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The Black Widow of Cascade
by
LRH Balzer

.

Act I

It was a beautiful invitation.

He put down his bag of groceries and studied the envelope again, whimsically smiling at his name hand-calligraphied across the top. There was just something about the word "Doctor" before "Blair Sandburg" that always guaranteed his full attention. He didn't get much mail with his anticipated title on it.

His fingers absently traced the embossed latticework bordering the expensive, goldleaf paper. The invitation was inviting him to view an exhibit of rare artifacts from a private collection. Frowning, he glanced at the date of the 'invitation only' event, then quickly at the calendar. Well, that explains why there's no stamp on it. Must have been hand delivered. The viewing was for eight o'clock that evening. However....

Sandburg sighed and tossed the invitation in with the rest of the bills and junk mail he had just brought up from their mailbox. They had a stakeout that night and they were going on duty at eight o'clock. Wasn't that always the way? He put the few groceries away and tossed the rolls of toilet paper under the bathroom sink, then hurried back into the kitchen to grab the phone.

"Hello. Blair Sandburg at your service."

"Really? Great. Could you bring me a sandwich -- no, make that a burger, deluxe, extra ketchup, no lettuce or tomatoes?"

"Ha, ha. Funny, Jim."

"I'm serious, Sandburg. At my service, you said. And a chocolate shake."

"In your dreams. What do you want?"

"I'm just leaving the gym and gotta run a few errands before the stakeout tonight. We have to be there at nine now -- it's been pushed back an hour. I'll swing by and get you around 8:30."

"Really? Hey, 8:30 works great for me. Can you do me a favor? Pick me up at the Museum instead of here. I'll take the bus there; it's a direct route."

"The museum? What museum?"

"The Cascade Museum of the Arts. On Chancellor Boulevard near the University."

"At McBride? The one with the goofy statue out front?"

Sandburg rolled his eyes. Sanchez Romero was an outstanding sculptor, but he had to agree with his partner on this one. Even if he knew the statue was of a horse and rider, he hadn't seen any evidence of it yet. It looked more like a something that Scotty hadn't beamed up right. "Yeah, Jim. The one with the goofy statue out front."

"Sure. I guess. What's there?"

"An exhibit of Central and South American artifacts. I want to check it out."

"Be out front at 8:30."

"No problem. Bye." Sandburg hung up the phone smiling. Ah, the gods are smiling on me.


Cascade Museum of the Arts
Friday
8:00 p.m.

Eyes averted from the unfortunate statue looming to his left, Sandburg was on the steps of the museum, invitation in hand, when the doors to the exhibit opened. First in line, he handed his invitation to the guard, who stared at it and handed it back.

"Aren't you keeping track of the guests?" Sandburg asked.

"No."

"But it says by 'invitation only.'"

The guard glanced at the invitation again and shrugged. "Don't know nothing about invitations. No one else has one."

True enough. Sandburg looked around to the growing crowd behind him, and he did appear to be the only one with an invitation in hand. "Okay, then, uh, have a great day."

"Whatever." The guard turned back to the steady trickle of people entering the museum's special, time-limited exhibit.

Before Sandburg could ponder it further, he caught his first glimpse of the artifacts and crammed the invitation into his pocket. He only had another twenty-five minutes, so he had to make this fast. He grabbed a program and did a quick dash around the room, peering at everything quickly, then zeroed in on a series of small stone statues based on a larger mural shown reproduced on the back of the glassed exhibit. The mural portrayed the various animals worshiped by the pre-Inca Indians of Peru. The dog, it said, was worshiped for its faithfulness and noble character. He found the corresponding statue, one from shortly before the arrival of Manco Capac, the first Inca to come to Peru from Lake Titicaca. The statue was said to have originated in the Puerto Viejo province.

Sandburg moved on quickly. There were a lot of little statues. The cat, it said, was worshiped for its agility. Fox and Monkey were adored for their cunning, Owl for the beauty of his eyes and head, and Bat for his quickness of sight. Lizard. Frog. Condor. His eyes darted from the descriptive mural to each stone statue, in turn, his anticipation growing as he caught a glimpse of the word jaguar. "Bear, Puma, and Jaguar were worshiped for their fierceness."

However, when he looked at the spot where the stone jaguar should be, it was empty.

"No, no, no. This is not happening." Crouching as close to the glass as possible, he looked for it again. "What are the odds of that one being missing?"

"Can I help you?"

Sandburg whirled around, startled at the voice, then stood and stared at the beautiful older woman beside him. She was in her early sixties, wearing a long black gown, an elegant string of pearls around her neck. She was tanned and fit, as though she enjoyed the outdoors as well as fitting into what was obviously a wealthy lifestyle, judging by her clothes. "Oh. Hello. Sorry. Just babbling to myself."

"You seem very intense." She held out her hand to him, her beautifully manicured nails paling beside several rings whose value Sandburg couldn't begin to guess at. "Let me introduce myself. I'm Emily Rothschild."

Sandburg's eyes widened. "The Emily Rothschild who donated these artifacts?" Her name had been on the exhibit brochure he'd picked up at the entrance.

"Donated? In a manner of speaking. I've just made a substantial donation to the Museum of Anthropology, including part of my personal collection of artifacts. These particular statues you're looking at right now will be returned to Peru next Friday. I'm making an attempt to 'do the right thing'." She had a beautiful smile. "Before they're shipped off, the Museum here agreed to do a limited showing of the pieces, for any of the public who were interested."

Sandburg pulled the rumpled invitation from his pocket. "Did you send me this?"

Rothschild nodded, her eyes sparkling. "I did. I thought you'd be interested, considering your studies while you were at Rainier."

"How do you know me?"

"I have always kept tabs on the anthropology and archaeology departments at Rainier University. You've been there for quite a while now."

"True," Sandburg said with a laugh. "Not lately, though."

"I realize that. I had the invitation sent to your home for that very reason."

"I appreciate your thoughtfulness. I only wish I had more time." He glanced at his watch. "I have enjoyed seeing this display, though. Thank you for allowing your collection to be shown. These pieces are in incredible condition, considering their age."

"They've been in private collections for over a hundred years, carefully maintained." She looked at him thoughtfully. "Dr Sandburg, would you like to see the remainder of my collection before it's packed?"

"I'm not a doctor, actually. I'm working on my doctorate degree, but my doctoral thesis isn't finished yet."

"You've done the work, and more, dear. I followed the reports of what happened, and I've spoken with your sponsors. They feel you should have been allowed to submit your original thesis, and they told me you would have already had your doctorate if not for the meddling of that woman, Chancellor Whatever-Her-Name-Is. It was a disgrace to the university the way that was handled. I'm just glad you're back there now."

"Well, thank you for saying so, but I'm not really with the university anymore. I'm not teaching or anything, just working on my doctoral thesis. They agreed I could pick a new topic and redo it. I'm a police officer now, Mrs Rothschild, and I actually start my shift in forty minutes."

"What you do for a living is none of my concern. Your degree was in anthropology, and I'm sure your passion is still rooted to that field." Before he could respond, she continued, "My invitation stands. You are welcome to come to my home for dinner tomorrow evening and see the collection -- including the jaguar statue you seemed to be looking for."

Jim Ellison suddenly appeared at his elbow. "Ready to go?" he asked Sandburg, then smiled warmly at the woman his partner was speaking to.

"You're early. I've got two minutes left." Sandburg turned back to Emily Rothschild. "I would love to accept your invitation for dinner tomorrow night, Ms Rothschild."

"We'll see you at six, then. The address is on the back of your invitation." She looked Ellison up and down. "And bring your friend."

Before Sandburg could say anything, Ellison held out his hand. "Thank you, Ms Rothschild. It'll be an honor. We'll be there at six."


"You know, Jim, sometimes you totally confuse me."

Ellison glanced across the truck to his partner. "It's payback. You always confuse me."

"No, really -- you accepted an invitation to dinner at the Rothschilds? That's just like so out of character for you."

"Why do you say that?"

"Why? Because it's Saturday night tomorrow and there's a Jag's game on and you never like going out on Saturday night, let alone to a formal dinner at a mansion -- have you seen the Rothschild estate? I've seen pictures. It's huge! I mean, it doesn't make any sense why you'd want to go."

"Don't you want me to go?"

"Of course I want you to go. She invited you. I just can't believe you said yes."

"I'm just going for dinner, not marrying her. Relax, Chief." He pulled into a drive-through espresso lane for Mister Bean. "Your usual?"

"Yeah."

Ellison placed their order, then winced as the espresso machine whined and hissed. Sandburg was still staring at him, frowning, so Ellison tried to head him off. "By the way, how do you know Emily Rothschild? She's a little out of your league, isn't she?"

"I don't actually know her. Just met her now. She sent me an invitation to the opening. It said the exhibit was by invitation only, a limited showing, which is why I wanted to go."

"No one asked me for my invitation at the door. There wasn't even a charge; I just walked in."

"I guess they changed their minds after the exhibit was scheduled. Or maybe she just sent me a special invitation, considering the nature of the exhibit."

"Bit of coincidence --"

"She's a wonderful woman, isn't she? She just donated a huge amount of money to the Cascade Museum of Anthropology for research, and has placed a large part of her Aztec and Mayan art collection at the Rainier Anthropology Museum for...."

In light of Sandburg's enthusiasm, and not being able to get a word in anyway, Ellison decided to say nothing.

Yet.

But there was something about Emily Rothschild that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.


Cascade PD
Saturday
1:00 p.m.

"You're going where?" Simon Banks looked up from his desk, incredulous.

"To Emily Rothschild's for dinner tonight." Ellison grinned as he helped himself to a cup of coffee.

"How'd you pull that off?"

"Sandburg knows her. Well, he said he just met her last night, but when I realized who he was speaking with, I made sure I got over to them in time to be invited for dinner."

"Sneaky bastard." Banks shook his head. "Emily Rothschild. What do you know about her?"

"Well, despite Sandburg's new infatuation with her and artifacts, as I recall, she has a rather dubious reputation."

"That's an understatement." Banks pushed his files aside and poured himself a cup of coffee as well. Rothschild was a favorite topic of his. "Emily's marriage to multi-millionaire Paul Rothschild was her second marriage. Her first was to the owner of a large supermarket conglomerate. Both men died within a few years of marrying her. And in the fifteen years since Paul Rothschild's death, she's never remarried, but lives alone with her dozen servants in that huge Rothschild mansion. She's become respected in the community as a humanitarian and a supporter of the arts, but she's never been an accepted part of the upper society circles, probably due to her impoverished background and the mystery surrounding the deaths of both her husbands."

Ellison nodded. "When I realized who Sandburg was speaking to, I remembered you referring to her once as the Black Widow of Cascade, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to check her out."

"Black Widow, is right. Nothing has ever been pinned on her, but her name has shown up on police reports for over twenty years -- including, I might add, on a case here on my desk." Banks looked up suddenly. "Where's your partner? He's not with her alone, is he?"

"He's still sleeping. We were on surveillance from nine o'clock last night until six this morning."

"What are you doing here then?"

"I slept until noon, then woke up and figured I'd come in and talk to you before dinner tonight." Ellison moved his chair closer. "So Rothschild is mentioned in this file? What's the case?"

"A missing person. Eugene Merrell is a senior lawyer and partner in the firm Rothschild employs. He was reported missing by his son and daughter two weeks ago. Merrell was last seen leaving Rothschild's home after a private dinner engagement there. The other couple -- another lawyer and his wife -- together with Rothschild and her staff all claimed the man left the mansion at 10:30 p.m., exiting the driveway before the other lawyer's car. He'd had only two glasses of wine at dinner. He hasn't been heard from or seen since then, and his late model Porsche was discovered the next morning at Cascade International Airport."

"It's not really a Major Crimes case."

"No, it's not. I routinely have Ms Rothschild's name flagged for any cases where she's mentioned. I'm keeping track of it all. Consider it a little hobby of mine. Eventually she'll slip up."

"I'll let you know how it goes." Ellison stood up to leave.

"I'm serious, Jim. Be careful."

"I'll wear my special Spiderman boxer shorts."

"Why am I not reassured?"

Ellison stopped in the doorway. The humor had vanished from his face, his eyes were icy cold. "Then hear this. That woman went out of her way to get Sandburg to the museum last night, then had the one statue Sandburg would want to see conveniently not there. She bumps into him, and presto -- he's over to her place, invited to her lair. I want to know what the Black Widow of Cascade has planned for dinner tonight, sir. And it better not be my partner."


Loft
Saturday
5:15 p.m.

Blair's eyes darted from the clock to the two outfits spread out on his bed.

What can I possibly wear to Ms Rothschild's place? Do I go comfortable-casual? -- She saw me in jeans and an old jacket last night and invited me anyway, so she's not too hung up on appearances.

Jeans just didn't seem appropriate though, for a place like the Rothschild estate. Suit? Or semi-dressy? What if she expects me to wear a tux? I can't run out and rent one now. It's too late.

Besides, Jim would freak if he had to dress up. Maybe jeans would be okay, with his tweed jacket and a black T-shirt. Sort of a "hip professor" look. Or is that look out already? Damn. I'll call Rafe. He'll know what's appropriate. Blair thought about it for a moment and decided the teasing wasn't worth it. He could hear the Harold and Maude jokes already.

This is stupid. I can't believe how nervous I am. You'd think this was my first date, or something.

"Sandburg, we've got to leave in fifteen minutes. You ready yet?" He heard his roommate come down the stairs from his bedroom and go into the kitchen. "We can't keep the lady waiting."

"Almost ready, Jim." Blair eased the door open a crack and took a sneak peak at what his partner had on. His mouth fell open in shock. Mister Don't-Make-Me-Wear-A-Tie was wearing his good navy suit, a crisp white shirt and tie. There was even a white hanky in his breast pocket. Blair chortled and slammed his door shut, hand over his mouth.

"What?" Jim demanded, from the other side of the door.

"I'll be right out." Still laughing, Blair pulled on Plan D, his dark shirt, suit jacket and dark slacks. "You are so weird, Jim."

"I heard that."


After a brief debate over which vehicle to take, they were on route.

"You're bouncing."

"What?"

Jim glanced over to the driver's side of the Corvair. "You're bouncing. You're really excited about this, aren't you?" It was good to see Sandburg displaying his old enthusiasm, although it would have been nicer if it was about something less... "sinister" probably wasn't the right word, but Ellison had long shared his captain's suspicions about Emily Rothschild. "What's the deal with this dinner anyway? She have the hots for younger men?"

"Get off it, Jim. She's just a nice lady. Really in touch with the arts and everything. Did you see the display we were standing in front of at the museum?" At Ellison's negative shake of his head, Sandburg continued, "Well, it was a collection of stone statues of animals -- different animals worshiped by pre-Inca Indians of Peru. They actually worshiped pretty well everything: herbs, flowers, hills, rocks, hollow caves, all kinds of stuff."

"Hollow caves? Aren't all caves hollow?"

"That's what they're called in the texts. Kinda weird. But, yeah, they worshipped caves. The statues in the exhibit were of animals, though. The mural describing everything mentioned a jaguar, but there wasn't one in the exhibit. Ms Rothschild said it was back at her place. She decided not to show it."

"Why not?"

"I don't know. We could ask her."

"I plan on it." Ellison saw the worried look Sandburg tossed his way. "Don't worry. I won't interrogate her." Much.

"Be nice to her."

"I'll be nice to her," he promised, glancing up at the heavy rain clouds. "By the way, I saw the envelope your invitation came in, Doctor Sandburg."

"Yeah. Pretty funny, huh?"

"It was at first. Now I'm not so sure."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Why is she calling you doctor?"

"She said she thought the entire thesis thing was handled poorly, and I should have received my doctorate."

"Why does she know so much about you?"

"Jim, it was on the news, for heaven's sake. A lot of people knew about it. If she gives money to the anthropology department, she was probably really interested in the case, and watched the whole dismal report."

"Why did she send you an invitation? Why only you?"

"How do you know I'm the only one with an invitation? She could have sent a lot of them out."

"Only one was couriered."

Sandburg leaned over and smacked his arm. "I can't believe you checked that. Why would you do that?"

"Better question: why did she send you an invitation?"

"Because she wanted me to come to the exhibit. That's why you send out invitations. So people will come to your showing."

"But why you?"

Sandburg banged his head against the side window slowly, without losing his grip on the wheel. "You're driving me crazy here, Jim. It's no big deal. She must have thought I'd be interested. Maybe she's read one of my papers or something. I've done a paper on the pre-Inca Indians of Bolivia. Maybe she read it and for some reason remembered my name."

"I don't like coincidences."

"Don't make a Federal case over it, Jim. It's just a dinner. Just an artifact."

Thunder rolled ominously. "Correct me if I'm wrong here, Chief, but from where I sit, it looks like Emily Rothschild has lured you to her home, holding back the one piece from the exhibit that would guarantee your acceptance of her invitation to her home."

Sandburg looked at him incredulously, then burst out laughing. "You have seen way too many bad movies, Jim. Don't you pay attention when they say 'Parental Discretion is Advised.' "

Sandburg pulled his car off the winding oceanside road and stopped at the entrance to the driveway of the Rothschild mansion, just as a downpour unleashed.

"Wow. I imagined it would be big, but look at that place." Sandburg's face was plastered against the side window, trying to get a glimpse of the huge residence high up the hill.

With a creak and a groan, the huge ironwork gate swung open, allowing them access. "Step into my parlor," Ellison muttered to himself as they drove in.


Cascade PD
Saturday
5:30 p.m.

It was pouring rain outside, the sky occasionally flashing with lightning.

So why am I still here?

Simon Banks adjusted the lamp and stared at the cleared surface of his desk. His "out" box was full, ready for Rhonda to deal with on Monday morning. He should go home now, make some dinner, watch the Jags game. Relax.

Instead, he absently wiped a fingerprint from the surface of his desk, then flipped open his bottom right drawer. He pulled out several files and spread them over his desk, the storm outside forgotten.

For the next half hour, he pored over the cases, refamiliarizing himself with them, then jotted down some information and the case numbers. Going to the door of his office, he checked to see who was still around at that time of night on a Saturday. "Rafe?"

"Yes, Captain?" The detective stopped halfway out of the Bullpen, his arms laden with files. "Problem?"

"You have a few minutes to spare?"

"I could. I'm just putting in time waiting for Serena to verify some fingerprints Henri and I lifted from that Sony burglary we're working on."

"Can you check these case numbers for me? See if there have been any updates since the dates beside them. I'd like copies of anything new."

"Sure. No problem, sir." Rafe happily dumped his filing in Brown's box. "I'll just leave these for Henri to deal with."

"Have him see me if he has a complaint."

"I'll do that, sir."


Rothschild Estate
6:00 p.m.

A butler opened the door at their knock and ushered them into an elegant side room. Tall windows were framed by heavy drapes. Across the room from the windows, a fireplace blazed, catching the colors in a red and gold Oriental carpet. Several plush dark leather chairs were arranged around the fireplace. The remaining wall space was covered in bookshelves and a circular, black stairway led up to the narrow second floor mezzanine, also floor-to-ceiling in books.

Ellison frowned. It was a man's room. He could picture a man sitting at the large desk in the corner of the room.

The butler motioned them toward the chairs set around the fireplace. "Please have a seat. Madam Rothschild will be with you shortly." He moved over to a side bar. "May I offer you a drink, sir?" he said to Ellison.

"Bourbon is fine. Thank you."

Beside him, Sandburg whispered, "Bourbon? I've never seen you drink bourbon before."

"And you, sir?" the butler asked his partner.

"Red wine, thank you."

Ellison walked to the central window of the library. The view looked out east over the front gardens. It was too low to see above the massive hedges around the property. Any grand vista of the ocean or of Cascade City off to the south was reserved for the upper floors. He listened to the hum of the security system, his eyes finding the thin wires in the window casement.

It has been automatic. He could hear his father's voice ordering a bourbon. He had been in this house before, as a child. He couldn't remember why, but he had stood in this room and looked out this window. His father had had many bourbons before the night was over. His mother hadn't been there. Neither had Stephen. Stephen... had been away at camp. It was summer. He wasn't sure if it was before or after his mother had left, but she hadn't been there that evening.

Everything else was the same. Exactly the same. The smell of the leather and the books. The rich colors of the carpet. The smoothness of the mahogany casement on the window.

The butler brought the stiff drink and Ellison took a small sip, staring over the rim of the glass to his amused partner. Amazing that he was already off-base here. He wasn't sure if the memory meant anything. Thirty years ago, or more, Emily Rothschild wouldn't have lived here. Paul Rothschild had. Paul Rothschild had sat at that desk and done business with his father.

He had no memory of what Paul Rothschild looked like, only the memory of his father slowly getting drunk that night.

"The view is lovely, isn't it?"

He turned, surprised that he hadn't heard her enter. Emily Rothschild was in her early sixties, still a stunningly beautiful woman with a figure a twenty-year-old would envy. Tonight she was wearing an elegant, royal blue, raw silk dress that brushed the tops of her ankles and hugged her curves.

"The view is breathtaking," he agreed, putting his drink down, "but it pales compared to the hostess." Ellison enjoyed Sandburg's openmouthed stare at him as he moved forward to greet Emily Rothschild. "You look lovely."

She took Ellison's offered hands, squeezing them warmly. She smiled as he raised one to her hands to his lips and kissed it gallantly. "You are so kind, Detective Ellison. Please, call me Emily. The dress is one of my favorites, although I rarely have opportunity to wear it. It was designed for me by a late friend of mine, Carlo DePrimo, a designer who died a few years ago from a late-night mugging. The streets are so unsafe to walk at night."

"My first name is Jim, and may I assure you that the Cascade Police has been doing all they can to keep the city safe. In fact, the crime rate for assaults at night has actually gone down over the last few years."

"With you working for the police, Jim, I can't imagine why anyone would feel uneasy."

Ellison could hear his partner behind him, making little gagging noises, then suddenly Sandburg was at his most engaging, greeting Emily as though she were the Queen of England, trying to outdo his own performance.

Ellison's skin was crawling from touching her.

Once the pleasantries were over, Ms Rothschild looked them each over warmly. "I'm thrilled you could both join me for dinner. I don't get company up this way very often." The butler handed her a glass of white wine. "Thank you, Timothy. Gentlemen, why don't we take our drinks from this dreary room and go for a pre-dinner stroll around the botanical gardens? That way, we won't have to go outside in this horrible weather."

"Sounds like a plan. Right, Jim?" Sandburg looked over at him, the intense gaze begging his partner to behave.

Ellison nodded as the butler refilled his drink, then offered his arm to Emily and escorted her through the lead-paned doors.

Continue on to Act II...


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