Jim pulled his truck behind a patrol car and got out. Its red and blue lights were clashing with the vivid graffiti splashed across the tenement walls, and for a half second, the odd colors captured his attention.
"Jim!" a voice yanked him back to reality. Simon himself was walking toward him. While Simon wasn't the sort of commander to lock himself in his office and hide from the work on the streets, Jim wasn't used to seeing him on scene.
"Simon, problem?" he asked, scanning the crowd of uniformed officers and spectators looking for any trouble that might have brought Simon out. Reporters didn't usually care about crimes in this part of Cascade, but trouble with reporters or internal affairs were the two quickest ways to bring Simon to a scene.
"Seven missing kids' worth of trouble," Simon agreed. That made Jim stop. He looked at Simon with a sense of growing horror.
Simon got a sour look on his face. "You heard me. It turns out that kids have been turning up missing for three weeks, but the parents haven't reported it." Simon grimaced.
Three weeks. Whoever was taking kids, they'd had three weeks to do whatever they wanted and the parents hadn't even bothered to call the police. For the briefest moment, Jim wished he could walk up those stairs and knock some sense into these parents. Unfortunately, after he'd spectacularly failed to arrest either Veronica Sarris or Danny Choi's killer, Jim didn't think he had all that much credibility left within the department. He'd lose his badge if he did what he wanted—which included hanging some negligent parent out a fifteen story window.
"Jim, we have some help on this, and I need you to play nice."
"When do I not play nice?" Jim pretended to not notice the glare that Simon was giving him, but the truth was that the FBI was welcome to this clusterfuck if they wanted it. Seven kids gone over three weeks, and they were just now getting the first call. Jim didn't have a lot of illusions about how this case was going to end. Even he knew that he was going to need some help or a hell of a lot of luck on this one. Hell, this big of a case would even tempt the press down from their nice, clean neighborhoods.
"I'm going to pretend you didn't say that," Simon said as he walked with Jim up the crumbling front steps of the run-down building. The tenants had clearly tried to keep the place in some order—the corners weren't littered with used needles and newspapers and tinfoil left over from drug users. But the paint was peeling from the walls in long strips, and water stains made the walls and ceilings look like one of those psychology tests with the abstract shapes.
"The people around here don't have much use for police, but a professor from the university convinced them to finally give us a call."
"From the university?" Jim looked around wondering why someone from the university would be in this part of town. Simon started up the stairs, and Jim followed.
"Dr. Sandburg is an expert on shamanism, and the people around here consider the doc their shaman. We don't have a lot of good will in this neighborhood, so we need Dr. Sandburg. They won't trust outsiders, because most of the folks in this tenement are immigrants from Burundi, Haiti, and Nicaragua."
"Any place where the government is more of a danger to people than a source of justice?" Jim guessed.
Simon nodded. "Political refugees, mostly. They don't have a lot trust, and if you get in a pissing match with Dr. Sandburg, we're going to lose our only in with this community. So put on your best manners and pretend that you aren't thinking about dropping someone off the roof of the building," Simon suggested.
This time Jim grimaced. He hadn't realized that he'd allowed his annoyance to show that clearly. Simon snorted. "You're not subtle, Ellison."
Simon stepped through an open door into a cramped apartment. The mother sat on a threadbare couch, weeping softly and a half dozen children clung to the shadows and watched as if he and Simon were the bogey monsters. A woman was kneeling in front of the mother, her thick hair pulled back and held by a silver talisman that looked vaguely familiar. It was some sort of lizard done in a stylized tribal form. However, Jim was startled when the woman with the long chestnut hair, turned around. "She" was a "he." His square jaw and faint five o'clock shadow definitely were not feminine. And "she" was a very young "he" considering he'd earned a doctorate.
"Dr. Sandburg," Simon greeted the man, stepping forward to offer his hand.
"Simon. Man, I really appreciate you taking care of this personally. There's a whole lot of suspicion around here, you know?"
"I understand that, Dr. Sandburg."
"Just Blair. I'm not here as a professor. I'm here as a member of the community."
The man didn't look like he was a member of the community. He was wearing a plaid shirt over a white undershirt, and a beaded necklace with what looked like animal teeth hung down between the open labels. In addition to the talisman in his hair, he had one silver earring with a triticale pattern that screamed hippy. And the guy was white. With his blue eyes and fair skin, he looked as white as Jim, and that stood out in this tenement. Normally if Jim saw a white person in the middle of this much color, he would be looking at a pretty uncomfortable man. Hell, the patrol officers downstairs looked uncomfortable, and they had their fellow brothers-in-blue to look to for support. This kid, however, looked perfectly at home. One of his hands was still resting on the mother's shoulder, and his knee was touching her leg. One of the children, a little girl with either dirt or chocolate streaked across her cheek, slipped forward and grabbed onto Dr. Sandburg's other leg.
"Blair, I appreciate you getting them to call us. I know they don't have a lot of reason to trust."
"No problem. I know they're nervous, because where they come from, police are rarely, if ever, out to help anyone, but I keep telling them that the police here are more like the tribal warriors of mythology. You know, the defenders of justice and children. I really hope you're the defenders of children, because man, this is starting to freak me out. Seven kids. No way have seven kids just wandered away. And the families have searched every room in the tenement and half the neighborhood looking for any sign of them or whoever took them."
"Cihuateteo," the woman muttered. Jim frowned as that word teased at some memory that he couldn't quite catch hold of. Blair comforted her with a pat on the shoulder.
"Blair, this is Jim Ellison, one of the detectives from Major Crime. He'll be handling this case."
Jim nodded to the man, but the look he got in return was more than a little hostile.
"Hopefully he'll do more than the Homicide detective who investigated that murder last month."
"I do my best for every case," Jim defended himself. He was already starting to understand why Simon had warned him to be nice, because sixty seconds into meeting Dr. Sandburg, he wanted to slam him up against a wall and teach him a few manners. From the look on Sandburg's face, he was just as ready to start an argument, but Jim cut him off before the conversation could get out of control. "Right now, I need to question the parents. A translator is coming up, and I need a little privacy."
"No way," Sandburg immediately cut him off.
"Dr. Sandburg," Simon stepped in, "I admire your commitment to these people, but we need to consider how to protect any prosecutions once we find who did this. If you're involved in the questioning, any defense attorney would use that to call the witness statements into question."
Sandburg's body stiffened with anger, and Jim figured he was about to explode, but Simon held up a hand to stop him. "I do not think you'd influence the witnesses; I just know a defense lawyer would make it look suspicious. I also know you don't want to do anything to make our job harder."
"Curandero?" The woman on the couch asked, her dark eyes red and swollen. She was Hispanic, which matched her use of the word curandero. Before his disastrous mission in Peru, his unit had been stationed out of Eloy Alfaro airbase and Jim had heard locals use the word for the local witchdoctor. Jim had just never heard of a college professor playing witch doctor before.
Dr. Sandburg knelt down in front of her. "You have to talk—hablar—to the police. They're guerreros and ayudantes." Sandburg was massacring Spanish, but the crying mother still looked at him with hope. With a crucifix dangling from her hand, she clutched at his arm. "Just talk, okay?" Sandburg asked. The woman nodded, and the child who had earlier been holding onto Sandburg's leg now climbed onto the couch and put her head on her mother's arm.
Sandburg gave her a smile before he stood up and turned around. "Show her some respect," Sandburg said as he passed Jim. The moment of admiration Jim had felt at the evidence of Sandburg's compassion pretty much evaporated.
"Play nice, Ellison," Simon warned quietly. Jim didn't have time to answer before the translator walked into the apartment.
For several hours, Jim went from apartment to apartment interviewing the families. Three families were Hispanic: two Columbian and one Nicaraguan. One family was Haitian. Two families were from Burundi, and one was from Iran. Five families were Christian, one Muslim, and one practiced a native goddess worship. Five missing children were girls, two were boys. They ranged in age from six to eleven. In short, the suspect's preferred victim was all over the map. Jim walked out of the last interview feeling even less confident than he had when he first got the call—and no cop felt confident on a missing child call, especially one more than a week old. Outside, all but one of the patrol cars had vanished. The last car's lights flashed in the dark. Light shone out of hundreds of windows, but with no working streetlights, the sidewalk was still dark.
Jim stopped. Sitting on the front steps of the tenement, Dr. Sandburg was looking up at him. Usually it was the victims or their families who had that expression—half hopeful and half angry.
"I can't discuss the details of an active case." Jim stepped around the man and headed down the front stairs. A small group of teens watched him with undisguised suspicion, and Jim was just glad the last patrol officer had decided to sit on the street with Sandburg still out here.
"Oh no. No way are you walking away, not without telling me something." Blair got up and chased Jim.
Jim stopped and sighed. He had to give the guy credit for persistence. "Blair, this is an active case—"
"Which you are never going to solve without a little help. I know these people. I know this neighborhood." Blair crossed his arms, and Jim had to fight an urge to smile at the size of the kid's balls. Usually people backed down when Jim glared at them.
"You can't get involved in an investigation."
"Oh man, watch me. These are my people. No way am I going to let some cop brush this under the carpet."
Up until this point, Jim had been willing to cut the doctor a little slack, but his temper flared at that accusation. He poked Blair in the chest with a finger. "Look you arrogant little hippy, I'm here to help these people, and I don't need your attitude."
"Right. Like you care."
"I care about every case I get."
"Until a case with a whiter victim crosses your desk." Sandburg closed the distance so that they stood chest to chest, and Jim clenched his hands in an attempt to not grab the little shit and slam him into a wall.
"Don't go there, Sandburg. You don't know shit about me."
"I know cops," Sandburg shot right back, not backing off one little bit. "We had a murder two buildings down, and they barely even asked around."
Jim took a deep breath. A little part of him knew that Sandburg probably had a legitimate complaint because there were cops who didn't like working these neighborhoods. Hell, Jim could name a dozen detectives who wouldn't knock on doors around here without a uniformed unit on the street and a partner at their side. He just hated being painted with that same brush. "Look, Sandburg, I'm not going to defend the department because I have no idea who's been down here, but when I'm given a case, I work it until I find something or until I am one hundred percent sure there's nothing to find. So, maybe you should just step back."
Blair did step back, but he didn't look the least bit placated. "Yeah. Right. Man, even if you mean that, there's no way that Simon can keep the other cases off your desk long enough for you to work this one."
"Then I'll work this case on my days off."
"Right." Blair's voice was soaked in sarcasm.
"Yeah, that is right, smart ass. I have an ex-wife who would be happy to testify about just how much personal time I put into my cases. I can give you her number and you two can annoy the crap out of each other."
For a second, Blair stared at him like he was searching for answers in Jim's expression. "I thought Simon was going to tell you to play nice." The aggression largely vanished, leaving a trace of humor in Blair's voice.
"This is me playing nice. You should see me when I'm being a bastard." Jim said with a sadistic grin. While he got along well with the other officers in Major Crime, Jim knew he had a reputation as a bastard with people he didn't respect. While he'd originally thought this overeducated geek with his hippy clothes and mouth would fall into that category, the kid was starting to impress him. It took guts and conviction to stand up to him, and it took either guts or stupidity to wander this neighborhood alone and unarmed after dark. "I appreciate you getting people to talk to us—"
"I can get you more," Sandburg hurried to say. "Man, there's more going on here than you know. Josef, Bobby, Carlos, come here a second," Blair called to the teenage boys who'd been leaning against the building trying to look uninterested.
Jim narrowed his eyes and reconsidered his earlier judgment of Sandburg. It wasn't unheard of for a criminal to try and ingratiate himself with the police, and this guy's behavior was starting to set off a few bells. Normal people were just not this involved in investigations that didn't involve family... not unless they were desperate for information.
"Curandero?" the tallest of the three answered Sandburg and took a single step closer. He eyed Jim while Jim tried to look non-threatening.
"Tell the detective what you saw last week," Sandburg said. Immediately, Jim could see the panic in the boy's face. Whatever he'd seen, he definitely did not want to tell the cops.
"If you're worried—" Jim started to say.
"I ain't worried 'bout nothin'," the boy snapped. "And it ain't like I was exactly sober when I seen it, curandero. You shouldn't be listening to what I got to say." The boy started backing up toward his two friends.
"Bobby, I believe you." Sandburg took a step forward, and Jim reached out to hold the man back. Cornering street kids was never wise. Sandburg, however, just glared and shook Jim's hand off.
"Back off," he said, just about as snappy as the kid. "Bobby, just trust me. You need to tell him."
Bobby looked Jim over. "No way. I trust you, doc. I trust you with my life, but I ain't trusting a cop, not one that looks at us like that." With that, Bobby turned around and started trotting up the street. For a second, Jim considered chasing him down and taking him down to the station where he had more motivation to talk, but that would alienate every other potential witness in the area, and he wasn't that desperate yet, especially not with Dr. Sandburg and his odd ways standing right in front of Jim.
"If you weren't such a Neanderthal, he would have talked," Sandburg complained.
"Sure, Chief," Jim agreed without believing it. "I'll escort you back to your car, and we can talk about this in the morning."
"I didn't drive," Sandburg said with a shrug. Jim's mouth would have fallen open if he didn't have his poker face on in the presence of a potential suspect.
Sandburg looked over and rolled his eyes. "Oh man, I'm an anthropologist. I've studied cultures in the middle of getting blasted to pieces by civil war. I was trained as a shaman in a part of the world where failing your shamanic rites led to a very brutal death on a very long spear. Do not give me that look. Besides, this neighborhood is home."
"Home as in... you live here?!" Jim couldn't keep the horror out of his voice.
"I have an apartment in the next block," Blair agreed. "Look we need to talk, so do you want to come over for some tea?"
"Tea?" Jim was quickly starting to feel like Alice down the rabbit hole.
"No way can we leave your truck here, not unless you want to be picking up parts from every chop shop in town. I know a couple of kids on my block that will keep an eye on it for you. You can give me ride over and I'll bribe them into truck sitting." Sandburg gave Jim's arm a slap—like they were friends—before he bounced over to the passenger side of Jim's truck.
"I should shake you down for drugs," Jim muttered to himself as he headed for the driver's side. The patrol officer started his car, and when Jim didn't signal, he pulled out into traffic. So, Jim was alone with the professor, and he was clearly in the professor's territory. Hopefully he could get a lead or two out of the guy before he realized he'd been promoted to suspect numero uno.
The next block over, Blair waved Jim toward the curb in front of a tenement that looked about as bad as one Jim had just left.
"Hey, curandero," a young man called when Sandburg got out of the truck. It didn't take Jim even one second to mark this one as a serious gang member. His knuckles were scarred and the teardrop tattoos on his face left little doubt about his willingness to kill.
"Ndeko," Blair called without a trace of caution. "Any chance you can keep Jim's truck in one piece because I so do not want him as a house guest until my car shows up again."
"Until your car shows up?" Jim asked.
Blair shrugged. "People know I have to teach class on Tuesday morning, so it'll show up by then."
For a second, Jim couldn't even find words. The gangster actually laughed. "Brother, welcome to the Sandburg zone. If you're here to see the doc, I'll make sure no one jacks your truck."
"Thanks, Ndeko. Any word on any more... you know..." Sandburg waved his hands to indicate something that Jim couldn't interpret.
"We got nothing, doc. I have everyone keeping an eye out, but that pendejo over on sixth is the only thing on the radar." Jim casually reached under his coat and unsnapped the guard on his weapon in case he needed to reach for it fast.
"Something I should know about, Sandburg?" Jim asked carefully.
"The guy on sixth? He's a pedophile, but so far, he seems to be sticking to his apartment."
"And if he doesn't, I'll cut his fucking balls off and make him eat them," Ndeko quickly added.
Blair reached out and actually aimed a punch for Ndeko's arm. Jim had to curb an urge to reach out and pull Blair to safety. "Have I introduced Detective Ellison?"
Ndeko's easy smile vanished. "Detective?" Ndeko shifted, and Jim could immediately spot where the man had a weapon from the way he made sure he had a clear shot at his right hip.
"Dump the testosterone," Blair said right before he stepped right into the line of fire. Jim would have shoved Blair right out of the way, only he suspected that would start a shootout right here. "Ndeko, Jim busted his ass trying to find some lead on those missing kids, and Jim, Ndeko is the only form of protection people down here have, and he's been busting his ass trying to find the kids. So both of you can just knock it off."
"You want me to trust a pig?" Ndeko demanded.
"That's ironic," Jim answered. "Sandburg, I'll see you down at the station tomorrow. I want a formal statement from you, so try to get there by nine."
"Forget it," Sandburg said as he stepped between Jim and the truck. This situation was clearly getting out of control, and Jim ran a dozen scenarios in his head, most of them didn't end well for him. Sandburg was becoming more and more of an unknown, Ndeko was a clear threat, and Jim had no idea who waited in the building.
"Look," Sandburg said in a calmer tone. "Ndeko knows what I think of his drugs, but people who choose the coward's way out of this life... man, that is on them. And Ndeko isn't some stereotype of a gangster out killing and raping and getting stoned. And Ndeko, I know the cops have screwed us more than once. You know I filed formal complaints against that asshole from Homicide, but Jim has been working his ass off going door to door. So, if you two want those kids found, you can just play nice."
Jim was shocked when Ndeko's body language actually relaxed. "You're sure he's okay?" Ndeko asked.
"Hell no," Sandburg quickly answered, and Jim spared a second to glare at him. "But he's done enough right to earn a little trust."
That seemed good enough. Ndeko nodded. "I'll keep an eye on the truck."
Sandburg gave him a huge smile. "I owe you one."
"I owe you more than one, shaman," Ndeko quickly answered.
"Hey, that's part of the whole shaman gig. I owe the universe, so just consider those favors passed on to the great hereafter." Sandburg caught Jim by the arm and urged him toward the building. Jim hated leaving his retreat vulnerable to enemy attack, but he didn't fight as Blair hurried him into the building. Like the other tenement, someone had gone out of their way to keep the place clean. The paint was peeling and dirty, but the lack of water stains suggested that the building was structurally more sound that the one where the children had disappeared.
"So, do you know all the drug dealers around here?" Jim asked. He got one more shock as Blair opened an apartment door without using a key. At this point, Jim was about ready to call the people in the white coats to come and have Blair committed as completely insane.
"Most of them, yep. Even drug dealers need spiritual guidance, you know? I try to convince them to keep it off the street and away from the younger kids, but people make their own choices." Blair stepped into an apartment painted in vivid reds and yellows with black tribal symbols painted like some sort of bizarre chair rail. A number of colorful pillows lay all over the floor, and a shelf had a dozen candles. The only real furniture was an enormous bookcase starting to sag under the weight of hundreds of books.
"You want something to eat? You worked right through dinner." Blair headed for the kitchen while Jim looked around the apartment. Obviously the kid didn't have anything worth much, but in neighborhoods like this, people would break in for a pair of shoes, so Jim was surprised Sandburg had even a single candle left.
"What do you have?" Jim asked.
"I have no idea."
Jim took a step back so he could see Blair through the arch that led to a tiny kitchen. Blair had his head in the refrigerator. When he stood up, he had a casserole dish in his hands. "Mămăligă with sour cream and cheese. I'll be eating salads for a week trying to clean the arteries out, but it'll be worth it. This stuff is great. Mrs. Haidaul must have been down here." Blair put the dish on the counter and took two forks out of a drawer before bringing them all into the living room and dropping down onto the pillows. He held one fork up in a clear offer to let Jim join him.
"Do you normally eat food that's mysteriously appeared in your refrigerator?" Jim asked.
Blair shrugged. "I leave groceries I don't need in my kitchen. People take what they need and share their food in return."
"How many people do you buy groceries for?" Jim asked.
He got another shrug in return. "Man, let's just put our cards on the table." Sandburg put the dish down on the floor. "I went overseas to study tribal cultures, and I got sucked into shamanism by a mystic in a part of the world where the Soviets had supposedly killed the last of the shamans. He survived because he had..." Blair stopped and blinked. "I can't even describe the powers he had. I was a rationalist, a real doubter in the mystical until I met him. But I spent four years not only writing a dissertation on the not-so-dead art of shamanism in Eastern Europe, but also learning a way of life I can't even describe in words that make sense."
"Your mother must be proud," Jim said dryly.
"Over the moon with joy," Blair agreed without any sarcasm. "But a shaman lives on the good will of the tribe, and the tribe thrives on the good will of the shaman. You can't cut that tie or both are completely doomed. So, I have no idea how many people take food from me, but as long as I have enough food to eat, it so doesn't matter."
"What does this have to do with my case?" Jim demanded. He'd gone from wanting to get Sandburg alone to question him to wanting to just get out of here.
"People tell me things. They tell me things they'd never tell anyone else because they know that I'm here for them—that I'm part of them."
"And what have they told you?" Jim asked. He crossed his arms and hoped for an answer that made sense because he was quickly beginning to think that he had no frame of reference for dealing with Dr. Blair Sandburg.
"Whatever is taking the kids... it's moving inhumanly fast."
"Inhuman." Jim repeated the word slowly, hoping that Sandburg would correct him because he had heard wrong.
Instead Blair pulled the tie out of his hair and nodded so that long curls bobbed in time with his nodding head. "Totally. I thought this might have something to do with Washington on sixth or the murder two tenements over, so I'd asked everyone to keep an eye out."
"Everyone being the local drug dealers." Jim was just checking facts, but Sandburg gave him a withering look.
"The local drug dealers and mothers and school kids and the elderly who watch the world out their windows. The elderly and children see a lot more than we do."
That much Jim already knew. Of course, none of the elderly would speak to him when he'd knocked on their doors today, but several had stared at him with wide, frightened eyes that suggested they knew something. "Go on."
"That boy on the street tonight—"
"Before that. Man, you are annoying to try and tell a story to."
Jim pressed his lips together and waited for the kid to actually tell a story instead of rambling on about things that didn't make any sense.
"Bobby saw that last little girl, Lupita Juarez, go into an alley with this expression on her face like she'd seen the prettiest doll in the world. He went running after her, but by the time he got to the alley, Lupita was already gone."
"So the suspect had a car. Which alley was it?" Jim felt his guts tighten in anticipation. This was a clue. This wasn't a good clue, but it was something to work with. Someone had a window facing the alley, and now that he knew who to press for information, he'd get someone to talk.
"No. You aren't getting it. The alley was a dead end. There was a three story brick wall, and Bobby could see the open end, and Lupita didn't go out it."
Jim frowned. "Someone must have taken her into an apartment."
"No way." Blair was shaking his head. "Bobby got a bunch of the guys, and they searched every apartment. Within ten minutes of Lupita disappearing, you had two dozen people in each of those buildings."
"They couldn't have gotten into every apartment." Jim started mentally organizing the following day. He needed lists of tenants and criminal backgrounds on all of them.
"Man, they got into every apartment. The only holdout was a guy in Lupita's tenement, and Ndeko's friends convinced him that he'd better open up if he didn't want to get burned out. The only thing they found was three or four dozen cats."
Jim looked down at Sandburg trying to decide if the man was naïve or stupid or just truly insane. "You trust drug dealers?"
"With money, no way. If my car was worth anything, Ndeko would be totally tempted. Hell, if you leave your truck out there for too long, he'll be tempted. I don't think he'll actually do anything, especially since you're trying to find the kidnapper, but he'll be tempted. But do I trust him to want to find this asshole who's taking kids? Absolutely. Man, I trust him on this, and he knows it."
Jim rubbed his hand over his face and tried to decide just how to handle this. His impression of Sandburg was quickly moving from suspect to potential victim walking around with his head up his spiritual ass.
"There's more," Sandburg said quietly.
Jim waited, but Sandburg was just staring off into space.
"I'm getting a crick in my neck looking up at you."
"Then stand up," Jim replied dryly. That earned him another dirty look. With a much put-upon sigh, Jim sat on the pillows near Blair. "What else do you know?"
Blair swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing nervously. "You're going to think I'm nuts."
"You're a little late on that front, Chief."
This time, the look Sandburg gave him was more weary than disgusted. "The spiritual plane is in total chaos. Total. I mean, I haven't seen anything like this since I went to Burundi to try and talk the government into giving political asylum to a shaman I knew."
Jim frowned. "You think there's a genocide going on?"
"No." Blair looked up at the ceiling in obvious distress, and Jim was bothered by how much he responded to that emotional pain. While he was good with victims, with showing them respect and concern, their pain was something he normally held distant from his heart. After seeing so much death, including the death of his entire Army unit, he'd learned to not allow another's pain to creep in too close. Blair whispered his next words. "There are spiritual forces gathering."
"Do you want me to arrest them?"
"Are you always this much of a smart ass?"
"Chief, right now, I can either be a smartass or I can call for a bus to come and haul you over to the state hospital for a 48 hour psych hold."
Blair leaned back on his elbows. "I am not a danger to myself or others."
"You leave the door unlocked in this neighborhood. I think I'd have a fifty-fifty chance of convincing a judge you're suicidal."
"Man, look, you have this totally closed mind, but this is important. You have to open your mind a bit."
Jim stood back up. "No offense, Chief, but your mind is so open your brains are in danger of falling out. I appreciate the tip about the alley, but I think I'll keep looking for a human suspect. I'll leave any inhuman culprits for you."
Blair scrambled to his feet, kicking his fork in the process so that it clattered across the floor. "If I could do that, I would. I don't write the rules here, because if I did, I wouldn't need you. But you have to be the one to catch this guy."
"Why?" Jim asked.
"I don't know." Blair shouted the words and turned his back on Jim.
"Blair?" the door opened and a black woman with a lilting accent and her hair in tight braids stuck her head in. "Do you need help?" From the look she was giving Jim, she was ready to try and skewer him herself.
Turning around, Blair gave her a sheepish look that made him look like a five-year-old caught with his hand in a cookie jar. "No. I just kinda... you know... lost my cool."
"Is this something worth losing your cool over?" she asked, pushing the door open farther. She wasn't a small woman, and now she really was glaring at Jim.
"Maybe. Probably. But Jim is just one more schmuck stuck in it with me, so I shouldn't be yelling at him. And you shouldn't be glaring at him." Blair hurried over and took her by the arms and firmly pushed her back out into the hall. "And I promise I'm fine. Or I'm as fine as I usually am, anyway. Jim thinks I need to be committed to the nuthouse, but..." Blair shrugged.
The woman smiled at Blair with undisguised fondness. "Some days I think I might agree."
"Yeah, yeah. You can testify at my commitment hearing," Blair promised her. Then he turned to face Jim. "Look, I know you don't like this mystical stuff."
"I never said that," Jim interrupted.
"Oh, trust me, you said it without saying it." Blair rolled his eyes. "But just... go home and think about it. You know, there's more in heaven and hell than is dreamt of in your philosophy. Because I'm telling you, if we want to stop what's going on, I need you."
"Blair." Jim took a step forward. It occurred to him that Blair might be truly in need of help. That could be why he was subconsciously creating some mystical need—to cover his very mundane need for psychotherapeutic drugs.
"Hey, just consider it. Think about shamans and jungles and spirits, okay? And if you need me, call."
"Do you have a phone that hasn't been stolen?" Jim asked, thinking of the kid's car.
"Har, har. You're just a bundle of laughs." Blair pulled a business card out of a pocket. "I always have my cellphone, so if you need to talk to me... or growl at me, just give a holler."
Jim sighed as he took the card. He had the feeling Sandburg needed a whole lot of help; he just wasn't sure what to do about it. The card had "B.J. Sandburg, PhD" printed in gold letters along with two phone numbers and an address on the Rainier campus. "I'll call if I need you," Jim agreed, holding the card up for a second before he pulled out his billfold and tucked it away. It was getting late, and it was definitely time for a tactical retreat before his truck ended up in pieces.
Blair didn't answer; he just vanished into a back room without another word.
"You're the policeman?" the woman asked, and her gaze wasn't any friendlier now than before.
"Detective Jim Ellison," he introduced himself.
"I don't care if you're the President. You hurt the Shaman, and there won't be a place in this city you can hide."
Jim stopped and studied the woman. "That's threatening a police officer."
"No, that's protecting the village shaman. I'm just giving you a friendly warning." With that, she turned around and headed for the stairs that led deeper into the tenement.
After taking one more look around at the small apartment, Jim left. No matter what else was going on, he had a kidnapper to catch, and hopefully there would be at least one child left for him to save.
"Any leads?" Simon asked. He stood next to Jim's desk and looked at the papers spread out over Jim's desk.
"None that make sense," Jim said wryly.
"I had hoped Sandburg could get them to talk." Simon didn't sound happy, but after three days, the chances of finding any children still alive... well, the odds weren't good. Even the two FBI agents were spinning their wheels and re-interviewing the same people over and over. Somehow, their incompetence didn't make Jim feel any better about his own failure to find any leads.
"Some talked, but it doesn't make any sense," Jim said. He shuffled through his witness statements and pulled one out. "This man saw a woman following one of the early victims."
"An accomplice?" Simon guessed.
"Any description of her?"
"Oh, this is where it gets good," Jim said. "She's about five foot, dark hair, nine months pregnant and missing the middle finger on one of her hands."
Simon's eyebrows went up. "Do we have a bulletin out to the local hospitals?"
Jim scrubbed his hand over his face. "Yes, but I don't think the hospital is going to find a pregnant woman with nine fingers who can disappear into thin air."
"Disappear... excuse me. Would you like to repeat that?"
"No, I really wouldn't," Jim said, pushing himself back in his chair. "But that's what the witness claims. He said that the woman just appeared in the middle of sixth and Lincoln and that she walked around following the girl for a while before stepping into the middle of the street and vanishing when a yellow cab drove through her. And then I have a dozen different complaints about a pedophile, but I can't find any evidence he's stepped outside his apartment and I have seven sets of parents who have to check with Sandburg every time someone asks them a question. This is...." Jim threw his hands up in disgust. He didn't even have words to describe this whole damn case. And while he normally hated getting shown up by the feds, he'd love the FBI's dynamic duo to show up with seven kids in tow. But they were even more confused than he was. They couldn't even get the locals to describe crazy disappearing women, so they were trying to profile their suspect on second, third and fourth hand reports.
Simon sat down in the chair across from Jim. "What's Sandburg's take?"
"Sandburg." Jim gave a dark laugh because he couldn't think what else to do. Dr. Sandburg defied any description, and Jim truly did not want to talk about him. "I don't know how the kid has avoided a sudden case of death. He doesn't even lock his door, and he lives in the middle of all that crime down in Southside."
"Have you talked to him?"
"Yeah, he just didn't say much that made any sense. Simon, he's off on some spiritual trip that makes me want to toss his apartment for drugs, only there isn't anywhere for him to hide them. He lives like a monk." Jim stopped and reconsidered that. "I either want to toss the place for drugs or set up a stakeout in the hallway to defend his damn unlocked door."
Simon chuckled. "He's gotten under your skin."
"This whole case has gotten under my skin." Jim shoved several files back into one untidy pile.
"Well, don't worry too much about Sandburg. The doc is tougher than he looks."
Jim didn't even bother answering that. He didn't care how tough Sandburg was, that neighborhood was a war zone. Immigrants from opposite sides of civil wars and different religions were all shoved into one very small area, and there weren't enough jobs or enough social services to go around. It was a powder keg.
"Back when I was in Narcotics," Simon started, "there was a real piece of work running that neighborhood, a scarred up con named Domingo Flores: The Flower Man. He used to drop flowers on his kills, and there were a lot of them. He laced his maryjane with coke to get users hooked on the hard stuff, dealt in the schools, ran tabs for people and then turned them out as hookers or dealers when they couldn't make the payments. He was the sort of slime that slime doesn't like to associate with." Simon slowly shook his head, obviously bothered by even the memory of the perp.
"You bust him?" Jim asked. It wasn't often that Simon was in a mood to reminisce about old cases, and at this point, Jim welcomed any distractions from his own failures on the kidnapping case.
"Never got a chance. I got promoted up here to try and organize you ladies."
"I was still over in Vice. Brown must be the lady you needed to organize." Jim smiled when Brown flipped him off without even pausing in his phone conversation.
"That's going to cost you, detective," Simon said with a laugh. "He's getting the beer next poker night."
"Crap. I guess we'd better have a backup for the cheap shit he's sure to bring."
Simon smiled, but when his gaze landed on the papers strewn across Jim's desk, that expression faded. "Anyway, back to Flores. I got a call from my old partner about a month into my job here. He said he had a line on finally nailing the bastard, but he needed to get an assault victim to talk. The kid was in the hospital, and no one was quite sure why he wasn't dead. He had a dozen broken bones, and the doctors weren't sure how his heart was managing to keep beating, but the kid beat every prediction and woke up. This was the big break we'd always needed. My partner wanted to give me a chance to talk to the kid, to impress on him the danger he was in because he wasn't listening to anyone over in Narcotics."
"Don't tell me—the kid was Sandburg."
"Straight off the plane from Bulgaria or Romania or whatever corner of the world he'd been running around in. He'd taken a job at the university teaching anthropology, and I really thought he was some hippy academic who'd been scared into keeping silent." Simon smiled at the memory. "He kept talking to me about life paths and I kept trying to get him to take witness protection."
Jim snorted. He would have paid good money to see Simon and Sandburg go at it because talking to the kid was enough to make a sane man wish he was insane. "I've had conversations with him. That must have been frustrating."
"You just wish you'd been there to see it."
"Hell, yes," Jim agreed. "But what happened with Flores?"
"Here's the strange part." Simon grimaced, and Jim leaned forward, instinctively feeling a need to close ranks although he didn't even know what Simon planned to tell him. God knows if Ndeko turned into a real threat against Sandburg's life, Jim would be tempted to put a few of his Army skills to use. Simon shook his head and scratched his cheek and then leaned in, his voice little more than a whisper. "The doc was barely out of the hospital, and Flores dropped dead of a heart attack in the middle of a movie theater."
Jim rolled those facts over in his head. "You don't think Sandburg—"
"I don't know what to think, Jim. Did he poison the guy with some exotic, native herb? Did he ask someone to kill him? Did someone in the neighborhood finally stand up to Flores in order to protect the doc? I don't have a clue, and neither does anyone else in that neighborhood."
"What did Dan find?" Jim asked. If there was poison, Dan Wolf was the best forensic coroner outside of Vegas.
"You mean the coroner who goes home for spirit sings every year and keeps sage to smudge the evil spirits?" Simon asked, his gaze steady. Jim nearly felt the drop in his stomach like a physical sensation, like when he was still in the Army and jumping out of planes. Simon was suggestion corruption in the department, which wouldn't shock Jim in general, but it floored him to think Dan would ever be involved in it.
"You can't think he'd cover for Sandburg."
"No, I don't think he would," Simon immediately answered. "But I think his judgments are colored by the fact that he knows Sandburg is a shaman. I also think Dan has autopsied hundreds of victims we can trace back to Flores, everything from hookers beaten to death to junkies who ODed to flat-out executions. If he didn't find something because he didn't want to find something," Simon shrugged, "I won't fault him. But I can tell you that two of Flores' top lieutenants managed to die within a month, both clear accidents. One was hit by a city bus that lost its brakes; the other fell on some ice and hit his head on his steps within sight of six witnesses."
"Fuck." Jim sat back. The Blair he knew couldn't have pulled that off, but he thought about that woman who had threatened him. He could see the neighborhood rallying around the kid to protect him. He could see that far more easily than he was comfortable seeing it, because that meant people had died for Sandburg.
"Most of the big names pulled out of Southside. The small time dealers who were happy with smaller profits and smaller client bases moved in."
"People like Ndeko," Jim said softly.
Simon questioned him with a look.
"Blair asked the local drug dealer to keep an eye on my truck and make sure all the hubcaps were still attached when I got back."
With wry smile, Simon just shook his head. "That sounds like the kid. Go back and talk to Sandburg, Jim. And no matter what he looks like, remember that he knows more than he'll tell. The people down there confess to him, he's their witch doctor and priest all wrapped up in one. He may not be able to tell you exactly what they've said because it's privileged communication, but he'll do the right thing if you give him a chance."
Jim leaned back and considered the captain. "And if every time I talk to him, he goes on about spiritual conflicts and supernatural suspects?"
"Then go chase some ghosts. Sandburg has something up his sleeve, and you need to follow the only lead we have," Simon advised him. With that, Simon got up and headed back to his own office, leaving Jim wondering when his life had gotten so damn strange.
"Have fun with those ghosts of yours," Brown called with a wide grin as Jim packed up his case files. Jim flipped his friend off before he headed out the door. Sandburg would be teaching at the university, so that's where Jim was headed.
The irony of Blair locking his car at Rainier made Jim smile as he got out of his truck and headed over. "So, you do know how to use a lock," Jim commented as he closed the distance between them.
Blair flashed a wide smile at him. "Oh man, do you have any idea how many cars get stolen out of this place?" Blair asked. "Way too many people rely on good old Vpregaten for me to risk her getting stolen by some kid out for a joyride." He patted the car on the roof as he called it by name.
"Trust me, no one is going to want to joyride in this thing," Jim pointed out. Blair tossed his backpack into the car and then leaned against it.
"So, did you have some reason for being here or are you just looking for a chance to insult my baby?"
Jim cringed as he realized he had gotten off on the wrong foot again. He was usually better at working with witnesses, and normally he kept his sarcasm under lock and key unless he was talking to a friend. "I need some help on this case."
Pain flashed across Blair's face. "Oh man, I really want to help. You know that. I just... I can't give you the nice simple answers you want."
Jim sighed. "I need to find these kids, Dr. Sandburg. If it takes a more complicated answer, I've got the time to listen."
Blair sighed and studied him. Jim found himself studying Dr. Sandburg in return. The jeans and worn tennis shoes were the same as he'd worn down on Southside, but the tweed blazer was new. His earring had vanished, but the animal tooth necklace still hung from a leather cord. Over the years, Jim had stared across interview tables and interviewed hundreds of witness and suspects, and there wasn't a one who shared any traits with Dr. Sandburg. The only person with remotely similar mannerisms was a man Jim had known in Peru... one of the tribesman who Jim had only vague and shifting memories of.
"Look, why don't you follow me back to my apartment, and we can try and have this talk again," Blair offered. Jim wasn't looking forward to another discussion of mystical ghosts, so he seriously hoped Simon had been the kid knowing more than he let on.
"Not a chance, Junior. Unlike you, I trust a well-lit parking lot over the street in front of your place. I'll ride with you and call for a pickup from a black and white when we're done," Jim said firmly. Blair stared at him for several seconds, a smile slowly twisting his lips.
"Man, you have issues. And you do know that the black and whites are yellow and blue, right? I mean, words have meaning. But you're so caught up on the old words that your mind is full of old meanings. And sometimes old meanings... they are not the healthiest things in the world, you know?" Blair looked at Jim with this expectant hope and crooked smile.
"Not a clue, Chief. I usually don't understand much of what you say."
"Issues," Blair said softly, but he got in the car and reached over to unlock the passenger side. Jim chose to ignore the insult as he tried to get in without jamming his knees into the glovebox.
"Sandburg, why do you have a babyseat in your car?"
"No idea," Blair said cheerfully. "I figure one of the mothers has started using Vpregaten, but if I tried to monitor the car, that would so defeat the point of having communal property, you know?"
"And again, not a clue." Jim held his tongue when Blair started the car with the whine of belts and a rough cough of the engine before they pulled out into the river of students rushing to get home.
Sandburg's apartment was just as strange as Jim remembered it, only this time, two eight or nine year old kids were sitting in the middle of the room playing checkers with an intense concentration that suggested they had either bet something or had one hell of a dare riding on the outcome.
"Hey, you two," Blair greeted them, stepping over the boy closest to the kitchen before he started searching his own refrigerator.
"Are you a friend of Blair's?" the boy in the red-striped shirt asked. The kid had to be eight or nine, but he turned from his stomach to his side so he could glare at Jim just as coldly as any perp Jim had ever faced. It made Jim sad to think what the child must have gone through to become so suspicious.
Not knowing how to answer the child, Jim looked over at Blair. However, he still had his head in the refrigerator. "I think it's a little too soon to say we're friends, but I admire what Dr. Sandburg has done here," he answered since he couldn't honestly call himself Blair's friend. The boy tilted his head and looked over at his friend before coming to some decision.
"You're a cop," he accused Jim in a voice that made his contempt pretty clear.
"Yes, I am. I'm trying to find the missing children," Jim agreed with an even tone. Kids only knew what adults taught them.
"Are you one of those cops who likes to hit people?" the second boy asked. Jim was so shocked that he didn't have an immediate answer.
"You two are picking up serious karma," Blair said as he came to Jim's rescue. "It's not nice to accuse people of liking to hit people when you don't know them."
"Well, is he?" the second boy demanded, not apologetic at all.
"No," Blair answered. "Jim only hits people who really deserve it. And then he only hits them if he needs to stop them from doing something wrong."
"Excuse me?" Jim demanded, but everyone in the room pretty much ignored him.
"Like a father?" the first boy asked Blair as he looked at Jim suspiciously.
"No," Jim answered for himself before Blair could get him in any deeper. Already he was glad he hadn't brought his truck because these two probably would have keyed it. "I'm not like a father. It's my job to make sure that when bad things do happen, I try to fix them or find the bad people so they can be punished, but I don't hit people." Jim gave Blair a nasty look.
"Not even if they hit your first or they're trying to get past you to hit someone else?" The boy was a persistent little brat.
Jim could feel his jaw ache from clenching it, and he put effort into relaxing it before he cracked a tooth. "I would try to stop them without hitting them."
"And if they were stronger and kept hitting you? Would you just let them hit you?"
Some days he was truly glad his short-lived marriage to Caro hadn't resulted in any children. "I would only hit someone if I really had to, but I try not to hit people." Jim tried to keep his voice calm.
"Have you ever killed anyone?" the boy immediately asked in a tone that had not a bit of childishness to it. Jim could feel his guts turn to stone as he stared at the child. For a second, the room was silent—even the boys had gone totally still and silent.
"Oh man, that was way over the line, Pedro. If he hasn't killed anyone, he's going to be offended that you asked, and if he has been forced to kill someone, that is so not a memory to trot out for a stranger. Killing is..." Blair stopped. He left the dish he'd found on the counter and came over to crouch down in front of the boy. "Killing is something really, really hard that most of the tribe never, ever does. It's final. It's like saying a person has messed up so bad they don't deserve a second chance. Only all of us have messed up, so telling someone else that their mess-ups are too bad to be forgiven... that is really hard. And when too many members of a tribe have killed, it's like this sickness. Everyone starts killing everyone else. Like in your village back home. But when there are only a few people who have had to kill to protect the tribe, that makes them different. It means that they stand out. They're guardians of the tribe. They just don't fit into the tribe as well."
Jim studied Blair. Not only was he bothered by the fact that Blair was having this conversation with an eight-year-old, but Blair seemed entirely too familiar with the guilt that went along with having taken a life. It made Jim wonder if the man wouldn't kill to protect this odd tribe he'd formed in the middle of hell of Southside. Simon's story took on a more ominous tone as Jim listened to Blair's speech.
The two boys must have heard something Blair said, though. "Sorry, Blair. Sorry, Jim," the boy said in a voice that suddenly sounded like a child. "It was nice to meet you."
The other boy gathered up their game and clutched it to his chest. "Yeah, nice to meet you," he repeated and then the boys headed for the hallway. Jim could hear one call the other an idiot as they ran up the stairs.
"Interesting neighbors," Jim said weakly. That wasn't a subject he'd been prepared to deal with.
Blair shrugged. "The kids need to speak English, and for some of them, I'm pretty much it. There are entire families here that can't speak English, so I encourage the kids to come down here to play and practice. But seriously, that was impressive." Blair leaned against the wall, and Jim could feel something shift in the room, like his relationship with Blair had moved into a new groove.
"What? You're really asking 'what'? Most people are not big with telling children the truth. Children are invisible in our society. But you weren't just throwing platitudes out there. You were speaking the truth. "
Jim frowned at the implication that he'd done anything particularly special, but before he could follow up on that line of questioning, Blair was verbally darting off in a new direction. "I think there are two women involved in the kidnappings, but I can't find them." Information offered up without mystical crap or evasions... that was definitely different.
"Do you have descriptions?" Jim asked as he reached for his pad. He couldn't afford to miss one detail that might help them to an arrest.
"No way," Blair said quickly. "That's why I need you. You're going to be the only one who can see them."
Jim still had his pen poised over his paper and he stared at Blair. "I... what?"
"I can't see them. A couple of the kids have noticed them, and I think one of the boys even described them to you."
Jim groaned. "The pregnant woman with the missing finger," he said with a sigh.
Strangely, Blair bounced as if this was something to get excited about. "I can't believe I missed the significance of the crossroads, but the demonization of the Cihuateteo by modern society totally threw me off the track because Dawit said that the woman who was following Emilia was looking at her with so much worry that Dawit thought she was some aunt or something." Blair was pacing. "But it totally makes sense, and it explains why I can't see the women, which is why it has to be you."
"Hey! Time out, Sandburg." Jim reached and caught Blair by the shoulders. The man stopped at stared at Jim with wide blue eyes that were almost manic with an energy Jim couldn't identify. Once again, Jim considered tossing the place for drugs, but if Blair was on a drug, it was one Jim hadn't ever seen before. "Let's take this one step at a time. What did you miss before?" Jim tried to keep his voice calm even though he wanted to shake Sandburg like a naughty puppy until the man started saying something that made sense.
Blair took a deep breath. "Oh man, you are not going to like this."
"I don't doubt that, Dr. Sandburg," Jim said as he finally let go. "But I can handle being unhappy if it helps us find the kids."
Blair nodded, the energy seeming to bleed off of him. "Just keep an open mind."
"It's so open it's verging on falling off and ending up on the floor with yours," Jim promised.
Blair laughed. "I hear you. I think you're way less open minded than you think, but I hear you. And maybe you'll surprise me. Okay. You know the Aztecs?"
"I did manage to pass a couple of classes in college," Jim said sarcastically.
Blair gave him a strange look, but he obviously decided to ignore Jim's inappropriate humor, which was good. Usually Jim had a little more control over his tongue when it came to witnesses and official business. Otherwise, he would have said something wildly inappropriate to the mayor years ago.
"Well the Aztecs had this one part of heaven that was reserved for warriors and women who died in childbirth because they were both brave fighters who put their lives on the line. Of course, the interesting question is whether the Aztecs thought women in childbirth were so amazing that they deserved their own heaven and then let warriors in later, or the other way around. Modern archeologists will always say that the women were allowed into the warriors' heaven, but there is no evidence of that at all."
"Chief, how about we skip the misogyny and get to the suspect," Jim prompted. Whatever information Blair had, he was very nervous about sharing it, and a nervous Sandburg obviously talked... a lot. And the more Blair talked, the more nervous Jim was getting, because Sandburg was not easily intimidated.
"Right. Okay. Um, these women who died, the Cihuateteo, they escort the sun from noon until sunset and they're goddesses of crossroads, and I'm an idiot because Dawit said the woman he spotted appeared in the middle of the intersection ,and then disappeared right back into it." Jim had that same report typed up on his desk, but unlike Blair, he hadn't taken it very seriously.
Blair walked over to his pile of pillows and dropped down. "I'm not explaining this well."
Jim couldn't argue with that. He walked over and sat next to Blair. Despite the fact that most men didn't appreciate physical contact, Jim rested his hand on Blair's knee. "Let's just take this once step at a time, Chief. These Aztec women who died... you think they're involved with the disappearances?" Jim couldn't believe he was even asking this. When Simon had told him to go chase some ghosts, he had thought it was a joke. Obviously not.
Blair nodded. "The Cihuateteo were known for taking children, which doesn't make sense because they were venerated and loved goddesses whose statues are all over ancient Mexico. Ancient people weren't stupid, so they wouldn't have worshipped kidnappers but they might have believed the women were taking the children to protect them. Because these are mothers we're talking about—mothers whose spirits were noble that they became godlike in death. But I think that whatever made them take children back then... it's here now. I think they're taking children from this neighborhood, and that's why we can't find the kids." Blair looked at him with his wide-eyed expression that made Jim's guts tighten.
This was a new twist on an old delusion—Blair wanted to believe that someone had taken the children in order to love them. Parents so often deluded themselves with that same fantasy. There was one six year old who had gone missing, and her parents had insisted that someone must have taken her because she was so beautiful that they wanted her as a daughter. They'd even accused a neighbor woman who had often complimented the girl. It was only after the child's raped body had been found in a rain soaked pile of leaves that the parents had abandoned that delusion.
"Chief," Jim said softly.
Blair's bark of rough laughter was totally out of place, and it made Jim stop. "Just hear me out. The Cihuateteo appear in crossroads and seduce men, steal children, and cause madness or palsy. But they're worshipped as forces of good, so I'm guessing they had some good cause when they did it, like punishing a murderer or revealing an unfaithful husband. And the missing finger? Warriors would cut off the middle finger of a woman who died in childbirth and carry the bone because it would help them find the same strength in themselves. The woman Dawit saw was pregnant and she was missing her middle finger. She appeared in a crossroad and then disappeared back into one. And man, I know what you're thinking—"
"No, you don't, Doc."
Blair snorted. "I can see your face. Trust me, I know what you're thinking, but you promised to keep an open mind. So, I'm just asking you to keep your mind open enough to go looking for them with me."
Jim blinked, not sure what he was supposed to say. "You want me to look for ghosts?" he asked slowly.
Blair nodded. "It has to be you. You should be able to see them, and if we can make contact, maybe we can figure out why they're taking the children."
Jim closed his mouth, not sure when it had fallen open. "Why me?" he asked, but he wasn't sure if he was asking Blair or the universe in general. If Brown found out about this, Jim was never going to live it down. Of course, if Jim thought it would work, he would not only look for ghosts, but dress up like one of the Ghostbusters while doing it. However, this would just feed Blair's delusion, and Jim didn't want to cause this man any more pain... no more than he wanted to hurt the parents.
"Just try, okay?" Blair reached out and put his hand on Jim's knee so that he mimicked Jim's body language. Jim frowned, but he couldn't think of a reason to say no.
"I probably won't see anything. In fact, I'm not sure why you think I'm going to see something you can't." Jim didn't even try to sound hopeful, but Blair smiled anyway.
"Oh man, there are reasons, and then there are reasons." He let his voice drop into a conspiratorial tone that made Jim wonder just what the kid had going on in that hyper little brain of his. "But the easy answer is that you're a warrior. I mean, I’m the shaman, and yeah, the path of the shaman and the warrior are side by side, but they aren't the same. For Aztecs, warriors and women who die in childbirth are all the children of Tonatiuh and they have a special connection. So, if this is a Cihuateteo, she'll see a fellow warrior in you. And trust me, you are way more equipped to see her. Way more."
Jim couldn't believe he was going to agree to this. Maybe Blair recognized defeat in Jim's expression because he jumped up from the pillows. "I have everything ready. I was going to come talk to you about this, so it's really lucky that you came to me, huh? The universe just keeps right on rolling, even when I'm way too much of a coward to call up a detective and ask him to go ghost hunting with me." Blair laughed.
"Chief, people can call you many things, but coward would not be one of the choices," Jim pointed out as he got up. Blair was banging around the small kitchen, and Jim went out to see what he was busily gathering. On an old, bent cookie sheet, Blair had red and green paper flowers, a pile of cookies shaped and decorated like brilliant butterflies and little pieces of what looked like amber. It was an odd collection.
"So, I'll put out the call. I told you something mystical was stirring the water, and if I can feel them, they might be able to feel them. So, if I can attract them, you should be able to make contact."
"You really think I'll see a ghost?" Jim asked.
Blair smiled brilliantly. "Jim, I have faith that you can see all kinds of things that I can't. All kinds." Blair waved his hands to emphasize just how much he meant that.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing," Blair answered as he picked up the cookie sheet with the offerings. However, he wasn't even pretending to be telling the truth.
"Chief?" Jim demanded, following Blair out of the apartment.
"Hey, the universe works in its own way. Those who try to push the universe get pushed right back. And I do not plan on getting in a shoving match with the universe." Blair was clearly back to spouting mysterious crap, but Jim could only follow as Blair led him out into the street.
The sun was starting to go down, and Jim noticed that everyone on the street was keeping an eye on them. The smell of pot and garbage drifted through the streets, and Jim could feel prickles down his spine. Blair might be comfortable here, but Jim was in enemy territory, and he put a hand on Blair's shoulder, daring anyone to challenge his right to be here. "Your alpha is hanging out," Blair muttered.
"Har, har, Sandburg. Some of us prefer to not get knifed in the back."
"You have a gun, Ellison. How much more phallic reassurance do you need?" Blair smiled sweetly up, and Jim had an almost overwhelming urge to give the little shit the noogie to end all noogies. "Okay, this should work." Blair stopped at the corner of Ninth and Cooper. Right on the sidewalk, Blair sat down and put the cookie sheet in front of him.
"Sandburg?" Jim asked. He looked around, and everyone on the street was watching them with undisguised curiosity.
"It's a crossroads."
"Well... yeah." Blair shrugged and then he started laying the cookies out on the edge of the curb. "But this on the lightpost, would you?" Blair held up the paper flowers all strung on a thin cord. Jim took the line and looked from Blair to the lightpost. Two kids on the corner who had been smoking a joint in the shadows near the door to their tenement stepped out of the darkness and sat on the front steps where they could watch.
"Hey, you're the one who offered to be so open-minded that his brain fell out," Blair pointed out.
Jim grimaced. "I knew I was going to regret that." However, he took the flowers and draped them over the crosswalk sign. Blair was humming now, rocking back and forth. He held the amber in his hands and rubbed it between his palms. Maybe it was just the strange situation, but Jim could feel the hair on his arms raise. The traffic noise rose to a near-deafening roar and for a half second, Jim could swear the city shimmered with heat and then light reflected in a million different directions. It was like he could see every molecule of light as it bounced of brick and concrete and rotting wood and class so the whole city glowed.
Jim blinked to clear his vision. It didn't work. He turned to tell Sandburg that they needed to get back to the apartment, and that's when Jim saw her. She was a small woman with an impossibly distended stomach. Her hands rested against her belly, and her eyes widened when she saw him.
Her lips moved, but Jim couldn't hear her over the roar of the traffic. A Buick drove through her body, and for a second, her head and shoulders floated in the air as the molecules of her body slowly returned. Jim tried to step forward, but someone had his arm. In other circumstances, he would have reacted to someone grabbing him, but he had to know what the woman was saying.
She walked closer, and Jim could see that she was missing her middle finger on both hands. She spoke again, but the words were a disjointed clash of sounds that Jim couldn't understand.
"What? I don't understand. You have to speak English." Jim looked around to see if anyone could translate for him, but the man who had his arm had turned into a series of streaked lines without even a face. Blair stepped up next to the faceless one. "Jim, see if she's going somewhere. Follow her."
Jim might have pointed out, rather sarcastically, that she wasn't going anywhere, but when he glanced over, she was walking down the street. Jim frowned and followed her. Her hair reflected light, but that light turned from white to red as she approached a building at least two blocks down. Before, she'd looked like a dark angel, but now, bathed in red light, she looked like a demon or a wraith. She reached out, her hands in fists with a gap where the middle finger should have been.
"What? What's here?" Jim asked. The woman turned to look at him, and tears were running down her angry face. "Tell me how to help," Jim pleaded with her, stepping close. He suddenly lost his balance and went falling forward. Hands grabbed at him, but Jim's head hit something with a jolt that was enough to shake his brains loose.
"Fuck," Jim cursed when he found himself in a tangle of limbs at the bottom of a pile of trash.
"Hey, that was not my fault." Ndeko was sitting on the edge of the window well Jim had fallen into. "I kept him from stepping in front of the truck, so I get a free pass on this one."
Jim looked around in confusion. "What?"
Blair was right there in the window well with him, his hair half out of his ponytail and hanging down so that he looked lopsided. "Oh man, I have no idea. I was just along on the ride this time. Who were you following?"
"There was a woman," Jim said slowly, but even now he doubted that. The strange glow had vanished and the world looked normal again.
"I thought cops didn't use the good stuff," Ndeko said softly, but not softly enough. Jim pushed himself up onto his feet, ready to bust the kid for something. Maybe Ndeko recognized the expression because he crabwalked backwards a couple of steps and then sprang to his feet. "Hey, you'd be splattered all over the fucking street if I hadn't caught you. And it's not like it's going to help my rep, saving a pig."
"Um, Jim?" Blair's voice was strained. Willing to leave any Ndeko-harassment for later, Jim looked over at the man. Blair was pointing through the window, his hand trembling.
Bending down, Jim peered through the dirty glass that had been buried in garbage before he and Sandburg had conveniently fallen on it. Though the smudges, Jim could see a dark leg, tiny and swollen in death.
"Ndeko," Jim said calmly, "get the doc home."
"What?" Ndeko stepped closer and craned his head to see around them. But Jim put his hands on Blair's shoulders and physically moved the man away from the window and the horror behind glass.
"Ndeko, get the doc home. Now." Jim pushed Blair toward the edge of the window well. Years ago, there was a fence around this narrow opening, but it had long ago vanished leaving ragged, broken concrete waist-high around the window well. "Help Blair out and get him home. The police will be there in a few minutes, so show the FBI to Blair's apartment, but you ask for ID. You do not let the press near him. You got it?" Jim demanded. Ndeko stared at Jim with eyes so wide that the white of them shone all around the dark center.
He nodded. "I got it. Come on, curandero." Ndeko held his hand down for Blair.
"I should..." Blair waved his hands inarticulately. Jim didn't figure there was anything left for him to do, not for this child.
"Go home. You should go home," Jim said kindly. Putting his hands around Blair's waist, he pushed the man up. Blair grabbed for Ndeko's hands.
"I'll get him home. My boys will keep the press away," Ndeko promised. For a second, Jim wondered how he was going to explain to Simon that he'd basically deputized the local drug dealers. Then again, this was Blair Sandburg. Simon probably expected something this weird. Pulling out his cell phone, Jim called the station for back up and the coroner's wagon. Jim just regretted that they didn't have a better ending for the parents or Sandburg.
Three weeks after one body had been recovered from an old basement connected to a sewer line that was connected to a hidden door in the laundry room in a certain pedophile's tenement, Jim pulled his truck up to the curb outside Blair's apartment. Ndeko was sitting on the step with another boy who was young enough that he should have been in school.
The second boy leaped to his feet, but Ndeko got up much more slowly. "Hey, if it isn't the sentinel," Ndeko greeted him.
"Sentinel?" Jim asked. He reached for his wallet. He figured it'd be cheaper to pay for a little protection than replace all his hubcaps.
"It's one of Blair's curandero words. He says you're a sentinel—a tribal warrior. He also says that if you try to bust me that I should remind you that tribal warriors are too busy and important to bother with me." Ndeko gave a smug smile, like Blair's words would somehow protect him.
Jim crossed his arms and glared at the kid. "That depends on what you're doing," he pointed out. "If you push things too far, I may decide you're dangerous enough to bother with."
Ndeko actually laughed. "Relax, sentinel. In this neighborhood, people who are too dangerous have a bad habit of dropping dead. You should hear some of the stories they tell on these streets. Come by some time and I'll tell you a few." Ndeko gave his friend a slap on the arm. "Let's go."
Jim held up the twenty he'd taken out. "I was going to pay you to watch out for my truck."
Ndeko looked over his shoulder. "You're the sentinel. Who's going to fuck with your truck?" With that, Ndeko turned around and he and his friend strolled off down the street. Jim looked around and a woman leaning out a window raised a hand in greeting. Feeling a little like Alice down the rabbit hole, he gave a quick wave before he headed into Blair's building.
The tall woman who had threatened him the first time he'd visited was sitting on the stairs reading a book. "Sentinel," she smiled when she saw him. Obviously Blair had been talking about him quite a bit.
"Afternoon," Jim offered.
"I'm Uchenna. Blair's been doing his meditating thing so long his legs are going to fall off, so I hope you're here to drag him out and make him eat something."
Jim glanced toward Blair's door. "He's not eating?"
"Not regularly. Not in the last two or three weeks."
"He ate when he came down to the station," Jim said with a frown.
"Then you're better at getting him to eat than the rest of us. He's all yours." Uchenna stood up and headed up the stairs. "If you need me, I'm in 204. Just let me know when you take off."
"I will, thanks." Jim realized that she was officially handing over the job of shamansitting. "Uchenna?" She stopped on the stairs and looked down at him. "Has he been going to work?"
She looked at Blair's door. "No. He says that the university gave him time off for his spiritual rituals after the tragedy." Her voice dropped to a near whisper. While only one body had been in that basement, Luke Washington was being charged with the deaths of all seven children. Even if he wasn't convicted for other six children, his semen had been found in the rotting and tortured corpse of Maria Gonzalez, so he'd spend the rest of his life in prison. And considering how much convicts liked pedophiles, that was going to be a very short and unhappy life.
"I might take him out for a bit," Jim said, feeling some strange obligation to let the woman know that he was taking Blair out. She looked at him for a second.
"Good." Turning around, she headed up the stairs.
Jim wasn't surprised when the door was unlocked. He walked in to find Blair sitting in the nest of pillows. He was slowly rocking forward and back, his lips moving wordlessly.
"Blair?" Jim called softly. Blair kept right on rocking. Jim knew the man was in horrible pain, even if Jim had no way of knowing how he knew that. Walking over, he crouched down in front of Blair, resting his palms on Blair's knees. "Blair?" he repeated.
Slowly, Blair's eyes opened. "Hey," he offered softly. His voice rasped with dryness.
"Oh, Chief. How long?"
Blair smiled, but Jim could almost see the pleasant expression like a ghost over the pain. "I'm a shaman. It's what I do. They gave me a PhD for this. Actually, they pay me a shitload of money for this. You'd be surprised at how many books you can sell on the New Age market. And the sad thing it, it was supposed to be some academic discussion of modern shamanism and psychology."
"Are you telling me you're independently wealthy?" Jim asked.
Blair just shrugged. "I do okay. But I don't think you're here to discuss my retirement plans." He sat up straight. "Is something wrong with the case?"
"The case is fine, Chief. We may not get him on all seven murders, but we'll nail him on his first one."
"That's the only murder he committed," Blair said softly.
"Blair?" Jim cocked his head. "Please don't tell me there's someone else out there."
Blair shook his head. "No. The Cihuateteo took every child Luke Washington targeted after he killed Maria. They took them before Washington could touch them."
"Chief?" Jim frowned at this new craziness.
Blair gave him a sad smile. "Maria's parents were traditional—they were from rural South America, and they still left sacrifices out for the Cihuateteo. But what I didn't understand was the others. That's what I've been meditating over."
"You've been contacting the dead?" Jim had earlier revised his opinion about Sandburg needing a little psychiatric help, but if he was talking to the dead, Jim was going to revise his revision.
"No way. Most people just move on. A shaman walks this world and the in-between. He doesn't walk the land of the dead... at least not after that one time." Blair's skin flushed, and Jim's fists clenched at the idea that Blair had been dead, but that did seem to be what he was suggesting. "But the Cihuateteo are creatures of the in-between. They're like shaman only anchored in the other side. That's what I've been meditating on. I think when the Cihuateteo came to escort Maria to children's heaven, they could feel the pain of the other children and they took them before Washington could hurt them. They saved as many as they could."
"Saved?" Jim asked.
Blair sighed. "Maybe saved is the wrong verb, but they did a better job of protecting those kids than I did. I mean, I was worthless."
Guilt was an emotion Jim understood well enough. "Blair, you did everything you could to help. I do not want to talk about what happened on that street because I'm doing my best to pretend it was all my imagination, but I know we would not have found Washington or his hidden lair if it wasn't for you."
"I wasn't fast enough." Blair rubbed his hand over his face. "But the other six... Washington didn't get them. He never had a chance to hurt them."
This time it was Jim who sighed. If the kid wanted to lie to himself, it was a nice enough lie. "Then they have the best ending they could have, a better one than Washington had planned. Come on, I'll take you out for dinner."
This time, when Blair looked at him, Jim had the feeling Blair was really seeing him instead of still being caught inside his own thoughts or meditation or wherever he got lost when he wasn't quite engaging with the real world. He looked around his own apartment like he was only just now noticing it, and then he focused on Jim. "Why?"
"What do you mean 'why'?" Jim stood up and held out a hand for Blair. If he was guessing right, the kid's legs were going to be cramped from sitting so long.
"Why are you down here? You hate this neighborhood."
"I hate tofu and terrorists who try to blow up the precinct, especially when the bastards get away. I just dislike seeing people trapped in this neighborhood. There's a big difference."
"Tofu's good for you." Blair tried to get up, but Jim had to catch him when one of his legs went out from under him.
"So is spinach. I don't eat it, either."
Blair gave a snort and shook his leg to get the blood flowing again. "You're probably addicted to something full of grease and chemicals."
"Wonderburger!" Jim agreed with a smile.
Blair just stared at him for a long minute. "Tell me you aren't offering to take me out to Wonderburger."
With a smile, Jim slung his arm over Blair's shoulders. "Yep."
"I think I'll just go foraging thought my refrigerator," Blair tried to squirm away, but Jim tightened his hold.
"Oh no. I figure I owe you for your help and for backing me up on that story about how I chased a potential witness and tripped. It's a better story than the lead detective following a hallucination in the form of an Aztec ghost."
Blair looked at him oddly.
"Besides, you have to explain why people keep calling me a sentinel."
Jim couldn't miss Blair's flinch. He raised his eyebrows as he waited for some sort of explanation.
"I... oh man... I didn't think you'd be back around to hear that."
"So you told them I'm a sentinel because you didn't think I'd catch you calling me a sentinel?" Jim was starting to get more suspicious about this.
"Um... kinda." Blair flinched again. "It's a tribal warrior. Police are like warriors." The kid was a terrible liar. He twisted out of Jim's grip and hurried to the door. "Hey, there's a steakhouse on 15th that has enough grease to keep you happy, and I could have salad with my grease, you know, balance it out." Blair opened the door and started backing out.
Jim followed. "So, would you call Simon a sentinel?"
"What? No!" Blair immediately answered, so Jim knew that much was truthful. He might end up having to play twenty questions at this rate. Blair darted out into the street and hurried down the stairs.
"We could go to this Thai restaurant over by the university."
"So, are there many sentinels around?" Jim asked as he pulled his keys out and walked over to the driver's side.
"It's just a word."
"I'll take that as a 'no,'" Jim said as he got in an unlocked the truck's doors. Blair didn't disagree, so Jim really did take that as a 'no.'
"Man, you're not going to let this drop, are you?"
"Nope," Jim agreed with a smile.
"You're not going to like it," Blair warned.
"Try me. I might surprise you."
Blair looked at him incredulously. Jim just smiled and pulled into traffic.