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Chapter 1

The gates of hell are open, night and day;
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way.
--Virgil, Aeneid

Jim eased the truck into traffic, swearing silently at the long lines of cars waiting to exit the stadium. This happened every time he and Blair went to the game together; he always wanted to leave just before the quarter ended, Blair liked to stay until the final shot had been thrown. And they always got caught in the heaviest part of the traffic.

"Next time, Sandburg, we're leaving early." Jim leveled a look at his partner, who eyed him back skeptically.

"You say that every time, Jim, and we end up staying."

"Because you talk me into it!"

Blair snorted with laughter. "That's because you're so easy to convince, man. Just say you want to leave--I'll go."

"Yeah, right." Jim moved his eyes from the traffic to Blair, and shook his head. Like he'd been in control at all for the last year and a half. Right. His cell phone rang, and he pulled it out of his pocket, hoping it wasn't an official call. They'd worked late the last several nights to wrap up a particularly difficult case and this was the first evening they'd been off with a chance to relax. Even Blair, as energetic as he was, was beginning to show signs of wearing around the edges. "Ellison."

Blair sighed in resignation as Jim's face grew tight and grim. So much for an early evening at home and getting some extra rest. He watched Jim slam the phone shut, and switch on his emergency light. "Well?"

"Well what, Chief?"

Blair rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Are you gonna share that with me, or keep it to yourself all night? And if that's the case, would you just drop me by the loft? I have a pillow with my name written all over it."

Jim ignored him and turned the Expedition onto Mountaineer Boulevard. "Two DBs, and it's nasty, Simon said. Obvious homicide...with a few twists."

"Twists?"

"Simon wouldn't say on the phone. He says we have to see it to believe it."

Blair sat back with a thoughtful expression on his face. *That* didn't sound particularly reassuring. He knew his own experience was fairly limited, but Jim had a much broader background. If Simon thought that *Jim* would be surprised, well, what was he going to think?

They drove for several long minutes before Blair realized they were heading out of the city. "Where're we going?"

"Out by the nature center. Someone found the bodies inside one of the caves there."

"Great." Blair shuddered. This was just getting better and better by the minute. "You don't suppose Jack Walton's back in town, do you?"

Jim shook his head absently. "No, Walton's gone--unfortunately." The hard features on his face grew tauter with his memory of the serial killer who'd given them all the slip at the last minute. "No, from what Simon said, this has a different...flavor...to it."

Blair groaned silently. Trust Jim to use the word 'flavor' in a sentence combined with serial killers and murdered people. He shivered.

Beside him the taciturn detective watched him through hooded eyes, wondering again why his partner chose to stay with him through things like this. Not that he wasn't grateful, but he didn't get it. Ellison shrugged mentally and turned the truck onto the small two-lane road that would take them to the Nature Center and Land Preservation.


One look at the bodies lying in a twisted perversion of a lover's embrace, bright red splotches of blood spattered everywhere, had been all it took. Blair whirled around, his face gone white at the sight.

"I'm think I'm gonna be sick, man." It was a harsh whisper as Blair closed his eyes, trying to push the nausea down.

"Just do it outside in the bushes, Sandburg." Jim's lips were tight and his jaw clenched, though his tone was not unsympathetic. Blair opened his eyes and shot him a dirty look, but doggedly stayed by his side, if falling back a little.

Jim wasn't feeling so hot himself. In all his years in law enforcement, both military and civilian, he'd never seen anything quite so...so... Yeah. He didn't even have the words to describe how badly it affected him. Ritual murders were one thing; this was in a whole other category all to itself. He'd never seen mutilation carried quite so far.

The bodies were in a small cave, fed by a quiet underground spring. There was very little natural light in here, save for the moonlight that came through in small pieces through a hole in the ceiling of the cave. When Jim and Blair had walked onto the scene, Captain Simon Banks and Detective Henri Brown were already there. Banks was barking out orders about setting up some lights so the forensics and coroner's teams could see what they were doing, and Brown was overseeing the placement so as not to disturb the crime scene.

There were two bodies. From the angle Jim had to start with, it appeared they were both male, and both Caucasian. One was larger than the other, nearly to the same sizes as he and Sandburg. As that odd thought drifted through his head, Jim looked around to see if his partner had left to throw up. He hadn't meant to be so snappish with the younger man, but this was--weird. Eerie. It was no great surprise to see Blair standing next to and just behind him; he hadn't registered any change in the proximity of the heartbeat and scents that he knew as well as his own.

"Hey, Sandburg. You okay, Chief?" He turned toward the younger man, noting the rapid rise-and-fall of his chest, along with the almost violent paleness of his skin, and placed a strangely gentle hand on his friend's shoulder.

"Yeah," the grad student whispered. "It's just--gross, man," he offered. "Look at 'em!"

Jim nodded a silent agreement. They didn't often get bodies this mutilated. They were going to be a bitch to ID, too. Judging from their natural state, he doubted they would find wallets lying around with identification handy. Ellison closed his eyes for a moment against the influx of imagery of comparing fingerprints to computer printouts, and pouring over missing-persons reports. He sighed and looked around wearily.

The forensics tech finished taking his pictures and waved Ellison over. He walked around the bodies, trying to get a feel for them without disturbing them just yet. Something wasn't right, here, though. He took a deep breath, gagging at the sudden rush and strength of the blood scent.

"Dial down, Jim," Blair murmured in his ear, suddenly right there next to him. "Easy does it, man; it's all the blood, isn't it?"

"Yeah," Jim choked, breathing shallowly, trying to tune down the scent. He shuddered. "There's something about it, though. It's not a normal blood smell."

"Do you recognize it?"

"Yeah, but it's very faint. I'm having a hard time placing it."

"Give it time--it'll come to you." Blair patted his arm, then stepped back out of the way again.

"Jim!" Simon headed over toward them, an unknown man hot on his heels. "Didn't see you when you came in." He gestured toward the ground. "Nice, huh."

"I think there's some seriously sick individual loose, Captain." Jim knelt down next to the corpses. "I'd like to move them now, see what we can see."

The young man who followed Simon over was introduced as Paul Shiffer; he was the new forensics technician who'd replaced Sam. He appeared young and fresh and looked totally out of place in this grim setting.

"I doubt you're going to be able to tell much out here, Detective," Shiffer spoke up at Jim's request, "but I'll have the bodies back to Cascade and to the Medical Examiner this evening, if you want to sit in on the autopsy."

Jim felt Blair shudder behind him, the change in air currents alerting him to the spasms wracking his friend's body. Poor kid, he's never gonna get used to this part of it. "Yeah, I want the autopsy done tonight. And I want your guys to go over this cave with a fine-toothed comb, Shiffer. There's something very odd about this whole thing."

Paul glanced at his notebook, then down at the two bodies. The coroner's carts were being held nearby, ready to move the bodies once the police had a good look at the crime scene. He nodded to the detective, then turned and gestured to the two men from the coroner's office. "Let's get these bodies shifted and get some more pictures," he called. To Jim he added, "We already have several rolls like this, but Captain Banks figured you'd want to see them as they were found."

"Damn right." Jim watched as the larger corpse was rolled off the smaller one, noting once again how similar in size these two were to him and Sandburg. The heat his smaller partner was throwing was warming his side furiously and he found himself wondering idly how that heat would feel applied to other areas. He cut his own thoughts off, not sure he liked the direction they were wandering in. Where in the hell is this coming from? He wondered. It's one thing to have the odd, occasional daydream about the kid, but to start thinking real thoughts--. He shook his head to clear it and to bring his attention back to the case at hand.

"Who found them?" he heard his partner asking.

"Couple of hikers who were going to spend the night out of the wind," Banks was replying. "They figured they'd spend the night inside the cave, but changed their minds quickly when they saw our friends here." He gestured sardonically at the two bodies.

The other two men followed his gesture and the three seemed to register at the same time the degree of mutilation present. Both men appeared to have had their throats cut. There were deep-looking, vicious cuts to the chest, with the nipples on both missing. The abdominal area was a mess, appearing as an open cavity with nothing left in the yawning, empty space. One of the bodies was missing a hand. Blair followed the line of the body closest to him, blanched even whiter and wavered on his feet. Jim followed his gaze and looked down, then shivered himself.

"Castrated?" he asked finally, all three of them looking down. Shiffer knelt next to the larger corpse.

"Nope. Sexual mutilation. All the genitalia has been removed, from both."

Blair blanched again, but asked, "Is it, um, are the parts--around?"

Paul probed around the bodies carefully, checking inside the mouths and open abdominal cavities, his gloved hands quickly stained red. "No. They're not here, at any rate, and it looks as though most of the other organs have been removed as well."

Jim turned to watch his partner. "What's on your mind, Chief?"

"Well," Blair rocked on the balls of his feet, his eyes firing as he moved into 'lecture mode'. "In a lot of primitive tribes, the elders would sometimes order castration or mutilation of a sex offender. If he's also killed, like raped and murdered a woman, then as further retribution the organs are placed in the offender's mouth and he's left to die slowly from choking and blood loss. The Tartars also used to practice it a lot, on their captives in battle." Blair added helpfully.

Simon shook his head. "Sandburg--"

"No, it's something to consider, Simon," Jim interrupted, looking thoughtfully at his partner. "We're going to need to keep all options open here. Though I can't see how two men, lying in a lover's embrace, both mutilated, goes toward the sex offender theory, it's still something to keep in mind."

"It's your call," Simon said, watching both men.

Jim knelt next to the larger body. "Hey, angle that light over here," he called up to one of the techs standing behind him. He pulled on some gloves of his own and pulled one of the man's legs out. "There are carvings here," he said, surprise coloring his voice. "Grooves, or something. We need some pictures of this," he added to Paul and his technician. "Close-ups." He skimmed his fingers along the leg, noting that there were scars there. Recent scars, given the thickness of the tissue. "He's been cut, purposefully, it looks like. There's a pattern to the scarring."

Paul leaned in closer to take a look. "You're right!" he said, staring at the leg in front of him. He traced the pattern with his own fingers, following the same path Jim's had taken.

"There's none on this guy's legs...just on the bigger one." Jim had moved around and was checking out the other body.

"Chief, c'mere and take a look." Jim's voice was apologetic, knowing his friend wasn't going to want to look that closely at the murdered men.

"What?" The smaller man drew nearer, kneeling beside Jim. For just a moment the detective let himself get lost in the light, clean aroma that made up part of Blair's scent, then he looked at Blair.

"You know anything about ritual carvings?"

"Depends on what you mean by 'ritual', and who's involved." Blair frowned at the bigger man.

"Take a look here." He showed Blair the scar tissue, the pattern it was in. Blair shook his head.

"No, man, never seen anything like it before. But get some pictures of it, and I'll see what I can find on the 'net."

Jim backed away while Paul took some more pictures of the carvings, watching as Blair moved away, then around the bodies.

"You know that these are pentagrams, right?" Blair had scooted closer to the heads of the men, though he was taking extreme caution in not looking at them. He glanced up at the three men around him and moved backward hastily. "Inverted pentagrams. Wow--major bad karma."

"Meaning?" Jim was frowning at the five-point stars inside circles.

"Meaning, whoever drew these was using them for black magic purposes, which would probably figure in nicely with ritual carvings, like on the bigger guy's leg."

"Sandburg--what the hell are you talking about?" Banks chomped down on his cigar, fixing the young anthropologist with a glare.

"A pentagram, in theory, represents God, or man, added to the physical universe; it's a symbol of the divine power that man has over that universe. But inverted, or reversed, it's a symbol of the Devil and used to call evil forces."

Jim raised an eyebrow at him and Simon stared like he'd gone crazy. "You're kidding, right? Sandburg, what kind of nonsense is this?"

Blair shook his head. "It's not nonsense, Captain--not to those who believe in it. I'm not saying I believe, just that that's what I've read."

"Great," Banks muttered. "Now we're not only dealing with a multiple murder, but with a weird multiple murderer."

"Cascade's never dull," Blair whispered under his breath.

Jim snorted at his friend.


It was a short time later, during a step-by-step examination of the cave, that Jim discovered the missing hand, as well as the message, left for them presumably from the killer.

"Sandburg!" Blair had been lagging behind Jim, watching the older man follow the blood scent, hoping he wasn't going to lose what was left of dinner when Jim found the source for the latest wandering. The cave was proving to be larger than they'd originally believed, with a stone formation in another, connected cave, that they'd missed the first time through.

"I'm coming, Jim." He turned and headed toward his partner's voice. This is gonna be a fun one. Maybe I can get called out of the country for the next week or two.

"Chief?"

"Here, Jim." He turned around a stone outcropping and ran into the larger man, a startled "Oomph!" coming from both. Blair pushed himself back quickly, trying to ignore the flash of heat that ran through his body with the unexpected contact.

"Check it out. It's really starting to cement the satanic angle." Jim gestured above, then to the floor of the cave in front of them. "It looks almost like the hand was used as a paintbrush. Shiffer!" Jim raised his voice to call to the forensics man, then turned to look at his partner.

Blair was still staring dumbly at the hand, and felt a twinge of shock race through him when Jim reached his own gloved hand out poke gingerly at the severed limb. A hand as a paintbrush? Ewww! He looked up at the wall of the cave and the words were there, written in blood:

HE IS COMING PREPARE FOR DARKNESS

Jim stepped over to the wall, and sniffed deeply. It was definitely blood; no mistaking it for anything else. There was something else though, a different scent--the scent he'd noticed earlier. Not quite blood, but changed somehow. He thought he recognized it, but it was so faint as to be elusive. What the hell was it?

Paul and Simon had followed Jim's voice, heading for the tall detective. They stopped short when they saw the message painted on the side of the cave.

"Shiffer, I'm gonna need you to get me a scraping of this--we need to match it against the victim's blood. And I want you to check for anything--unusual. Like mixed types, or something. I think that this," Jim pointed at the severed hand, "was used to write the message. Be sure you get us fingerprints; we're going to need everything we can to ID our John Does."

Jim paced around the cave for a few more minutes, but found nothing else to clue them in to the murderers or intent, or anything else. The John Does were zipped into body bags and loaded into the Coroner's wagon to be transported back to the Cascade police department's basement lab and clinic.

He found his partner and captain talking to Shiffer as he finished his last walk of the area. "I didn't find anything else," he said, catching Banks' eye. "I think I'll come back here tomorrow morning; see how things look in the light of day."

"Good idea," Simon responded, his face drooping with fatigue. "You going back for the autopsy?"

"Yeah." Jim darted his eyes over toward Sandburg. The younger man was standing beside him, arms folded across his chest in a "stay-away" gesture. "Chief, I can drop you by the loft on my way to the station."

"No way, man. I'll come along with you--you'll get the paperwork done a lot faster."

Jim frowned, though inwardly he was bouncing happily. He checked his watch. "It's after eleven, Sandburg."

"That's cool, Jim. I don't have any classes to teach or attend tomorrow; just police work to keep me busy and happy."

The sarcasm was gentle, more of a teasing, and Jim took it in stride with some of his own. "Fine--you want to torture yourself, who am I to argue? Just remember this when I'm trying to roll your ass out of bed tomorrow at six in the morning."

"Yeah, yeah." Blair turned back toward the mouth of the cave, eyeing the nighttime sky out there. He wanted nothing more than to get out of here, as quickly as possible.

Banks cut in then, anxious to wrap up and get home. "You go in tonight for the autopsy, Jim, come on in later in the morning. Hell, drive back out here first, if you want." The large man threw a concerned look toward Blair, then shrugged at the answering look in Jim's eyes. "You guys take it easy, tonight," he said, then moved off toward his car.

"Night, Simon," Jim muttered, his gaze drawn once again toward Blair. "Ready to go, Chief?"

"Man, am I ever." Blair followed Jim gratefully back to the truck, eager to be gone from this place. There was something very weird about these murders, something very creepy.


Chapter 2

"Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven."
--Milton, Paradise Lost

 

"Both male, both Caucasian; most likely mid-to-late 20s, given their apparent state of health and fitness. Both men have been eviscerated and most of the internal organs are missing. Actual cause of death I'm stating as exsanguination--probably during the organ removal." Dr. Wolfe moved back and forth between the two tables, cataloguing for Ellison and Sandburg as he went.

"This one," he gestured to his right where the larger Doe lay, "has had multiple injections of something. You can see the faint bruising and pin-point where the needles were inserted." He held up the arm of the corpse and pointed to several spots. "We're running a toxicology report right now; we should have the results of that in a few hours. Fortunately, the liver was one of the organs still intact and we ought to be able to get a pretty good work-up from it. The lab is also running a screen on the blood samples that were brought in."

Blair leaned his head back against the cool tile of the examination room, praying for this to end soon. He was holding up better than he thought he would, given the circumstances, but he could still feel the sweat beading his upper lip. How long did it take to cut and examine a couple of dead bodies? His stomach rolled at the rather vivid picture that thought provided, and he closed his eyes, forcing it to calm down. How can Jim say he's used to this--that I'll get used to it? I won't get used to this if I live to be a hundred!

Jim watched the ME move through his paces while at the same time keeping a watchful eye on his partner. Blair's face was several shades paler than he was comfortable with, and even from across the room he could see the sweat beading his upper lip. An unbidden urge rose up in him to cross the room and lick the sweat from there--Jesus Christ, Ellison! Get a grip, man. He settled for moving himself to stand close to the younger man, hoping to offer some comfort from his presence.

"Hey, what do we have here?" Dr. Wolfe's mutterings cut into his thoughts and Jim forced himself to move back over by the coroner.

"What?"

"Here," Wolfe shifted the body and pointed to the anal passage. "This guy's experienced some seriously rough anal penetration in the recent past. Multiple times, it looks like, judging from the scar tissue in the rectum. It's very new, so he's only healed recently."

"What, you mean like rape?" Blair stirred himself from the doorway, his expressive eyes meeting Jim's and communicating what he thought about all this.

"Blair. Geez, man, forgot you were in here, you've been so quiet. Yeah, I suppose rape is a possibility, although there are men who like rough sex--and it's not a rape situation."

"Does he have marks anywhere else that would indicate if he liked to play rough games?" Jim leaned over the corpse. "You know--like maybe sex games that got out of hand?"

Wolfe shook his head. "I didn't see anything indicative of that. He's got a few bruises on his legs, but that's not uncommon in keeping with the rough sex angle." He shook his head again. "I'd be able to tell you more if the body wasn't in such bad condition."

"Hey, we appreciate anything you can give us." Jim moved back up to the head of the body. "So we have two men, one of whom has experienced rough anal sex recently; one of whom has numerous markings on his body indicating drug-use of some sort--we don't know at this point if it was voluntary or not--and both are mutilated badly. Hey, Doc, were you able to make anything of the markings on the guy's legs?" Jim gestured toward their larger Doe.

"I'm inclined to agree with you that they're some sort of ritualistic pattern, but I'd be at a loss as to what." The doctor pulled his gloves off and took a drink. "I'll have the results of the rest of the autopsy in an hour or two--you planning on hanging around, or should I just send the report up to your desk?"

"Have it sent up--we have to get the paperwork started now." Jim headed toward the door, catching Blair's look of relief as it swept across his face.

"Right. See you later." The ME was already moving back toward the tables as the two men left the room.


"Well, that was, like, not fun," Blair stated as they waited for the elevator. "Man, this is some weird shit here," he continued. "You're talking rituals and drug use, rough sex...Jim, what the hell is going on here?"

Ellison shook his head, as confused by it all as his partner. "I don't know, Chief. We've got more pieces now than I know what to do with, and none of them are looking to add up and give me a whole picture."

"Think you'll be able to ID the bodies?" Blair followed Jim onto the elevator and breathed a deep sigh of relief as the clinical smells of the basement were left behind.

"Dunno. Depends of if either of them have any cause to have been fingerprinted in the past." Jim gently pushed Blair out of the elevator when it stopped, steering him toward his desk. "Want some coffee before we get started?"

"I'll get it, man. You go on--I can hear those forms calling your name."

"I thought I was the Sentinel here, Chief."

"Not for paperwork, Jim. Anyone close enough can hear that." Blair's eyes were still clouded by concern, but his smile was true to form: blazing bright enough to sub for light bulbs. Jim returned the smile and headed for his desk, beginning to believe he could hear the forms calling him.


Three hours later they were hip-deep in lab analyses, reports and photos.

The close-up pictures of the bodies were as horrifying now as the real thing had been six or so hours ago, and Blair felt the stirrings of hunger he'd had disappear completely. Even Jim was sitting there looking pretty grim, and he was a lot more inured to this than Blair was.

"Man, this is like a recipe for madness," Blair glanced up at Jim before returning to his reading. "Have you read the toxicology reports on Doe One?"

"Huh-uh. What's up with them?"

"Bad news, big guy. Pure and simple as that." Blair began reciting the list in front of him. "They found traces of henbane, mandrake, stromonium and belladonna, as well as some substances that typed as damiana and yohimbe in his liver. The first four are like, mega-hallucinogens, not to mention deadly as hell if too much is ingested; the other two I don't have a clue about, and it's not listed in this report. Well, wait." Blair paused and Jim watched his friend's lips moving rapidly as he read the rest of the report quickly to him. "Okay. The damiana is a stimulant and mild aphrodisiac.

"The other...yohimbe...is also a stimulant and a mild hallucinogen. It also says here that it's used as an aphrodisiac." Blair reached for his pen and made a question mark next to it, then moved on. "There were no traces of the chemicals in Doe Two's system, but the report says that doesn't mean that nothing was there, just that they weren't able to identify anything. Oh, and Wolfe has a comment on here that Doe Two's liver was missing, which was the main reason they couldn't identify anything. I guess the liver stores that stuff, huh?"

"Guess so." Jim leaned back in his chair. "What else?"

"Uh" Blair scanned the report, then turned the pages, reading quickly. "The blood--oh, man." He began reading silently, moving his lips again. Jim leaned forward in consternation.

"What? What is it?"

"The thing that you couldn't identify for sure, 'cause it was too faint? The scent?"

"Yeah?"

"Menstrual fluid. The scrapings taken from the side of the cave wall contained blood from both John Does, as well as menstrual fluid from an unknown source. That blood type did not correspond with either of the bodies found." Blair made a face as he handed the report to Jim. "Man, that is, like, way gross."

Jim took the folder, silently agreeing with his partner. This is getting weirder and weirder by the minute. "Got any theories for me on that one?"

"What, on the menstrual fluid mixed in with the blood?" Blair waited for Jim's nod before continuing. "I always have theories, Jim--you know that. In this case, I want to think about it for a little while, okay? There're a lot of pieces to consider here."

"Agreed." Jim leaned back further in his chair and stretched, the feeling of tightening and loosening his muscles suddenly an intensely sensual one with Blair's eyes trained on him. "What?"

"Just wondering if we could quit this place for a few hours. My eyes are starting to feel like sandpaper."

Jim nodded. "Mine too. Yeah, let's go on home, sleep on it all for a few hours, then see if we can't put some of the pieces together into a coherent picture." He stood up and stretched again, grinning when Blair echoed his motions. "C'mon, Chief."

"You don't have to tell me twice, man. I'm with you." Blair grabbed his jacket and followed the bigger man out of the office.


"Get the lead out, Chief," Jim rapped on the French doors once again. "We need to get out to the Nature Center, like pronto."

"I'm comin', man, keep your shorts on." Blair stalked out of his room about a half-minute later, glaring balefully at Jim. "Geez, I was up, already. What're you so hot to get out there for, anyway?" And why do you look so good, standing there in jeans and a tee shirt? The younger man sighed with the last thought; lately he'd been having thoughts like this, little skitterings of desire racing through him. When he'd started to turn on to his roommate he couldn't say for certain, but he was positive it wasn't something he should focus on.

"Crime scenes always look different in the light; we might find something this morning that we missed last night."

"Swell." Blair swallowed some coffee, grimaced when he realized he'd forgotten sugar, and headed for the sweetener. "What are we looking for, exactly?"

"Anything. Nothing. I don't know." Jim shrugged and drained his own cup. "You want breakfast before we head out?"

"Nah, I don't think I'm quite up to eating yet."

"You can't let this totally rule your life, Chief." Ellison stared at his partner in concern.

"I'm not, man. One missed meal isn't going to kill me." Blair patted his lean stomach. "I'm just feeling kind of weird from everything, Jim. Lack of sleep, the murders, all the weird shit we were reading and finding last night. Give me time, okay, big guy? If I'm not eating in a week, you can get worried."

"Smart ass," Jim mumbled as he grabbed his keys.

"Takes one to know one," Blair shot back flippantly, grabbing his backpack and a large book as he followed Jim out the door.

Once in the Expedition and safely on the road to the nature preserve, Blair put his glasses on and flipped open his book.

"Whatcha got there, Sandburg?"

The grad student took a minute to thumb through the pages before answering. "Well, you asked me last night about theories on the menstrual fluid thing, so I thought I'd check some stuff out here."

"What is that?" Jim regarded the large book from the corner of his eye, thinking that the Cascade Yellow Pages wasn't that large.

"Mmm--reference book. Has a lot of information on ancient, primitive rituals and tribal beliefs and customs and such." He paged more slowly now, and Jim let a small smile out when he watched Sandburg's lips moving. I bet he's not even aware he does that, he thought, eyes dividing their focus between the road and the full, sensual lips of his partner. Why's he have to be so damn sexy? I could have gone the rest of my life without having this sort of problem come up. Again. The 'problem' of course being an attraction to another man, in a world that didn't deal kindly with same-sex relationships. He continued to watch the man surreptitiously out of the corner of his eye while his partner read.

"Well," Blair began finally, in what Jim recognized as his 'teacher' voice, "there are a lot of possibilities in here. The gist of it though, is that in ancient civilizations, women were considered to be most powerful during their menses. Something about their body's ability to lose blood through no recognizable wound, as well as a blood-loss that didn't render them unconscious, ill or dead. Anyway, a lot of primitive societies would send the women away from the tribe, or clan, or whatever, during their cycle; often they wouldn't be allowed to touch anything that a man might touch, or eat, or whatever. No contact with the males of the society.

"Furthermore, according to the book, women were feared for their ability to bring life into themselves--conception, y'know?--and when they got their periods, then it was seen as the woman's spirit casting out the man's spirit, or overcoming it, or whatever. So it made men nervous and they began to take the precautions of sending women away during those cycles. So the blood of the menstrual cycle would be potent for magical workings, because it held the power of the spirits, especially those that weren't normally overcome easily."

Jim eyed Blair skeptically. "So, Teach, can I have the translation?"

"Man, you brawny jock-types." The smaller man shook his head playfully. "Translation, Jim, is that ancients used to think there was power in a woman; power that was magnified when she had her period. There's reason to believe then, that whoever is behind our murders believes that also, since there was menstrual fluid mixed in with the blood. That indicates a ceremony of some sort."

"Or else just messiness while doing the murders."

Blair rolled his eyes. "Believe it or not, man, there are some people who really do believe in this stuff. The fact that you've got pentagrams, ritual carvings that I still need to check against sources on the web, strange herbs that usually have ritual purposes, and menstrual fluid mixed in with blood that spelled out a message of coming doom." The anthropologist let his voice trail off purposefully. After a minute Jim flashed him a grin that was part amusement, part irritation.

"You're a pain in the butt sometimes, Sandburg, you know that?"

"Sure, man. But you know you love me for it." The younger man snapped the big book shut and leaned to stick it on the floor behind his seat. His hair brushed across Jim's bare arm and it was all the older man could do not to open his mouth in total agreement right then. Was it love? Or was he confusing love and desire? An image of Sandburg, last night, coming out of the shower before going to bed, flitted across his memory and Jim shifted nervously as his body tightened. Then the moment was past and Blair was eyeing him strangely, but not saying anything. Great. All he needed to have happen was to have Blair figure out that he was currently working through having the hots for him.

He was saved from having to answer the questions he knew were in those incredible blue eyes by the turn-off for the Nature Center. The guard they'd posted last night was still here; he waved them through when Jim flashed his badge.


Ellison and Sandburg returned to the precinct tired, irritable and unhappy. The revisit to the nature preserve had yielded nothing other than lost time, something neither man was happy about, given the amount of work and the missing pieces they still had in front of them. Jim snapped at Blair twice for no reason and the grad student had passed most of the return trip in a silence that, to Jim, was almost worse than his constant chatter.

The only good thing waiting for them when they returned was that the smaller of the two victims had been positively ID'd.

"Jason Rowan, age twenty-seven, single. He was arrested seven months ago for driving while under the influence and opted to go to the counseling sessions made available; hasn't had any problems since then. No wants or warrants." Simon read the file contents to Ellison and Sandburg, watched their reactions.

"Nothing on the other one?" Jim held his hand out for the file, which Simon handed him while shaking his head.

"No, sooner or later we'll get an ID on him, but meanwhile--" Banks broke off. "The thing the report doesn't note, and I wouldn't know it except that I okayed the release of the body, is that Rowan was gay. It was his boyfriend who came to pick up the body."

"You think that's related in some way?" Blair stared at the file, the man's age jumping out at him. Same age. Too young to die. God, I'm sorry this sounds so awful, but I'm glad it was him, and not me

"I don't know, Sandburg. Could be, or maybe not. There's simply no way of knowing, right now." The captain's voice was unusually curt, and Blair raised sympathetic eyes to the large man, understanding the motivation behind it. This thing was weird, and it had them all on edge.

Jim cleared his throat and turned toward the door. "Very good, Sir. Anything else?" At Simon's negative headshake he ushered his smaller partner out the door and toward his desk. Time to return to poring over labs and reports; see if they could find a common link in all of this that might give them specifics on their killer or killers.


"Hey, Jim...take a look at this." Blair leaned forward toward the computer, an edge of excitement in his voice.

"Find something, Chief?" Jim pushed the chair back and moved around to peer over Blair's shoulder. His partner was surfing the web, looking for a match on the markings on Doe One's legs and abdomen. Sandburg had been going at it for several hours now; long enough that Jim was certain his own eyes would have started to cross, had he been the one doing the search.

"Yeah, I think so. Hang on." Blair typed in a command, and the screen blinked then started forming a visual image. Blair sat back as the computer worked, waiting. Jim gave up standing behind him and perched on the edge of his desk.

"Okay, here it is." Blair moved the mouse and clicked on an image. Jim stared at it, trying to decide if he thought he recognized it.

"Yeah?" He gave up and asked anyway.

"Look at the photos, then look at the image, man. It's just like the design cut into Doe One's thigh."

"How do you know?" Jim asked, curiosity getting the better of him.

"I scanned the photo and loaded the image into the computer. Then I ran a search, looking for matches."

"Where'd you get the scanner?"

"Paul let me use the one down in the forensics lab." Blair bounced on his feet. "Pretty cool, huh?"

"And this is what it found," Jim looked at the computer picture. What he was seeing was an artistic rendition of it, but he had to admit it looked like the image in the photo. He picked the photo up to look at it closely, then held it up to the computer. "Okay, Sandburg. What is it, though?"

Blair heard the weariness in his friend's voice, and shot him a look. This case was really wearing on him--Jim wasn't used to having so many pieces that refused to fit together. He had to admit it was beginning to bug him, too. "It's a sacrificial pattern."

"Sacrificial? As in, sacrificing something?"

Blair nodded and clicked on another image. "It's generally used in fertility rituals, according to the text."

"Who generally uses it?"

Blair paused for a heartbeat. "Satanic cults are the most known for it."

"Jesus!"

"My thoughts exactly, man. Here, take a look at this." Blair zoomed in on the image, and Jim found himself looking at another picture of the ritualized markings.

"This one is different." Jim said in surprise. He peered closer. "I can see a difference between this one, and the cut in our John Doe."

"You can?" Blair asked, his voice rising in pitch. "That's great, 'cause I couldn't. These markings are used when the, uh, subject, I guess, is a woman. The text says that there are small differences between male and female. The person being cut is being offered up as a sacrifice for fertility--whether to ensure it, or become fertile, I don't know. I'll have to read a little further and see if it notes a difference." The younger man sat back and took his glasses off, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

Jim clapped a hand on his shoulder and smiled at him. "Good work, Chief. At least we have a direction we can move in now."

Blair watched Jim walk into Simon's office, and shuddered. Devil-worshippers and fertility rites. That was too scary to even contemplate. He returned to his reading, searching for more information that might help them find the killer or killers.


In the end, even Blair's identifying of the types of markings wasn't enough, and they slammed up against a dead-end.

They'd been working on the case for over a week with no new leads, no new information. Two men had died horrible, tortured deaths...and they were no closer to finding the killers than they'd been when they'd walked onto the scene. Simon was starting to get on Jim's case about it, and had already told him that if nothing new came up by then end of the work day he was going to mark the file closed, unsolved, and leave it until something showed up. He couldn't afford to keep Jim on a case that might never get solved when there were so many out there, waiting.

Ellison was tense all day, especially when several hours of driving around, checking out occult-interest shops panned out nothing. Blair had had classes that day, unable to get out of proctoring an exam for his Anthro 101 class as well as office hours. Damn, just having him here with me would have made this a little bit better. Someone to talk to...someone to commiserate with me. He was going to get the case pulled from him and that bugged him worse than anything--he hated not being able to solve a crime.

The day ended much the way it had begun--badly. It was raining out--something it seemed to do when he had a lot of driving to do--and cold to boot. He had one more occult shop he wanted to check out, certain that one of them here in town had to have the information he was seeking, if only he could get Simon to cooperate.

"No, Jim. It's not enough." His captain leaned back in his chair and watched his best detective pace the floor in front of him while he explained his thoughts and how he wanted to proceed. The look in Ellison's eyes when he said 'no' was enough to rouse his sympathies, but enough time had been spent on this. It was time to move on.

"But Sir, if you'll let me--" Jim hated leaving things undone, and this was eating at him.

"No. Look, Jim. I have thirteen unsolved cases sitting out there, waiting to be worked. New unsolved cases. Not ones that are a week old. Now I'm not saying that you can't continue to follow-up on leads if they come up...but this is no longer a priority. We weren't even able to ID one of the bodies, for God's sake. Drop it to the bottom of your roster."

Jim tightened his lips. "Yes, Sir."

He left Simon's office determined not to let this get to him.


Blair was equally dismayed, but optimistic. "Maybe something will turn up when we're not expecting it."

"Yeah, right. And next you'll be telling me you believe in Santa Claus."

"Hey, stranger things have happened, man. You know that. 'Expect the unexpected', right? Credo to live by."

"I think you've been watching too much 'X-Files', or something." Still, it was nice to have his partner sympathizing with him; he and Blair were too much in sync anymore for that to be unlikely to happen, but it was nice to have the actual words.

"There's no such a thing, my man."

So, life moved on. New cases were assigned and worked; some were solved, a few others went the way of the 'Cult Murders', so-called, since they had only the cultist-type clues to go on. Jim found himself settling down, getting back into the routine that had been disrupted by the intrusion of 'high-level weirdness', as Sandburg liked to call it. Once in a while he'd wonder if they'd heard the last from their cult killers.


Chapter 3

The Black Rider flung back his hood, and behold! he had a kingly crown;
And yet upon no head visible was it set.
The red fires shone between it
And the mantled shoulders vast and dark.
From a mouth unseen there came a deadly laughter.
--J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

 

The phone rang, startling the slumbering occupants of the loft. Jim banged his toe on the couch as he ran for the phone, and stood there cursing for a moment before flipping it open. "Ellison!" He barked into the mouthpiece. Blair stood in the doorway to his room, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. A quick glance at the clock showed it to be just after 2:00am. He sighed, thinking about the tests he still had to grade before class in the morning, and wondered when he'd ever get enough sleep. "Right. Be there in ten."

Blair straightened up expectantly. "Well?" Jim shot his partner a sympathetic look, and the younger man's stomach tightened up. "What?"

"We've got two more DBs, Chief. Same MO as the ones last month."

"Oh, man." Blair took a deep breath. "Lemme get dressed, Jim. It'll only take a second."

Jim stopped him with a hand on his arm, intensely conscious of the heat emanating from the soft skin beneath his. "You don't have to go, Blair."

Blair shrugged. "How bad could it be? I've been looking at the photos of the other ones for a month now." And you should know by now that I could just as easily stop breathing as not go.

Jim nodded. "Hurry then--I told Simon we'd be there quick."

"Not back at the preserve then. Is it close?" Blair turned back into his room, and Jim headed for the stairs.

"Yeah," he called over his shoulder. "About six blocks from here."

Blair stopped in his tracks. Six blocks?! Jesus, that was practically next door!


These two were just as bad as the first ones; worse actually, because they were a lot fresher. They hadn't been there for very long; hadn't been dead for very long. Paul told them that the corpses were still fairly pliable; rigor mortis hadn't set in yet. That was it for Blair; he slapped his hand over his mouth and ran for the nearest tree. Jim watched his partner from the distance, bent over, shoulders heaving with the effort of bringing up nothing. He sighed, wondering why Blair hung around like this. He wondered sometimes why he hung around. Stuff like this made him sick to his stomach too--mostly over his inability to keep it from happening at all.

"Okay, Shiffer. Give me the details. Same as before?"

"Almost identical, Detective. A few differences, but nothing radical enough to make me think it was someone different."

"Go ahead." Jim kept his eyes trained on Blair, waited to see if the younger man was going to be okay. His guide was leaning against the tree now, staring over toward the crime scene. Jim watched his gaze shift, tracking the movement of the officers covering the scene, as if looking for someone, then return to stare toward Jim. The bigger man sighed, then realized that he'd let his attention wander, and turned back to Shiffer. "Sorry, lost in thought there. Once again?"

"This body isn't quite as badly damaged as the others were; more of the internal organs seem to be intact this time. Well, hell--just present." Paul colored slightly and Jim waved his hand in a dismissive motion.

"I understand. Go on."

"Again, we have the missing limb, presumably somewhere close by." Paul shook his head. "The Captain has teams looking for it. This isn't as clean as the last scene was. Of course, the kids that found it could have scared off whoever was leaving the bodies--and they didn't have time to finish up properly."

Blair had wandered over just in time to hear the last part of Paul's comment to Jim, and shuddered, thinking about what could have happened to the kids who'd made the report, if they'd stumbled across the scene just a few minutes earlier and caught the killers actually there. "Are there any of the markings like last time?" He heard Jim's amused snort and jerked his head up. "Sorry, big guy," he murmured at sentinel level.

Paul nodded. "I was just getting to him." He indicated the bigger corpse.

"Now that we know what to look for Track marks matching the ones on the other body. We'll run a tox screen like last time, check for the substances we found before. There are carvings, markings, whatever we're calling them; they're the same, by the way." Paul glanced up to see Jim already crouched down beside the body, examining the man's thighs.

"Yeah, they are, aren't they." Jim stared at the image of the cuts, then pulled on some rubber gloves, prodding gently at the slowly stiffening tissue. "They're a little deeper than the last ones," he muttered, his fingers trailing slowly like he was reading Braille.

Paul stared at him in surprise. "How the hell can you tell that?"

"Um--Jim's got really sensitive fingers," Blair replied hastily for his partner, all the while fixing the Sentinel with a glare. Jim nodded, an 'I'm sorry' look in his eyes, aimed at his friend. He moved away from the bodies, toward the back of the alley they'd been found in. "Any of the ritual markings around? Pentagrams, or anything else?"

"We haven't seen any yet, but that doesn't mean they aren't around somewhere." Paul had moved back to the bodies to finish gathering blood and tissue samples. "Do you need any more pictures taken, Detective? We got several rolls of film, both in this pose, and as we found them."

"Were they like the last scene? Lying across each other?"

A nod. 'Yeah--looked like two guys who'd just, um, y'know. Slept together."

"In the biblical sense." Jim smiled grimly, eyes darting around for the body to match the heartbeat he could still hear--and probably could hear anywhere.

"Yeah." Paul flushed a little. "Sorry, it's--"

"Don't worry about it, Shiffer." Jim got to his feet and headed off toward where Blair was. He turned abruptly. "Do you know if someone's talking to those kids?"

Paul shrugged. "I imagine so. I--"

"Jim! We've got something over here!" Simon's voice, carrying above the noise of a preliminary investigation. Jim shot a glance toward where Blair had walked and gestured with his head. They moved toward the Captain, Paul trailing behind.

This was where the bodies were supposed to have been laying, Jim decided. A large circle had been drawn, with two pentagrams outlined in chalk above one side, presumably meant to be the headstones, so to speak, of the victims, like last time. They found the hand lying nearby, and on the back of the building, in fresh blood were the words:

THE DARKNESS WILL RISE SOON HE'S COMING

Jim flinched at the strong odor of fresh blood assaulting his nostrils. There was something else here as well. It was the same as...Damn! It was the same smell as last time, the menstrual fluid. The blood had begun dripping down the wall, and the letters were losing their wet look. Jim looked around for forensics. He grabbed the closest tech and snapped, "Get a sample of that blood right now, before it dries!"

Blair turned to Jim. "You got something, Jim?"

He gave a sick grin and said succinctly, "Menstrual fluid."

Blair shuddered at the meaning behind that. He could almost feel the bad vibes this place, these bodies, were giving off. Talk about a freakin' lifetime of bad karma! Man, I'm gonna have to start staying away from places and things like this. Right. He snorted quietly. As if I'd stay away, if Jim needed me.

Jim wandered around the scene some more, silently checking things out, before commenting, "Let's pack it in here, Sandburg. We'll get the results of all the labs and tests tomorrow; and they're gonna autopsy first thing in the morning."

"Right." Blair resisted the urge to point out that it already was first thing in the morning, and turned instead to follow Jim back to the truck. He stopped and turned back around when he realized the bigger man wasn't with him. "Jim?"

Jim had moved over beside the wall, and was kneeling down next to a puddle of blood on the ground. He pulled a rubber glove from his pocket and put it on; then touched the blood, bringing the tip of his finger up to his nose to smell. Blair watched him take a sniff, then another, then a third. Jim's eyes flew open on the third, and he stared at Blair, eyes open wide in disgust and disbelief. "It's menstrual blood and" He sniffed again, more forcefully this time. "Semen. There's semen mixed in with this. But it's mixed in with other blood as well--I can't tell how much of what is here."

Blair made a face. "Ewwww...that's like so gross, man. You sure?"

"As sure as I can be until we get the lab reports back, but yeah, pretty much." He looked around and motioned to a forensics technician to join them. "This is getting weirder by the minute, Chief."

Blair nodded, eyes still focused on the puddle of blood at Jim's feet, and the drying blood on the wall.

"You needed something, Detective?" The tech moved to kneel next to Jim.

"Yeah--I want you to get samples of this, and test it against the samples of blood gathered from the two bodies, as well as against the samples we received from the victims last month. And test for other substances as well."

"Like what?" The tech looked baffled.

"If I knew I wouldn't have to have you test, would I?" Jim's answer was curt, and the tech flinched a little. Blair stepped forward and placed a calming hand on an arm that was rock-hard and tense beneath his fingers.

"C'mon, Jim. Let's get going."

"In a minute, Chief." Jim headed away from the tech and the puddle of...whatever, and toward Simon. He quickly informed the captain of what he believed the blood held, in addition to the menstrual fluid and other blood. Blair followed behind him, anxious about the tension that was radiating off of Jim in waves. "not going to stay for the autopsy tonight; I think Paul said they probably won't do it until morning, anyway, since it's so late--or early. We'll be in first thing, for the results, before coming back here."

"That sounds like a plan, Jim. Sandburg, you're as pale as death right now."

"Just a little reaction to all --this." Blair gestured, managing a parody of a smile. "I'm fine, Captain."

Banks snorted. "Right. Like hell. Go home, get some sleep, and come in, in the morning ready to solve this mother. I'm tired of pairs of bodies turning up in my city."

Jim nodded. "We'll see you in the morning, Simon." He turned away, catching Blair's sleeve. "C'mon, Chief--let's get out of here."


In Blair's mind, this autopsy was worse than the first one. Then, it had been dark; the evening matching the findings, cold and dreary, frightening. The sun was shining merrily today; a warm breeze was blowing off the coast, tiny white caps shimmering on the water. All in all, much too nice a day to have to deal with the ugly reality of death--especially murder. He shifted from his spot by the door, swallowed heavily once, then tuned back into the conversation between Jim and the ME.

Wolfe was gesturing enthusiastically toward the smaller corpse, his mask and eyewear doing nothing to hide his exuberance over his job. "Like the last one, there is evidence of rough penetration; he has scar tissue indicating healing. However, there are fresh lacerations as well, indicating trauma of some sort in the very recent past."

Jim watched, eyes hard and cold, muscle in his jaw flexing. "Can you tell how recently?"

"No--although I can estimate for you; probably within the last several days. The lacerations have begun to heal, but not enough for the tissue to actually be scarring yet."

The detective nodded. "What else?"

"His liver was intact this time, as is the other victim's, so we're running a tox screen on both of them." Wolfe shifted away from the smaller body and over to the larger. "There are a few noteworthy differences here, too." He pushed the torn tissue of the abdomen back together, holding it in place with one hand. Jim jerked his head around when Blair made a quiet, whimpering noise, his throat moving convulsively as he swallowed, working to contain the nausea.

"Go on, Chief--I'll handle this for us." The words were soft, almost gentle, in the harsh atmosphere of the autopsy room. Blair nodded thankfully and fled, his rapid heartbeat and intense respirations signaling to Jim that the younger man wasn't going to be able to contain it this time.

"Sorry, Doc. You were saying about differences?" Jim turned back to meet the sympathetic but amused gaze of the Medical Examiner.

"Right. Well, on our Doe One, the larger, we've got markings on his abdomen as well. I don't know if they were on the last one; he was too messed up to tell much of anything. But this fella's been marked here," he smoothed along a line near the navel, "and here." Another line, extending from the navel to the top of the pubic bush, then skirting along where the penis should have been, toward the inside of the thigh.

"You think it's the same patterning?" Jim leaned over closer, dialing his smell down nearly to zero. Even preserved, the corpse was beginning to stink of decay, and his head already ached enough.

"Hard to say for sure, since we didn't see it on the last one, but yeah, I'd say so. And was it you that told Shiffer last night that these cuts were deeper?" Wolfe glanced down at the chart on the table next to the autopsy tables.

"Yeah, why?"

"You were right--deeper by nearly an eighth of an inch. Which might not seem like a lot, but given that we're talking cuts into flesh here--"

"Makes a difference. Right." Ellison nodded, wondering what he'd done, and to whom, to get this case rearing its ugly head again. "Anything else?"

The ME shook his head. "Nothing outstanding. Mostly more of what we found in the first pair; this particular set is just in a little better condition than those two were."

"Thanks, Doc. I appreciate the help." Jim nodded to the other man, then opened the door and headed out.

He nearly tripped over Blair who was sitting on the floor, slumped over, his face an alarming shade of pale.

"Chief?" Jim dropped to a crouch next to his friend, his hand already cupping Blair's shoulder. "You okay, buddy?"

"Fine," Blair croaked. "Can't say the same for my breakfast though."

"I thought you didn't eat anything." Jim stood and extended a hand to his friend, certain there was nothing wrong with Sandburg that wouldn't be alleviated when this whole mess was over.

"I didn't." A tiny smile tugged at pale lips. "It was a joke, man."

Jim shook his head and rolled his eyes. "Come on, Sandburg. Let's get some coffee into you. Might make you feel better."

"You mean the slag they try to pass off as coffee here?" Blair shuddered. "No way, man. My stomach's in no shape for that."

"I thought we'd go to the Coffee Shack; maybe try something a little more exotic than the plain stuff."

Blair eyed Jim suspiciously. "What's with you, Ellison? Just 'cause I was puking my guts up--"

"No, no--I just thought we could both stand to get out of here for a few minutes; fresh air to clear our heads, maybe toss some theories around."

"Okay--sounds good to me. Lead on." Blair tried to ignore how good the warmth of Jim's hand felt against the small of his back as his friend pushed him toward the door.


They passed theories around, and just bull-shitted in general, for nearly two hours, over several cups of imported, flavored coffee for Jim, and several cups of herbal tea for Blair. When Jim was satisfied that his partner's color was approaching normal, and his heartbeat had calmed considerably, he suggested that they head back to the station and get some work done.

Blair paused outside the station doors, his manner hesitant. "Jim."

"Yeah, Chief?"

God, how do I tell you how much it means to me that you saw I was losing it and took care of me? Some things go way beyond the whole Blessed Protector mantle, but you never seem to shrink away from them, no matter how trivial I think they are. "I--. Thanks, man."

The bigger man looked genuinely confused and Blair's heart contracted painfully in his chest. "For what?"

"Just--thanks. Okay?"

"Sure thing, Sandburg. C'mon," he cuffed him gently on the side of the head. "Let's go find out who our bad guys are." I wish sometimes I wasn't a cop, just so you didn't have to pretend to be one too. That I could keep all the bad shit in my--in our--life away from you. That you never had to see just how bad the bad can be. If all it takes to make it a little better is a couple cups of coffee or tea, then I'm thankful.


"Got anything interesting there, Chief?" It was late afternoon, heading into early evening and they'd been there for over ten hours. Jim's eyes looked tired and his voice held a tinge of weariness.

Blair looked down at the lab report he was holding. "Couple of things here. You were right, man, about the menstrual fluid. Totally different blood type than either guy, too. She's B neg."

Jim smiled then, a genuine smile. "That's pretty rare, isn't it?"

"Yeah, so?"

"Maybe we can link up through the list of registered regular offenders and check blood types."

Blair thought for a minute. "Possibly. Does the department have that information available on a database?"

Jim looked stymied for a minute, then shrugged. "I don't know for sure, but Paul or Serena should be able to tell you that." He arched an eyebrow as Blair made a notation next to that portion of the report. "What else?"

Here his animated partner sat heavily in the chair next to the desk. "The semen that you smelled with the other stuff? Well, the lab can't get a fix for sure on that, but they typed the DNA in it against DNA from the victim's blood--we'll have the results of that in a day or two."

Ellison frowned. "Why not sooner?"

"Well, maybe if this was the X-Files," the younger man grinned. "Seriously, though, DNA tests take a little bit of time, man. It's not like you can just pop it into the machine and have an answer spit out. Trust me," Blair said in a quiet voice. "And they found traces of the same drugs--all of them--in Doe One's system again. Same mix, of the henbane stuff, as well as the stimulant/aphrodisiac stuff."

"You know," Jim leaned back in his chair. "I'm starting to think we should check with some of the herbalists in town--surely some of these things can't be easy to find? I mean, these sound like they're fairly rare drugs. Herbs. Whatever."

"Good thought, Jim. I'll make a list of the ones I know. It's fairly short What?" He glanced up from the report to see Jim staring at him. "Jim? What is it?"

"You hang out at herb shops?"

"Well, I don't know if 'hang out' is the right phrase," Blair removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "But where do you think my teas and stuff come from?"

"Guess I'd never really thought about it before. Okay, yeah. You do that. Hey, I told you that Wolfe found markings on Doe One's abdomen, right?"

"I think that was where I lost it this morning." The grad student's face grew hot at the memory.

"Don't sweat it, Sandburg. We've all lost it a time or two."

"Yeah, right."

"Trust me on this one, Chief. It's nothing I haven't done before."

"Whatever, Jim." Blair kept his face down, his hair hiding the pinkened cheeks.

"Okay." There was some shuffling and rustling and Blair looked up to see Jim settling in to the computer workstation. "I told Shiffer earlier this morning to upload the pictures taken last night into a folder for us, so you could access them for net search for comparisons. Want to show me how to do that? I'd like to find out if the abdominal pattern is the same, or related to, the one on the thighs."

Embarrassment forgotten, Blair stood up and moved behind Jim to walk him through the steps. The big detective closed his eyes briefly, trying to focus on his Guide's voice and instructions, rather than the fresh, spicy scent that made up "Blair" for him. The heat radiating off the younger man made it difficult when he kept picturing himself holding that heat, cupping Blair's face and drawing him closer, leaning in to taste those lips-- WHOA!! Back UP, Ellison. Where in the hell did that come from? That was not a random thought floating around--that was a thought with a purpose. Jesus Christ. Life's not complicated enough right now? Man, back down and back off. You don't need to go there.

And even as he was telling himself, Jim knew he wasn't going to be listening.


Chapter 4

Up from Earth's Centre through the Seventh Gate
I rose, and on the Throne of Saturn sate,
And many a knot unravel'd by the Road;
But not the Master-Knot of Human Fate.

There was the Door to which I found no key;
There was the Veil through which I might not see:
Some little talk awhile of ME and THEE
There was -- and then no more of THEE and ME
--The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam


Give or take a couple of days, it'd been two months since the first set of bodies had been found, with two more pairs since then, bringing the total up to six murdered. Jim found himself waking in the night now, his mind totally obsessed with who was doing the killing. Whoever it was, they were good. Nothing at the crime scene to implicate, to point the direction. Just the desiccated corpses, all of whom had finally been ID'd.

Ellison spent more and more time at his desk, reading over every scrap of information that they'd gathered on the case so far, trying desperately to find a clue that would tell him where to look for the bad guys. He was tired, he was stressed, and he was beginning to withdraw into himself on it.

Tonight proved to be no exception, and he grimaced as he rolled over in bed to stare at the clock. Just a little past ten. He'd gone to bed at 8:30, prodded by Sandburg, who was starting to look a little haggard, himself. Jim sat up and drew a hand across his face, rubbing wearily at the rough whiskers there, then wincing a little when he rubbed his eyes, the grittiness from sleep chafing the delicate tissues.

The last pair had been found near the picnic area in Cascade Park. Even thinking about it now was enough to make Jim's stomach roil, remembering the hysterical young woman with a toddler who'd discovered them while taking an early morning walk.

Two of the men had been gay; the other four were not. Two of the pairs they'd found had had one gay man and one straight; one pair was comprised of two straight men. Given that each pair of bodies had been found in a sort of lover's embrace--not just lying on top of each other, but actually embracing, he and Sandburg had spent hours looking at that from every angle, trying to make it fit in somewhere. Blair had searched the web relentlessly, as well as checking his texts and myriad books and journals for clues on things they could look for. After all, as he'd pointed out to Jim, "Satanic cults aren't likely to advertise in the Yellow Pages." Jim had chuckled over that, but his eyes remained troubled; he felt as if he were failing--the community protector wasn't doing his job, and people were dying.

The closest they had come to narrowing things down a bit was that it had to be a cult of sorts, with ties to black magic, and one of whom (at least) was trying to get pregnant, thus explaining the fertility symbols carved on the men. The DNA tests had come back with positive matches; it was the larger man's semen mixed in the menstrual fluid that they found at each murder site, indicating that the woman trying to get pregnant was having intercourse with at least one of the men.

Blair had been the one to figure out that the menstrual blood was probably being used to show proof of the failure of the woman to get pregnant, along with the sexual mutilation that was present with each body they found. What they couldn't figure was how the smaller men figured into the mix, and why they all showed signs of rough anal penetration. If it was the woman the men were having sex with, then why two men, and why did the smaller of those men show signs themselves of penetration? The gay men could be explained, but two of the smaller victims had been straight, or so they presumed based on the information they had at hand.

"But why two men at once," Jim had wondered out loud--again--at dinner that night. "I can see one--well, I could see two, but only one has the fertility symbols carved in him."

Blair shrugged. "Maybe she wanted backup, in case one couldn't perform? Man, that would scare me into impotence. Being forced to have sex with some whacked out woman who's heavy into satanic rituals? Uh-uh. No way. I don't think so."

Jim smirked at Blair. "Guess you go for the non-satanic coeds then, huh? I've never seen you take a back-up on a date."

Blair laughed. "Yeah, I prefer to do the job myself."

He got up to take plates into the kitchen, and Jim found himself watching his partner thoughtfully. Would you like to do the job with me? I can promise you I'd like whatever 'job' you wanted to do

Blair had sent him to bed then, with the admonishment to get some rest, or else. Jim snorted. Or else, what, Sandburg? You gonna make me stay in bed? And his groin tightened with the thought of how he'd like to see that accomplished. He snorted at himself this time, for his thoughts that couldn't seem to be curbed no matter what. The lights were still on downstairs, which meant that Blair was still up. Jim decided a glass of water was in order and rolled out of bed.


The younger man had his head bent over a stack of papers piled on the kitchen table, his back to the stairs. Jim paused on the second-to-the-bottom step and allowed his eyes to feast for a moment on the man before him. Blair had pulled his hair back at some point, probably before sitting down with the papers. He'd told Jim before that it was easier to grade when he didn't have bits of hair falling into his face. Of course, this had the effect of baring a larger expanse of smooth, pale skin for Jim's perusal. He swept his eyes across the neck and hint of shoulder that was exposed, imagining how it would feel against his fingers, under his tongue. He shook himself as he realized just how dangerous those thoughts were, and headed the rest of the way down the steps.

"Hey--I thought you were gonna go to bed early, too."

Blair started visibly at Jim's voice, and turned around in his chair. Startled blue eyes, dark with fatigue and stress, stared at him over small wire-rimmed glasses. "Jesus, man! Don't do that!" He shoved a stray lock of hair behind his ear. "What're you doing up? I thought you long gone by now."

Jim shook his head and came the rest of the way over, sitting in the chair next to Blair. "Woke up. You know." He waved his hand dismissively, trying not to let Blair see how badly bothered he was by this whole case.

Sandburg nodded, slowly, his eyes softening with emotion. "Yeah, I know," he murmured. "I see them in my dreams, too."

"I just--feel like I should be doing more. Doing anything." Jim clenched his jaw and pushed the words back down before he ended up saying something he wasn't comfortable revealing. "I don't know how to stop this, Blair," he said hoarsely, his voice raw with the emotions he was determined not to give in to.

The younger man reached his hand out and laid it on Jim's clenched fist, holding it there for a moment. He could feel the heat from the distressed man in front of him; he could almost taste the frustration and anger as well. I'd like to hold you and tell you it will be okay, but I can't. I can't tell you that because I don't know if it will be, and I can't hold you because I--because I can't. I'm your friend, and I'm here for you, but I don't know how to express that without it being misinterpreted--by both of us. I don't know what I feel for you, beyond friendship. I know what I'd like to feel but I'm not sure I can open myself up to that kind of rejection, if you don't feel the same way.

He squeezed the hand once more, then let go. "We'll get them, Jim," he told his friend quietly, trying to push conviction into his voice. "Sooner or later they're gonna slip up and we'll get them."

The bigger man stared at him, his face still shuttered tight. "I hope you're right, Chief. I sure as hell hope you're right." He pushed back from the table and stood up. "Guess I'll go back to bed. You better get some sleep, too."

"I will," the younger man promised, watching Jim head up the stairs. God, you're so beautiful...so strong...could you want me? He shook his head and turned around. What he and Jim had right now was the perfect balance of friendship and casual intimacy--enough that they felt comfortable giving each other casual touches, without it being a sexual thing. Blair's stomach flip-flopped at the thought of making it a sexual thing, then he nixed that idea. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. In other words, Sandburg, don't fuck with a good thing. Leave it be and get on with life.

Still, he couldn't help a tiny, wistful sigh at the thought of how good it was, and how much better it might be


The phone rang later that night, not long after Jim had gone back to bed. As he came down the stairs he saw a light still on under Blair's door, and wondered what his partner was doing now, having told him he was going to bed. Studying, probably; or looking for more clues in this bastard of a case. Kid's been surfing the net so much lately I should get him a board.

"Ellison."

Blair opened his door, and watched Jim's face. He watched his eyes close, then open; something close to despair lurking there in the sky-blue depths, and turned back into his room to grab his shoes, glad he hadn't undressed. I'll take care of you, Jim. I swear I won't let them beat us, and I'll make sure you come out of all of this okay. Even protectors are human, buddy. Just remember that, okay?

"I understand, Sir. We'll be right there." Jim closed the phone and met Blair's eyes with his own. "Another one," he said, voice rough.

"Where's this one at?" Blair balanced himself against the doorjamb and pulled his shoes on.

"Down by the harbor in one of the old warehouses. Simon says a couple of winos found them when they crawled through a broken window to find a place to sleep for the night."

"Shit."

"Yeah." Jim headed back upstairs to dress, then turned around to look at Blair. "I can't do this much longer, Chief," he said quietly. "I have to find them, or something's gonna snap."

Inside me was unspoken, but Blair heard it as plainly as if Jim had shouted. He nodded at his partner, eyes meeting in understanding.


It was the same MO all over again. Right down to the menstrual blood mixed in with the victims' blood that was used to write the message. This time it was the larger man who'd lost his hand as a paintbrush; and Blair speculated on why she or they switched back and forth. Again there was evidence of forced penetration in the smaller man. Jim and Simon were grim-faced as they stood by the Expedition talking about it. Blair stood next to Jim, trying to send comfort to his friend by his presence. He knew how helpless Jim was feeling over this just by how pronounced the lines were around his mouth and eyes.

Jim felt the heat from Blair's body next to his, and was grateful for his guide's presence. He'd come close to zoning earlier in the evening; the smell of blood over everything had become too overwhelming to a system that was feeling pressured from lack of positive results. Blair had talked him back from that nice safe place where everything was soothing and quiet, and there were no gory murders that were outwitting the law enforcement staff. It had taken nearly twenty minutes, Blair told him in an aside, to call him back. Apparently Jim's subconscious was trying to tell him that he'd about had enough.

They left the scene feeling with a sense of frustration that was mounting by the hour, along with an increased sense of urgency. The pattern was secure now; every thirty days, give or take a few, a new pair of bodies would turn up until they found the person or persons responsible for this. Jim swore a silent oath that when he found those responsible, the sons-of-bitches were going to pay, and dearly.



Chapter 5

"Thou shalt not fear for any terror by night"
--Psalm 91

The bullpen was quiet, and nearly dark. Jim's desk was the only one with a light on at it since he and Blair were the only ones in the room at the moment. Everyone else had gone home around six, and it was a quarter past eight now. Jim sat at his desk staring at the photos of the victims. It'd been a week since the last set; which brought them up to eight men murdered in Cascade over roughly a three-month period of time. Given the pattern that had emerged, Ellison knew he had only another couple of weeks to find the killers before another set of bodies turned up.

Where, and how, are the men being chosen? What's the outstanding thing that all of these men posses? What was it that made the killer pick them over everyone else? Is it truly random, or just made to look that way? Why the hell can't we find these people?! A soft noise alerted him and Jim looked up from his musing to see his partner standing beside the desk, concern written all over his face. He sighed, too tired and heartsick from all this to even try and alleviate that. Let Blair be concerned about him. Hell, he was concerned about him. One more failure and he'd lose it; he could feel his tenuous grip on his control slipping away from him even now.

Blair sat down next to him, watching Jim carefully, seeing the stress lines etched in relief on the stern face. He handed the older man a cup of coffee, then picked up one of the many photos scattered across the top of the desk. "What are you looking for?"

Jim shrugged, staring at the photo in his hand. "I don't know. Anything, nothing. I just feel like I'm overlooking something. I can't believe after this long that we're no closer to even knowing who the killers are. You know, even when they couldn't catch them, the police still knew about Mansfield, Bianchi, Son of Sam. Shit, Blair." The photo crumpled slightly at one corner as Jim's fingers convulsed. "I don't know, anymore. We've looked at every option I can think of, checked out every herbalist and occultist in town; grilled every Satanist who could be convinced to talk to us; run every goddamned lab test under the fucking SKY!" The diatribe got louder and wilder as Jim went on, until the last word was shouted, the sound echoing in the quiet of the large room. He shuddered when he saw Blair flinch away. "Aw, shit, Chief. I'm sorry."

The smaller man smiled wanly. "S'okay, Jim. I understand." Blair curled his fingers around his coffee cup to keep from reaching out and pulling Jim into his arms. He didn't understand this overwhelming need of late to touch his partner, and found it a little disconcerting, to say the least. Physical attraction was easy to explain and deal with; it was the emotional stuff that went along with it that was starting to bother him. If he opened himself to those emotions, he made himself vulnerable. And he wasn't sure he could do vulnerable right now.

"No, it's not okay." Jim leaned back in his chair and looked at his friend. "I've been taking it out on you for weeks now. You shouldn't have to be the one taking all my frustration."

"That's never stopped you before," Blair tried for teasing and sobered when he saw the light blue eyes darken.

"I just don't know--I'm not sure anymore which direction to try. Simon needs--"

"Screw what Simon needs," the younger man said in a surprisingly even voice. "What about what Jim needs?"

"What I need is to solve this bitch before I lose my mind over it." Jim shuffled through the pictures again, pulling another one out at random. "Don Arove and Michael Cheshire." He flicked the picture at Blair. "Arove had a wife and three kids; Cheshire was engaged to be married next week. Next week, Chief. These men had full, happy lives, and they're gone."

"Jim--"

"No." Quiet and dangerous--Blair knew that tone; it was the one Jim used when he wanted, no, needed, Blair to back down. He couldn't back down this time, though. His partner, the big, tough, 'nothing bothers me, I can handle it' cop, was going to lose it totally if something didn't break in this case, and soon.

"Listen to me, Jim." Sandburg leaned forward earnestly, trying to sound confident and calming. "Why don't we go on home, take a break for tonight. You're wiped, man. What do you say?"

There was a long moment of silence, while Jim considered Blair's question. Why can't I just give up for a little while? It's not been solved in this long; it's not likely to happen now. But just in case there's one thing we've overlooked that I can find tonight Jim looked back down on the picture he held in his hands. "Do you have the stats file handy for the victims?" While he was waiting for Blair's answer he focused on the photo. It was soothing to look at that picture; there was something very calming about the way that all of the lines were slowly blurring together, fuzzy and out-of-focus. Ellison gave a tiny shudder and felt the rest of the world slip away, leaving him cocooned in a comforting nothingness.

The younger man sighed and nodded, recognizing that Jim wasn't ready to give in just yet. A cold chill rippled through him and his skin goose-pimpled, like a cold breeze had blasted him, only from the inside. Blair shivered, but continued to rummage around in the file drawer before pulling out a thick manila folder. "What did you want to know?" It was quiet next to him, and Blair looked over to see Jim gripping the photo tightly, zoned out on the picture. He closed the file and grasped Jim's hands. "Jim." No response. "Jim, c'mon man. Come on back. Listen to my voice and follow it back. Jim..."

Blair watched Jim's fingers twitch, but there was no response otherwise. Tightness spread in his chest as he realized that Jim's respirations were getting slower and more irregular. "JIM! Jim...listen to me. It's Blair...your guide, buddy. You can't stay there, Jim. Come on, let go of the picture--GodDAMMIT, Jim!" Jim's breathing faltered, and the chill rushed through his own body, more violently this time. There was a note of hysteria winding its way through his voice--he could hear it. He shoved that thought to the back of his mind, along with the little voice that jabbered at him about what would happen when Ellison didn't come out of it, and concentrated. He lowered his voice, breathing deeply to calm himself down.

"Jim. I know you're feeling safe where you're at, but you can't stay there, big guy. You need to listen to me. Focus on my voice. Breathe, Jim, c'mon...come on back...listen to me, I'm showing you the way to come back. Come on...yeah, that's it. Let go of the picture...deep breath...let go..." Blair gently pulled on the photo, drawing it from Jim's grasp. The fingers loosened up, and gradually the fists relaxed. Jim took a deep breath, and let it out in a shuddering gasp.

"God, what happened?"

Blair shook his head, the adrenaline rush slowly subsiding in his body. "Man, you zoned, like, totally. You stopped breathing for a minute." He shivered, then realized that the chill was gone. Connected to the whole zone-out thing? Why hasn't that ever happened before? Or is it just coincidental and we're both so stressed that I'm having trouble remembering my name, much less anything else?

Jim stared at Blair. "What'd I zone on?"

Wordlessly Blair held the photo out. It was crumpled on the edges where Jim had grasped it. He took it from his partner and looked at it, taking care not to look too closely. "I was just trying to figure out what we're missing here. There has to be a common denominator to the men being chosen. We know it's not a hetero versus homo thing, or they'd all be one or the other. It's obviously not specifically about size, or again, they'd all be the same size, although there is a trend, since half are larger and half are smaller, and they're consistent within those categories. Variations in hair and eye color, occupations, marital status. So what the hell is it?" Ellison rubbed his hand across his head in irritation.

Blair shook his head. "I dunno, man." He looked at his partner, determined to try again, hoping the intensity of the zone would prompt Ellison to listen to him. "But I'll tell you what--why don't we go home, and try again in the morning? It's nearly nine o'clock now, and I'm hungry." He looked at Jim. "Whadaya say? You could use some down time too, big guy. There's a ball game on tonight, we could order Chinese on the way home and sit and watch the game." C'mon, Jim, pleasepleasepleasePLEASE, don't fight me on this one. You need the break, you're gonna self-destruct soon without one.

Jim looked at Blair for a long moment, and his guide began to wonder if he was going to zone again. Finally a small smile creased the worn face and Jim said, "Okay. I'll even buy."

"Yeah? Cool!" Blair smiled. He began gathering the photos up to put them into the stats file. One of the pictures caught his eye, and he pulled it free to study it. "Jim..."

"Yeah, Chief?" Jim was putting the other files on his desk away, clearing it off.

Blair looked up at Jim. "What if she or they are kidnapping two guys because, for whatever reason, the two guys have to have sex together?"

Jim stared at Blair, then reached his hand out for the photo. It was one taken at the last crime scene, and one of the first photos taken--when the two corpses were still lying entwined with another, in that deadly, twisted version of a lover's embrace.

"But we know that some of the guys were straight," Jim murmured, more thinking out loud than actually commenting.

"Yeah, well, straight men could have sex with each other--they do it in prison," Blair said, reaching for another photo.

Ellison cocked an eyebrow at him. "Know that much about prisons, do you?"

"Just what I see on TV, man." Blair handed another photo over, then laid a third and fourth beside them. "Look at these, Jim. In every one, they're lying together like they've just had sex--except we know they haven't, because of the mutilation."

"But what if they had been for whatever reason, and they were killed for that?" Jim shook his head. "That doesn't make sense, Chief."

"No, wait--" Blair stood up and started pacing in front of Jim's desk, swinging his arms energetically, gesturing. "What about this? She needs two men to get her pregnant--maybe the sperm from both, combined? No, never mind, only one is marked. Shit." Blair ran a hand through his curls in agitation. "What if one guy is the donor, and one's the, uh, receiver, so to speak. And that's why they're killed then--'cause she doesn't get pregnant." He paused a beat. "It would explain, sort of, the penetration angle for the smaller guys."

"What's the stat file say about these two?" The detective gestured to the third picture in front of him.

"Charles Bredt and Nicholas Avandale. Um, both were married; neither one had any priors; and there's nothing to indicate they were gay."

Jim brought the photo up close to his face. "Bredt's the big one, right?"

"Yeah." Blair watched Jim's face, knowing his mind was turning the puzzle over and over. He sat down on the edge of the desk and closed his eyes. It was now a quarter past nine, and he was getting hungrier and more tired by the minute.

Jim set the photo down finally, and sighed. "I don't know. I don't know where to go with this anymore. Your theory makes sense, although that's a weird-assed way of going about getting pregnant. Have two guys have sex, so you can get artificially inseminate yourself?" Jim stared at the photos another minute, then shrugged. "Makes as much sense as anything else. Tell you what, let's go with your idea about going home, and get some sleep; start fresh in the morning." He stood up and stretched, and Blair watched with a small smile, wincing when Jim's joints popped.

"Jim, everything about this case is as weird-assed as it gets. It still might be the backup thing, man," Blair considered as he pulled his jacket on. "That actually makes more sense."

"Hmm?" Jim turned to look at his partner.

"Maybe they're not having sex together, just there for backup. Like you said, in case one guy can't perform. The other guy could still be getting raped or something--we don't know what all's going on."

"That's got to be it, Blair. What would two men having sex have anything to do with getting a woman pregnant? It's her they'd have to be sleeping with, not each other." He shot his partner a look. "Which would you rather do, if you were forced into it? Sleep with her, or another guy?" Jesus, what am I doing, asking him a question like that? Why not just announce I want him, out loud?

Blair looked up, startled. Where in the world did that come from? And how do I answer without saying what I really want to say? "Where'd that come from, Jim? Talk about your weird questions."

Jim grinned. "Self-defense, Sandburg. I field weird questions from you all the time."

"Most of which you don't answer."

Jim laughed and gave Blair a gentle shove toward the door. "I do too."

"You do not. Why else would I have to, like, ferret everything out of you? You're about the most close-mouthed person I've ever met."

"Take a look in the mirror lately?"

They continued bantering all the way down to the parking garage, trying to ease a little of the tension this case was causing. Blair was glad he'd remembered the game, although by the time they got home now it would be half over. Still, half of the JAGS was better than none. God, the parking garage is creepy at night, he thought as they stepped out into the deserted area. Glad we don't stay this late every night, or I'd probably start sleeping with a night light on. A grin spread across his face with that absurd thought. He turned to Jim to make a comment on ghosts and things going bump in the night when a hard, flat object made contact with the back of his head, and the lights went out.

Jim heard a faint noise behind them, and started to turn to see what it was--something about it raised the hair on the back of his neck--when he heard Blair's gasp beside him. He turned his head, and the world exploded into Technicolor pain behind his eyes before fading to black.

 

 Continued in Part 2