edited by: Bonnie, Melanie, and Cindy
In the shelter of an anonymous doorway, a young man shivered. Sighing, he pushed his bunched sleeve back down to cover his bony wrist, then settled back on the dirty stoop to wait for the buzz to kick in. The alley felt cold, and his tattered sweatshirt wasn't much of a barrier between his thin flesh and the damp chill. Grimacing, he turned his face to the rough brick wall beside him and rested his forehead against it. One slightly trembling hand rubbed up and down a denim-clad thigh, then gripped his knee. It was taking too long. It had been too long.
Soon, the spreading warmth from the injection overcame the cold, relaxing him, smoothing the muscles of his face and unknotting his hands. He sighed and almost smiled, his eyelids drifting shut as the welcome numbness crept through him.
The sound of a soft footfall in the entrance to the alley reached him distantly, barely registering. Unconcerned, he let himself slip into the warm tide of oblivion that was washing over him, feeling it pull him under and leaving him blissfully unaware as a sudden impact against his temple exploded like stars behind his eyes.
"Ow!" Blair shook his index finger vigorously, then blew on it, frowning.
Jim stuck his head out of the bathroom doorway, shaving cream clinging to one side of his jaw. "What?"
"Toaster's hot." Blair reached into the freezer for an ice cube and held it tightly, licking away drips as they melted over his palm and trickled down his wrist.
"Quit poking your fingers into it." Jim emerged from the bathroom and joined him in the kitchen, wiping away white traces from his neck with the towel that hung around his bare shoulders. Leaning slightly over the counter, he peered down into the toaster, then unplugged it. "Use a wooden spoon." He fished one out of a drawer and handed it to Blair before turning to the refrigerator. Blair gestured rudely at Jim's back with the spoon. "I heard that." Blair chuckled.
Still smiling, Blair pried the scorched bagel from the grip of the toaster and dropped it onto a plate. He eyed it doubtfully, then looked up at the sound of the television clicking on. "Turn that up." Jim had carried his juice into the living room and was channel surfing between local morning news shows with the volume turned down low. "I want to hear the weather."
Jim keyed up the volume. "...and wind gusts up to 15 miles per hour. Temperatures should remain steady into Thursday before falling slightly, with chances of rain through Monday."
"Wonderful. My kind of weekend." Blair stopped mid-grumble when the breaking news logo briefly filled the screen. "This just in." He walked slowly into the living room to stand beside Jim as the anchorman read from a sheet of paper on the desk in front of him. "A body was found last night in the warehouse district near Third Street. The unidentified young man was approximately 20 years old and possibly homeless, according to our sources. The cause of death is not known at this time, but there is speculation that this is the latest in what appears to be a string of attacks against Cascade's homeless population. We'll bring you more on this story as soon as it comes in. In other news...."
"Another one. Damn." Blair's voice was grim. He watched as Jim slid the towel from his shoulders and turned toward the loft stairs. "It's definitely looking like a serial killer -- if this is the same guy, it'll be the third in two weeks. We should be on this. Why didn't anyone call us?"
"If they want us, they will. As far as I know, Mahler in Homicide is still handling it. It's not our case." At the top of the stairs, Jim flipped the towel over the railing and disappeared into his bedroom. "Not yet, anyway." Out of Blair's sight, Jim's closet door squeaked and hangers rustled.
Blair tossed the remaining sliver of his ice cube into the sink and turned to look for his shoes. "It should be," he said softly, flicking drops of water off his fingers.
Simon sighed and leaned back in his chair. "I agree with you, Blair. There does seem to be a pattern, here -- the victims, the MO, the locations."
"Serial killer. Our department." Blair folded his arms and looked at Jim, who nodded. He turned back to Simon. "So, when do we get the case?"
"When Mahler gets back and contacts us. He's--"
"We should have been at the scene while it was fresh. Jim should have been there right away." Blair gestured toward his partner. "We have the best chance of finding something if we're there first. Now the body's been moved, people have walked all over--"
"Forensics has done its usual excellent job of collecting evidence, yes." Simon frowned at Blair. "You've taken over cases from other departments before. Why all the grief this time?"
"Blair isn't confident that Mahler's been giving the case his full attention." Jim appeared to choose his words carefully, watching his partner from the corner of his eye as he spoke.
"He's been dogging it." Blair stood and paced a few steps to the window and back. "Because it's the homeless being targeted. Throwaway people, according to him. He doesn't--"
"That's your opinion -- which you will kindly keep to yourself." Simon sat forward, frowning. "He has a lot on his plate, like we all do. We don't need any interdepartmental static over this."
"I talked to him after the last body was found. I know how his mind's working." Simon raised an eyebrow. "I was just, um, I just wanted to know where he was going with it. Just asking." Simon's expression didn't change. Blair's eyes went large and he shrugged. "What? I didn't do anything. Just talk."
"Right." Simon shook his head. "Okay, I'll check with Mahler's captain, see if I can get the ball rolling. But if you did say anything to piss off Mahler, I'll hear about it." He glared. "You'd better hope I don't hear about it."
"Thanks." Blair appeared to ignore the threat as he started for the door. "I'm going to straighten up a few things, get ready to move on this." He glanced over at his partner. Behind Blair's back, Simon raised one hand in a quick signal to Jim.
"In a minute."
Blair nodded and turned back to Simon, who waved him out. His step was brisk as he crossed the bullpen to his desk.
Jim followed Blair's progress with his eyes for a few seconds, his expression unreadable, then turned and looked expectantly at his boss.
"So? What's the story there?" Simon gestured toward the closed door. "He seems to be taking this one pretty personally."
"I don't know." Jim frowned. "I'm a little surprised, myself. I think it's more than his usual sympathy for the underdog."
"Keep an eye on him -- more than you usually do, I mean. He needs to stay objective about this. See if he'll talk to you about it." Jim snorted. "I know, not normally a problem. But he hasn't yet, has he?" Jim shook his head. "Just talk to him."
"Will do." Jim stood. "Is that all, sir?"
"Yeah. Keep me posted on how it's going."
"You'll be the first to know." Jim picked up his empty coffee cup and left to join Blair at his desk.
"That'd be nice," Simon muttered at the closed door. He reached for his phone and started to dial.
"I know, Simon thinks I'm losing it." Blair shuffled the mess of papers on his desk, sorting them into piles before stuffing them into his in-box.
"He thought you lost it a long time ago. He wonders why you're so worked up about this case in particular." Jim perched on the edge of Blair's desk.
"What did you tell him?" Blair stuffed a few crumpled pages into a drawer, mashing the contents down firmly, and looked up at Jim.
"That I didn't know."
Blair chuckled. "Man of mystery, that's me." Jim just looked at him. "What I'm 'worked up about' is the way these cases usually get handled." Jim still didn't respond. "C'mon, man, I don't have to tell you that the homeless are at the bottom of the to-do list around here. Like they are everywhere." Blair slammed the drawer.
"No, I don't know that. Why don't you tell me about it?"
Blair's eyes narrowed. "You're saying you haven't seen it? How crimes against homeless people are put on the back burner, while more 'valuable' citizens get more attention?" Blair's bitter emphasis on the word made it sound like an epithet.
Jim shook his head. "No. Not as such. There are obstacles that can make dealing with that population more difficult, sometimes -- distrust of the police--"
Jim ignored the interruption. "Difficulty in establishing identity, transience--"
"And disinterest on the part of most of the community."
Jim frowned down at his partner. "Where is this coming from? You have a chip the size of a redwood--" Blair crossed his arms over his chest and glared. Pausing, Jim swept a quick glance over his friend's set jaw and defensive posture. "This really is personal for you, isn't it?" Blair dropped his gaze to his desktop. Jim's voice softened. "Why don't you tell me about it?"
Blair sighed and shrugged, unwinding his arms and resting his hands on his desk. "What's to tell? I've seen things. You haven't, apparently. The view was probably different from your side of town." Jim blinked at him, eyebrows raised. Blair continued, oblivious to his friend's surprise. "I've seen friends, good people--"
The phone rang, interrupting him. "Sandburg. Yeah? Okay, we'll go up now." Dropping the receiver into the cradle, he looked up at Jim. "Mahler's ready to brief us." He stood, stretching a little, then looked more closely into Jim's face. His partner's startled expression hadn't changed. "What?"
"Nothing." Jim looked at him a moment longer, then rose and turned toward the elevators. "Let's go, then."
Blair hesitated a moment, watching Jim's retreating back, then followed.
"He was only known as Jeff, as far as we can find out. A few people have mentioned seeing him at the Third Street Mission. That's been the best lead we've come up with, that all three seem to have visited the Mission at some point." Mahler pointed to a line of type halfway down the page his hand rested on. Photographs and report pages littered the top of the table he leaned against. Jim and Blair stood side by side looking down at the sheaf of papers spread out before them, occasionally picking one up for closer examination.
"A lot of people in that area visit the Mission." Jim held a picture of the second victim, an elderly, dark-skinned man. "It's become pretty much the only place to go in that part of town since the shelter closed."
Mahler nodded. "The Mission has the advantage of a wealthy benefactor. The shelter's funds dried up, thanks to last year's state budget shortfall." Blair took the picture Jim handed him and studied it closely. "We've been down there, talked to the manager and the backer's niece, a Miss...."
Jim turned over the page he was holding. "Irene Anderson." Blair looked up at Jim, who handed him the typed sheet. "You think the connection to the Mission is important at all?"
"Hard to say. Like you said, it's pretty much the only game in town for these people, so I'd be more surprised if they hadn't all shown up there at some point. But it's our best bet so far for finding leads."
"Been down there much?" Blair's voice was smoothly, carefully casual. Jim glanced sharply at him.
"Three, no, four times since the first case. The faces change so often there, it's hard to talk to anyone but the management more than once. Even some of the employees are transients."
"Hmm. Inconvenient." Jim stepped gently on the toe of Blair's shoe. Blair frowned at him and took a step back. Mahler looked up at them.
"This looks good, very thorough." Jim hoped the very quiet, derisive snort from behind him was only audible to his ears. He could almost hear Blair's eyes rolling. "You've given us a lot to go on here." He smiled encouragingly and started to gather papers into their respective manila folders.
"Sure. You know where to find me if you have any questions. And you should talk to the uniforms who responded, too, Munez and...." He flipped open the first folder and glanced at the topmost page. "Cooper. Dennis Cooper."
"Right. Good." Blair looked up at Jim's terse response and stepped forward again, looking sidewise up at him. Jim cleared his throat. "Thanks. We'll call if there's anything." He held out his hand to the older detective, grasping and shaking the other man's hand firmly.
"Sure." Mahler looked past Jim to Blair, who was still looking speculatively up at his partner. "Good luck with it."
"Yeah." Blair blinked and glanced over at Mahler, then reached out to take his offered hand. "Thanks. Nice work." Blair gestured down at the folders in front of them.
"Thanks." Mahler looked a little doubtfully at him, then mock-saluted Jim before turning to leave the conference room. He stopped at the door and looked back at the two men. "If you have any problems, just give me a call." Jim nodded, and he turned again and left.
"Problems?" Blair looked from the closed door to Jim. "What kind of problems?"
"Couldn't tell you, Chief. Probably just trying to be helpful."
"Wouldn't have anything to do with this Dennis Cooper, would it? What was up with that?"
Jim's expression was guarded. "Up with what?" He'd gathered the three file folders into one hand and was poking absently at protruding page edges.
"You know this guy, or something about him. You don't like him?" Jim looked over Blair's head, slapping the file folders lightly against the palm of his other hand. "I'm right, aren't I? What is it?"
Jim hesitated. "He's not my favorite person, no. But what I've heard is largely unsubstantiated, and I don't like to repeat it." Blair's expression became even more intensely curious. "If we need to check with him about anything concerning this case, do me a favor and let me do the talking. Better yet, let me contact him myself."
"Meaning, without me along. You've gotta tell me why." Blair leaned against the edge of the conference table.
Jim frowned. "He's been reprimanded a few times, come close to being investigated by IA once, but nothing came of it. I don't know that it's so much anything he's done as what he says. He's...." Jim searched for words, "not what you'd call politically correct. Tends to get under people's skins."
"He's a jerk."
Jim sighed and nodded. "Yeah, a 24-karat one, and he can be all mouth. Getting the two of you together could be explosive." Blair chuckled. "But apparently there's no evidence that he's not all talk, beyond a few complaints."
"From inside or outside the department?"
"Both. Some from other cops, some from the public -- mostly from the residents of the warehouse and dockside districts. That's been his beat for several years. I'm not thrilled that he's one of the responding officers, but he's on the midnight shift, and that's when most of the bodies get found -- before first shift starts."
Blair nodded slowly. "How many of these three calls did he respond to first?"
Jim flipped through the folders in his hands. "Two, and he was second on the scene at the third one." He looked up at Blair's raised brows and frowned. "I see where you're going with this, but don't. It's his shift, and his beat. It makes sense that he's going to be on the spot when something like this goes down."
"I know. It's just convenient."
"Speaking of 'convenient', what was with the attitude you gave Mahler?" Blair raised his brows, the picture of wide-eyed innocence. "Mahler's a good guy and a good cop. He didn't deserve that."
"Deserve what? I'm a little skeptical about his giving the case his full attention, that's all. I mean, this," Blair gestured to the files in Jim's hand, "isn't much, is it? A few interviews, a few morgue photos--"
"We've all got more than one case we're dealing with, Chief. Just because this one hasn't progressed very far doesn't mean he hasn't been giving it as much time as he can."
"Or maybe it does." Blair set his jaw stubbornly.
Jim crossed his arms over his chest and glowered. "Look, I think we need to talk about--"
"Detective Ellison?" A young woman opened the door and peered in at them. "There's someone downstairs to see you."
"We'll be right there." The woman disappeared, and Jim turned back to Blair. He frowned down at his partner. "We are going to talk about this."
Blair looked up at him, jaw still set, then sighed and nodded. "Yeah, I guess. Whatever. There's no big thing -- I don't mean to be a pain."
Jim eyed him a moment longer, then sighed. "S'okay. You'll tell me all about it." He patted the side of Blair's shoulder and smiled.
"Yeah." Blair managed a small smile in return, then stood and led the way out of the room.
A very attractive young blonde was waiting for them in a chair next to Jim's desk. She was scanning the room with interest as they approached, not looking directly at them until they were quite close. Then she stood, facing the two men and smiling expectantly. "Are you Detective Ellison?"
"Yes, and this is my partner, Blair Sandburg." Jim released her hand and indicated his partner, who offered his own hand with an appreciative smile.
"Irene Anderson. I'm with the Third Street Mission." She smiled in return as she squeezed Blair's hand, then turned back to Jim. "I came to see Detective Mahler and he said I should talk to you."
"Yes, we've just been assigned to the case. Please have a seat." Jim gestured to the chair next to his desk and Irene sat down again. Jim settled into his own chair and Blair perched on the edge of the desk, as close to their visitor as he could decently get, Jim thought. "How can we help you?"
"I just wondered how things were going. Concerning Jeff's murder, I mean. If you know anything yet." Her fingers worried at the leather bag she held in her lap. "A lot of people are very frightened at the idea that one individual is doing this, that there's a serial killer in our midst. Is that what's happening?"
"It's a possibility we're looking into. The more information you and your staff can give us, the further ahead we'll be." Jim pulled out a notebook and flipped to a blank page, then fished a pen from the cup on his desk.
"I'll try, but I don't know what more I can tell you than I already have. I didn't know Jeff well, just to say hello to. He's been in and out of the Mission a few times over the last month. I'm not there as often as I'd like to be."
"Your aunt is the Mission's sponsor?"
Irene turned in her chair to look up at Blair. "My great aunt, yes. I guess you could say that I oversee things for her, keep her apprised on how things are going, what the needs are. Lydie -- Miss Davis -- handles the day-to-day management for us, and Pastor Ron is our spiritual leader. I try to focus on programs for rehabilitation and reintegration for the residents. It's my field of study."
"Oh, are you at Rainier?" Blair leaned in a little closer.
"I graduated last spring. MSW," she added -- preening a little, Jim thought.
"We must not have crossed paths, then. I'm sure I'd remember." Irene smiled coyly at the compliment, glancing away and then back up into Blair's eyes. Blair's smile was warm and ingratiating, his manner smooth as butter.
Jim ducked his head a little as he made a few notes in his book. When he could trust himself not to grin, he looked up at their visitor again. "Who do you think would be the best person to talk to about Jeff? Are you aware of any close friends he had at the Mission or in the area? Any family, maybe?"
Irene shook her head. "I really couldn't say. The best person to ask would be Lydie." She flipped a strand of silky hair off the shapely shoulder nearest Blair, leaning in a little closer to him. "She's been managing the Mission -- well, as long as there's been a Mission, I guess. She's been working for my aunt in one capacity or another since she was a girl, I think. She's really a treasure. And she knows everyone."
Jim made another note. "That sounds like a good idea. We'll be going down there ourselves this afternoon."
"I don't think I'll be there later today. I have another appointment. But Lydie can tell you all you need to know, I'm sure. I was just hoping there might be something else you could tell me, some progress towards finding this killer." She looked hopefully from Jim to Blair, her eyes lingering appealingly on the younger man's face.
Blair seemed to ooze dependability. "We've only just taken the case, and we still have a lot to review. We're hoping to start making some headway soon. I can assure you that this case is a priority. We'll give it our very best effort."
Irene smiled appreciatively up at him. "I'm sure you will. Would it be an imposition to ask you to keep me informed? Everyone's so worried."
"We'll share what we're able to, ma'am." Jim's voice turned Irene's attention back to him. "You understand that in an ongoing investigation there's only so much we're at liberty to share."
"Oh, I understand," she said quickly. "I wouldn't expect you to violate protocol. Anything that would help to reassure our residents that something is being done would be a great help."
"I understand. We'll be increasing our presence in the neighborhood as well, sending more cars through the area at night."
"Oh, that's good to know. Everyone will be glad to hear that." Irene pulled her bag over her shoulder and stood. Jim and Blair rose with her, each giving her his hand in turn. "Thank you so much for your help. I'm glad to see this terrible situation is in such capable hands." She held Blair's hand just a little longer than Jim's. "One sometimes wonders whether our residents really matter as much to the police as they do to us. It's awful of me to even think such a thing--"
"No, no, I understand, really." Blair touched Irene's arm lightly as he escorted her towards the elevators.
Jim indulged in the smirk he'd been suppressing as he settled back in his chair. Blair's talent for schmoozing had served him well on quite a few occasions, especially during interviews with female witnesses -- although, in this case, Jim had to wonder exactly who was schmoozing whom.
Blair waved to Irene as the elevator doors closed, then walked briskly back to Jim's desk. Jim was a little surprised that Blair's expression was more pensive than triumphant, as it often was after a successful round of flirting. He settled again at the edge of Jim's desk and picked up a folder, still looking thoughtful.
"Not bad, huh?"
Blair looked up. "Yeah, not bad. Tries kind of hard." Jim chuckled, and Blair smiled. "No, normally that's not a bad thing -- not when they look like she does. But...." Blair laid the folder down and frowned. "Actually, she did seem familiar. I'm pretty sure I've seen her around campus. And I haven't found anyone yet who was there when, um, while I was, who hasn't heard of me. She didn't seem to have any idea who I was." He shrugged. "Maybe that's a good thing."
Jim looked at him, frowning a little. "Maybe. You think there's something going on there?"
Blair shook his head as though to clear it, and smiled. "No. No hunches, no 'cop instincts.' I think I'm still just, I don't know, touchy about it, maybe. Hey, the world revolves around me, you know?"
Jim grinned back at him. "Right concept, wrong casting, Chief."
Blair laughed and genuflected. "Forgive me for forgetting, oh Great Center of the Universe."
"Damn straight. So," Jim picked up a file, "let's finish going through these and grab some lunch before we head for the Mission."
"Works for me." Blair scooped up a few more papers from Jim's desk and tossed them onto his own, settled in and started to read.
"So, about this shoulder-chip thing."
Blair grimaced and swallowed the bite he'd been chewing. "I knew there was an ulterior motive behind the Thai restaurant."
"How many times have you taken me to Wonderburger when you wanted to get something out of me?"
"Good point." Blair stuffed another mouthful in and chewed busily.
"We need to talk about this before we go any further with the case." Blair made mumbling sounds and pointed to the side of his face. "Talking with your mouth full is permitted."
"Mrmph." Blair swallowed again and sipped his tea. "All right. What do you want to know?"
"What I want to know is what's got you so damned edgy. You seem to think everyone in the department, or on the planet, for that matter, has it in for the homeless -- everyone but you."
Blair sighed. "No, I don't. I know there are people who care -- like Irene, for instance, and her aunt. I'd like to meet that woman. Maybe Irene would introduce me." He looked thoughtful. "But most people don't care, and way too many are actively hostile." His eyes darkened as his gaze seemed to drift into the middle distance over Jim's shoulder.
"Why?" Blair looked at him. "Where does this come from? Personal experience?" Jim's voice softened. "You and Naomi? Were you two ever homeless?"
Blair shrugged and looked down at his plate. "No, not really. Sometimes we were 'between places', on the way to someplace new. Never for long." Blair poked at the remnants of his lunch with his fork. "Naomi had a little cash put away, from family, I think -- we never really talked about money. And when we settled, she always got work, or even opened a shop of some sort -- pottery, herbs, she could do a lot of things. I always had a roof over my head -- our own, or someone else's. I was only ever on the streets if I wanted to be."
"Yeah, I took off once or twice on my own, just wandering. Drove Naomi nuts, but I never went very far or stayed away long. There was just so much out there to see, you know? So much to be a part of, so many people to meet and learn about. But I got to missing my own bed pretty fast, so it usually wasn't for longer than a day or two." Blair grinned. "It was pretty stupid, really -- I was barely a teenager. I must have been leading a charmed life, not to have gotten hurt." Blair's reminiscent smile faltered. "A lot of people do get hurt." His deep voice went soft as his gaze dropped to his plate again.
Jim waited for Blair to continue, watching shades of emotions play across his friend's face. When the silence stretched beyond what was comfortable, Jim prompted him, voice still low and careful. "Who got hurt, Blair?"
Blair shrugged, squirming a little. "Street people get hurt all the time. You know that. And then there's the sweeps, you know? People getting cleared off the streets like trash and being treated about as gently. And forget going to the police if any of them get mugged and have everything they own stolen from them, or get beat up -- they know they'll just get ignored."
"Blair, it might have seemed that way to you at the time. It might even be true of some cops, in some places. But my experience has been different. Speaking of which, I really didn't appreciate that 'across the tracks' crack."
Blair blinked at him. "The what?"
"What you said about my not having a clear view from where I grew up. That's not true. Okay, I didn't get to know anyone homeless on the level you did. But I didn't grow up in a bubble, either. I wasn't blind."
Blair shook his head and raised a hand toward Jim. "I wasn't saying you're a bad person or that there's anything wrong with having advantages. But it's easy for people who've never been there to ignore the problem. Most people pretend it doesn't exist, walk on by. Maybe a few drop a dollar or two to ease their consciences. Other people complain about the 'derelicts' camped out on the street they take to go to work or to the mall, and then before you know it you've got a bunch of destitute people on a bus to another city where they know no one, without a clue what they're going to do when they get there. And then there's the spitters, and the bashers...." Blair smacked his fork onto the tabletop, sat back in the booth and took a deep breath. "It gets to me. So sue me if that bothers people."
Jim frowned. "The problem isn't with how you feel, Blair, it's with how you express it on the job -- at least, the part about cops not doing their jobs. You're a cop. I'm a cop. We work with cops."
Blair closed his eyes. "I know, I know."
"You're part of a team, and I think it's a pretty good team. Not perfect, but--"
"I know, Jim." Blair sighed. "Okay, so I'm letting preconceived ideas color my view of an entire population -- just what I've been accusing others of doing. But I really don't think I'm too far off the mark, here."
"No one ever does." Blair paused in his fidgeting and looked sharply at Jim. "Look, I can't change the way you think, and I'm not trying to. I just hope you'll watch it a little around other people -- other cops, and around the public, too. We're going to do everything we can to nail this killer. And we'll do whatever we can to make sure anyone who works with us gives it their best, too. Beyond that, I don't know what you expect."
"No, I know. You're right. And I can handle it. I can behave myself. I'll be a good boy." He grinned crookedly. "I've been kind of a pain, haven't I?"
Jim smirked. "No more than usual, really. But Simon was concerned." Blair mimed flicking his leftovers at Jim with his fork, still grinning. "You don't get like this unless something is really getting to you. I trust you to keep a lid on it when you need to." Jim was still smiling, but his gaze was direct.
"Message received." Blair slid sideways out of the booth. "And here's one for you." He swept the check off the table and handed it to Jim, grinning. "I'll just go 'freshen up' while you take care of this."
"Right." Jim chuckled as he watched Blair make his way toward the back of the restaurant. "Message received." He stood and reached for his wallet on his way to the cashier.
"We're just getting lunch cleaned up. Maybe you could take a look around, and I'll join you in a few minutes." Lydie Davis was a short, sturdy, gray-haired woman of indeterminate age. She smiled kindly up at the two men standing before her, but the look in her eye said 'later' with a resolve that both men recognized.
"I think that would be all right." Jim returned her smile, then looked down the corridor toward the sounds of clinking dishes. "And we'll join you in the cafeteria...?"
"I'll meet you back here in the office in about 20 minutes. Andrea will show you around and bring you back again. Understood?" She turned and addressed the mousy young woman who had shown the detectives in. The girl bobbed her head anxiously. "Good. I'll see you shortly, then." She retrieved her dishtowel from the desktop and bustled from the room.
"Formidable," Blair whispered, and Jim smiled.
The girl cleared her throat, and they turned toward her. "This way." She gestured toward the door, then preceded them out of the room and down the corridor, away from the sounds of dishwashing. "If Miss Anderson was here, she could tell you more about the programs. I help her sometimes, but I don't know as much about it as she does."
She stopped before a closed door and pulled out a ring of keys. "This is the shop. People learn to repair things and make things in here, so they can get jobs." She opened the door just enough to allow each man to poke his head into the room in turn and look around briefly, then hastily closed it again. "No one's supposed to go in there unless there's a class. Because of the tools." At Jim's questioning look, she continued. "Because they take them and hock them, sometimes. Miss Davis says it's better to keep temptation locked up." She continued down the hall ahead of them toward the next room.
"Do you suppose she thought we might be tempted to hock a few tools?" Blair whispered.
Jim chuckled. "You do have a criminal look about you, Chief." They quieted as they stopped behind their guide in front of an open doorway. "This is the lounge." She gestured into the room, looked at the two men to make sure they had seen, then stepped away to continue down the hall.
"If you don't mind--" Jim's voice stopped her, and she turned to face them again. "I think we'd like to take a look around in here. If that's okay."
Andrea looked doubtful for a moment. "Um. I guess that would be all right." She slipped past Jim and entered the room, leading them toward the back where a tall, fair-haired man in glasses was writing at a large wooden desk. "Pastor Ron? These men are from the police." At her words, a short, thin man got up from a battered easy chair across the room and slipped quietly into the hall. Both detectives watched him go as surreptitiously as possible.
The pastor set his glasses down on the desk and stood. "From the police?" His tone was wary.
"Yes, sir. Detectives Ellison and Sandburg. We're looking into the homicides--"
"Those three unfortunate men, yes." He held out his hand to each man. "Ron Knudson. Forgive my hesitation, but we see officers here fairly often, usually to question our residents about area crimes. We seem to be the meeting place of 'the usual suspects' as far as the Cascade Police are concerned."
Jim nodded. "I understand." Blair coughed. Jim ignored him. "I know you've made a statement already. I was hoping you might have something else to add -- something about Jeff."
"I'll certainly try, but I don't think there's anything that I haven't already shared." Pastor Ron sat down again. Blair took a nearby chair and Jim retrieved another from a table behind them. Andrea fidgeted a few feet away, eyeing the pastor uncertainly. He nodded at her, and she gestured indeterminately and slipped from the room.
"Jeff wasn't here for very long. Actually, he'd been here several times over the past few weeks, but never stayed long." He shook his head, his expression regretful. "The poor boy had a drug habit. We did our best to get him into a program, but it never did any good. He couldn't seem to stay away from it for long. And there's absolutely no drug use allowed on the premises. He'd leave for a while, then come back in terrible shape. It was very hard on all of us, watching him destroying himself."
"I'm sure it was." Blair nodded sympathetically as he jotted notes in his book. "Are you aware of any enemies he might have had, anyone who might have wanted to hurt him?"
"No one here, certainly. Elsewhere, I have no idea. To be honest, we all suspected Jeff might be found dead some day, but from the drugs, not an attacker. Although, with the type of crowd he associated with to get his drugs, that's not a surprising end for an addict, either."
"Do you know of any possible connection with the other two men who were killed?"
"Not really, no. Both James and Antonio were older than Jeff, and were also in and out repeatedly. Neither was very interested in our programs, though we had some hope for Tony, for a while. He stole to get by, had for years, but we thought that he was truly interested in our shop program, that he was looking forward to real employment. Then things started disappearing from the shop. That was a huge disappointment to all of us."
"You're sure it was him?"
"Yes, I am." Ron pressed his lips together in a grim line. "The less said about it, the better. But there's no doubt that he was the culprit."
Jim leaned forward in his chair. "Actually, sir, the more details you could share with us...."
"I understand, but I really think Miss Davis would be the best person to tell you about that. She knows a great deal more about the actual events than I do. Really, I don't think there's much more that I can tell you. As I said, Jeff's death was a sad loss, but not entirely unexpected. We don't count him as one of our successes. There are only so many we can reach. Many have lived outside of society for too long to be able or willing to rejoin it. It's an unhappy truth of what we do."
"That doesn't make them less valuable, though. As human beings, I mean." Blair tapped his pen against his notebook. "They've just made different choices. They have the right to do that."
Ron seemed to consider. "Yes, certainly in God's eyes everyone is valuable. Not, I'm afraid, in society's eyes." He laid one hand on the pile of papers in front of him. "These are notes for our next AA meeting. That was James' downfall, alcohol. In his case, and in Jeff's, it wasn't as much about choice as either of them liked to think. Addiction was their master. We try to help free people from addiction, so that they can come to a place where they can make real choices. And Tony's choice, to steal -- one can't expect to live outside the law and remain free. Once caught, freedom and choices are lost. We try to help there, too, try to convince them that living inside society's boundaries actually means greater freedom for them in the long run. But freedom, I fear, is relative. It means something different to everyone."
Blair nodded and opened his mouth to reply, but Jim spoke first. "Thank you, sir. We appreciate your cooperation. I know going over the same ground repeatedly can be tedious." He rose and extended a hand to the other man.
Pastor Ron rose to meet him and shook his hand. "No more so for me than it must be for you. It's the nature of your job, isn't it? In some ways, it's also the nature of mine." He turned to Blair, who had also risen. "I want these killings to stop as much as anyone, maybe more. I'm entirely at your disposal, at any time."
"Thank you." Blair shook his hand as well, then stepped back to join Jim on his way out to the hall.
Jim stopped in the doorway and turned back. "By the way, sir, could you tell us the name of the man who left the room when we came in?" At the pastor's puzzled look, Jim gestured toward the battered chair in the corner. "He was sitting over there. A short, slight man, mid-twenties, dark hair?"
"That sounds like David. I didn't notice him leaving, but I think he was sitting there earlier." He glanced, as though for confirmation, at a large blonde woman sitting at a table a few yards from his desk. Through their entire conversation she had tried hard to look as though she weren't listening, and now she wouldn't meet his eyes. Ron looked back up at the two detectives. "I'm almost certain it was David. Do you want to talk to him?"
"Possibly. We'll let you know." Jim nodded to him and turned again to walk out into the hallway, Blair close behind him. A few steps from the doorway he stopped and scanned the empty corridor, then let his eyes slip slightly out of focus.
Blair stood close to him and laid a gentle hand on his arm. "What do you hear?"
"Nothing from the lounge." Jim shifted slightly, turning his ear toward a cross-corridor, and spoke quietly. "I hear Andrea, around the corner. She's talking to someone, about us." Jim listened a moment longer, then walked briskly to the corner and stopped. His eyes scanned briefly, skimming past a tall, thin man sweeping listlessly near the wall with a wide push broom, then fixed on a closed door halfway down the short hall. He took a step toward the door, Blair at his heels, but stopped abruptly when a woman's voice called his name. Turning, he met Lydie Davis' rather fierce eyes as she bustled toward him.
"Where's Andrea?" Her sharp tone seemed to imply that the two men were somehow at fault for misplacing her. "Never mind, I've finished and I'm free to talk with you now. I've a great deal to do, so please follow me this way." Turning briskly, she sailed imperiously down the hall toward the office where she'd first spoken with them.
Jim glanced back at the closed door, then turned to Blair, who shrugged and gestured toward the rapidly retreating backside of Miss Davis. Jim grimaced and nodded, and the two men followed her.
"We really do appreciate your time." Jim felt a little like a bothersome child under Lydie's friendly but slightly stern gaze. The woman seemed to bustle even when sitting still, and gave off a definite air of impatience with the two detectives. She sat behind a large, timeworn oak desk that shone from obvious loving care. Her chair, though not imposing, still managed to elevate her slightly above her visitors in their more low-slung seats. A born manager, Jim thought, and probably not a bad card player.
"Of course I'm pleased to help in any way I can, though I don't see how answering the same questions again could be helpful. Mr. Mahler already asked me about Antonio and James."
Blair looked up from his notepad. "I know it must seem unnecessary, but often people remember something they missed the first time through. Even small things can make a difference." He'd been writing down almost every word out of Lydie's mouth, even things Jim remembered having been covered in Mahler's preliminary investigations. Apparently, Blair still didn't put much faith in the other detective's efforts.
Jim sighed and continued. "We're especially interested in hearing more about Antonio Prendes and the thefts." Lydie blinked at him blankly. "The thefts of tools. From the shop."
Lydie's brow furrowed. "Who told you that?"
"Oh. I see." Lydie shook her head with a disapproving sigh. "Pastor Ron is a wonderful man, very well meaning. Still, I wish he'd leave these matters to me."
"He has, in effect. He didn't tell us much more than that the incidents had occurred and that we should ask you for details."
Miss Davis seemed somewhat mollified. "That's as it should be. I've always handled matters of discipline. It takes a firm hand sometimes -- tempered with compassion, of course." She paused for a moment and contemplated her small, reddened hands. When she spoke again, she seemed to choose her words with great care. "We feel a great deal of regret over Tony. I, personally, felt some small responsibility for... what happened to him." Blair leaned forward in his chair. "When we found he'd been stealing, we were very disappointed, of course. He'd shown so much promise. We really thought he'd turned a corner and was going to be able to hold down a job. He was so interested in the shop program. Of course, now we know why." She pressed her lips together in a narrow line.
"You think his interest was in the monetary value of the tools?" Jim prompted her.
"Obviously. When they first started to disappear, we were stumped. Security for the shop is pretty good, I think. But, of course, someone who's been stealing all his life will find a way. When we found some of the missing items in his cubicle, we had to ask him to leave. He protested his innocence at first, most vigorously, but in the end he didn't deny it. It wasn't long after he left that he... that his body was found." She pursed her lips and shook her head again. "Pastor Ron had felt that we should have given him a second chance -- he had really believed Tony was on the right road. And Reenie was beside herself, of course. She'd been so proud--"
"Miss Irene, I mean -- the younger Miss Irene. I've called her Reenie since she was a child. She works so hard with her rehabilitation programs and takes it so personally when they don't work out. The shop program is one she's especially proud of. It was very expensive, and it took her quite a while to convince Miss Irene -- her aunt, I mean -- to fund it. And we have had successes. But the failures are difficult for her. She has such a good heart, and then she feels she has to constantly prove herself and her ideas to her aunt. Not that Miss Irene grudges the expenditure -- quite the opposite. She feels this work is very important, she always has. But she's a practical woman and wants to see her money spent wisely."
Blair was nodding vigorously as Lydie spoke. "She sounds like a very interesting person. Does she come to the Mission often? I'd like to meet her."
"Oh, I doubt you'd ever meet her here." Lydie flicked a quick, faintly disapproving glance at Blair. Her tone seemed to imply that it was doubtful that Blair would be likely to meet her cherished Miss Irene anywhere. Jim suppressed a smile. Blair's usual ingratiating tactics hadn't gotten him far with Miss Davis, but instead had earned him some rather doubtful stares. Lydie wasn't the type to be schmoozed, apparently. Instead, she seemed to be more comfortable with Jim's deferential and businesslike manner. Or maybe she just liked his looks better. Some women did, after all. Unfortunately, many of them seemed to be closer to Miss Davis' age than Miss Anderson's.
"We do hope to be able to interview Miss Irene in the near future, in her home." Jim noted definite disapproval in Lydie's frown. "But I'm sure we won't need to take up much of her time. I take it she doesn't come here that often?"
"She comes to visit with Reenie and myself occasionally, and to tour and visit with the residents a bit. Maybe once a month or so. She's not in the best of health." She looked intently from one man to the other as she said this, as though to impress its importance on them. Jim wondered whether she was attempting to excuse Miss Irene's fairly infrequent visits to her Mission or to discourage them from bothering the elderly lady.
"We understand. We won't inconvenience her any more than absolutely necessary."
"I certainly hope not. She's the heart and soul of this Mission, the source of all this good work. Reenie is an angel, of course, but the plan was Miss Irene's and the credit will always be to her. She's given so much of herself for others." Lydie sighed sentimentally. It was obvious to Jim that she adored her employer.
Blair broke in. "You mentioned feeling responsible? About Tony?" Jim winced inwardly at the look Miss Davis shot at the other man and was glad it hadn't been directed at him.
Lydie frowned. "Well, no. Not responsible, exactly. It was necessary that he be made to leave, considering. But had he stayed, not been on the street...." She shook her head. "Of course, that would have been impossible, regardless of how Pastor Ron or Reenie felt. We have all we can handle enforcing the rules as it is, and I think 'no stealing' is pretty easy to understand. Maintaining order can be difficult under the best circumstances. Had Tony stayed, it would have been nearly impossible to make the other residents believe we're serious about enforcement. And, really, his fate was in his own hands, in the end. He made his choice. And who knows what choices he made after leaving here? You still don't know what really happened to him, do you?"
Jim shifted in his chair. "Only that he was killed." Miss Davis nodded. "So the final say in who stays and who goes rests with you? You're in charge of a great deal here -- it's a big responsibility." He tried to seem impressed, hoping that a little subtle flattery would return her to her former more amiable mood and erase her frown.
He was successful. "Yes, I guess that's the case. Miss Irene depends on me a great deal, you know. I've been with her -- oh, goodness, since I was a girl. She knows she can trust me completely to look after her interests." Her expression was positively smug. "I try to keep an eye on Reenie for her, too, though that's not easy. She's a very independent girl. Still, she lets herself be guided by me in many things." Jim thought the woman might purr, had she been able.
"I don't doubt that." Lydie graced Jim with a smile. "We've been told by everyone we've spoken with that you're definitely the person to talk to in any matter pertaining to the Mission, that no one would know more than you do."
"Well, I suppose so. No one's been here longer than I have. And I'm certainly anxious to help the authorities in any way I can."
"I don't think we'll need to trouble you much longer. I only have a few more questions. You have a man staying here named David...." Jim flipped to a new page of his notepad as he glanced sideways at Blair. Catching the other man's eye, he frowned 'quiet' at him, lamenting for the umpteenth time that he wasn't psychic and hoping the message got through anyway. Content that Blair's surreptitious eye roll was evidence that it had, he proceeded to wind up their interview with the now almost regally magnanimous and helpful Miss Davis.
"You weren't a big hit with that one." Jim backed the truck up slightly before pulling forward, out of the parking space and onto the street.
"You noticed? No, I must not have been her type. But I thought it could be significant, that remark she made about feeling guilty. Hey, she brought it up." Blair looked up through his window at the top floors of the ancient brick warehouse that housed the Mission. His eyes focused on a second floor window, and he craned his neck around to keep it in sight as long as possible as they drove past.
"Is she still there?"
"She? In the window?" Blair turned in his seat to face Jim.
"Andrea. She was up there, watching us as we left." Jim signaled and glanced over his shoulder, then moved into the left turn lane and stopped at the light.
"I couldn't tell who it was, but I saw someone up there. What was she saying, earlier? When you heard her in the hall?"
"She was trying to convince someone that we 'didn't know anything.' I'm guessing it was the man who ducked out of the lounge when we came in."
"David Smith?" Blair bounced in his seat. "Why didn't we talk to him, then? You should have said something."
"Because he left the building shortly after we went into Miss Davis' office. I heard him go." The light turned green, and Jim turned onto Fifth and headed downtown. "I think the best course of action would be to drop in unannounced sometime tomorrow and have a talk with him, and with Andrea."
"But what if he takes off before then? If he's somehow connected to these killings--"
"I don't think that's what they were talking about. I got the idea that it was something else from what little I heard them say. Whatever he's up to, I'm pretty sure there's something going on between him and Andrea."
"The girl with the keys." Blair looked thoughtful. "Miss Davis seems to trust her."
"Miss Davis, while definitely possessing a 'firm hand', may not always be the best judge of character. Andrea has been doing some illegal smoking sometime in the last 24 hours."
"Ah. You think that's the big secret between her and Smith? That he's her source?"
"Possibly." Jim's cell phone jangled, and he fished it out of his jacket pocket. "Ellison. We're on our way back right now." He listened for a moment. "Now would be fine. We'll head that way. Tell her we'll be there in half an hour." He slid the phone back into this pocket. "Change of plan. We've been summoned into The Presence. Miss Irene wants to see us."
"The old girl herself, you mean? Why now?"
"We'll find out when we get there. And, Chief," Jim smirked, "try to control the charm this time." Blair's reply was colorful. "And watch the language." Jim chuckled at Blair's aggrieved sigh as he pulled off the busy downtown thoroughfare and onto the cross-town express.
The deBurg mansion defined imposing. It rose toward the sky in sweeping arches of pale granite and limestone, a fortress worthy of a scion of the old family name. For generations the blue-blooded deBurgs had presided over this enclave north of the city, lending their name and their money to a broad range of charities and endeavors both public and private. The source of their wealth, the original fortune of the first deBurg, was rumored to be of questionable, and possibly even scandalous, origins, but it had apparently been in no one's best interests to delve more deeply into this matter. The deBurg influence was far-reaching.
Irene Katherine Francis deBurg was no less imposing than her massive home. The two men were led by a series of preternaturally pale and silent employees through an awe-inspiring progression of rooms. They emerged finally into an inner sanctum where the lady herself reposed on a very old and very straight-backed chair, though the chair's back could hardly have been said to have been much straighter than her own. While certainly very old, Miss deBurg was by no means an invalid. She looked her visitors over very thoroughly, with an appraising gleam in her eyes Jim almost found familiar, especially when they rested on Blair. The younger Irene had inherited more than her name from the older.
"Thank you for seeing us, Miss deBurg. It's very kind of you." Jim was annoyed to find himself suddenly unsure of what to do with his hands, and clasped them in front of him. The 'royal audience' atmosphere of the meeting unnerved him slightly, reminding him a little of times he'd been kept after school by a particularly stern teacher. He assumed that was the impression their hostess intended to achieve and mentally congratulated her.
The lady waved a dismissive hand. "Hardly, since it was I who asked that you come to see me. Please have a seat." She indicated two similarly uncomfortable and antique looking chairs across from her own, and they settled gently into them. "As you can imagine, I'm most concerned about the situation developing in the area of my Mission. I'd be most grateful if you could apprise me of any progress that has been made toward apprehending the person responsible."
Jim glanced at Blair, who was unsuccessfully trying to conceal his awe. "The situation, as you call it, is under investigation. Detective Sandburg and I have been assigned the case--"
"Just this morning. I know. My niece was here to see me earlier today. She was very impressed with your... professionalism." She turned her piercing gaze on Blair, who sat a little straighter and swallowed. Her eyes lingered on him a moment and she smiled thinly. "I thought it might reassure me to talk with you myself. And, of course, I'll answer any questions the two of you might have for me." This last was said with an air of gracious condescension that would have done credit to an empress.
Jim cleared his throat. "I understand, ma'am, that you visit the Mission once a month or so." The lady inclined her head. "You aren't personally acquainted, then, with any of the residents?"
"Heavens, no." Irene chuckled. "What would we have to talk about?"
Jim blinked. Beside him, Blair shifted in his uncomfortable chair. Jim glanced sideways at him, noting the surprised lift of the other man's eyebrows. He tried to interject another question, but Blair spoke first.
"You aren't interested in the people you're helping? In their lives, their histories?" Jim was glad that the tone of Blair's voice remained deferential, though his question might not be.
Miss Irene considered him thoughtfully. "That's a very interesting question, young man. Very interesting. I take it you are?"
Blair sat back in his chair. "Well, yes. I am."
"And how do you express this interest?" The faint, cool smile remained unchanged, but her eyes almost twinkled.
Blair blinked. "I, I try to keep current on issues concerning the homeless. I've participated in benefits. I've helped out at soup kitchens. I.... Why do you want to know?"
The lady chuckled again. "I was curious. I don't doubt that you care, young man, and I appreciate anyone who wants to help, whatever contribution they're able to make. Last year I donated over one million dollars to the Mission. I paid for food, clothing, medicine, medical care, retraining supplies, educational materials, and a host of other items for hundreds of people whose names I don't know and whose faces I wouldn't recognize, because I care. I don't tell you this to try to impress you, but because your question implied criticism of the distance I maintain between myself and the denizens of the Mission. Oh, yes, it did." She raised a hand to quiet the sounds of protest coming from Blair. "I don't apologize for that. My caring manifests itself in donations, not in personal interaction. My world and my life are very different from theirs. The most useful thing I can offer them is my money, not my physical presence. I suspect they'd find me very odd." Her eyes were definitely twinkling now.
"I think they'd find you very interesting." Blair's blue eyes met her elderly gray ones with an answering smile.
Thankful that the exchange had ended amicably, and even a little flirtatiously, Jim hurried to turn the course of the conversation. "Your niece has worked very hard to make the Mission a success, I hear. Did you encourage her to make this work her field of study?"
Irene turned quickly to Jim, her twinkle fading. "My niece is a very headstrong young woman of whom I do not always entirely approve." She bit her words off sharply, a frown deepening the lines on her forehead. "No, I didn't encourage her to take this up as her life's work. But she has made a fair go of it, and has been a tremendous help at the Mission, I'll give her that." Her expression softened. "She tries very hard and cares very much -- maybe too much. A little distance gives one perspective." She looked thoughtful for a moment. "We're an odd family, Detective. As individuals we're quite different, though in many things, we are the same. Determination, persistence, clarity of vision -- all the deBurgs have these qualities, though they've been expressed in different ways. Some, very different," she added quietly, tapping one finger gently on the wooden arm of her chair as she stared into the middle distance over Jim's shoulder.
Jim and Blair exchanged looks. "And Miss Davis?" Irene blinked and focused her gaze on Jim's face. "I understand she's been with you for quite a while?"
"Yes, she has. For over...." Her eyes widened a bit. "Fifty years. Imagine. All of her working life, certainly. She came to the family as a maid when she was quite young, and became my personal maid some time after that. Her talents were wasted in that position, so I made her housekeeper when I took possession of the estate." She indicated their surroundings with a sweep of her hand. "She's been invaluable. And quite honest and dependable, if that's what you're leading up to asking me. I trust her implicitly. She's a rock of stability, both in my life and in the running of the Mission."
"We'd heard something like that. And Pastor Knudson?"
"I don't know him very well, really, only what Lydie and my niece have told me. I talk with him sometimes when I visit, but not often. Competent, caring, a little vague at times. Not unintelligent." Nodding slightly, she sat a little straighter in her rigid chair. "'But I'm afraid that's all the information I have to offer regarding the characters in the case." She paused and smiled reminiscently. "Characters. You know, I used to enjoy mystery novels as a girl. I quite fancied the idea of myself as a character embroiled in a grisly plot, the intrigue and suspense.... It's not really like that, is it? Not when people you care about are involved, certainly. It's ugly, and sad, and rather unnerving." She shook her head and spoke softly. "Not like novels at all."
"No, ma'am, it isn't." Blair's voice was also soft and a little grim. Her eyes met his again and a sort of understanding seemed to pass between them. "Not like books at all."
She sighed and nodded. "If you have no more questions for me then? I apologize, but I tire rather easily." She did seem to have to work to maintain her regal posture now.
"No, ma'am, thank you. We won't keep you any longer." Jim rose and accepted the frail, elegant hand extended toward him.
"But, your own questions?" Blair took her hand in turn. "You said--"
"They've been answered." Blair hesitated, looking a little perplexed, then nodded and tried to step back. Irene clung to his hand. "Detective -- Blair. You will be careful?" Her eyes met his with such intensity that he blinked.
"Of course," he blurted, surprised. When her expression didn't change, he repeated, "Of course," his voice low and reassuring, and squeezed her hand. She took a deep breath and nodded, then sighed and released his hand.
"I'm sure you will." She sat back a little in her chair, and a quiet figure crept from the shadows to her side. Another discreet personage materialized before them and gestured for them to follow. Silently, the two men wound their way back through the maze by which they had entered and emerged through the enormous front doors into the bright light of late afternoon. They stood on the sweeping drive for a few minutes, admiring the view and gathering their thoughts.
Jim chuckled. "Not an original observation, but true. Interesting, in a number of ways." Blair gazed speculatively at a grove of trees. "Anything in particular strike you, Chief?"
"Maybe. I don't know." Blair shook his head and grinned. "Family resemblance, maybe?"
"You saw it too?"
"Maybe." Blair stood quietly a moment longer, then started for the truck. "That'll teach me to ask 'impertinent' questions, won't it?"
"I certainly hope so, young man. Respect your elders." Jim smirked at him as he gunned the truck's engine to life.
"Yeah, bite me, old man," Blair chuckled as they started down the long, winding drive. "Ow! Not really!"
"I always wanted to do that."
"Mrph." Blair pushed the door to his bedroom open and scratched at his tousled head. Across the darkened living room, Jim stood in his shorts, talking quietly into the phone.
"Yeah. Yeah, okay. We'll be right there." He hung up and rolled his head in a circle, the sound of popping vertebrae audible even to Blair.
"What's up?" Blair shuffled out into the room, a little more awake.
"There's been another attack." Jim turned and looked at him. "It's Lydie Davis."
"No." Blair watched Jim climb the stairs. "Oh, no."
"Ready in five, Chief."
"Yeah." Blair shook his head, then turned and jogged back into his room.
"Detective Mahler." The man standing in front of the nurses' station turned on hearing his name. Jim strode toward him, Blair trailing slightly behind.
"Ellison, Sandburg." The older detective rubbed at his stubbled jaw. "She's in surgery. Cooper's in the waiting room -- he's the one who found her."
Jim ignored Blair's soft-voiced remark and scanned the ER. "We'll talk to him in a few, thanks. You have anything for us?"
"Not much, I just got here about 15 minutes ago, myself. Munez called me." Mahler looked from Jim to Blair. "No offense -- I mean, I'm not trying to horn in, or anything. Munez knows how interested I am in this case, is all. Lydie Davis -- this is what you'd call a 'major development', I guess. And I liked the lady."
Jim nodded slowly, his eyes slightly out of focus, then crooked a small smile. "I understand. We do, too." He glanced at Blair, hoping his uncharacteristically suspicious partner had picked up on the scan and Jim's apparent acceptance of Mahler's explanation. The more cooperative Blair was with Mahler, the better it would be for all of them.
Blair seemed to get the message. "Yeah, we do. Is she going to be okay?"
"Don't know yet. She took a pretty good crack to the head, from the back, this time. I doubt that she ever saw her attacker."
"And it happened just outside the Mission?"
"In the alley, just outside a back door. She was taking out the trash." Mahler shook his head. "She shouldn't have stepped foot outside the place alone, much less into the alley, but she was a stubborn woman. I mean, she is," he added hastily. "But the janitor, Ray, has done a bunk, according to her assistant, and she didn't want to leave the trash in the kitchen overnight."
"Her assistant? Andrea?"
"Yeah, that's her. Um...." Mahler pulled a small notebook from his back pocket, flipped it open and ripped out a few pages filled with a small, neat script. "I asked her a couple of questions when they first got here. She found Miss Davis after the attack and rode here in the ambulance with her." He shuffled his feet a little. "Look, I really don't mean to step on any toes. This case is just kind of personal to me. I have a nephew...." He sighed and leaned back against the counter. "He's like these people -- living on the streets, I mean. He's wandering around Seattle somewhere. Paul's not, um, quite right, but because he's not considered a danger to himself or others they can't commit him. And my brother and his wife are beside themselves about it, but there's not much they can do. He's an adult." He shook his head. "The kid would rather live under overpasses and in storm drains than with his parents, and they have to let him. But he's family. And if something like this was happening up there...."
"You'd want the killer caught before he could get to Paul."
"These people have families, too, some of them, somewhere. People who care about them. If they knew--" Mahler stopped and cleared his throat.
"We get it." Blair took a step nearer the other man and laid a hand on his arm. "It's okay -- we appreciate the help."
Mahler smiled a little. "Thanks. I wasn't sure."
"Yeah, I know, and if I said anything--"
A vortex of sound and motion seemed to explode through the ER doors. "Lydie!" Irene Anderson, sobbing and more than a little hysterical, stopped for a moment just inside the threshold, then spotted the men by the nurses' desk and hurried toward them. "Where is she? Dear God, where is she? What's happened?" She made a beeline for Blair, grabbing his jacket and almost shaking him. "Please, tell me, is she all right? What's happened to her?"
From behind her, Jim took her upper arms in a gentle grip and pulled her back a little from his startled partner. "She's in surgery. We don't know much more yet."
Irene dropped her face into her hands and moaned. "I should have been there, I should have been there."
"If you had, you might have been hurt, too." Blair slipped an arm around her shaking shoulders and steered her toward the waiting room. "Let's get some coffee and sit down."
Irene sobbed. "I don't want coffee."
"Then we'll get some tea, maybe. Or a Coke." Glancing back over his shoulder at the other two men, Blair guided the distraught woman to the waiting room as the others followed.
"You got there first?" Jim stood close enough to Officer Cooper that he could keep his voice low, but no closer than he had to. From their vantage point in the corner of the room he kept an eye on Blair and the now a little more coherent Irene, as well as the small, pale woman sitting alone across the room from them.
"Munez and I got there about the same time." Cooper's eyes seemed to stay focused on Irene's disheveled blonde head as she leaned a little against Blair and sipped her tea. "We found her face down in the alley, just outside the door. Back of her head looked pretty bad -- I don't know what they're going to be able to do for her. It's a shame, a nice old lady like that. Pick off a few derelicts, that's one thing, but a poor, old--"
Jim cut him off, his voice sharp. "Yeah. What else?"
Cooper shifted to look at Jim, his eyes narrowed a little. "There was a bag of trash on the ground next to her. No sign of a weapon, but we didn't expect to find one. Didn't see anything on the body -- the victim, I mean -- but we didn't have long to look. The ambulance got there pretty fast, and we had to check the area to see if the perp might still be around. Lots of places to hide in the alley."
"Who's there now?"
"Munez stayed, and the forensics people are there. I doubt they'll find anything, though." Jim quirked an eyebrow at him. "They haven't found anything yet. At the other scenes, I mean."
"Maybe this wasn't done by the same perp. Miss Davis doesn't fit the victim profile. Did you check to see if anything was missing from the Mission?"
"A robbery? Possible, I guess. No, I followed the ambulance back here, so I don't know. You'll have to ask Munez. But that Andrea girl found her pretty fast, I think -- she says she was in the dining room and heard a noise, sort of a squawk, and started looking. She'd probably have seen someone come in." He paused and looked thoughtful. "It is a big place, though."
Jim nodded. "What did Andrea have to say?"
"Not much. I mean, beyond questioning her at the scene, I haven't talked to her much. They said you were on the way here, so I left it to you."
Jim frowned. "I thought that was why you were here, because she is. So you could question her."
"No, I was hoping to get more from the victim."
Jim's eyes widened. "Out of Miss Davis? What do you mean, 'more'?"
"She was talkin' when we got there." Cooper nodded at Jim's surprised stare. "Yeah, not much, but I hoped she'd say more. I wanted to be here if the doctors heard anything, take it down, but I guess she went completely under in the ambulance. The paramedic with her said she just kept repeating the same thing for a few minutes, then nothing."
Jim nearly ground his teeth with impatience. "What did she say?"
"Just one word. 'Irene.' Over and over." His gaze slid sideways to rest on Miss Anderson again. "Just, 'Irene.'"
"My God, Blair, if she dies, what will I do?" Irene sniffed and rocked back and forth a little in her seat. "I can't manage without her. Why her? She's so good, she does so much for everyone -- why her?"
"We don't know yet, but we'll try to find out." Blair watched Jim's face as he talked to Officer Cooper, saw his eyes widen, his jaw tighten. When Jim's gaze joined the officer's to rest on the woman beside him, he turned to look more closely at her as well.
She was wiping her nose with a tissue from the box on the low table in front of them. "I know. I know you're doing your best. It's just...." She covered her eyes with her hand. "It should never have happened to her."
"It shouldn't happen to anyone." Blair's voice was gentle. His eyes traveled from Irene to his partner and back again.
"No." Irene looked up at him. "I'm glad you're here, Blair. I feel so alone."
Blair resisted the urge to put an arm around her and tried to think of something both comforting and professional to say. Before he could speak, a door at the far end of the room opened and a man in scrubs walked slowly in. He scanned the assembled group, approached the uniformed officer and spoke briefly. Cooper gestured toward the two on the sofa, and the doctor turned and approached Irene.
"Miss Anderson? I'm Doctor Hanson. I'm terribly sorry."
Jim saw the storm coming before it hit. As he took a few hasty steps to reach the couple on the couch, Irene collapsed forward in her seat with a strangled scream, her hands over her face. Blair grabbed for her as she slipped toward the floor, but she flailed her arms, and the back of one hand smacked him smartly on the cheek. Dropping to his knees beside her, Jim pinned her upper arms to her sides with strong hands and held her in her seat as the doctor pushed Blair aside and sat down next to her.
"Miss Anderson. Miss Anderson, Irene. Please." Doctor Hanson caught her hands in his as he called her name.
"Lydie," she moaned, then finally stilled, sobbing hysterically.
"Miss Anderson, can I help you? Can I give you something to calm you a little? A sedative?"
She sat up abruptly, her shoulders still hunched forward, and shook her head. "No. Maybe. I don't know." She broke into sobs again and pulled her hands from the doctor's, wiping half-heartedly at her face. Hanson snatched a couple of tissues from the nearby box and pressed them into her shaking hand. She grasped them in talon-tight fingers. "I don't know. Blair?" She turned her ravaged face up to where Blair hovered anxiously above her. "What am I going to do?"
The doctor slid to one side and Blair settled cautiously down next to her again. Jim slowly released his hold on her arms, and she turned and slid them around Blair's neck, dropping her head onto his shoulder and weeping. Turning startled eyes toward Jim, who shrugged slightly and sat back on his heels, Blair raised a tentative hand to pat her back. From the other side of the room, Cooper snorted.
Jim rose and had turned to speak to Cooper when his eye was caught by the expression on Mahler's face. The detective had stood quietly near the coffee machine, observing, while Irene's hysterics had ebbed and flowed. Now his eyes were fixed on the small, quiet woman across the room, the one no one had addressed or even noticed much. Jim turned again and saw Andrea, immobile and deathly pale, her fists clenched and her eyes wide and staring at nothing. Her expression seemed to be more one of terror than of grief.
A few steps brought Jim to Mahler's side. He addressed the other man in a low voice. "Watch her. Don't let her leave. Talk to her if she gets..." He glanced over to where Irene still wept in Blair's arms. "...antsy. Don't question her yet." Mahler nodded. Jim gestured to Cooper and led the officer into the main lobby.
"I want you to contact Munez, tell him to stay and keep an eye on things. Let the night manager know what's happened and that we'll have someone in place there at all times until further notice. And have them check the building, make sure nothing's been taken."
Cooper nodded. "You want me to contact the old lady, tell her the manager's dead?"
"No. I'll do that myself." Jim pressed his lips into a thin line, then continued. "I want you on patrol. Call in a few more cars and cover the area. And no one goes on foot alone -- if you see anything suspicious, call for backup immediately." Jim paused and thought for a moment. "Tell Munez to find out if David Smith is in the building, and if he is, to watch him. Nothing obvious, but let us know if he leaves. I want him tailed."
Cooper nodded again and started for the door. "Cooper." He stopped and turned back when Jim barked his name.
Jim eyed him narrowly for a moment. "By the book, Cooper. No stunts."
The officer paused, face blank, then smirked and flipped a parody of a salute at the other man. "Yes, sir." He turned on his heel and disappeared through the automatic doors into the darkness.
Jim watched Cooper's retreating back through the glass doors for a few seconds, then turned briskly and walked back to the waiting room.
Mahler rose from his seat near Andrea and met Jim at the door. "She hasn't said anything. She got up once, but she sat down again when I asked her if she needed something." He spoke softly, watching the young woman from the corner of his eye.
"Thanks." Jim turned to where Blair sat next to Irene, who no longer clung to him, and gestured.
Blair nodded and started to rise, but Irene reached out and grabbed his jacket sleeve. He patted her hand and whispered to her, and after a moment she nodded and released him. When he reached Jim's side, Jim turned and led him into the hall. They stopped just outside, where they could still see into the room.
"I'm going to talk to Andrea, then we should head down to the Mission. What about you, you think Irene's pulled herself together?" Jim glanced through the doorway.
"I don't know. I think so, but she's... strange. Scared, confused, grieving, yes, but -- I don't know. She seems off, somehow. I think she was closer to Miss Davis than we guessed, that she was a sort of a mother figure to her. This has hit her really hard." He shook his head. "She didn't want the sedatives the doctor offered, said something about having her own. I'm a little uneasy about her. I don't know if she should be alone right now."
"Why don't you take her home, make sure she's settled in okay. See if she'll talk about Miss Davis some more." Jim looked down at the floor and then back up at Blair. "Maybe find out where she was this evening."
Blair's eyebrows shot up. "You think -- you want an alibi from her?"
"Yes and no. I just think we should know. Apparently, Lydie's last word was 'Irene.'"
"Wow." Blair blinked. "Hey. You don't think she was -- oh, man." Blair looked over his shoulder into the room behind them, then turned hastily back. "Yeah, okay. But she's so upset. I mean, I believe her. That's no act."
"No, I don't think it is, either. And we don't know what Lydie meant. But let's be sure."
Blair nodded. "All right. What do you think, was this one connected to the others? Same killer?"
"Maybe. Or it could have been a robbery. Lydie's not like the other victims, she breaks the pattern. I don't know."
"So. I'll take Irene home, then, and meet you back here. Then the Mission?"
"Yeah. With a quick stop for coffee, maybe." Jim grimaced. "I hate hospital coffee."
Blair smiled. "Me, too. Too many associations. And bitter." At Jim's answering smile, Blair laid a hand on Jim's shoulder and walked with him back into the waiting room.
"Yes, I'm a little better, thank you. No, not better, just not as bad, maybe." Irene pushed a strand of lank hair back from her tear-stained face with one hand as she accepted a china cup from Blair with the other. She sipped, then blinked and looked up at him in surprise.
"Call it Irish coffee. There was a bottle of brandy in the kitchen -- it's only a drop. If you don't want it--"
"It's very thoughtful of you, thank you. It's just what I needed." She took several sips, pausing after each to let the hot liquid slide down her throat, then set the cup on the table beside her and settled back onto the plush cushions of the elegant sofa.
"Will you be okay here tonight? Is there anyone you can call?" Blair sat opposite her and leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees.
Irene was quiet for a moment. "No. There's no one. Except Aunt Irene." She looked down at the carpet. "I haven't had any other family for a long time. And no close friends, really. Not at the moment, anyway." She looked up at him. "I know she must be as grieved as I am, but I can't face the idea of that 'castle' right now. Maybe tomorrow."
Blair nodded gravely. "I understand. I've been out there."
She smiled a little at that. "Then I'm sure you do understand." She ran one hand through her hair again and then touched her cheek. "I must be a mess, I'm sorry."
"Absolutely not." Blair smiled at her. "But I'm sure you're tired. You've had a long, difficult day."
"I was at a party." Blair raised an eyebrow. "When she was being killed, I mean. I was laughing and gossiping and drinking while my dearest friend was being bludgeoned to death. How 'difficult' was that?" She gulped and gasped out a small sob. "Why her?" Her eyes filled. "Why her?"
"Why anyone, Irene?" Blair asked, a little desperately. "Look, you really couldn't have done anything, I'm sure of it. It didn't matter where you were. You couldn't have changed anything."
"You don't know that. You don't know."
"Yes, I do." Blair reached out a hand toward her. She hesitated, then took it in one of her own. "I'm glad you weren't there. You'd have been at risk, too. Everyone who was there was at risk. She wasn't alone, you know. No one could have done anything."
She looked thoughtfully at him, a few tears still sliding down her cheek. "No, she wasn't alone, was she? Andrea was there." Her gaze drifted for a moment, and then snapped sharply back to him. "Did Andrea see anything? Did anyone?"
"I don't know. Jim and I are going down to the Mission shortly. I really should be getting back." He tried to slip his fingers from hers, but she clung.
"The Mission -- what will happen to the Mission? Lydie...." Her voice faltered. "Lydie ran everything. And it's important, really important -- it can't close. It has to stay open. There's such a need for it." Her grip on Blair's hand tightened. "I've put everything into the Mission, all of myself, everything. If it closes, I have nothing. It's my whole life." She looked down at their joined hands without seeming to see them. "I'll have nothing left."
Blair stared at her a moment, his expression uneasy, then winced a little and tried to pull his hand back. "You'll make it work, I know you will." Blair patted her grasping fingers with his other hand, then gently peeled himself loose. "You care so much about it, and you have such drive. You can do it."
"I'll have to." She dropped her hands into her lap and twisted her fingers together as she stared over Blair's shoulder and out the window behind him. A few stars still twinkled in the night sky.
"So, I should go...." Blair looked at her doubtfully, then stood and reached for his coat.
"Yes. You have things to do, I know." She sighed, then rose as well and walked with him to the foyer.
At the door, he turned to face her again. "You'll be all right now?"
"I'll be okay. Thank you, for bringing me home and for the coffee. It was very kind of you." She managed a wan smile.
"You know you can call us if you need anything. You have my card." Blair hesitated, seeming at a loss. He looked intently into her eyes, then frowned. "Is there anything else, Irene? Anything you want to tell me?" She blinked at him. "I feel -- I'm not sure, but I'm not comfortable leaving you right now. If there's anything else I can do..."
Her smile widened minutely, and her eyelids lowered, then rose slowly until her eyes met his again. "What did you have in mind, Blair?"
He froze for a moment in surprised alarm, then blushed a little and stammered, "It's just, I, I was just thinking...." He studied her face again, casting about desperately for some plausible reason for his unease. He gestured helplessly. "Um, at the hospital, you said something about sedatives. That you have some."
She stared at him. "Yes, I do." He opened his mouth, then closed it again. Her eyes narrowed, and she cocked her head to one side. "Blair, are you afraid I might--" She shook her head vigorously. "Heavens, no. I'd never do anything like that. They're just sleeping pills that my doctor prescribed. Are you really worried?"
Blair blinked, then smiled crookedly at her. "No, of course not. Not really." She raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Well, maybe a little. You've been so upset. But if you say it's not--"
"Oh, Blair." Her smile was more than a little coquettish now. "Would you like me to give them to you? I'll go get them -- wait right here."
He spluttered a protest after her, but she was already gone. Blair rubbed his hand over his eyes, sighing. He fidgeted as he waited, anxious to be out of there, and cursed himself softly for his idiot confusion.
After a few long minutes she returned, a ghost of that same flirtatious smile on her lips and a bit of a swing in her step. "Here, you can take the bottle. But I'll keep two to help me sleep tonight -- is that all right? See, here's the dosage on the label."
Blair dutifully read the instructions she pointed to, then nodded and shook two little white pills into her hand before recapping the bottle. "Thanks, Irene. Look, I know I'm being ridiculous, so maybe you should just keep these--"
"Not at all. I appreciate that you care. And this way, you can bring them back to me later, right? That'll be nice." She smiled invitingly, then took his hand again and moved in closer. "Thank you so much, Blair."
He took a quick step back. "You're welcome. Well, good night, then." Blair reached behind himself and opened the door, then bumped into her a little as he moved forward to pull it open. She laughed, almost a giggle, and stepped back.
"Good night, Blair." She watched him walk to the elevator, then quietly pushed the door shut.
Blair fidgeted distractedly all the way to the ground floor, his fingers skimming nervously over the velvet-flocked wall behind him. When the doors opened, he stepped quickly out and strode briskly across the polished floor, then stopped for a moment at the lobby entrance. He frowned up through the glass at the night sky, then shook his head. "Wow." Straightening his jacket, he took a deep, slow breath, then passed through the doors and out into the street.
"There's nothing to be afraid of, Andrea. We're here to protect you."
Andrea pulled her sweater closer around her and shivered. "Didn't do much for Miss Davis."
"I wish we could have. I wish she hadn't gone out into that alley, or that we'd been there when she did. But it didn't happen that way." Jim sighed. "But we'll have someone at the Mission around the clock now. You'll be safe there."
"I don't know if I want to go back, now." Andrea sipped at her Pepsi. "It's not nice there. It's scary, and there's hardly anyone left."
"Is that true? There aren't many people there now? Why is that?"
"How would I know? Ask, ask Pastor Ron. I wouldn't know." She fiddled with her buttons. "I think it's the murders. People are afraid. And then there's just less people coming around, for about a year or so. Must be going somewhere else. Seattle, maybe. And some of the people who are there are just, I don't know. Sorta creepy."
"Creepy? Who?" Jim restrained himself from reaching for his notebook.
"Just people." Andrea looked up at the clock on the wall of the cafeteria. "It's really late."
"Detective Sandburg should be back soon with the truck, and then we'll go back to the Mission. I'd like to talk to a few people there about what happened tonight. Last night, I mean," Jim added, glancing up at the clock. "I think one of the people I'd like to talk to is David."
Andrea blanched. "David? Why?"
"I think you know." Andrea's eyes grew very round. "We've heard a few things that I'd--"
"From who? Who's been saying things?" Some of Andrea's fear had changed to anger. Her fists tightened. "People tell lies in that place. They lie all the time. You can't believe them. Who've you been talking to? Ray?" Jim looked down and didn't answer. "Is that why Ray left? Is he some kind of police fink now? That would be like him." She sat back in her chair, her cheeks reddening with her agitation. "He just wants to get with me. He'll say anything against David. He thinks women should want him." She sneered. "He's dreaming. I wouldn't go near him, and sure as hell Miss Anderson wouldn't. No one at the Mission would."
"Miss Anderson? Is he interested in Miss Anderson?"
Andrea looked startled, as though he'd surprised her, then shut her mouth with a snap. "I wouldn't know. Ask somebody else. Why should I know? Just don't believe anything he says. He's a liar." She turned her face away and studied the menu posted on the wall.
"I haven't talked to Ray yet, but I think I will." Her eyes darted back to his face, and she looked truly frightened now. "But maybe you'd like to tell me what he's likely to say, first. So I'll know when he's lying."
Andrea looked terrified, and her eyes shone with a hint of tears. "Nothing, he won't say nothing, he's gone now, anyway. He's gone, right?" Jim maintained a stony silence. "Is he at the police station, is that why he's gone? You've really been talking to him, and now you're trying to get me to say things, aren't you?" She began to cry a little. "I don't want to say anything about David. David, he's, I'm with him, you know?"
"I know. We're not looking to charge David with anything, really. But the more we know about what's going on at the Mission, the easier it will be to stop these killings. I know you want them to stop, right?"
Andrea sniffed and nodded. "He was with me, in my room. When people got killed." She blushed furiously. "We're not supposed to have men in our rooms, or women -- if you're a man, I mean -- but I'm with him. And he was in my room when those things happened. I swear he was. So it couldn't be him. He's not like that, anyway."
"What is he like, Andrea? What's he been up to?" Andrea pursed her lips stubbornly. "He's been your supplier, hasn't he?" Her eyes widened almost comically. Jim's gaze narrowed to the pulse in her neck. "We're not looking for drug dealers, Andrea. We're looking for killers. But I have to clear some things up. I heard you, the day we visited the Mission."
She gasped. "There's no way you heard me! You couldn't have! It was Ray, I know it was. He's always snooping. He's such a--" She stopped at the look on Jim's face. "No, no drugs, I swear, Mister, um, Officer, I swear. Just a little weed. It doesn't hurt no one." She burst into tears. "Don't tell him I told, please don't tell him I told. But it wasn't nothing but weed, nothing bad. He's not like that."
"Maybe not." Jim reached across the table and patted her hand. "I told you, we're only after the killer. You said David was with you those nights, so he's in the clear. Which nights were those, by the way?"
Andrea sniffled and gulped. "Every night. He's in my room every night, that's how I know he was there on those nights."
Jim sighed and nodded, then looked up sharply at the sound of a familiar footstep. "I think Detective Sandburg is here. Get your things." She picked up her tissue and slipped a coin purse into her jeans pocket, then followed Jim to the main lobby where Blair waited for them. Blair held a steaming styrofoam cup in his hand.
"Starbucks. It was close." He handed the cup to Jim. "I thought you might need it."
"Thanks." Andrea fidgeted a few feet away from them. Jim turned to her with a smile. "Would you wait for us for a minute over by the doors?" She nodded and moved away. Jim turned back to Blair. "How did it go?"
"Okay. No, not okay. Very strange." Blair shook his head. "I got the willies, but I didn't know whether I should be worried for her or about her. It was overwhelming, this feeling I had that something was going to happen. I sort of choked," he pulled the pill bottle from his pocket, "and ended up with these." Jim peered at the bottle, then looked at him again, one eyebrow rising. "I don't know, I thought I needed to say something. She seemed so strange, and then I got strange, and so I asked her for the pills. Or, I asked about them, and she gave them to me. She really seemed to appreciate the attention." He rubbed at the back of his neck. "I don't know why she unsettles me so much."
"Could it be love?" Jim smirked. Blair rolled his eyes. "Seriously, is there anything going on there that I should know about?"
"I don't know. No, I'm not getting involved, if that's what you're asking. I mean, she's pretty, very pretty, and smart, and I like the work she's doing, but.... No. Not even if she wasn't involved in this thing, though I couldn't tell you why for sure. Maybe after it's all over, I'll see. Whatever." He straightened and dropped the pill bottle into his jacket pocket again. "She says she was at a party when the attack took place."
"Did she mind your asking her?"
"No. Actually, she told me herself. She volunteered it. She feels guilty for not being there when it happened. I don't know what she thinks she could have done."
"Interesting. Well, a party's easy to verify. We'll get names from her later." Jim looked over to where Andrea waited by the doors, her sweater wrapped tightly around her.
"How did that go?" Blair's gaze followed his.
"About like we thought -- some minor marijuana trade. A few interesting things about the Mission, and the missing janitor, Ray. Apparently the Mission's 'creepy' now, and so is Ray."
"Okay, that is interesting. Creepy how?"
"Let's go find out." Jim turned and headed for the doors, Blair following. When he reached Andrea, Jim pulled off his jacket and slipped it over her thin shoulders. She looked startled for a moment, then blushed and nodded, giving him a tight little smile. She hugged its warmth more closely around her as she followed them out into the dimly lit parking lot.
Somehow, Ron Knudson didn't fill the space behind Miss Davis' desk the way she had. He looked harried and a little forlorn, and he didn't stand when Jim and Blair entered the room. Instead, he took off his glasses and rubbed tiredly at the bridge of his nose.
"We're very sorry for your loss." Blair perched on the edge of a chair as Jim took the seat next to him. "Is there anything we can do?"
"Besides catching the killer?" Knudson replaced his glasses and sighed. "I'm sorry. We're all at loose ends here. We're dealing not only with the grief generated by Miss Davis' death, but also with fear, and confusion. The woman was a marvel of organization, but unfortunately she didn't share her system with anyone else. The night manager only knows enough to maintain things until morning, when Miss Davis comes -- came back on duty. She actually lived here at the Mission, you know. Always on call." He rested his arms on the desk in front of him and leaned forward. "I honestly don't know how we're going to get through the next few weeks. Of course, residents are leaving like rats from a sinking ship. Before long, there won't be anyone left to keep the Mission open for."
Jim pulled out his notebook but didn't open it. "Andrea told me that occupancy was down lately. And she also said there were fewer people coming in over the past year. What do you think has caused that?"
Knudson blinked. "Well, now that you mention it, I suppose that's true. I don't think it can be because of reduced need -- quite the opposite. You probably have access to vagrancy statistics that support that." Jim nodded. "I can't tell you. I know there's been quite a problem with squatters in abandoned warehouses, especially over the winter months."
"That fire in the building on Fourth Street in February. They think that was caused by squatters trying to keep warm. It gutted the place." Blair crossed his arms over his chest and lowered his voice. "They found seven bodies in there."
Knudson nodded. "I don't know what's caused it. When Irene -- Miss Anderson -- joined us, a little over a year ago, business was booming, so to speak. I guess, if I'd thought about it, I'd have said that our reduced occupancy was a testament to the success of our programs. Maybe so. Maybe not." The pastor studied his hands where they rested on the desktop. "Not everyone who comes here is looking for a way to change their situation. Many do, but there are those who have no desire beyond a warm bed and a hot meal with no questions asked. We're here to serve those needs, too. But sometimes," he paused and drummed his fingers on the desk, "sometimes, some of our visitors may feel pressured to participate in programs they have no interest in. Some people really are drifters by choice. That's always been the case. But Irene can't, or won't, understand that. She's a little naive, still. She'll understand better with time."
"So you think people feel like they have to either participate or leave?" Blair frowned.
"No, not exactly. It's certainly not what we intend. But we're serving people who often don't deal well with life's pressures in the first place. My vision for this place is as a haven, a place for healing, with the option to take advantage of opportunities for change if that's what is wanted. I think Irene wants a working laboratory for her studies of the human condition, in addition to the good we do. But her heart is truly in the right place. She believes in what she's doing. As do I," he added, a little hastily.
"And Miss Davis?"
"Lydie was first and foremost devoted to Irene deBurg. There was nothing she wouldn't do for the woman. And she certainly had a highly developed maternal instinct that she exercised on the residents and on Miss Anderson. She loved the younger Irene like a daughter, but sometimes didn't approve of her involvement with the Mission. Didn't think it was suitable for a young lady of her station. She preferred the way her 'Miss Irene' handled her charitable propensities -- financial support and a discreet distance."
Jim leaned forward. "What do you think Miss Davis' final words meant? Why call out for Irene?"
Knudson shook his head. "No telling. She may have felt, even as she lay dying, that she was somehow failing her beloved Miss deBurg and was lamenting the fact. She may have been calling out to her for help. Or she may simply have been delirious and had no conscious intention at all. Impossible to say."
"But didn't she call Miss deBurg 'Miss' Irene? That was our understanding." Jim flipped open his notebook.
"Well, yes, she did."
"So shouldn't we assume she was calling out to the niece?"
"Well, I shouldn't think so. She called Miss Anderson 'Reenie' almost exclusively. Now that you mention it, it is odd. I couldn't tell you which woman she was calling out to, if she even knew herself. More likely a subconscious reflex of some sort."
Jim frowned. "Yes, confusing."
"I'm afraid I haven't been very helpful. Of course, I wasn't here when the attack took place." He passed his hand across his forehead. "I wish to God I had been."
"I understand your feeling that way, sir, but, believe me, there was probably very little you could have done had you been here."
"Maybe not. But I could have taken out the trash." He laced his fingers before him and contemplated his hands, his expression sorrowful. Blair exchanged a look with Jim and started to speak, but the phone interrupted him. "Excuse me." As Knudson reached for it, the two detectives rose.
"We'll get out of your way now. Thank you for your time." Knudson waved acknowledgement to them as they moved quietly out into the hall.
"Poor guy," Blair whispered.
Jim nodded. "I don't envy him in this situation. He's going to have a tough time."
"I meant the guilt. So many people feel so much guilt. It's been a sort of undercurrent since all this began."
"Not unusual in cases like this. Or in any murder case. Someone always feels like they could have done something." Jim shrugged. "Including the police."
"Some do, I guess." Blair was oblivious to Jim's frown. "What did you think about Mahler? I really misread the guy."
"Among others." Blair looked sharply up at Jim's face, but the other man had turned away to peer down the empty hallway. "We've been given carte blanche by Miss deBurg to look around -- I guess we need Andrea and her magic key ring."
"Yeah. You hear her?"
Jim stilled for a moment. "No. I'll go look around the kitchen. Why don't you check her room? Get Knudson to tell you where it is. Meet you back down here."
"Fine. Um, Jim?"
"What?" Jim paused by the bend in the corridor.
Blair fidgeted. "Nothing. Well, not nothing, but not now. But, uh, you know?"
"Yeah. I know. Later." Jim smiled.
"Yeah. Okay." Blair smiled back at him, then turned and headed back toward Lydie's office and Pastor Ron.
The hallways upstairs were narrower and a little dusty, compared to the more immaculate first floor. "Maid's day off," Blair muttered at a dust bunny lurking in a corner. The absent janitor appeared to have given the less public areas of the building less attention.
The closed doors stretching down the hall before him all looked the same. Blair squinted at faded numbers as he passed each one, stopping finally at number 17. He knocked, waited a few seconds, then knocked again. "Andrea?"
No answer. He had stepped back and turned to go when a soft sound from within stopped him. He turned back to the closed door and knocked again, a little louder. "Andrea? It's Detective Sandburg. We'd like to look around -- could you help us, please?"
Still no answer, and no more sounds from within the room. Blair wondered if he'd imagined he'd heard something, or if a window could be open. "I need Jim's ears," he muttered, and started to step away again when another sound convinced him there was someone inside. Someone who didn't want to answer the door -- or maybe couldn't.
"Jim, I think you might want to come up here." He kept his voice low as he gently twisted the doorknob, testing it -- and found it to be locked. He wasn't surprised. But he was surprised when the door gave a little under the slight pressure. Doorknob locked, but not quite shut all the way -- maybe by someone trying to be very quiet.
His hand crept to the small of his back as he pondered whether to wait for Jim or to open the door wide and challenge whoever was inside. A sound on the stairwell made him turn his head. In that instant of diverted attention the door swung inward and something crashed into his left temple, sending sparks shooting across his vision. He fell heavily, landing on his right elbow as a fast-moving body careened through the doorway past him. He heard a shout -- Jim's voice -- and running feet pounded past his head. Clinging to consciousness, Blair rolled to his side to see Jim tackle a smaller man at the far end of the hall.
"David!" Andrea's shriek echoed from the bare walls around him. Falling onto his back again, Blair could see her in his peripheral vision where she stood near the top of the stairwell, eyes wide with terror. Someone else rushed past her and jogged toward him, then dropped to his knees beside him.
"Are you all right, son?" Pastor Knudson touched his forehead gently.
"Call 911, get an ambulance and some officers out here. Now!" Jim had cuffed the struggling man and knelt above him, one knee in the small of the other man's back. "Blair!"
"I'm okay." Blair leaned to his right a little and let Pastor Ron help him sit up.
"Don't move, Blair, wait for the ambulance. Go now!" Jim barked at Knudson, who looked questioningly down at Blair.
"Get backup. No ambulance." Knudson hesitated. "Really, I'm okay. Call the PD." He rolled to his knees, paused, and finally stood. Knudson backed away a few steps, nodded, and hurried toward the stairs. Blair turned to face Jim and laid his left hand on the wall, leaning against it while he shook his right arm. "I'm just a little shaken up, Jim. I'm good."
"You're bleeding." Jim's anxious gaze shifted to the crying woman behind Blair. "Andrea, would you come sit on the floor by the wall, please. Between me and Detective Sandburg."
She hesitated, one hand on the stair rail. Blair turned slowly and faced her, and her eyes went to the slender trickle of blood down the side of his face. Sobbing in earnest now, she seemed to pull in on herself, wrapping her arms around her thin body as she shuffled past Blair.
Jim's captive watched her approach, then stop and slide down the wall to sit on the dusty floor several yards away. "Andrea." He swallowed. "Don't say nothin', Andrea." She sobbed harder.
"David Smith, you're under arrest for assault on a police officer. You have the right to remain silent...."
"How is it now?" Henri leaned against the edge of Blair's desk. He eyed the ice bag Blair held to the side of his head. "Need more ice in that?"
"It's better, and no, I don't." Blair winced. "The side of my face is numb."
"Well, I wouldn't let Jim see you put that thing down, if I were you. Not if you don't want another whack on the other side of your head. I can't believe Jim was okay with you coming here first. Hell, I'd have taken you to the ER right away myself."
"He tried." Blair shifted the bag. "But no way am I missing out on questioning Smith. I'll see somebody when we're done. It's not that bad, really. No lump. I didn't pass out, or anything."
"Just fell like a ton of bricks. Scared Jim half to death." Joel walked up to stand beside Henri. "But you caught the guy. Way to use your head, Blair." He smiled. Henri chuckled.
"You're a very funny man, Joel. But we don't know that he's the guy, yet."
Henri smirked. "Yeah, well, if he is, you're in the running for Cop of the Year now, for sure. What with him tripping over you like that so Jim could pin him. Really masterful." Blair looked around for something to throw at him.
"Don't pay any attention to him, Blair. That's just how he expresses affection. Here's how I do it." Joel slapped the back of Henri's bald head with his open hand. Henri yelped.
"Ow, don't make me laugh, man," Blair snickered.
"It only hurts when you laugh?" Jim slipped quietly up behind Blair's chair.
Blair turned carefully to look up at him. "I wish." Jim frowned. "It's fine, Jim. The Tylenol is helping a lot. I don't need this thing anymore, really." He set the ice bag down on his desk and opened and closed his mouth a few times. "It's like Novocain."
"I still think you should sit this one out, go to the ER and get checked."
"Imagine me rolling my eyes right now."
"Okay, all right. You're the boss. But after we're done with this -- you promised."
"Yes, Mom. Smith through booking yet?"
"He should be. Let's go see." Jim stepped back and pulled Blair's chair out a little as the younger man stood.
"You mind if we watch?" Henri stood as well.
"Sure, go ahead. Maybe you'll learn a thing or two." Henri hooted derisively as he and Joel followed Blair and a smirking Jim to the elevators.
"I didn't kill nobody." David Smith sat at a small wooden table, his head cradled in his hands.
"Where did you get the crowbar?" Jim circled the table like a bird of prey.
"From the shop. I told you."
"You weren't in the shop. You were in Andrea's room."
"It was in the shop before, I mean. That's where we got it."
"Me. I got it out of the shop."
"And put it in Andrea's room? What did she need a crowbar in her room for?"
"Nothing! It was just there, I told you."
"For no reason."
"No. I mean, yeah."
Jim stopped and faced the smaller man across the table. "Your girlfriend had a crowbar in her bedroom for no reason. And people have been dropping like flies from blows to the head. What a coincidence."
"No, man, you have to believe me! I was with her when those things happened! Ask her!"
"Oh, we've talked to Andrea. She had some very interesting things to tell us. Been doing a little dealing, Mr. Smith?" Jim's voice was low and dangerous.
"What? No! She never told you that! No way, man." David seemed to get smaller before their eyes.
"Like I said, she told us many things, David. Want to guess what else?" David didn't look up. "Let's start with the crowbar, why don't we."
"I never killed no one." David's voice was a whisper now.
"That's not what I asked you." Jim settled into the chair across from the very shaken man.
"Okay, yeah, I sold a few tools. Man, I can't believe she told you this stuff." David swallowed. "I've always been good to her, you know?"
"I'm sure. You stole all those tools from the shop and pawned them, didn't you? Not Tony. Handy to have a girlfriend with a key ring, isn't it? And you planted a few in his room to take suspicion off yourself. Got him thrown out for theft, and it was you all the time. But why keep the crowbar, David? To break into some places Andrea didn't have keys for? Or maybe to take out a few people who might talk, get you thrown out of your comfortable bed -- or, Andrea's comfortable bed, I guess. Since that's where you are every night."
"I am! She'll tell you. She--" David coughed.
"Let's focus on you, David. Why the crowbar?"
"It just, I just forgot about it, I guess. It just got left there. And then, with these murders...." David swallowed. "I was worried about her. I told her just to keep it in her room, just in case. I didn't want her to get hurt." He stared up into Jim's eyes. "She's a good kid. She hasn't done nothin'. Just me, I done all of it. But I never killed nobody."
Jim gazed back at David, his own eyes narrowed. He was quiet for a moment. "Maybe. Maybe not. I'm willing to listen to whatever you want to tell us, as long as you're straight with us. So far, I think you have been. But you can't hold anything back, David." The other man nodded. "You understand, you're still going to be charged with assault on Detective Sandburg." He glanced over to where Blair stood near the door. David looked at him, too, and then down at the floor. "But if you didn't do the killings, David, you won't be charged with them. I promise you that." David nodded slowly.
Blair shifted a little and David looked up at him again. "I'm sorry about that. I'm glad you're not hurt bad." Blair nodded slightly.
"But if you didn't hurt anyone, David, why did you run? Why knock an officer down and try to get away?"
David shrugged. "I just thought you knew somethin', maybe about the tools. You two been snooping around the Mission, you been asking questions, and with Tony getting killed and all, after he left...." His voice trailed off, and he looked up at Jim. "You been watchin' me. I know it. I can feel it, when people look at me. You got weird eyes, you can see into my head. You're doing it now," he added, and shivered.
Jim sat back and blinked. "I think you've been smoking too much of your own merchandise, David. You're getting paranoid." He rose and pushed his chair back, then turned toward Blair and the door.
"But, hey, I could tell you somethin'." Jim stopped and turned back to look at their prisoner. "You wanna know who might be doing the killin'? I could tell you about somebody."
Jim's eyes swept the seated man. "You asking for some kind of deal?"
David shook his head. "No, man. I want you to get this guy. My Andrea's out there all alone right now. I want her to be safe." He looked anxiously from one man to another.
Jim nodded and crossed his arms over his chest. "We're listening."
"It's that guy Ray, who cleans up at the Mission." David shivered again. "He's way weird, man. Like, scary weird."
"How so?" Blair spoke for the first time.
"He's always talkin' about girls, man. All the time. You should see all the skin mags he's got stashed in his room. He was after Andrea for a while, but he saw what I did to Tony and he backed off. He's nuts about Miss Anderson, too." He shook his head. "I mean, way nuts. He follows her around." Blair took a quick step forward. "Yeah, he tells us about stuff she does, where she goes and all. Real stalker stuff. And he didn't like none of them other guys, the dead ones. He don't like anybody, really, except Miss Anderson. He was mad at them for making her upset."
"How long has he been doing this?" Blair's voice was tightly controlled.
"Dunno. A while, I guess. Andrea knows about it, too. Ask her." David was quiet for a moment. "She didn't really tell you guys that stuff, did she?" he asked quietly.
Jim shook his head. "Not much. We figured most of it out ourselves."
"That's what I thought." David sighed. "Will you guys watch out for her for me? She's all by herself out there." He looked from one detective to the other. "Please?"
Blair glanced up at Jim, then back to where David sat slumped in his chair. "Yeah. We'll do our best."
David nodded. "Thanks, man."
"You believe him?" Blair leaned against the wall outside the interrogation room.
"Yeah. I think he's telling us the truth. He's a small-time crook in a bad situation. But I don't think he's our killer. I never really did." Jim looked thoughtfully at the closed door.
"I remember that. You seemed to have him pegged since early on. And he seems to have you pegged, too. That was kind of strange."
"Is there anything about you guys that isn't kind of strange?" Henri and Joel emerged from the observation room to join them. Henri went to stand next to Blair, near the wall. "So, you going to put an APB out on that janitor?"
Jim met Blair's anxious eyes. "I think we'd better. His disappearance right before Lydie's attack is something to think about. I'd at least like to talk to him."
Blair bounced a little in place. "I think we ought to warn Irene. If he is stalking her, she needs to know -- for her own safety, and to let us know if she spots him."
Jim nodded. "Good idea. You can call her on the way to the doctor." Blair grimaced, and Jim poked him in the chest. "Hey, you promised, Chief."
"Yeah, I did. Okay." Blair sighed. "I wouldn't mind a few hours lie-down, either."
"Done and done. See you guys later." Jim tipped a wave to Joel and Henri and headed down the hall, Blair beside him.
"And, um, I'd like Thai for dinner." Blair stabbed at the 'down' button and glanced up sideways at Jim.
"Don't push your luck." Jim chuckled at Blair's pout.
"Hey, it was worth a shot."
"You going to be okay here? You sure?" Jim hesitated at the door.
"Yes, Jim. I'll be fine. The doctor said my brain's great. Wonderful, in fact." Blair stretched luxuriously on the sofa.
"I wouldn't go that far. At least it's no worse now than it was before."
"Thank you. I take 'no sign of concussion' as good news, myself."
"Me, too." Jim smiled. "And I'm glad you're going to take it easy for a few hours. You know, if you really want that Thai...."
"Well, I wouldn't say no, if you wouldn't mind." Blair grinned at him. "This head injury thing has its positive side."
"Not something you want to try too often, though." Jim reached for the doorknob, then pulled his hand back. "Um, Blair, before I head out--"
"I think this is going to be 'the talk.'" Blair reached up with both hands and rearranged his pillow. "Okay, I'm game. Shoot."
"Don't ever say that to a cop." Jim walked slowly into the living room and sat down on the coffee table across from Blair. "And weren't you the one who wanted to talk to me?"
"I guess I was, wasn't I?" Blair studied his toes. "I just, I don't want you to think what I think you're thinking about what I think you're thinking." Blair laughed out loud at Jim's boggled expression. "I know you don't have anything against the homeless, or anyone else, as a group. I know you're a good person, and you're the first to try to set yourself straight if you sense anything like that in yourself. What I said, about your background -- yeah, I remember that, and I didn't mean it like you thought I did. Or maybe I did -- I don't know everything you think."
"That's a relief."
"Yeah, whatever. But, I mean, this isn't going to be a thing between us, is it? I'm really sorry I said something like that to you. It's just, when I get mad, you know, I don't do mad very well. I don't have that icy control thing going that you have." Jim snickered. "Or something. Anyway, just slap me upside the head when I start talking crazy like that. After a week or two," he added as Jim eyed his bandage.
"Your head can't take that much slapping, Sandburg." Jim smiled at him. "Okay. No problem here. Nothing to see, everybody move along. Really, it's okay. As long as you're okay. And it sounds like you are." Blair gave him a thumbs-up. "It's forgotten, then. Until the next time you accuse me of putting my foot in my mouth. Then I'm going to ream you with it." Blair showed him another finger, and Jim laughed and batted his hand away. "Just for that, no Thai." He stood and headed for the door.
"I know you don't mean that. Right? Jim?"
"Wait a few hours and see." Jim laughed evilly as he slipped through the door.
"He'll bring it," Blair muttered happily, and raised the remote.
Jim pulled slowly out of the parking lot of the Thai restaurant and stopped at the light. He flipped on his right turn signal as he stared through the windshield into the darkness, tapping his fingers idly against the steering wheel in time to the beat of the radio while he waited for the light to change. When it turned green, he lifted his foot from the brake, then hesitated and put it back again. The car behind him honked, and he quickly flicked off the turn signal and pulled forward through the intersection. He drove straight west, toward the docks, until he reached the last cross street before the potholed road that ran past the wharves, then turned right. Traveling slowly down the narrow lane between tall, empty buildings, he narrowed his eyes and peered down side streets and alleys, watching for movement between the shadows.
Something pale glimmered in the space between two boxes at the back of a burned-out warehouse, something that moved. He pulled the truck to the edge of the road and parked it, then picked up his mic and gave the dispatcher his location, keeping his voice low. Slipping quietly out onto the street, he pushed the truck's door gently closed, then leaned against it to engage the lock. He didn't draw his weapon, but he scanned the area thoroughly with sight and hearing and even smell, checking the deep darkness of the alleyway before approaching. One heartbeat, two, three -- maybe half a dozen pulses blended together, along with the not too pleasant scent of unwashed flesh.
He stepped closer to the alley entrance and called. "Cascade PD. Detective Ellison. I'd like to talk to you." No movement. Some of the intermingled heartbeats sped up, while others slowed. He took a step nearer. "I'm investigating the recent attacks. I'd just like to talk to you, please."
There was a soft scuffling sound, and then a figure emerged from behind a crate and stood motionless in the darkness for a moment. Jim recognized the large blonde woman he and Blair had seen in the lounge of the Mission on their first visit. A few steps forward and she was visible even to normal eyes in the dim light of a distant street lamp.
"I remember you." She turned back to face the dark alley behind her. "It really is him. I saw him at the Mission. He's okay." Slowly, two men and another woman emerged from the cover of boxes and doorways. Two more heartbeats stayed behind in their hiding places. Jim thought from the sound that they might be children.
"We have to be careful. But I know you're really a cop. A good one." She grimaced. "Even with some cops you have to be careful these days."
Jim could well imagine who she meant. "Why are you all out here? Why aren't you at the Mission?" He thought he remembered noticing one of the men in the alley during an earlier visit there, as well.
The older of the two men standing behind the blonde woman spoke up. "You kidding? The killer's hanging around there. He's killing people from there. I ain't going there." There was a murmur of assent.
"None of the killings have happened inside the Mission -- they've all been outside. You'll be safe in there. And warm." His eyes swept the darkness again, trying to pinpoint the location of the children. "We have an officer in the building. You can stay together, in the lounge or the cafeteria, maybe." The group was silent. "Will you think about it?"
The blonde looked back at the group behind her for input. "He has a point," she offered. The other woman nodded. She turned back to face Jim. "We'll talk about it."
Jim heard the crunch of tires behind him and looked over his shoulder to see a uniformed officer climbing out of a patrol car. He was relieved to see that it was Munez.
"This officer can help you if you want transportation to the Mission. Please think about it." Munez stopped beside him and faced the assembled group, then looked at Jim. "Officer Munez, I've asked these folks if they might be more comfortable at the Mission tonight, and if they'd like your help getting there."
Munez nodded, smiling. "We'll see what we can do about that. Okay?" He turned to the blonde, who smiled back at him.
"Sure. Come on in and have a seat." She gestured into the darkness, and the man behind her chuckled. Further down the alley two small heads popped into view from behind a dumpster.
"I'll leave you to it, then. Good night. Good night, officer." Jim patted Munez on the shoulder and returned his smile, then turned back to his truck. Two minutes later he was on the road again.
He stopped at another light. Across the street, on the corner, a short, slight form melted back into the darkness of a doorway. He sighed and moved forward again. They seemed to be everywhere, now, nearly anywhere he looked -- in alleys, doorways, empty boxes and vacant buildings. People he'd usually ignored before, or at least had paid little attention to, as though they'd been part of the landscape. Someone's nephew, brother, mother, daughter. Or maybe no one's, no one but who they were, in and of themselves. He couldn't not see them now.
He reached out to steady the cooling bag of Thai on the seat next to him as he turned the last corner before home.
"I guess you look all right. Considering." Simon eyed Blair doubtfully. "Do you really feel okay?"
"I feel great. Never better." Blair chuckled at Simon's disbelieving expression. "Never better after getting knocked on the head, I mean."
"Okay, I might buy that. You don't think he needs a doctor's release first, before he goes back out?" Simon turned to Jim.
"Doctor says he's fine. And if you can ignore his tendency to burst into song occasionally, he's the same as he's ever been."
"And the tic, don't forget the tic," Blair offered, drawing up one arm and jerking his head sharply to the right.
"Yeah, that too, and the uncontrolled flatulence--"
"Okay, I get the point. He's his usual, strange self." Simon glared at the two snickering men across the desk from him. "I just want to be sure his head's in shape for another bashing, if you're heading back out there."
"I'll pass on another one for now. Even though the food's great." Blair glanced sideways at Jim and smiled.
Simon shook his head and didn't go there. "Well, while you were convalescing and Jim was catching up the paperwork to the events of the past few days," he patted a small stack of papers on the desk in front of him, "Henri has been working on that to-do list you gave him. David Smith has a few priors, all petty stuff. Irene Anderson did attend that party she told you about -- it even showed up on the society page, with her listed as an attendee. And according to Forensics," he picked up another sheet of paper, "the crowbar Smith whacked Blair with is not the murder weapon." Jim nodded. "You already knew that, of course."
"I was 99% sure. I'm glad to have it confirmed."
"We'll go forward with the assault charges, of course, but I guess we can forget about him as a suspect in the killings." Simon picked up his cigar. "No word on the janitor's location yet?"
"He's disappeared. He may have left town. No one has seen him, or will admit to seeing him. Not that I think anyone would cover for him -- sounds like he's not very popular."
"I think 'creepy' is the consensus." Blair shifted in his chair. "Irene was unconvincingly surprised when I told her he might be stalking her. I think she might have been aware of it already, but she doesn't seem very concerned. She said she'd call if she saw him."
"I won't hold my breath." Simon's phone rang, and he reached for it quickly. "Banks." He was silent for a moment, then covered his eyes with one hand. "Damn. I'll send Ellison and Sandburg over now." He dropped the receiver in the cradle and looked across the desk into the two detectives' expectant faces. "Andrea Padgett was attacked last night. They found her in that little park on the south side of the bay." Blair jumped to his feet, swearing. Jim closed his eyes and shook his head. "But she's alive -- banged up, unconscious, missing a few teeth, but alive. Cooper's at the hospital now."
"Is he the one who found her, sir?"
Simon eyed Blair suspiciously. "I think so, probably. Why?"
Jim stood and herded Blair briskly toward the door. "No reason, sir. We're going now. I'll call in when we know more."
"You do--" the door closed with a bang, "that."
"I'm just saying," Blair shrugged, palms up, "that this time Cooper wasn't on his normal beat, and he was still first on the scene. What was he doing out there? Kind of a coincidence, don't you think?"
"He called for the ambulance, he rode with her to the hospital, and he's been taking down every word she says. Kind of not suspicious, don't you think?"
Blair rolled his eyes, then winced. "That still hurts," he muttered. Jim glared sideways at him. "Okay, so he's trying to throw suspicion off himself by looking helpful, maybe. I don't know."
"No, you don't. So I suggest you drop it."
"I didn't think you liked the guy. Why are you so ready to believe he can't be involved in this thing? The homeless people on his beat don't like him. His fellow officers don't even like him much. You say he's a mouthy S.O.B. He keeps turning up first at the scene, even this one. The question needs to be asked."
"No, it doesn't. Don't ask." Jim jerked the wheel to the left as he changed lanes.
"I don't get you. Is it a cop solidarity thing? I didn't think you--"
"I don't." Jim sighed. "Blair, there are other reasons why he could have been at that park. At night."
Blair blinked at him. "Other -- you mean? Really?" Jim clenched his jaw and didn't answer. "Oh, yeah. Wow. I didn't think."
"No, you didn't. But, fortunately, you didn't have a chance to engage your mouth in front of anyone but me."
Blair shook his head slowly. "Okay. That's definitely a possible explanation. Maybe even a probable one?" He eyed Jim's silent profile again. "Yeah. Right. No questions, then -- don't ask, don't tell, and all that. Being gay and a cop, that's gotta be tough enough sometimes without having to field clueless questions." Blair sighed and stretched. "So, what's up with his lousy attitude?"
"I don't know -- not for sure." Jim frowned. "But depending on where you are and what you do on the force, you can be exposed to different elements, different portions of the public. When I was in Vice, I saw a lot of dark underbelly, parts of the city where we weren't particularly liked or wanted, and a lot of bad stuff went down. And that's pretty much all I saw, for quite a while. It affected my attitude, how I reacted to people. Other cops -- beat cops in tough neighborhoods and undercover types, especially -- go through the same thing. Some can let it roll off them, others can't. When they start to sour, it's time to pull them in and reassign them, give them another perspective. Cooper's well past his expiration date. Maybe he thinks he knows why he hasn't been pulled, and, right or wrong, he's bitter about it."
Blair looked thoughtful. "He's part of an oppressed minority himself, then. I'd think that would make him more sensitive to the problems of other groups, rather than less."
"Like you were open to Mahler's point of view?" Blair opened his mouth. "Before he told you, I mean."
"Um. Okay, point taken."
"Cooper called this one in, and he stayed with Andrea all the way. He could have called it in anonymously or even walked away and not been involved at all. If he was the kind of jerk some people think he is, he might have done it that way. Things aren't going to get better for him when word gets around about where he found her. The rumor mill loves that stuff, and his superiors won't." Jim pulled into the hospital parking lot and flashed his badge at the attendant. "He's not my favorite person, and he's certainly not pleasant to talk to, but I'd have to have a lot more to go on before I'd believe him to be capable of bashing homeless people to death, or anyone else." He pulled into a space just off the main entrance and parked.
"I didn't know. How could I know?"
"You couldn't. But now you do." Jim punched him lightly on the arm. "Come on. Andrea's waiting for us."
"She hasn't said much that's clear, mostly just stuff about a basement. There's no basements where I found her, and it didn't look like she'd been moved -- there was a lot of blood around -- so there's no telling what she meant." Cooper shut his notebook with a snap. There was dried blood on the sleeve of his jacket. Blair's eyes lingered on the rusty spots.
"Has she been conscious much?"
"In and out. They cleaned her up and checked her over, then doped her up pretty good before they did the stitches. She was messy, but there's no internal damage that they could find. CT scan looked okay, too. Nothing like the first few victims -- those were clean, single blows with a lot of force behind them. If it weren't for her connection to the Mission, I'd say that this one was done by somebody else."
"And that's all she said? Nothing else?" Jim glanced at the little black book in the officer's hand.
"Nothing understandable. She didn't really know I was there, most of the time."
Jim nodded, then turned to look at the waiting room door. The three men stood up in unison when a nurse entered the room and addressed Cooper. "You asked me to let you know when she was sent up to her room. She's on the way -- 245."
"Thanks." He turned to Jim. "I asked them to put her in a private room when they were sure she was out of the woods, so we could post a guard. I figure whoever did this meant her to be dead, and they might try again if they knew she wasn't."
"You're right. Go on up, and I'll have them send someone to replace you right away." Jim slapped the officer once on the back. "Good work, Cooper."
Blair hesitated, then lightly punched Cooper on the shoulder. "Yeah. It's a good thing you were there." There was a brief silence, and Blair looked a little startled after a few seconds' thought. Jim rolled his eyes.
Cooper studied Blair's face for a moment, then cracked a wry smile. "I guess it was." He smacked Blair on the arm, chuckling, and headed for the elevator.
"D'oh," Blair whispered, miming a smack to his forehead.
Jim suppressed a laugh. "What were you saying about next time I stuck my foot in my mouth?"
Blair rubbed his hands over his face. "It's like I've been struck stupid through this whole case."
"Yeah, I can't take you anywhere. Hang on while I call the PD."
Blair sighed and dropped morosely into a chair while Jim dialed. "And I told Simon I wasn't brain damaged."
Blair slipped the seat belt off his shoulder but didn't move from his seat. "Look, I'm fine, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary." Jim grinned at him. "Really, I'm good. No reason I shouldn't be the one to go over. And it would be better coming from me than from a stranger. I'll ride over with a uniform."
Jim frowned. "I'm thinking it might be a good idea to post someone near her apartment. Even if he's not the killer, the stalking thing seems to be true. According to Munez, everyone who knows him at all has confirmed that he's obsessed with Irene, at least."
"Everyone but Knudson, who seems to be entirely without a clue." Blair shook his head. "I don't understand why she's not more concerned. She seems to think that if he's obsessed with her, he'd be the last person to hurt her. Does she not watch the news?"
"I hope not -- not this morning, anyway. The report of Andrea's attack will be coming out soon. Okay." Jim nodded. "You ride over with a uniform, talk to her, stay with her for a while if she needs it. Then call for a ride back and leave the uniform there to watch the place."
"I suppose if I drove, it might make things easier." Blair raised a hopeful eyebrow. Jim snorted and rolled his eyes. "I know, friends don't let friends drive with head injuries. Not for a day or two, anyway."
"You're learning. I'll probably need the truck at some point, anyway, and you don't know how long you'll be." Both men exited the truck and started for the garage elevator. "I'm thinking she won't have as much trouble with Andrea's attack as she did with losing Lydie."
"No, there's not the same relationship there. And Andrea's alive." Blair stepped into the waiting elevator and ran one hand through his hair. "Thank God for that. And maybe she'll be able to tell us who did it when she wakes up."
"Hope so. We really need a break, here." Jim leaned against the back wall. "Either our killer has changed his focus, or we're dealing with more than one, but the attacks are getting more frequent. That could mean either desperation or escalation. Not good, either way."
"I hear that." The elevator doors opened with a ping and a swish. Blair stepped off, then held the doors back with one hand. "I'll pick up a uniform here and head over, then. Meet you in the bullpen when I get back."
"Right. And, hey, watch yourself over there, Romeo. Don't let the lady take advantage of your weakened condition."
Blair grinned. "She should be so lucky." He pulled his hand back, then waved to Jim a little as the doors slid shut.
Jim pushed the already lit button for the seventh floor again, then rubbed a hand through his hair. "A little luck wouldn't hurt right now."
"Hey, Ellison." Mahler stood quickly when he saw Jim approaching. Jim nodded to him, then dropped into his chair as Mahler resumed his seat next to Jim's desk. "I heard about Andrea. Thought I'd check in, find out what's up."
"She's still unconscious, but it looks good for her waking up soon. We have someone there standing guard and ready to take down anything she says when she does."
Mahler nodded and sat back in his chair, crossing his legs. "That's good to hear. Poor little kid. I hear Cooper found her."
"Yeah." There was a short, slightly awkward silence. Jim met Mahler's eyes squarely. "He probably saved her life, you know. Finding her like that. Might even have scared the attacker away."
"Did he see anyone?"
"Apparently not, but they might have heard him before he could see them."
Mahler cleared his throat. "Might tell us something about our killer -- his choice of the location for this attack."
Jim cocked an eyebrow. "Might, might not. Not everyone knows about that park's, um, associations. Blair didn't."
One corner of Mahler's mouth turned up. "He didn't?" The smile grew. "Did he put his foot in it?"
"You might say that." Jim grinned reminiscently.
Mahler chuckled. "He's a good kid. A little volatile, maybe."
"A little. He wants to be a cop when he grows up, you know." Jim smiled and shook his head. "No, I harass him, but he's a great guy. One of the best cops, best people, I've ever known. And certainly the best partner a cop could have."
"That's saying something, coming from you. I like him, too." Mahler uncrossed his legs and leaned forward. "Anyway, I appreciate you keeping me informed. I hear you're not charging David Smith with anything but the assault. You're that confident he's not the guy?"
"Yeah, I think we are. And if we're wrong, he's not going anywhere, anyway. Oh, damn." Jim slapped the top of the desk with one hand. Mahler looked startled. "Andrea. He doesn't know about Andrea." Jim closed his eyes for a moment. "I'll wait till she's awake and talking again before I tell him."
"Why tell him? He's not going to be seeing her for quite a while."
Jim frowned. "He asked us to look after her. I told him to be straight with us, and I think he was. I want to be straight with him."
Mahler was quiet for a moment. "Wait to tell him. It'll be kinder. He'll just go crazy over it, stuck in there where he can't do anything." Jim nodded. Mahler stood and took a step away from his chair. His foot struck a small object on the floor near Jim's desk that rattled and skittered a few feet across the shiny tiles. He bent to pick it up, studied it a moment, then held it up for Jim to see. "Whose is this? Miss Anderson's?"
Jim took the little brown prescription bottle from Mahler and looked it over. "Yeah, it is. Must have fallen out of Blair's jacket. He got it from her the night Lydie was killed. He spun some story about being afraid she'd do something rash and she gave it to him."
"I hope she's got some more. It's not smart to quit that stuff cold turkey."
Jim blinked at him. "Sleeping pills?"
Mahler's eyes widened. "Is that what she told him? That's a psychotropic med, a fairly strong one. Yes, it might help her sleep, but it's probably doing a lot more for her than that. My nephew's supposed to be taking it, but his folks don't think he does."
"Really." Jim stretched the word out, his voice soft. "That's interesting." He continued to study the little bottle a moment longer, then looked up at Mahler. "Thanks."
"No problem." Mahler nodded, then turned and headed for the elevators.
"I hope not." Jim tapped one finger against the bottle's childproof cap, then reached for the phone. Before he could pick it up, it rang. He jumped a little, then lifted the receiver. "Ellison."
"Detective Ellison, I wonder if we could trouble you to come out to the Mission again. I know you're busy...." Ron Knudson's tone was apologetic.
"I was planning to come by later today. Is something wrong?"
"No, not really, but we'd like to see you. More specifically, Miss deBurg would like to see you, rather urgently. She's here now, and she says it's important that she speak to you, in person. Could you spare us a moment?"
"Yes, certainly. I'll be there shortly."
"We'll be in Miss Davis' office. Sorry to trouble you."
"No trouble." Jim replaced the receiver, then looked down at the bottle in his left hand. He gazed at it thoughtfully for a moment, then picked up the phone again and dialed a number. He gave the bottle a little shake, rattling the pills inside, then jumped and nearly dropped it when a shrill ring sounded from somewhere beneath him. He set the phone hastily back into its cradle and leaned over, peering under his desk with a frown. Sighing, he squatted down and reached into the dust and lost paperclips, then stood up again with Blair's cell phone in his hand. "Great. Typical. What did he do, stand on his head?"
He picked his own phone up again and punched a button. "Yeah, it's Ellison. Has Detective Sandburg left yet? Who'd he take with him? See if you can raise him, and ask him to call me on my cell when he has a minute. Sometime when Miss Anderson isn't present. No, he left his phone here. Tell him I'm on my way to the Mission. Right." He hung up the phone, dropped the bottle into his pocket and started for the elevators.
"Man, can you believe this?" Blair leaned sideways to look out through the open passenger side window at the line of cars ahead of them, then sat back with a sigh. "Can you find out what the hold up is?"
"Sure." Officer Michaelson slid the gearshift into park, then spoke curtly into his mic. The car radio crackled in response.
Blair groaned. "Terrific. Three cars -- if we'd known, we could have turned off at the last cross street. Now we're boxed in." He glanced back over his shoulder, his brow furrowed in irritation.
"They should have it cleared up before too long." Officer Michaelson's voice didn't come across as confidently as his words.
"Tell you what -- I'll run in there and get us some coffee while we wait. Maybe a Danish? As long as we're not going anywhere." Blair gestured toward a coffee shop in the middle of the block and raised an eyebrow, grinning a little.
"Sounds good to me. I missed breakfast." Michaelson smiled.
"Great. Be back in a few -- don't take off without me." Blair smirked and climbed out of the cruiser.
While he waited, Michaelson whistled and tapped his fingers against the steering wheel as his eyes scanned the blocked street and the sidewalks around him. After a few minutes the radio crackled again, and he picked up the mic. "36. Go ahead." He listened for a moment, frowning a little as he watched a ragged form that might have been female shuffle down the sidewalk. "10-4. I'll let him know." He reached to replace the mic just as Blair reentered the car, a steaming cup in each hand and a white paper bag clenched between his teeth. Their hands smacked together, and a little hot liquid escaped through a hole in the lid of the cup and splashed onto Michaelson's leg. He yelped.
"Oh, man, I'm sorry!" The fallen paper sack lay in Blair's lap. He set the coffees down in the floorboard and reached into the bag for napkins. "Hurt much?"
"No damage." Michaelson pressed a napkin against the wet spot. "It's okay, we just collided, there."
"Speaking of collisions." Blair pointed ahead of them to where the stalled traffic was finally beginning to creep forward. Michaelson gave his leg a final dab and stuffed the napkin into the space between his seat and the door. He pressed the accelerator and the engine raced, but the car didn't move. "Crap," he muttered, and shifted into drive. The car lurched forward a little.
"Wait a second." Blair made a grab at the coffees on the floor, rescuing them from a near upset. "Okay." He set one cup in the cup holder and held his own. "Got it." He grimaced at the other man as he buckled his seatbelt. "Not the best idea, maybe."
"I'll tell you after my Danish." Michaelson accepted a sticky pastry from Blair and took a bite.
"Turn here, I think it'll be faster. Unless you think the traffic's better on Franklin?"
"Not this time of day." Michaelson flipped on his turn signal. "It's bad everywhere. Now, usually, if I'm headed uptown...."
Knudson rose and walked around Miss Davis' beloved oak desk to greet Jim at the door. He held out his hand. "Thank you, Detective. We appreciate your time."
Jim shook his hand, a little bemused by the level of the other man's appreciation for his visit, until he looked more closely into the pastor's worried eyes. He glanced quickly toward Miss deBurg, who leaned back rather tiredly in a chair in front of the desk. One of her ever-present silent attendants stood quietly in a corner.
"Ma'am." Jim let a closer scan of the elderly lady's vitals confirm what was already apparent -- she wasn't doing well. This time, she looked much more like the delicate invalid that Lydie had tried to warn them that she was. Jim gently took the frail hand extended to him in his own.
"Detective." Jim smiled and pressed her hand a little before releasing it. Irene smiled back, a little wanly, then turned to Pastor Knudson. "If you don't mind, Pastor, I'd like to speak to the detective alone."
"Certainly, certainly. I'll be in the lounge if you need me." He inclined his head to her in the manner of an old-school gallant, then walked quickly out of the room.
"Sweet man." Miss deBurg sighed. "Cathy, I won't need you for a while." The quiet presence in the corner stepped forward, a surprised and slightly suspicious expression in her hazel eyes as they looked from her employer to the large man standing by her side. "He's a policeman, dear. I'll be fine." The woman nodded curtly, then stalked from the room, keeping her eye on Jim until she had closed the door between them. "My staff is very devoted," Irene said with a hint of irritation in her voice, "sometimes stiflingly so. Please sit here." She indicated the twin of her own chair, next to hers. "Will Detective Sandburg be joining us?" She glanced toward the office door, her eyebrows raised.
"No, ma'am, he's needed elsewhere at the moment." Jim sat and turned toward her, his expression expectant. He watched her study her hands for a few moments, then spoke softly. "Miss deBurg, there was something you wanted to discuss with me?" When she remained silent, he frowned. "Are you feeling all right, ma'am?"
"Call me Irene, please. May I call you Jim?" He nodded, and she smiled a little. "No, I'm not all right, not really. I think that's probably evident. I haven't been 'all right' for a while, and I'm less so now." She sighed again, and seemed to droop even further back in her chair.
"If this isn't the best time for us to talk--" Jim leaned forward and extended a hand a little toward her, his expression concerned.
"There is no good time for us to discuss this. It might as well be now." She studied her hands again. "I think I mentioned at our last meeting that we were a unique and unusual family, Jim. Our history is rather a checkered one. On the whole, the good we've done has outweighed the bad. On an individual level, however--" She looked up into his eyes. "One of the forms our 'uniqueness' has taken is mental instability. Though I've escaped that particular affliction, my own brother, who was always intended to assume control of the estate and the family interests, was not capable of doing so. He's gone, now." She sniffed a little. "He was very dear to me, as is his granddaughter, Irene. One of his children, Irene's mother, was similarly afflicted. She began to show signs of instability shortly after Irene's birth. Her doctor diagnosed postpartum depression. She left her family a few months later."
Jim nodded and reached into his pocket. "I think I understand."
Irene pressed her lips together briefly. "I'm sure you do. I'm sure you also understand that it was my niece's disappearance that was the inspiration for the Mission. Somewhere out there is a woman who desperately needs a place like my Mission, a safe harbor that may save her life. I pray daily that she may someday find this one. If she's still alive." Irene's eyes filled.
Jim hesitated, then pulled the little pill bottle from his pocket and silently handed it to the elderly woman. She looked closely at it, then back up to Jim, her eyes questioning. "I believe I know what this is, though I'm not sure. Am I correct in assuming that you already knew?"
"Someone told me this morning that this is a psychotropic medication." Irene nodded and closed her eyes, seeming to deflate a little. "You're concerned, because she's receiving treatment for a mental illness, that she may somehow be connected to this case?"
"It's been my greatest fear, yes. When I asked to see you in my home, I wondered if you might have discovered this for yourself, and I was anxious to see if you would question me about it. But now, I'm more anxious to know whether Irene might be a suspect, if there might be any reason for my concern. I couldn't live with my silence if there was any possibility that she was connected to these horrible crimes and I didn't do what I could to stop them. Have you eliminated her as a suspect? Is there any chance that she--"
"Her whereabouts at the time of each attack have been determined. It's unlikely that she could have committed the assaults." A little color seemed to creep back into Irene's pale cheeks. "All except this latest attack. We haven't had time to determine anything there. Andrea," he added when she looked at him inquiringly.
"Dear God! Lydie's little helper." Her eyes filled again and she raised a thin hand to her chest. "How horrible. I hadn't heard."
"No, ma'am. The news hasn't been released yet. But she is alive. Unconscious, but out of danger."
"Thank goodness for that, anyway." She took a deep breath and released it slowly. "Does she know? Irene, I mean. Has she been told about Andrea?"
"Detective Sandburg should be with her now."
"Oh, good. I'm glad it's him. I rather like that young man. I understood Irene's attraction to him when we met."
"I believe he returns your regard." Irene chuckled. "It sounds like your niece shares a great deal with you."
"On occasion. We're all the family either of us has left, so I try to keep her close to me, though I think she felt closer to Lydie. That's only natural -- Lydie was almost a mother to her after her own left her. And I don't make it easy for her, I suppose. I'm particular about how my money's spent, that it be used as effectively as possible, especially when it comes to the Mission. Irene is sometimes more passionate than thoughtful. I find myself having to rein her in at times, and that makes her angry." She looked into Jim's eyes. "She's prone to fits of anger, outbursts that can be rather frightening. Not that I think she'd ever hurt me, but... there have been times when I've been grateful for the presence of my attendants. If only for the sake of the china." She looked troubled. "I hope I haven't done the wrong thing--"
"I appreciate your candor very much, but my discovery this morning already told me most of what you have -- about Irene, anyway. If it ends up having any bearing on this case, I don't think we'll need your statement as corroboration. We can find out what we need to know on our own."
"Thank you, Detective. I'm very grateful to you." She reached out her hand to him again, and he took it and held it briefly. She squeezed his warmly. "I have the utmost confidence in you and Detective Sandburg." She dropped his hand and sat back in her chair again.
Jim noted with concern the taut fragility of the translucent skin that stretched across her cheekbones and the blue shadows under her sunken eyes. He could easily believe that the woman before him could have stirred Miss Davis' maternal, protective instincts. "Can I...." He gestured toward the door.
"Yes, please, ask Cathy to come in."
He rose and strode quickly to the door. Almost before he touched the doorknob Irene's attendant was there, brushing past him with a disapproving frown. He had barely stepped outside before the door was closed briskly behind him. He turned to exchange a bemused look with Pastor Ron, who hovered in the hallway near the door.
"Miss deBurg inspires a great deal of devotion in her attendants." Knudson smiled apologetically.
"Apparently. Quite a testament to the lady's character." Jim looked up and down the echoing hallway. "Pretty quiet."
"There are only a few people staying with us now. I think we have you to thank for the referral."
"I'm glad they decided to come. I'm going to check in with Officer Daniels and then head back, unless there's anything else?"
"No, I don't believe so. Thank you again for coming on such short notice. I hope everything went well."
Jim suppressed a smile at the openly curious expression on the other man's face. "I think so. Thank you." He turned on his heel and walked down the hall toward the lounge, where Officer Daniels watched daytime television with the last remaining residents of the Mission.
"Just let me out here, I guess. Circle the block again, maybe a spot will open up. When you come in, find an out of the way place in the lobby where you can watch the entrance." Blair unbuckled his seatbelt and opened the passenger door. "I don't know how long I'll be, but I'll find my own way back to the station. I'll check in with you before I go."
Blair slammed the door closed and the officer pulled forward and cruised slowly around the corner. Blair turned and looked up at the tall, elegant apartment building, then passed through the lobby doors and into its plush interior.
"No one's had anything more to say about Ray Svoboda?" Jim kept his voice low. The two men stood near the wall on the side of the lounge opposite the television. Some of the residents watched them with frank curiosity, while others pretended not to notice them. The two children played a board game on the floor in front of the set.
"Not a word. It's been the same everywhere -- strange guy, weird about Miss Anderson, not a sign of him since the Davis killing. No one's been able to learn anything else about him, not where he came from or where he might have gone. It's like he's been sucked off the face of the earth."
"Hmph." Jim rolled his head from one side to the other and sighed. "Have you been able to look around much?"
"A little. Hard to get off by myself -- my posse tends to follow me around." He grinned at the children on the floor. The little girl waved back. "They all seem to feel safer if they can keep me in sight. That's a good thing, I guess."
"Yeah, I suppose it is. Okay, I'm going to take a quick walk through, then I'm heading back. Don't work too hard," he added, glancing over to where an old science fiction movie now flickered on the TV screen.
"I do my best." Daniels grinned and walked back to his chair, a little behind the group seated in front of the television.
Blair stepped off the elevator into the beautifully appointed anteroom on Irene's floor. Three doors on different walls led to luxury apartments. He ran his hands quickly through his hair, straightened his jacket and brushed at the front of his pants, then approached the door directly across from the elevator.
He knocked softly at first, then more sharply. He glanced up at the peephole, imagining what he looked like through its fisheye lens, then reached for the ornate doorbell. Before he could press it, he heard a soft tread on the wood floor on the other side of the door. There was a short silence, then the snick of locks being turned. The door opened a fraction.
The door opened a little more.
Jim stood in the alley behind the Mission looking down at the spot where Lydie had been found, flat on her face beside the garbage. He scanned the narrow space, noting dumpsters, crates and doorways similar to those in the alley where the group of people inside had concealed themselves. So many hiding places.
He walked a little way down the alley, his eyes traveling over the ground, the walls, the empty windows high overhead one more time. Ten feet from the door he'd come through he stopped abruptly, raising his head slightly and sniffing. He walked a few hurried steps forward and lifted the lid of a dumpster, peering into its depths for several moments before dropping it back into place. He took a few steps away from the dumpster and stilled, his head lifted again and his eyes a little unfocused. His head turned slowly from side to side, then his eyes cleared and his gaze settled on a stairwell leading down to the basement level. He jogged quickly down the steps to the weathered door, noting fragments of broken glass from a light fixture scattered on the damp cement of the landing. He tried the doorknob -- locked. The small glass pane high up in the door was too dirty to see through. He breathed in deeply, then coughed a little and cleared his throat, taking a step back. Careful to avoid the glass, he ran up the stairs and back into the building. He passed quickly through the kitchen and dining room and out into the main hallway.
Knudson was walking down the hall toward him from the direction of the front entrance. At the urgent note in Jim's voice, he quickened his step and met Jim in front of the lounge door. "Yes, detective?"
"Has anyone searched the basement recently?"
"Yes, Officer Cooper came by this morning, and he and Officer Daniels went into the basement. What is it?" His eyes searched Jim's face anxiously.
"I need to go down there." He turned and took a step through the lounge doorway. "Officer Daniels, would you come with me, please? The officer only, if you don't mind," he added when several other people rose from their seats. They looked at him doubtfully, but sat down again.
"You'll need the key." Pastor Knudson trotted toward Miss Davis' office.
"How do we get down there?" Daniels gestured and led him to a back stairwell to the second floor. Around the corner was a door set in behind the stairs. Knudson met them there in less than a minute with a ring of keys.
"Is this door always locked?"
"Yes, it is. The basement is only used for storage, now." He unlocked the door and the three men descended into a dim, dank warren of dusty rooms filled with boxes and assorted junk.
"Who has access to these keys?" Jim's eyes swept the room as he oriented himself, and he sniffed quietly.
"Besides myself, Miss Davis did, and Irene, and Andrea was allowed to use them as needed. The night manager, and the janitor, though he kept his own copies of a few keys, for convenience. Not to the front doors or any restricted areas, of course. He may have had a basement key."
Jim pushed through an assortment of cardboard boxes toward a small, grimy room on their left. A few abandoned pieces of rotting furniture were stacked around the room. Watery light filtered through the grimy pane high up in the door on the outer wall.
"Did you look in here?" Daniels nodded and followed him into the room. Knudson was close behind them. "Sir, I think it might be best if you waited by the door." Knudson blanched slightly at Jim's words, then nodded and backed up into the doorway.
Jim moved forward cautiously, doing his best to disturb the debris on the floor as little as possible. He gestured, and he and Daniels slowly approached opposite ends of a tattered sofa sitting about a foot away from the wall. Both men leaned around to peer behind it, then moved to stand in front of it. Jim pinched a corner of one battered seat cushion between thumb and forefinger and lifted it carefully. Daniels took a step back.
"My God!" Knudson grabbed at the doorframe. "That's Ray!" His knees buckled a little and he clamped a hand over his mouth.
Under the sofa cushions, in the space left by the absent springs, lay the very dead body of a tall, thin man, a bullet hole drilled into his temple.
"Blair." The face that met him at the door was almost unrecognizable. "I'm glad it's you." She turned and walked away from him, through the foyer and into the living room. Blair hesitated a moment, then followed her in, closing the door softly behind him.
"Irene?" He found her perched on the edge of a chair, shoulders hunched, rocking slowly forward and back. Her elbows rested on her knees, and her hands were tangled in her disheveled hair. "Irene, what's wrong?" He sat on his heels and lay a gentle hand on her back. She flinched. "Has something happened? Have you heard--" He stopped abruptly and stared at her left hand. "Something did happen." Very gently, he slipped his fingers around her wrist and pulled her hand toward him. Strands of blonde hair slipped between her fingers and across her scratched and bloody knuckles.
"Irene, tell me." He touched her chin, urging her to turn her face toward him. There was a faint bruise over her left eye. "Do you need a doctor? What's happened?"
She barked out a parody of a laugh. "Happened?" She pulled her hand away from his and looked down at it. "What happened?" Her face crumpled and she began to cry, bending forward slowly until her forehead rested on Blair's shoulder. He laid one hand lightly on her back, steadying her as her entire body shook with her sobs.
"Irene. Irene," Blair repeated desperately. "Please talk to me. It's going to be okay, but you have to tell me what's wrong. Tell me, so I can help you."
"You can't help me. You can't." She choked a little. "She's gone, she's gone, I can't get her back."
"Andrea? Did you hear--"
"Lydie! Lydie, I need Lydie!" Her voice rose to a screech and she shook beneath his hands. "I need her, I need her and she's gone!"
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry." Blair held her writhing shoulders a little closer. Her hysteria was becoming really alarming. "I'm here, I'll try to help, I will, but you have to tell me--"
"You can't!" she cried, and twisted away from him to bury her face in the back of the overstuffed chair. Blair rose to his feet and leaned over her, smoothing his hand gently up and down her back.
"Let me try, please." She shook her head vigorously. "Irene, I'm going to call someone who can help. We need to get you to--"
"No! No, we can't go anywhere. We have to stay here." She sat up and grabbed his wrist. She gulped a few times and seemed to try to pull herself together. "We don't need anybody. It's better here. You don't want those people. You're safer here with me." She gasped. "They don't like you either. They'll say things about you, too. Like they did before."
"Like they--" Blair's eyes widened and he sat down on the arm of her chair. "You mean, like when I was at the University."
"It's much better if you stay here with me. We don't need anybody else. We can do fine by ourselves." She raised her swollen eyes to look into his. "I don't care about what they said about you. I never did. It doesn't matter to me. And you don't care what they say about me, either. Do you? We can stay here together. We don't need anybody else."
Blair stared at her. "You've always known... who I am. You said you didn't."
She shook her head. "It doesn't matter. I didn't want to upset you. I wanted us to be friends. Because I knew I needed you." Her lip trembled again. "I didn't know how much I'd need you. I didn't know he was going to kill Lydie. Why her? She wouldn't have told, not if I'd asked her not to! She'd do anything for me." Her chest heaved. "Would you, Blair? You'd do anything to help me. You said you'd help me. I do need your help."
Blair swallowed. "Who killed Lydie, Irene?" She hiccuped a few times and sniffed loudly. "Was it Ray?" She stared at him. "It was Ray, wasn't it?" She closed her eyes and nodded, just barely. Blair swore softly. "Was he here, Irene? Did he hurt you?" He looked up quickly and scanned the room around them, then reached slowly for his front jacket pocket.
"Not here. In the basement." Blair froze. "But when he called me, I took my gun. He couldn't hurt me. I had a gun. And he'd already killed Lydie." Her face crumpled again. "He killed her. He couldn't hurt me any more after that."
Blair took a deep breath. "Irene, where is Ray now? Is he still in the basement?" She nodded. "Downstairs? Here in the building?"
"At the Mission. It's okay. He's at the Mission." She trembled a little. "It's okay."
"Okay, that's fine. He's at the Mission, and we're here. That's good." Blair took Irene's battered hand in his again. "Irene, is Andrea at the Mission, too? With Ray?'
Irene pulled back from him a little. "Of course not. With Ray? She hates Ray." She shook her head. "What do you mean?"
"Is she, is she okay?" Irene stared at him. "Is she in the park, maybe?"
She frowned. "In the park? In the park?" She pulled her hand from his and scooted back against the cushions. "What park? Where?" She rubbed at the back of her hand. "She called me. She said, she said something about Ray. And me, she was talking about me. She said he had told her something. She hates Ray. She was talking about me. It isn't my fault. I didn't do anything--"
She stopped speaking, her mouth still slightly open, and all the color drained from her face. Her eyes went wide with horror. "The park! Oh, God, oh God, the park! Andrea's in the park!"
Blair's hands started to tremble. "She was in the park, but she's not there now. Did you take her to the park?"
"It wasn't the same! It was easy before, with Ray. I'd never let someone like that touch me. But not with a, it wasn't like that, it wasn't the same. She was screaming--" She shook violently all over. "I couldn't do it like he did, make it the same. It's so much harder than it looks. You have to be strong. I thought I was stronger than that, stronger than her, she's so little...." She looked up into Blair's horrified eyes. "If you care what people say, what they think about you, they've won. You have to be strong. You have to not care. Aunt Irene told me that." She shook her head. "But I'm not strong. I thought I was, but I'm not."
"Yes, you are, Irene. And you're going to be fine. You're going to be good. But we need to let everyone know that you're okay. They'll worry. You don't want anyone to worry about you, I know you don't. I'll tell them that you're here, at home, and that you're okay." Blair slipped one hand into his front jacket pocket, then frowned and pulled it out again. He looked down at himself, patting his hands quickly over his jacket, then his pants pockets. "It'll be okay," he said, and looked up just as the marble ashtray connected with the side of his head.
"Try the number again. He has to be there by now." Jim tapped one impatient foot on the floor. "No, he doesn't have his cell with him. What's the name of the officer that went with him -- Michaelson? Tell him to go up and check on him. Tell him to move fast." Jim snapped his phone shut and turned to Daniels. "I'll leave you here to wait for Forensics. Backup will be here in a few minutes. I'm going to Miss Anderson's apartment."
"What should I do about...." Daniels gestured over his shoulder at the six pairs of eyes peering at them from the doorway of the lounge.
"They'll be fine there for now." Jim was already walking toward the door. "We may have to--" He stopped abruptly and looked back at the radio on Daniels' hip, eyes wide, then broke into a run, straight-arming the door open in front of him so hard that it hit the side of the building with a crash.
Daniels stared after him, then turned up the volume on his radio.
"All units, officer down, 14th and Lexington...."
Jim bounded through the elevator doors and into a welter of uniforms. He brushed past a man with a clipboard in the doorway of Irene's apartment, just in time to see two paramedics raise a gurney to its full height with a gentle snap. The figure under the sheet was... not Blair. Jim watched the still form of the young officer as the gurney rolled past him, then turned to face the crowded room. Forensic types were snapping on gloves and rifling bureau drawers, a uniformed cop was laying out tape lines, and Blair was sitting on a pale yellow sofa having his vitals taken and his head probed by a second set of paramedics. Jim nearly vaulted the coffee table in his haste to reach his partner's side.
Blair grinned at him, his right eye already swelling. "Hey, the cavalry's a little late."
"Don't even joke about that. How are you?" Jim squatted down to look him in the eyes.
"We're working on determining that, Detective, if you'll give us a little room." Jim stood and took a reluctant step back. The paramedic smiled. "He looks pretty good, though, considering."
"Are you kidding? I look like crap."
"You look like you got clobbered with bookends." Simon walked around the other side of the coffee table to stand behind the busy medics. "You'll have a nice matched set of shiners."
"It's a good thing she got his other side. Another hit to this one could have been pretty bad." The female medic slid one gentle hand over Blair's left temple, and he winced a little. "You'll definitely need to get CT scanned again, though."
"Wonderful. Maybe they could just reserve an hour for me on the machine every Tuesday and Thursday."
"What did she get him with?" Blair pointed, and Simon and Jim both turned to see an officer slide a large marble ashtray into a plastic bag. "Ouch." Simon grimaced.
"Merely a glancing blow, as they say in the movies." Blair grinned weakly.
"I thought it was 'it's only a flesh wound'."
"I save that one for when I get shot."
Jim frowned at him. "I'm not laughing. She could have killed you, Blair."
"Well, she did kill Ray, and she tried to kill Andrea. And that officer, she nailed him pretty good with that ashtray after she stunned me, but they think he'll be okay. She told him Ray had hit me, that he was in the kitchen, and then she clocked the poor guy on the back of the head when he told her to get behind him. But, in an amazing feat of masculine strength, I did manage to wrestle an ashtray out of a hysterical woman's hand and hold her down until backup got here, once I recovered my faculties. Hooray for me," Blair sighed.
"Very macho," Jim agreed. Simon smiled.
"Well, macho man, let's get you on a gurney and down to the ambulance." Jim and Simon stepped back as the paramedics rolled a gurney near the sofa. The young woman gestured invitingly at the sheet-covered cot.
Blair opened his mouth, hesitated, then closed it again. "You know, I'm not even going to argue with you." Each medic took an arm and helped him to settle himself comfortably, then lifted it gently into position and rolled it toward the doorway.
"I'll be right with you," Jim called to him. "Behave yourself."
"Bring Thai food," Blair called back as he rolled out of sight.
Jim chuckled, and Simon raised an eyebrow. "It's an old head-injury custom, sir." Simon held up his cigar hand in an 'I don't want to know' gesture. "If you can manage without me, sir...."
"Go, go with him." Simon waved Jim toward the door. "Get your food, whatever."
"Thanks, sir." Jim smiled and trotted briskly after Blair. "Hold the elevator!"
Andrea's eyelids fluttered, then blinked slowly open. Her gaze wandered a little, then stopped on the man standing at her bedside. "D'tective Ell'son," she slurred slightly, then blinked again and focused more intently on him. "Hi."
"Hello, Andrea. Still pretty sleepy?"
"No, just takes me a minute to wake up." Her speech was a little slurred. Her eyes traced the path of the IV tube from her arm to the bag hanging overhead. "They're giving me stuff for pain. Works pretty good." She smiled a little slyly.
Jim laughed. "I'll bet. You feeling better? I was here earlier, but you couldn't really talk to me then."
"I think I remember that. I'm doing okay." She reached up to touch her bandaged face. "They said they can fix my mouth okay. It doesn't hurt much now. They had to shave off some of my hair." She grimaced. "But that'll grow back. Just as long as I don't have any scars. They don't think I will." She glanced quickly around the room. "Where's, uh, the other one? Has he been here?"
"Detective Sandburg? No, he's in another room. I'm going to visit him next. I'll tell him you asked about him."
Her eyes widened. "What happened to him?"
"He hit his head again. Good thing he has such a thick skull. He'll be fine." Jim pulled a chair a little closer to her bed and sat down. "I hear you've been remembering some things."
She nodded. "Yeah, some. Stuff pops into my head every once in a while. The doctor said that's how I'll remember it, because it was so bad. Little bits at a time." She plucked at her sheet. "I didn't think nothing about it when Miss Anderson said we should go to the park to talk. I just thought, you know, she wanted to keep it quiet, go where nobody would hear us. I got that part right." She frowned and moved restlessly in her bed. "I never believed that stuff Ray said. I just thought he was making it up to make himself look like a big shot. He was always talking about how great he was." She sneered. "He was such a loser. It's so gross that he was down in the basement. Like a dead rat."
Jim blinked at her. "That's one way to look at it, I suppose."
Andrea grinned at his uneasy expression, then sobered. "When Miss Anderson told me he was down there, I didn't know what she meant, at first. I figured it out when she started hitting me with the tire iron. She was so nuts." She shivered. "Why was he even down there? Is that where he hid when he took off?"
Jim nodded. "We think so. Miss Davis probably asked him about some of the stories he'd been telling, and he got nervous and hid down there, both before and after he killed her."
"He must have told Miss Anderson where he was, then. Called her, maybe, and then she went and killed him. Or maybe he left and then came back." She looked hopefully at Jim for confirmation, but his face remained carefully neutral. She sighed. "You know, I never believed nothing he said about Miss Anderson. I knew he wasn't with her. And I didn't think she did nothing bad to those dead guys. It sounded so made-up, like all his lies. I just wanted to ask her about it, you know, and just tell her, so she'd know what he was going around saying." She rolled her eyes. "Big mistake. I'm never telling no one nothing again."
"I hope you don't mean me." Jim smiled gently at her.
"No, cops are different. A lot of people, they don't like cops. But I think it's okay to tell you stuff, and Detective Sandburg. Especially you." She blushed a little. "Even if you put David in jail, because he shouldn't have hit your partner. He didn't need to do that. I know he's probably sorry. He's not a bad person." She stopped speaking suddenly and gasped, looking anxiously into Jim's face. "Is that why he's in the hospital? Because David hit him? Did he get worse?"
"Well, no, not really. Getting hit in the head twice is what made them think he should stay here for a while. It's a little more often than he's used to." Jim smiled reassuringly at her. "He'll be okay. He's feeling good enough to be grouchy about being kept here, so I'm taking him this." Jim held up a slightly damp paper bag. "I'd better go up and see him. But I'll come back to visit with you some more, see what else you've remembered, when you're feeling more up to it."
Andrea's eyes were beginning to droop again. "S'okay with me. You know where I'll be." Jim stood and took a step away from her bedside, but stopped when Andrea raised one hand. "Will you... would you tell David that I'm okay? And that I'll come visit him soon, when I'm better?"
Jim smiled. "I can do that. He'll be glad to hear it."
Andrea yawned. "Yeah, he worries about me." Her eyes drifted shut. Jim stepped softly out of the room.
"Ice cream is better for you, anyway." Jim slurped a spoonful of vanilla.
"Not if you eat it too fast." Blair pressed the heel of one hand to his forehead. "Ow."
"Idiot." Jim's smirk was unsympathetic.
"And why always vanilla?"
"I like vanilla. What's wrong with vanilla?" Jim looked offended.
"I'm at the mercy of the vanilla king for three days," Blair muttered before taking another bite.
"Only because you've run out of sides of your head for people to crack. You're safer in the hospital for a while." Jim pointed at him with his spoon. "Although, if you keep harassing the nurses, I wouldn't vouch for your safety. A good slap right now could leave you more mentally deficient than you already are."
"The nurses love me." Blair pouted.
"Notice how they always come to check your vitals while I'm here?" Jim smirked.
"Notice how you always come to visit me when it's time to check my vitals?"
"You envy my way with women, obviously."
"I do right now, actually." Blair closed his eyes. "I can't get Irene out of my head. I keep wondering what's happening to her."
"After an observation period, she'll be committed. You can be pretty sure of that." Jim took another bite and let it slide down his throat. "The deBurgs can afford the best care money can buy, though. She'll be all right."
"The look in her eyes, when she said she knew I'd help her...." Blair sighed. "She knew who I was all along, and she thought I'd be more inclined to be on her side because of my history. That's sobering."
"That's pretty twisted, actually, which shouldn't come as a surprise. You knew she was a little off since our first meeting with her."
"I suppose. But it was Lydie's death that really broke her. She didn't have much of a chance after that." Blair stared sadly down at his ice cream.
"Yeah, and neither did Ray. He signed his own death warrant when he killed the person Irene loved most. She must have known he'd done it the moment she heard about it." Jim slurped another bite. "The fact that she stopped taking all of her prescriptions when she gave you that bottle didn't help her much, either. It was the beginning of the end for her reason."
"She had enough reason left to lie to Officer Michaelson when he came looking for me. How is he doing?"
"He's good. Hell of a headache."
"I sympathize." Blair grimaced. "I'm just glad the gun didn't make an appearance while I was at her apartment."
"They found it under her bed."
"Comforting thought." Blair shuddered. "The last straw for Irene's sanity had to be the attempt on Andrea. Poor kid. She didn't even really understand what she was saying when she asked Irene if the things Ray had hinted at were true. In the state Irene was in by then, Andrea's questions must have sounded like accusations."
"There again, her attempt to make that attack look like another basher killing points to more reasoning ability than defense lawyers like to see in an insanity plea. It even makes it more plausible that she could have been involved in the killings of those three men, or could have at least known about them."
Blair frowned. "I don't think so. He did it to impress Irene, to eliminate some 'troublemakers' who'd upset her by not taking part in her programs. Why he dropped the hints to Andrea I can't figure, unless he was trying to get to her, too. Or maybe he just wanted to creep her out. He managed that, all right."
"You don't think maybe Irene knew, or suspected?" Jim looked down at the melted puddle in his bowl.
"And let it happen? No. At least, I don't want to think so."
"Those bursts of anger Miss deBurg told me about...."
"Yeah, I thought about that. I don't know." Blair sighed. "I don't think I want to know. We probably never will, anyway. Any more than we'll ever know what Lydie had on Ray that made him want to kill her, or which Irene she was calling out to when she died. It could have been Miss deBurg, but I think she was afraid for Irene and wanted to warn her about Ray, as much as she could manage with a severe head injury."
"That would make sense, if Lydie had overheard some of the things he'd told Andrea and asked him about them."
"Or maybe," Blair set his bowl on the side table, "he killed her to hurt Irene, to take away the person she depended on most and make her vulnerable, or to make her fear him enough to give him what he wanted. But then, he couldn't guarantee that she wouldn't turn him in once he told her what he'd done."
"He, um, might," Jim said slowly, "if there was any reason for him to feel that the two of them were connected in the earlier crimes, in any way, that he could implicate her, too. If he could hold that over her head...."
They sat in silence for a few moments, neither wanting to continue that line of thought. Jim looked over at the clock on Blair's bedside table. "Hey, it's almost Marcy time."
"You don't have a snowball's chance with Marcy," Blair smirked.
"And you think you do? Would you care to make a friendly wager?"
"You'd both lose." Marcy slipped into the room. She brushed nimbly past a blushing Jim and lightly picked up Blair's wrist, then smiled slyly at both of them. "I got a man."
"I think I'll go get a cup of coffee. If you'll excuse me." Jim stood with a little bow, turned on his heel and left the room. Blair laughed out loud.
"What?" The nurse reached for the blood pressure cuff.
"He hates hospital coffee," Blair chuckled.
Blair found Jim out on the balcony, an open newspaper on the ground beside his chair. He was standing at the railing, looking out toward the shining bay in the distance. Blair walked over to his friend and stood silently beside him for a moment. Then he spoke, softly. "I saw it, too."
Jim was quiet for a moment, then he sighed. "She was quite a lady. The world was a better place while she was in it."
"I definitely agree with you, there." Blair turned to lean back against the railing and looked up into Jim's face. "There aren't many left like her."
"Yeah." Jim sipped her beer. "And that leaves--"
"Irene. The last of the deBurgs." Blair crossed his arms over his chest. "That's a frightening thought."
"It's too bad. She cared a lot about the homeless, and people in need, maybe as much as her great-aunt did. She could have done a lot of good with that money, if she wasn't sick."
"The money will get her the help she needs. And an executor will see that the work at the Mission continues. They've set up a foundation in Miss deBurg's name."
"And so the legacy lives on. The deBurgs of Cascade." Jim raised his beer bottle toward the bay, then took a long gulp. He set the bottle down again and stared off into the distance, his expression unreadable.
Blair stood next to him a little longer, then stood and walked slowly back toward the balcony doors. He paused there a moment, then turned to look back at Jim. "I never told you. I always avoided the subject, but I think I should. Tell you."
"What?" Jim turned to face him, one eyebrow raised.
"About my, my thing, about cops and the homeless. All that."
Jim looked blankly at him for a moment, then nodded. "Yeah. I wondered. But that's up to you, you know, if you don't want to--"
"I want to." Blair walked over to Jim's empty chair, seemingly lost in thought, and sat down. He took a deep breath, let it out, and looked up at Jim. His eyes were grave.
"I was twelve. I was out on one of my stupid wandering trips, out on the streets, and I got caught in a bad situation. One of those 'fate worse than death' deals, you know? There are a lot of vultures on the streets looking for homeless kids to use." Blair grimaced. "One found me. But I had this friend, Grady, an old homeless guy who I'd visited with a couple of times before. He got in the middle of it. He saved me, man. And the damned pimp beat him to death." Blair shuddered and wrapped his arms around himself. "I tried to find a cop, someone to help, but no one paid any attention to me. I even called it in. I wanted them to know who to go after, who'd done it. As far as I know, they never did anything. They didn't come to help, and they did nothing to punish his killer. It's stayed with me," he said softly.
Jim stood quietly for a moment, watching his friend, then walked across the balcony to squat on his heels by Blair's chair. He looked intently into the other man's face. "How much of what you're feeling is anger against the police, and how much of it is guilt?" Blair looked away quickly. "There's a lot of blame to go around, there, Blair, but none of it is yours. You were just a kid."
"I know." Blair nodded. "I know. But these things, they can color your view of the world for a long time, man."
"Tell me about it. I thought I was so enlightened." Blair looked up at him, and Jim shrugged. "I know better, now. There was so much I wasn't seeing."
"Me, too. People like Mahler, for instance. And Miss Irene. There are a lot of good people out there. I knew that. I just didn't know that, you know?"
"Yeah, I know. And there are. There's a lot of good people out there. But not enough. Never enough." Jim squeezed Blair's shoulder and stood. "Still, every little bit counts, right? Everyone in their own way."
"Yeah. Like Miss Irene said." Blair stood up and smiled. "Don't leave your bottle over there, man." He gestured toward the railing as he walked through the balcony door, into the loft. "What do you want for dinner?"
"Anything but Thai," Jim answered, and followed him inside.
Author's Notes: Many thanks to the BPP team and my beta readers for their help, kindness and patience.
The Bread of Life Mission in Seattle is real, and has real needs -- please go to their website to learn more. There are many similar informative sites where you can learn how you can help. Please try web-searching for missions or shelters in your area. Every little bit you can do or give will help someone.