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The Modern Sentinel

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[ “It’s that time of the evening again folks, and what a fine evening it is! Well, you know, if you consider cold and rainy fine. Which I don’t. So it’s anyone’s guess as to why I live here instead of some tropical rainforest somewhere. Regardless! Welcome back to Cascade’s Curious! … Hang on, it won’t play the theme song.”]

 

The host’s voice paused and a slight, barely-audible tapping noise took its place. Within seconds, a short and familiar jingle played, generating a quiet “whoop” of accomplishment from him.

 

[“Hah! There we go. Crisis averted, everybody. It’s a good thing I got that working, otherwise nobody would know what masterpiece they’d tuned in to listen to. Doesn’t matter that I announced the name, like, five seconds ago. ANYWAYS, today’s topic is a request from a listener. They’d like to know about the Cedarhorn Society, which I’ll admit, personal favorite of mine. SO. Let’s roll back in time a bit! It’s the good old year of 1974, middle of January, two degrees below zero, ass-fucking knowehere Yosemite National Park, somewhere north of the Tuolumne River. It all started with this one guy, Ben Cervo. Real Davy Crockett wannabee type. Decides he wants to go hunt some shit, even though it’s January, and again, negative two degrees.”]

 

James “Jim” Ellison, detective for the Major Crimes unit of the Cascade Police Department, really had no concrete explanation for why he still listened to something he considered so juvenile. Cascade’s Curious, one of the most popular podcasts in the entire American Northwest (and probably the American Everything Else too), was all about unbelievable, supernatural, or just plain odd phenomena. Cryptids, conspiracies, cults, the whole weirdo nine yards. Puerile topics for a puerile podcast.

 

And Jim believed in absolutely none of it.

 

Of course there were the episodes that revolved around cults, real genuine cults that, unlike spooky specters, definitely existed and definitely executed freak-ass rituals. But, that’s as far as Jim’s imagination would let him go. He never believed in the more… supernatural aspects. Rituals? Sure, those could have happened. Humans are realistically capable of performing ceremonies. Curses resulting from said rituals? Yeah, never happened. Sacrificial murder? Sure, humans are realistically capable of performing murder. Victim comes back as a vengeful spirit and Poltergeists their way to revenge?

 

You guessed it, never happened.

 

So why, then, would the very reality-based, logic-seeing, purely objective detective still listen? That’s what he was actively pondering while on the slow and uneventful cruise home in his truck. It was dark, quiet, and peaceful. Everything he needed after a long day of work.

 

As Jim silently sorted through his thoughts, the podcast in the background continued to play, overlapping with his personal theories.

 

[“And he breaks literally the FIRST rule of self-preservation! This guy Cervo didn’t tell anyone where he was going or when he planned on coming back. Pro tip for you all out there? Don’t do that.”]

 

One of the major reasons he still faithfully listened to the show, Jim decided, was that the host had what he could only describe as the voice of a fucking angel. See, the detective would never admit it, but he had been struggling with some… odd problems lately, and nobody could tell him what was wrong. He was almost positive that he was simply going insane. Everywhere he went, lights were too bright and sounds were too loud. Smells were too pungent and tastes were too potent. Even the clothes he wore on his back antagonized him, making his skin feel like it was being lovingly massaged by literal goddamn sandpaper.

 

[“…obviously got turned around, with the sun going down, flashlight very coincidentally dead, and no compass on him either, it’s almost like he was TRYING to get lost, real embarrassing for this palooka.”]

 

Sometimes it would culminate together and force him into a dangerous, almost dormant state in which his conscious thought hopped on the proverbial train and left the fucking station.

 

[“…search party was eventually sent out three days later when he didn’t show up for work and failed to notify them. Of course by now, the authorities suspected that the dumbass had long since turned into a Cervo-sicle,”]

 

But… When he listened to Cascade’s Curious, everything was different.

 

[“…body was never actually found, but y’know, it was the 1970s, hippie central, everyone was probably zooted to the max. Not that I’d… know the hippie lifestyle from personal experience or anything, just hypothesizing here…”]

 

Jim had never gone catatonic while listening. The host’s voice was like sweet soothing buttermilk to his poor frazzled senses. Every word he spoke felt like a gentle tug that anchored him to reality.

 

He desperately wished there was a logical explanation for that. He REALLY desperately wished there was some explanation grounded in logic, but no matter what his brain came up with, nothing ever seemed genuinely reasonable.

 

[“So here’s where it gets kinda supernatural. Some theorists believe that Ben Cervo actually survived! Though, “survived” can mean a few different things depending on who you ask. Some say he just miraculously didn’t die, regular ordinary sack of flesh, 100% bonafide human. Others say that at least part of him died, and that he became some kind of fucked up half-demon creature. REGARDLESS, pretty much everyone agrees that he went on to establish a rather, how do you say, fucky-wucky wacko cult community.”]

 

It was probably the only time Jim felt completely confident while driving home. Every other time had him drowning in the fear that his brain might shut off on the highway and cause a fourteen-car pileup.

 

So Friday nights were extra special to the detective. Cascade’s Curious was hosted every Monday and Friday evening (and Wednesday too on a bi-weekly basis), but Fridays were extra special. Fridays were when Jim had all the time in the world to take a nice, slow, calm drive home with the promise of sleeping in late for the weekend added as a little bonus.

 

[“…he ended up dubbing it the Cedarhorn Society, and it was ‘governed’ by some wack-ass monarchical system allegedly established by Cervo himself. See, the Cedarhorn Society has this real bizarre relationship with deer. Pretty much worship them. Except they don’t call them deer, they call them cedarhorns. That’s where the name came from. Maybe Cervo forgot what the fuck a deer was and just pulled some vaguely-related words out of his ass.”]

 

Jim wasn’t even pretending to still be paying attention to the content of that night’s episode. He was filtering it through his ears, allowing it to become a subliminal message of mental grounding.

 

The detective hummed quietly to himself as he pulled into the private parking lot reserved for the residents of 852 Prospect Avenue, a building with two floors of apartments built above a bakery/coffee shop establishment. Seemed like those things were everywhere nowadays.

 

After parking the truck, he took his phone and trudged up to the loft, exhausted after a long day of the incredibly invigorating activities of the detective lifestyle, including such strenuous events such as taking witness statements and filing an assload of paperwork. Truly, it was an exciting life.

 

While he had been listening to Cascade’s Curious through his truck’s speakers before, Jim had switched back to listening just through his phone as he clambered into the loft. Bluetooth technology, obviously. It was 2019, they had the technology.

 

Finally, after grabbing a beer from the fridge and maneuvering to his living room couch, Detective Ellison closed his eyes and allowed himself to once again be practically hypnotized by the podcast host’s enchanting voice.

 

[“Then there’s the whole aristocracy thing. The Cedarhorn Society basically recognizes two authority figures above all others, and that includes in the regular world too. To these cultists, their leaders are above people like the President, or the Queen of England. They’re the ‘real’ authority, typical cult shit, ring a bell? So these deer guys, they have what they call the Timberbeau and the Timberbelle. Think of it kind of like King and Queen. The cult is still reportedly active today, though legally they’re banned from Yosemite altogether. Not that that has ever actually stopped them. Some articles suggest that the Cedarhorn Society tried to sue the state of California for keeping them from their… ‘religious site,’ meaning, the place where the mythical Ben Cervo uh… ascended? Transformed? Shit if I know.”]

 

Jim let out a low chuckle at the tone of bewilderment in the host’s voice. He had missed a lot of the context of today’s story while lost in his sea of thoughts on the drive home, so he wasn’t too certain about what was being discussed. Regardless, he found it amusing.

 

The detective put considerable effort into trying to imagine what the host’s facial expression looked like while taking a sip of his beer. He was overwhelmingly curious about the face behind the voice. Who was he? Where was he? What was he like?

 

Jim had lived in Cascade his whole life. Sure, it was a pretty big city with sprawling suburbs. But as a detective with the PD, he got around! Had he ever unknowingly interacted with the host somewhere? Most likely not, he was sure he’d have remembered that beautiful voice. But maybe, just maybe, they had walked past each other, or even just seen one another?

 

He couldn’t help but wonder…

 

[“So yeah, that’s really about it. I don’t really have an ‘insider scoop’ on this cult, and knowing how cults are, I don’t think I WANT one either. As always, I’m going to leave everyone with my classic warning. The things I discuss on this show are dangerous! Dangerous and deadly! This is a learning experience, folks! Not an opportunity. Just like other cults, the Cedarhorn Society is full of fucked up people who do fucked up things. Not gonna sugarcoat it, they apparently use the bones of kidnapped hikers to make decorative, antler-like ornaments. Again, real fucked up shit! As always, stay safe, and stay curious!”]

 

That was how it always ended. A genuinely caring and gleeful exclamation of “Stay safe, and stay curious!”

 

It was kind of adorable, really. That’s what Jim thought, anyways.

 

As soon as the podcast ended, he finished the last of his beer and paused. The detective slowly leaned back into the couch and sat silently, eyes slightly drooping, the exhaustion from earlier starting to set in. The loft was so… quiet now, no longer crowded with the boisterous voice behind Cascade’s Curious. He could always replay older episodes to fill the air again, but…

 

No, he should probably head up to sleep now. Weekend or not, it was getting late.

 

And so he did, steadily hauling himself up from the couch and to the stairs, carefully making his way up. It was a long, hard day. Compared to other days, it was actually a pretty good one, too! A case was solved, closure was gained, and a criminal was put behind bars.

 

So… why did Jim suddenly feel so… hollow? Like something was missing?

 

The stoic detective would never admit it out loud, obviously, he was a reserved guy. But… Sure, he’d maybe occasionally entertain the idea of actually having that loud, warm, enthusiastic voice filling the loft. Not just through some cheap speaker, this time. The real deal! The authentic host himself! He went so far as to consider tracking him down just so he could meet and befriend the guy, but, no. He wouldn’t abuse his police department resources like that. (Plus the implications of doing that are like, mega creepy, dude). Whoever ran Cascade’s Curious had his reasons for never disclosing his identity and Jim just had to accept that.

 

…For now, anyway.

Chapter Text

A stunning jungle landscape, painted with impossibly blue hues. Each shade jumps out in detail. Azure, cobalt, sapphire, teal. He could pick each variation out individually. This place felt so strangely familiar and welcoming too, while at the same time, so completely alien… Something inexplicable in the distance, an odd shape, caught his eye. What was that imposing figure slinking along the treeline in the distance? It radiated power and confidence as it moved. A panther, perhaps? Maybe, just maybe, if he could get a little closer…

RING, RING. SOUND THE ALARMS. SOMETHING IS HAPPENING, AND IT’S TIME TO WAKE UP!`

The noise was deafening. Incomprehensibly loud. Eardrum-bursting, baby-waking, glass-shattering loud. Jim awoke with a start, already seething with enough eruptive rage to rival Vesuvius itself.

It wasn’t the first time this had happened.

Along with hearing seemingly disembodied voices, the detective had also been struggling with a peculiar condition that caused every single miniscule sound to be amplified tenfold. It was like living with megaphones strapped to his head. Sometimes it was bearable… other times, a sneeze would sound more like a cannon firing, and a clapping audience would surely be lethal. That, of course, is one of the reasons Jim had been avoiding attending any events. Rejecting every invitation received by family members or work colleagues had earned him a reputation as an anti-social loner, and eventually people simply stopped trying.

Sure, Jim WAS a bit of an anti-social loner, but not to this degree. It’s not like he could explain his reasons either, since trying to explain to someone that a falling pen was loud enough to rattle his skeleton to the core wasn’t exactly an option. He may as well just tattoo “I’m insane” right on his forehead instead and save everyone the trouble.

On this particular morning, the noise-culprit happened to be the ring of his own traitorous cellphone. Jim rolled over while hissing in pain, covering his ears with his hands to block out as much of the invading sound as he could. He gazed at the clock with bleary eyes.

4:00 AM. 4:00 in the goddamn morning. 4:00 in the goddamn Saturday morning. His day off.

Whoever was calling was a dead man.

Jim slapped his phone off the nightstand and dragged it to his face before shouting an accusatory, fury-filled “WHAT” into it.

Normally, he would answer any call to his personal phone with a quick and simple “Ellison.” Of all greeting options, it was succinct and straight to the point. The caller would immediately know who answered. The habit may have also developed because the only people who ever call Jim to begin with are other cops who have or need information. It was just faster and easier than having to go through a whole unnecessary cycle of hellos.

Speaking of it specifically being cops on the other end, though…

“Ellison? It’s Simon. I’m going to overlook your friendly greeting because it’s before dawn on a Saturday morning. I know it’s your day off, but listen, this is bad.”

“Bad?” Jim propped himself up in bed and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, his previous wrath immediately replaced with noticeable concern. “How bad is bad?”

“Bad enough that I need my best detectives here, pronto. Big apartment building downtown, totally engulfed in flames.”

“Okay? Do I look like the fucking fire department???”

“It was arson, Ellison.”

“Ah… shit. Alright, I’ll be there in 20.”

A normal fire wouldn’t usually warrant the presence of Major Crimes’ upper echelon. Fires happen all the time. It would be left to the appropriate emergency department, obviously. But arson… arson was different. Arson was a serious crime.

Therefore, Captain Simon Banks had to call in the cavalry.

The “cavalry” consisted of Cascade PD’s best detectives, which happened to include a certain very grumpy James Ellison. Guess having such an impeccable record secretly turned out to be a pretty suboptimal play in the long run.

Jim had to muster a lot of both physical and mental strength to drag himself out of the comforts of the wondrous, divine heaven known as “the bed.” He wanted to crawl back into the comforts of sleep and allow himself to drift away into unconsciousness. It was one of those rare mornings where the many fibers of his blankets weren’t viciously clawing at his sensitive skin, too.

Damn it all to Hell.

One step at a time, Ellison. One foot in front of the other. Across the floor, down the stairs, and into the shower. Fine. Everything was fine. Push past the gripping fatigue. Faucet on. For most people, a morning shower was a nice, helpful, refreshing wakeup. For Jim, it was anything but. The water droplets felt like hundreds of tiny crystal shards against his flesh. In the beginning of Jim’s sensory overload ordeal, this sensation was beyond unbearable. Now, though, he had begrudgingly gotten used to it.

It’s a real sad day when a man has to get used to an onslaught of painful little daggers every morning just to perform a socially necessary ritual of hygiene and get clean.

Shower finished. “You’ll live, Jim,” the detective grumbled to himself through gritted teeth. Yes, he’d survive, he always did. Even if life was kinda miserable sometimes. He’d survive.

Now… coffee. The nectar of the gods, bitter ambrosia, instant energy in a mug. Like most adults, he couldn’t live without the stuff. Start the coffee maker. Done. Hopefully this morning the liquid won’t be so ungodly hot that Jim would feel like he was dragging his jaw through Earth’s mantle. Even if it did, he’d still drink it. It was still 4:00 AM on a Saturday morning. If he didn’t drink the coffee, he would simply die.

While the coffee was brewing, he figured he’d get dressed. Jim retreated back to his room to throw on something presentable, and was relieved to find that his clothes didn’t feel like they were grating the cells of his skin apart! That’s one good thing, at least! One good thing to counteract the… one thousand bad things.

Whatever.

Jim went through a mental checklist before finally leaving the loft. Shower done, clothes on, coffee chugged (it was hot, but he dealt). Badge? Check. Gun? Check. Attitude? Probably best to leave that one behind.

~~~

When Jim eventually arrived at the apartment complex, he was… well, “horrified” would be an understatement here. When Simon had said the building was “engulfed in flames,” he really wasn’t kidding. From the street, Jim could feel the demonic heat searing into his soul. The complex was a raging inferno that could put the hottest layer of hell to shame. Luckily though, he noticed that it was finally starting to dwindle ever so slightly, thanks to the tireless efforts of the fire department.

Jim soon spotted his restless captain amidst the crowd, characteristically chewing on the end of a cigar. Several other Major Crimes detectives surrounded him as they questioned witnesses and took detailed notes. Even while plagued by weariness, their thirst for justice was unwavering.

“What’s the situation, sir?” Jim asked while suppressing the need to yawn as he approached.

“That-“ Simon nodded towards something, indicating what he had been studying before his arrival, “is the situation.”

At first Jim thought the captain was gesturing to the blazing building, since it was in the same direction, and he was going to make a snide remark about it. That was when he noticed what the captain had actually been referring to.

There, on the ground just in front of the complex, was the strangest pattern of unknown symbols that Jim had ever seen. They were painted on the sidewalk in a vibrant red color, large and threatening, aligned as if to represent some kind of language. The sight of them alone gave off a menacing vibe.

“What,” Jim began as he leaned over to get a better look at the haunting symbols, “the fresh fuck is this.”

“No idea,” Simon responded flatly. “Can’t make heads or tails of it. Thought it was some kind of cypher or code or whatever, have a team working on it right now. Not looking good, though.”

“What, they can’t figure it out?”

The captain shook his head, moving forward to stand next to Jim as they both stared down at the cryptic writing.

“No. They have no starting point. They think it might be occult, though.”

“Occult?” Jim asked, brow furrowing. Oh great, weird spooky shit. His favorite!

NOT.

Simon nodded before taking out his phone to show Jim a few pictures he had been sent earlier.

“Yeah, look at these. While the whole city was crowding around here at the apartment complex, two other attacks happened pretty much simultaneously. One at a daycare, the other at a frat house. Daycare was empty, thank God, since it happened so early.”

“And the fraternity?”

“The boys survived, heard one of them was brought to the hospital for smoke inhalation. Otherwise, fine.”

Jim studied the pictures on the phone carefully. Similar symbols were found at the scenes of the attacks. It certainly looked scary.

“Definitely looks like it could be cult shit.”

Simon nodded again before taking the phone back. “Yeah. The symbols weren’t the only thing, either. Apparently one of the officers at the daycare found some weird fucked up wreath of dead birds.”

Jim grimaced. “Gross.”

He gazed back towards the burning apartment complex, but quickly regretted it. The light was too blinding, the roar of the flames deafening, the heat of the energy scorching. Dizzy, Jim almost collapsed to the ground. Simon studied him with a concerned expression before asking,

“Feeling alright, Ellison?”

He nodded in response. “Yeah. I guess I’m uh… pretty tired. Late night last night. Environment here is pretty overwhelming.”

The captain seemed to accept this. It made enough sense to him. It WAS 4:00 AM on Jim’s day off after all, he easily suspected that his detective might have had some drinks to unwind. Could have been a late night, too. Simon couldn’t blame Jim too much for his compromising condition. He looked back up at the building himself.

“Might take a while to figure this one out. Department doesn’t exactly have any weird cult shit experts on hand. Not that we know of any in general, though.”

They were silent for a few moments before Jim abruptly stood, eyes lighting up. Simon was caught off guard by the sudden burst of energy and vigor from his sleep-deprived detective. He couldn’t remember the last time he had seen Jim so visually enthusiastic about something.

“Actually, sir,” he started, looking almost a little too excited. “I think I might actually know someone…”

After a momentary pause Jim added, “IF… we can find him.”

Chapter Text

“Cascade’s Curious?”

Jim distractedly glanced up to acknowledge whichever fellow detective decided to bestow him with a visit, stopping by his desk and taking an intrigued peek at his case notes sprawled there.

“Oh, hey there, H. You’ve heard of it?”

Detective Henri Brown, usually just referred to as “H” by the rest of Major Crimes, scoffed playfully while making a broad ‘obviously’ gesture with his hands.

“Hell, I mean, name one person in the Northwest who hasn’t! You never really struck me as the kinda guy to listen, though. In fact, pretty much the polar opposite. Tell me you don’t actually believe in that kinda stuff?”

Jim narrowed his eyes and shook his head at H’s ridiculous accusation.

“Jeez, no! Thought you knew me better than that.”

“Hah! Nobody knows you better than that, Ellison! Now maybe if you actually graced us with your presence at poker night, that might change. But anyways, if you aren’t a listener, then what’s the note for?”

“Ah, well, you know the incidents that happened earlier this morning? The fires, ‘round 4:00 AM?”

H nodded, a more solemn yet still curious expression showing on his face.

“Shit, yeah. Rafe and I were called out about an hour following the aftermath… had to take witness statements and get information from the residents about anyone who might not have evacuated.”

Although Jim wasn’t very close with the rest of Major Crimes, H still knew just enough to recognize the signature Ellison questioning look that said ‘I demand more details immediately,’

“So far, eight potential casualties. Unsure about identities. The fire department hasn’t been able to fully search the place to confirm yet. But that being said, what’s the fire got to do with Cascade Curious?”

“Uh, well,” Jim began to explain as he gathered a few photos from the crime scene to present to the other detective. “Weird, creepy shit was found at the locations of all three incidents. Mostly just the cryptic writing, but also some… gross fucking wreath thing, I don’t know, something made out of dead birds. Whatever. Anyways, Simon thinks it’s a cult thing.”

“A cult thing?” H questioned, eyes wide. Sure Cascade was a big city with its fair share of wacky activity, but ‘cult things’ weren’t usually part of it.

“Yeah, cult thing. Major Crimes doesn’t exactly have a cult expert, though, so we figured we’d have to wrangle one instead. The podcast came to mind, since the host, well… maybe lives in Cascade city.” And hopefully not anywhere ELSE along the Cascade mountain range.

“No shit. You know who the host is, then?”

Jim only shrugged, subduing the urge to sheepishly scratch the back of his neck like a nervous child. Can’t let the fellow detective know about his secret dream of finding the host, right? It was hard enough already to hide the building up of giddy joy he felt about finally having a good excuse to use police resources to track the elusive curious Cascadian.

“No, not yet. That’s what Connor and I are working on right now, actually.” He nodded towards their nearby Aussie coworker, too busy diligently trying to track their mystery host to notice her name being brought up in the conversation. “We figured somebody would have to know who it is, but so far, we’ve got fuckall.”

“Damn,” muttered H with a thoughtful rub of his chin. “Well, I’m not on this case, but I’ll keep an eye and ear out. I’ll let you know if I see or hear anything.”

“Thanks, H. I appreciate it.”

Detective Brown stood stunned for a moment before nodding and walking away with a slight wave. Was that… the tiniest hint of a smile on Ellison’s lips? SURELY not. The man’s face was practically paralyzed. Hardass supreme. Never a wink, never a grin, typically a glare or an angry twitch of the jaw… But H was positive. His coworker’s demeanor was definitely lighter. Normally they wouldn’t have gotten along, but for some inexplicable reason, detective Ellison actually seemed… rather approachable that day!

He wasn’t sure why. Maybe he had received some good news, or something?

~~~

“Jimbo, I’m gonna be honest with you, I’ve found bugger all.”

Detective Megan Connor was perhaps the only soul in all of Major Crimes - rather, the whole police department (maybe even world), that wasn’t possessed by a visceral fear of Jim Ellison. No, the Australian exchange officer had nerves of steel.

That’s why she was still able to refer to him as “Jimbo,” a nickname he loathed, and not proceed to have nightmares of a certain ex-army ranger crawling through her window and politely removing her entire spine in one fell swoop as she slept.

No, Megan Connor was remarkably not afraid of James Ellison. A little intimidated? Sometimes, sure. But even so, Jim’s threat of “I’ll kick your ass if you call me that again” wasn’t enough to persuade her to stop. Besides, Jim told her that she looked like Cruella de Vil, so her bucket full of ‘fucks to give about Jim’ had long since been drained.

To her utter surprise, Jim didn’t even seem to notice, and there was a distinct lack of “call me that again and I’ll break your elbows” in his response. Instead, she was met with a somewhat distracted and disappointed mumble of “Me either.” Dare she question why Jim wasn’t his typical ultra-pissed, alpha-male self? …Nah, better not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Another hour passed by in dedicated silence. Detective Connor only stopped her search for a short lunch break, but Jim worked straight through his.

Her sudden cry of “AHA!” rattled Jim out of his work trance and nearly caused him to fall from his chair. On any other day, that kind of thing would have sent him down the warpath. Today, however, he simply strode to Connor’s desk with interest piqued.

“Did you find out who the host is???”

“No. BUT-“ she quickly added the continuation after her blunt denial upon noticing the disappointed look on detective Ellison’s face. “But, but, I DID find a lead, at least.”

“A lead? What kind?” He tried to mask the excitement in his voice. Don’t want to sound too enthusiastic…

“I found an old comment thread that references one of the earlier episodes of Cascade’s Curious, which was actually streamed from a different obscure platform than the current podcast one. One of these commenters mentions a couple bits of identifying information. It’s… well, to be honest, it really ain’t much. At all. But it’s better than what we got so far, yeah?”

“What’s the information???” Jim hurriedly grabbed his notepad and pen, still attempting to suppress his steadily growing elation.

“Alright so according to the thread, throughout various episodes, the host claimed he was 25. Apparently he also confirmed that he did live in the city of Cascade. Which isn’t a lot to go on, but it narrows things down. We coulda been searching the whole mountain range, Jimbo! Luckily it seems our mysterious mister podcaster is right here in our lovely ol’ city after all.”

‘Good,’ thought Jim, ‘Very good. Better than good, actually, FANTASTIC is more like it.’

“Anything else?”

“Hmm… this one here lists a couple places the host mentioned visiting often! I bet we could get Simon to agree to let us go and investigate, yeah? Oooh, maybe even go back and hang around a couple days in a row!” Connor’s eyes lit up in anticipation as she imagined working on files at a trendy coffee shop instead of the stuffy police station. “Purely, um, purely for investigative reasons, of course. After all, it’s unrealistic to assume we could run into him if we just drop by some place for only fifteen minutes, right?”

Jim eagerly agreed, mostly unaware of Connor’s ulterior interests. He was too busy being preoccupied with the thought of finally meeting the host. Wait, why did he care so much again? James Ellison was notoriously the exact opposite of a people-person. He didn’t like interacting with others, especially not strangers. Obviously Jim dealt with it as a necessary part of his job, but he’d never felt… excited about it before.

So why the hell was this time any different???

“Actually, yeah, that sounds pretty solid. How many places are mentioned?”

Detective Connor squinted back at her computer screen and tapped a finger over each location as it was mentioned in the thread.

“Let’s see… one, two, three… Three. Three places. Grab a pen, Jimbo, jot these down!”

She watched as the detective did as instructed, which was even more astonishing than his lack of reaction to the Jimbo-name-drop earlier. Nobody told James Ellison what to do and came out unscathed (other than Captain Banks, duh). Man, he really WAS out of it today…

“First up, Eleanor Library on the west side of town. Second, a little niche antique thrift shop. Unnamed, but I’m sure it won’t be too hard to figure it out. And finally, one of those trendy little hipster coffee shops. It’s either De-Stresso Espresso on Liberty Road or Java Dream on Anderson Street. Not on completely opposite sides of town, but not exactly close either.”

Jim nodded, deep in thought as he scribbled each location down. Library, thrift store, hipster coffee shops. Definitely sounded like typical 25 year old shit. He would have been beyond annoyed at the idea of having to stake out some stereotypical, pretentious, millennial bullshit mating grounds if it wasn’t for the fact that the person they were hunting down was the host of Cascade’s Curious. Why did that make a difference to him? Clearly the guy was a typical obnoxious hipster kid. He was probably the most irritating, bandwagon-hopping motherfucker to ever walk planet Earth. After all, he had a podcast.

“Doubt it’ll be difficult to convince Simon that investigating these places is necessary, especially if they’re the only leads we have.”

With that, Jim swiveled to face the door to the captain’s office. No time like the present! He walked up to the door with purpose and knocked courteously before opening it after hearing the gruff “Enter” that came from inside.

“Sir,” the detective began before setting the notepad on Simon’s desk. “About the arson case. Connor and I managed to dig up a couple leads. The only information we have right now is that the guy we’re looking for frequents these places. I’d like permission to spend a few days investigating them.”

Captain Banks shifted in his desk chair to examine the notepad, once again chewing on the end of a cigar, which he was hardly ever not doing.

“Hmm… Alright, but only because I want all this creepy voodoo shit wrapped up as soon as possible. And, only under a few conditions.”

“Those conditions being?” Jim was ready to jump on board with anything at this point. The captain could demand the soul of his firstborn and he’d hand it over in an instant.

“First, you have to bring case files to work on with you. I’m not about to have anybody sitting in a coffee shop all day just twiddling their thumbs.”

Made sense to Detective Ellison. Optimize available time by writing reports while they waited. The fact that it would help them blend in with all of the aspiring writers that inevitably flock to coffee shops to fuel their own egos was an added bonus.

“Second, you’re bringing Detective Connor too.”

Before Jim could protest, Simon cut him off with a raised hand.

“And before you get all ‘pissed-off lone wolf’ on me, save your breath. I’m not changing my mind. You’re working together on this one. I don’t think I can comfortably send you into a hipster-infested junkie joint alone because I’m not convinced you wouldn’t go postal and throttle the first kid that busts out a vape. Connor is going. I know she’s the only one who isn’t afraid to grab the Ellison by the horns. Now, go. It’s 2:00 PM on a Saturday. Those places are going to be crawling with young adults. It’s probably your best chance. Dismissed.”

After finishing his little speech, an impressive amount of words for the generally quiet and brusque captain, Simon returned to working on his own complicated-looking legal documents. Jim took that as the cue to leave. He exited the office, not-so-gently shutting the door behind him. His ideal scenario of meeting the podcast host (which he TOTALLY hasn’t fantasized about every day at least once) didn’t involve Detective Connor, but he knew Simon was right about this one.

Noticing a shape ominously approaching her desk from across the bullpen, Megan looked up, and upon seeing who was back in front of her desk, she grinned in anticipation.

“Well? What’s the verdict, Jimbo?”

Jim could only roll his eyes and shoot her an icy glare.

“Grab your coat, we’re headed to Eleanor.”

~~~

“Wow…” the Aussie detective whispered in awe as she and Jim hopped out of the latter’s truck. “Hate to be a drag, mate, but if the bloke we’re looking for really is here, we aren’t gonna find him.”

Jim tilted his head upwards and surveyed the building before them.

“I mean, it’s bigger than bloody Aus!”

Connor had a point. Eleanor Library boasted a monsterous size, at least four stories high, consisting of three separate buildings. Characterized by its Renaissance inspired architecture, the library was meticulously detailed with domes, arches, and columns, all perfectly symmetrical. A grand atrium decorated the front of the central building, serving as the main entrance. On either side of it were the other two parts of the structure, each with their own secondary main entrance. The majority of the library was various shades of cream in color, though the domes, columns, and several other parts were a contrasting white.

The two Major Crimes detectives nonchalantly made their way into the center building and took a moment to marvel at the exquisite interior. “Ornate” was the first word that came to mind. The second word(s) would be “still fucking enormous.” One could easily get lost among the seemingly endless towering shelves stuffed with thousands upon thousands of books. The host of Cascade’s Curious definitely had some good taste if this was the library he chose to spend his time in.

“You know Jimbo, I just thought of a little complication with our plan here.”

“Hm?” Jim tore his attention away from the intricate patterns that adorned the beams supporting the ceiling. He was aware enough to remember that staring at pretty, intricate designs often triggered those highly unwanted catatonic episodes of his. If Connor had waited even a second longer to speak, he probably would have been lost. He maybe would have thanked her, if it wasn’t for the fact that: 1. James Ellison didn’t often thank people and 2. It would sound completely insane. ‘Thanks for speaking just then, I almost went unconscious with my eyes wide open.’ Absolutely not.

“We’re lookin’ for a podcast host.”

Jim blinked at her and frowned in confusion. Well, fucking OBVIOUSLY, Detective Connor. That’s quite an astute observation there, ma’am, it’s no wonder as to why you’re regarded as one of Major Crime’s best.

“…Yeah?”

“A podcast host, someone we can only identify by the sound of his voice.”

Recognition slowly began to creep across his face.

“…Yeah.”

“Someone we can only identify by the sound of his voice… Jimbo… we’re in a library.”

“Ah. Yeah.”

Oh boy, it was going to be a long afternoon.

~~~

At 11:00 PM, the library’s closing hour, the two Major Crimes detectives finally regrouped in the now dark and empty parking lot, both with bleary eyes and weary minds.

After nine straight hours of nonstop scouring the library, their investigation had turned up nothing of value. They had started with searching through the central building together before splitting up, Connor taking the left side and Jim taking the right. They combed through each shelf and interrogated every individual.

They would introduce themselves, explain who they were looking for and why, and ask the people if they knew anything about it. Everyone said no, which they were kind of expecting. Of course nobody would recognize the voice of someone who frequents Eleanor library.

People didn’t talk in libraries.

“Connor, if I see one more fucking bookshelf in my entire life, I’m going to kill every single librarian in Washington.”

“You know, Jimbo? I think I’m with you on that one.”

Despite their mutual fatigue, the two detectives knew they had to get back to the station to report their progress. That, and Connor still had to get her car from the parking garage. So even though they both desperately wanted to succumb to the blissful promise of sleep and alluring, dreamy comfort of the rock hard freezing asphalt, they hauled themselves into Jim’s truck and returned to the PD empty handed.

Detective Ellison stalked through the bullpen and unceremoniously flung the door to Simon’s office open. Captain Banks was still present, working a later shift after taking the afternoon to sleep. Jim figured he wanted to be ready and raring to go if their unknown gaggle of serial arsonists struck at the witching hour again.

Simon set down his pen and stared at the disgruntled man who had ever so rudely busted into the room.

“Skipping the pleasantries, Ellison?”

“Connor and I found fuckall and if you ever send me to another library as long as I live, I’ll kick your ass.”

“Go home before you stretch my generosity past its limits and get written up.”

~~~

“Okay… Today, we’ll focus on De-Stresso Espresso. Then tomorrow we can focus on the Java Dream. And I think it’s safe for us to only spend the morning and early afternoon at each. That way, I won’t develop a burning hatred of Cascade coffee shops so powerful that it sends me back to Australia. Libraries are enough as is.”

Detectives Ellison and Connor once again found themselves together in Jim’s truck. Today’s test of perseverance would be the De-Stresso Espresso coffee shop. What a stupid ass name. Jim thought the world would be a whole lot easier to navigate if everything was just named as it was. Why call a place “Pasta Pavillion '' when you could just call it “Italian Restaurant”? Why call a thing “television” when you could just call it “picture screen”? Why call something “coming out” when you could just call it “disappointing your father”?

The detective used to like coffee places. Not ones like De-Stresso, though. Those kinds were always littered with college hipsters. His preference lies with ones like Coffee’N’Toffee, the café and dessert shop combo that existed on the first floor of the building he lived in. Coff’N’Toff did it right, and he definitely didn’t only think that because of his crippling sugar addiction. He hadn’t stopped there in a while now, though…

Coffee places, like most food establishments, never failed to lovingly thrust Jim right into sensory hell. The nauseating smell of the piles of food and the booming sound of customer chatter mixed with kitchen clatter consistently made the detective crave the sweet release of peaceful non-existence.

Jim clenched his jaw as he parked the truck in the lot outside De-Stresso. Unlike himself, Connor was looking forward to their little field trip. She knew Jim mentioned hating those kinds of places, but she didn’t know why, and of course he’d never tell her, either.

Despite his teeth-grinding resentment for coffee shops, this was a necessary evil.

Neither detective wanted to admit it, but they shared a sinking feeling that this too would turn out to be a fruitless endeavor.

~~~

Jim had never felt more out of place in his life. Even his detestable estranged family made him feel more normal than the hell hole he and detective Connor had just left.

The two of them spent the whole morning wondering what the fuck a ‘caramel macchiato’ was supposed to be. “I thought they sold coffee here” had been uttered at some point while perusing the menu boards. Jim was pretty sure “affogato” wasn’t even a real word.

Once again, everything would be so much easier if everyone just called shit what it really was. Just call the shit coffee! Call it ‘espresso with milk!’ Call it ‘ice cream coffee’! Why was that so hard?!

On top of all that nonsense, as he had expected, Jim was plunged into the seventh layer of sensory hell the second he’d dared to cross the threshold of the shop.

For the first time, he found himself secretly thankful that Simon had insisted on Connor tagging along with him. If Jim had come alone, there was no way he would have been consciously present enough to be on the lookout for the podcast host.

~~~

When distinguished detectives Ellison and Connor stormed into the bullpen on the third day of the investigation, it caused more than a few quizzical heads to turn.

“Yo, why didn’t anyone tell me the zombie apocalypse started?” a younger colleague asked while smoothing back his hair, a typical activity for the trendy and appearance-conscious detective to be occupied with.

“Fuck off, Rafe,” growled a thoroughly aggravated Jim. He and Connor had just returned from their second coffee shop adventure to the Java Dream, which somehow managed to be worse than De-Stresso.

“Jeez, Ellison! Who pissed in your cornflakes this morning?”

Jim gave no verbal response, but the iconic furious glint in his eyes and the twitch of his jaw was enough to shut Rafe up.

“What happened to you two?”

Ah, now that was a much more welcoming voice. It was significantly less annoying than the pompous, whiny one that belonged to a certain Brian Rafe.

“Taggert,” Jim stated in acknowledgement, “Connor and I just got back from an investigation at the Java Dream.”

“Oh that’s right, Banks mentioned you and Connor were trying to track down some kind of cult specialist or something? How’d it go?”

“BLOODY TERRIBLE!”

If the two recent disheveled arrivals didn’t have the attention of the entire bullpen before, they definitely did now, thanks to Connor’s interjection. The Aussie detective’s reputation had her pegged as a jovial, positive, energetic type, so her sudden shout was on par with being about as expectation-shattering as if Jesus Christ of Nazareth himself descended from heaven to kill the Pope.

Or, in other words, it was unexpected.

“Connor! What happened???”

“God! In all my years I’ve never met a more insufferable lot of bogans! Never in my life! At least at the other joint we were ignored! These ‘progressive’ college motherfuckers wouldn’t stop harassing us until we bailed! I understand why a lotta folks aren’t too fond of cops, hell, half of us hate each other! But we were there to solve… arson homicide! What- do they want us to just NOT apprehend whoever’s responsible for several heinous atrocities??? We even tried explainin’ ourselves, and they STILL wouldn’t hear it!”

The entire bullpen found itself suffocated by a flabbergasted silence. Connor’s uncharacteristic outburst had left every other detective dumbfounded. Every other detective except Ellison, that is. Being present for the same shitshow that Connor was, he had been able to watch the pressure build and expected the explosion that followed. Now that the steam had finally erupted, he looked… almost amused? Possibly even - dare one say it - proud?

“Ellison.”

Silent heads turned from the recently arrived detectives to instead face Captain Banks on the opposite side of the bullpen. He had slipped out of his office to observe the cause of the sudden commotion and waited until Connor concluded her tirade. Everyone waited with bated breath to hear what the Captain had to say.

“Ellison,” he stated again with a slow, disappointed shake of his head, “you’re a terrible influence. You should have warned me that your sour attitude was contagious.”

The tone he said it with was serious, but everyone could tell he was joking. Captain Banks always sounded serious regardless of his words, which often caught those who weren’t as familiar with his subtle mannerisms off-guard. Cascade PD’s Major Crimes detectives could always tell, though, and the resulting laughter worked wonders to clear the tension in the air.

“I take it this trip was just as unsuccessful? Shame. After your last stop we’ll get Connor a new partner so she can recover from chronic Ellison-itis.”

More laughter. The noise soon faded into quieter chuckling as Jim’s intention to genuinely continue the discussion became apparent.

“If we can even find our last stop, sir.”

“…Meaning?”

“Connor and I can’t figure out where it is. We don’t have its name, just a description, and we have no idea where to start.”

Simon chewed on the end of his cigar thoughtfully before crossing his arms and giving the pair of detectives a single nod.

“Let’s hear what you have. Everyone, pay attention.”

“Supposedly,” Jim explained while pulling out his notepad, “its some niche, historical thrift store. Like, ancient artifacts, weird tribal knick knacks, junk like that. Makes sense that somebody into cult shit would frequent the place, I guess. That’s really everything.”

With the description’s conclusion came an unusually quiet bout for the typically chatty bunch. All of Major Crimes stood around, deep in thought, racking their brains for any recollection of such a place. Each of them knew internally that it wouldn’t work, though. They were cops, their brains just refused to acknowledge the existence of any store that didn’t sell doughnuts or identical black and gray shirts.

Five minutes passed with zero developments. Even looking online didn’t help. You wanted to find a specific thrift store? Without a name?? In a major city??? Forget it! Just before everyone gave up and returned to whatever they were working on prior to Hurricane Connor, Rafe suddenly snapped his fingers and sat forward with a start.

“Yo, I got it!”

“You know what the place is?” Jim asked, a bit surprised. Somebody like Rafe? Knowing something about history? Impossible, he thought. The man only knew two things: comb hair, care about fashion. He MAYBE even knew how to tie his shoes.

“Well no-”

Ah. Figures.

“BUT, I know someone who totally would!” Rafe added proudly before leaning back in his chair again.

“...Really? Who???”

The abrupt, sparking energy of excitement and anticipation in the room was palpable.

“Listen, I got this younger cousin, yeah? She goes to Rainier, right? And she’s studying Anthropology there. ALL they talk about is society, artifacts, and ritual shit. Cousin asked for my opinion on a paper about the history of spoons being implemented into society, once. Total snooze-fest, in my opinion. I’m telling you, head over to Rainier, find the Anthropology department, I guarantee those nerds would know the place.”

The detectives supposed it was the best chance they had. Connor and Jim met Simon’s gaze, a silent request for permission to leave clearly present in their eyes. The captain simply nodded and waved towards the elevators.

“Good enough, get moving.”

~~~

Rainier was probably one of the better known universities in Washington. When the pair of detectives arrived, Jim decided it had a pretty nice campus, too. The whole place had been going through an ambitious decade of redesign projects dedicated towards modernizing and optimizing. Whatever that meant. The campus now had a huge center building that despite being brand new still had pleasant traits of an older fashioned architectural style. Beyond the large structure was a vast courtyard surrounded by a walkway, along which were the rows of other important buildings. Well, it certainly was organized, that’s for sure. And somewhat busy too, the detectives thought, figuring there must have been at least twenty students strewn about.

Jim had never really paid too much attention to Rainier before. He wasn’t remotely the academic type, but he was pretty certain he had attended college at some point… somewhere… He found it difficult to remember, though, most stuff that occurred after the whole “ family estrangement” ordeal and before getting rescued from being stranded in Peru was pretty fuzzy.

The pair of detectives entered the central hall and approached the university’s main desk, where a younger-looking student attendant smiled warmly at them. Another male student sat nearby with headphones on, feet kicked up on the desk, unaware of their presence entirely.

“Hello, and welcome to Rainier University! My name is Melissa, how can I help you?”

“I’m detective James Ellison, and this is detective Megan Connor. We’re part of Cascade PD’s Major Crimes Unit.”

At their introduction, Melissa’s soft expression faded into a more serious and slightly nervous one. Cops weren’t all too uncommon on campus. It was a typical college that harbored typical college shenanigans like drinking devil juice and having bake sales. Detectives from a unit called “Major Crimes” were not common, and the attendant did not like the sound of it.

“Is something wrong?” she asked nervously, unsure if she really wanted to know the answer.

“For our current investigation, it’s necessary that we meet with someone that has a specific expertise. One source recommended an Anthropology department. Is there a professor on campus we can speak to?”

“Oh!” Melissa’s eyes lit up, suddenly full of her previous warmth with a hint of excitement. “Dr. Sandburg! You’re definitely going to want to look for Dr. Sandburg.”

“Where might we find him?”

She quickly pulled a paper map out from a drawer and highlighted a route across campus with expert precision. As an attendant, Melissa had excellent knowledge of every single sidewalk Rainier had.

“Here! He’s most likely in his office, in the anthropology department of Hargrove Hall. It’s on the second floor, first door on the hallway to the right! There should be a nameplate on the wall, just in case. If he’s not there, feel free to wait in the office for a bit, he’ll probably be back. And if he doesn’t show for a while, you could track down Eli Stoddard, his office will be further down the same hall.”

The detectives thanked the desk attendant for her help before starting their journey to Hargrove Hall. Their path, rather simple and straightforward thanks to the university’s new optimization, would probably take only around five minutes. Jim felt out of place walking along the campus sidewalks, not having any previous college “good old days” memories that immediately came to mind to reminisce on. Maybe he would try some introspection later. Connor, on the other hand, appeared to be soaking the atmosphere in with much enthusiasm. Jim guessed she might have been part of a sorority or something of the like. Did Australia call them sororities? Did they ride kangaroos to school? Probably. He wouldn’t know.

“Hopefully this will be the second to last trip!” Connor joked.

Right, after they meet with this dweeby professor and get the name of the even dweebier shop, they’d just have to go there, wait for their evasive host, and that would be it.

Jim and Connor entered Hargrove and ascended to the second floor, thrilled knowing that their ridiculous goose chase was almost over. As they approached the office, Jim could hear someone shuffling around inside accompanied by the notes of soft music. He couldn’t recognize it, noting that it sounded like the kind of thing a cliche movie anthropologist would listen to because of its more tribal vibe.

Rounding the corner and stepping into the open doorway, the detectives caught sight of an individual who was too busy dusting off a comically disorganized shelf of artifacts to notice their arrival.

He looked too young to be a professor, much less someone with a PhD. Must be an assistant, or something. The kid had long auburn curly hair pulled back into a low, messy ponytail. His dull flannel shirt, faded jeans, and worn converse shoes all looked like they had seen better days.

Yeah, definitely a poor college assistant. Jim stepped further into the office and cleared his throat to draw the student’s attention.

“Excuse me, we’re looking for Dr. Sandburg?” The kid would probably have a pretty good idea of where the professor was off to and when he’d return.

The curly-haired stranger ceased his dusting before turning to them with a positively infectious smile on his face. Jim’s eyes met the stranger’s, vibrant, sapphire blue, shielded behind his round glasses. Total nerd. Totally gorgeous nerd. It wasn’t handsomeness, that wasn’t the right word. No, pretty. Beautiful. That was way more accurate.

Jeez, when was the last time he ever found anybody beautiful, much less another guy? Wasn’t he straight? He had a wife! ...Well, an ex-wife, but still! Was he bi??? Wait, had he been having super gay thoughts this entire time? Later, Jim, introspection later! Information now!

In an upbeat, sing-songy voice the ‘student’ replied, “Guilty as charged! What can I do for you?”