A Hollow Within
by Sue Kelley
See notes and disclaimers on Part One.
Blair covered the miles between the house and Jim's loft much faster than was technically possible for someone obeying the speed laws and driving in a responsible manner. He was doing neither. Everything in him urged him to get to his Sentinel.
Jim's truck was parked in the usual spot. Blair skidded to a stop next to it and leapt out, laying one hand on the truck's hood in passing. Cold. The truck hadn't been driven this morning.
He jumped onto the elevator, pushed the button for the third floor, waited during the endless seconds it took the conveyance to crawl upwards. He clutched the loft key tightly in his hand and sent grateful thoughts to whatever deity had assisted him in "forgetting" to return it to Jim.
"Jim!" he yelled as he unlocked the door and barged into the silent loft. "Jim! Are you here?"
Silence. He looked around, taking in Jim's coat hanging on the hook, his keys in the basket. The cell phone, lying on the coffee table.
Blair bolted for the stairs, took them two at a time. Jim's bed was disheveled, the covers twisted and humped, the pillows pounded into dented shapes. But no Sentinel. Blair tore back down the stairs, not yelling anymore because he knew if Jim *could* answer, he would have. Besides, Blair didn't have enough oxygen left to yell.
No Jim in the bathroom--on the balcony--in the kitchen.
There was only one place left.
Blair's eyes rested on the closed French doors to his old room. He knew, he *knew,* that's where he would find Jim.
And he did.
"Oh, shit," Blair breathed in mingled relief and terror. Terror because he recognized the blank stare, the widely dilated eyes.
"Jim?" Blair all but whispered, moving forward. Jim was sitting on the floor with his back to the bed; Blair knelt in front of him and carefully grasped his shoulder. "Jim, listen to me. It's okay. You need to come back now."
He waited. Jim's eyes didn't blink, didn't move. His skin under Blair's grasping fingers was cold, so cold to the touch. His chest just barely rose and fell with his shallow breaths.
"Oh, God. Jim, please. Listen to me, big guy. Follow my voice. Jim, you need to come back now. Jim? Jim, please! Please come back now." As terrified as he was, Blair struggled to keep his voice level, even, soothing and reassuring. "Whatever it is, buddy, you need to pull away from it. Listen to me, Jim, listen to my voice. Follow my voice, Jim. Follow my voice back."
He lost track of the time as he knelt before his friend, talking, constantly talking to bring him back. He wasn't aware of half of what he said; he knew the words were less important than his voice. His voice was the lifeline that could bring Jim back from wherever his senses had sent him.
Was Jim's breathing stronger? He thought so. Blair looked closely and saw a flicker of movement around Jim's mouth. His eyelids twitched, then the blank, dead stare was replaced by a look of confusion, then gradually, awareness. "Sandburg," the older man rasped, "What's going on?" He looked around. "When did you get here?"
Blair let out his pent-up breath in a great sigh of relief. Suddenly aware that his knees ached and his feet were asleep from kneeling so long, he sat back and stretched out his legs. "Man, you scared me!" He noticed that Jim was shivering and rubbing his hands up and down his arms and he staggered to his feet. In the kitchen, Blair emptied out the coffeemaker and put in fresh water and coffee, then left it to brew while he grabbed the afghan off the back of the couch and carried it into his old room, draping it around Jim.
"Thanks," the detective wheezed. "What the hell happened to me? What time is it?"
Blair looked at his watch, then silently turned his wrist so Jim could see it. The older man's eyes widened in something like shock. "In the *afternoon?*"
"Yeah. How long have you been down here?"
Jim met his gaze, then dropped his eyes. "I couldn't sleep again," he finally sighed. "I came down for some of that yellow tea you're always raving about, then I came in here. That was about five this morning."
"Oh, God," Blair groaned. "You've been zoned for *eight hours!*" Before he could say anything else, the shrill ring of a telephone blasted through the loft. Jim instinctively moved, then groaned and rubbed his shin. Blair patted his shoulder. "I'll get it. You just stay put."
"Sandburg, is that you?" Simon's voice barreled from the receiver. "What the hell did you mean by hanging up on me? Where's Jim? Is he all right?"
"He's here," Blair answered. "He's... well, he seems okay, now. I'm sorry I forgot to call you back."
"Why haven't you been answering your cell? And what do you mean, Jim *seems* okay now? Is he or isn't he? And if he is, why isn't he here, damn it?"
"Look, Simon, I haven't got a handle on it all myself yet. Jim apparently had a pretty bad zone out early this morning. I'll have him call you in just a little bit, okay? But the situation is under control."
"The situation hasn't been under control since you moved out, Sandburg!"
"Simon, please. I'll get back to you, or Jim will. I promise."
After a long silence, Blair heard a sigh from the other end of the phone. "Okay, kid. But have Ellison call me ASAP, you understand? I'll tell the robbery guys he woke up with the flu, or... hell, I'll think of something."
After saying good-bye, Blair detoured to the bathroom. As he walked into the cubicle, he saw a small green bottle sitting on the side of the sink. Curious, he picked it up. One look at the label on the front of the bottle sent him racing back to Jim's side. "Jim, this is Nytol! Did you take this last night?"
Jim looked uncomfortable. He shrugged. "Just two, like the directions said. I had to get some sleep."
"Jim! Don't you remember the cold medicine and how it affected you? No wonder you zoned for eight hours!" Jim muttered something and Blair frowned. "What did you say?"
"I didn't zone because of the Nytol. I zoned because--I was listening... I was trying to hear..." Jim looked at the ceiling, the floor, anywhere but at Blair.
"Jim?" Blair knelt in front of the older man again, one hand on his knee, waiting silently until Jim finally gave up and met his gaze. "You were listening for what?"
Jim took a deep breath. "For you. I was listening for your heartbeat."
Blair just stared at him.
"I can't believe I'm saying this, but I've gotten used to listening to you at night, it's kind of--I don't know if it's a Sentinel thing or not--but I listen to your heartbeat, and I go to sleep listening to your heartbeat. That's why I haven't been able to sleep. I didn't realized that's what was wrong, but last night, I was trying to block out the sounds and go to sleep, and I couldn't, because I was trying to hear... I was listening for one particular sound, and it wasn't there." Jim took a deep breath. "*You* weren't here, Chief."
Blair couldn't say anything, he couldn't think. His mind was in a whirl as he stared at Jim, unaware of how huge his eyes were in his pale face.
"Jeez, this is embarrassing," Jim mumbled. He took a deep breath, straightened his shoulders, and said, all in a rush, "Sandburg, I was wrong, I know you're happy living where you are but Chief, I really need you here do you think you could please move back just for awhile until I get a better handle on this senses thing and--"
Blair finally reacted. "Jim!" he almost yelled. "Stop. Please. You're babbling and you sound like me."
Jim grinned. "Guess you've rubbed off on me." Then he sobered. "Seriously, Chief, I hate to ask you to do this, but... do you think you could see your way clear to move back?"
"Jim, I never wanted to leave in the first place!"
"I know. It was my idea. But it was wrong, Chief, I realized that in Dallas. I was going to tell you when I got back, but, you'd already moved out."
"You mean, you really didn't want your 'space'?"
"Sandburg, a lot of things have happened in the last couple of months. I was a loner for a long time, and there are times when I feel like I can't away, I can't get any peace. But, it's not you! You're not the problem. I just take it out on you. And that was why I thought maybe it would be best if we lived apart, for your sake. I was afraid if I kept jumping all over you, you'd decide to call the whole thing off."
A long silence.
"You mean, the Sentinel/Guide thing?"
Jim nodded. "That." In a very quiet voice, he added, "And the friendship."
Suddenly, Blair saw everything and the enormity of it almost knocked his breath away. "You weren't just tired of having me in your face all the time?"
"God, no! I mean, I get irritated with the tests and strange things in the refrigerator and you up at all hours, but... I'm used to it now."
Blair studied him, seeing finally what the Sentinel couldn't say. He smiled, but before he could say anything, Jim raised one hand to stop him. "Sandburg, I'm not good at this mushy stuff, but, I need to say this. A long time ago, you said, this was about friendship. Well, that goes both ways. And I don't say it--I don't show it nearly enough--but, you are my friend. My best friend. And beyond that, you're my Guide. I need you, Chief. And I was afraid if things kept going the way they were, I'd lose you."
Blair was just shaking his head, belatedly realizing that he was grinning like an idiot. "That must have been hard to say."
Jim grinned in return. "You have no idea." His eyes were worried. "So, what do you think? Will you move back?" He swallowed hard. "Please?" he added in a half-whisper.
"Jim, I don't get it," Blair protested. "If you wanted me to move back to the loft, why didn't you say anything last night?"
"Last night?" Jim repeated blankly.
"Yeah, when Dr. Larry wanted to take over the house and I said I didn't have anywhere else to go."
Jim's brows furrowed in thought. "I never heard you say that," he confessed. "I got distracted by something--"
"I can't figure it out. I was still sneezing from that smell--"
"--And we still don't know what that was," Blair noted.
"And I -- heard something."
Jim shook his head. "I don't know, I couldn't get a fix on it."
"Yes, you can," Blair insisted, instinctively changing into his soothing "Guide" voice. "Just think... we're in the kitchen. Block out my heartbeat, Dr. Larry's heartbeat, the hum of the refrigerator, the water trickling in the sink. Block out-- what?" he interjected as Jim's eyelids popped open.
"Heartbeats!" Jim exclaimed. "That was what I heard, not *three* heartbeats, but *four!* Someone else was in the house last night!"
Jim's jaw was clenched so hard the bone showed whitely through the skin. "I can't believe you didn't tell me all this before," he growled.
Blair sighed. "Jim, I didn't put it all together before. The missing food, and the noises, and the lights being off when I thought I'd left them on... nothing really made that much of an impression until this morning when I heard the pipes. Then Simon called and I forgot all about it."
"How could you *forget* an intruder in your house?"
Blair stared at him, then swatted his arm, hard. "Because I knew something was wrong with *you*, you moron!"
"Oh." Jim had the grace to look abashed. Then his face stiffened. "Well, that settles it, you're not staying out there one more night. It's not safe. Guess you'll just have to come back home."
In spite of his smug words, there was a desperate entreaty in his voice and in his eyes that Blair recognized and responded to immediately.
"I'm coming home," he said reassuringly.
The lines of stress crossing Jim's forehead eased infinitesimally. "Now? Or in six months?" he asked quietly.
"Oh, I was thinking about this weekend, actually. If Dr. Larry wants to stay in the house I'm sure the owner won't have a problem." He hesitated. "But you have to promise me, if you need space and you don't feel like I'm giving it to you, you *tell* me before it gets to the explosion point."
There was a long pause, then finally, Jim's face lightened in a smile. "Sure thing, Chief. We'll make it a House Rule!"
Blair rolled his eyes. "Great," he muttered, his tone belying the huge smile on his face. "What does that make, Rule Number 92?"
Blair's cellular phone rang as he and Jim were entering Major Crimes. Seeing that Simon had spotted Jim and was on his way over with a pretty ticked-off expression on his dark face, Blair prudently left them to it and moved over to Jim's desk. He pulled the phone from his backpack. "Hello."
"Blair Sandburg? This is Ashley Cunningham. I had a message that you called yesterday."
Blair frowned, trying to remember. Oh, right. Those books about Rita Mallory. Funny thing, that didn't seem as important now, but still, he'd like to see them. Quickly explaining who he was, Blair asked the girl on the other end of the phone if she was done with the books, and, if she was, could she go ahead and turn them in so he could borrow them?
There was silence on the other end of the line.
"Umm, I don't think so. I-- I could call you when I'm done with them. But it might be awhile."
Something about her voice disturbed Blair. He persisted, "Well, if I can just take a look at them, it shouldn't take me very long--"
"I don't have them!" The words burst from the girl in a rush. "Oh, please, don't tell anybody, I know it's against the rules but she said she'd take care of them and I really needed the money! But she knows when they're due back and she promised me she'd have them back to me before then."
"What are you talking about?" Blair asked, honestly befuddled.
He heard the girl take a deep breath. "I was in the library and this woman came up to me. I recognized her, who wouldn't? She said she needed some books about Rita Mallory. She offered me a hundred dollars to check them out with my student I.D. for her. Then she promised me that she'd bring them back to me before the due date."
"You mean, she didn't have University ID herself so she couldn't check the books out on her own? What do you mean, you recognized her?"
"She spoke at the Women In Communications meeting last week. I told her she could probably get permission to check the books out herself, but she didn't want to go to the hassle. And I really needed the money."
Blair was starting to get rather irritated with Ashley Cunningham. Hope she never signs up for one of my classes! Patiently he asked, "Who was this woman, Ashley?"
"Umm, she's married to that doctor, the one that's always on the news. I can't remember her name... wait a minute, let me ask." There was a murmur of voices on the other end as Ashley apparently consulted a sorority sister who had a better memory for names than she did. Then the girl's voice returned, triumphant. "Melissa Stephens!"
Melissa Stephens? Jim's Missing Person!
Blair asked a few more questions, determined that Ashley knew nothing more than she'd already told him, then rang off. He started for Jim, eager to tell him that his Missing Person had been sighted at least a full day after the last time Jim knew about, but Jim and Simon were still arguing. Blair listened long enough to figure out that there were some bigwigs in the Commissioner's office wanting to speak with Jim about some robberies, and Craig Stephens was in Simon's office, likewise desirous of conversation with one Detective Ellison. Blair glanced that way, to see a worried-looking man pacing in front of Simon's desk, speaking into a cell phone and gesturing wildly with his hands. Blair sat down at Jim's desk, deciding to wait until Simon was finished with his friend. His backpack brushed the files on the desk and one fell to the floor, a piece of paper fluttering from it to land under the desk. Muttering to himself, Blair got down on hands and knees to retrieve it.
"What, Sandburg?" Jim broke off the argument and he and Simon both looked down to where the grad student was sitting on his heels, studying a flimsy piece of paper.
"Whose birth certificate is this?" Blair demanded, excitement in his voice.
Jim reached out and took it from him. "Oh. I forgot about this. It's Melissa Stephens'; the original one before she was adopted." Mistaking Blair's stunned look, he went on, "I'd hoped it might give us some idea where she might have gone next, but so far it hasn't. The father's name probably isn't even the right one; Brett Carstairs was a character in some movie about that time."
Blair bounced to his feet. "Yeah! 'Enchanted Summer'!"
"How'd you know that?"
Blair was so excited he had a hard time getting the words out. "Jim, I bet I know where Melissa Stephens is! She's at the house! She's my ghost!"
Jim and Simon stared at him wordlessly.
"Guys, don't you see? Brett Carstairs was in love with the character Rita Mallory played in 'Enchanted Summer'. She won an Oscar for her part." Blair's eyes grew huge. "Mono," he muttered, half to himself. He looked down at the birth certificate again, seeing the date of birth. "It wasn't mono! She was pregnant!"
Jim strode forward and gripped Blair by the shoulder. "Slow down, Chief, you're babbling again. Now, why would Melissa Stephens be haunting your house?"
Blair fluttered the birth certificate in Jim's face, jabbing at the mother's name. "Mary M. O'Malley. Mary *Margaret* O'Malley! Rita Mallory's real name. Don't you get it? Rita Mallory is Melissa Stephens birth mother!"
"Jim, we should have told Dr. Stephens we know where his wife is. I mean, the man looks miserable."
"He *is* miserable, Chief, which is why I don't want to raise his hopes by telling him your hunch until we know for sure."
"But I am sure! What other explanation could there be?"
Jim took his eyes off the twisting Coast Highway long enough to shoot his partner an ironic look. "Come on, Sandburg, there're at least a dozen other explanations that could fit the facts as well, or better, than that scenario you cobbled together."
"If you don't believe my scenario, why are you exceeding the speed limit?"
Jim glanced at the speedometer. Blair was right; he was driving well over the speed limit and at least ten miles faster than safety conditions allowed. He eased up on the gas pedal as he said, "I do believe you, Sandburg, but that's because I know you, and I know how often your instincts are right." He glanced sideways at Blair. "At least, as long as we aren't dealing with some woman you think you're in love with. As long as you don't decide Melissa Stephens is your one and only you stand a good shot at being right."
"Very funny," Blair groused. He laughed suddenly.
"What's so funny?" Jim asked.
"Don't get a big head, but I was just thinking how right this feels. You know, you and me. Sentinel and Guide."
"Partners," Jim said lightly.
Blair turned his head suddenly to look out the window. Jim saw him swallow hard. "Right," he said softly. "Partners."
Blair used his key to let them in the kitchen door. Jim stepped in before his friend, sniffed the air experimentally. The smell that had so irritated him the night before was gone, but there was something else, or was there? He filled his nose, letting the scents drift into his consciousness, one by one: herbal soap and shampoo, a unique combination of scents his mind labeled "Blair". The lingering scent of coffee, a fainter, more elusive one that he tentatively identified as one of those herbal teas his friend favored. A burned smell, stronger from the area around the toaster. And --
"Anything?" Blair asked quietly from behind him.
Jim sniffed again, to be sure, then turned and gave his partner a triumphant glance. "Perfume," he announced. "Very expensive perfume."
"Cool!" Blair exclaimed. He caught Jim's arm as the Sentinel started for the door leading to the rest of the house. "Jim, wait. We can't just wander through the house yelling her name. We'll scare her off. Concentrate on your hearing. See if you can hear her--her heartbeat, her breathing--anything."
Obedient to his Guide's voice, Jim closed his eyes and opened his ears. He cringed as a horrible loud humming assaulted the nerves. Blair's voice said, "Filter it out," and he did so, dampening the humming of the refrigerator, the ticking of a clock, the fainter ticking of his watch and Sandburg's. Eliminated his heartbeat. Blair's heartbeat. The wind outside, the birds singing a last carol to the fading daylight. Blocked out sounds, one by one, aware of his Guide's hand on his back, his anchor to the real world.
One sound left. Above them. He started walking, knowing Blair was with him even though his senses were concentrated on that sound. A heartbeat, but something was odd about it. One part of his mind worried at it. A peculiar echo almost to it...
On the second floor he headed directly to the locked attic door, then stopped as the sound receded slightly. He turned his head, trying to localize the sound. Down the hallway, to the double doors leading to the master suite. He drew his gun, then nodded to Blair to fling both doors wide open.
Blair's eyes widened as he took in the room. It was lit by shaded lamps on either side of the bed and one on the dressing table. The furniture that had been covered by dustsheets was visible now. A woman in front of the dressing table whirled as she heard them, both hands coming to her mouth to choke off a scream. Green eyes widened with alarm.
Blair felt the room take a sickening turn around him. 'The painting!' he thought disjointedly. He was looking at the painting from the study downstairs come to life.
The same eyes. The same dark velvet dress, the sleeves dropping off to show creamy shoulders, a hint of bosom. Above the glittering necklace, the high cheekbones, the hint of freckles across the nose, the peaches and cream complexion, the dark red hair, shoulder length and softly waving.
There was a minute of shattering silence.
Then Jim said something. The words made no sense to Blair at first, he had to replay them in his head. A name. Jim was calling the woman some name, but not Rita Mallory. No.
"Melissa Stephens?" Jim said, not really asking. He stepped toward her.
All the blood drained from the woman's face, leaving it chalk-white. She stepped back, kept moving back until her back touched the wall, then she crumpled to her knees, the back velvet skirt tangled beneath her. "Please, don't," she breathed. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" Tears poured down her cheeks.
The sound of her voice jarred Blair from the peculiar sort of paralysis that had gripped him since the doors had opened. He looked at Jim, who appeared astounded at the woman's terrified reaction, and realized the Sentinel was still holding his gun, pointing it at the woman. Jim must have realized that at the same moment; he holstered it quickly and stepped towards her. "Mrs. Stephens, we're not going to hurt you," he said soothingly. "I'm a policeman. We've been looking for you for several days. Your husband is worried about you."
The woman didn't act as if she heard him, she wrapped her arms around herself and rocked a little. Her sobs increased, shaking her slight body. "I'm sorry, I know I broke in, and--" her terrified eyes sought Blair's, "I stole some of your food. I left money... I put two twenties in your wallet the other night... I didn't mean to hurt anything...I was just trying--"
Blair pushed past Jim and knelt beside the woman. "Melissa," he said in the voice that brought Jim back from zone outs, "It's all right. You haven't done anything wrong. We're just worried about you. Craig is worried about you."
"Craig?" Melissa Stephens' eyes widened even more. She didn't flinch away as Blair put one gentle hand on her wrist. He was no medic, but her pulse seemed awfully fast. And now that he was closer to her he could see dark circles around her eyes, noted the way she was trembling.
"Craig?" she repeated, her voice stronger. She looked around, almost as if she wasn't sure where she was. "Is Craig here?"
Jim had held back. Now he reached slowly into his pocket, pulling out his cell phone. "He can be," he said very quietly. "I can call him. He can be here in thirty minutes. If you want him, Mrs. Stephens. Do you want me to call him?"
A tiny nod. Jim smiled at her as he punched numbers into the phone, then the smile vanished and he shook the phone. "It's dead," he groused. "Where's yours, Chief?"
"I left it in the truck. I'll go downstairs and call--"
"No, I'll do it. You stay here." Jim looked at Melissa Stephens; Blair could almost see the medic in him evaluating her condition. He went on, his voice brisk and cheerful, "Do you have any real food down there, Sandburg? I just realized I haven't eaten all day and I'm starving."
Blair felt the little jump Melissa gave at the word "food" and he was sure Jim was aware of it also. "Eggs, big guy. Think you could manage to scramble them? You do know how to open them, right?" he returned lightly.
"Hey, Chief, who do you think cooked for me before you moved in?"
"Ha ha." Jim retreated for the door. "I'll be right back."
Melissa Stephens seemed to calm almost immediately once Jim had vanished from view. Blair helped her up and over to the bed, where she curled up on the ivory quilted satin comforter. Neither one said anything until finally Blair broke the silence to introduce himself. "I'm Blair Sandburg."
There was a long pause, then she answered, "Missy Stephens. Although you already know that." She looked down at the hands, white against the black velvet of her skirt. There was a narrow gold band on the third finger of her left hand, along with easily the largest diamond solitaire Blair had ever seen. "You must think I'm insane!"
Blair reserved comment on that. He knew, from Jim's comments over the last two days and from reading the case file, that Melissa Stephens had undergone several traumas over the last six months, starting with the death of her daughter and then her parents; learning she was adopted; learning of her husband's affair. Plus, if the only food she'd eaten had been what she'd managed to pilfer from Blair's kitchen, she had to be pretty close to starved. He asked a question of his own. "Where did you get the dress?"
Melissa waved her hand toward the dressing room. Obediently, Blair rose from the bed and walked into the small nook. He'd glanced in here before but not realized what he had taken for a full-length mirror was actually a door. It was ajar now and he opened it all the way, revealing another room, wider than the dressing room. Clothes hung from hangers covered with padded satin, many of them in heavy plastic garment bags. Shoes were treed below while a wide shelf above held hats and purses all of the styles of the late sixties. Blair backed out of the room, eyeing the mirrored door thoughtfully. He shut it. It fit so tightly one would never suspect it was actually a room. Blair realized it was probably close to being air-tight, which would explain the excellent condition of the clothes.
He turned to say something to Melissa.
The lights went out.
Melissa gasped and let out a frightened little cry. Blair was startled and alarmed, but then he heard the rising wind outside and belatedly remembered the offshore storm the weatherman had predicted. "It's okay," he reassured Melissa, trying to feel his way across the room to the door. "It's just the power again--"
A shot rang out.
'Downstairs. Oh, my God. Jim!'
Jim used the phone in the kitchen to call Simon and ask him to bring Craig Stephens to the house. The captain sounded shocked that Sandburg's hunch had been proved true. Jim gave him thorough directions. Simon said they'd be there as quickly as they could, given the storm.
The sky had darkened to inky black just in the short time he and Blair had been in the house. Jim opened the refrigerator for milk, eggs and cheese, listening absently to the rising wind. Opening his hearing somewhat he could hear the crash of waves on the rocks at the foot of the cliff.
The lights flickered once, then went out.
He heard another noise, a funny sort of scraping sound. Jim tried to pinpoint it, finally walking over to the section of wall opposite the door to Blair's room. Shelves held crockery and crystal; the bottom one was stuffed with cookbooks. Jim leaned over, running his sensitive fingers over the spines of the books. He felt one of them shift and he jumped back as there was a creaking noise, then the whole section of shelves swung away from the wall.
There was a figure standing there, revealed in the opening. Before Jim had time to consciously accept what was happening, the figure raised something. There was a loud bang! and a flash of muzzle fire. Jim had time for a second of blazing pain before his world went black.
Blair scrambled in the general direction of the door. His eyes were fighting to adjust to the darkness, his mind was screaming at him to find his Sentinel. There was a rustling behind him and ice-cold fingers grabbed his arm, pulling him back. "You can't go down there!" a woman's frightened voice hissed in his ear.
"Jim's down there!"
Melissa was trying to drag him away from the staircase. Blair's anguished mind realized belatedly she was heading to the attic door. They could see a light bobbing on the lower half of the staircase and hear the steps creaking as someone mounted them. A voice called out, "Mr. Sandburg? Blair? You might as well come out, you know. Your friend-- the cop-- is either dead or pretty close to it. There's no way out for you."
Blair's stomach twisted at the word "dead". Moving quickly, he let Melissa pull them over to the attic door but resisted when she tried to lead him inside. "Get in there!" he hissed. "Lock it. Is there a place to hide up there?" He felt, rather than saw her nod. "Then hide. If Jim had a chance to call Simon there should be help here pretty soon."
"But--" Blair literally shoved her inside and closed the door silently. Then he took a deep breath to quiet the relentless hammering of his heart. He walked to the head of the staircase and looked down. The assailant was on the landing now, pointing the flashlight at the top stair. Blair strained his eyes, but all he could make out was a dark blob behind the flashlight.
"Who are you?"
"Don't play games with me!" The voice was vaguely familiar but Blair couldn't place it. Then as suddenly as they had gone off the lights came on again. It was still dusky on the staircase but there was enough light from the low-wattage bulb that Blair could recognize the figure holding a gun pointed upwards at him.
And suddenly, Blair knew he was looking into the eyes of Melissa Stephens' father.
And her mother's killer.
Blair stood stock-still as Dr. Larry Hughes slowly ascended the staircase, gun held steady in his right hand. He heard his own voice--much too calm, given the situation--say, "You were the young actor who had an affair with Rita Mallory and then was blackballed by Roger Winfield."
"I knew there was more to you than you let on," Hughes responded. He'd reached the top step by now and he inched around until he was between Blair and the master suite. "Then I did some checking and found out you work for the cops. You were trying to get something on me, weren't you?" He waved the gun toward the double doors. "In there."
Blair kept his hands in sight as he started moving, not to the bedroom but so that his back was to the staircase. "You killed them? All of them? The kids? What did they ever do to you?"
"What did they do to me?" Hughes repeated, rage and astonishment fighting with each other in his voice. "Rita destroyed me! She took my young, innocent love for her and she twisted it for her own ends. She used me and then she tossed me aside when she had what she wanted. She wanted Roger, she wanted him to be jealous, she got what she wanted and she turned her back on me and didn't lift a finger when he demolished my career. She sucked everything I had away and left me a hollow shell.
"I enjoyed killing her! I loved it. Every blow, every stab of the knife was justice and beauty. And then, when I put my hands around her throat, and squeezed, and watched the life slowly leave her eyes... it was exquisite. I saved her until last, she slept through the rest of them dying; I was quick and quiet. She always took a sleeping pill. When she woke up and saw me next to her bed, my hands wet with the blood of her two-bit hoodlum lover and those brats, the look of terror on her face was worth the wait. Stop moving around!"
He fired once. Blair froze as the bullet sped past him to bury itself in the wall. His mind was screaming at him to run down the stairs, to check on Jim, but he knew he'd never make it. His mouth took over and opened. "So you got your revenge on Rita. But what about Roger? He destroyed your career and got away with it!"
"Not really. I was hoping he'd be arrested and tried for the murders. He wasn't, but the rumors followed him his whole life. And the loss of his son haunted him. He died empty and alone and bitter." Hughes' face hardened. "It was all over, until you came around. Asking questions. Living here. Bringing Rita back."
Blair made his move. He grabbed a heavy ginger jar off the small table next to the stairs and heaved it with deadly accuracy at Hughes's gun hand. The man's yell was lost in the roar of the gun firing and the sound of smashing china. Blair leapt down the stairs two at a time.
"Stop!" Hughes bellowed behind him. The gun fired again.
Blair felt the bullet whiz past his head and he jerked instinctively, missing the next step and falling down several. Pain shot up through his left ankle and leg. His head hit the wall and everything grayed out...
When his vision cleared again, Hughes was standing above him, pointing the gun directly at his head.
'I'm going to die,' Blair thought dizzily. His mind flashed back to the time when Lash had kidnapped him, chained him in the dental chair; when Blair had known that Jim wouldn't be able to find him and Lash was going to drug him and then hold his head under water until he died.
His tongue had saved him then, distracting Lash, delaying him until Jim had arrived to rescue him. But his tongue was frozen to the roof of his mouth now, his heart breaking with the fear that Jim was dead.
"Don't!" a woman's voice pleaded from above. Hughes whirled. Squinting through the dizziness, for just a second Blair saw what Hughes saw: Rita Mallory on the landing, her hands gripping the balustrade.
"No," Hughes whispered. "No! You're dead! I killed you!" He fired at the figure, wildly. Gritting his teeth against the pain, Blair lashed out with his good leg, his foot catching the other man in the seat of the pants and knocking him off-balance. The gun flew from Hughes' hand to land with a clatter somewhere in the downstairs lower hall. Hughes turned, his eyes alight with the unholy rage of madness, and started toward Blair, his hands outstretched, fingers already curving as if they felt fragile flesh beneath them.
"Hold it! Cascade PD! Stop right there!"
Through a sudden ringing in his ears, Blair recognized the voice of his Sentinel. "Jim!" he gasped, trying and failing to get up. "I thought you were dead."
"I'm fine, Chief," Jim said soothingly, slowly moving up the staircase, his gun never wavering from Hughes. The detective's shirt was dark with blood and he held one elbow tightly tucked in to his side. His eyes flickered above. "Are you all right, Mrs. Stephens?"
Blair couldn't believe it; he'd seen Hughes fire at Melissa Stephens point-blank, but now he heard her voice, trembling but strong, say "I'm okay."
"Can you come down here?" Jim requested, stepping over Blair to reach out for Hughes. "I need you to get the handcuffs out of my back pocket."
Hughes had been standing motionless, but now he suddenly exploded, launching himself at Jim's wounded side. The two of them struggled, then the sound of a shot once more echoed through the old house. Melissa Stephens screamed. Heart in his throat, Blair tried once more to struggle to his feet. "Jim?" he whispered.
Jim stepped back, his arms supporting Hughes' weight. Red blossomed on the older man's shirt. His eyes, wide open and glazing over, looked up to stare imploringly at Melissa Stephens. "Rita," he whispered on his last breath. Then his eyes closed. Jim lowered him to the staircase, searched for a pulse, then shook his head and stumbled over to kneel by Blair.
~~"And, in local news, Dr. Craig Stephens today held a press conference to announce that MedComp Industries newly-developed rehabilitation engineering branch, Adaptibilities! will break ground early next month on an estimated 25 million dollar facility near the Cascade docks. This follows Tuesday's announcement that MedComp will be moving its home office to Cascade from Seattle. This is expected to create several hundred jobs. The Nobel-prize front runner also announced that he and his wife, Melissa Stephens, are donating several million dollars jointly to Cascade Allied Hospitals and Rainier University for the development of training programs in physical, speech and occupational therapy as well as rehabilitation engineering...~~
Jim turned down the volume with the remote control just as someone knocked on the door. Blair limped out of his bedroom. "Where are your crutches, Sandburg?" Jim growled as he gingerly rose from the couch. The stitches that had closed the hole in his side were holding well, but his broken rib protested any sudden movements.
"Man, I hate those things," Blair protested, falling into a chair. "I've got bruises under my arms that hurt worse than the broken ankle!"
"You're supposed to get your weight off the cross pieces," Jim returned, swatting his partner lightly on the head as he made his way to the door to open it. "Doctor Stephens! Come in."
"I can't stay long," Stephens said, coming into the room. "I'm on my way to the airport. Blair, how do you feel?"
Stephens had visited both Jim and Blair several times while they were hospitalized and since their return home, always bringing something: flowers or candy or wine or a very generous reward check which Jim of course had turned down. Melissa Stephens was expected to make a full recovery, although she was still restricted to bed to avoid miscarrying the baby that no one had known she was expecting. Craig Stephens still looked a little lost, but he was well on his way to becoming again the confident, self-assured man most people assumed he was.
"Taking a vacation? Business trip?" Jim asked, sitting on the arm of Blair's chair.
"No. I'm going to Vermont to pick up our sons."
"No, we're pulling them out of the boarding school. They'll go to school right here in Cascade, once we get settled. We found a house we can lease while our house is being remodeled."
"So Jacob Winfield didn't have a problem with selling it to you?"
Stephens shook his head. "Not once he realized who Missy was. He said it was really more hers than his, anyway. He talked with Missy a bit--he knew Rita Mallory, you know, knew her as a mother surrogate almost. I think it helped her." He paused, then went on, "Ty Aldrich found the lawyer who arranged for Melissa's adoption. Rita Mallory picked Jory and Claire to be Melissa's parents, and she remained in contact with them until the day she died. Missy remembers getting gifts from her 'Aunt Mary', when she was very little, but she never knew who Aunt Mary was. When Melissa and I got married, all of a sudden she had this very large trust fund that helped us with living expenses while we were both in school. Even I wondered about that; Melissa's parents didn't have that kind of money. Her father told me once it was an inheritance but he wouldn't say any more. The lawyer said that Rita put that money in trust for Melissa before she died."
"How is Mrs. Stephens dealing with everything?"
"She's pretty shaky," Stephens answered Jim, "but she's a strong person. God, I never realized how strong. It helps that she knows now her birth mother didn't just cast her away. Rita Mallory did what she felt was best for Melissa. It's hard for Missy to deal with the fact that her father killed her mother, and her brother, but she's not dwelling on it. We're both looking at this move, this new baby, a new house, as a second chance. I won't screw it up this time."
"It won't bother her, living in the house where her mother died?" Jim asked.
"She says not. By the time we get through remodeling it, it won't even look like the same place," Stephens asserted. He hesitated.
"You know, there's one thing I don't understand," Blair said suddenly. "How did Larry Hughes miss hitting Melissa with that bullet? He shot her from point-blank range."
"That was rather strange," Jim commented. "Forensics couldn't find the bullet." Jim had also tried to find the projectile using his enhanced senses and had been unable to.
Stephens hesitated. "Well, according to Missy, it didn't miss."
"What?" Jim exclaimed.
"She says something, or somebody, shoved her to one side and then jumped in front of her. The bullet struck that person instead." He took a deep breath. "It was Rita. Melissa believes her mother saved her life."
Stephens left shortly afterwards. Jim came back into the living room and saw Blair staring into space. "Do you believe Rita came back to save her daughter?" the graduate student asked abruptly.
Jim hesitated. "I believe Melissa Stephens *thinks* that," he responded slowly. "I don't believe in ghosts, so I have a real hard time believing that Rita Mallory's ghost took a bullet for her daughter. What about you?"
"Motherhood is a powerful force, Jim, in any culture. Rita was killed in that house. Maybe her spirit stays there. And if she thought her only surviving child was in danger from the person who killed her and her son--"
"Who just happens to be Melissa's father," Jim added dryly. "You surprise me, Chief, a scientist who believes in ghosts?"
Blair laughed. Jim looked puzzled. "What's so funny?"
"Oh, I'm in a room with a man who can see a black panther that no one else can see, and he doesn't believe that I believe in spirits!"
"That's different," Jim argued.
"Maybe," Blair admitted. He closed his eyes against the pounding of his head, the last remnant of his concussion. "Maybe you're right."
Silence fell between them.
"Maybe I am. Maybe I'm not," Jim said finally. "Maybe it's just one of those things we aren't meant to know."
Blair's eyes remained closed, although his lips curved in a smile. "Profound, man."
They sat in comfortable silence for a few minutes until Blair suddenly opened his eyes. "Oh, I forgot. I got you something." He scrambled to his feet, swayed for a second under the pain and dizziness, then went into his room. He returned almost immediately with a wrapped package, which he held out to Jim. "Here."
"What's this?" Jim asked, taking it.
"Open the card first," Blair insisted as he sat back down, on the couch this time. "Out loud."
Jim shrugged and read, "I, Blair Sandburg, do hearby swear that if, at such time I see one James Ellison wearing the contents of this package, to immediately remove myself from his immediate area for a period of time to be decided upon jointly, with no questions, comments or commotion." Jim broke off. "Sandburg, you don't have to--"
"Just open the package, Ellison."
It was a tee-shirt, a particularly loud orange color that almost made Jim's eyes water. On the front was a black map of the solar system, with the planets standing out in glow-in-the-dark paint. On the back was a message in large black letters.
"Everyone Needs Their Own Space."
Jim tossed the shirt so that it landed on Blair's head. His welcome laughter rang through the loft.
Blair smiled. He was home again.