DISCLAIMER: The Sentinel and its characters are the property of Paramount Studios and Pet Fly Productions. These stories are offered for the enjoyment of the fans. No money has exchanged hands.


Blank Page
by
Linda S. Maclaren (Mackie)

.

Act I

She looked at herself in the large mirrored door of her bedroom closet. Five feet, seven inches and one hundred thirty pounds. She figured she needed to lose ten pounds to fit into the size six she envisioned would make her perfect. Then again, she was realist enough to admit the weight loss would just make her shift her attention to some other perceived flaw in her physical appearance. Her nose, maybe. It could probably use some work.

Her legs were fine, though. The short, figure-hugging red silk sheath exposed a lot of leg before molding to her flat belly and firm swell of breasts. Perhaps a little work there, as well; good cleavage, but some implants would give her figure -- not to mention her self-image -- a boost.

Nevertheless, she knew she looked good. Cropped blond hair shone like spun honey, and her expertly applied makeup concealed the flaws she imagined drew the male eye to her too-broad nose.

The final impression, the one she'd been hoping to achieve, was of a woman ready for companionship without blatantly advertising herself as if she were a common hooker.

Satisfied, she picked up her car keys and headed into a Friday night filled with promise. Perhaps tonight would be the night she found her true love.

Her lips drew into a wry smile. Right. And he'd be riding a white charger, too.


There were some crime scenes that could sear an image forever into Jim Ellison's memory. This time, it was his first glimpse of the body: a slender, well-shaped foot covered by sheer nylon hose but missing the shoe. The delicate ankle, the graceful arch, the long, straight toes curled slightly in death: these were the first things he noticed.

With Blair beside him, he ducked under the yellow crime scene tape and ventured the short distance into the rubbish-strewn alley. An overflowing dumpster and a knot of police personnel blocked their view until they walked closer.

The woman was lying on her left hip, body twisted awkwardly in death, legs and arms akimbo. Her short, red dress was hiked up to reveal red thong panties and a lacy red garter belt. One spaghetti strap on the minuscule dress was broken, and the silky bodice had slipped to expose one small breast still covered by the delicate lace of a matching bra.

All the red of her clothing was insignificant next to the deep sheen of blood that had spurted from the multiple wounds in her neck. The dumpster, rear wall of the nightclub, and alley pavement had been spattered with blood as her frantic heart pumped its last.

Blair tensed but didn't flinch from an examination of the body and the surrounding scene. "Any ID yet?"

The Assistant M.E. beside the body looked up. "Not that we could find. I don't think they've found a purse or anything here in the alley."

Although Jim could see the forensics team making a thorough record of the crime scene -- photographs, measurements, sketches, and copious notes -- he pulled out his notebook, opened it to a fresh page, and made a rough drawing of the scene. He noted the most significant details: the angle of the blood spatter and items in the alley that the crime scene team had seen fit to circle with their bright yellow chalk. There were actually quite a few circles drawn on the pavement, but he suspected the odd bits and pieces of trash would ultimately prove useless in solving the crime. He sought out the photographer. "You got all the shots you need of the body?"

The cameraman nodded. "Yeah, she's all yours."

Jim snapped on some latex gloves and crouched down. Gently but impersonally, he lifted the stiffening body enough to search beneath it for any evidence, then examined the body itself for anything the M.E. might have missed in his initial exam.

Paling slightly, Blair shifted his gaze toward the M.E. "What about time of death?"

"As you can see, rigor is well underway. Lividity is fixed. That puts time of death roughly somewhere between midnight and 2 a.m."

Jim glanced at his watch. "Six to eight hours." It was just 8 a.m. on a day that promised to be sunny for a few hours once the early morning cloud cover burned off. Rain was forecast for later in the afternoon, but it would be a clear, glorious Saturday morning that this young woman should have lived to see. He straightened from his examination. "Any indication of rape?"

"She'd had sex sometime prior to death, but I couldn't see any signs of forced penetration. Despite the disarray of her dress, her bra and underpants are still in place. Both are made from one of those form-hugging, stretchy fabrics. A killer would have had a hard time dressing her after death."

"Besides," Blair said quietly, "why bother? The blood pattern indicates she was killed here, right?"

Jim nodded agreement. He glanced at the heaping pile of trash spilling from the dumpster. The search team would have to go through it if they didn't find the murder weapon somewhere else in the alley. He didn't envy them the chore.

A patrolman waved to him from the other side of the yellow tape. Tapping Blair on the shoulder, Jim headed in that direction with his partner right behind him. A sleepy, rumpled man huddled in a lightweight jacket stood beside the patrolman.

"One of you cops called me to say you found a body," the man said, his words soft with sleep. He sounded faintly put out. "He told me to come down here. I had to take a cab."

Jim turned to a new, blank page in his notebook. "And you are --?"

"Oh, sorry. Ed Fuller. I'm the bartender -- night manager really -- who closes up the club every night."

"What time is that?"

"We close the door at 2:00; tabulating the take and general tidying up takes about forty-five minutes. We were out of here by 2:45, three o'clock at the latest. I didn't check the clock. The cleaning crew comes in around 2:30, but we don't wait around for them to finish. I don't know what time they left."

"Who's 'we'?"

"Sandy and Clair, my waitstaff. And there's Charlie, who handles the live talent on weekends, but he left around midnight."

"I'll need full names and addresses."

"Sure, no problem." Fuller kept his hands in his pockets but gestured with his chin toward the alley. He was inadequately dressed for the chilly morning and bounced vigorously in either nervousness or an attempt to warm up. "Any idea who it is?"

"We're hoping you can tell us."

The man grimaced. "I love watching how you guys work on TV -- you know, Cops, New Detectives, all those shows on The Learning Channel and Discovery. But I've never seen a real dead body before. You don't want me to look... to take a look at it, do you?"

"That might not be necessary. She's about 5'7", short blond hair, good figure. She had on a red dress."

The night manager paled. "That sounds like Sherry. She's a regular here most weekends."

"Do you know her full name?"

"No, I don't. Just Sherry. I call her Ms. Singapore Sling. It's all she ever drinks."

"Did she get drunk?"

"Not so you'd notice. I mean, she likes a good time, and she'll get a little tipsy, you know? But never sloppy with it. Never loud or obnoxious. D'ya think it's her?"

"I don't know. Are you up to taking a look?"

Fuller paled even further. "I'd puke, I know I would. Can't you get someone else?"

Jim could sympathize with the man's reluctance. An ID of Sherry No-Last-Name might have helped in the short term, but the bartender's ID wouldn't satisfy the M.E.'s office. For that, they'd need to find close friends or relatives if at all possible.

"Okay, but it might be necessary later."

"Thanks. I mean, I only know her as Sherry. She comes in every Friday night and flirts with a lot of the guys. But she never talks much about herself, you know? Beyond the fact that she said she was single, I don't know anything else about her."

Blair glanced at his own notes. "Do you remember what time she came in?"

Fuller closed his eyes briefly. "Usual time for her was early, say around six. I didn't notice the exact time."

"And you didn't get the impression she was any earlier or later last night?"

"No."

"What time did she leave?"

"That's a little tougher to pinpoint." Fuller frowned as he tried to recollect. "It would depend on how much fun she was having and how soon she latched on to a guy."

"Okay, when was the last time you remember seeing her?"

"Oh, that's pretty easy. She was on the dance floor not long before the band packed up for the night, so that woulda been close to midnight."

Blair glanced at Jim, who nodded for him to continue.

"Did she leave with anyone last night?"

Fuller scowled with distaste. "She left with someone every Friday night. Never the same guy twice."

"And last night?"

"I didn't notice the guy, but if she was true to form, she left with someone. Maybe one of the girls noticed."

"We'll check with them." Blair turned to the officer. "Get names and addresses from Mr. Fuller, please."

"Yes, sir."

Unconsciously, Blair bounced a bit on his toes. Jim smiled; his partner had learned to keep his facial expressions under control most of the time, but he hadn't yet mastered the body language. Being called "sir" must have given him a little thrill; he was finally being taken seriously as an investigator and accepted by the rank-and-file as a detective.

They ducked back under the tape and turned right to walk out through the empty side parking lot of the club. It wasn't a large area, a rectangle extending the length of the building, with one and a half rows of parking spaces defined by white lines. On a busy night, it would be a chore to navigate. The half row of spaces abutted a decorative tree line in need of a heavy pruning; several branches hung so low that the parking spots beneath them were almost unusable.

They reached the front of the club, where there was another, smaller parking lot facing the street. Three cars sat in the lot, all of which appeared to have been left there for a while. The vehicles of the crime scene team were parked in a haphazard line along the curb. Morning traffic had to pass with care, and drivers craned their necks in an effort to see what was going on. A crime scene investigation had been mistaken for a movie shoot on more than one occasion.

Blair relaxed once they were away from the actual crime scene. Jim often reacted the same way. Viewing a corpse always brought out the sense of tragedy that surrounded a homicide. Thoughts strayed toward sympathy for the victim, and empathy with the family and friends who would be affected by the senseless violence. Away from the body, he was able to bring his thoughts into focus on the investigation itself, the various puzzle pieces that would be assembled to lead them to the killer.

Blair was good at puzzles. It was why he made such a good detective despite his relative inexperience with the nuts-and-bolts details of police work. True to form, he said, "There's moisture on the windows of those cars. Looks like they've been here all night."

They went to the nearest car, a Toyota Camry, and Jim peered through the driver's side window. "Locked, but the keys are in the ignition. Maybe someone just locked themselves out."

"Jim." Blair was looking through the side passenger window. "Take a look."

He looked, and saw two red high heels on the front carpet. "Okay, let's pop the door on your side."

It took just a few seconds once they'd borrowed a jimmy. Jim crouched by the passenger side door, donned gloves again and, touching as little as possible, opened the glove compartment. Inside he found a car registration and proof of insurance. "Sherilyn Carpenter," he read, and slipped the items into an evidence bag Blair held open for him. "We have a possible name and address for our victim. I don't see a purse."

They turned the car over to the forensics people for examination and headed for the truck.

The first part of the drive to the address they had for Sherry Carpenter went by in silence. Finally, Blair said, "A different man every Friday night. Do you think she was a hooker?"

"It's possible," Jim agreed. "Maybe she worked a different club every night of the week."

"Or a string of clubs --" Blair stopped, then corrected himself. "No, she was there for several hours every time she visited."

They pulled up to the curb in front of an old but well-maintained apartment building in a mid-priced area of the city. The gated entry was locked, but Jim had the keys he'd taken from the Camry. The second one opened the gate, and they walked through into an attractively landscaped courtyard surrounding a patio and pool. The courtyard was a haven of quiet. A cat lazed in the sun at the edge of the patio, and birds chattered in the trees.

Sherilyn Carpenter lived on the second floor. Jim and Blair climbed the exterior stairs and walked to the appropriate door. All the doors opened directly to the outside; there were no indoor corridors or elevators.

Jim knocked. Although he suspected Sherry was indeed their murder victim, it was possible she had a roommate. His knocks went unanswered, so he found the correct key to let them inside.

The door opened into a large living room, with a small dining room and kitchen counter visible beyond it. Presumably, the counter bordered a kitchen, although that room was hidden by a wall of the living room. To the left, a short hallway branched to a bathroom and a bedroom. An identical hallway to the right revealed a second bath and what might have been a second bedroom.

They paused just inside the doorway to absorb their first impressions. The living room was tastefully if inexpensively furnished with a large, comfortable sofa and chair. Big, soft pillows and chenille throws added homey touches to the decor. The entertainment center had been a major investment: solid oak cabinetry housed high-quality stereo components and a 43-inch widescreen television.

Against another wall stood a massive oak-and-glass curio cabinet. It was filled with sparkling cut-glass decanters, glasses, vases, and pitchers in many shapes and sizes. Morning sunlight filtering through the lace sheers of a nearby window was captured by the multitude of facets, creating glorious rainbows in the glass.

Blair gave a low whistle. "That collection cost her a bundle."

Jim tore his eyes away from the brilliant light show and nodded toward his right. "You check in there, I'll take the other side."

"Okay."

Jim started his search in the bedroom. His plan was to work from the farthest corner back toward the living room. She was neat to a fault. There wasn't a wrinkle to be seen in the carefully made-up bed. Matching nightstands held cut-crystal lamps, a telephone, and a paperback book with a bookmark sticking out of it. He checked the title. It was one of the hundreds of formula romances churned out for a voracious readership. She'd been on page 63. The bookmark had a painting of a willowy young woman lifting the hem of her white gossamer gown to daintily dip her toe into the tiny ripples of a shimmering lake.

Her taste in art was much the same: romantic images of unicorns and delicate women dressed in flowing white gowns. A closer search through her personal effects revealed a blank notepad, pen, and telephone book in the nightstand drawer beneath the phone. The other nightstand held several popular women's magazines and a half-dozen romance novels. The dresser drawers held the usual assortment of lingerie, sweaters, and tops. They were remarkable for several reasons. There were more than a dozen slinky nightgowns in lacy nylon or shimmering silk. Sherry's underwear drawer was testimony to her fondness for Victoria's Secret: matching panties, bras, and garter belts. The drawers themselves were organized to almost painful perfection.

When he'd finished a search of the bedroom, leaving it somewhat more rumpled than when he'd gone in, he moved on to the bathroom. It contained the usual assortment of pain remedies, cleaning supplies, and toiletries, although the latter were in a profusion of scents. The wide rim of a large, expensive bathtub held a variety of bubble baths, oils, cleansing gels, and soaps, all neatly arranged. Candles filled the remaining empty space around the tub.

A small vanity held a wide assortment of makeup supplies. Despite the volume of items, everything was stashed carefully out of casual view and perfectly organized.

He met his partner back in the living room. "This woman was even more compulsive than me."

Blair grimaced. "No kidding. She used the second bedroom as an office. There's not a paperclip out of place. Her pencils are all sharpened and perfectly aligned in the drawer. Her unpaid bills are clipped together so the corners match perfectly. Same with the paid bills." He shook his head in answer to Jim's unspoken question. "Nothing interesting in the bills. All routine stuff. Same with her checkbook, although she had a fondness for hair salons and spas."

"Did you find anything useful?"

"Oh, sure." He held up a plastic evidence bag with a bunch of papers inside. "I found her bank statements, her credit card statements, her last paycheck stub, her address book, and her business card file. There aren't many names inside, mostly businesses and a few first names. One of the business cards looks like it could be her therapist." He sighed. "I hope it is, Jim, because this woman was seriously ill."

Jim glanced at the crystal sparkling in the curio cabinet. Not a speck of dust anywhere. He walked into the kitchen. It was spotless as well, the surfaces uncluttered, the appliances all big brand names and color-coordinated. There was a small but well-stocked wine rack in one of the lower cupboards, and the refrigerator held an assortment of gourmet tidbits and diet soda. "She must have eaten out most of the time. There's nothing here that would make a substantial meal."

"Yeah, lots of restaurants on her credit card statements." Blair leaned against the counter and made a gesture that encompassed the apartment. "She created this perfect little world for herself, but there's no sign she ever brought anyone here."

Jim's eyebrows rose. "You're right. I found her birth control pills in the bathroom, but there weren't any condoms or anything else to suggest she ever entertained a man here."

"So, if she was trolling for men, they either went back to his place or did it in the car." Blair chuffed. "That Camry has a small back seat, but I suppose two determined people could get it on back there. But it doesn't fit the image I have of Sherry, not when you look at this place."

Jim nodded in agreement. "Yeah. There are romance novels by her bed." He worried at the inconsistencies for a minute. "Maybe sex for her was just as compulsive as everything else about her, but it didn't fit the perfection of the world she'd created here for herself. So she didn't sully the place by bringing the man home."

Blair shoulders slumped. "You know what you're saying?"

Again, Jim nodded. "She has all the symptoms of someone who suffered childhood sexual abuse." He walked out of the kitchen. "Unfortunately, there's not much we can do with that, except that it might help explain her behavior. Maybe her co-workers can help, or her therapist." He turned back to face his partner. "But the most important thing we have to learn is who she left the club with last night. Whatever we find out about her childhood traumas probably isn't going to help us do that."

"I know, Jim," Blair said, following his partner out the door. "I guess it's just the anthropologist in me. It's not enough for me to know who killed her; I also want to know who she was."

Jim felt a twinge of guilt because he now found himself inexplicably just as curious as his partner about the dead woman. Sherry Carpenter had touched something deep inside in a way he didn't want to explore. But he just smiled slightly. "Understanding one often leads to the other, so you don't have to make excuses for the way you feel. Just don't let empathy cloud your focus." Good advice. For both of us, he warned himself.

"That's what I have you for," Blair answered lightly, trotting after him down the stairs.


They grabbed lunch at a family restaurant that offered quick, sit-down service. Jim selected a hot pastrami sandwich, while his partner went with a veggie and feta pita. "So, what didn't we find at the apartment?"

Blair sipped his iced herbal tea. "No personal photos of friends or family, no photo album, although I didn't boot up her computer to see if she keeps anything on disk. I can go back and do that later if we need to."

Jim was drinking regular iced tea. He swirled the ice and gazed into its sparkling amber depths. The glinting ice reminded him of the cut crystal Sherry had collected so ardently. "No new messages on her answering machine, and the last one I played back was a week-old reminder from her dentist about an appointment."

"Sounds like she had a lonely life." Blair thumbed through the address book he'd taken from Sherry's apartment. "I lost a bet with myself."

"What's that?"

"I expected Sherry to list her mother under 'C' for Carpenter."

Jim smiled slightly. "'M' for Mom?"

"Yeah. There's no name, but the address and phone number are for Albany. In fact, there are several Albany addresses and phone numbers for Mom in Albany, but they're crossed out, like maybe she moved a couple of times. The one that isn't crossed out has 'DeSalvo' in parentheses. Maybe her mother remarried." He thumbed quickly through the rest of the pages. "There are several businesses with the Albany area code, but they're crossed out, too. Do you think maybe Sherry moved here from back east?"

"If she did, she moved a long way from home."

Blair sighed and closed the book. "About as far as she could get."

"At least we don't have to make the family notification. We'll contact the Albany PD and leave that particular task to them." Notifying a family about the death of a loved one was the worst part of the job.

"But you'll ask them to go see her, right? Not just phone the poor woman?"

"I'll ask." Jim shrugged. "Some police departments aren't very compassionate about these things, especially when the crime happened outside their jurisdiction."

"That's crappy. And the mother will have to fly in to ID the body, too, unless we can find someone here willing to do it."

"Let's check out Sherry's workplace. If nothing pans out there, we'll have to do a door-to-door at her apartment building to see if anyone remembers Sherry doing or saying anything unusual over the past few days. Tracking down club regulars will be more difficult. We'll have to get last night's credit card receipts from the manager. If worse comes to worst, we may have to go back there next Friday night." He didn't sound hopeful. Crimes that didn't break in the first forty-eight hours generally went cold quickly.

Blair finished his sandwich. "Your bet is still on the unknown man she left the club with last night." It wasn't a question. "Mine, too. Maybe the M.E. or forensics will come up with something for us."

Outside, the morning sunshine was losing ground to a low bank of clouds carrying the afternoon's promised rain.


Sherilyn Carpenter had worked for a small manufacturing company specializing in high-grade papers. Its brand of stationery graced the desks of executives around the world.

The front office was open on Saturday, but the manufacturing area in the rear was silent. Normally, it was busy with technicians creating custom-dyed and watermarked papers. Next door, also a part of the business, was a print shop that completed the work with the addition of company mastheads.

Jim introduced himself and his partner to a rather plain, sullen-faced girl sitting at a small desk just inside the door. Behind her was a long counter where customers would go for service. Two women were stacking orders at a long table. "We'd like to speak to the manager, please."

She perked up a bit as she examined his badge and looked both men carefully up and down. "Mrs. Burns doesn't come in weekends."

"What about the rest of the staff?"

The woman gestured toward her two companions behind the counter. "The plant's closed, but Rose and Vivia work the counter handling sales and pickups. I'm normally the shipping clerk, but on Saturdays I'm the receptionist."

"Then we'd like to talk to the three of you, if that's all right."

Rose and Vivia, one a tall African-American girl and the other a stout, matronly Caucasian, paused in their work to come around the counter and join them.

"Is there a problem, Detective?" the matronly woman asked after carefully examining their badges.

Jim hazarded a guess based on experience. "You're Rose?"

"That's right. Rose Evanston. Mrs."

He jotted the name on a blank page in his notebook, then looked at the girl. "Vivia --?"

"Kester." She was more guarded than her companions, but again Jim thought that was fairly normal. Unfortunate, but normal.

Blair sat on the edge of the desk and smiled at the sullen receptionist, who all but purred under the attention. "And that just leaves you as the mystery girl."

"Sally Bartkowski."

Jim's pen wavered uncertainly, so she helped out by spelling it for him. When he'd finished writing, he waited until he was certain he had everyone's full attention. "I'd like to talk to you about Sherilyn Carpenter."

He wasn't quick enough to see the initial reactions of all three women, but Sally's little 'humph' told him what he needed to know there. Vivia frowned.

Only Rose looked concerned. "Has something happened to her?"

Jim avoided answering. "Does she work here full time?"

Rose nodded. "Monday through Friday, 8 to 5. She's our receptionist."

"How is she as a co-worker?"

The women exchanged glances. Sally started to say something, but a stern glance from Rose cut her off. Again, the older woman took the lead. "She's an excellent receptionist. She's well groomed and intelligent, and it certainly doesn't hurt that she's also very attractive. However, Mary Burns, our boss, didn't hire her for her good looks. Sherry is a whiz at keeping things organized, and she remembers every customer by name and their product orders."

"Do you all get along?"

Again, there was a pause as Rose and Sally vied for control of the conversation. As expected, Rose won out. "She's a very private person who keeps to herself. We didn't socialize much."

Sally punctuated the assessment with another wordless noise, and Jim turned toward her. "What do you think, Sally?"

The girl's mouth turned down with distaste. "She's a slut," she said softly looking at Blair as if to make certain he saw her moral outrage. Then she glared at Rose as if daring her to contradict. "We went out just once, the four of us girls, I mean. It was after work one Friday night. It was supposed to be just the four of us, unwinding after a hard week, you know?"

Jim glanced at his partner, who smoothly took over the questioning. "But Sherry didn't go along with your plans?"

Sally gave him a look that spoke volumes about jealousy and spite. "That's right. Oh, she went with us, all right, then spent the night prowling for men. It was embarrassing watching her survey the room, like a lioness zeroing in on the weakest animal. She hardly knew we were all at the same table."

Jim looked at Rose. "When did this happen?"

The woman didn't look pleased with her co-worker, but she answered readily enough. "It happened over six months ago, at least. When we realized she wasn't interested in the idea of a girl's night out, we didn't ask her again."

"That night, did she leave with someone?"

Sally snorted; the girl had a remarkable non-verbal vocabulary. "Yeah, she cut some poor dazed-looking executive out of the herd and strutted out with him without so much as a goodbye."

"So she didn't bother to introduce him to you?"

"No way. She had her trophy boy, and she planned to hang onto him."

This time, Rose didn't settle for a stern look. "Shut up, Sally." Her gaze shifted between the two detectives. "Something's happened to Sherry, hasn't it?"

Jim couldn't put it off any longer. "Yes, I'm afraid it has."

The woman seemed afraid to ask. "Is she -- hurt?"

Jim shook his head. "She's dead."

Only Rose seemed truly pained by the news. Sally's face reflected both revulsion and an atavistic smugness, while Vivia didn't look surprised to hear the news.

"We'll need to get in touch with Mrs. Burns, and I'd like to see Sherry's personnel file, especially in regard to emergency contacts. If any of you can think of anyone else we might talk to about her, we'd appreciate the help."

"I don't think you'll find anyone was close to her. We worked with her for almost two years, and she never became friendly with any of us." Rose sighed. "I'll have to telephone Mary Burns for permission to let you see the personnel file." She gestured for them to accompany her into a private office.

Sherry's employment records revealed as little information as everything else they'd found, although they did confirm she had moved to Cascade three years ago from Albany. The emergency contact was the owner/manager, Mary Burns. They got names and addresses for all the employees of the company, made an appointment to see the manager later in the afternoon, then headed back to the truck.

"What now?" Blair asked.

Jim flexed his shoulders as he climbed behind the wheel. "Now, we head back, brief Simon, make some phone calls to get Albany PD over to see Sherry's mother, and start organizing what little we know about the life and death of Sherilyn Carpenter." It was a sad fact of police work, but the seemingly never-ending documentation of a case frequently took longer than the time devoted to actual investigation. Then again, organizing hastily scrawled notes and preparing reports often gelled the facts and led to finding the criminal.

His cell phone rang at that moment, and he answered it with his usual brusqueness. "Ellison."

He listened a minute, a scowl darkening his face. "Is it related to the Carpenter killing?" A moment later, he protested, "Aren't Rafe and Brown next in the rotation?"

Blair eyed him worriedly as he ended the call a minute later. "What's up?"

Jim started the engine. "We have another body. I hope you weren't planning on seeing your bed anytime soon."


Act II

The second crime scene bore disconcerting similarities to the first: a large, nearly empty parking lot flanked by a small copse of trees, the facade of a nightclub looking rather tawdry in the unforgiving grayness of the afternoon, and the street-side cluster of police vehicles that had brought the various investigative branches to the scene.

Jim parked behind the M.E.'s wagon and climbed out. A news van pulled up across the street, and he scowled at it.

"I wonder who called the vultures?" Blair said softly, his distaste obvious. He had an understandable antipathy toward reporters.

"We'll find out," Jim promised as he and Blair ducked under the yellow tape. He paused by the uniformed officer manning the entry point. "Do you know you called them?"

"No, sir." The officer nodded down the street. "But here comes another one."

Irritated, Jim headed toward the center of activity, a point midway through the large parking lot near the edge of the trees.

Rafe didn't look happy to see them and didn't hesitate to voice his displeasure. "This is crap, Jim."

To his credit, Jim didn't rise to the potential confrontation. "I know it is, Rafe, and I don't like it any better than you do. The Captain ordered me to take over, and you know as well as I do that meant he got the order from higher up the food chain." He gestured toward the distant news crews assembling their equipment by the crime scene tape. "It probably has something to do with that."

Redness crept up Rafe's neck, but it was embarrassment, not anger. "Sorry, that was probably my doing."

Jim flipped to a clean page in his notebook. "Okay, show us what you've got."

Rafe led them a short distance into the trees. "Body of a young man, age twenty. His driver's license says he's Dwayne Newsome, and he has student ID for the U."

An assistant M.E., a different man than they'd seen earlier in the day at the Carpenter crime scene, had been preparing to move the body. The arrival of a second set of investigators made him sigh in frustration. Without being asked, he recited, obviously not for the first time, "White male, age twenty according to his ID, time of death between midnight and 2 a.m. Rigor's well established. We'll know more when we get him on the table."

Blair winced as he looked down at the battered body of the young man. "Beaten to death?"

The M.E. shrugged. "That's my guess. Fists, maybe more than one set from the look of him. There are indications of major internal bleeding. He could've laid here hidden by the trees for several hours prior to death, so it'll be tough trying to pinpoint when the initial assault took place. Analyzing the bruises might help."

As with the Sherry Carpenter murder, a crime scene team was diligently going about the business of documenting everything, however minute or irrelevant it appeared, that might prove pertinent to the investigation.

Jim gave the area a careful examination, but it looked as if all the evidence had been marked for collection. He didn't spot anything the team had missed. He turned back to Rafe. "You said you're responsible for the press being here?"

Rafe sighed. "Yeah, sorry. I found an emergency contact card in Newsome's wallet. When I called the number, I ended up talking to someone named Reed Bartlett. He's head of the Gay Youth Alliance at Rainier."

Jim winced. "Newsome was gay?" No wonder the vultures were circling.

"Yeah."

"The Alliance is the most radical gay group on campus," Blair said. "If there's political mileage to be made out of this killing, Bartlett will find a way to exploit it."

"You know him?" Jim asked.

"Vaguely. He took a seminar from me a few years ago. One of those loud-mouthed, flagrantly gay activists who thinks you're a homophobe if you tell him you're not interested in a lecture about his sexual orientation." Blair shook his head slightly. "But he can be charismatic. The press will listen to him."

"Shit, that's all we need." He brightened a little. "I'll make sure you do the interview."

"Thanks a bunch, partner."

"We'll also check out his school records and talk to his instructors." Jim glanced back toward the nightclub. "This isn't a gay hangout."

Henri Brown had been crouched by the body completing the unenviable task of searching through the victim's pockets. He dropped a set of keys into a plastic evidence bag, sealed and signed the label, then stood up as he peeled off his latex gloves. "It's not, but it's not hostile toward them either." He joined them. "The club has some really good, live jazz on Friday and Saturday nights. It attracts a lot of people. Most of the time, the attitude is live and let live."

"Most of the time?"

"Yeah. Occasionally you'll get some loud-mouthed redneck, or some obnoxious gay will try to provoke a fight. Mostly, none of the regulars tolerate that sort of behavior from either side."

Blair smiled. "You sound like the voice of experience."

"Like I said, they have some good jazz bands on the weekends."

Jim closed his notebook and looked at Brown and Rafe, who appeared to have gotten over his irritation at being usurped in the investigation. "Okay, we're heading over to the U to check out Newsome. You two track down whoever was in charge here last night. Learn all you can about who came in -- hell, you know the drill. Get a warrant for the credit card slips, even if the manager agrees to give them to you. I can't imagine some bottom-feeding lawyer making a successful case for expectations of privacy, but I'm sure someone will try." With a grimace, he added, "Will you handle the next-of-kin notification?"

Rafe nodded reluctantly. "Yeah, we'll handle it."

Jim looked toward the knot of reporters gathered just beyond the crime scene tape. "And get Simon down here to deal with that."


Jim had hoped to slip quietly away from the scene, but it wasn't to happen. Instead, as he and Blair ducked under the tape at the entry point, the gaggle of reporters descended upon them, pens, recorders, and video cameras poised. At the front of their formation was a small, ascetic-looking young man with a goatee bobbing at the end of his pointed chin and a definite mince in his stride.

"Jesus, don't tell me that's Reed Bartlett," Jim whispered in a cautious aside to his partner.

Blair kept his expression neutral and his voice quiet as the cameras approached. "Yeah, and all that hip-swaying is an affectation for the press. Normally, except for the Gay Rights Now assortment of T-shirts he wears, you'd never know he was gay."

Jim smiled sourly. "Think if I wore a Heterosexual Pride sweatshirt he'd call me a bigot?" It was a sore point with him that the laws requiring "tolerance" seemed only to flow in one direction.

"He'd call you a raging homophobe, one of his favorite phrases. He's an embarrassment and a political set-back to gays everywhere."

The horde finally surrounded them, all but pinning them to the front of the pickup. Jim might have been inclined to step back and let his partner field the questions, especially now that Blair was a cop. But the circumstances surrounding Blair's arrival on the Force were still too recent, his resentment toward the press still too raw, to thrust him back into the limelight. So Jim moved forward, almost colliding with two camera operators. Everyone took a step backward, unconsciously giving him the space he demanded.

"Detective Ellison, we understand you've taken over the case from another detective team, is that correct?" one beady-eyed woman demanded, thrusting a microphone toward his face.

"Is that because someone thinks they can't handle the investigation?" another wanted to know.

And overriding that question and all but smothering it: "Is it because their attitude toward gays might taint their objectivity?"

It was one of those "Have you stopped beating your wife?" sorts of questions that Jim hated, so he ignored it just as he ignored the others. He looked at Reed Bartlett. "Mr. Bartlett, I'm Detective Ellison, and this is my partner, Detective Sandburg. We need to ask you a few questions about the deceased."

Bartlett's upper lip curled in a well-practiced sneer. "I notice you haven't answered any of the questions put to you, Detective."

"They don't pertain to the investigation," Jim answered smoothly. "Captain Banks is on his way to answer any questions anyone has about the administrative decisions in his department." He tried to steer Bartlett away from the reporters, but he knew it was a lost cause. "In the meantime --"

"In the meantime, I'll tell you all you need to know about Dwayne Newsome." Bartlett forged on, playing to the cameras. "He was twenty years old, a sophomore at Rainier. He knew he was gay from the time he was fifteen, but he kept it hidden, as if it was some dirty little secret to be ashamed of. With the Gay Alliance, he found the support and encouragement he needed to realize he wasn't some freak of nature. He was able to hold his head up and announce his sexuality with confidence and pride. And now some homophobic bigots have robbed him of his future."

The whole thing was a circus, so Jim merely nodded. "We have your number, Mr. Bartlett." Yeah, he definitely had Bartlett's number. "We have some other interviews to complete with people who might have some information bearing more directly on our investigation, so we'll be in touch." When hell freezes over or you climb down off your soapbox, whichever comes first.

Ignoring a multitude of shouted questions, he led the way around to the driver's door of the pickup, let Blair slide in first, then climbed in and shut the door. "Don't say anything yet," he said quietly, his head down as if he were fumbling to put the key into the ignition. "One of those bastards might be a lip-reader."

The engine fired to life, and he backed away from the group, made a sedate U-turn, and headed up the street.

When they were well clear of the reporters, Blair mopped imaginary sweat from his brow. "Man, they really are a bunch of vultures."

"Bartlett was playing to them, and they were lapping it up."

"Yeah, but we do have to question him, right?"

Jim shot him a sideways glance and grinned. "I'm betting he'll beat us to the University. No way he wants to be left out of this, and if we can cut through his line of bullshit, he might even tell us something useful."

Blair nodded thoughtfully. "Do you think Newsome might have gone into that jazz club looking to make some sort of gay-rights statement?"

"It's too early to say. We need to know a lot more about him first. Do you think we'll find anyone on campus on a Saturday?"

"Yeah, there are a lot of labs and seminars held on Saturday. We might get lucky and find a couple of Newsome's professors teaching today. If not, there will still be someone in the Administration offices who can give us his class schedule and address."

"Okay, we'll start there." Jim sighed almost theatrically. "Then we'll both tackle Bartlett and his Gay Youth allies."

"Thanks." Blair punched him lightly on the arm. "I knew you weren't going to let me beard that particular den of lions on my own." He slouched in his seat and stared out the side window. It had started to rain heavily, and he smiled to think of the cluster of reporters caught in the sudden downpour. The smile turned to a frown. "I'll bet you a twenty the media bring up the whole dissertation thing again."

"Probably. There's a Rainier connection, and reporters will be looking to fill column inches. Someone's bound to dredge it all up."

"Yeah." Blair didn't sound happy at the prospect, but at least he seemed to accept it without it stirring up all the old emotions. "I hope this rain lasts for a while. I really want those reporters to get soaked."


The broad, verdant expanses of Rainier University were deserted when Jim pulled into a nearly empty parking lot in front of the Administration building. He found a good spot, killed the engine, and leaned back in his seat. "See what you can find out about Newsome, then we'll decide where to start."

Blair shot him a look common to junior partners everywhere, then jumped out of the cab and dashed through the downpour toward the main doors.

Jim idly watched rainsnakes streaming down the windshield and pondered the unsettling empathy he felt for Sherry Carpenter. He hadn't felt it at the crime scene, or at least it had been no more pronounced than his reaction to other homicide victims. No, he'd first felt it in Sherry's apartment. There had been something deeply disquieting in her compulsive orderliness, a familiarity that touched him in ways he really didn't want to acknowledge.

Could he find traces of his own childhood traumas buried in his compulsion for neatness?

Through the rain-streaked windshield, he caught a glimpse of his partner sprinting toward the truck and smiled. Whatever his deep, dark motivations, his compulsion had pretty much collided with spontaneous chaos and lost handily.

Cold air and rain swirled around as Blair tumbled into the cab and closed the door. Droplets sprayed everywhere as he pushed back the hood of his jacket. "I got Newsome's class schedule. None of his professors are on campus today, but I got their addresses and phone numbers."

Dismissing thoughts of Sherry Carpenter for the moment, Jim started the truck. "Did you find out where Newsome lived?"

"Yeah, he shared a dorm room with another sophomore named Ramon Santiago. I'll give you directions."


Blair hesitated as he raised his fist to knock on Dwayne Newsome's dorm-room door. "Here we go again."

Jim looked at him oddly. "Again?"

"Trying to piece together the last few hours of a victim's life to find out why he died."

Jim briefly placed a hand on his shoulder. "This is getting to you, isn't it?"

He nodded. "A bit." He shook off the mood and knocked. "I'll be okay."

A young Hispanic man opened the door.

Blair held up his badge. "Ramon Santiago?"

The man nodded. "Yeah, that's me." He stepped back and gestured for them to come in. "You're here about Dwayne?"

They entered a neat but cluttered room. Both sides of the room were nearly mirror images of bed, dresser, bookcase, and desk. A small refrigerator spoiled the symmetry of one wall, and an expensive stereo system shared center stage between both halves. Except for being tidier than some, it looked very much like dorm rooms everywhere.

"We'd like to look through his stuff," Blair said. "The Admin office said it was okay, but we can get a warrant if you prefer."

Santiago shook his head and sat down on one of the beds. He gestured toward the other side of the room. "That was his side. Look through whatever you want."

"Had you been roommates long?" Blair asked as he perused the titles on the bookshelves. They were grouped by subject: human sexuality, clinical texts on homosexuality, a section covering various aspects of the gay lifestyle, and several volumes of what Jim usually described as self-help psychobabble. They showed a progression toward self-acceptance that brought a rush of sadness, which interfered with his efforts to remain objective.

He pulled his gaze away from the bookcase. Newsome's textbooks were piled on the floor beside the desk. A closed laptop was plugged into the phone jack, so Newsome had been active online.

"Since our freshman year," Santiago answered.

"Were you friends?"

Santiago took a long time forming an answer. "Friends in the sense that we were comfortable as roommates, we shared notes if we had the same class, and we'd go out occasionally to grab burgers. Things like that. Other than the normal, courteous things that made us good roommates, we didn't have a lot in common. We didn't like the same movies or music. I'm a social animal. Dwayne wasn't."

Jim came back after examining the tiny bathroom. "How long have you known he was gay?"

"He told me the start of this quarter, when he decided to come out."

Blair pulled out the chair to Newsome's desk and sat down to go through its drawers. "How did you feel about it?"

"Well, at first I was kind of freaked out, you know? Like wondering if I could catch AIDs by accidentally touching his toothbrush or something." Santiago looked embarrassed. "But I got over it. I realized Dwayne hadn't suddenly become a different person or anything. He was the same shy, quiet, sorta lonely guy who did your laundry or restocked the sodas in the fridge without being asked."

"Do you know if he was seeing anyone?" Jim asked, starting a search through the pockets of the clothes in Newsome's small closet.

"No, in fact I think he was still a virgin. But he said he was looking." Santiago shifted uncomfortably on the bed. "He promised if he found someone, he wouldn't bring him back to the room. So I promised I wouldn't try to sneak in any girls. It seemed fair, you know?"

Blair wrote out a receipt for a few things he'd taken from Newsome's desk. He hadn't found anything revealing, but bank statements, phone records, and address books could sometimes provide important clues. Turning around in the chair so he could study Santiago's face, he said, "You mentioned Dwayne didn't become a different person, but did you notice change in him after he admitted he was gay?"

"Well, yeah, he was more relaxed. Once we'd gotten over the initial awkwardness when he told me he was gay, he was more comfortable to be around. I guess I was the first straight person he'd told."

Jim had finished his search and come up empty handed. "Do you know where he went last night?"

"Yeah. I mean, I didn't know last night, but I heard his body was found outside the jazz club. He liked jazz, so it makes sense." Santiago's calm facade crumbled a little then. "I can't believe someone killed him just because he was different. It's such a damn waste."


It was 5:30 and dark when they finished their rounds of Rainier and went back to the truck to compare notes. One thing was immediately obvious:

"Dwayne wasn't into making political statements," Blair said with certainty. "He didn't want Reed Bartlett turning him into cause celebre." It was about the only fact he'd brought away from their otherwise fruitless interview with the militant gay-right's activist. It turned out Bartlett hardly knew Newsome and had foisted the emergency contact card on him "just in case."

"That's the same impression I got," Jim said. "Newsome was friendly but shy, excited but still nervous about finally admitting his homosexuality."

"So he probably didn't go into that club with the intention of inciting some sort of confrontation."

"Which leaves us with a young man who liked good jazz."

Blair stared at the filled pages of his notebook. "We have an approximate timeline of who saw him when. We should be able to trace his movements pretty accurately right up until the time he left campus." He closed the notebook and tucked it into his jacket pocket, then ran his hands across his face.

"What's wrong?"

He shrugged. "Just tired."

Jim nodded. "Yeah, we've been on the go for over nine hours."

"It's not that." He slouched in the seat. "Sherry and Dwayne were two isolated, lonely people we never would have heard of if they hadn't been murdered. Sherry was driven by some sort of compulsion. We're only guessing about its cause. I can't help but wonder if she ever had any happiness in her life." He shook his head sadly. "Dwayne was alone for a different reason. I get the feeling he was just starting to accept himself, and maybe then he might have found contentment."

Jim started the truck. "You're tired because you're letting yourself get emotionally involved with the victims."

Blair shot him an exasperated look. "'Check your emotions at the door.' Yeah, I know all about your philosophy. But even you can't follow it all the time; I know Sherry got to you. Don't deny it."

"Maybe you're right, but I don't have time to analyze it right now." Jim put the truck in gear. "We made a lot of phone calls today and put a lot of balls into motion. It's time to head back and see if we've scored any baskets."


Blair knew it was true, although he hated to admit it. Justice and the law were two separate entities, and sometimes it appeared neither was in service of the other. Jim maintained that the only chance a victim had for justice came from the way they solved a crime: obtaining the necessary warrants; locating and legally gathering evidence; maintaining the chain of that evidence; and compiling a detailed and logical report of the investigation so that it led inevitably to the criminal. Everything after that -- the pre-trial wrangling and the trial itself -- was no more than a test of the rules of law, an examination of the investigative methods to make certain everything had been done by the book. Lawyers and judges had little to do with justice; mostly, their actions were dictated by expediency, not a sense of right and wrong. It was a brutal, over-burdened system forced to churn out verdicts at a mind-numbing pace, and it all too frequently lost sight of the victim in favor of the criminal's rights.

There was a vast amount of documentation associated with a homicide investigation.

"If we're gonna stay on top of the paperwork, we're gonna have to split the jobs," Jim said as they left the elevator and headed for the bullpen.

"Okay, you want to take Sherry Carpenter?" Blair knew his partner was more attuned to the nuances of that case and would want to focus on it as much as possible before the juggernaut of popular opinion compelled him to concentrate on the murder of Dwayne Newsome.

Jim hesitated, but finally shook his head. "No, I'd better be the official lead on the Newsome case."

Secretly, Blair was relieved. The Newsome murder was too big a political firecracker to make him feel comfortable as the primary in the investigation. Jumping in at the deep end was one thing; wrapping an anchor chain around his neck was a different proposition altogether. He didn't think he was ready yet to sign his name in the lead investigator's signature block on such a high-profile murder.

"Okay."

They reached their desks, and Blair sat down to boot his computer. He looked up at his partner, who was staring toward the door of Simon's closed and shuttered office.

"Someone in there?"

Jim nodded.

"Know who it is?"

"Unfortunately, yeah." With an expression that looked as if he'd bitten into something sour, Jim started to sit down, only to freeze mid-way when the door to Simon's office opened.

The Captain beckoned. "Jim, come in here a minute."

Jim sighed and straightened. Like a condemned man walking toward his execution, he headed for the office.

Frowning with concern, Blair watched until the office door closed behind his partner. There was nothing he could do for Jim at the moment, though, so he turned his attention back to his desk.

There was already a stack of paperwork: preliminary reports from forensics, crime scene photos, ancillary interviews and findings that all needed to be sorted, entered into the computer, and filed in their respective case folders.

It was definitely time to get caught up, but Megan Connor and Joel Taggart were hovering around his desk to bring him up-to-date on their own parts of the investigation.

"I spoke to Sherry Carpenter's mother." Megan consulted her notebook. "She's remarried, and her name is Helen DeSalvo. She won't fly out to identify or claim the body."

Blair shook his head sadly. Sometimes, it was hard for him to keep his emotional distance. "I can't say I'm surprised."

Megan shrugged. "She didn't sound healthy, which might help explain her reluctance, but she did say, and I quote, 'That girl was always causing trouble, making all sorts of wild accusations to get attention.' Does that make sense to you?"

"Yeah, we have a theory about that," he said, thinking of his earlier speculation with Jim that Sherry might have been a victim of childhood sexual abuse. "We may have more when we talk to her therapist. Joel?"

Taggart slid a printed page onto the top of the pile. "That would be Betty Crewson, Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She's out of town until Wednesday, and her office assistant wouldn't tell me a thing without a warrant. I'll push it if you think it's important."

"Not yet." Blair looked through his notebook, transferred some information to a blank page, and tore it out to hand to Taggart. "Here's a couple of phone numbers. The first is Mary Burns, owner and manager of the place where Sherry worked. She was listed as Sherry's emergency contact. The other number is Mrs. Rose Evanston, one of Carpenter's co-workers. See if one of them is willing to come in and identify the body. The M.E. will want that taken care of ASAP."

"I'll get right on it," Joel promised. "I'm also finishing up that list of credit card customers who were at the nightclub last night."

"Thanks."

Joel headed back toward his desk.

Blair sifted through more of the paperwork. "Good, Megan, you managed to find out about Sherry's will."

"Yeah, her attorney was one of the numbers you gave me. She'd made out a simple will leaving everything to one of the private animal shelters. The attorney is the executor. Also, in addition to the health benefits she had through her employment, she had a small life insurance policy designed to cover funeral expenses." Megan sighed. "At least she won't be bulldozed into a pauper's grave."

Blair was relieved. "Be sure to have someone notify us of the funeral arrangements once the M.E. releases her body, okay? That info will probably come from the lawyer or Mary Burns. Other than that, we haven't found more than a couple of people who gave a damn about Carpenter." He finished looking through the stack of information.

With a glance toward Simon's still-closed door, he shifted his attention to a second stack of reports. "Maybe I can get some of Jim's stuff organized. Do we have anything yet on Dwayne Newsome?"

Megan went back to her handwritten notes. "Rafe and Brown made the next-of-kin notification. Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Newsome, an address here in Cascade." She tore the page out of her notebook and handed it to Blair. "Here it is. Rafe and Brown haven't been in yet to type up their paperwork, but H called in about an hour ago. He says the parents are devastated by the news, suspected for several years that their son was gay, and couldn't think of anyone who might have had a grudge against him. H says it looks like a dead end at the moment. He and Rafe are putting addresses to the credit card receipts they collected from the jazz club, and they're going back there tonight to talk to the regulars."

Blair sighed. "All right, thanks, Megan. I guess that's it for now. It's about time I started catching up on my own reports." He punched a few keys on his keyboard and glared with distaste at the form that obediently appeared on his monitor. With a grunt of determination, he started flipping through his notebook to find the information to fill in the blanks.


Jim leaned nonchalantly against the door after Simon ushered him inside his office and closed it. Keeping his expression carefully neutral, he looked at the man seated in the visitor's chair.

The visitor, a well-groomed black man in custom-tailored clothes, gave him a thoughtful appraisal in return.

Simon returned to his chair behind his desk. "Assistant District Attorney Brian Flint, I'd like you to meet my lead detective, Detective James Ellison."

The two men made no effort to shake hands, and Simon's gaze traveled between them. His eyebrows quirked down, as if he was getting the first inclination that perhaps this meeting wouldn't go as smoothly as he'd expected. "I take it you gentlemen know each other?"

Jim smiled slightly. "We met several years ago, Simon. I'd be surprised if Mr. Flint even remembers."

"Oh, I remember, Detective," Flint assured him with icy politeness. With a dismissive look, he turned back to Simon. "Captain Banks, although I'm certain Detective Ellison is an excellent investigator, I'm not sanguine about him being placed in charge of such a sensitive case."

Simon's expression tightened with barely restrained annoyance. "Detective Ellison and his partner, Detective Sandburg, don't just have the best record of arrests leading to successful prosecution in this department; they have the best record in the entire Pacific Northwest. The District Attorney --" your boss was implied but not spoken, " -- wanted my best men assigned to the case. The Chief concurred. I gave them what they wanted."

Jim raised an eyebrow innocently. "I think Mr. Flint may be referring to my lack of political finesse," he said. "After all, cliches like 'moral outrage,' 'public outcry for justice,' and the promise to 'expend every effort to apprehend the perpetrators of this heinous crime,' don't roll glibly from my lips." He was quoting verbatim from one of Flint's press conferences that he'd caught earlier on the truck radio.

Beneath his dusky mahogany skin, the Assistant DA flushed angrily. His tone, however, remained coolly polite. "As you can see, Captain Banks, Detective Ellison may not fully appreciate the political ramifications of this investigation."

Simon wasn't fazed. "That's why he has me, Mr. Flint. I can spout political correctness with the best of them."

Bless you, Simon, Jim thought, aware his Captain had deliberately shifted Flint's annoyance away from him. But he wasn't willing to push aside his animosity toward the ADA just yet. "By the way, Captain, I have twelve active cases and two fresh homicides. Which one are we talking about?"

If looks were gunfire, Jim would have gone down in a hail of bullets fired by both men.

"You see, Captain --?" Flint began in an outraged tone.

"Rein it in, Detective." Simon's bark overrode even Flint's protests.

Jim straightened from his slouched position. "Sorry, sir."

Flint stood up and reached for his expensive overcoat. "I see I'm going to have to make my reservations about Detective Ellison's role in the investigation of this tragedy a part of the official record."

Jim's eyes flashed coldly. "You're right, Mr. Flint. The death of Dwayne Newsome is a tragedy, but not because he was young with a life full of possibilities ahead of him, or because he was a gifted student, or because he was gay, or because he was loved by his friends and family. The tragedy is that he was murdered. And I will find his killer. Just like I'll find the killer of Sherilyn Carpenter."

Flint looked startled. "Who?"

"Sherilyn Carpenter was a young woman who was murdered last night outside a different nightclub in a different part of Cascade. Unlike Dwayne Newsome, whose death will become a rallying cry for special interest groups across the country, she's just one of the dozens of women who die every year because they had the misfortune to leave a bar with the wrong person. I'm sure she's barely a blip on your politically sensitive radar."

Simon's sigh of exasperation sounded loud in the ensuing silence. "That's enough, Jim," he said quietly.

Flint put on his coat and stepped closer to Jim. "I see we're destined to always be on opposite sides, Detective."

"Only for as long as you rate cases based on how well they can boost your political ambitions."

Flint glanced at Simon, who had come around his desk as if worried the two men might come to physical blows. "I think Detective Ellison is referring to my vigorous prosecution last year of Lewis Blackwell, who murdered his wife with a handgun legally registered in his name. The Detective's testimony favored the defense more than the prosecution."

Jim's veneer of calm control snapped. "Only because you tried to blame the tool and not the tool user for the crime."

Flint shrugged dismissively. "The same flawed argument used by gun advocacy groups everywhere."

Jim's smile was predatory. "Not at all. I'll accept your views on gun control the day you apply the same logic to a ban on cars because some people drive drunk."

His comment was followed by a moment of frigid stillness, then Flint pushed roughly past him to open the door. It slammed in the wake of his angry departure.

"Christ, Jim." Simon's annoyance was almost buried beneath his evident weariness. "I could have used a little support on this one."

"I'm sorry, Simon." Jim was sincerely apologetic. "Flint just has a way of pushing all the wrong buttons."

The Captain leaned against the side of his desk. "I take it you two have a history."

Jim nodded, his mouth curved in a bitter smile. "Yeah. I arrested him for drunk driving when I was a rookie."

"Isn't that just wonderful?" Simon closed his eyes briefly. "What happened?"

"Flint was already on the fast track in the DA's office. His top brass called my top brass, and I ended up listening to a lecture on how vigorous police work needs to be tempered with common sense and a dose of good judgment."

Simon smiled. "That's good advice, Detective, but you didn't heed it then so I won't bother repeating it now."

Jim returned the smile. "Much appreciated, Captain. Can I get back to work now?"

Simon waved a hand in the direction of the bullpen. "Go. Give ulcers and headaches to your suspects. I'm going home."


The bullpen was quiet except for the steady clicking of Blair's keyboard as he rapidly entered data into the growing case files. Rafe and Brown had stopped in briefly to drop off their notes and give him a quick progress report, but they'd headed back out with plans to interview patrons at the jazz club where Dwayne Newsome had been murdered. Many of the other detectives had already gone home. Only Joel Taggart remained, talking quietly into his telephone and jotting notes on a rapidly filling sheet of paper.

Blair glanced up when he heard the office door open, and winced at the reverberating slam that followed the angry departure of an elegantly dressed black man.

He searched his memory. Flint. Assistant DA. Rumored to be aiming for higher office, perhaps even a governorship. Butted heads with Jim last year in court. Oh, yeah, that Flint. Major pain in the ass. Jim would not be a happy man.

A minute later, Jim left Simon's office. As he strode to his desk, his expression lived up to Blair's prediction.

"Flint got his shorts in a knot over the Newsome case?" he asked softly.

"What else?" Jim sat down and booted his computer with angry motions.

Blair finished his last entry, hit the print command, and closed down his terminal before standing up. He wasn't quite sure where to begin, not when Jim was obviously in such a bad mood, but he was determined. "Uh, Jim, it's getting late."

Jim glanced at his watch to confirm what he already knew. "Seven-thirty. You need a ride home?"

"No." He was frustrated by his reluctance to say what was on his mind, so he just took a deep breath and plunged. "There's going to be a candlelight vigil for Dwayne Newsome at eight at the U. I thought I'd go." The baffled look he got from Jim was almost enough to kill his resolve.

"Why?"

"It's just something I want to do." It would be useless trying to explain how he needed to find a release for all the negative emotions churning inside him after a long day of seeing and hearing the worst of what the human species had to offer. "It's important to me." That should have been enough for Jim.

It wasn't. "What, a bunch of people holding candles and swaying in time to a verse from 'We Shall Overcome'? Listening to self-serving speeches from people like Brian Flint or Reed Bartlett? Your presence won't accomplish anything except add weight to their rhetoric and make a greater visual impact for a ten-second sound byte on tonight's ten o'clock news."

Blair struggled to keep his own temper in check. "Jim, I know it looks like a meaningless gesture to you, but I think it's important to show community resolve and unity."

"Sounds more like your old line of liberal bullshit to me."

Although he knew Jim's outburst was caused by his earlier confrontation with Brian Flint, Blair couldn't hold back his anger any longer. "Look, Jim, I didn't become a different person just because I picked up a badge and a gun."

Jim's dismissive gesture cut through him like a knife. "Go, then. Light your candles." With that, he turned his attention to his computer screen.

Blair bit off a retort and grabbed his jacket off the back of his chair. He let Jim have the last word because now wasn't the time to push a confrontation. Maybe later, after they'd both calmed down, he'd be able to explain how he needed a way to dissolve all the negativity swirling around him. Head pounding, he walked out the door.


Act III

Feeling tired and out of sorts after his unwarranted argument with Blair, Jim reluctantly tabbed through the various forms he needed to fill out for the Dwayne Newsome investigation. Gradually, as his attention focused, his finger slowed even more. Most of the forms were already filled in.

Blair had brought the case file up to date while Jim was in Simon's office. He just had to add a few things from his own notes.

The files were far from complete, but the basics had been entered; it was unlikely anything vital would get left out when they found time to polish their final reports.

He sighed. He and Blair thought differently, worked differently, and felt differently about just about everything. They'd long ago come to an unspoken agreement that they wouldn't discuss hot-button issues unless absolutely necessary.

He hadn't handled the argument well at all. Blair had worked hard all day -- viewing the bloody, battered remains of victims, probing into the darkest recesses of their pasts, listening to the outpouring of emotions from people who had known them -- and he must have been drowning in all the negativity swirling around him.

He didn't understand all that stuff about auras, negative vibes, or bad karma, but they were things his partner believed in. He could have been a little more supportive instead of using Blair as a convenient verbal punching bag after his sparring match with Brian Flint.

He jerked back as a sheet of paper was thrust quivering beneath his nose.

Warily, he accepted it and looked up into the barely controlled wrath of Joel Taggart. "Joel?"

"Here's the names and addresses of the people who used their credit cards last night at the club where Carpenter was killed. Also the info on the cars that were left in the parking lot. You need anything else?"

"Uh, no, Joel, thanks. Enjoy what's left of your evening."

"Yeah, right," Joel grumbled, stomping out of the bullpen.

Jim smiled to himself. Funny, but no one ever seemed to take his side when he had a fight with his partner. He glanced down at the neatly printed list, then stood up and reached for his jacket.

Saturday night, and he still had a long way to go before he'd be ready to call it quits.


Jim was almost to the elevator when the door opened and Blair nearly collided with him.

They drew back automatically, surprised by the unexpected encounter, then blurted simultaneously, "I'm sorry."

A long, awkward moment of silence followed.

Finally, Jim said, "Why?"

Blair's frown only deepened. "Why what?"

"Uh, why are you apologizing when I'm the one who started it?"

Blair shrugged. "I thought about what you said. I mean, I still think the candlelight vigil will help bring people together, ease their sense of helplessness, give them a sense of doing something. But I realized that because I carry a badge, I can do something: I can help catch the bastard who killed Dwayne Newsome."

Jim nodded. "I thought you needed to recharge your batteries or something."

"I do, but it can wait, just like all the food and sleep we're not getting tonight."

"Oh." Jim looked faintly guilty. "I'm sorry I yelled at you."

"That's okay. You were really yelling at the ADA. I knew that."

"Not just that." He searched for the words. "I got suckered into a discussion about politics. I mean, all that stuff I say about staying focused, and I let myself argue political viewpoints with someone who'll never see my side any more than I'll ever see his. I lost sight of what's really important, and I took it out on you. I'm sorry."

"Okay, but we're both back on track now, right? Second wind and all that stuff?" Blair tried to bounce a bit to show his enthusiasm, but it was a poor effort; they were both tired, and it was starting to show. "So what now?"

"First, we go see Dan Wolf and find out if he has anything for us. Then we get some dinner. I'll treat."

Blair's look was incredulous. "Oh, thanks a lot, Jim. Offer to buy me dinner after we visit the morgue."

Jim smiled innocently. "I just want to make sure you're a cheap date." He held up the paper Joel had given him earlier. "And then we check out the names on this list of customers who used their credit cards at the nightclub."

Blair punched the button for the elevator. "Okay, let's go."


Dan Wolf, Chief Medical Examiner for the County, was something of an enigma. A Native American who held to many of the traditions of his heritage, he still managed to harbor no superstitions about the dead. In fact, he was relentless in his determination to discover the cause of a person's death, and this determination was doubled when that person died violently.

He was just drying his hands on a clean towel when Jim and Blair walked into the autopsy room. "Well, if I have to work late, I'm glad to see others get to do the same." He tossed the towel into a hamper. "I suppose you're here about Dwayne Newsome."

"Among other things." If Jim noticed his partner lagging a bit as they moved deeper into the room, he didn't make an issue of it. Although Blair had gotten accustomed to the morgue, he was still squeamish. At least this time there wasn't an eviscerated corpse lying open on the exam table; even Jim had trouble with the assorted sights and smells of a body's interior exposed to the air in a manner God had never intended. "You'll probably log plenty of overtime on this one."

Dan nodded. "The powers that be moved his post to the top of my list of priorities. I get an unpleasant whiff of something political."

"Is that what I smell?" Blair murmured nervously, eyeing the sheet-covered form on the examination table.

Dan gestured them closer. "I've completed my exam and sent everything off to the various labs. Forensics already has all the clothing and trace evidence, if that's what you came to see." He pulled back the sheet enough to reveal Newsome's face and torso.

Blair grimaced. "They really worked him over."

"Yeah, but I'm not certain we're dealing with multiple perps. There's a consistency to the injuries that suggest just one set of fists."

Jim pulled out his notebook. "Have you been able to narrow down the time of assault?"

Dan nodded. "The bruises had plenty of time to develop. I estimate you're dealing with a 10 or 11 o'clock time frame for the actual attack, probably the earlier part of the hour rather than the later. Death occurred around 2 a.m."

"He was lying there for four hours and nobody saw him." Blair shivered, but it wasn't brought on by the coolness of the autopsy room.

Jim heard the sadness in his voice and glanced at him in concern. "It would've been dark back in the trees, and he was unconscious."

Dan agreed. "I don't know if it makes you feel any better, but the extent of his injuries indicates he was probably in a coma for most of those four hours."

"It shouldn't, but it does," Blair admitted. "Thinking of him lying there in agony while people came and went just a few yards away...." He looked at Dan. "Thanks."

Jim indicated the multiple lacerations on the victim's face. "Any idea what caused these?"

"My guess would be a ring. The blows were powerful enough to split the skin, but the object wasn't sharp enough to make clean cuts."

Jim bent closer to the mottled body and peered at a badly bruised cheekbone. "Did you photograph this?"

Dan moved in closer to see what Jim was looking at. "We photographed everything. What's special about this particular bruise?"

"It looks like the ring left an impression." Without touching, Jim pointed out the area he meant. "Think you can raise any detail from it?"

"I'll certainly try." Dan squinted at the bruise. "Are you certain you're seeing something more than wishful thinking?"

Jim shrugged. "I think there's a discernible pattern."

"Okay, I'll get a tech in here to see if we can enhance the photographic images. If there is a pattern, find the ring that made it and I'll be able to match it to the injuries."

Jim straightened. "We'll do that. What about Sherry Carpenter?"

Dan frowned in thought. "Sherry -- oh, you mean Sherilyn Carpenter. I'm surprised you weren't ordered to hand her murder off to someone else. It's rare even for you to have two fresh homicide investigations."

Jim's jaw tightened, and Blair explained: "We got called to her murder scene first thing this morning. It didn't seem right to give her case to another detective just because someone higher up decided a more important victim needed our attention."

"Well, at least she's benefiting a bit from the overtime approval." Dan walked to a wall-mounted phone and called for someone to take Newsome's body back to the cooler. He opened another door. "I did her post first thing this afternoon, before all the official memos trickled down demanding that I focus all my attention on the Newsome case."

"Guess no one would authorize any overtime for her," Jim commented, a tinge of bitterness earning him a glance from the Medical Examiner. He shrugged. "Just ignore me. I hate politics at the best of times, and when politicians start messing around with my cases, I get a little ticked off."

"Only a little?" Dan led them down a corridor to the large cooler room, where rows of drawers preserved bodies awaiting disposition, whether post-mortem examination, identification by next of kin, or claiming for burial. A few John and Jane Does had found almost permanent homes here, although there was a time limit on how long corpses would remain "on ice" before being consigned to anonymous graves at the county cemetery.

It didn't take Dan long to find the drawer for Sherry Carpenter and roll out the shelf holding her body. He pulled back the sheet just enough to expose her face and shoulders. "Someone really did a butcher job on her."

With the blood washed away, the extent of the throat injuries was evident. The killer had made several dozen small slashes all around her neck.

Jim frowned thoughtfully. "I can understand a couple of hesitation wounds, but this looks more calculated." He glanced at Dan. "Any theories?"

"Cause of death was definitely blood loss when her carotid artery was severed. She was probably strangled into unconsciousness first."

"Jim, she didn't have her shoes on." A tightness in Blair's tone belied his attempt to sound impartial. "They were still in the car."

Jim looked at him quizzically. "Yeah?"

"Yeah, but her nylons didn't have any runs in them. The killer strangled her into unconsciousness inside the car, then carried her into the alley to finish her off."

Jim pondered the scenario. "Yeah, that makes sense. Except he could have finished choking her in either location. The knife was certainly messier. He must have gotten a lot of blood on him."

"That depends on where the killer was standing," Dan said. "It might explain the numerous small cuts. The killer was trying to avoid getting any blood on himself. If he was careful, he might even have succeeded in spite of the force of arterial blood."

Jim closed his eyes to picture the scene. "Okay, he severed her artery on the opposite side from where he was standing or crouching. The blood sprayed away from him. He didn't start cutting on the other side of her neck until she was already dead, so the risk of getting blood on himself would have been lessened considerably. But why go to all that trouble?"

"He must have been a cold, calculating son of a bitch," Blair said distastefully.

"Lucky, too," Jim added. "We didn't find any bloody footprints or fingerprints at the scene in spite of all the blood. Whatever his strategy, it seems to have worked."

"Any ideas about the murder weapon?" Blair asked.

Dan nodded. "Definitely a small blade, perhaps even a pocket knife. Sharp, though. I can probably match the type of knife, but I may not be able to match the wounds to a specific blade."

"What about DNA evidence?"

"Better luck there. We found skin and blood under her fingernails, so she managed to scratch the bastard. Also, there are definite indications that she had sex sometime before death. We didn't find any semen, but we did find several pubic hairs with the follicles still attached. We have an excellent shot at DNA matching. Just bring me something to compare."

"No fluids at all?" Jim asked.

"Whoever she had sex with used a condom," Dan confirmed. "Either he took it with him when he was finished, or it's somewhere at the crime scene waiting to be discovered. I think forensics is still going through the dumpster looking for the murder weapon. It's enough to make me glad I'm only up to my elbows in human viscera. At least I can be fairly confident about what I'm going to find."

Jim took one last look at the pale, serene face of Sherry Carpenter and nodded that he was finished.

Dan slid the shelf back into the cooler compartment and closed the door. "Anything else you need before I head home to a well-deserved supper?"

"No, thanks." Jim glanced at his partner. "You pick the restaurant."

Blair scowled. "Thanks. At least let's get out of here before you start making me think about food."


As they walked up the stairs to the porch, they could hear loud thumps from inside the house and a woman's voice raised in anger.

Blair sighed heavily. "Just great. If this turns into a domestic dispute, I'm going home."

After eating a quick meal at an all-night sandwich shop, they were on their third housecall checking out the names Joel had given them. The first two hadn't brought them any new leads, and the hour was getting late to be conducting routine interviews.

Jim smiled tightly, but his hand moved under his coat toward his holster. "Stay alert. Too many cops get hurt or killed responding to domestic dispute calls; I don't want either of us adding to those statistics."

Blair flexed his shoulders and struggled to look more alert. "Right." He knocked on the front door, then rang the bell.

A long minute later, the door was opened by a man in his mid-forties. Dressed in suit slacks and a white dress shirt tucked into the waistband but with the collar open and tieless, he was trim and fit. At the moment, however, the smooth planes of his face were taut with anger and fatigue. Also visible was a two-inch-long scratch down his left cheek. He stared at them in confusion. "What? What is it?"

Blair held up his badge. "Mr. Herbert Hodge?"

"Yes?" The man peered closely at the badge. "Police? What happened, did the neighbors call in a complaint?"

"No, sir." He glanced at Jim, but his partner didn't look inclined to take the lead. "Would you step onto the porch, please? We need to ask you a few questions."

Hodge complied, his confusion still evident. "What's this about?"

In the glow of the porch light, the scratch was more apparent. Shallow, it hadn't bled much, but there was still evidence of blood left in the faint stubble of his facial hair.

Blair started out cautiously. "Mr. Hodge, do you know Sherilyn Carpenter?"

Hodge frowned, then gave a huff of resignation. "Sherry, you mean?" He fingered his cheek. "Why? Is she saying I did something?"

Once again, Blair expected Jim to take the lead. When it didn't happen, he forged ahead. "Did she give you that scratch?"

The man laughed bitterly. "It's the catalyst that started this whole dismal weekend." Then he sighed. "No, that's not quite true. It was just the final straw."

"The final straw?"

Hodge gestured over his shoulder. "My wife and I have been heading toward this moment for months. She's in there making up her mind about whether she's throwing me out or going to her mother's for a while."

Blair nodded, feeling a brief twinge of sympathy for the man's plight that he forcibly quelled. "Mr. Hodge, we need you to come downtown and answer some questions."

The man scrubbed his face wearily. "Christ, this is about Sherry, isn't it?"

"Yes, sir. She's dead, and it's very likely you were the last person to see her alive."

Either Hodge was one hell of an actor, or he was genuinely shocked at the news. "Dead? That's not possible. She was just --" He stopped abruptly. "Shit. What you really mean to say is that you think I did it."

"No, sir. I'm not placing you under arrest, but I am going to read you your rights so that you understand the seriousness of your situation." Normally, he felt a rush of satisfaction when he put the handcuffs on a suspect and carefully read aloud the printed card detailing the person's rights under the Miranda-Escobedo ruling. This time, however, he felt as if he'd just added more to the burden of a man who already looked on the verge of breaking.

After they'd put him in the truck and climbed in themselves, a woman appeared in the doorway of the house. She shrieked at them: "Dammit, Herb! Get back here! Don't you dare go out for more drinks with your friends!"

Her harangue faded into the distance as Jim pulled away from the curb.


It was just after midnight when they took Hodge into an interrogation room and turned on the tape recorder.

Once again, Blair read the suspect his rights, then had him sign a form attesting to the fact that he'd heard and understood them. He sat down opposite Hodge, while Jim leaned against the wall near the door. "Do you want a lawyer?"

Hodge pondered for a moment, then shook his head. "I've got a choice between a criminal lawyer or a divorce lawyer. I can't afford both."

Blair shifted uncomfortably. "Mr. Hodge, I really think you should have a lawyer present."

The man met his gaze steadily. "I didn't kill Sherry."

Jim straightened and walked over to sit down beside his partner. "Mr. Hodge --" He glanced at Blair, a silent request reflected in his eyes, and Blair sat back, relinquishing control of the interview. Jim nodded briefly in thanks, then turned back to the suspect. "Mr. Hodge, our conversation is being recorded."

"I know that."

"It's after midnight, and we're all tired. We have enough circumstantial evidence right now to place you under arrest for the murder of Sherry Carpenter."

Hodge's left eyelid twitched with anxiety. Blair frowned, wondering what his partner was up to.

"What evidence?" Hodge asked anxiously.

It went against police policy to provide information to a suspect, but Jim obligingly answered the question. "The scratch on your cheek, for one thing. I'm sure your blood will match what the M.E. found under Sherry's fingernails. Your fingerprints will match what we found on the interior of the car. Your credit card places you at the scene, and I'm sure when we interview your co-workers, they'll confirm you were at the nightclub and left with Sherry. Heck, your car is still parked at the scene."

Hodge stared down at his lap. "Christ, what a mess."

Blair studiously watched his fingers drum an unsteady rhythm on the tabletop. What a mess was right! He had no idea where Jim was going with this very unorthodox method of questioning.

Jim continued to speak carefully. "Mr. Hodge, even though you've been advised of your rights, a smart attorney might successfully argue that your tiredness, emotional state, and the apparently overwhelming circumstantial evidence led you to believe you had nothing to lose by talking to us."

Blair almost whined in frustration, but he managed to bite his tongue and keep silent. Jim was digging a hole so deep that no amount of fancy footwork could dig him out again.

"You're right about that," Hodge said, despair creating an unnatural tightness in his voice. Then he raised his head and looked at Jim. "Are you sure about what a lawyer could do?"

Jim shrugged. "Pretty sure."

"So, even though everything I say is being taken down to use against me, you think a judge would throw it out because of all the stuff you just told me."

"I'm just guessing."

Hodge's eyes narrowed as he appeared to work through the possibilities. "Then why tell me?"

Jim was silent for a long time, and when he finally spoke, his words came with great difficulty. "Because I want to know about Sherry Carpenter."

Silence stretched again. Hodge leaned back in his chair. "Sure, I guess. Why not?" He frowned as he sought a beginning. "Every Friday night, the guys from my office head over to the club for a couple of drinks. You know, to celebrate a good week or commiserate about a bad one?" It was a rhetorical question, so the others kept silent. "Anyway, I'd see Sherry there every time. She was something of a legend, always on the prowl, latching on to some guy and showing him a good time."

Hodge frowned again, falling into silence, so Jim prompted him. "And Friday night was your turn?"

Hodge nodded. "Yeah. I've never worn a wedding ring." He looked at his bare left hand. "Hate the damn thing. Too ostentatious, and too damned expensive to make me feel comfortable wearing it. Her idea." He looked at Jim and Blair. "The wife's, I mean. Likes to flaunt it, even if we don't have it."

"About last night, Mr. Hodge," Jim reminded him patiently.

"Right. Anyway, the wife and I were barreling toward a breakup, so I was feeling pretty low. Sherry seemed like a breath of fresh air, an angel of mercy, a haven of peace in the midst of the crap. She seemed like all those damn cliches. I knew she only picked on the single guys, so when she came over to me, I didn't tell her I was married. I felt I was entitled to a little love and tenderness." He snorted abruptly.

"It wasn't like that?"

Hodge nodded in agreement. "It wasn't like that at all. She liked it hard and rough, her eyes screwed shut and her thoughts a million lightyears away. I was just a convenient ride, no better or worse than a hundred other guys she'd fucked over the years." He glanced at the recorder. "Sorry. Guess I should watch my language."

"How'd you feel after you'd finished?"

"I dunno -- abused. Embarrassed as hell, that's for sure." Hodge laughed nervously. "To top it off, my damn car wouldn't start. I didn't want to go back inside and ask one of my friends for a lift. I couldn't face their teasing, not yet. So I asked Sherry. She said yes."

"She took you home? What time was that?"

"Midnight, a little after. The live music stops around midnight. Sherry and I went outside sometime during their last set. It didn't take us long in the back seat of her car, and it was only a few minutes after that when I discovered my car wouldn't start."

"Okay, she drove you home. What happened next?"

"The wife was waiting for me, right there on the porch. Sherry saw her and went ballistic." Hodge fingered the gash on his face. "She gave me this as a going-away present. Told me to have fun explaining it to the little lady. Her exact words. 'Have fun explaining that to the little lady,' she said." He dropped his head again. "And that was the last time I saw Sherry, I swear. Ten seconds later I was up to my neck in a royal battle with the wife."


The soft whir of the tape recorder was the only sound to break the ensuing silence.

Blair looked at Hodge, who appeared lost in his own thoughts. Then he glanced at Jim, who also looked distant and preoccupied. "Uh, Mr. Hodge?"

The man looked up and focused blearily on him. "Yes?"

"We can legally hold you for 24-hours without making an official arrest. You'll be taken to a holding cell where you can get some sleep and something to eat if you want. In the morning you can call a lawyer."

Hodge shook his head. "Only call I'm gonna make is at 9 Monday morning -- to my bank manager to tell him to freeze all my accounts before my wife can clean them out." He sighed. "But believe it or not, a cell with a bed actually sounds pretty good right about now."

"Yeah." Blair stood up. "Mr. Hodge, I'm curious about one thing."

"What's that?"

"You said you were hoping for a little love and tenderness from Sherry Carpenter. Did you really think that was possible in the back seat of her car, right there in the parking lot?"

Hodge smiled with self-deprecation. "It wasn't so bad, parked under the trees. Dark and quiet. Kind of reminded me of when I was a teenager."

"Ah." Blair didn't quite see it, but he didn't want to pursue the conversation any further. "Jim? You got anything else?"

Jim looked up, startled out of his thoughts. "What? No. That's it."

Blair concluded the interview and turned off the recorder. "Okay, Mr. Hodge, let's find you that bed."


Blair struggled to keep his eyes open. He hoped Jim was doing a better job of staying awake. After all, it was Jim behind the wheel. A deepening fog wasn't helping matters; it muted sound and softened the glow of the streetlights. "Damn, Jim, you made sure nothing he gave us in that interrogation can be used in court. I take it you don't think he's guilty?"

Jim looked startled. "I don't know if he's guilty or not."

"Then what the hell were you thinking about? Simon's gonna suspend you for that stunt you pulled during questioning, and I'll be out the door right behind you because I didn't try to stop you."

"Relax, what I told him was the truth. We have enough circumstantial evidence to convict him."

Sleepiness and sarcasm were poor companions, but Blair did his best. "Oh, goody, the DA will be pleased when you tell him you managed to keep some of the evidence admissible." He groaned. "I thought you'd picked up something with your senses."

Jim shook his head. "His was in emotional turmoil before we even knocked on his door, so I couldn't get any sort of accurate reading to gauge his honesty."

Blair went back to his earlier question. "Then why? You keep telling me to check my emotions at the door, but you can't hide the fact that Sherry's murder has gotten to you in some way."

Jim's hands tightened on the steering wheel. "There was just something about her, about the way she lived." He winced, then shrugged in annoyance. "I don't know."

Blair's eyes narrowed in concentration. "Because she created a safe haven for herself, a neat, orderly place where she could shut out the unpleasant memories of her childhood. You identify with her because of that, right? The loft is the one place where you feel totally in control."

Jim shot him a glance. "Not so much anymore. You saw to that." His tone was mild, as if he thought perhaps it was a good thing. "But you're playing psychologist. I wasn't sexually abused as a child, and we're still only guessing about Sherry."

"No, but you were an emotionally battered child," Blair persisted. "You suffered neglect. There's a correlation. Sherry was a loner. She picked the men and she controlled the sex. Whatever her motivation -- looking for love, to punish herself, for validation -- she was coping with her past to the best of her ability and couldn't see how self-destructive it was.

"You're a loner, too. You've always picked difficult, challenging, dangerous jobs. Maybe you felt you had to prove yourself to your father; maybe you just felt you had to prove yourself to yourself. The reason doesn't matter. You coped the best way you knew how: by staying in control, just like she did."

Blair waited, but Jim didn't look at him. Unable to stand the silence any longer, he tried to lighten the mood. "So, aren't you going to yell at me or something?"

Jim rounded the corner to the loft, and the light over the front entrance obligingly blinked out as soon as the headlights swept over it. It was one of those stupid, predictable failures of technology: the light came on at dusk and was supposed to go off at dawn. Instead, the headlights of the pickup, set higher than on regular cars, routinely turned it off so that the walk to the door was accomplished in almost total darkness. Oh, sure, the streetlights illuminated some of the area, but the stretch of sidewalk from the curb to the door was in utter blackness, a hazard to navigation if someone had been careless while walking the dog.

Jim parked in his regular spot and killed the engine. Finally, he looked at Blair. "There's one big difference between us," he said, his voice unnaturally low. "I found a friend. Sherry never did."

There wasn't anything he could say that wouldn't cheapen the moment, so Blair said nothing. But his look said it all.

After a bit, Jim nodded toward the darkened loft. "One-thirty. We can catch a few hours of sleep before we need to get back."

Blair was willing to let Jim change the subject. He stared at the stubbornly darkened lamp over the door. "Hodge said it was dark and quiet parked under the trees."

"Huh?" Jim's look was confused.

"At the end of the interview, he said having sex in the back seat with Sherry reminded him of being a teenager. It was dark and quiet under the trees."

"Sherry's car was parked in the front lot, next to the street," Jim said thoughtfully. "The trees border the larger parking lot around the side."

Blair thumped the side window enthusiastically. "She would never have parked in front if she planned to have sex in the back seat. There's a bus stop just a few yards away for cryin' out louad." Thoughts of bed and sleep vanished as the clues came together.

"She went back to the club after she dropped Hodge off at home." Jim turned the key and started the truck again. He grinned. "Want to go arrest a killer?"

Blair bounced in the seat, feeling like a kid who'd been offered a second dessert. "Oh, yes, please."


The parking lot was nearly empty when Jim pulled in and stopped. "Fuller said the club closes at 2, but the staff is usually here until 2:45."

Blair glanced at his watch. "2:30. Maybe someone's still here."

They climbed out and went up to the entrance. Testing the door, Jim found it locked and pounded loudly to get the attention of anyone inside.

A few minutes later, the door opened a crack and a heavily mascared eye studied them suspiciously. "We're closed."

Jim held up his badge. "Now you're open."

Inside, the cleaning crew was just finishing upending chairs onto tables so they could clean the floor. With the lights turned up, the rundown decor looked forlorn. The place smelled of booze and sweat.

Fuller was behind the bar totaling up the take from the register. He eyed them warily as they approached. "Officers."

"Mr. Fuller, we'd like you to come downtown with us to clarify a few details from your statement."

"Can't it wait until tomorrow?" he asked, gesturing toward the register. "I'm adding up the till. Business was off tonight thanks to your boys in here interviewing everyone who walked through the door. Now you want to interfere with closing up."

"It won't take long," Jim promised, smiling encouragingly. Blair thought he'd seen kinder expressions on the sharks at the seaquarium.

Reluctantly, Fuller nodded to the woman who had opened the door for them. "Clair, would you mind closing up?"

The woman shrugged. "Doesn't look like I have a choice."

"Thanks."

He took his time, washing his hands, drying them carefully, picking up his jacket off the bar and shrugging into it. When there was nothing more he could do, he walked slowly around the bar and went with them toward the door. "Can you at least tell me what this is all about?"

Jim buttoned up his jacket against the chill of the fog. "When we talked to you Saturday morning, you mentioned you had to take a cab to get here."

Fuller nodded slowly. "Yes, that's right."

"Why?"

"My car is in the shop. Transmission. Gonna cost me more than the hunk of junk is worth to get it fixed."

"So how did you get home Friday night after the club closed?"

Despite the coolness, Fuller began to sweat. "I caught a ride with one of the girls."

"One of your staff? She'll verify it?"

"No, I don't mean one of the staff. A customer. She was hanging around, so I asked her to wait a little longer until after I'd closed up."

"What's her name?"

Fuller feigned casualness and failed miserably. "I don't know. She's just someone who comes in every now and then."

"Uh-huh." Jim unlocked the truck and opened the passenger door. "You said you watch a lot of those reality cop shows on TV, didn't you?"

"Yeah. Why?"

"Well, then you'll understand that it's procedure for us to read you your rights and place you in handcuffs before taking you downtown."

Fuller looked around nervously. "Procedure? You're arresting me?"

"We're taking you in for questioning. There's a difference."

The man licked his lips. "Uh-huh, sure there is. You think I killed her."

Jim pulled out his handcuffs and expertly spun Fuller against the side of the truck. "Uh-huh, I do."


It was ridiculously easy to break down the inconsistencies in Fuller's story. Once they began challenging his wildly inventive variations, he caved in with hardly a murmur of protest. It was as if he were relieved to have the matter out in the open.

"She agreed to take me home that night," he said at last, speaking quietly, his eyes downcast and focused on his clenched hands. "She could be nice that way sometimes."

"And other times?" Jim asked.

"Other times she could be a prime bitch."

"You were one of her sexual partners?"

"That's right. One of the first after she came to Cascade. She was from back east somewhere, New Jersey, New York, somewhere like that. We had sex one night after I'd closed the club. That was before I knew what sort of woman she was."

"And what sort of woman was that, Mr. Fuller?"

He snorted derisively. "A slut, that's what sort. Always prowling the club, latching on to some poor bastard and taking him out to her car for a quick romp in the back seat. She was a whore, and she didn't even get paid for it. The bitch just wanted the sex. Anything else was rejected."

"You were rejected?"

Fuller was silent for a minute, his expression sad. "Yeah. I thought maybe she just didn't understand how I felt about her, but the truth was, she just didn't care. My feelings didn't matter. She'd had me, and she discarded me to move on to the next poor sap. They had a club, you know? The regulars. The guys who'd fucked Sherry and those who hadn't. It was all a big joke to most of them."

"So tell us about that night."

"She came back like she'd promised, only she was in a real bitchy mood. I tried talking to her, to tell her what a whore everyone thought she was, but she was in the mood for a fight. She yelled at me. Man, that woman had some language!" He raised his eyes, moist with regret. "Next thing I know, I've got my hands around her throat, and she isn't moving."

"You thought you'd killed her?"

"Yeah, and I got real scared. So I carried her back into the alley and dumped her. Nobody saw me. Guess I was lucky there."

"What made you cut her throat?"

Fuller was quiet for a long time. "I thought... I thought maybe I could make it look like she'd been attacked by a mugger or carjacker. One of those would use a gun or a knife." His hands began to shake and he clasped them tighter. "It was then, when I made the first cut with my pocketknife, that I realized she was still alive." A sob of hopelessness wrenched from his throat. "God, she'd be alive if I hadn't cut her with the knife. There was so much blood."

They questioned him a while longer, then turned him over to an officer for transport to the central jail and booking.

It was a little after 4 a.m.

"So, do you buy his story?" Jim asked after he'd turned off the tape recorder and ejected the tape.

Blair shook his head. "No. He wanted to kill her, but he chickened out and couldn't bring himself to use his hands on her again after he strangled her the first time."

"So he used a knife?"

"He admits he watches a lot of reality cop shows. Maybe he knows modern forensics techniques can lift fingerprints off human skin. He was careful to keep himself to one side where he wouldn't get sprayed by her blood. The little gashes mean the spray could be more easily directed. At worst, he probably got some on his hands, certainly on the knife. And he obliterated any fingerprints he might have left on her throat. We'll need to get a warrant for the club, his office, and his home."

"If he was smart, he dumped the knife somewhere between the club and home."

"He'll probably claim he doesn't remember. It'll support his claim that he acted out of fear and not premeditation."

Jim rose and stretched. "You're a hard man, Detective Sandburg."

Blair shrugged. "Why, do you think he was telling the truth?"

"No, but I had my senses to tell me he was lying. You had only your gut instinct, and you listened to it."

They left the interrogation room, turned in the tape for transcribing, and headed toward the bullpen exit.

"Can we get some sleep now?" Blair asked plaintively.

"A couple of hours down in the detectives' locker room. Joel's usually first in. I'll leave him a note and ask him to wake us up."

"It's Sunday, Jim. Joel won't be in on Sunday."

Jim paused, rearranging his thoughts. "Rafe and Brown, then. They're stuck on the Newsome case with us, so they'll be in. We'll leave a note for them."

Blair recalled the earlier suspect they'd left in a holding cell. "What about Hodge?"

Jim pondered a moment. "Let him sleep. Tomorrow morning, he can sign his statement and go home."

After leaving a note on Brown's desk, they trod wearily toward the elevator and a chance to grab a few hours of much-needed sleep before the whole investigative process began all over again.


Act IV

Blair was completely opposed to the idea of waking up, but a tantalizing aroma drew him unwillingly toward consciousness. Lumpy mattress, sheets that smelled stale from being in the cupboard too long, an odd, echoing ambiance of distant voices: these were the other impressions that drew him back to awareness.

Oh, yeah. He'd slept in the little "bunk" room off the detectives' locker room. Containing two rickety twin-size beds and a shared table with lamp, it was a place barely fit for man or beast.

Opening his eyes, he saw the other bed was unoccupied, the mattress already stripped of its coverings.

He followed his nose and rolled over to peer up into the face of Henri Brown, who was grinning at him from behind a Styrofoam cup that wafted the wonderful aroma of fresh coffee. "Rise and shine, Wonder Boy."

Blair struggled into a sitting position and gratefully accepted the cup. His head felt as if it had been stuffed with cotton wool. "Wha'ime is it?"

"Just after 7." A sack bearing the logo of a popular fast-food joint appeared from behind Henri's back. "Scrambled eggs on a croissant and a packet of hash browns. It should give you enough energy to shower and get dressed."

Blair put the cup on the table and stretched until his joints creaked. A hot shower would be most welcome. He'd slept in his shorts and tee, and the room was chilly. Dutifully, he accepted the bag, then unwrapped his meager breakfast beside the coffee. Despite the faint chemical smell of the processed eggs and the oozy greasiness of the potatoes, it was a surprisingly satisfying meal.

Then again, he was probably just too tired to fully comprehend the barely palatable qualities of what he was eating.

"Thanks, H. Where's Jim?"

"Finishing his shave, I think."

Good, then he wasn't too far behind in the waking-up-and-getting-it-together department. "Anything new overnight?"

"Well, we released Hodge this morning. He actually thanked us for providing him a quiet place to spend the night. And he was very relieved to find out he'd become a witness instead of a prime suspect. He signed his statement, left us a couple of phone numbers and possible addresses -- I gather the man isn't heading home again any time soon. You'll have to tell me that story -- and headed out mumbling something about his bank manager. Rafe's gone to pick up some reports from forensics. He should be back upstairs when you are."

Blair nodded, absorbing the information, bringing his thoughts into focus on the day ahead. He smiled slightly. "We caught a killer last night."

"So I heard. Congratulations. It'll help convince those arrogant techs in forensics that they might actually need a detective every now and again. That TV show has pretty much convinced them that they do all the work, solve the crime, and bring the bad guy to justice. We're just unnecessary fluff."

"Well, they did help, you know."

Henri thumped him lightly on the shoulder before helping him gather up the empty wrappers to toss in the trash. "Yeah, but in case you've forgotten, the forensic evidence actually pointed toward Hodge. You and Jim were the brains that filtered out the wheat from the chaff and solved the case."

Blair felt a rush of warmth. "Yeah, we were. We're a good team -- all of us."

H turned to leave. "See you upstairs, O-Hairy-One."

"I'm gonna shave, I'm gonna shave," Blair promised with a laugh. He grinned all the way to the showers.


Showered, shaved, and dressed in one of the spare sets of clothing he kept in the locker room, Blair was upstairs forty minutes later. "I miss anything?"

Jim was just returning to his desk from the communal coffeepot; he handed Blair a cup doctored just the way he liked it. "No. Some reports and photos just came in. I was about to go through them."

Blair perched on the edge of the desk while Jim sat down and reached for the first envelope. Several color and black-and-white photos spilled across the desktop. All were close-ups of the bruise found on Dwayne Newsome's face that Jim suspected had been made by a ring.

Jim selected two of them. "These are the clearest ones." He placed them side by side and studied them. "Maybe a 'T,' but I can't be sure. Part of an 'A.'"

"Okay, try using your senses," Blair said, scooting closer. "I know you'll be able to see the individual dots of color, but try to differentiate them enough to discern a pattern."

Jim looked at him doubtfully, then flexed his shoulders to relax. Steadying his breathing, he focused on the photo he wanted to view. A moment later, he was distracted and glanced up. Blair followed his gaze and saw Brown, Rafe, and Connor looking toward them expectantly from their desks.

Jim scowled. "Next time, could you talk a little louder? Maybe we can sell tickets to the guys on the next floor."

Blair grinned at him. "I was talking quietly. I think they're starting to recognize the signs when you're gonna do your Sentinel thing."

Jim smiled sourly. "Lovely." He tossed a little wave to his audience, then ignored them and got back to his task. After a minute, he shook his head in frustration. "Nothing. Just little blobs of color."

Blair wasn't going to be discouraged so quickly. "Okay, let's try something else. Stand up, and lean your hands on the desk. Look at the photo, then deliberately unfocus your eyes. Let your subconscious look for the pattern."

"You're kidding, right?" Jim said skeptically, although he stood up and leaned over as he'd been told. "Don't look at the photo?"

"Look at it, but don't focus," Blair said patiently. "Just let the colors blend; don't try to force them into a pattern. If it doesn't work, we'll try the same thing with the black-and-white picture."

Several minutes passed while everyone in the bullpen waited. No one made a sound, and even the telephones remained politely silent.

Jim jerked backwards, almost tripping over his chair, but managed to catch himself before he fell.

"Dammit!" His exclamation was tight with barely restrained fear.

Blair urged him down into the chair. "What happened?"

"I saw..." Jim scrubbed his face as if to clear his vision, then frowned. "I saw a fist, a big, ham-sized fist, coming straight toward my face."

Blair's eyebrows shot up. "Cool! Did you see the ring?"

"Yeah, the damn thing looked huge." Jim realized his audience had moved closer and was now clustered around his desk. "It was a class ring for Texas A&M."

Henri picked up the photo and studied it from various angles. "Not that we doubt you, Jim, but a defense attorney is gonna want to know how you saw Texas A&M spelled out in this bruise."

Connor looked at Blair. "Did Jim have some sort of psychic flash?"

Blair thought about it for a minute. "I don't know. With Alex, it was psychometry; he touched something she'd touched. I figured it was because she was a Sentinel, too." He frowned. "But they shared the same kinky dream." He looked at Jim to gauge how he was taking the teasing, but his partner didn't seem angry, merely embarrassed. "I don't think this was psychic, not in the sense you mean. I think Jim's subconscious translated what his eyes saw in the photo."

"If you're finished with your analysis, Doctor Freud," Jim said with acerbity, "H is right. The defense will want to know how we learned about the ring. We can follow up what I saw, but we're also going to need an alternate source as well."

Brown and Rafe suddenly looked at each other.

"My notes," Brown said.

"The Texas truck," Rafe said right on top of his words.

Jim looked baffled. "Okay, now make sense."

"We talked to several people who were at the jazz club Friday night," Henri said. "One of them remembered a pickup truck with Texas plates and a Rainier sticker. She remembered it because she's from Texas herself, and the license plate made her feel nostalgic. It was one of the things on our list to check out."

"Good." Jim looked at Blair. "Can you let your fingers do the walking through the Rainier enrollment files and find a transfer student from Texas A&M?"

Blair tried to look comically aghast, but his barely contained grin spoiled the effect. "You mean hack into their database?"

"I'd never suggest such a thing." Jim turned serious. "No, we wouldn't be able to use anything we found. Uh -- wouldn't there be some public records?"

"Maybe." He thought about it. "Sure, on the Rainier website. It'll have issues of the campus newspaper and rosters of various events. If our perp is a transfer student, he may be here on a sports scholarship." Excited now, he jumped toward his own desk and reached for his keyboard.

Twenty minutes later, he whooped with delight. "Got it. Robert Clavell. A fullback from Texas A&M, transferred here on a full scholarship to study -- would you believe it? -- marine biology."

"Think we can track him down on a Sunday?" Jim asked, standing up and reaching for his coat.

"Sure, most of the jocks pledge the same rowdy fraternity." Blair shrugged into his jacket. "We'll just follow the sounds of morning-after retching."

"Need backup?" Connor asked.

Jim hesitated, then glanced at Blair. "Fullback, you said?"

"Yep."

He returned his attention to Connor. "Backup would be nice."


Fraternity row was quiet. The night's fog had persisted and gave every indication of remaining throughout the day. Tiny droplets of moisture hanging suspended in the still air waited patiently to attach themselves to anything that happened past, and Blair's wool jacket seemed to attract them like a magnet. He looked decidedly damp to Jim as they walked up to the front porch of the frat house.

He tried the door and found it unlocked. Pushing it open, he walked confidently inside and sought the nearest warm body. It proved to belong to a young man sprawled across one of the common-room sofas. A plethora of used pizza cartons and empty beer bottles testified to the reason for the man's stupor.

Unsympathetic, Jim shook him awake.

The young man groaned. "Hey, fug-off, wass-it?"

Jim shook harder and was finally rewarded with a glower from two heavily blood-shot eyes. He held up his badge, and the eyes shifted slightly in an effort to bring it into focus. They widened perceptibly.

"We're looking for Robert Clavell. What room is he in?"

"Bobby?" The man frowned in concentration. "Uh, upstairs. Second floor. Left. First door."

Jim let the young man fall back onto the sofa again, then led the way up the stairs.

Left to the first door brought them face to face with a colorful banner depicting Air Force One sporting an outline of Texas and the words "Don't Mess With Texas."

Blair nodded sagely. "I'm betting this is the place."

Jim knocked on the door. A minute went by without any indication that anyone had heard him, so he knocked again, much louder.

"Go 'way," mumbled a voice from inside the room.

Jim pounded the door again. "Police, Mr. Clavell. We need to speak with you."

The door was flung open with enough force to send it crashing into the wall. A young man filled the doorway, more than filled it because he stood a good three inches above the top of the frame. But it wasn't his height that made them take an involuntary step backward; the man's shoulders were damn near broad enough to brush the sides of the doorway, and his massive arms bulged with muscles straining for release from his T-shirt. As for his chest... well, Jim had seen narrower spans across the grills of Mack trucks.

The behemoth shoved them, a casual, negligent flick of his hands that sent them tumbling down the stairs to land in an ignoble heap on the landing below.

Momentarily stunned, Jim managed a futile grab as Clavell nimbly leaped over them and thundered down the next flight of stairs. The floor shook under his weight.

Clavell reached the foyer in a huge lunge. Henri and Rafe were waiting for him at the bottom, but he just stiff-armed them as he charged toward his goal: the front door. Only Megan stood between him and freedom.

Still struggling to untangle himself from Blair, whose own efforts only compounded their predicament, Jim watched in horror as Megan held her ground. She was either too terrified or too stubborn to get out of the way. Knowing Connor, he suspected the latter. He finally regained his feet, but he knew he would be too late to save her; Clavell would crush her like a bug on a windshield.

Instead, Clavell slid to a halt inches from her, lifted her gently by the shoulders, and deposited her safely to one side. "Ma'am, it's not proper for ladies to step into the middle of a ruckus."

Her mouth dropped open in shock.

Jim grabbed Clavell from behind. Henri jumped in to help, with Blair finishing a gasping third place. A couple of frat boys wakened by all the noise cheered lustily from the sidelines.

Rafe was occupied trying to restrain Megan, who was snarling like a wildcat. Clearly, she was pissed off at Clavell, who hadn't done anything to her as far as Jim could tell. However, the language spewing from her mouth was decidedly unfeminine. He only caught a couple of words, and even though he didn't know much Aussie slang, he thought "boof" and "drongo" couldn't mean anything nice.

"Robert Clavell," Jim said somewhat breathlessly as Blair helped him fasten the cuffs, "you're under arrest for the murder of Dwayne Newsome."

It was amazing how quickly the festive mood of the cheering section died as he spoke those words.

"I didn't mean for him to die," Clavell mumbled.

"You have the right to remain silent," Jim said loudly. "I suggest you exercise that right. You have the right to an attorney. I suggest you get one."

Clavell slumped as he became more fully aware of his situation. He was quiet as Jim recited the rest of the Miranda warning and led him out the door toward a squad car that was just pulling up to the curb.


The rest of Sunday passed in a whirlwind of activity. Clavell followed Jim's advice and didn't say anything until his lawyer arrived.

They spent the interim briefing Simon, who got on the phone to the Chief and the DA. He was going to have a busy Sunday briefing his superiors and working with them to form a unified front for the news media.

Jim and Blair managed to find some quiet time to attack their never-ending paperwork.

When Clavell was finally ready to be questioned, the story that emerged was one of ill-fated poor judgment. Country born and bred, he developed a taste for jazz while in his freshman year at Texas A&M. A lucrative scholarship brought him to Rainier in his junior year to continue his undergraduate studies. The jazz club was his favorite hangout when he wasn't on campus.

On Friday night, he met Dwayne Newsome. He hadn't known Newsome was also a Rainier student, and they'd struck up a conversation. Clavell had been interested in Newsome because he wasn't a jock, liked jazz, and seemed far more intellectual than his frat buddies. More jazz, beer, and conversation followed, and Newsome asked him out. Perhaps it was Clavell's naiveté or Newsome's inexperienced approach, but the invitation was given and accepted without its full intent being clear.

In the parking lot, a drunken Clavell was shocked and ashamed when Newsome tried to kiss him. Outraged to be thought of "that way," he shoved him away. Newsome had sprawled into the trees. Instead of letting it go, Newsome let loose with some verbal assaults of his own, and that was when Clavell hit him the first time with his fist.

After that, Clavell had no memory of how many times he'd struck Newsome. Shocked the next morning to find out the young man had died as a result of the assault, he'd buried his fear in a haze of beer as the frat house swung into its regular weekend party mode.


When the interrogation was finally finished, Blair slumped into his desk chair and tilted his head back to stare at the ceiling. "Man, I can't help feeling sorry for the kid in spite of what he did."

"Yeah, it goes that way sometimes," Jim agreed, focusing his attention on the last of their current paperwork. They'd get most of it finished today, but it would be several days before the investigation could be called complete. It would take time to shore up their cases, interview more potential witnesses, and find corroborative evidence the prosecutors could use in court.

The time went by quickly as they worked, but after several hours it was clear Blair's heart wasn't in it.

Jim turned off his monitor and swung his chair around. "What's up?"

Blair looked ready to deny that there was anything wrong, but he caught Jim's expression and took a breath. "I was just thinking."

"Good thing to do sometimes. What were you thinking about?"

"Well, when I was a teacher, I know it wasn't always rewarding. I'd stare at a class full of bleary-eyed, vacuous faces and wonder just how much of what I was saying penetrated their boredom. But every now and then... every now and then I'd see a spark light someone's face, and I'd know I was getting through, you know? I was touching someone's life in a positive way."

Jim pursed his lips thoughtfully. "And now it feels like you're only touching lives in a negative way." It wasn't a question.

"Yeah, I guess that's it. Ferreting out the dirty little secrets of Fuller and Clavell, or even Hodge, makes me feel like I'm only bringing them misery."

"It's misery they brought on themselves," Jim reminded him patiently.

"I know that, too. I don't regret the work." He met Jim's gaze levelly. "I don't."

"So do something to balance the scales a bit."

Blair shrugged hopelessly. "I'd like to teach a couple of classes, but my schedule's too unpredictable to do that. Besides, Chancellor Edwards wouldn't let me back on the staff even if I promised to teach for free."

Jim turned back to his desk abruptly and began rummaging through a drawer. Blair watched this furious activity in bemusement for a moment before asking, "What are you doing?"

"I was surfing the 'net and ran across this thing that made me think of you," Jim said, moving his search to another drawer. "I printed out some stuff." He emerged triumphantly with several sheets of paper clutched in his hand. He gave them to Blair. "Here. What do you think?"

Blair looked at the pages. They concerned on-line courses offered by an accredited university that was in search of knowledgeable tutors. "You just happened to 'run across' this?"

Jim winced in embarrassment. "Well, it wasn't entirely by accident. But what do you think? We could set up a work area at home, get a webcam for video conferencing and whatever else you need. It's worth a shot."

Blair thought about it, then smiled. "Yeah, it is. I'll send them a resume, unless you've already done that for me as well."

Jim raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Not me, partner. I don't send anything anywhere without your permission."

He was grinning as he said it, though, so Blair just grinned in return. "This is a great idea. Thanks."

"You're welcome. Now let's finish this damn paperwork so we can get home before the sun comes up. Simon's given us two days off just as soon as we clear these case files."

Blair straightened and reached for his keyboard. "Why didn't you say so, man? There's nothing like the promise of forty-eight hours of uninterrupted sleep to get me motivated."


Getting home in the pre-dawn hours of Monday morning made Blair feel oddly out of kilter. He mumbled sleepily to Jim, who mumbled something in return, and they staggered toward their respective beds.

Forcing himself to undress and climb beneath the covers rather than follow his first inclination to collapse on top of them, Blair finally climbed into bed. He fell into a deep sleep almost instantly. When he awoke, he had no sense of how much time had passed, and he still felt groggy and out of sorts. Unable to go back to sleep, he navigated blearily to the bathroom. A hot shower loosened his aches following his tumble down the frat house stairs, and he finally emerged swathed in clean sweats and a warm cloud of steam to face whatever the remainder of the day held in store.

Jim was slouched on the sofa, his bare feet crossed at the ankles atop the coffee table, watching television with the sound turned down. Dressed in gray, drawstring sweatpants and an ancient T-shirt that no amount of bleach would ever make white again, he looked burrowed in for the duration.

Blair headed for the kitchen. "You awake?" A glance through the French doors to the balcony told him it was dusk. The murky gloom visible beyond the glass made him glad he was snug and warm inside the loft.

Jim sketched a casual wave in the air without turning. "Just about."

Rummaging through the refrigerator, Blair found a small bottle of juice and a Tupperware container of leftover vegetable salad that still smelled fresh. He poured some dressing on the veggies, grabbed a fork, and carried his treasures to the sofa. As he sat down beside his partner, Jim used the remote to turn up the volume on the TV.

"That loud enough?"

"Yeah, thanks." Blair stabbed his fork into the salad. "You eat anything?"

"Not yet. I think I'm going to get dressed and walk over to the steak place. A porterhouse sounds mighty attractive at the moment. Want to come?"

"Sure." The steak house was one of their favorite restaurants, and having it within easy walking distance was an added bonus. The place was noted for its massive portions of perfectly grilled steaks, but it had a good assortment of pasta and seafood to appeal to almost every palate. Then again, Blair figured maybe it was a good night to treat himself to one of those giant porterhouses.

They watched the news in silence for a while. Local coverage mentioned the swift conclusion to the Dwayne Newsome murder and the identity of the suspect, but there was a surprising lack of commentary from Brian Flint of the DA's office. Reed Bartlett of the Gay Youth Alliance got a momentary sound-byte from what was obviously a much longer diatribe. Creatively edited, he sounded happy with the rapid resolution of the case. More likely, he'd been spewing more venom about homophobes and police indifference.

Blair smiled. "Bartlett's going to hate the quote they aired."

Jim agreed. "Yeah, someone in the editing room must have been on our side for once." He turned serious. "I think both the media and the DA's office are still trying to figure out how to portray Bobby Clavell. Is he a homophobic, hate-mongering bigot or just some poor schmuck who made a terrible, tragic mistake?"

"What do you think Flint will do?"

Jim was silent for a minute. "I think he wants to make it a hate crime. The publicity will give him a lot of political mileage, especially if Clavell gets the death penalty. But he's chiefly a politician, so he's gonna lie low and see which way popular opinion goes before he makes a decision."

"So Clavell is just a political ping-pong ball." Blair sighed. "There's still an optimistic part of me that would like to see justice play at least a small part in the outcome."

"Justice." Jim sounded faintly bitter. "I bet Fuller's lawyer bargains Sherry Carpenter's murder down to a manslaughter charge, and he'll wind up sentenced to ten-to-fifteen and be out in five. If Clavell doesn't get the death penalty, he'll at least go down for twenty-five to life for killing Dwayne Newsome." He switched off the TV and stood. "We did what we were supposed to do and found the killers. It's all pretty much out of our hands now."

Blair got up and carried most of his meal back to the kitchen. "I hope you're wrong." He had mixed feelings about the apparent ease with Jim put aside the nagging moral issues. "We should be able to do more."

"We will," Jim said, "but not tonight. We need the downtime. You can light some incense and do your thing, and I'll kick back with a mindless movie."

"I taped the Grammy Awards."

Jim feigned seriousness as he pondered his options. "Hmm, watch Ricky-one-note wiggle his hips or see Bruce Willis blow away a bunch of bad guys." He grinned. "No contest."

Blair surrendered with a quiet laugh. "Just keep the volume down so the sound of flying bullets doesn't interfere with my meditation, okay?"

"Okay," Jim said agreeably, heading for the stairs. "Now let's get dressed. I'm starving."

~ Finis ~

E-mail the author of this story, Linda S. Maclaren (Mackie), at fourpaws@qnet.com
Read Mackie's other fan fiction for The Sentinel at Mackie's Idol Puruits
E-mail Faux Paws Productions at fauxpawsproductions@yahoo.com
NEXT on THE SENTINEL: Full Disclosure (3/25/01, FPP-624) by Eddie (Wnnepooh)
    Jim's need for answers leads him to request declassification of the files regarding his fated mission to Peru. But his inquiry brings more than just documents to his door -- it brings trouble. Someone doesn't want Ellison to know the full story, and they'll do anything to keep him from seeing those documents -- even commit murder....
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