Fall From Grace|
The creaking of the rocking chair was the only sound in the room. The noise was comforting to the woman in the chair, almost... symphonic.
The only light came from the neon sign across the street -- a sign that announced the best gyros in the city of Cascade. The woman kept rocking. And drinking.
The hotel room was forty-three bucks a night and contained one bed; a dresser that had seen better days -- about ten years ago; a small, round, cigarette-burned table by the only window; and of course, the rocking chair. The woman didn't think they were worth the forty-three dollars.
She glanced over at the double bed, at the two folders that sat there, accusingly. She looked back at the small table, at the bottle of gin and the glass that sat by her hand.
She was supposed to be at a meeting tonight, a meeting that had started over twenty minutes ago. About now, someone would be standing and saying, "My name is Hootchamagower, and I'm an alcoholic."
She wouldn't be saying anything there tonight.
She wouldn't be receiving her three-month chip either. Oh, well. That's life. She looked over at the manila folders again and sighed. It had seemed like such a good idea at the time, taking them from Roger's desk. Revenge was supposed to be sweet, but now...
She lifted the glass and brought it to her lips -- drank slowly but with no joy. Her world now. Her world again.
Roger could go fuck himself.
Jim shifted slightly, thus allowing the body next to him to slip in closer, dipping into the groove created by his move. Sandburg gave a small huff, the air brushing the older man's skin. In the darkness, Jim beamed.
Funny, but even after all this time, the delight of having Sandburg in the same bed still brought forth the headlight-bright grin -- even in the middle of the night.
One stocky Blairleg, obviously not comfortable, nudged, rooted around, pushed, shoved and finally settled on top of Jim's leg. One hand, pale in the darkness, absently stroked Jim's chest, while the owner of said hand remained sound asleep. Hair tickled Jim; breath continued to whisper softly over his skin -- and Jim felt the tensions of the evening evaporate. He let the feeling of solid muscle and soft valleys bring his eyelids to half-mast even as his mind chewed on an unanswerable question...
Why was life so simple for Sandburg, but not for Jim Ellison?
Good question. Okay, so why was life so simple for Sandburg?
All right, Jim had to admit to himself that the evening hadn't been bad -- he hadn't lied to Sandburg. And yes, it had been a start. In fact, truth be told, Jim had liked Grace Ellison.
Actually liked her -- his own mother. But he also knew that it was not Jim Ellison the son who had liked Grace. No, on that point, Jim was very clear, very aware. It was Jim Ellison the cop, the regular guy, who'd liked Grace Ellison.
In a haze of contentment that had nothing to do with his brain and everything to do with his body, he tried to ponder Jim Ellison the son, except...
Jim Ellison the son appeared to be on hiatus. Not to be found.
Probably hiding. Small boys could do that -- hide. When life got tough, even the toughest boys could hide. And Jim suspected that Jimmy Ellison was doing exactly that.
Blair Sandburg's alter ego, the inner child, wouldn't hide -- no sir. That little tyke would step forward, chin jutting out, short curls bouncing and he would demand attention, demand an answer, demand his share of -- whatever.
Jim grinned at the thought of Little Boy Blair.
Still smiling, he placed his hand on Blair's head and began to weave his fingers through the mass of hair, avoiding the tangles, just letting his fingers tuck themselves in and pull up warm, thick curls to finger-chins.
Finger-snuggling, the world's greatest panacea.
Right, so let's say that things ultimately worked out between Jim, Jimmy and Grace. Jim would then have a father, a brother and a mother.
Blair already had a mother. Blair wanted Jim to have a mother and now he did, so should Jim give William to Blair? White teeth flashed in the night as Jim grinned. He was punch drunk, loopy. Fruit Loops.
What he needed -- was to disentangle himself from the blob, go downstairs and think clearly.
He began to do just that -- and five long minutes later, he'd succeeded. Sweating from the exertion of moving without moving, of trying to unsnuggle from Sandburg without waking the man, Jim pulled on his robe and headed down.
He stopped in the kitchen, got a glass of ice water, then wandered into the living room, finally coming to rest in front of the big windows. His eyes took in the twinkling lights of his city, the dark water moving gracefully, a few boats bobbing on the waves. Bright, silver flashes of cars zipped by as people of the night made their way through the city, through his city...
In the emptiness around him -- the blackness that Jim Ellison had carried around for over thirty years -- resettled in his heart. He rested his forehead on the cold pane.
His mother had left him and Stephen to their father. And she didn't have to -- there were programs, she could have sought help, professional help and -- she -- could have -- stayed. Could have -- stayed...
Jim Ellison groaned softly in the darkness.
He felt the sun streaming in and the cold air rolling off his bare back. Ugh. Blair opened one bleary eye. He was alone.
He rolled over and opened the other eye, fumbled for the small clock, brought it to his face, peered closely, made out the hour, moaned and dropped his head back onto the pillow.
Seven. In the morning. A Saturday morning.
Sleep beckoned, insisted, cajoled -- but something was wrong. Sandburg was not only alone in the bed, but he was pretty damn sure he was alone in the loft. He disentangled himself from the bedding and sat up; he moved through his morning scratches, adjustments, yawns, stretching and hair pulling -- then stood and padded downstairs. A brief detour to the bathroom, a flush and a hand wash, then out to the living room.
Sleepy eyes took in several things at once: the empty coffee cup on the counter, unwashed; the afghan on the couch, half on and half off; Jim's robe on the back of the sofa...
"Damn you, Ellison."
Further grumbling was stalled as a key turning in the lock was followed by the opening of the front door. A smiling Jim, wearing old, faded blue jeans and his cropped PD sweatshirt, tossed the keys on the table and asked, "Why damn me?"
Blair watched the keys strike, caught the aroma of fresh baked pastries and bagels obviously coming from the white bag in Jim's other hand, and shook his head.
"Man, you are a piece of work, Ellison."
Jim put the goody bag on the counter and took out a serving platter. He then spent two quiet, perfectionist minutes artfully arranging the bagels and buttery pastries, smiling because he knew he was driving Blair crazy -- a man had to take his small pleasures when and where he could. When he finished, he held out the platter.
"Table, Sandburg, while I scramble up some eggs."
Blair didn't move, didn't extend a hand.
Grudgingly, Sandburg took the dish and slid it on the table. His movement lacked the finesse the beautifully arranged platter deserved. Blue eyes glittered at Jim.
"Aren't you cold, Chief? Not that I don't enjoy the view, but cold is cold."
Blair's forehead wrinkled in thought as he glanced down at himself. Well, hell -- he was naked. He didn't do naked. Parading around in the nude was Jim's thing, not Blair's. Not that he was parading. Standing, but not parading. He harrumphed loudly, turned on his heel and sauntered over to the stairs. He deliberately toned down the wiggle.
"Aw, come on, Chief. I love your wiggle."
Blair flipped him the bird and kept on walking -- sans all wiggling. Once out of sight, he hurried to the rack, took a pair of jeans, slipped into them and was about to zip when Jim's laughing voice floated up.
"Ooh, going commando, are we, Sandburg?"
"In your dreams, Ellison!"
He quickly stepped out of the jeans and searched for his briefs --
"We used your shorts to clean up last night, Chief."
He made a beeline for the drawer, pulled out an old pair of white, thread-bare boxers, slipped them on, followed up with the denims, then took a navy blue sweater from the other drawer and pulled it on over his head.
Back to the drawer, a pair of white socks and he was ready. He marched downstairs.
Eggs were joining the pastries, along with coffee and juice as Blair came up to the table. Jim smiled at him and commented, "Not better necessarily, but certainly warmer."
It didn't escape Blair's notice that in his short absence, Jim had not only made eggs, but the coffee cup was now on the drainer and the afghan was back in its place on the sofa.
"Sit down, take a load off and eat before the eggs get cold. Got your favorite croissant pastry, Chief. Dig in."
Blair didn't move. "What time did you leave our bed last night? Or was it early this morning?"
One eyebrow rose.
"Don't give me that I don't know what you're talking about, Chief look. What time and why?"
"About three. So?"
"So, why didn't you wake me?"
"Because you were asleep?"
Blair pointed to his face and said, "Look, Jim. I'm chuckling. You're a real card, you know?"
"A man can but try, Sandburg. Now sit down and eat."
Blair sat down, but he didn't eat -- he stared.
"What? What?" Jim demanded.
"You know what. We're communicating, remember? We share stuff now, we talk now, remember? So talk already, you asshole."
"Fine. I was in bed, thinking of Grace, of our dinner, of you. I was wondering why life is so easy for you and so hard for me. I was thinking that with you in my arms -- everything was too easy. So I got up and came downstairs. And I was thoroughly miserable. Satisfied now?"
Blair took it all in, digested it, nodded, then grinned and said, "Yeah, cool."
"As long as I live, I'll never understand you, Sandburg."
"It's simple -- upstairs, with me, you knew the truth, but once you left me and came downstairs, you were miserable. See?"
"You're manipulating me, aren't you?"
Jim took his fork and scooped up a chunk of now-clotted egg and stuck it in his mouth. He chewed and stared, stared and chewed.
"Aw, come on, Jim. You liked her, the evening went pretty well, she was painfully honest, gave her version of the unvarnished truth and you admitted it was a start. But in the wee hours of the morning, doubt returned."
"Because," Jim spoke around the mouthful of egg, "I leftmd you."
"Yep. Upstairs in the security and strength of my powerful arms..."
"And snoring and drooling and twitching..."
"...you were able to put the evening into perspective. But once alone down here," Blair shrugged, "the hurt kid took over."
He grabbed a strawberry-and-cream cheese danish, waved it at Jim, then added, "And I don't drool."
Jim looked away and muttered, "You do drool, and there was a great deal she could have done, Chief. She didn't have to leave."
The expression in Blair's eyes softened as he gazed at the bent head. God, how he loved this man. And how much he wanted to take all the pain away, make it better for him. He reached over and took the fork from Jim's hand, then slipped his fingers between Jim's.
"I know, Jim. I know. But, man, you gotta understand that at the time, she was drowning. She looked around and found only blackness, except for maybe, one tiny sliver of light, and she went for it. She was sick, Jim. She could see nothing, hear nothing, feel nothing, but that sickness."
"There were other lights, Chief. Other avenues. She could have stayed, could have been there..."
"Jim, think about it for a minute. Could she have? Really?"
Pain-filled eyes rose to meet Blair's as Jim asked, "What do you mean?"
Blair tightened his grip on Jim's hand and said, "Your father, Jim. Things might have, could have been worse if she'd stayed. And I think, on a level she wasn't even aware of, Grace knew that."
Jim seemed to consider Blair's words, but even lost in thought, he was shaking his head. Blair waited.
"No, no. Anything would have been better than what Stevie and I had. Anything."
"Jim, you heard her. Didn't any of it ring any bells? Or are the only memories -- good ones?"
Jim pulled his fingers from Blair's and stood. He took his plate and carried it into the kitchen, his mind rolling back to his thoughts of the previous evening as he'd sat and listened to his mother.
As he scraped the unfinished eggs into the disposal, he said, "I remembered -- a few -- things."
"Uh, huh. Care to share?"
Jim waved the fork he was rinsing off -- and as water speckled the wall, he said off-handedly, "Oh, just the odd time or two, you know, when one of us would be excited about something, run upstairs to share, but Mo-- she would be, well,"
He seemed to be searching for the right word, so Blair chimed in with, "...sick?"
"Yeah, okay -- sick."
"Do you remember the incident she shared last night? The locking out thing?"
Jim put the fork down and picked up the plate, stuck it under the faucet and said, "Yeah, a little."
"Jim... she hit Sally, instead of Stephen. I suspect you remember more than a little."
The plate dropped -- and shattered.
Blair was up instantly, at Jim's side, picking up the pieces, then going for the broom. He was startled to find when he came back that Jim hadn't moved an inch.
For a moment, Blair could only stare as his mind reeled. Jim was in a zone. A zone. A. Zone. "Well, I'll be damned."
Slowly, Blair moved to stand in front of Jim. He grasped Jim's jaw and tugged so that Jim's head tilted down, then said, "Jim, cut it out."
He gave the face a small shake. Nothing. Well, shit, when had he last done this, not counting the grenade and Marty? Shit, Jim hadn't zoned under conditions like these in -- months?
Blair took Jim's hand, rested his thumb just above Jim's palm, and making small, circular motions, he started to speak quietly, saying nothing in particular. A few moments later -- pale blue eyes blinked -- and Jim was back among the cognizant.
"I didn't. Tell me I didn't."
"Liar. I did."
Blair shrugged, his expression one of wry humor and understanding. He led Jim to the couch, got him settled, then quickly cleaned up the mess in the kitchen. When he finished, he took up residence under Jim's arm.
"Yeah, thanks for the radar blip."
"Always helpful, that's me." He wiggled against Jim until the bigger man shifted over and the two of them managed to meld into each other, using the corner of the couch as their sanctuary. Once settled, Blair asked, "What triggered it?"
"You know, I heard that -- what you didn't just say."
"Which was, O Great Karnac?"
"What triggered it?" Then subvoice, he added, "Like I don't know."
"Um, not bad. That was what I was thinking. And for that, you get this..." He punched Jim in the arm, grinning like a baboon the whole time.
"So we both know, and ow, that hurt."
"Did not. Arms of steel, that's you."
"Did too, and are you going to make me talk about it?"
"Did not, and yes."
"You just wait, I'll have a bruise, and I'm gonna show Simon."
"And Simon will buy me lunch. And you do remember, and you were probably very angry with her, maybe even, for a while, hated her."
"You would. You were a child, and children can hate easily and quickly. You were very protective of Stephen and even of Sally. Man, I can see it so clearly. Sally, holding and rocking little Stephen as he cried in her arms and you -- standing between them and the house, alone, refusing to take comfort with Sally as you stared up at the house, a little boy, hurt, angry, mentally daring your mother to come outside, to say something, do something..."
Blair enfolded Jim within the security of his arms and held tight. Feeling the slight tremors coursing through the older man, he squeezed harder. "She was sick, Jim. She needed help and she wisely knew, in ways she isn't even now aware, that she wouldn't get the aid she so desperately needed -- at home -- with her husband and two sons. And she was afraid, afraid she'd really hurt one of you..."
Minutes wore on and Blair held fast.
Blair pushed Jim ahead of him and with a smile on his face, said, "Trust me, you need this. You shower, use up every ounce of hot water and when you come out -- I'll have something for lunch on the table. Now go."
He gave Jim another push, and satisfied when his partner went into the bathroom and closed the door, he turned back to the kitchen.
After a morning of more talk, a morning that was now noon, Blair knew that they both needed sustenance after the aborted breakfast. He stared at the kitchen cupboards. Soup? Simple and he didn't feel like really cooking. He took down a can of split-pea, opened it, emptied it into a small saucepan and set it on the fire. He was pretty sure there were crack-- yep, just as he thought, crackers. He took them down, set the table, added a jar of peanut butter for himself, took a couple of iced teas out of the fridge and by the time the soup was steaming -- Jim was coming in, hair damp, jeans on, and a towel slung around his neck.
"You were right. Felt good. And lunch smells great."
They sat and dug in, Blair spreading peanut butter on his crackers, Jim breaking his into his soup. For several minutes neither spoke. Blair was very aware that Jim, as was typical when someone (even if that someone was Blair) saw too much, was now gathering himself, putting back a few walls. Protecting himself. But Sandburg wasn't worried. The walls were no longer impenetrable. Not for Blair, anyway.
Lunch was almost gone when Jim finally spoke, his words coming from left field. "What would you do if your father popped up?"
At Jim's strange question, a peanut butter-covered cracker on its way to Blair's mouth dropped and sloshed into the small puddle of soup at the bottom of the bowl. "Excuse me? Is that question supposed to tie in somehow with you and your mother?"
"Yes. Just answer, Sandburg."
"You're so wrong, Jim. My sperm donor has nothing to do with you and your mother. Nothing. But I'll give you this: there's a man out there who maybe did, but maybe didn't know what oat he'd sown, okay? He could be anybody so no, it's not the same thing."
"If he knew -- it's the same."
"You know, sometimes I really hate you."
"I'm just saying..."
"No, Jim, no. What you're trying to do is somehow pawn this off on me, so listen up and listen good. If my mother knew who the father was and if she told him and if he skipped out on her -- his fucking loss, okay? BUT if he showed up one day, if he had a history, if he'd been young, stupid, on drugs, whatever -- and now, now he wanted to know his son, to be friends, wanted to try, I'd say yes. Happily, I'd say yes. I'd be fucking grateful, okay?"
Jim pointed a finger accusingly and said, "Ah, ha! See? Life is easy for you! But not so easy for me, understand?"
Blair stared, open-mouthed, at his partner. He blinked in amazement, shook his head a bit and said, his voice dripping sarcasm, "Oh, of course. Life couldn't be easy for silent, long-suffering Jim Ellison. No way." Sandburg stood and pushed his chair away, pushed it hard enough to send it skittering across the floor. Face flushed with anger, eyes squinting at Jim, Blair challenged, "I'm betting you haven't forgiven me, right? Isn't this all my fault, after all? Why, I'm betting there's a whole bag full of stuff for which Jim Ellison hasn't forgiven Blair Sandburg, right?"
He was about to make a dramatic exit when the jarring ring of the phone interrupted him. He grabbed the receiver and snarled, "What?"
"Oh, uh, Simon. Yeah, me." Instantly contrite, he bit his bottom lip and added, "You want Jim?"
Without looking at him, Blair held out the phone. Jim stood, walked over and gently took the receiver. He waited a moment, but when Blair still didn't meet his eyes, he sighed and put the receiver to his ear.
"We have a body, Jim. An important body."
"Aren't they all?"
"We might think so, but the Mayor has declared *this* one *more* important."
"Who is it?"
Jim gave a low whistle. "Where?"
"His home. I need you two to roll, Jim. Sorry."
Jim glanced over at Blair, then back. "Yeah, no problem. Who's on the scene?"
"Taggert and Connor. Address is 2929 West Court Drive."
"2929 West Court Drive, got it. We're on our way."
"Thanks. I'll need a report ASAP."
"Yeah." Jim hung up and turned back to Blair. "We need to roll, Chief."
"So I gathered."
Blair started upstairs. Fifteen minutes later both men, dressed appropriately, walked out of the loft.
"It'll be faster if you go up Fifty-third."
Jim jerked the wheel sharply to the left and careened around Fifty-third.
"Right, glad you took my advice."
Jim drove on, silent, granite jaw firm.
Blair gave a disgusted snort and sank lower in his seat. He stared out the window for several seconds, trying to stay mad, trying not to ask about the case -- but his curiosity got the better of him.
"You gonna tell me what's going down?"
"Councilman dead. Murdered."
"Gee, thanks. So forthcoming. Dickwad."
Slowly Jim turned his head and looked at Blair. Then -- he smiled.
"Uh, huh. Sure you are."
"No, really, I am. I'm a stubborn son of a bitch and I grovel at your feet."
"Grovel at my ass and maybe I'll forgive you. Maybe."
"Deal. Tonight, Jim Ellison grovels at the ass of Blair Sandburg."
Jim watched the corner of Blair's mouth hike its way up. Traffic moved -- and as he turned his attention back to the road, he said, "I really am sorry. Maybe I'm not dealing with all of this as well as I thought."
Blair rolled his eyes and said, "Ya think?"
They caught another red light. Jim turned a bit, and flicking a piece of lint from Blair's shirt, asked, "Would you really be grateful if your father showed up and wanted to suddenly be a father?"
Blair watched the fussy fingers and smiled. Jim was so transparent. "Yeah, Jim. I think I would. Of course -- he could turn out to be a real schlock, but -- yeah. I'd be... grateful."
"So -- I should be grateful?"
"You don't really think that I'm going to tell you how to feel, do you?"
"Yes. How else would I know?"
"Ah, good point. Okay, then. Yes, you should be grateful. Careful, but grateful. There, feel better now?"
Jim cuffed Blair lightly and said, "Oh, yeah, tons."
The light turned and Jim made the left onto West Court and Blair gave a low whistle.
"You didn't say it was Councilman Cordell."
"Did I need to? You know him or something?"
"Come on, Jim. We're talking Councilman Cordell, the man who tried to block Furhman Park? The man who tried to get the Woman's Health Clinic closed because the doctors there performed abortions. And the man who did close down the free clinic on Patterson because they were giving condoms to thirteen-year-olds. Ring a bell now?"
"Oh, I knew who he was. So how did you know this was his street?"
"He hosted a Rainier fundraiser at his home and yes, I attended. Had no choice since the anthropology department was receiving the majority of the funds. I didn't recognize the address, but now, oh, yeah."
"Gotta love the politically free environment of academia and the hallowed halls of Rainier. And tell me that fundraiser wasn't one of Edwards' little soirees?"
"No, one of Sid's."
Jim slowed as they approached a large Tudor on the right, a Tudor surrounded by police cars, the coroner's wagon, and an ambulance. Jim rolled down the window and flashed his badge at the officers guarding the perimeter, then pulled in behind Connor's car. Both men climbed out and headed up to the front door.
The body was lying on the kitchen floor, surrounded by blood. As Jim and Blair walked in, guided by Connor, who'd met them in the entrance hall, Taggert stood and took a careful step back, doing his best to avoid the red tide.
"Blunt instrument, Jim. And from the massive damage -- we're talking real anger."
Blair stayed back as Jim moved to the body, hitched up his jeans a bit, then squatted. He searched the area around the body as he pulled on latex gloves, then reached out and gently turned the head, or what was left of it. He winced and glanced back quickly when he heard the sharp intake of breath -- from Sandburg. But Blair was standing firm, a bit pale, but steady. Jim gave him a small nod of approval, then bent back to the task at hand.
Like the beacon of a lighthouse, his eyes swept the entire floor. His search was temporarily halted as something glittered at him from the baseboard against the far wall. He stood, made his way over to the object, bent down and picked it up.
"Jim? You found something?"
He turned and held up the small item. It caught in the light and shimmered between his fingers.
"Nice stone -- probably from a ring."
"Could've been there, maybe belongs to the wife," Connor suggested.
"Maybe," Jim agreed, then added, "But this floor is spotless. Just swept and cleaned." He bagged it and asked, "Speaking of the wife? Other family members? Staff?"
"Jim," Blair interrupted, "I remember hearing that Cordell and his wife were separated. We can check, but I believe he has an apartment in the Livingston Building. And they have two children, both school age." He shot an apologetic glance at Connor, who was flipping through her small notebook. She closed it with a snap and a smile.
"So, what, you're saying Cordell shouldn't have been here?"
Blair shrugged. "Hey, it was his house and they were only separated. He probably came as he pleased, to see the kids, you know?"
Jim took that idea in and nodded, then addressed Joel. "Staff? The weapon?"
"No staff and no weapon -- yet."
"That's strange, isn't it?" Connor asked. "A house this size and no staff?"
Jim had turned his attention to the sink and countertops as he answered, "Saturday. In this neighborhood, staff is usually off. Wednesdays and Saturdays. Unless there's a party planned."
"Then who found the body? Who reported it?" Blair asked.
Joel cleared his throat and said, "You're not going to believe this, but -- the plant lady."
"The plant lady?" Connor exclaimed.
"Yeah, the plant lady. She comes once a week and tends the household plants. You know, waters them, trims, cleans, the works. She has a key, lets herself in if no one's at home, does her thing, then lets herself out." He pointed to window box over the kitchen sink. "That's how she happened into the kitchen. She takes care of those too -- herbs and such."
Frowning, Jim faced Taggert. "I saw no one when we arrived. Where the hell is she?"
"She refused to stay in the house. She made her call, then met us out back. The paramedics are with her now -- she was pretty hysterical."
"Yeah, yeah, I'll take her, Jim." Megan almost tiptoed past the body, then out the back door.
"We should check the garage. There were no cars out front other than police vehicles."
"Good catch, Sandburg," Joel congratulated.
"You two want to take that? I'll check out the rest of the house."
"You got it, Jim. Blair?"
"Let's go, Joel."
The house had a three-car garage attached to the east side. With Joel leading the way, the two men went out through a set of French doors that exited what would be called the sun room, a small, bright room just off the kitchen that Blair could see was used as a more intimate version of a dining room. Probably for the kids and family meals, he thought.
The grounds were beautifully kept, the lawn immaculate, the rose bushes carefully pruned -- the whole garden well designed. English Tudor -- English garden.
They approached the garages -- and both immediately realized that of course, the doors would be electric.
"Got any ideas, Blair?"
Blair kept walking as he said, "Uh, huh. Side door."
Sure enough, a side door. An open, unlocked, side door, and inside, only one car. A Lincoln Towncar -- with luggage in the backseat.
Joel tested the doors and found the car also unlocked. With gloves in place, he searched the glove compartment but found only a set of maps and registration. He checked the tags on the expensive Louis Vuitton suitcases and noted that the name was Roger Cordell. He opened one bag and nodded as he found only men's clothing inside. He took out both bags and together he and Blair made their way back to the house.
"Moving back in, you suppose, Blair?"
"Looks like, Joel, looks like."
"So where's the wife? And the kids?"
While Joel headed back to the house, Blair remained behind, every instinct telling him to look around. Moving cautiously to the side of the house, he spotted a fenced area with a swing set, a basketball stand, a picnic bench and a plastic playhouse. Blair went no further -- he could see the top of Connor's head and knew that she was still interviewing the plant lady, so instead, he opened the fence gate and stepped into the play area.
A basketball sat on the small patch of grass and two dolls were lying on a redwood table. The ball was dirty -- the dolls were not. Blair picked up one of the dolls. It wasn't damp or dusty, nor was there any other indication that it had been on the table for any length of time -- like more than an hour or two? His head whipped around, eyes searching...
The small playhouse. Doors and windows closed.
Slowly, barely breathing, Blair took the few necessary steps to the house, squatted, and carefully -- opened the door.
She was tucked into the corner, her back to him. A little girl. Blair searched his overstuffed brain... for her name.
"Lynn? It's okay, I'm not going to hurt you. I'm with the police. Would you like to come out?"
She shook her head.
Blair glanced back at the redwood table, then at Lynn. "Well, I certainly understand, Lynn. But there are two very lonely dolls out here and they need you." He lowered his voice, and asked in a velvet tone, "Won't you take my hand, honey?"
Another shake of the dark curls.
"Lynn, have you ever been to Australia?"
She shook her head again.
Blair forged ahead. "But you know what an Aussie, that's what they call themselves, Aussies, you know what they sound like, right?"
She nodded and for the first time, her head turned slightly -- and he knew she was looking at him from the corner of her eye.
"Well, there's this cop here, her name is Megan, she's tall -- like an amazon, has red hair and she's from Australia. She's fought alligators, had a pet kangaroo, and you'll love the way she talks. Did I mention that she's really -- tall?"
Lynn scooted all the way around -- and now Blair could see her tear-stained face, pale in the greyness of the playhouse. Holding his breath, Sandburg held out his hand.
She stared at it, then -- reached out.
Jim found nothing out of the ordinary as he moved from one room to another. Everything was tidy, clean, in its place. There was no evidence that anyone other than the plant lady had been here. No breakfast dishes, no nightclothes; the beds were made, the bathrooms spotless. He figured no one had slept in this house for at least the last twenty-four hours.
He walked downstairs, eager to catch up with Taggert and Sandburg, to find out if Connor had learned anything significant from the only "witness" they had. By the time he walked back into the kitchen, the coroner's people had bagged the body and were lifting it onto a stretcher. He walked past them and out the back door.
Connor was just finishing. Seated in front of her -- their witness. Jim caught Connor's eyes and she nodded.
"Jim, this is Patty Summers. Miss Summers, this is Detective Ellison."
The woman turned a sheet-white face to Jim, and he was surprised to find himself looking at a teenager; Patty Summers couldn't be more than sixteen or seventeen.
"Miss Summers. I'm sorry you had to be the one that found -- Councilman Cordell."
"Better me than the kids," she said quietly, with a small hiccup.
"Do you know..."
"She doesn't know where they are, Jim. She was dropped off, and when no one answered, she let herself in. All we've got is that Mrs. Cordell called Patty Thursday night and told her to come as usual, but that there might not be anyone home."
Patty was nodding and interjected, "I knew Timmy, that's their boy, he's twelve, would be at his friend's, doing a camp-out in the backyard, and Mrs. Cordell added that Lynn, their daughter, she's only six, would be spending Friday night with her best friend from school."
Well, that explains a few things, Jim thought.
Megan put a hand on Patty's shoulder and squeezed lightly. "Would you like one of our cars to take you home, Patty?"
Grey eyes roamed over the officers who were still searching the grounds and came to rest on one young, tall, dark-haired officer who was going through the hedges near the far fence.
"Could he take me home, please?"
Connor followed her line of sight and bit back the grin. Teenagers.
"I'm sure that can be arranged."
She caught the attention of one of the officers and whispered in his ear. He flashed a smile and nodded, then called out, "Reid, over here, pronto!"
The young officer in question trotted over, pushed back his hat and said, "Sarge?"
"Would you escort Miss Summers, here, to her home? She'll give you the address. You might want to explain to her parents..."
Jim watched, amused, as Reid took Patty's arm and led her off. Teenagers.
As they disappeared around the corner, he looked expectantly at Connor.
"She didn't see anything, hear anything. No unusual car in the neighborhood, nothing until she walked into the kitchen."
"So we weren't lucky enough that the killer was just making his or her escape and Patty got a look at either a license plate or a flash of a face, eh?"
Megan gave him a wry smile and shook her head. "Sorry, mate, you're gonna have to solve this one the hard way."
"Ain't that always the case? Never a break for the honest and innocent."
Megan couldn't quite hide the snort of derision. Jim was about to come back with one of his best when Joel, who'd just come up behind him, said, "Shit."
Both Megan and Jim looked at him, then followed his gaze -- to Blair -- leading a small child by the hand.
"Holy shit," Megan breathed out.
"How does he do that?" Joel asked incredulously.
Jim just shook his head.
As Blair neared the three detectives, he felt a shudder run through Lynn. He paused, lifted her effortlessly and continued on. She buried her face in his shoulder. As he came up to Megan, he tugged the small child's dress sleeve and said, "Lynn, this is Megan, our Australian exchange officer. You know, the one who had a pet kangaroo?"
Lynn slid her face along Blair's arm and peeked up at Megan, who beamed back at her.
"she is tall."
Blair smirked and said, "Yes, didn't I tell you so? Would you like to meet my partner? Superman?"
Green eyes widened. "superman?"
"Jim Ellison, my partner. We call him Superman, when he's out of the room. Jim, this is Lynn Cordell."
Superman held out his hand, took the small one that let go of Blair's shirt and brought it to his lips. He kissed the back of her hand, smiled when she giggled, shot a dagger glance at Megan before her snort could explode, then smiled back at Lynn. "I'm very pleased to meet you, Lynn. And I'm not really Superman, just a cop."
"i knew that -- no superman suit -- no s."
"Dead giveaway, uh?"
Before anyone could say anything else, Megan asked quietly, "Lynn, I thought you were at your best friend's house today? Didn't you spend the night?"
"yes. but daddy came and picked me up, said it was time to go home. i wasn't happy, we were watching heidi!"
"Ah, so your daddy picked you up. Did you both come right home?" Megan asked.
The accent was clearly a delight to the child and she answered enthusiastically. "yes. we came home and i jumped out of the car and i had my dollies and we went and played tea party."
"And your dad?"
"he were tired. he went inside cus he had a call to make."
Jim stroked the tiny hand and asked gently, "Did you go into the house?"
She shook her head, eyes wide.
"Did your daddy come out at all? Did you -- see -- him again?"
Again she shook her head and that reminded her of something and she tilted her head up and gazed at Blair. "where is my daddy? can i see him now? he was mad so i hid, but he wasn't mad at me -- can i see him?"
Blair shot a helpless glance at Jim -- who gave a slight negative movement.
"Honey, your daddy isn't here. You said he was angry? Was he angry at somebody else? Somebody here in the house?" Blair asked softly.
"i could hear them yelling."
"Is that why you hid in the playhouse?"
"yes. so mad."
Jim shared a quick look with both Connor and Taggert before asking, "Honey, did you hear a man or woman's voice with your daddy?"
Her answer was to bury her face in Blair.
"Honey?" Jim asked. Blair shook his head and Jim gave up.
"Why don't you take her inside? Maybe upstairs to her room?"
Blair nodded and carried Lynn inside -- through the sunroom and avoiding the kitchen.
Grace Ellison glanced down at the small yellow piece of paper in her hand, then up at the building in front of her. This was the place. She took a deep breath and went inside.
The smell hit her first. Old, rancid, decaying. She knew it well. An elevator stood across from her, but since she doubted its abilities, she searched the lobby for stairs and spotted them.
Three flights later, she stood in front of room 312. She knocked softly and immediately heard soft footsteps approach the door. A moment later, it creaked open and her friend stared at her with jaundiced eyes.
"Lisette? Are you okay?"
Lisette Cordell nodded and stepped aside, allowing Grace to enter.
When she closed the door behind her friend, she said through a thick tongue, "I've dome somethimg terrible."
"Maybe a personal phone book somewhere?"
Jim and Megan nodded at Joel's suggestion and all three moved into what appeared to be a study. They were trying desperately to find someone -- anyone -- who could take care of Lynn and give them a clue as to where Mrs. Cordell might be. Not to mention the son.
They found an address book in the top drawer of the desk. Jim thumbed through it but found it remarkably light in the address department, considering that it was an address book. It proved to be no help at all.
"Jim, upstairs, did you find a desk or workspace that might have been Mrs. Cordell's?"
Before he could answer, one of the uniforms stepped in. "Detective Ellison? We have a Mrs. Weston out here. She says she's a friend of the family and that the son is staying with her."
The detectives exchanged looks of relief. Two minutes later, all three were talking with a woman in her late thirties, her fashionable bob, simple but elegant jewelry and perfect no make-up make-up a testament to her wealth.
"Mrs. Weston, I'm Detective Ellison; this is Detective Taggert and Inspector Connor."
The woman's eyes were searching, a worried frown playing across her features. "Where's Lynnie? They said out front that Lynnie was here? What's happened?"
"Mrs. Weston, how do you happen to be here?"
Again her eyes roamed the entrance hall. "A neighbor called. Said something had happened, that the police were here." Her voice rose dramatically, a power behind her next words that came from generations of wealth. "Where. Is. Lynnie?"
"Mrs. Weston, she's fine. She's upstairs with one our people. And Mr. Cordell..."
"Councilman Cordell," Mrs. Weston supplied.
"Councilman -- Cordell," Jim corrected, "is dead."
Mrs. Weston didn't know it yet, but she'd almost immediately gotten on Jim's bad side. At his brusque words, she paled. "Dead? Roger is dead? How? When? This is impossible. Where's Lisette?"
"Mr. Cordell was murdered, Mrs. Weston. Bludgeoned to death. And who is Lisette?"
"Mrs. Cordell. Lisette is Mrs. Cordell," Mrs. Weston whispered.
Her shock was genuine -- Jim could both see and sense it. This woman had been truly surprised to hear of Cordell's death. She wasn't involved.
Megan stepped forward and addressed the woman.
"Is the boy all right? Can you take Lynn until we find Mrs. Cordell?"
Mrs. Weston lifted her face and for the first time, actually looked at one of them. She nodded, words finally taken from her. Megan jerked her head up and Jim nodded. She headed upstairs to get Blair and Lynn.
His voice softer, Jim suggested quietly, "Mrs. Weston, would you join us in the living room? We could use some information, some help with this?"
Still stunned, she nodded and followed Jim across the entry hall.
Once they were all seated, Jim asked, "What can you tell us about the relations between Mr. and Mrs. Cordell?"
"They're separated. I know -- things escalated a few days ago and he, Roger -- God, this is so hard." She bowed her head, all pretense of power, of aloofness, evaporated.
"Take your time, Mrs. Weston."
"This is important, isn't it? I mean, it's fairly obvious that we're not talking, say, a robbery?"
"We won't know until we can talk with Mrs. Cordell, find out if anything appears to be missing, but Mr. Cordell had money in his possession, his watch..."
"Yes, of course. But you can see -- their lovely paintings, for instance? And -- and -- it's obvious, isn't it? Not a robbery."
Jim waited patiently and eventually he was rewarded.
"They separated two months ago. He moved out, has an apartment in town. But -- you see, a couple of days ago, things went from bad to worse."
She looked around her, at each face; read only interest and concern, no judgment -- so she went on.
"He -- Roger -- came back and told her, told Lisette to leave. That she was the one with the problem and she needed help and he wasn't leaving the children with her. He threatened her with losing them... and she left."
"What problem, Mrs. Weston?" At her confused look, Jim repeated, "What problem did Mrs. Cordell have? You mentioned that he'd told his wife that she was the one with the problem?"
"Oh, yes. I, I'm not sure I should..."
"It could be very important, Mrs. Weston."
She closed her eyes and said quickly, "Lisette drinks. She drinks."