leaned forward to tousle the younger man's hair. "Why don't you come with him, Detective Ellison? Blair tells me that you like to fish almost as much as I do. You won't find any better salmon or sturgeon fishing than on the Columbia."
"Thanks, I'll certainly consider it." Jim slowly sat at his desk, trying to remember when his head had become so heavy and his neck so rubbery. It was going to be a long day. "You said that you found the meaning or translation of nyoka?"
"I did. I would have found it sooner but I got hung up on it being Yoruba. You know what I'm like, Blair. Get to thinking one way and it takes divine intervention to get me to think another." Holden chuckled to himself as he flipped through a dog-eared notebook.
"And what sort of divine intervention would that be, Dr. Holden?" Ellison was mildly curious.
Holden looked up and in complete seriousness said, "Star Trek."
"Exactly. I was watching Star Trek last night, the original series, and I was wondering how Uhura kept that damn thing in her ear. And then it hit me."
The sentinel was confused. "You figured out how she kept it in her ear? I'm sorry, I don't understand."
"Careful, Jim." Blair gave his partner an affectionate smile. "The Holden Zone is way scarier than the Sandburg Zone."
Laughing, Paul began his explanation. "No, no. Uhura was a Bantu. She spoke Swahili. The word is Swahili, of course."
Sandburg motioned for the man to continue. "And it means what?"
"It's the name of a snake. An adder." Holden looked deflated. His revelation wasn't met with any enthusiasm. "Why do I get the impression that you two already knew this?"
"We had an idea that the word must have referred to a snake," Blair offered. "It may help us to know that it's a specific snake somewhere down the road. To be honest, I don't know what we were hoping to learn. It was just one piece of the puzzle we didn't have."
"I see." The older man stretched his long legs out in front of him and crossed them at the ankles. "Well, not really, but this is something you'll have to tell me about when you visit in August." Slapping his knees, he pushed himself upright. "I have to get to the museum to pick up those documents and then catch the next plane out." Scooping up the coat he had flung across the back of Blair's chair, he once again ruffled his friend's hair. "I'll expect to see you in August, young man." He turned to Jim and pointed a finger. "And you as well." He exited Major Crime with a flourish and raced to the elevator doors that were just closing.
The sentinel noted the happy grin on his partner's face and silently thanked Holden for being the eccentric he was. His impromptu visit had definitely lifted Blair's spirits. "Nice guy, Chief."
"Yeah," Blair smiled. "He is. I wish he could have stayed a little longer, but that's Paul." His smile faded and he turned his chair to face Ellison. "I got a little sidetracked. How are you feeling? Any better? You still look like you could use some time off."
"And I'll take it if I'm still feeling sick this afternoon."
"Good to hear you talking sense for a change, James." Blair considered his partner for a few seconds longer as if debating about what he was going to say next. "How about lending me your truck for an hour?"
Jim's eyebrows shot up in disbelief. Sandburg was asking to borrow his truck? "My truck?! What makes you think I'd hand over the keys to my truck?"
"Guilt. You see I used to have this great little car. You might remember it. A Volvo. A classic. A gem of the automotive industry." Blair sighed dramatically and clutched his hands to his chest. "It used to take me anywhere I wanted to go. It was a great little car." He added another sigh for good measure.
With a scowl, Ellison dug his keys out of his pocket. "All right, all right. Here." He tossed them to his partner. "May I ask where you're going to be taking my truck?"
"To see Graham Brooks. He called to say he had some information for us."
Jim looked at his partner suspiciously. "I didn't hear any call. Besides, I think if it has to do with the case we should both go."
"No way." Sandburg was firm. "I don't want you going anywhere near that house until we figure out what set you off last night." Blair folded his arms across his chest in a "don't argue with me" pose. "And he called early this morning. I picked up my voicemail while you were in the shower. He said he could see us around 10:30. I told him it would be just me."
Are you lying to me? Your respiration is up, Chief. And is that a slight rise in your heartbeat? "Fine, but be back here in an hour or I'll be showing up at Brooks' door to collect my truck." He listened to the sound of Blair's retreating footsteps, hearing them pause at the elevator. The soft ping of the car arriving was followed by the whisper of the doors opening and closing and slightly muting the beating of his partner's heart as he travelled to the garage. You've got an hour, Chief. Reaching for the phone, he punched in four numbers. "Serena? It's Jim. You busy right now? I've got a favour to ask."
The two-tone Ford pulled up to the curb on Ravenscliffe, its engine quietly shutting down with a soft purr. Sitting behind the wheel, Blair glanced at the empty passenger seat. It felt so strange to be in the truck without his partner. On the few occasions that Jim did entrust him with the keys to his baby, the detective was always right there beside him. Drawing in a deep breath, he looked at the large, white house that stood at the top of the landscaped lawn and flowerbeds. In the bright light of morning it didn't seem as inviting as it had the previous evening. He knew that his opinion was being coloured by what had happened in that house and that he had lied to his friend about the true reason for his being there that morning. Brooks would probably have the information they needed, allowing him some legitimacy. At least he could return to the station with that in hand. He hoped.
"Well, sitting here isn't getting you anywhere, Sandburg." Pulling the handle open, he slowly got out of the truck. The apprehension he had felt when he first met with Nyajiru was nothing compared to this. There had been a warmth, a power, about the old man from the first moment he had talked with him. Brooks emanated power as well, but it felt cold and hard. But the shaman had offered him help and a way to understanding the things he needed to learn to help Jim. He wouldn't turn away from that. He that increaseth knowledge increases sorrow. Blair stopped half way up the walk. Where had that come from? Chiding himself, he set his shoulders and continued to the front door. He could review Old Testament wisdoms some other time.
"Make a fist, Jim." Serena Chang gazed up into Jim Ellison's pale blue eyes. Pale blue 'blood- shot' eyes. "You're sure a blood test is necessary?" She quickly checked the small vile that was filling. "I'll admit that you're looking a little rough this morning, but still..." Untying the elastic band with a flick of her wrist, she removed the needle. "All done."
Jim put a finger down on the cotton ball that had been placed over the injection mark and waited for Chang to get a bandage. "Thanks, Serena." He smiled at her when she had finished applying the bandage and rolled up the other sleeve of his shirt. "Now could you take a look at this?" Twisting his arm around, he pointed to a spot on the underside of his biceps. "It feels really tender, like it's been bruised. What do you think?"
"I think this is getting a little weird, Ellison, but considering that mark we found on Nyajiru I guess I had better take a good look at it," she sighed and grabbed a magnifying glass to peer under his arm. "Okaaaay, it does look like something. Maybe the sting of an insect? Hang on a minute." Reaching behind her, she picked up a pair of tweezers and a small plastic container. "I just want to get a skin sample."
"I wondered if it might be an insect bite. I think I had an allergic reaction to something last night and I was in a sort of indoor jungle." Jim smoothed out his sleeve and buttoned the cuff. "Any idea when you'll have some results?"
Biting the inside of her cheek, Chang scanned a chart. "I have a couple of bodies stacked up back there that have a.s.a.p. on them. Later on this afternoon or first thing tomorrow is about the best I can do. I'll push it for you, Jim, I promise, but if I don't get the findings on those other two to Homicide they're going to have my head."
"As soon as you can, Serena, that's good enough." Ellison stopped before opening the door. "Can we keep this to ourselves until we know something? I'm gonna feel really stupid if it turns out to be nothing."
"Mum's the word, detective." Chang gave him a wink and then disappeared into the lab.
Graham Brooks leaned forward in his chair and reached for the teapot. "It's Earl Grey, Detective. I hope you don't mind tea, but I never drink coffee during the day. I find that tea allows me to stay more calm."
Taking the cup, Blair breathed in the lemony aroma of the bergamot. The steam tickled his nose as he held the tea to his lips to take the first tentative sip. "It's fine. Thank you." Gently placing the fragile cup back on the saucer, he tried to think of the best way to broach the subject of his visit. Brooks had obviously had some intuition concerning Jim's attack from the evening before. Or perhaps he had read about the now infamous dissertation in the newspaper. Whatever the reason, he had guessed about Blair's quest to become a shaman. Or so Blair hoped. If he hadn't, his request was going to sound very strange.
"Sometimes the best way to ask a question is to just ask, Blair." Brooks placed his own cup back on the table and gazed intently at Sandburg. "What is it that you need?"
"Last night you said that I needed direction and that you thought that I was playing at something." Blair levelled his own intense gaze at the shaman. "What did you mean?"
"You are a very wise man to be cautious," Brooks began. "You have done well to protect your sentinel." He saw the detective's eyes narrow. "Your dissertation and the stir it caused, it was all very public. I'm sure that many have forgotten the details and that it ever happened. Human beings are easily distracted by the next sensational story that comes along. Only those that have a particular interest will remember."
Blair could feel his insides tighten. "And you have a particular interest." He licked at his bottom lip. "What kind of interest?"
"Sentinels are a part of my heritage. They are spoken of as heroes and protectors. Every child in my home of Unguja has grown up hearing the tales of these super men. Of course, the news that a sentinel lives here in Cascade would be of interest to me." Brooks smiled. "But the newspapers and television ignored or glossed over the one who always exists with a sentinel. His companion is also the story of legend in my country. You are he. You are the one that he trusts to guide him. You must be his support so that he can perform the duties his instincts demand of him."
"I'm not saying that anything you've said is true. Jim's a cop. So am I. I'm his partner so, yeah, it's my job to back him up." Sandburg was starting to feel uncomfortable about the way the conversation had turned. Brooks was asking him to reveal secrets he had kept hidden for so long. He had given up things that had been important to him to keep them hidden. "You still haven't told me what your interest is in this. I didn't come here to talk about Jim Ellison."
The shaman's voice was soft. "No, of course you didn't, Blair. I can see that I have gone about this in a poor way." He paused to take another sip of his tea. "I did not mean to seem a threat to Detective Ellison. Last night I offered my help. I meant that offer for you. Will you accept my help? Every shaman has one who will teach him. Could I be that for you?"
Blair reached for his tea before answering. He had been sure that morning that asking Brooks for his help was the right thing to do, but now... Now his instincts were screaming at him to reconsider. When he looked at the shaman's eyes he was sure that he could see something behind them. Stalling, he took another drink of the tea. "I'm not a shaman. Is that what you think?" When he looked up into Brooks' face, he had to bite back a startled gasp. The deep brown of his eyes seemed to have momentarily flashed with a chilling gold colour.
"Why do you deny what you are?" The shaman's voice hardened. "You have power that can be used for whatever you desire. I can help you learn to control that. Don't be foolish, Blair. Let me guide you." Let me take it from you as I did Nyajiru. Let me send your soul to the spirit world you are so eager to deny.
Wiping at a trickle of sweat, Blair felt as if the room's temperature had suddenly gone up. "Look, I need time to think about this. Can we just skip it?" He swallowed and took a breath. "Let's focus on the lab report and the poison."
"Of course, Detective Sandburg." Brooks' face broke into a smile, erasing all traces of his earlier annoyance.
Ellison returned from the lab to find a pink phone message slip taped to his computer screen. Pulling it down he checked the name, Billy McGregor, and started to put it aside when he noticed the phone number. It was Cantelmi's from the airport. The time at the top of the slip showed that the message was almost 3 hours old.
Catching Jim's scowl, Henri Brown called over to him to explain. "I'm sorry, Jim. It's been sitting in my mail slot for most of the morning. We've gotta get those things labelled better. I just got in and found it." Brown shrugged his apology.
"Don't worry about it, H." Ellison quickly punched in the phone number and waited impatiently for someone to answer. On the seventh ring, just when he was sure that he'd have to leave a message on voicemail, Dom Cantelmi's gruff hello sounded in his ear.
"Mr. Cantemli, it's Jim Ellison. I just got your message."
"Ellison!" Cantelmi sounded almost surprised to hear from him. "I'd just about given up on you. I thought maybe you had solved your mystery and didn't need any more information."
Picking up a pencil, the detective got ready to record any facts Cantelmi could provide. "Sorry about not getting back to you sooner. Clerical mix-up. So what do you have?"
"It's not me, it's one of my guys, Billy McGregor. Look, there's no sense in you talkin' to me. Let me get Billy in here. You're going to want to hear it from him." Jim heard the hold button being depressed and then another click. Cantelmi's voice was back on the line. "It's gonna take a few minutes. You got time ta wait? Or you want me to get him to call you?"
"I can wait." Hearing the canned music start when the call was put on hold, Jim cradled the phone between his ear and shoulder and turned to his computer. Toggling over to the Internet, he keyed in the address of a search engine, thinking that he would do a little reading up on adders while he waited. He was curious to see if the adder resembled the snake of his vision. His initial search gave him over a thousand hits. He absently scrolled through them searching for pictures of the snake. It took him only a few visits to different pages to realize that adders came in various colours and sizes. It would take him forever to find the snake he was looking for. Well, Sandburg had sat with him, and with extreme patience, had taught him how to use the Internet as a search tool and not some place to play hit-and-miss. After a few minutes of contemplation he typed in another snake related bit of information that had turned up in the case. He added the words "gaboon viper" to his search and hit 'enter' just as McGregor came to the phone.
"I'm here, Mr. McGregor. You have some information about Nyajiru?"
"I think I may have seen the man who killed him. Dom told me that Nyajiru disappeared the day I saw him." McGregor's voice shook. "My God, he told me that he was his father and that he wasn't feeling well. I even helped put the old guy into the car."
Ellison clutched his pencil tighter. "Back up, Mr. McGregor. If you knew this, why did you take so long to come forward?"
"I've been in the hospital and then at home recuperating. I came back to work this morning." There was a pause and the sentinel could hear the man's heart beat faster. "I got sick the day I saw them. Right after I helped them." The heartbeat increased. "Oh man, that guy... he must have..."
"Mr. McGregor," Jim bit down on his impatience. "Can you describe the man?" As he waited for the security guard to regain some composure, his eyes drifted back to the computer screen. The very first sentence he read made his heart drop into his stomach. The gaboon viper, also known as the King Puff Adder, is the largest of the various types of adders.
"He was young, maybe in his thirties. His head was clean-shaven. He was dressed in expensive clothes and drove a really nice car. I'm sorry I don't remember what kind. I was more concerned about the old man. He didn't look good." Ellison could hear the regret in his voice. "If I had only insisted on calling first aid maybe he'd still be alive. But he said he was the man's son!"
"And you had no reason to believe otherwise." Jim tried to ease the man's conscience. "Would you be able to identify this man if you were to see him again?"
"Yeah, I'm sure I could." The security guard's voice became a little stronger. "You just tell me when and I'll be there."
Graham Brooks held the file folder open on his lap. "From the compound described here and the affect it had on the body, I would say that the victim definitely ingested an herb or plant of some kind. I can think of one that has the elements found in the body that would produce these results. You should have your labs test for Arum. I am sure that they will discover that this is what was used."
Sandburg dutifully recorded the information the shaman had given him. "I've never heard of Arum."
"Its more common name is the Adder Root," Brooks explained. "It is not difficult to find if you know what you're looking for." He shook his head. "This person did not have an easy death, I'm afraid."
Blair's eyes closed at those words and his chin dropped to his chest. Adder Root, is that what Nya had meant by nyoka? Had the old man been trying to tell them how he had died? The knowledge that the elder shaman had died because he had travelled to help him and Jim weighed heavy on his conscience. He had hoped that Nyajiru's death would have at least been a quick one if not painless. "Would he have suffered long?"
Brooks nodded. "Arum can sometimes take several hours. If he were given the most toxic part of the plant he would have lapsed into a coma before death, but not before experiencing some pain. There would be internal bleeding, convulsions." The shaman paused and peered at Sandburg. "Are you not feeling well, Detective?"
"I'm all right. It's just very warm." Blair took off his jacket and hung it on the back of his chair. "Is... is there anything else you can tell me? You said that this arum would be easy to find?" Rubbing at his chest with the heel of his hand, he tried to ease the tightness that had settled there. "How much expertise would a killer need?"
"Arum grows naturally in wooded areas. It is related to the Jack-in-the-pulpit. As for expertise? Your killer would have to have some knowledge of the plant to know that it would be poisonous, of course. So yes, I would imagine that he would have to have some expertise. Someone with an intimate knowledge of plants and herbs. Someone like myself." Graham Brooks' brows knit together. "Are you sure that you're feeling all right, Blair?"
The shrill warble of a cell phone came from Blair's jacket pocket. Looking at the shaman, he excused himself and wandered off into a corner of the room. "Sandburg."
Jim's voice greeted him when he put the cell phone to his ear. "Hey, Chief. I'm not picking up another heartbeat near by. Is Brooks near enough to hear this conversation?"
"No, he's... I don't think so." Sandburg took a quick look over his shoulder. "He's too far. What's wrong?"
"We've got some new information. Listen, Blair, I want you to get out of there. Simon and I are, maybe, ten or fifteen minutes away. Backup should be there even sooner."
"Backup? Simon?" Nothing his friend was saying was making much sense, but the tension in his partner's voice was coming across loud and clear. "What's the information?" Sandburg wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. The room was getting to be oppressively hot. "We haven't finished talking yet."
"We have a description of the person who met Nya at the airport. It's Brooks, Sandburg. I want you out of there." Ellison's voice was a growl. "Now."
"Brooks? But why?"
"Sandburg," Jim let his exasperation seep into his voice. "We can talk about it later. Right now, I just want you to get in the truck and wait for us to get there. I don't want you trying to take this guy on your own. Wait for backup."
Blair knew that what his partner was saying made perfect sense. If he tried to take Brooks on his own and fouled up, they could lose him. "Okay, Jim. I'll wait for you to get here." He swallowed and tried to concentrate on what he wanted to say next. "But I don't think I can make it to the truck."
"Chief?" Ellison's voice was insistent. "What's going on?"
"I think it was the tea." Sandburg felt the phone slip through his fingers.
"Sandburg!" Jim yelled into the mike. "Sandburg!" Slapping the dashboard of Simon's car, he slammed the mike back into its holder. "Dammit! C'mon Simon, I don't think we've got much time."
The captain pressed the accelerator to the floor and spared Ellison a quick glance. "What happened? Why'd Sandburg hang up?" Gritting his teeth, he gave the wheel a sharp twist to avoid the car that was edging into the intersection. "Damn idiot! Can't he hear the siren?" Spitting out another expletive, he deftly maneuvered through the traffic, managing to keep his car, himself and his detective in one piece. "Jim? What happened with Blair?"
"He sounded odd when he answered. Distracted. Tired."
"Probably. Just before he dropped the phone, he said something about it being the tea." Ellison's voice betrayed his neutral expression. "That bastard's probably poisoned him. Sandburg never should have gone there alone. Brooks killed Nyajiru, almost killed that guy at the airport." Jim let out a long, shaky breath. "Blair..."
"We'll get there in time, Jim." The tires of the police issue sedan squealed their protest as Banks turned onto Ravenscliffe. He was just about to ask which house when he spotted the old Ford pickup parked further on up the street. "Where the hell's that black and white unit? It should have been here by now."
The car had barely rolled to a complete stop when Ellison leapt from the passenger side. Simon was only a few steps behind the sentinel, who had already reached the front door looking determined to get through it any way he could. Breathing hard, Banks put out a hand to restrain his detective. "Hold up, Ellison. We don't have a warrant and we certainly don't have the right to break and enter. Try the bell first."
Pressing on the bell, Jim turned to snarl at his captain. "You're not expecting me to play this by the book, are you? If no one comes to the door, I'm going in. I don't care if I have to go through one of those stained glass windows to do it."
"And I'll help you," Simon growled in return. "But we have to at least make the attempt to follow the law." Stepping back, he began to survey the exterior of the house, trying to decide which window would be the easiest entry point. He was sure it was going to be the only way in.
"I hear footsteps. Someone's coming." Jim tensed as he heard the bolt slide and the door open.
The woman that stood in the open doorway looked warily at the two men. She opened her mouth to ask their business with Graham Brooks, looking ready to bar their entry if the situation demanded it. Her question turned into an indignant yelp when Ellison pushed by her, nearly knocking her over, and into the house. Simon had his police identification in his hand and held it up for the woman to see.
"Unless you'd like to be taken downtown for obstructing officers in the performance of their duty, I'd suggest that you step aside and stay out of the way." The captain hurried to catch up to his detective, wondering if the startled woman would realize that neither he, nor Jim, had produced any legal documentation allowing them the right to enter the house. He spotted the sentinel just as he disappeared through a set of large double doors. Cursing to himself, Simon made a mental note to remind his detective of the proper procedure for entering an area that is possibly housing a murder suspect. At least pull out your damn gun, Ellison! Entering the room, the captain stopped and stared, his mouth dropping open.
"My God," he gasped. "It's a jungle." Banks noticed that the sentinel had also stopped and stood near the centre of the room. His head was cocked to one side, listening intently. Simon hurried to the man's side, hearing Blair's voice warn him of a possible zone out. "Jim?"
"I can't hear him." The sentinel's voice was a whisper. He slowly turned towards the captain, feeling fear travel down his spine like ice-cold fingers. "I can't hear Blair."
Graham Brooks stood in the deep shadows of his study. As much as he loved the room, he realized that it had been a mistake to build it with only one exit. Jim Ellison and the other man now blocked his way to freedom. His eyes narrowed as he watched the sentinel. Had Nyajiru been telling him the truth? Maybe Ellison was not a full sentinel as he had thought. Even hidden in the shadows, the detective should have been able to find him. If not by sight, he should have been able to identify where he hid by sound or smell. But the man just stood there, the look of panic growing on his face. It was then that Brooks knew the reason why. He's searching for his friend. He's blocked everything else out.
The shaman waited a few moments longer. He felt like a trapped animal that was consumed by one instinct and one instinct alone. He needed to move. His mind told him that staying put was the best strategy. Ellison and the other policeman would eventually come across Sandburg's body. He could use that as a distraction and make his escape. But animal instinct kept telling him to run. The message it sent was too strong to resist and he searched his surroundings for the best route. He could skirt the room, using the foliage for cover and make his way to the door. He slowly slid his foot along the floor, eager to move deeper into the greenery. The leaves of the plants brushed against his clothing with the merest hush, barely moving. Stealing a quick look back at the sentinel, he quietly started to slide his other foot. His breath clogged in his throat and his heart skipped. The steely blue eyes of the sentinel bore into his. All idea of stealth was forgotten as he plunged into the deep cover of shrubs. He heard the detective shout something to his companion and then the sound of branches and twigs snapping as Ellison chased after him.
"Simon, there's Brooks." Jim started after the shaman. "Keep looking for Blair."
Banks saw the rustle of movement in the farthest corner of the study and caught a quick glimpse of their suspect. He knew for certain that the man wouldn't make it out of the room. Ellison would make sure of that. He only hoped that Jim remembered that the shaman might be the only key to discovering Sandburg's whereabouts and, if he had been poisoned, Brooks would know the antidote. Travelling deeper into the room, Simon pushed aside leafy shrubs and palms. Blair had to be hidden somewhere in them. Jim's not being able to hear him had him worried, but Sandburg had said himself, just that morning, that the sentinel's senses were still suffering from the previous evening. That had to be the reason.
"Captain Banks!" Two uniformed officers stood at the door of the study. They took a brief look around the room and then split up. One headed after Ellison and Brooks, the other for Banks. "Sir?"
Biting back the reprimand for being late, Simon quickly explained the situation. "We have an officer down somewhere in this damn jungle. Possibly poisoned. Most probably unconscious." A crash at the far end of the room interrupted him. Ellison had caught his prey. "Let's go officer, start searching. Time's probably not on our side on this one."
Jim noted the arrival of the two officers but kept his eyes focused on Brooks. He was fairly sure the man was unarmed but not so sure that he didn't want to approach without using some caution. He hadn't been able to see both the shaman's hands. Until that moment. Brooks had turned to gauge his distance from the sentinel, giving him a clear view of his hands. They were empty. Jumping over the last obstacle that stood between him and his prey, Jim landed close enough to knock the man to the ground. Rolling the stunned shaman onto his back, the detective quickly wrapped a set of handcuffs around his wrists. Turning Brooks once again onto his back, Ellison moved his hands to grab the man's shirt and pulled him roughly to his feet.
"Where's my partner?" The words were savage and the sentinel slammed Brooks against the broad base of a palm tree for good measure. "Where... is... he?"
"Your captain should come upon his body very soon." Graham Brooks' face was smug. "He collapsed somewhere over there." The smugness suddenly left his face and he frowned. "You arrived too soon. This did not end as I saw it. His power should have become mine." His head tilted as he regarded the sentinel. "Is it because of you? Sandburg had no defense against me. It should have been so easy. Even Nyajiru could not deny me in the end."
Brooks' ramblings about stolen power made no impression on Ellison and he was ready to say so when his captain's hoarse shout came from the other side of the room. He thrust the shaman at the uniformed officer who stood waiting.
Jim pulled a long folded piece of paper from a pocket. "Graham Brooks, I have a warrant for your arrest. This officer is now going to read you your rights. Make sure you understand them." He looked at the officer and frowned. He wasn't more than a kid. "Keep a close watch on him. I don't care that he's cuffed. You keep your gun on him and if he moves, just shoot him." When he was sure that the officer knew he was completely serious, he ran to over to Banks. Both his captain and the other officer were crouched down and as he got closer, Jim could see the dark blue of his friend's shirt. His heart sank. Blair wasn't moving and Simon seemed to be frantically searching for a pulse. Don't let me be too late. "Simon?"
Banks looked up, his eyes wide in his dark face. "I can't find a pulse, Jim. You try." Sitting back on his heels, the captain wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand. A horrible feeling of deja vu had settled over him. The two short years ago that he had begged Jim to find the heartbeat he couldn't suddenly seemed like yesterday. Had it been a cruel twist of fate that had allowed his young friend to live then, only to have his life taken from him again so soon? He held his breath as the sentinel's hand rested against Sandburg's neck.
Jim could feel his hand shake as he laid his fingers against Blair's warm skin. At first he could feel nothing and noted with alarm that Blair's lips looked tinged with blue. Raising his tactile sense, he could feel the frighteningly slow puffs of air against his hand and relaxed slightly. At least his partner was breathing, but he could still find no pulse. Just as he began to fear that the poison running through Sandburg's system had shut down his heart, he felt the gentle flutter of a pulse against his fingertips. Blair's heart was beating dangerously slow, but it was beating. Ellison's eyes were bright as he turned to answer his friend. "It's there, Simon. It's weak, but it's there."
The officer that had been helping Banks had disappeared and was now returning. "I've called for a paramedic unit, sir. And I've collected the tea that was in the cups. The housekeeper gave me a couple of containers." His eyes went to Sandburg's still form. "How's he doing, Detective Ellison?"
"He's hanging on." Jim rubbed Blair's hand between his. "He's hanging on."
A day and a half later
Graham Brooks sat in the interrogation room gazing serenely at the police captain, detective, and assistant district attorney, Jack Murdoch. His seasoned and well-paid lawyer, Frederick Sykes, sat next to him, defending him and his unalienable rights as an American citizen.
"Gentleman, my client and I will be filing a suit against the city of Cascade and the state of Washington." The silk-suited lawyer was ablaze with self-righteous indignation for both his client and himself. "You did not have sufficient grounds to enter his home and terrorize him. His status in the community and with the Cascade Police as an expert on some of their most difficult cases should have allowed him more courtesy than to be treated as a violent criminal."
Simon could feel Ellison tense beside him. He knew that the detective was more than eager to have justice immediately served in that small room. "Mr. Sykes, let me remind you that one of our detectives, an invited guest of your client, was found poisoned in his home. Let me also remind you that we have a witness that can place your client with a murder victim on the day that he disappeared." Banks could feel his own sense of indignation rising and clamped down on his anger.
"It's all circumstantial..." Sykes began.
The sentinel was on his feet, leaning across the table and into the lawyer's face. "Circumstantial? My partner is in the hospital because of your client." His words were delivered in a low, controlled growl. "Maybe your client would like to explain those circumstances?"
Murdoch's mild voice and interruption earned him a glare from both Ellison and the lawyer. "Detective, please sit down." Waiting until Jim had done so, he then turned to Brooks and his legal counsel. "Circumstantial or not, the State has decided that it is enough to bring charges against Mr. Brooks. We have also petitioned and have had delivered to us warrants to search the offices and homes of Mr. Brooks. The State was very surprised and interested to learn that Mr. Brooks owns property in the mountains." Rising, he gathered his papers and put them into a briefcase. "Mr. Brooks will be held until a bail hearing is set. We will, of course, ask that bail be denied."
Simon hoped that his smile didn't seem too smug as he brushed by Brooks and his lawyer to call two officers into the room to escort their suspect to a cell. The two men flanked the shaman on either side and started to lead him out of the room. Raising a hand, Brooks stopped and looked back at Jim Ellison.
"There is something that you have been wanting to ask me, Detective Ellison." Brooks' eyes stared unblinking into the sentinel's. "Would you like to ask it now?"
"Mr. Brooks!" the shaman's lawyer spluttered. "I advise you not to say anything at the present time."
"Your advice is noted, but I am willing to answer the detective's question. My answer is for his ears only." Brooks looked at Banks and the A.D.A. "Will that be possible?"
Murdoch looked uncertain. "It's not something that I would recommend, but if no one objects then I'm willing to allow it. Provided that the door is left open and, while we won't hear what is said, we will be able to assure that Mr. Brooks was not mistreated in anyway."
The three men left the room, leaving Brooks and Ellison alone. "So, Detective Ellison?"
"I need to know why. What could you possibly gain from the deaths of Nyajiru and my partner?" Jim slowly sat in the hard wooden chair, never taking his eyes from the shaman's face.
Brooks smiled from across the table. "This is of course a hypothetical question, Detective Ellison? You meant to ask if I killed Nyajiru and tried to kill your partner what could be gained, correct?"
"Yes, if." Jim's eyes and voice broadcasted his exasperation.
"Why does anyone or any living thing kill? If I had killed Nyajiru and tried to kill your partner it would have been for two reasons. To take from them something that I want and to remove the threat they pose."
"What does Blair have that you could possibly want? How could he be a threat?"
"You don't really want me to think that you are so naive, do you, Ellison?" Brooks' expression became a sneer. "Or do you not realize what is happening?" With a snort the shaman rose from his chair. "I can see that you do not. You recognized it in the Chopec, but cannot see it in your friend. How very sad for him. You see, both Nyajiru and Blair Sandburg possess a power. This is what I would have wanted and what would have posed a threat to me. I would have taken it and then destroyed its source, hypothetically speaking, of course."
"Well, you're not going to get that chance now." Jim could feel his stomach clench when he looked at Brooks. The eyes that gazed out of the shaman's face looked too much like those of the snake in his vision.
"You think not, Detective Ellison? Perhaps you are that naive, after all."
Two days later
Jim arrived at the hospital to find his friend sitting on the edge of his bed, dressed and ready to go. The smile he received when he entered the room washed away any lingering worries about Blair's recovery. It had been touch and go for almost twenty-four hours and the fear that had twisted Ellison's insides still haunted him. The poison Brooks had fed his partner would have been lethal if it had remained in his system much longer than it had. The toxicology specialist had told him that he and Simon had gotten there only just in time. A half-hour longer and the effect of the poison would have been irreversible. The emergency doctors had worked feverishly through most of the day and only then were they willing to allow a cautious opinion on Blair's chances of survival. They had given him atropine to combat some of the toxins early on in their treatment and Blair had regained consciousness not long after. He had clung to Jim's hand for dear life throughout it all while the sentinel murmured what he thought were useless words of comfort. He wasn't even sure if Blair understood what he was saying. His partner had been so deathly ill and in such pain that Jim hadn't known how much longer he could have stood to witness it. But he knew that he would have stood there forever if that was as long as it took. Slowly the pain had begun to ease and by late evening the crisis point had been met and passed. Once the poison had been identified and the proper treatment administered, his friend's improvement had been almost startling. While Blair seemed to bounce back quickly, Ellison wasn't sure how many more of these life and death crises he could survive. But as long as his best friend managed to walk away from them healthy and whole, he knew that he would survive.
"Hey, Chief, looks like the papers are all signed and you're a free man." He sat down next to Blair and did his own diagnostic test. It wasn't that he didn't trust the doctors, but it had been so very close and he needed to reassure himself on his friend's condition. "You look a little tired, buddy. Are you sure you're ready to leave?"
"I was ready hours ago," Sandburg smiled. "I won't lie. I am a little tired, but the doctor said that an afternoon nap and a good night's sleep would fix that. And you know that you can't do that here." He grabbed his gym bag and hopped off the bed. "I'm starved. You think we can get something on the way home?" He noticed that Jim still sat on the bed. "Let's go, Ellison," he called softly. "Somehow I don't think that I'm the only one who could use that nap." His partner's eyes were pinched with fatigue.
The sentinel gently took the bag from his partner's hand and draped an arm around his shoulders. The physical contact was exactly what he needed to put his fears to rest. "Let's go, Chief," he echoed, sighing happily.
The closed doors to Sandburg's room muted the sounds coming from the kitchen area of the loft. It sounded like his partner was starting dinner, which was a good sign. It meant that Jim had finally relaxed enough to stop hovering outside his door every fifteen minutes as he had been doing. Blair had had a few uncertain minutes when he had first arrived home and had been escorted to his room. It had appeared that Jim was going to park himself in a chair next to his bed while he slept, but Blair had finally managed to reassure his friend that he was fine and didn't need to be watched. He had understood and was grateful for his partner's concern, having been on the other side of the coin many times himself. In an almost selfish way he had come to expect that concern and now counted on it. It was a major part of what it meant to be Jim Ellison's friend. You never stood alone when times got rough.
But at that moment, what Blair needed was solitude. There were too many things vying for attention in his head and he needed to sort them through. Jim had explained to him that he too had been a victim of Brooks' expertise with herbs and plants. Sandburg had listened as the details of their initial visit to the shaman's home were described, wondering how he could have missed the clues to what a sinister individual Graham Brooks was. The shaman had poisoned his friend with Panther Mushrooms. That had given him a start. Had Brooks somehow discovered the sentinel's spirit animal and wanted to indulge in a twisted bit of irony? Or had it been mere coincidence? The poisonous mushroom was what had caused the sentinel's senses to spike that night. That bit of knowledge had made Blair feel a bit better. He wouldn't have been able to bring Jim down from that. But Brooks had been able to and he questioned his partner about that. The detective had easily solved that mystery by explaining that Brooks had then injected him with something to counteract the mushroom's influence.
"I had Serena do a blood test the morning you went to see Brooks," Jim had explained. "How I was feeling didn't add up to it being a problem with my senses. She found out about the mushrooms and we both found an injection mark under my arm. I was so out of it that night that I didn't even feel the needle go in."
Blair rolled over onto his still sore stomach. Having it pumped was an experience he could certainly have lived without. All of what Jim told him should have set his mind at ease. He hadn't failed his sentinel that night. He never could have helped Jim find the dials with the poison running through his system. But it didn't set his mind at ease. His friend had been poisoned with him sitting right there beside him. To add to his feelings of guilt, a small voice inside him made him wonder if Brooks hadn't done this to get at him. The conversation he had had with the shaman made him think so. Brooks had wanted Blair to turn to him for help. The whole incident had made Blair question himself and it had undermined any confidence that Nya had managed to instill. With a groan he forced himself to admit that Jim had been poisoned because of him. He knew that everything Brooks had said to him was a lie, calculated to inflict damage, but there was one thing that had struck a chord in him. He could end up hurting the one person who trusted him and looked to him for help.
A soft rap on his door startled him, making him jump. Rolling onto his side and propping himself up on one elbow, Blair watched the door slowly open and his friend's face peer around it. "I thought you were awake. Dinner's on the table, Chief."
Blair saw the deep line that furrowed the space between his partner's brows and suspected that Jim had sensed his upset. He knew, though, that his friend wouldn't push until he thought he needed too. In the four years of their partnership of sentinel and guide, Jim had always respected his privacy when it mattered. "I'm just going to wash up and I'll be right there." Throwing the blanket back, he eased past the sentinel. Jim gently grabbed him at the nape of the neck, giving it a quick squeeze of affection before letting go.
"Don't take too long, Sandburg."
Padding down to the end of the hall, Blair closed the door behind him and went to stand in front of the bathroom sink. His thoughts were in turmoil as he let cold water splash into the bowl. He had always seen his place as being at Jim's side to guide him and watch his back. Now he wasn't sure that was where he should be. He didn't have the same kind of power or wisdom as Incacha or Nyajiru and his half-knowledge could someday get his partner killed. But leaving didn't feel right, either. Gripping the sides of the sink, he sighed. "What am I doing here? He needs someone who can really help him. I don't know if that's me anymore." Turning off the faucet, he dipped a hand into the cool water and let the water seep through his fingers drop by drop. Almost mesmerized, he watched the patterns of circles grow wider and wider with each drop and wondered where he could find the answers he so desperately needed. Taking deep breaths, he closed his eyes and tried to still the panic that he felt growing inside of him. He was going to need a clear mind if wanted to figure things out.
The sound of a loud and angry hiss made his head snap up to look into the mirror. His eyes widened and his mouth dropped open. Instead of seeing the reflection of the bathroom, he was looking into the depths of a jungle. He watched transfixed as a large snake slithered through the spiked leaves of the jungle brush and into sight, rising up as if to attack. The snake had its back to him, directing its attention deep into the blackness of trees and vines. Blair's breath caught in his throat as the jungle wall parted and a black jaguar slowly emerged. The big cat's head was lowered. Its lips were pulled back in a menacing snarl, showing razor sharp teeth. Rather than launching its attack, the panther paced back and forth keeping just out of the snake's reach. Blair could sense that it was waiting for something, but he couldn't fathom what it could be. A rustling noise came from behind the cat and Sandburg tensed, fearing that the snake wasn't alone. At the sound, the jaguar stopped its pacing and directed its unblinking, green-eyed gaze at the viper. Its rippling muscles began to bunch under the velvety fur, readying for an attack. The snapping of branches and the thudding of something travelling across the jungle floor began to get louder. The panther lowered its front half to the ground; the sinewy muscles in its legs and haunches coiling for the charge. The dense growth in back of the cat parted once more with a flash of silver and white and a low growl joined the snarl of the jungle cat. A large wolf emerged from behind the jaguar and took its place at its right shoulder. Acknowledging the presence of its companion, the panther screamed its battle cry before launching itself at the snake. The wolf followed close on its heels.
The answering hiss of the snake was lost as the mirror exploded with a blazing white light, momentarily blinding Sandburg. Gasping, he took a step back before looking into the glass again. The familiar surroundings of the bathroom were all that he saw. Sinking to sit on the edge of the tub, Blair leaned forward to cradle his head in his hands. He had his answer.
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Hope you enjoyed the season finale of the Cascade Virtual Tales. Tune in to the season premiere of the 6th season in October 2000.