"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.