The local human law enforcement had already been to the abandoned church. They had investigated the scene as much as their limited means allowed, paying special attention to the basement, but they found nothing useful to them and eventually departed, taking the bodies of the victims with them and leaving behind crisscrosses of yellow plastic tape across the doorway. Outside of the church, storm clouds hung low over the narrow valley. Little did the police know, if they had stayed until the rain started, they would have been able to gather more information for their investigation. If the police had stayed until the rain started, they would have been the next victims.
The dark clouds sank lower as the police cars receded into the distance. Inside the church basement, an unseen presence waited for the signal to begin its task. The first fat raindrop fell from the sky and splattered against the already moist earth. More raindrops followed, and inside the church basement, the music began. It was not to last. After only moments, the rain stopped as quickly as it had begun, and the music cut off mid-note with what would have been a palpable burst of frustration had anything with a brain more complex than an insect's been there to feel it.
Not everything was so frustrated, though. No foreknowledge of the future was required to see that the clouds were still dark and heavy and ready to unleash their full fury with little or no warning. That brief downpour had only been a taste of the rains yet to come, and even as the police headed back to town, other potential victims were coming. Even as the unseen force raged silently inside the church, outside of reality as humans could understand it, Time pressed against the thin place it had found and smugly waited for history to repeat itself again.
"Have you found anything?" Steel asked as he stared disdainfully at the yellow police tape hung in haphazard zig-zags across the door. 'Police line, do not cross.' 'Crime scene, do not enter.' It was such a flimsy barrier against the entry of, well, anything really, and Steel could not understand why anyone had bothered to hang it in the first place. Any ordinary person looking to get into the basement could pull it down or simply duck under it, and he and his partner had not even needed to do that, having arrived at their destination by other means.
"They're trusting people to honor the request to stay out," Sapphire said. Steel cast a glance at her over his shoulder and saw her slowly circling one of the thick wooden support beams in the center of the room, her fingertips brushing against the wood near eyelevel. She did not look up at him as she continued her inspection of the beam, but her lips wore the ghost of a smile. Steel had not been broadcasting the thought on their official communication channel, but Sapphire seemed to know exactly what he was thinking anyway, just like she always did. It was one of the things which made working with her such a joy on more than just a professional level.
"Why bother?" Steel said, turning away from the poorly secured threshold and beginning to do a visual sweep of the area even as he took the conversational bait. "The ones who would honor the request are not the ones that the authorities need to worry about."
"Sometimes it's the well-intentioned ones who risk causing the greatest harm to themselves or others, and keeping them out of the way is a good first defense." Sapphire's smile was completely gone now, and her eyes had a faraway look which had nothing to do with her continuing investigation of the wood under her fingers. She was probably thinking guiltily of the unfortunate Mr. Tully again, and Steel immediately regretted steering her thoughts in that direction.
"I suppose you're right." Not wanting to prod the unhappy memory more than necessary, Steel said nothing else and continued his own search for clues. There was a flash visible through the small windows mounted up near the ceiling, then half a minute later a faint grumble of thunder rolled down between the hills. It was not unexpected, given the local weather conditions, and down in the valley as it was, the church steeple was far less of a target for lightning than the trees up on the ridgelines were. The danger here was not from electrocution, but extreme weather always had the potential to provide unwanted complications.
There were still white outlines of a pair of human bodies marked on the floor near the column Sapphire was investigating, and the scent of rot lingered in the damp air, but otherwise there was very little evidence of the recent deaths. Graffiti covered most of the stone walls. It was mostly done in brightly colored spray paint, but there were also patches decorated using markers, pens, and graphite pencil. In a few locations, someone looking to leave a more permanent mark had etched letters (probably initials), dates, and simple drawings directly into the stone. Refuse littered the floor, and stacks of flattened cardboard boxes that appeared to have been used as makeshift mattresses sat in the corners.
Some of the cans and bottles lying around might have been a decade or two old, but most of the scattered refuse was probably much more recent than that. The graffiti could have been thirty years old in spots if it had been applied soon after the church was abandoned, but even that time scale was only a small fraction of the building's history and was therefore unlikely to have been present long enough to be the direct cause of a disturbance on the scale which the two temporal agents had been assigned to investigate. There were a few waxy spots on the floor where candles had burnt down to almost nothing, but their placement indicated they had only been used for lighting and not ritual purposes.
Nothing appeared out of the ordinary for such a place or otherwise worth calling to Sapphire's immediate attention for deeper analysis. On the whole, the church basement appeared to be used as a communal gathering place for a certain untidy portion of the local population to gather out of view of the rest of society. Any community of more than a few households developed one or more similar places; it seemed to be human nature. Sometimes it was in clearings in the woods, or old barns, or disused subway tunnels, or skyscraper rooftops, but the basic function was always the same. So what made this one special enough for Time to take enough of an interest to become dangerous?
"People have died here," Sapphire said suddenly.
"Obviously." What was not so obvious was whether she was answering the question he had just thought, or the one he had asked previously. "That's not what you mean though, is it?"
"No, I mean that people have died here on multiple occasions, always two or more at a time." She moved her hand to the next stone.
"Do they simply die, or do they kill each other?"
"It doesn't seem to be either, not exactly," Sapphire said. A small shake of her head was her one concession to the frustration that she must have been feeling. "The readings are jumbled together enough that I'll need more time to peel back the layers and sort them out."
There was another rumble of thunder, closer this time, but still miles away. Rain began to patter against the glass of the high windows, but more concerning was what else Steel could now hear.
"We may not have that time, Sapphire," he said. The sound of faint, laughing voices and music could be heard from upstairs, and they were coming closer.
Sapphire nodded. "I'll go as quickly as I can," she said, already striding across the floor to the next pillar, "but you know some things can't be rushed." They had ways of dealing with interfering humans, but there was something palpable in the air now, a sense of eager anticipation that was unlikely to bode well for them, so they could be hearing the sounds of approaching innocents in the wrong place at the wrong time, or they could be hearing the beginnings of the full manifestation of whatever they were dealing with. Steel placed himself between Sapphire and the door and made himself ready. Sapphire continued her work, and if she noticed (no, of course she noticed) the hoarfrost suddenly condensing out of the air and collecting around Steel's clenched fist, she did not comment on it.
Outside, the rain grew heavier. The voices faded away, but the music grew louder and louder, until it abruptly stopped.
"Are you here for the dance?" a cheerful voice inquired, not from the door in front of Steel, but from behind him. Steel whirled around and saw the shape of a young woman, maybe thirteen, maybe younger, wearing old-fashioned clothing and holding a violin. She was slightly transparent, only flickering into the appearance of full solidity whenever the lightning flashed. "Or you here to die like everyone else?" Water began pouring down from the walls, far more than could be accounted for by the current rain outside. It poured in through the closed windows. It rushed down the stairs. Within moments, the floor was awash to knee height. Then the ghost turned her attention to Sapphire, saying, "And what about you?" The water level kept rising.
Steel lunged forward, grabbed the ghost, and growled, "Stop this."
The ghost stopped in her tracks but gave no sign that she even noticed the ice creeping across her shoulder from Steel's freezing hand. "I can't play for the dance if you don't let go," she said.
"Why would we want to dance when we're about to drown?" Sapphire said.
"You don't know the flood's coming, silly," the ghost said. She flickered out of solidity and out of Steel's grasp, reappearing on the other side of the room. "I didn't. Pastor Thompson didn't. My brother Joey didn't, and his girlfriend Mabel didn't." She tucked the violin under her chin and began to play. "Do you think Mabel would have told Joey she loved him if she knew that the storm was going to send a flood roaring down the valley and we were all about to die?" She played faster. "I was only here because I promised to play for Joey, to set the mood just right so he could tell Mabel he loved her and she would say she loved him too, and everyone could live happily ever after." Her playing reached a frantic pace. "I could have died happy if Mabel had just told Joey that she loved him and meant it! But she never got the chance before the water crashed in!" The water was up to chest height and still rising, but the girl just kept playing. Steel could have frozen the water, but being buried in ice would destroy them just as surely as the liquid water would.
"You're waiting to hear a couple say they love each other?" Sapphire said, and now she was the one stepping between Steel and danger. "Have none of the other people you killed here ever done that?"
"They said it because they wanted to live," the ghost hissed. The water was now high enough to pour into the f-holes of her violin, but she kept playing, and the music seemed to be the only thing which would not drown. "They never really meant it! Sometimes they even admitted as much right before the end."
Sapphire turned her bright blue gaze to meet Steel's cool grey. She was smiling again. At a time like this, she was actually smiling. "And here I thought this case's solution might be difficult," she said. She turned her back on the ghost, wrapped her arms around Steel and whispered, "I love you, Steel."
Steel's answer was automatic, not because it was something that he habitually said or because it was even something he had ever said before, but because it was something he had been biting back the urge to say for over a century. "I love you too, and I always will."
The music stopped, and over Sapphire's shoulder, Steel could see the ghost lowering her violin into the receding water, looking tired but satisfied.
"Was that so hard?" she said with a happy sigh. "Why couldn't any of the others have done that? I mean, really, what's this world coming to?" She shook her head in exasperation, and then an instant later both water and ghost vanished as if they had never been there. Sapphire and Steel had to brace against each other to keep from falling with the sudden cessation of exterior physical forces on their bodies, but the contact was far from unwelcome. In the sudden stillness, it was easy for them to feel the lessening pressure on reality as the wounded thin place in the universe begin the slow process of healing over. Outside, the rain continued to fall, but it was, as it always had been, only rain, a trigger but not the cause. There would be no more time incursion related killings here.
They continued to hold each other for both a moment longer and an eternity less than was necessary, until Sapphire decided to break the silence. "That confession was long overdue," she chided gently.
"I wasn't sure it would be welcome," Steel said, feeling how stupid such an idea was as soon as he said it aloud. "I thought you would have said something before now, if you had felt the same."
"I was working under the belief that some things can't be rushed," she said, gently pulling herself from Steel's grasp. She straightened her clothes, reached out to smooth down Steel's necktie, then looked around the basement and laughed. "I appear to have been mistaken."
Sapphire stepped close again and pressed her mouth to his. Steel returned the kiss and then enthusiastically deepened it. Biological functions were not always a necessity for their kind, but sometimes they really were quite pleasant. Steel hoped they could explore this one further in the near future.
"First though, we needed to report on what we found," Sapphire said, using their private mental communication channel so she would not need to prematurely interrupt what she considered to be a much better current use for her mouth than talking.
Eventually, and with great reluctance, they both agreed that duty needed to come before pleasure and that when there was time to continue their pleasure it would be better to do so somewhere with a door secured by more than a few thin strips of yellow plastic. They parted from their embrace, but not very far. Steel laced his fingers together with Sapphire's, marveling at how easily they grew warm at her touch, and together they stepped out of the three dimensions that humans can perceive and into somewhere else entirely.
At the door to the basement, the yellow police tape shifted gently in the faint air currents but was otherwise undisturbed.