I'm late and Jim is gonna rip me a new one for this. I promised I'd be at the meeting on time today. It's my own fault, really. I had to go and open my big mouth after Jim told me about the tribal drawings found drawn in blood on the bodies of all the victims of Cascade's latest serial killer.
"I'll take a look if you want," I'd blabbed. "Maybe there's something there that will give us an idea when and where he's likely to strike next."
So Jim had set up the meeting with Simon and Dan Wolf, the coroner, and told me the time I was to be there 4 or 5 times so I wouldn't forget, and I didn't.
But I'm still late and Jim is gonna be so pissed.
The reason I'm late is that every road leading from the University is blocked by roadworks, slowing traffic to a crawl for miles. I feel like I'm living in one of those feudal gated communities, where the serfs lived within the feudal lord's estate and could only come and go at his express command.
My own contemporary feudal lord wears a fluorescent orange vest and is carrying a sign that looks like a huge lollipop. On one side of the sign is the word, "GO", on the other; it says, "STOP". Because I'm in a hurry to get to the PD, naturally the side of the sign currently facing me reads, "STOP" and has done so for around 5 minutes.
Sighing impatiently, I lean forward and turn on the radio, feeling any music is better than listening to the roars and rattles of the earth-moving machinery. A song I like has just started and I tap my fingers along to the music, humming under my breath. Jim calls me the perpetual motion man and I guess I can understand why.
Without consciously thinking about it, my feet decide to join the dance and I tap out the rhythm. Abruptly I realize this is a bad mistake as I've forgotten to put the hand brake on and as my foot taps down gently on the gas pedal, the Volvo moves forward and its nose kisses the fender of the car in front of me.
Shit I curse inwardly, but then I relax as I see that no damage has been done. I didn't even feel the impact and probably neither did the driver of the other car.
Within minutes I'm forced to reconsider that hypothesis as I hear a loud banging on my window and look up to see a very angry man standing next to my car.
"You fucking idiot," he roars through the closed window, loud enough so every word is crystal clear, "You hit my car!"
I wind down the window. After all, he's right. I had hit his car, though I know there was probably no damage to either of our vehicles. "Yeah, I know, man. I'm really sorry. It was just a love-tap though, you know. No harm done, right?"
In the next second my door is wrenched open and I'm being hauled out by the scruff of my neck to stand next to the irate man. I've always considered Jim a big guy, but this dude makes Jim look like a dwarf in comparison. He's at least 6 feet 7 and probably outweighs my partner by a hundred pounds.
"Have a look at what you did to my car, you loser," he yells.
"Sure, no problem," I say, moving cautiously in a sideways crawl to sidle past him.
I'm at the front of the Volvo and looking at a car with more dents than the Volvo could collect in a really bad year. Most of them are already scabbed with rust and even the ones that aren't rusty look at least months old. Man-Mountain steps up beside me and points to one of the craters decorating his rusty fender.
"Oh, no way, man," I say. "There's no way I did that. Look, there's not even any paint from my car there and this is months old. You're not gonna scam me, man."
"You did it, you pay for it," Mr. Machismo shouts in my face. "That's gonna cost at least a hundred bucks to fix."
Oookay! I'm finally getting a clue here and realizing this guy's probably three fries short of a Happy Meal and I ain't gonna push any more of his buttons, so I say calmly, and I hope, reassuringly, "I'm down with that, man. Tell you what," I reach around and pull my wallet out of my jeans pocket, "here's my card. Take the car and get some quotes for the damage and send them to me at the U. I'll make sure you're reimbursed."
"No! You'll just stiff me! I want the hundred bucks now."
By this time, I'm backing carefully towards the driver's door of my car, wishing like hell I'd left my office 5 minutes earlier than I had. I'm not feeling particularly brave but something inside me takes umbrage at the guy's attitude and before I can stop myself I blurt out, "No way! We do this by the book or we don't do it at all. I didn't even dent your car, man, but I'm prepared to pay to avoid a fight. So what say you just take a chill pill and let me get back in my car and we'll both drive away?"
Peripherally, I'm aware of my pseudo feudal lord cum roadworker staring wide-eyed at us a couple hundred yards away and that gives me the courage to take the Neanderthal to task. Unfortunately for me, the roadworker has absolutely nothing in common with his feudal ancestor and when the first punch drives into my stomach, he's nowhere to be found.
That piledriver doubles me over, stealing my breath and the next one undercuts my chin, straightening me up again. It also send me crashing into my car, side-on into the Volvo's wing mirror, which shatters under the impact and gouges a slice out of the side of my head.
I can feel a slow trickle of warm liquid moving from the gash down over my face and I put my hand up to try to staunch the flow. Suddenly the earth and sky trade places and the next thing I'm consciously aware of is a hand patting my face and a voice I don't think I recognize, pleading with me to wake up.
"Come on, Mister. Are you okay? I'm gonna call an ambulance, all right?"
Those are the magic words. The minute I hear them I manage to force my leaden eyes to open and focus, somewhat blearily, at the person kneeling next to me. "No ambulance," I grunt out. "I'll be fine. Just give me a minute." I take a deep breath and wish I hadn't as my abused stomach muscles check in and remind me of what had happened. "Could you just help me up?" I manage to whisper through the pain.
"I really think you should go to the hospital," my erstwhile protector insists. "He got you with a couple of pretty good punches. You should get checked out, at least."
"You saw what happened?" I ask breathlessly as I finally make it to my feet. "Why the hell didn't you come help me?"
"Sorry, dude, but I'm a lover not a fighter," my hero says. "Besides, did you see the size of that guy? Uh-uh, no way, I don't have a death wish. Look, you sure you're okay to drive? Your head's still bleeding and you don't look so hot."
"Yeah, I'll be fine." I manage a grin and then walk a wobbly line to my car where I fall through the open door and into the seat. I start up and drive slowly into the breakdown lane a few yards ahead and stop the car there. I pull the mirror down to get a good look at myself and realize why the roadwork guy had been worried. The cut on my head is still bleeding sluggishly, dyeing the side of my face in thin crimson rivulets. I grab my backpack and haul out a bottle of water and some tissues. I wet the tissues and then press them against the laceration, hissing as the liquid stings the open wound. Five minutes later, the bleeding has stopped, leaving a thundering headache in its wake. My stomach feels like it's bruised right through to my backbone and it hurts to take a deep breath. I put my head down on the steering wheel and close my eyes. I feel like crap. I'm sure I just need to rest my eyes for a couple of minutes and as soon as I feel I can stay awake, I'll get going. After what seems like just a few minutes I rouse myself, wishing I could just stay there and sleep, then wake up and find it has all been a terrible nightmare.
But I'm already late. So I grit my teeth and start up the car and head toward Cascade PD and my quite likely very irate Sentinel and partner.
"Sandburg! Where the hell have you been?" my partner bellows the minute I'm through the door of the bullpen.
I wince as his words echo around my head, making it feel as if it's about to explode. I touch the side of my head instinctively then surreptitiously look at my fingers. Fortunately, the cut hasn't started bleeding again. I guess the cold water I used in the restroom to wash the blood out of my hair closed it up. But I still feel distinctly woozy and sick to my stomach. Speaking of which, my stomach feels like one huge bruise and the slightest tensing of the muscles threaten to send my entire abdomen into a spasm, so I try to stay relaxed and concentrate on making it across the room to Simon's office without falling over. Once I'm there I sit down carefully in a chair in front of the desk, hoping that Jim hasn't noticed that I'm in pain or smelled the blood.
When he starts in on me, demanding an explanation for why I'm late, I know that he hasn't. If he had, I'd've been flat on my back on the couch in the office while Jim called an ambulance and then blasted me for not going to the hospital in the first place. Believe me, the guy's an absolute mother hen when I get hurt, but he's my mother hen and most of the time it's kinda nice to know he cares that much about me. But not this time.
"Well? Are you gonna just sit there staring at me or tell me what the hell happened to cause you to be..." Jim pauses to look at his watch. "… two hours late?"
"Two hours?" I ask, shocked. It couldn't be that late. Jim's watch must be wrong. I look at the clock on Simon's wall and realize he's right. Shit! I must have passed out again after I got in the car. Guess I'm lucky it didn't happen while I was driving, at least.
"I'm really sorry, man. I got stuck in traffic because of roadworks," I say, deciding that it would be easier to obfuscate if I at least stick to a partial truth. "I just don't understand it. I mean, I know the roads need fixing but all of them, at the same time? Give me a break."
Jim looks as if he believes me though the expression on his face shows he's still far from pleased. "Look, Chief, you either want to be a part of this case or you don't. It's too serious a thing to do part time. You said you could help us out with this and then you don't show up. We need to catch this bastard before he kills again."
"Jeez, Jim, you think I don't know that.?" Now I'm angry. I couldn't help the fact that I'd been stuck in traffic. I definitely couldn't help the fact that some psycho decided I'd dented his car and wanted me to pay for it in blood. Any thoughts I have of telling Jim the truth about what happened fly right out the window. If he knew what had really happened I'd get the lecture to end all lectures about putting the parking brake on, not jiggling around in the car, paying attention to what I'm doing et cetera; et cetera and I seriously didn't think my head could take it.
The phone on Simon's desk rings and the captain picks it up. He listens for a moment and I can see his face harden.
"All right. Thanks," he says to the caller. "We're on our way." Then he looks up and stares directly into my eyes. "There's been another murder. Same MO as the others. This one's a fifteen year old girl."
"Oh no," I whisper. I spend the next few minutes castigating myself until I hear Jim calling me.
"You coming, Sandburg?" he asks. "Or are you gonna sit this one out too?"
The sarcasm in his voice has me on my feet in seconds, forgetting my injuries. They don't take long to remind me they're still there, though. My gut spasms and lights dance briefly across my vision. I take a cautious deep breath and look around. Jim and Simon have already left the room so I bend over and rest my hands on my knees while I take some slow breaths. By the time I straighten up, I'm not dizzy anymore and the spasms in my gut have receded, leaving me with just the spine-deep ache I'm beginning to become accustomed to. I take off after my partner as quickly as I can.
The scene's as bad as I thought it would be. The girl, child, really, is lying on the floor on her stomach, in a pool of blood. Dan Wolf tells Jim she died from a cut throat. God! Poor kid, poor parents.
I watch as Jim crouches next to the body and then move up so I'm standing just behind him. I reach out with my right hand and grip his shoulder lightly. I don't want to disturb his concentration but he's told me before that when he's stretching his senses out like this, my touch grounds him somehow, helps to keep him from zoning. After my foul-up today, I'm glad I can do something to help.
Taking as deep a breath as I can, in view of my bruised stomach muscles and the cloying sickly sweet smell of death in the room, I manage to make myself look down at the body. I can see the symbol on her back, drawn in her own blood. I know I've seen it or something very like it before but at the moment I'm too distracted by the terrible scene to remember where.
The girl's head is turned to the side, facing me. Her eyes are closed, her blonde hair, its tips tinged red with her blood, curls softly around her white, still face. Her neck... oh God... her neck... The gaping wound suddenly becomes magnified in my vision, blocking out everything else. Bile is rising in my throat, my ears are filled with a strange buzzing sound and my body is running the gamut of hot to cold and back again in the space of seconds. I close my eyes, hoping that blocking out the horrible sight will magically make the nausea disappear but it doesn't and I know I'm about to lose it. Oddly, Jim's strictures about not throwing up on a crime scene pop into my head and I know that's what I'm about to do.
Tearing my hand abruptly from Jim's shoulder, I spin around, putting my hand to my mouth and lurch for the door. I make it as far as the bushes edging the driveway of the house then stumble to my knees and retch violently over and over, long after there's anything left to throw up.
Someone's behind me, pulling my hair back away from my face and I hear whoever it is gasp. A gentle finger comes out to probe the still tender gash on my head and it makes me jump, causing me to lose my balance and topple onto my side. My gut is still heaving spasmodically and the pain is agonizing. I hold my arms tightly around my abused belly as the spasms continue, dragging groans from my lips. I can feel moisture on my cheeks and know I'm crying but I don't care. All I can think of is the pain and how much I want it to stop. I must have said that aloud because the next thing I know, Jim's kneeling behind me, holding me with one arm and rubbing his hand over my belly with the other.
"Easy, Chief, try to take some deep breaths. It'll stop in a minute. Hang in there, buddy. It's okay."
I can feel him rocking me very slightly and that causes more tears to spill over because I know I've messed up so badly this time and yet he's being so very gentle with me.
Finally the retching stops and I pant shallowly, wanting to catch my breath but not wanting the pain that will come from breathing deeply. I feel myself rolled slowly onto my back and then Jim's worried face is above me. I lift a hand to dash away the evidence of my weakness and mutter, "Sorry. I'm sorry, Jim."
He puts a finger to my lips and says, very quietly, "Shh, Chief. Just lie still and let me check you over. The medics are on their way."
I cringe at that and he laughs softly, then he begins a Sentinel style diagnostic that any doctor would envy. As he moves his hands carefully over the bruises on my stomach, he says, "You're gonna tell me what happened to you, Sandburg. But not just yet. Soon as you're feeling a little better."
I try to smile at him to show him I'm really okay, wanting to tell him it was just the sight of that poor kid's body that caused this but his hands are already parting my hair, examining the cut on my scalp and I know Sentinel vision can pick out the mark of a fist in the bruises on my abdomen.
Suddenly, I just feel enormously tired and the sky seems to be darker than before. I look up, trying to force my eyes to stay open against the encroaching blackness and see Simon kneeling at my side as well. He's saying something but his words are lost in the roaring that's filling my head. I manage to make out Jim's voice saying my name in a panicked tone, but then everything just shuts down.
There are voices buzzing over my head, like angry bees. I want to let them know I'm awake so they'll leave me alone and let me go back to sleep but my body feels disconnected somehow. Instead, I lay there for a while and just listen.
"Dammit, Ellison, there is no way you can blame yourself for this. The kid wasn't even on the job with you when he was hurt." Okay, I knew that was Simon.
not, but I should have sensed he was hurt when he came into your
office. I mean, what good are these senses if I can't even tell when
my Guide's hurt. Jesus, Simon, I practically called him a quitter
because he wasn't where I wanted him to be, because he was too busy
getting the shit
beaten out of him." And that was definitely Jim.
Deciding the discussion has gone far enough and that my head will never stop pounding if they don't quiet down, I finally manage to push my eyelids open.
The world still looks pretty blurry so I blink a few times and am relieved when my vision begins to clear. My head still throbs pretty badly though and I can still feel the deep ache through my gut. All things considered, though, I figure I'm pretty lucky. I'm alive and in a hospital being taken care of and being watched over by two very good friends. It's definitely better than the alternative.
Jim leans over me. "Hey, Chief, you with us at last?"
I try to answer coherently but all I can manage is a weird noise that's sounds more like a croak than a word. Next thing I'm aware of is a spoon filled with ice chips being pushed carefully between my parched lips and I open up and gulp them down like the manna from heaven they are.
"Easy, buddy, not too much at once. You don't want to make yourself sick again."
I nod cautiously, relieved when my head doesn't fall off my shoulders. It does feel sore though. Like I've had the world's worst migraine for the longest time. I put a hand up to my head and feel a bandage and bristles around it.
"Cut my hair?" I manage to ask.
"It's okay, Sandburg, they just shaved it a little around the laceration so they could clean it and stitch it," Simon says. His face is still a little blurry but I know he's grinning.
"Wha' happened?" I get out.
"You collapsed at the scene, Blair. Do you remember?" Jim asks, watching me intently.
"Yeah, some of it," I reply.
"You've got a severe concussion and deep bruising to your stomach. Can you tell me how that happened?" Jim's still watching me and I know the real question he wants answered is why I didn't tell him I was hurt before we went out to the scene.
I'm not sure if I know the answer to that myself so I decide to answer the question he's actually asked me and leave the deep thinking till I'm feeling better.
By the time I finish reciting the day's events, I'm exhausted and want nothing more than to go to sleep again.
Simon leaves with a pat on my shoulder and a gruff, "Take care of yourself, Sandburg," and Jim eases himself down in the chair next to my bed. Obviously he's not going home just yet. He reaches over and pulls the covers up more closely around my neck, then lifts my hand as if checking the IV site. Then he puts my hand back down on top of the blanket but doesn't release it.
I feel a gentle squeeze on my fingers as he says, "Get some sleep, Blair. You'll feel better when you wake up."
I don't remember closing my eyes but the next thing I know it's morning and Jim's still there, asleep in the chair next to my bed, his hand still clasping mine and his head bent forward and resting on the mattress, next to my chest.
I have vague memories of someone coming in during the night and waking me up, then asking me questions. I must have answered satisfactorily because the doctor comes into my room an hour or so later and says I can go home as long as I rest for a few days.
The doctor's entrance wakes Jim up and he sits listening blearily to the doctor's instructions then nods at the guy as he leaves.
The minute I push myself up in bed, trying to bite back a groan at the pain the movement brings, my Blessed Protector's at my side, giving me a helping hand.
"Thanks," I say, smiling tentatively at him, not sure if he's still angry with me, despite him being so nice to me when I collapsed.
I know it's gonna be okay when he gives me the patented Ellison slow smile and a wink, in return.
After five days of sitting around the loft, being hovered over by Jim, I'm thrilled when the doctor says I can go back to work. Not that it's all that bad being hovered over by my own personal Sentinel. The first couple of days anyway, it was great. I mean the guy heard the slightest groan from my lips and there he was with an ice pack or pain meds. He heard my stomach rumbling and next thing I knew there was a salad sandwich or a serve of vegetarian lasagne in front of me. I shivered once in my room and found myself smothered under Jim's own down comforter.
But after a while... okay, after a couple of days I felt stifled and restless. I got Jim to bring me the crime scene photos and go to the library and check out a couple of language translation books.
After poring over both, I realize I've got the answer and call Jim at work. He's a bit wary at first, thinking it sounds too simple but he agrees to get Simon to run a stakeout on the information I've come up with. Then, tonight, he walks into the loft with a big shit-eating grin on his face and I know I nailed it.
"How did you know?" he asks, as he throws takeout sacks on the table and heads to the kitchen for plates.
"I didn't at first," I reply. "I honestly thought they were tribal markings of some sort but then I just suddenly remembered where I'd seen them before."
"You amaze me, Chief," Jim says. "Only you could have come up with the idea that the guy wanted to be caught and was telegraphing where he was going to strike next by putting street map co-ordinates on the bodies in cuneiform symbols."
"Thanks." I look down, a little embarrassed at the praise. "I'm glad you got him. I'm just sorry I didn't work it out in time... before Jennifer Davis..." I swallow hard, seeing the fifteen-year old girl's ruined throat in my mind again. I can't continue and I turn away, gazing out at the Cascade skyline through the loft windows.
Suddenly arms are wrapped around my waist and I'm being turned to face my partner. He puts one hand under my chin and tilts my head up so I'm looking into his face.
"You did good, Chief," he says quietly. "You did real good." Then he smiles at me and I can see his pride in me shining in his eyes and for the first time since this all began, I believe him.