Blair Sandburg stepped from the doorway into the twilight, jamming his hands into his jacket pockets against the late fall chill. The street lamp on the corner kicked on, and he realized it was much later than he'd thought. He'd gotten hung up talking to his mechanic after dropping off the Volvo for its pre-winter checkup. Mike had been trying to interest him in a newer car, one more reliable than his classic '68, and he had to admit to being tempted. His friend had an '85 CRX SI he'd just refurbished and was looking to sell.
He sighed. As much as the thought of the fast, sporty little car appealed to him, Jim would have a harder time getting in and out of it than he did the Volvo. Still, it was in great shape; maybe he would take it for a spin when he came to pick up his car. He began to walk back to the police station, a little surprised Jim hadn't called to check on him since he'd been gone quite a bit longer than the half-hour he'd promised. Patting down his pockets, Blair realized his cell phone was lying on the middle of Jim's desk at the station under the files he'd thrown down when he had remembered his appointment at the garage. Jim was going to be ticked when he called and his desk started ringing.
He picked up his pace, glancing around the neighborhood of warehouses and small industrial businesses for a payphone. He had started jogging toward one he'd spotted a block away when the sound of raised voices stopped him in his tracks. A man and a woman were arguing. Blair looked around for the source of the quarrel as a third voice entered the chorus. "Give us the bag and you won't get hurt!" That constituted a threat in Blair's book, and he headed down a narrow alley in the direction of the noise.
"Bite me!" was the female's defiant reply.
Blair rounded the corner of a warehouse and, by the faint light of a security lamp, he saw two white men struggling with a slim, dark-skinned woman clutching a gym bag tenaciously. One of the men had her by the elbows from behind but she refused to release her hold on the bag as the other man tugged at it. He slapped her hard across the face. Unfazed, she jammed a foot into his stomach. Cursing, he lifted his arm for another blow, his hand now clenched in a fist.
Unable to remain a bystander any longer, Blair snatched up a 5-foot length of pipe from a pile of old plumbing next to a dumpster. He entered the fray, his makeshift staff whistling through the air as he connected solidly with the thug's upraised arm. The man staggered back, clutching his injured limb.
Taking advantage of Blair's attack, the woman stomped on her captor's foot and smacked the back of her head into his face as he doubled over. His hold on her broken, she took off at a run down the alley still hanging onto her bag.
Blair found himself facing two very pissed off men. Shifting his grip on the pipe, he shut off conscious thought, letting his training take over. They circled him warily, then the taller of the two stepped into range, and the anthropologist brought the staff around in a low half-arc, sweeping the man's feet out from under him. Thinking Blair occupied, the punk behind him made his move.
Smoothly changing to a one-handed hold on the pipe, Blair half-turned toward the new threat, adding the momentum to the elbow he slammed into his attacker's face. Again he returned to a ready position, silently thanking Dee for the hours they'd spent drilling for just such a situation. He bounced lightly on the balls of his feet, waiting as the two men picked themselves slowly off the pavement. The dark-haired one was reaching ominously into his jacket when the sound of a racing car engine caught the attention of all three.
A Volkswagen Rabbit roared down the alley, screeching to a stop behind Blair. The passenger door flew open and the interior light illuminated the face of the woman he'd saved. "Blair, get in!" she yelled. He didn't hesitate, dropping his weapon as he dove into the passenger seat, pulling the door closed as she stood on the gas and reversed rapidly down the alley. Tires squealed as she slid into a 90-degree turn then threw the car into drive and sped off.
Blair grabbed for the dashboard as his savior took a corner on two wheels. Shifting into fifth gear, she let out a whoop. "Wooooohooo! What a rush, what a rush! Man, I loooove my job!"
He knew that voice and now he recognized the face. "Cyndi? Cyndi Blake?"
She grinned at him, nodding energetically, her beaded braids clicking musically. "Yep, it's me! Thanks for the save, Ninja Blair!" Taking one hand off the steering wheel, she ruffled his curls affectionately.
"God, Cyndi, it's been what, two years?" Two years since he'd last seen his friend and fellow Rainier grad student. It seemed like a lifetime ago. "What in the world was going on back there? And what was so important about," he rose a little in the seat and pulled the small duffle out from under him, "this bag?"
The ebony skinned woman lunged across the seat and cranked up the volume on the radio. "Oh, I love this song!" Her palms pounded out the rhythm on the steering wheel as she sang at the top of her lungs, harmonizing with Rob Thomas. "And it's just like the ocean, under the moon, it's the same as the emotion that I get from you, you got the kind of lovin that could be so smooth, give me your heart make it real, or else forget about it&"
Shaking his head, Blair lifted the bag onto his lap. Same old Cyndi. She had always been like greased lightning, shifting rapidly from one topic to another, making connections only her mind could follow. He'd had a hard time keeping up with her then, and now he was completely lost.
Glancing down at the bag, he noticed the zipper was slightly open. What he saw through the gap shocked and disappointed him. It was full of money, rolled up tightly and fastened with rubber bands. He'd been doing the cop thing long enough to recognize drug money when he saw it. "Awww, Cyndi, don't tell me you're dealing drugs."
She shot him an appraising gaze. "So what if I am? It's not like I'm doing the stuff. That is so totally unhealthy."
Blair shook his head, then pushed his hair back behind his ears, trying to think. "What happened? You were on the fast track to your master's degree and then you just disappeared."
"You mean you don't remember? Oh, wait, you were in South America when all that shit went down. They kicked me out, man. That damn bitch stole my thesis, and then claimed I stole it from her, and that was grounds for expulsion."
"Didn't you try to fight it?"
Her laugh was sarcastic. "Oh, right, Blair, they're gonna believe the word of the poor little black student over the white chick with the rich alumni for parents. They're doing the same thing to you. I still have my sources on campus. I know all about the shit you took for standing up to that Ventriss kid. If I'd had you on my side, maybe I'd still be there. Those bastards like to cut the heart right out of you and make you eat it." Her hand dropped from the gearshift to squeeze his knee sympathetically.
His eyes met hers, plainly reading the compassion there. If anyone could possibly understand what he had gone through, it was her. But he had gotten through it, and through plenty of other crazy shit, too. Unbidden the images of a lighthouse on a cliff sprang to mind, lightning dancing around it in brilliant display. Shaking his head slightly, he tried to steer the conversation back to the money. "Cyndi, about this drug thing. You could get in a lot of trouble, you could get hurt, or worse, not to mention go to jail."
She turned her attention back to the road, a small grin playing across her features. "Yep, those things could happen. But so far they haven't. And I like living on the edge, Blair, or have you forgotten? Hell, you used to love it, too! I mean, didn't that thing in the alley just give you the biggest rush? Danger gets your heartrate going and the adrenaline pumping. And you really did a number on those guys. Don't tell me that didn't thrill you just the tiniest bit!"
Closing his eyes, Blair leaned back against the seat. Man, oh, man, what have I gotten myself into? What do I tell her? That I work with a cop, who if he knew I was here with a bag of drug money would arrest me, and her, too? I wish there was some way I could talk her out of this. He felt the car come to a stop, and heard her shift into park and shut off the engine. Opening his eyes, he looked around. They were in the parking lot of some warehouse. He could see a sign over the door that read "Cristo Imports". Cristo& Cristo& where had he heard that name? "Where in the hell are we, Cyndi?"
"My boss' place." She got out of the car and walked around to his side. Opening the door, she snagged the bag of money, then took hold of his arm. "Come on inside with me. I'm gonna tell Frederico you should get a reward for saving my ass."
Oh, shit. Unfortunately, he couldn't see any way to avoid it. Stumbling a little as she yanked on his hand, he followed her inside the warehouse.
It looked pretty much like any other warehouse. Dozens of tall shelves held hundreds of boxes of all shapes and sizes. There was an office to the left of the door he and Cyndi had entered, and two men came out when they caught sight of them through the glass. The smaller of the two seemed to be in charge. He had dark hair and a Hispanic look about him, which was confirmed by his slight accent when he spoke. "Cyndi! Where in the hell have you been? You're late!"
The slim woman drew herself up to her full height and stared him down. Blair could tell there was no love lost between these two. "I had a little trouble, through no fault of my own. If you would give me a bodyguard that could hold his liquor, I wouldn't have had any problems, Frederico."
The man glanced around, his gaze flicking over Blair then dismissing him. "Where's Leo?"
"Leo got drunk last night and got himself arrested. Far as I know, he's still in the slammer. And because of that, I damn near lost the stuff and the payoff. If it hadn't been for Blair, you wouldn't have your money." Cyndi thrust the bag at him. "Count it, it's all there."
Unzipping the bag, Frederico took a quick look inside. "Who's Blair, and what kind of problems did you have?"
Cyndi waved a hand in the direction of her companion. "That's Blair, an old friend who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Those two new dealers thought they could get off not paying because I didn't have Leo with me today. They tried to keep the money, but Blair showed them." She flashed a grin in his direction.
For his part, Blair remained silent, taking it all in, trying to formulate a plan to get out of this alive. If they didn't take Cyndi at her word and searched him, he was in trouble. Casually he reached a hand into his jacket pocket, and discovered his police observer's id was missing. Had he left it back at the station with his cell phone? Had he dropped it in the alley? Or could it be at Mike's garage?
Frederico snorted. "This guy showed them what, Cyndi? He packing? And you know better than to bring strangers here. How much does he know about what you do?" He took a step toward Blair, intent on patting him down.
She took a small step forward, and Blair realized she was putting herself between the two drug dealers and him. His heart began to pound even faster as it dawned on him they might shoot him for simply being there. Rico moved around her and quickly ran his hands over Blair, who submitted to the search quietly, hoping the man couldn't feel him shaking.
"Blair knows what I do. He's in the same boat I was; Rainier's getting ready to toss him out on his ass, and now he's looking for a way to make some fast money. He's smart, he's tough, and he's a hell of a lot more reliable than Leo ever was. We don't have to worry about him getting hauled off for starting a fight in a bar. I want him as my new bodyguard."
Blair felt his heart stop. Cyndi, Cyndi, what in the hell are you doing? You are going to get me killed!
Both men began to laugh, Frederico doubling over and wiping tears from his eyes. "Madre de dios, Cyndi, but you have a sense of humor! This& this hombre pequeno as your bodyguard?"
She grinned at him, shaking her head. "'Rico, you should know better than to judge a book by its cover. Blair is a regular Bruce Lee, a Jewish Jackie Chan."
Oh, god. He was dead. Sorry, Jim, sorry. This is not how I pictured my last moments, and I kind of wanted to say goodbye.
Rico's eyes narrowed and he gave Blair the once over again. "Bruce Lee, uh? Let's see what you got." He gestured at the man standing behind him. "Let's see how you do against Manuel."
Swallowing with difficulty, Blair gazed up at the other man. He was at least a couple inches taller than Jim and about twice as broad. I'm toast. "Um, look, Cyndi, it was real nice of you to try and help me out here, but I can see your boss doesn't think I'm cut out for this line of work, and who am I to argue with him? I'm just going to head on home now& " He began edging toward the door they'd entered, when one of the big bay doors rumbled open automatically and a long black limousine pulled into the warehouse.
It came to a stop a few feet away from the four of them, and the driver jumped out to open the back door. All thoughts of flight vanished as Blair was struck by the need to know who was in the car. The man who exited was not much taller than Sandburg and appeared to be about the same age. He had light brown hair that fell in soft waves to his shoulders and a neatly trimmed beard and mustache. His hazel eyes were soft and kind, his slight smile benevolent. He wore an unstructured sand colored silk suit over a high collared cream shirt; a simple wooden cross hung from a cord around his neck. In one hand he carried a walking stick, but when he moved it was evident it was for appearances only. Blair let out the breath he'd been holding. The guy looked like the painting of Jesus that was on every Sunday school wall in the country.
The newcomer's keen eyes took in the little scene before him, and he quirked an eyebrow. "Is there a problem, Rico?" Before his foreman could answer, he had moved on, pulling Cyndi into a swift hug and kissing her cheek. "Cyndi! My darling girl! How have you been?" Once again, he shifted his attention before she could reply. His inquisitive gaze fell on Blair. "And you are?"
He had to force the words from his suddenly dry throat. "Blair Sandburg, sir. Cyndi& um, thought I might be right for a job with your organization& but, well," he jerked a thumb in Rico's direction, "he doesn't think so."
The man's smile widened. "And what seems to be the problem, Rico? If Cyndi vouches for him, we can surely find something for him to do."
Cyndi broke in at that moment, moving a little closer to him. "Mr. Cristo, sir, Leo got himself thrown in jail again. I can't work with a partner who isn't reliable and can't stay out of trouble. I was hoping you would approve of Blair as my new partner."
Cristo glanced at Sandburg for a brief second, then back to Rico. "Well, Rico? Leo has been a liability in the past."
"I was just about to test his abilities, Jefe." He crooked his head in Manuel's direction.
"Ah, very well then. I'm sure you don't object to a test, Mr. Sandburg. I have to know if you'll be able to keep my Cyndi safe." Cristo gave her a smile and slid his arm around her shoulders.
Taking a step back, Blair moved into a more open area, dropping into a fighting stance. He really didn't want to do this, and yet, there was something about Cristo he trusted, a sense of honor. Manuel followed him, throwing a lunging punch which Blair easily dodged.
The two men circled each other warily, Blair staying on the defensive. He quickly realized that he could duck and weave all he wanted, but sooner or later the large man would get his hands on him and then he would be in trouble. He needed an edge, like he'd had in the alley. His eyes fell on the oak walking stick Cristo held loosely. Grabbing it out of his hand, Blair said, "Just borrowing it, sir!" Sensing Manuel behind him, Blair whirled, bringing the stick in low, hitting him solidly in the knee. Letting out a bellow of pain, the big man staggered a little, and Blair followed up with a strike to the stomach and one to his shoulders as the bodyguard doubled over. Blair danced out of reach, then spun back around, nailing him with a kick to his already aching leg. Manuel fell to his knees and Blair moved up behind him, holding the stick in both hands, bringing it across his neck and pressing it against his throat until the man began to choke.
The sound of a sharp handclap broke Blair's concentration. "Enough!" Cristo commanded. "I think our Mr. Sandburg has proved himself admirably. And he's quite resourceful too."
Releasing Manuel, Blair returned the cane to Cristo. "Thank you, sir."
"Starting tomorrow, you are Cyndi's new partner. She'll show you the ropes." Cristo held out his hand and Blair shook it tentatively. "Welcome to my organization, Blair." The sudden turn of events finally registering, Blair could only nod in reply.
"Mr. Cristo, sir," Cyndi said, "Blair already saved me today. He kept a couple dealers from making off with your stuff and their payment."
Cristo snapped his fingers. "Then he deserves to be paid. Frederico, get Cyndi and Blair their pay." The dark-haired man disappeared into the office and returned a moment later with two envelopes. He handed one to Blair and the other to Cyndi.
Waving a quick goodbye to her boss, Cyndi grabbed a still stunned Blair by the arm and they exited the warehouse.
Jim Ellison looked up from his computer screen as two men entered Major Crimes through the door closest to his desk. One was a tall, dark-haired man with his right arm in a sling, the other a stocky blond with two black eyes and a well-bandaged nose. Though dressed in jeans and the standard wear of the Pacific Northwest, flannel shirts over tees, their bearing and the imperious glances they were shooting around the bullpen immediately caused Jim to label them as Feds. He tried to make himself inconspicuous, and failed.
One Arm moved to stand in front him. "Where's Blair Sandburg?" It wasn't a request.
Jim rose smoothly to his feet, folding his arms over his chest in a show of territoriality. "Who's asking?"
Broken Nose flipped open a badge. "I'm Agent Collier, and this is my partner, Agent Manning. We're with the DEA."
"No! I thought you were with the World Wrestling Federation," Jim deadpanned.
Manning slammed his good hand down on the desk. "We demand to see Blair Sandburg!"
Jim shot a glance toward Captain Banks' office, seeing the man beginning to rise from his desk at the noise. He decided it was time to be civil. "I'm Detective Ellison, Sandburg's partner. Perhaps I can be of some assistance?"
"You can tell us where the son of a bitch is and then get out of my way 'cause I'm going to kick his ass from here to the Pacific Ocean!"
Simon's foghorn voice cut through the room. "Gentlemen, gentlemen! Can't we discuss this rationally?"
Collier turned what should have been a piercing glare on the tall black man, but his swollen eyes and taped nose only made him look pitiful. "Who are you?"
"Captain Banks. Sandburg is one of my men." Simon scowled back at the agent.
Manning shook his head, his good hand clenching and unclenching. "Don't you locals know how to handle a drug deal going down? You don't fucking interfere! Because it just might be part of a sting operation!"
Jim was trying very hard to keep up. "Sandburg interfered with a drug deal? Then where in the hell is he?"
"How the fuck should I know? He beats the crap out of us, then jumps in the car with the mark and takes off!"
Simon made a small choking noise, and Jim realized he was trying to hold back his laughter. The idea of Sandburg beating up on the two muscular DEA agents was pretty funny. He looked away to hide his own expression of mirth. As he did, he caught sight of the clock on the wall. His partner should have been back two hours ago. Picking up the phone, he punched in the number for Blair's cell. A few seconds later, his desk began to trill. "Damn it, sir," he said, catching Simon's eye, "he left his cell phone here."
Removing his glasses, Banks wiped his eyes, then replaced the spectacles. "Are you sure it was Sandburg? What you're describing sounds very much out of character for him."
Collier threw a laminated tag on the desk. Blair's observer ID stared up at them. "Oh, we're sure. He dropped this."
"Thanks for the lift, Cyndi," Blair said as he got out of her Rabbit. Closing the door, he leaned back through the window. "You'll call me and let me know where and when tomorrow, right? You have my cell number."
Cyndi nodded, her beads swaying. "I got your number. It won't be too early, and I'll pick you up since you don't have a car." She grinned at him. "We are gonna have so much fun, Blair!" Letting up on the clutch, she drove off.
Blair stood on the corner watching until she was out of sight. "Yeah, fun," he muttered under his breath, then turned to jog the four blocks to the PD, wondering what in the hell he was going to tell Jim and Simon.
Exiting the elevator at the sixth floor, he walked into chaos. Everyone in Major Crimes was standing in a circle around Simon and Jim, who were facing off with two men Blair didn't recognize, and all of them were yelling at once.
"Sandburg is not capable of& "
"Broke up our bust& "
"Broke my freaking nose& "
"Probably made us to the girl& "
"This is all very amusing, gentlemen, but& "
As one, all the occupants of the bullpen turned toward the door, suddenly silent. Blair's attention fastened on the two strangers. Underneath the bandage and the black eyes, the blond one looked familiar, like the& the guy from the alley! His eyes widened as a sudden wave of terror swept over him. The flight response came a little too late. Broken Nose rushed him, grabbing him by the collar and slamming him into the glass next to the door hard enough that Blair heard it crack.
"You fucking son of a bitch! Do you know how much you cost us? You blew our whole setup, you worthless druggie piece of shit!" The man was so close Blair could feel his spit hitting him in the face as he ranted. Then Jim and Simon were on either side of the nutcase, pulling on his arms, trying to make him release his hold, as Blair clawed at the hands twisting his collar, cutting off his air.
"Let him go!" Jim roared. "Can't you see he's choking?"
The pressure suddenly vanished, and Blair lost his balance, staggering forward, feeling something drop from his coat pocket. Catching himself on the corner of a desk before he went all the way to the floor, he looked up to see stunned faces staring back at him. The room was dead silent. "What? What is it, guys?" He straightened, then looked down.
A plain white envelope lay on the floor, hundred dollar bills strewn around it in a fan.
"Uh, would you believe I just won the lottery?"
Blair found himself being grabbed firmly by the arm and dragged into Simon's office, the door slamming shut behind him. The grip on his arm tightened and he was whirled around to face a very pissed off Sentinel. Both of them spoke at once.
"Where in the hell have you been?"
"Who in the hell are those two guys?"
Jim's fingers squeezed Blair's arm even harder as his jaw worked overtime. "Hey, man, come on. Lay off the guide abuse!" The detective released his hold, and Blair's hand automatically went to the limb, massaging the injured area. "What is it with everyone today? Is there a big sign on my back that says 'Open Season on Sandburg'?"
Taking a deep breath, Jim exhaled noisily, and Blair could see him mentally counting to ten. "Those 'two guys' happen to be DEA agents, who are not too happy about having their sting operation broken up by you."
Taking a step back, Blair blinked up at the taller man. "DEA?"
"Yes, DEA. What were you thinking, and why didn't you identify yourself as with the PD?"
"I just reacted to the situation, Jim. I saw two guys beating up on a woman in an alley, and I just jumped to the rescue. She got away, and then the dark-haired guy looked like he was reaching for a weapon just as Cyndi pulled up in her car and I hopped in and we took off." He paused to take a breath.
"Who's Cyndi?" Jim managed to get in before Sandburg started up again.
"Cyndi was the woman I rescued. She used to be a grad student at Rainier and we were good friends but she got kicked out for& " He noticed the other man's eyes beginning to glaze over and skipped ahead to the important part. "Anyway she had this bag of money and that's how I found out she was dealing drugs. She drove me to this warehouse and took me inside to meet her boss, which didn't go so well, and I was trying to talk my way out of there when the big boss, Cristo, showed up in this limo, and he thought Cyndi had a good idea, only I had to pass a test first, so I had to fight this really big guy." He rushed the end of the story before Jim could interrupt. "I won, and apparently that and Cyndi's word was all there was to the test, because I now work for Cristo. Cyndi's supposed to call me with more details tomorrow." Blair leaned back against the conference table and folded his arms across his chest. "And that was my day, how was yours?"
The guide's tentative grin was infectious, and Jim found himself smiling back at him. "Well, Chief, my day was pretty crappy actually. My partner went to the garage and disappeared for two hours, then turned up with a couple thousand in laundered money on him, with some ridiculous story about being hired on the spur of the moment by the biggest drug dealer in Cascade. Unfortunately, since it's you we're talking about here, the story is probably true." He turned toward the door just as Simon entered with the DEA agents on his heels.
"Take a seat, gentlemen," Captain Banks said, his expression grim. The two Feds and the two detectives sat down at the table while Simon leaned against the front of his desk. Introductions were brief. "Ellison, Sandburg, Cascade PD. Manning, Collier, DEA. Let's hear it, Sandburg."
Once again Blair repeated his story, punctuated by outbursts from the two agents. He had just gotten to the part about knowing Cyndi from Rainier when he was interrupted again.
"I want Sandburg under federal arrest," Manning snapped.
"What!" Blair was halfway out of his seat at the agent's words. "I haven't done a damn thing but protect someone you were attacking!" Jim laid a restraining hand on his arm.
"You're a danger to our operation. If we let you walk out of here, who knows what you'll do," Manning growled. "Run straight to your little dealer friend and let her know the DEA is after her. We can't let you jeopardize a sting we've worked so hard to set up."
There was no mistaking the menace in Collier's next words. "Assault on federal agents is a pretty serious crime, as is aiding and abetting a known criminal."
Blair dropped back into his chair with a thump. He was so pissed he couldn't see straight. Who in the hell did these morons think they were? Beating up a contact sure in the hell wasn't going to get them anywhere, and if they thought they could scare Cyndi into coughing up some info for them, they were definitely barking up the wrong tree.
A knock on Banks' door disrupted Collier's tirade. "Come," Simon snapped.
Megan Connor stuck her head in the door. "Here's that report from forensics on the envelope Sandy dropped. They found a couple of good prints." She handed a file folder to her superior then beat a hasty retreat.
Opening the folder, Simon read the paper within thoroughly, then raised his eyes to Blair's uncertain blue ones. "It seems there were a couple prints on the paper besides Sandburg's. They happen to belong to Frederico Juarez, an Ecuadorian national, convicted drug trafficker, and Cristo's right hand man. Care to explain how his fingerprints got on an envelope in your possession?"
The urge to shove his chair back and run was almost overwhelming. Despite the years he'd worked with the PD, Blair was acutely aware he wasn't one of them; he was still an outsider. Then the light pressure of Jim's hand on his shoulder broke through his paralyzing fear, reminded him that this was where he belonged, at his partner's--his Sentinel's--side. He relaxed slightly, and Jim gently prodded him. "Just tell them what you told me."
Licking his dry lips, Blair explained once again about Cyndi taking him to the warehouse. He'd just gotten to the part about the limo pulling up when Manning interrupted him. "I think we've heard enough. We're placing you under arrest."
Blair couldn't breath. His panicked gaze traveled from Jim to Simon and back again. "Jim, you're not gonna let them do this; you can't let them do this! Captain!" He was on his feet, feeling like he was going to be sick.
"Don't you think arresting Blair is a little bit premature? You haven't heard the rest of the story!" Jim jumped to his defense.
Collier shook his head. "I think we've heard enough to know he's not telling the truth. I've heard druggies tell some whoppers, but waltzing into the lion's den without being challenged by one of Cristo's men is really stretching my imagination."
Blair slammed the flat of his hand down on the tabletop. "You haven't listened to a goddamned word I've said! Cyndi knows me, she trusts me! She thinks I'm another victim of the system, that we're kindred spirits--"
"I think you're full of it, Sandburg. The way I see it, you were there to help out your friend, and now your dark little secret is out in the open. We're going to take you over to the federal building and get the real story out of you." Collier produced a pair of handcuffs.
Blair's mind was whirling, trying to figure a way out of this as both Jim and Simon argued with the Feds. The solution to his problem was staring him in the face. It scared the hell out of him, but if it would keep him out of jail, he would do it. "Hey." No one paid him a bit of attention. "Listen to me." Even Jim and Simon weren't listening. "Would you just SHUT UP!" Blessed silence returned. "How long have you been working on this operation?" He directed his question to Manning.
"And how far have you gotten?"
"Our first agent was killed. Since we were brought in, we've managed to set ourselves up as dealers buying from Cristo."
"What do you mean that's it? It takes time to infiltrate this kind of operation. They have to get to know you, trust you, feel you out, test you." Collier was glaring at him.
Blair rested his palms on the table leaning his weight on his hands. "I am so far ahead of you guys, it's pathetic. I'm already in. I've been inside Cristo's headquarters; I've met his people; I've passed his test; I am in his employ. That money was payment for pummeling your sorry asses." Collier lunged across the table at him, but he danced out of range. "You throw me in jail and you lose your chance to wrap this up quickly. You want information? I can get it for you, but I have to be free to do it."
"You little snot-nosed punk--" Manning snarled.
"That's enough, all of you!" Simon bellowed. "Regardless of whether you believe him or not, Sandburg says he can get you what you need. Give him the opportunity to prove himself, to prove his innocence. This can only benefit you, while throwing him in jail benefits no one."
Manning glanced at his partner. "Let me call our superior. In private." Simon pointed at the phone, then followed Sandburg and Ellison into the nearly deserted bullpen.
"Next time, Sandburg, it would be nice to have some advance warning before you volunteer your services to the Feds, let alone decide all on your lonesome you're going to go undercover," Simon chastised him.
Feeling suddenly drained, Blair leaned against a desk. "It's not like I had much of a choice, sir, either earlier today or now." He looked up at Jim. "Aren't you going to say something, man?"
Jim's jaw muscles worked for a moment, then he said, "You'll hear from me, but later--much later."
The guide suppressed a shudder. That was gonna be worse than any grilling the Feds could put him through.
The trio's attention turned to Simon's office as the door opened and the DEA agents came out. "You're in. But if you so much as think of ratting this operation out to Cristo, your ass is going to prison."
Letting out the breath he'd been holding, Blair said, "Gotcha."
Collier looked at his watch. "It's late, and we have plans to make. We'll meet back here in the morning to discuss how this is going to work. 8 am."
"They'll be here," Simon promised.
The agents left, both of them giving Blair a dirty look as they passed him on their way out.
Blair sat at the kitchen table, a peanut butter and alfalfa sprout sandwich forgotten in his left hand as he pored over the Cascade PD's files on Cristo. Even though the drug dealer was relatively new on the scene, having arrived in the city a little over 18 months ago, he had quickly made a name for himself. Able to supply large quantities of cocaine and heroin due to his family's South American drug cartel, he quickly undercut Cascade's other dealers and forced them out of business. Those who refused to accept the inevitable he simply wiped out, leaving a cross carved into the chest of each of his victims as a warning to those who dared challenge him. So far the body count totaled about 30, from penny ante dealers to major players, including two CPD narcotics officers and one DEA agent.
Closing the file he'd been skimming, Blair set it in the "read" pile and took a bite of his sandwich before pulling a folder from the unread stack. He heard Jim come down the stairs and cross the loft to the kitchen, but he didn't look up until his partner pulled out a chair at the end of the table and sat down. He was trying to hide it, but Blair could see his Sentinel's concern.
"Are you sure about this, Chief? I know you've gone undercover before, but never like this. It could take weeks or months before you get enough information to convict him of anything. And you won't have me there to back you up; you'll be on your own." Jim leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table. "I don't like it, Blair. Cristo won't hesitate to kill you if he suspects you're a cop."
Pulling off his glasses, Blair rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I know, Jim, but I have to do this. He has to be stopped. Too many people have died already; too many lives have been destroyed. " He flipped through the pages in front of him, then turned his attention back to his partner. "How come this guy never came across Major Crimes desk before this?"
"The case started out in Narcotics when they got word a new player was in town, but they couldn't get any information about who was behind the increased drug traffic. The murders were handled by Homicide for a couple months before they figured out they were dealing with a power struggle between Cristo and the other dealers in Cascade and not a vigilante serial killer. By the time Narcotics and Homicide got together, two undercover cops were dead and the DEA had been called in. Major Crimes was left out of the loop. That's why Simon is upset about you going undercover for them. This is their operation, and he doesn't have any say in how it's run." A shadowed look crossed his face. "Your safety is not going to be the DEA's first priority."
The guide ran a hand through his hair, pushing it out of his face. "I'm used to thinking on my feet, Jim. I'll be okay." His words were meant to reassure, but he couldn't ignore the small coil of fear sitting icily in the pit of his stomach. Something Jim had said earlier piqued his interest. "You said Homicide thought they had a serial killer on their hands?"
Nodding, Jim sorted through the stack of file folders. "The deaths all had certain similarities. The victims were all drug dealers, or suppliers. The scenes were similar. All of them had a cross cut into their chest." He passed a folder over to the guide. "The undercover officers who were killed had been posing as dealers."
Blair opened the folder and nearly lost his dinner. In the crime scene photo, a male victim, nude from the waist up, had been shot through the head, execution style, which was bad enough. But what was really disturbing was the cross. The vertical line ran from the hollow of the man's throat to nearly his navel and the horizontal cut went all the way across his chest just above his pectoral muscles. The blood trailing from the deep wounds showed they had been inflicted while the victim had still been alive and most likely conscious.
Shutting the folder slowly, Blair pushed it aside. He knew Jim had to be picking up his shuddered breathing and suddenly racing heart, but the Sentinel didn't comment, just laid his hand on the younger man's shoulder for a moment as he rose from the table. Pressing the heels of his hands against his closed eyes, Blair tried to banish the picture from his mind.
Blood, so much blood& puddled on the floor, splattered on the walls, dripping from the ceiling. A body was there, huddled on the floor. He didn't want to go near it, didn't want to touch it, yet his hand gave the corpse's shoulder a gentle push. It toppled over, the mutilated chest exposed, the slashes a fiery red against dark skin. He screamed.
Leaping to his feet, Blair scrambled back, knocking over his chair. Becoming tangled in the legs, he wind-milled his arms trying to keep his balance and failed. He crashed to the floor, the back of his head smacking against the hardwood.
Jim was beside him in an instant. "Chief! Are you okay?" Gentle fingers probed his scalp as Blair tried to regain the breath that had been knocked out of him when he hit the floor.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine," he replied as Jim helped him sit up. "I just. . ." What had just happened? Could it have been a vision? Or was his tired mind just reacting to the stimulus of the crime scene photos? "I don't know, Jim. I saw something, another victim, but I don't know who it was. All I could see was the bloody cross& "
Ellison gave him a hand up off the floor and glanced at his watch. "It's nearly 3 AM, Chief. Why don't we both try to get some sleep before we have to be back at the station for the meeting with the Feds?"
Nodding, Blair cleaned up his plate and glass from the table, dropping the half-eaten sandwich into the garbage before heading to his room and falling into bed.
Opening the passenger door of the Rabbit, Blair slid into the seat. "Hey, Cyndi, how's it going?"
Giving him a wide grin, the dark-skinned woman replied, "Just great. Not much going on today. Just a few deliveries. But first, I have something for you." Reaching between the seats into the back of the car, she produced a large purse from which she withdrew a small velvet bag. Handing it to him, she urged him to open it. "Go on, it's not going to bite you."
Blair untied the drawstring at the top of the bag and upended it over his open hand. A two-inch long, clear, somewhat cylindrical crystal landed on his palm. A gold cap with a ring through it fit over one end; a gold chain attached to the ring. Its warmth surprised him, and he glanced at Cyndi. "Thank you," he said softly, "but why?"
She put the car in drive and pulled away from the curb. "I read the cards for you last night. They said you were troubled, uncertain of your way. The crystal will give you clarity, help you focus, give you a surety of purpose." She gave him a smile, then turned her attention back to the road.
Blair rubbed his fingers over the gem for a few moments, then slid the chain over his neck and tucked the crystal inside his shirt. She was right; it did give him a sense of security. He shook his head. Some things in life were better left unexplained.
Jim took a sip of his coffee and grimaced. Cold. He glanced over at Connor in the driver's seat of the unmarked sedan they were using to tail Blair and Cyndi. "You got any more of this?" he asked.
"Yeah, there's a thermos in the back seat."
Wriggling around in the seat, the detective managed to snag it. Settling back down, he poured cups for himself and his temporary partner, then said, "This is really getting old."
"I know what you mean, Jimbo. I'm pretty tired of following them around myself. Three weeks is way too long to be spending 12 hour days sitting in the car." She took a sip of coffee and rubbed her nose. "And it's getting damn cold too." She changed the subject a little. "How are you doing?"
Ellison turned slightly surprised eyes on her. "What do you mean?"
"With all this, Sandy being deep undercover, living on his own, you not having your guide around. That kind of thing." She turned her concerned gaze on him. "Are you doing okay?"
Jim turned to stare at Cyndi and Blair, talking with one of their small time dealers four blocks away. "It's& all right," he finally managed. He heard her soft snort of disbelief, but didn't explain any further. He couldn't tell her how much he missed his partner's constant presence. The Feds had set Blair up in an apartment a couple blocks from where Cyndi lived. It was convenient, it allowed them to keep an eye on him, and most importantly, it was safer for Blair to not have any ties to the Cascade PD, especially not a roommate who was a cop.
Intellectually, yeah, Jim understood it, but emotionally, it was hell. Blair was keeping him informed; they talked every night on the phone, and met occasionally in an out of the way place where no one knew either of them, but it was difficult. Each time they met, Jim could see how much of a toll this was taking on his partner. He'd lost weight, and, judging by the dark circles under his eyes, he hadn't been sleeping much. But whenever Jim brought up the possibility of ending this charade, Blair had argued he just needed more time. There was a large shipment of drugs coming into Cascade soon. He was determined to find out the date and location of the drop. If they could catch Cristo making the deal himself, he would be as good as locked up. That day couldn't come soon enough for Ellison.
Megan's hand on his arm brought him out of his reflections. "They're going."
"Yeah, okay, just follow like we always do." Jim focused his attention back on the job.
Jesus Cristo looked up from the invoices he was working on. "Si, Rico, que pasa?"
The dark-haired man entered his boss' office and took a seat in the chair in front of the large mahogany desk. He gazed around the room, taking in his superior's collection of religious artifacts. Crucifixes of every size, shape and origin hung on the walls, along with a number of paintings of Christ's death and resurrection. A statue of the Virgin Mary stood in the corner, several lit votive candles on a table in front of it. No matter how many times he'd been in here, the place still gave him the creeps.
"You wanted to see me for a reason?" Cristo asked.
"Si, si, that new gringo, Sandburg. I've been asking around about him." He flinched as Cristo's eyes narrowed. He knew his boss hated to have his decisions questioned. "He used to work with the cops."
Leaning back in his chair, Jesus folded his well-manicured hands over his chest, idly stroking the gold cross that hung there today. "And your point is?"
Rico flushed. "Well, just that, I mean, we really don't know him that well. What if he's still got friends on the police force?"
A narrow smile graced Cristo's lips. "You used to be a member of the policia in Ecuador, Rico. Do you still have friends on the force?"
"Si, jefe, but& "
"And you do not tell them about your job in America selling drugs, do you?"
"No, jefe. I tell them I work for your import company."
"Blair is a smart man, Rico. He has worked very hard these past weeks. I am sure that if he still associated with his policia amigos, he would keep his mouth shut. People are capable of great things, if one overlooks their past and gives them a second chance. I would appreciate it if you followed our Savior's example and gave Blair the benefit of the doubt. He is shaping up to be a very talented disciple. And he is a good influence on our flighty Cyndi."
With a heavy sigh, Rico nodded. "Si, jefe. But I will keep my eyes open, so that I can report his good deeds, eh?"
Jesus waved the other man out. "You do that, Rico." After his subordinate had left, Cristo rocked slowly in his chair, pondering Blair Sandburg. He needed disciples--students--to pass on his knowledge, his message. But which disciple was Blair? Paul, the man of letters? He could see that. Blair was well educated; they had many interesting conversations on all manner of subjects. Thomas? He did ask many questions, but that was how one learned. Hmm, he would have to consult the scriptures and think on it for a while, before deciding how Blair fit into his circle of followers.
Cyndi pulled the Volkswagen up to the corner and pushed in the clutch. "Okay, Blair. I'll see you tomorrow. Have a good time with your friend tonight."
"Later," he said with a wave as he got out of the car.
Pulling away from the curb, the young woman had driven two blocks when she noticed something lying on the passenger side floorboard. Coming to a stop at a traffic light, she leaned over for a closer look. "Damn," she hissed under her breath. Blair's Swiss Army knife. It must have fallen out of his coat after he'd slit open their last delivery for the dealer's inspection. The light turned green and she made a hard right. If she hurried, she might catch him before he got on the bus.
Circling the block, she came to a stop at the intersection where she'd dropped him off in time to see Blair getting into an old, beat up, blue-and-white Ford pickup. Curious, instead of honking her horn to get his attention, she tailed the pickup for several miles. Much to her surprise, it drove into the underground parking garage of the Cascade Police Department.
Shifting her car into park, Cyndi sat there for a couple of minutes, her hands clenching and unclenching on the wheel. This wasn't what it looked like, she kept telling herself, but still& .He'd worked with that big cop, Jim& Joe& whatever& when she'd been a student at Rainier. But he'd told her that was over, had ended when both the cops and Chancellor Edwards had put the screws to him over the Ventriss thing. She chewed her lip, then made a decision. She'd tell Cristo what she'd seen and let him ask Blair about it.
Putting the car in drive, she was just about to pull back out into traffic when the passenger door opened, and someone slid into the seat. "What in the hell do you think you're doing?" she started to ask. "Oh, it's you. What the fuck do you want, loser?" Her eyes widened as her unwelcome rider shoved a gun in her ribs.
Another man climbed into the back seat. "Just shut up and drive, Cyndi, shut up and drive."
"Thanks for dinner, man," Blair said, giving Jim a grin as he got out of the truck in front of his apartment building. "It was great seeing everyone again. Hopefully this will be over soon and I can come home." His blue eyes took on a wistful look. "I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to that, Jim."
"Me, too, Sandburg, me too."
Closing the door of the Ford, Blair watched Jim drive off, then headed inside. Entering his apartment, he flipped on the lights and went in search of some candles. Despite the happy face and false cheer he'd put on for Jim and the guys tonight, the darkness was beginning to get to him. The few times he'd gone undercover before had not prepared him for this charade that was now his life. It was impossible to spend the day peddling death and not be affected by it. He kept telling himself it was for the greater good, that once they had Cristo behind bars, it would all stop, that there would be no more drugs, no more children dying. He wasn't even doing a very good job of fooling himself anymore. He knew that as soon as Cristo was out of the game a dozen more dealers would show up to take his place.
That's why he needed this time to himself. After getting ready for bed, pulling on an old T-shirt and a pair of sweats, he lit the candles on the coffee table, then turned out the lights. Seating himself on the floor in front of the table, he crossed his legs and pulled the chain holding the crystal Cyndi had given him over his head. He held it in his hands for a moment, stroking his fingers over the smooth planes. He'd read up on the crystal, and knew it was used by shamen to focus their dreams. Cyndi had told him it would help him see clearly. He could use both of those things now, a dream of hope and a clear path to that dream.
Blair laid the crystal on the table, inside the semi-circle of candles. He began to breathe deeply, slowly, keeping his eyes on the crystal, letting the reflections of the dancing flames draw him in.
Darkness surrounded him at first, until his eyes adjusted, and then he could make out a faint sliver of light along the ground, like the light entering a dark room around a closed door. He took a step toward the light& and heard screams. Someone was in terrible pain, screaming, begging, pleading for their life. Afraid, he no longer wanted to go forward, but his body was not under his control. His hand reached out, grasping the smooth, cold shape of a doorknob. Turning it, he pulled, and the door opened, brilliant white light spilling out, blinding him for a moment. When he could finally see again, he wished he couldn't. The small, white, sacred room was covered in blood. A body sat in the center of the floor, legs drawn up to the chest, the head resting on the knees, the face hidden. Unable to stop himself, he approached the person, laying a hand on their still warm shoulder. The body toppled over, the cross slashed into the chest clearly visible. Dark, vacant eyes stared up at him, beaded braids wreathing her head in a bloodstained halo. "No, Cyndi, no!"
Blair's spirit slammed back into his body. Gasping for air, his eyes flew open, fearing the worst. Safe, he was safe. The familiar furniture of his living room surrounded him, the candles on the table halfway burned down, the crystal glowing a dull red. Leaning forward, he dug his fingers into his hair, trying to grasp the fleeting images from his vision. Oh, god, Cyndi!
Springing to his feet, he snatched up the phone and dialed her number from memory. After six rings, he clicked it off and punched in the number for the loft, searching for his shoes, shoving his feet into them as he heard Jim pick up. "Jim, thank god, you're there!"
"Where else would I be?" Ellison grumbled sleepily.
"Something terrible's happened to Cyndi! I'm heading over to her apartment right now. Please, Jim, meet me there as soon as possible." Juggling the phone, he threw on his jacket and snatched up his keys.
"Sandburg, what are you talking about? It's 2 am for Pete's sake!"
"Jim! Please! I don't have time to explain, just meet me there!" Punching the off button, Blair tossed the phone at the couch and raced out the door.
He ran the two blocks to her building and was breathing so hard when he arrived that he spent nearly a minute fumbling with the key she had given him before he could fit it into the lock. "Please god, please god, please god," he chanted over and over as he turned the key and opened the door. Running his hand over the wall inside the door, he located the light switch and flipped it on. The room was trashed. "Cyndi?"
He stepped into the apartment, for one of the few times in his life wishing he had a gun. He figured whoever had been here was probably long gone. Still, he went room by room, the way he'd observed Jim do, sliding around the doorjambs after taking a careful look inside. Every room had been thoroughly searched, but there was no sign of his friend. He came to the room he'd been avoiding, the one she called her meditation room. She'd shown it to him on a visit, told him it was where she read the tarot and cast her rune stones, as well as observed the rituals of whatever religion she happened to be into at the moment. Last he remembered, it had been some weird offshoot of Voodun.
The fact that the door to this room was the only one he'd found closed in the whole apartment was not lost on him. Sticking his hand in the tail of his shirt, he opened the door, then slowly stepped into the doorway. His hand went to his mouth and he squeezed his eyes shut. "Oh& no, no& ."
Nauseated, Blair backed down the hallway and into the living room. Bumping into the couch, he sank onto the cushions, leaning over, trying to keep from passing out. It wasn't supposed to be like this& this kind of thing happened to Jim, he was the one with the visions, not Blair. Wrapping his arms around himself to ward off a sudden chill, he waited.
Jim eased through the door of Cyndi's apartment, gun drawn. Using his senses to satisfy himself that he and his guide were the only ones present, he holstered his weapon, then crossed the room to where his partner sat on the sofa, rocking back and forth slowly, eyes focused on nothing. "Chief? You okay?"
The rocking motion increased and Blair's eyes closed. "Cyndi& " he whispered, "back there& " His head inclined slightly in the direction of the hallway.
"Okay, Chief, I'm gonna go check it out, and I'll be right back. Just stay put." Jim headed down the short corridor to the door at the end, opening up his senses, then slamming them closed at the overwhelming smell of blood. Stopping just outside the door, he examined the crime scene.
The room had been torn apart; candles, tarot cards, and other new age items strewn everywhere. Blood spatters covered every surface including the ceiling. Dialing his sense of smell up a fraction, Jim discovered not all of it was human. The smears on the walls were some kind of animal blood.
He turned his attention to the victim. Cyndi's nude body was sprawled partially on its side, the torso turned toward the ceiling, the cross marks on her chest clearly visible. Judging by her body temperature, he estimated she'd been dead no more than an hour.
Something under her arm caught his attention, and he focused in on it. The familiar silver blade and red handle of a Swiss Army knife jumped out at him. He could pick out traces of skin and blood along the knife's edge. "Damn it." Someone was playing very nasty games, and his guide was in the middle of it.
Turning to walk back to the living room, he pulled out his cell phone and called it in. Closing the phone when he was done, he stuck it in his pocket and leaned over Blair, who seemed to still be in shock. "Chief, Blair, can you hear me?" He grasped the younger man's chin gently and tilted his face up until their eyes met. The anguish he saw there stunned him.
"This is my fault, Jim, all my fault. I could have stopped this, kept this from happening." Blair shook his head free from the Sentinel's hold.
Ellison barely held on to an exasperated sigh. "You couldn't have known someone was going to kill her, Chief. What are you, psychic?" His partner's gasp startled him.
"Yes. I saw this, Jim! I saw this weeks ago, when I had that vision. This is my fault, my fault!" Blair was on his feet now, pacing maniacally.
Grabbing his partner's arm as he came past, Jim pulled him around to face him. "Sandburg, this is not your fault!" Seeing his words weren't getting through to his nearly hysterical guide, Jim shook him gently. "Blair, listen to me!" Blair blinked, then gazed up at the taller man. "Look, I've never told anyone this, but when I was in the temple with Alex, while I was in the water, I had visions. I saw things, images, they went by so fast, were so jumbled I couldn't make sense of them, I still can't make sense of them." He stared at his friend, making sure he was getting this, that he understood. "I saw Simon and Megan get shot. I don't know by whom; I don't know when. And there's nothing I can do about it. If that moment comes, Chief, there will probably be nothing I can do to stop it, no matter how much I want to be able to save them." He rested his hands on Blair's shoulders, feeling the other man's fingers grip his forearms tightly.
For a long moment, Blair couldn't speak, could only breathe, absorbing his friend's concern and compassion. Finally he met Jim's eyes. "It's not fair," he said softly, "it's not fair to have this& gift, and not be able to use it to help the people you care about."
"I know, Chief, and I'm sorry this had to happen to you, to your friend." Jim cocked his head to the side slightly, listening. "The PD is on its way. You'd better get out of here."
Blair shook himself out of his melancholy. "Why?"
"Where's your pocket knife?"
Frowning, Blair patted down his coat. "It was in my pocket earlier today, but it's gone now. I've got to get a new jacket. I keep losing stuff out of this one." He gave Jim a crooked grin, which quickly faded at the detective's grim expression.
"Someone used it to carve Cristo's mark on Cyndi. It's under her body." Blair's face paled, and Jim gripped him by the elbow, leading him to the door. "Go back to your place, Chief. I'll meet you there as soon as we're done here. Go!" Ellison gave him a push down the hallway. The stairwell door closed behind Sandburg just as the elevator opened and Simon Banks strode out.
Removing his cigar, he said resignedly, "Okay, Jim, what in the hell happened here?"
Ushering his captain into the apartment, Ellison began to explain.
Sandburg exited Cyndi's building by the back entrance, cutting through the alley to avoid the squad cars he could hear pulling up in front. Shock and grief were gone now, replaced by anger and a myriad of questions. Why would Cristo kill Cyndi? Why would anyone? And why would they try to frame him for it? He hadn't found out anything on Cristo, at least not yet. Oh, man, how would Cyndi's death impact his working for Cristo?
His racing thoughts were interrupted as he reached the end of the alley. He paused in the shadows, checking to make sure the coast was clear. A car turned at the intersection and rolled quietly down the street, coming to a stop at the corner of Cyndi's block. Cristo's limo! What in the hell was he doing here? Checking on his handiwork?
Darting out from his hiding place, Blair ran up to the parked car, yanking the back door open and reaching inside, his hands closing on expensive silk. Dragging the drug dealer out of the limo, he slammed him against the side of the vehicle. "Why? Why did you kill her? She never did anything to you! She would never betray you! She worshipped the ground you walked on!" he screamed, unable to control the rage washing over him.
Jesus' hazel eyes widened, then filled with tears. "Then it's true? Cyndi's dead? No, no, it can't be true!" He struggled in Blair's grasp for a moment then buried his face in his hands, his shoulders slumping. "She can't be gone, she can't. She was my Mary& "
Blair let go of him, his fury spent. Cristo was honestly broken up over this. Maybe he didn't have anything to do with her death, maybe he was as much a victim as Blair was. What was he thinking? Either he was way too deep into his role here, or Jesus was one hell of an actor. Still, someone had used Blair's knife to make Cristo's mark. The drug dealer's words finally registered, and he felt his anger returning. Blair's eyes narrowed. "How did you know she was dead?"
"Someone called the office, told Rico she was dead, and that you had something to do with it. But I knew they had to be wrong. You would never hurt Cyndi; you loved her, as I did. And if you did kill her, you're smart enough to start running, though it would be of no help to you. You know how I am. Even if you had a head start, there is no place in this world you could hide." Cristo grasped at Blair's jacket, his hands twisting in the fabric. "Tell me. You have to tell me what happened!"
"I& she& " Shit! What in the hell should he tell him? "This is going to sound really strange, but it's the truth. You know Cyndi and I both meditated. I was meditating tonight, when I got this overwhelming feeling she was in trouble, someone was hurting her. I called her place, but she didn't answer, so I came over. I found her. Someone beat her, beat her up badly, trashed her apartment, then killed her. They cut your mark in her chest with my knife." Blair's gaze was intent on the other man, watching for any flicker of recognition, of guilt, but Cristo's expression never wavered from shocked grief.
"Sir!" Blair gently detached Cristo's hands from his coat. "Come on, we can't stay here. Someone called the cops. They have to have found the body by now, they'll be looking for us."
Jesus blinked a couple times, then nodded curtly, his sorrow transforming into anger. "When I find out who did this, they are going to suffer."
"I'd like to get my hands on them myself, but here and now is not the time to be discussing this. Right now I need to go find myself an alibi, and so do you." Blair took a nervous glance around. So far the cops hadn't started combing the neighborhood.
"You do that, Blair. I'll call you tomorrow, and we'll make arrangements." Jesus began to climb back into the limo.
Blair started to turn away, when a thought struck him. "Does this mean I still work for you?"
Pulling the door closed, the dealer rolled down the window. "Yes, Blair, it does. You've proved yourself to me, and Cyndi trusted you." A small smile tugged at his lips. "She was my right hand, you know, but don't let Rico know I told you that. I'll expect you to take over her duties."
"I don't know if I can do that by myself. Cyndi and I were a team." A brilliant idea hit him. "Look, sir, I have a friend who could help out. She's really good in a fight and I'd trust her with my life. I'm sure she'd make a good addition to your organization."
Cristo nodded. "Fine, fine. We'll discuss it later." He began to roll the window up, then paused it. "Oh, Blair, Rico told me you used to work with the police."
Trying to hide the fact that his heart was about to leap out of his chest, Blair nodded. "When I was at the university with Cyndi, I rode along with one of the officers for a paper I was writing." His voice lowered as he tapped into the raw emotions just thinking about those carefree years with Cyndi at Rainier brought up, using them to color his next words. "I was raised to think the police were as bad as Hitler's stormtroopers, but working that closely with them I began to think my mother had been wrong to teach me that. Then I got involved in a case regarding a university student. They ignored my insights and knowledge. I realized in their eyes, I'm nothing but a long-haired, over-educated hippie, not one of them. I've burned my bridges with them."
Cristo leaned out the window and laid a hand on the other man's arm. "It's all right, Blair. I'm not going to hold against you the fact that you kept this information from me." His lips parted in a grim smile. "Besides, your past with them could prove very useful. If you still have any contacts there, use them to find out what they know. Whoever did this will pay for Cyndi's life with their own."
"There might be someone I could talk to," he admitted.
"We are agreed then, eh? We will work together to find Cyndi's killer." Cristo clasped Blair's hand firmly in both of his. "To vengeance."
"To vengeance," Blair repeated, then stared after the limo as it pulled away, wondering exactly when his life had slipped completely out of his control.
Jim stood in the doorway to the crime scene, watching the forensic techs at work. A faint scent of cigar smoke heralded his superior's approach. "Find anything, Jim?"
The detective shook his head. "Nothing specific, but this," he waved his hand to encompass the entire apartment, "this is all wrong. I didn't work any of the other murders, sir, but Sandburg and I went over all the files thoroughly before he went under. The only thing the killer got right was the cross. The rest of this is completely different. The victims were always found outdoors, in their own territory, laid out very carefully. This is just a big mess, like someone wanted something Cyndi had, and when they couldn't find it, they tried to beat the location from her, then killed her when she didn't tell them where it was. I think the cross was just an afterthought, to muddy the waters."
Simon rubbed the back of his neck. "Okay, say that's the way it happened. What's to say that whoever did this didn't find what they were looking for? And what about Sandburg's knife? You know that's enough to pull him in and question him."
"I know, but he gave me an explanation for that. He lost it some time this afternoon. Cyndi simply could have found it, perhaps in her car, and planned to give it back to him tomorrow. Hell, the murderer didn't even have to know it belonged to Sandburg; it might have just been out in plain sight. And I don't know for sure that they didn't find what they were looking for. I just have a hunch they didn't."
"So you think the killer was someone other than Cristo or one of his minions?"
Ellison nodded. "It looks that way to me. The other killings were about sending a message. This was about rage. Cyndi pissed someone off." His comment sent a glimmer of insight through his mind, but it scurried out of his mental grasp before he could get a clear picture of it. Sighing, he glanced at his watch.
"You have to be somewhere?" Simon asked.
"I promised Blair I would stop by his place when I was done here. He was really shaken up by this, and
I want to make sure he's okay. I'm also going to see if I can talk him out of this before something happens to him, too."
"Jim, the Feds aren't going to let him quit, not until they have what they want. Sandburg knew that going in."
The sentinel made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a growl. "I don't give a damn about the Feds, Simon. Blair worked with Cyndi. If whoever killed her didn't find what they were looking for, chances are the next person they're going to go after is Blair." He jerked a thumb in the direction of the bloodstained room. "I will not let that happen to him."
Simon nodded his agreement. "Go, talk to him, make sure he's safe. I'll help finish up here."
"Thanks, sir." Turning, Jim left the apartment.
The soft knock on the door startled Blair, and he rose from his huddled position on the sofa. Approaching the door at an angle, careful not to stand directly in front of it, he picked up the weapon he kept next to the door. "Who is it?"
"Ellison," was the muffled reply. Blair peered through the peephole for a moment, then undid the locks and let his partner in. Jim took one look at his friend and grinned. "That your weapon of choice, Chief?"
Blair leaned the long wooden staff against the wall. He shrugged. "I'm getting pretty good with it." He changed the subject. "You want some coffee?"
Jim nodded and followed his guide into the kitchen. "I could do with some. I think I'm up for the day."
A faint tremor passed through Blair. "I don't think I'm ever going to sleep again. Not after seeing Cyndi like that." He poured coffee into two mugs and handed one to Jim. "So did you find out anything else at the scene?"
Jim shook his head. "Not really. The place was such a mess that I couldn't tell if anything there was out of the ordinary."
Blair leaned against the counter, both hands wrapped around the warm coffee cup. "No weird smells or anything?"
"Sorry, not a one, unless you count the animal blood all over the walls. That might give us someplace to start."
Blair sighed. "It won't. The animal blood was probably whatever Cyndi had on hand for her religious rituals. She was into some strange stuff."
Sipping his coffee in silence for a few minutes, Jim finally worked himself into asking an investigator's questions. "So, Chief, you know anyone who would want to kill Cyndi?"
Walking over to the built-in dining nook at one end of the kitchen, Blair slid into the booth and Jim sat down across from him. "No, not really, man. I've been wracking my brain, but I can't come up with anyone who had a specific grudge against her. The only people who really disliked her were Manning and Collier, and I think they hate me more than they ever did her. And any of the other dealers who are left in town are way too scared of Cristo to try anything."
His own words from earlier echoed in Jim's mind. Cyndi pissed someone off. Could that someone have been the DEA? He would look into it that was for sure. He set his mug down on the table and leaned forward. "How about within Cristo's organization? Would Cristo himself have any reason to want her dead?"
Blair shook his head quickly. "No, man. Jesus was freaked about her death."
Ellison pinned him with a glare. "When did you talk to Cristo?"
"Outside her apartment when I was on the way back here. He'd gotten an anonymous call telling him she was dead and that I had something to do with it. He didn't believe them, thank god." He shivered slightly. "Man, that's a weird feeling, to know a murdering drug dealer like him trusts me that much." He gave a short, mirthless laugh. "And I was worried that without Cyndi, I'd be out of a job. He wants me to take her place." He stared off into space for a long moment then turned haunted blue eyes on the sentinel. "How did I end up here, Jim?" he asked softly.
Leaning forward slightly, Jim laid a hand on Blair's forearm. "Because you wanted to do the right thing, Chief. You're the kind of person who can't stand by and do nothing if it's within your ability to help." He realized those words were in direct opposition to what he was about to say next. "That not withstanding, I'm asking you to quit this assignment and come home." At Blair's vehement headshake, Jim continued. "Just hear me out. Whoever killed Cyndi was looking for something. I don't think they found it. And they've made it obvious they want you out of the way for whatever reason. The only thing that could tie you to her death is your knife. Whoever did this had to know it was yours. If I were them, my next move would be to come after you." Jim's eyes met Blair's, and the younger man could see his friend's fear clearly. "I couldn't take finding you the way you found Cyndi tonight."
"I know, Jim, and I don't ever want to put you through that. But I can't quit. I owe it to Cyndi, to the innocent people of Cascade, and to myself to find out what happened and put Cristo away. I can't leave the job undone just because I'm scared." Blair shoved his hair behind his ears nervously. "You may be the Guardian of the Great City, but sometimes there are places you can't go, people you can't help, but I can. I may not be totally at ease with being the Shaman of the Great City--god, that sounds so pretentious--but I know what I have to do here, Jim. You're not the only one who has a responsibility to the tribe. I am not quitting." He sat back in his seat, folding his arms across his chest, daring the sentinel to argue with him.
Ellison glared at him for a long time, his jaw muscles working and nostrils flaring. Finally he calmed down enough to speak. "Okay, okay. I can see you're going to be stubborn about this."
"I learned from the best, man." He gave his partner a cheeky grin.
"I'll let you continue on one condition& "
Blair snorted. "You'll let me!"
Jim ignored the sarcasm. "We have got to find a way to get you better backup. For all we know, it could have been someone inside Cristo's organization that killed Cyndi. You need someone in there with you, someone you can trust." Jim didn't like the way his partner's eyes were beginning to light up.
"We're on the same wavelength, man. I've already laid the groundwork to bring someone else in. Cristo and I have a meeting to discuss it in the morning."
"Good. I'm glad we agree on this. What time do you need me?"
The twinkle in Blair's eye was blinding. "Sorry to disappoint you, Jim, but you were not who I had in mind." Getting to his feet, he took his now-cold coffee to the sink and dumped it. He couldn't stop the grin spreading across his face as he turned back towards his friend. "Think Megan would be really pissed if I woke her up to tell her about her job interview?"
Simon Banks stood just inside the doorway of Cyndi Blake's apartment, going over the information the beat cops he'd had knocking on doors had brought back. It was a whole lot of nothing. No one had seen or heard anything out of the ordinary. Taking the cigar out of his mouth, he dismissed the uniforms. He looked up to see the attendants from the coroner's office carrying the body bag out. Serena Chang waved her people on as she stopped when Banks asked, "Do you have a cause of death?"
"It looks like massive blood loss from the knife wounds. And she was beaten pretty badly, too. I'm thinking we'll find quite a few internal injuries at the autopsy." She looked up at the tall man. "Aren't you going to ask me what I didn't find?"
The captain frowned. "I'll bite, what didn't you find?"
"There was no gunshot wound to the head. This isn't the same MO as the other murders."
Simon scratched his head. "So we might be looking at a copycat here& ."
"Or someone who didn't have all the details. We really haven't released much info to the press, in case we were dealing with a serial killer."
"But they knew about the cross." That meant something, but Simon couldn't quite grasp what it was.
Serena nodded. "But from what I understand about these killings, anyone inside the drug trade here in Cascade would know about the cross. The only people who wouldn't know are the general public."
"So our killer's someone with ties to the trade." The nasty thought that had eluded him before became clear. "Or someone in law enforcement with access to the case files."
"That's a lot of people, Captain, from the first uniform on the scene 18 months ago to the DA. I'll call you as soon as I have the autopsy results." She headed out the door, bumping into the two people Simon had the least desire to see.
DEA Agents Manning and Collier entered, looking like fraternal twins in matching suits and trenchcoats. "What in the hell is going on here, Captain?" Manning snapped. "Don't tell me that was the Blake woman they just carried out of here!"
"Please, gentlemen, keep your voices down. Yes, that was Cyndi Blake."
Collier looked like he was ready to punch the wall. "Damn it, damn it, damn it. There goes our whole case. Without her connection to Cristo, we'll never find out when the drug deal is going to go down."
Banks raised an eyebrow. "Sandburg is still under, or have you forgotten about him?"
Manning's next words reminded Simon why he disliked these two so much. "Sandburg? That punk couldn't investigate his way out of a paper bag. All he's done is tag along on Cyndi's skirt tails--" His tirade was interrupted as one of the forensic techs approached Captain Banks.
"We're all through here, sir." He held up a plastic bag containing a Swiss Army knife. "Ms. Chang thinks this is the murder weapon. Do you want me to rush it to the lab for testing?"
Before Banks could answer the question, Collier snatched the bag out of the technician's hands. "I know this knife. This is Sandburg's knife!"
Simon grabbed the evidence back and handed it to the tech. "You can go, Johnson." Once the man had left, he turned a furious glare on the two agents. "Thank you for announcing that to everyone in the building! And how in the hell do you know that's Sandburg's knife?"
"We've seen him use it, cut bags open for sampling with it. Why are you just standing here, Captain? You should be arresting that screw-up right now," Manning said.
"Perhaps I would be, if I didn't know Sandburg has an alibi for the time of death. He was having dinner with his partner--" Manning opened his mouth to comment, but Simon cut him off, "--and me. I think we have the investigation well in hand. If I need any help from you, I'll ask for it."
Taking that as their cue to leave, the two Feds exited the apartment. Once the elevator doors closed on them, Collier swore. "Damn it! I thought you said the bastard was home all evening!"
Manning shrugged. "How the hell was I supposed to know? His car was parked at his place all night."
His partner swore again. "All that work wasted. Guess it was a good thing we kept Cyndi from blabbing to Cristo that Sandburg is with the cops. Back to plan A then?"
The dark-haired man nodded. "Back to waiting. We just
better make sure Sandburg gives the date and location of the drop off to us, not
Banks." They exited the elevator silently and disappeared into the