Production No. CVT-710

written by:
Carolyn Claire

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--"

"Often justified."

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?"

"Ron Knudson."

"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.

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