He was also as mad as he’d ever been in his entire life. He didn’t know who this Brad Ventriss was or why he was making all the decisions about Naomi’s memorial service, but he intended to find out.
Blair took a deep breath and glanced at the well dressed man next to him. Steven Ellison had tracked Blair down in Peru and told him about Naomi’s sudden death. He was also the man who’d cut through a lot of red tape to get Blair on the first available plane back to Cascade. And he’d kept him informed of what was happening every time Blair could phone from an airport. So, all in all, he hadn’t been surprised when Steven had met him at the airport to drive him to the memorial service.
“Have I thanked you again, Mr. Ellison?”
“Please…call me Steven.” The other man briefly smiled. “Naomi was one of the few people I’ve known who I could say was a genuinely ‘good’ person. Even though we couldn’t come to an agreement about the Phoenix House, I admired her for her convictions. He smiled again. “And she was a great person to be around. So anything I’ve done hasn’t been a problem.”
Blair rubbed his eyes. “I hadn’t spoken to her for a long time. Between my expeditions and her traveling, we just never seemed to get together. I didn’t even know she was in Cascade.” He took a deep breath. “What’s the Phoenix House?”
Steven chuckled. “A potential bone of contention.” Checking the traffic around him, he carefully changed lanes. “Apparently your mother inherited a very nice piece of property in a part of Cascade that’s being renovated. My company is heavily involved in those renovations.”
“Naomi inherited property?” Blair ruefully shook his head. “I’m shocked she kept it. She wasn’t big on material possessions.”
“She told me that when she saw the property, she had a vision of a phoenix rising from this dilapidated building.” Steven grinned. “She was determined to turn that building into a sanctuary for people needing a refuge. She called it a place of peace and quiet where a person could take a break and find their way back to the path they were meant to walk.”
Blair suddenly laughed. “God, that sounds like Naomi!”
Steven sighed. “I’m going to miss her.”
Blair studied the dark-haired man for a few seconds. “How did you meet her?”
Steven coughed into one hand and used the other in an attempt to wave the dust in the air away from his face. Glaring around him, he saw people working in a haphazard way to pull down drywall and plaster. Dressed in jeans and a plain t-shirt, he didn’t look much different from the workers around him…especially after a cloud of plaster dust fell from the half-open ceiling.
Coughing even more, Steven moved away from the opening above him. A call of ‘sorry, man’ drifted down from the second floor.
“Oh, good. We can use more hands.”
Before Steven knew what had happened, a smiling red-haired woman had taken his arm and led him towards a partially demolished wall.
“George said this isn’t a weight-bearing wall…is that what he called it? Anyway, he says it’s safe to take this wall down.”
“Load-bearing,” Steven automatically corrected.
The woman smiled so happily at him that Steven found himself smiling in return. “Yes! That’s what he called it!” She flung her right arm in the direction of the room behind him. “This is going to be a gathering room for people to talk and interact with others. So if you can take down this wall…”
“Wait a minute. I’m not here to do construction work,” Steven quickly interrupted. He stepped back from the woman and brushed plaster dust out of his hair and from his clothing. “I’m Steven Ellison.”
“And I’m Naomi Sandburg. I’m sorry, but your name is familiar. I don’t think we’ve met, though.”
“It’s familiar because I’ve been trying to get in touch with you about buying this property,” Steven advised.
“Buying it?” Naomi looked at him in confusion, then smiled as a young woman laden with paper bags walked past them. “Everyone! Bebe’s back with coffee and snacks!”
Steven watched with amusement as everyone literally dropped what they were doing and headed towards the back room where Bebe was setting out the food and drink.
“They must have been very thirsty,” Naomi laughed.
“Coffee is a necessity on a construction site,” Steven admitted.
Naomi grinned at him. “You sound like you know a lot about construction. So, is George right? Is it okay for this wall to come down? Because, it looks to me…”
“Ms. Sandburg, “ Steven interrupted.
“Naomi.” She patted Steven’s arm. “Call me Naomi.” She continued to eye the wall next to them with consideration.
“Naomi,” Steve nodded. “About buying this property?”
“Hmm…oh, I’m not selling the property.”
Steven looked at the group of people drinking coffee and eating snacks. He’d never seen such a motley crew of construction workers in his life. “What are you going to do with it?”
Naomi absently patted the wall. “Well, George says we can bring it down without damaging the integrity of the structure.”
“The property!” Steven snapped.
Startled, Naomi looked at him. “Oh! This is going to be the Phoenix House. The first time I saw this place, I had a vision.”
“A vision,” Steven slowly repeated.
She nodded. “A beautiful phoenix was rising from the floor. Right over there.”
Despite himself, Steven looked to where Naomi was pointing.
“I knew then and there that this building could be repaired,” Naomi enthusiastically continued. “It will be open to everyone.”
“For what?” Steven frowned.
“As a refuge from the outside world,” Naomi confided. “Do you know how hard it is to find a place where you can go for peace and quiet?”
“What about the public library?” Steven asked.
Naomi chuckled. “Well, unless they’ve changed their policies, you can’t sleep there overnight. Although my son has probably tried a few times.”
“So this would be some sort of half-way house for recovering addicts?” Steven frowned.
“Not necessarily, although perhaps in the future,” Naomi admitted. “This is going to be a place where people can come to get away from all the pressure and demands of the outside world. It will be a place of serenity and peace… a place of peace and quiet where a person could take a break and find their way back to the path they were meant to walk.”
“Naomi, this area is going to be renovated for shopping, restaurants, and theaters,” Steven protested. “It’s not going to be an area of peace and quiet. Perhaps your Phoenix House would be better off out in the suburbs somewhere.”
“But here is where it’s needed!” Naomi squeezed Steven’s arm. “Here is where the people live and work who need the Phoenix House the most!”
Steven watched as the workers drifted back to their jobs. “Volunteer labor, huh?”
Naomi cheerfully nodded. “Isn’t it wonderful?”
“You realize that everything will need to be up to Code?” Steven pointed out.
“Code?” Naomi’s eyes widened.
Steven studied her for a moment, then they both grinned. He patted the wall next to them. “If George knows about load-bearing walls, then he should know about Codes.”
Naomi eyed the wall again. “I’m sure.” She held out her hand. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Steven. Come back anytime.” She gently squeezed the hand he offered in return. “Especially after we’re open.” She grinned again and reached for the sledgehammer leaning against the wall. Awkwardly, she stepped back and swung it towards the wall.
A bearded older man chuckled as he walked past. “You go, Naomi.”
”Thanks, Eddie!” Naomi cheerfully answered as she eyed the dent in the drywall. Resolutely, she swung a second time. Studying the slightly larger dent in the wall, she looked over her shoulder at Steven. “Am I doing this right?”
“Damned if I didn’t call my office and cancel all my appointments for that day. She worked me harder than the trainer at the gym.” Steven smiled as Blair curled up in his seat and laughed.
“Let me guess,” Blair finally gasped. “You helped bring the building up to Code.”
“Well, not officially,” Steven admitted. “I just pointed out things that I knew were incorrect. Actually, George does know a lot about construction.”
"So Phoenix House is done and open?" Blair asked.
Steven shook his head. "Most of the downstairs is done, but the second and third floors are just starting. Naomi's volunteer laborers work somewhat sporadically."
Blair smiled at Steven's obvious disapproval. "And all your projects come in on time and under budget?"
Steven hesitated, then grinned at Blair. "Or I know the reason why," he teased.
Blair's smile faded. "And Brad Ventriss?" He was surprised to see Steven's smile also fade.
"Brad Ventriss is a spoiled self-centered egotistical little maniac with a rich father," Steven angrily growled. "But to Naomi, he was eager to help in a good cause. Not that he got his own hands dirty, you understand."
Blair's blue eyes flickered to Steven's hands. He briefly smiled as he noticed the calluses on the other man's hands. Whatever office work Steven did now, at one time he'd worked with his hands and probably still did to a certain extent.
"So Ventriss is a spoiled rich kid." Blair frowned. "I don't understand how he got past Naomi's radar. She usually could pick up on phonies like that."
Steven shrugged. "Maybe because Ventriss' father was pressuring Naomi to sell." He sighed. "It's no secret that Brad Ventriss hates his father's guts. Whatever the old man wants, Brad wants the opposite. But Brad's father has bailed him out of a lot of scrapes, including a mess at Rainier University. He does it to keep the Ventriss name out of the scandal papers and court system…not because he has any great love for his son."
"So when the elder Ventriss pressured Naomi, Brad stepped in and made himself look good," Blair mused. He glanced at Steven. "Did you tell Naomi?"
Steven nodded. "The work site was vandalized more than once. Nothing really damaging, but it took time to repair and put the project off schedule. I urged Naomi to get the police involved, but she refused."
"Yeah, Naomi didn’t do cops well," Blair admitted.
Steven snorted. "That's putting it mildly. We had a real argument about that." He hesitated. "My older brother, Jim, is a cop here in Cascade. We haven't been close for a lot of years. But I could have called him on her behalf. He might not have done anything for me, but he's a good cop and would've helped her." He shook his head. "Anyway, we both apologized and agreed to disagree about it. But I didn't feel right about calling my brother after the argument. I should’ve called anyway." His eyes narrowed. "But the whole time, Ventriss was standing behind Naomi with this...this knowing smirk on his ratty little face."
"You think he was behind the vandalism? That doesn't make sense," Blair protested.
Steven irritably shrugged. "He's up to something. I'll bet my last penny on that. The farther behind schedule Phoenix House ran, the happier he seemed to be."
"What happens to Phoenix House now?" Blair asked after a few moments of silence.
Steven sighed. "I wanted Naomi to make a will. She laughed."
Blair chuckled. "She didn't do physical possessions well, either."
"I pointed out that if she wanted Phoenix House to be a success for more than her lifetime, she needed to plan ahead," Steven pointed out. "I gave her the name of my attorney and practically begged her to see him. A couple of days later, she said she'd meditated about it and agreed to see him."
"You've been a good friend to my mother, Steven," Blair quietly acknowledged. "I can't ever thank you enough for that so I don't mean to complain, but why didn't you take charge of Naomi's memorial service? Why is Brad Ventriss doing it?"
"I wasn't as good a friend as I hoped to be," Steven grumbled. "Look, Blair, we're almost there so there's no easy way to tell you this. Naomi married Ventriss so as her husband he's calling the shots."
"MARRIED?! NAOMI?!" Blair shrieked. He bounced in the seat, barely restrained by the seatbelt. "You must be kidding! Naomi didn't believe in marriage!"
"He has a wedding license and marriage certificate to prove it," Steven assured him. "Although I'd give my eyeteeth to get my hands on them to see if they're forgeries."
"Forgeries?" Blair took a deep breath to calm down.
"It wasn't any secret that Naomi and Ventriss were lovers," Steven explained. "They took a couple of days off and went away for a romantic retreat. They got back late on the 11th. Ventriss said she left his place early the next morning to go to the Phoenix House. Very conveniently, he had a breakfast appointment with his father's attorneys about his trust fund." He shook his head. "When some of the volunteers showed up at Phoenix House, they found EMT’s on the scene. Apparently, Ventriss had found her and called them."
Blair closed his eyes and looked away from the other man.
"It looked like she'd been up on the third floor and the temporary flooring gave away," Steven quietly continued. "It was a hazard, I'll admit. But Naomi was there almost every day. She knew that part of that flooring was unsafe."
Blair's eyes flew open and he looked at Steven in shock. "You don't think it was an accident, do you? You think she was murdered!"
Steven glanced at Blair then angrily nodded. "Naomi suddenly gets married and then has a mysterious accident? Yeah, I think she was murdered. And if Ventriss didn't do it himself, he had it done."
"What did the cops say? Didn't they investigate?" Blair demanded.
"Her death was ruled accidental," Steven answered. "From what I could discover, nobody asked any pertinent questions especially about her sudden marriage.” He shrugged. “Maybe the cops didn’t know about it. Anyway, turns out Capt. Erik Hoffman of the Cascade Homicide Division is an old golfing buddy of Ventriss' father. I couldn’t get a copy of the official Medical Examiner’s report since I wasn’t the next of kin so I don’t know what was glossed over."
Blair chewed on his lower lip. "When did you find out that Naomi supposedly married Ventriss?"
"After she died," Steven replied. "He stepped forward with his so-called proof that they were married and took over."
"So he inherits Phoenix House," Blair mused. "I don't suppose he'll continue Naomi's work?"
"Not a snowball's chance in hell of that happening," Steven snorted. "He's out for the money. He'll offer it to me and to his old man."
"I thought you said Brad hated his father’s guts," Blair recalled.
"He'll offer it to his old man and get a price. Then he'll come to me to see if I'll beat it. Then he'll go back to his old man to see if he'll beat my offer." Steven shrugged. "We all know how the game is played, but after the second go-around, I'll hold firm. Ventriss will take my offer just to put the screws to his old man."
"And then?" Blair quietly asked.
"Then Phoenix House will be finished and open just like Naomi wanted," Steven quietly answered. "That's a promise."
"Why?" Blair whispered in surprise.
"Blair, Naomi and I weren't romantically involved. In fact, she could frustrate the hell out of me," Steven admitted with a chuckle. "But, like I said, she was a genuinely good person. I've probably only met one other person like that in my entire life. She talked a lot about you. God, she was so proud of you, Blair. You need to remember that, no matter what happens." He saw Blair wipe his eyes and gently smiled. "My family...well, let's just say that we just don't like each other all that much. My mother left us before I was even in kindergarten. I haven't spoken to my brother since he left home on his 18th birthday. I hadn’t spoken to my father in years. And both my brother and father are here in Cascade!" He chuckled and shook his head. "Suddenly I was talking to Naomi about them...about regrets...about not being able to go back and change things. The next thing I knew, I was having dinner with my father. I won't say that we're friends or that we even like each other, but we're..."
"Processing." Blair finished the sentence. "And your brother?"
"Jim?" Steven laughed. "I haven't worked up the nerve to try him yet. Probably'll need a couple drinks in my system first."
"He can't be that bad," Blair chuckled.
"Oh, yes, he can," Steven seriously nodded.
"Thank you," Blair said after a few seconds. "For what you're going to do for Phoenix House...for Naomi."
Steven merely nodded and cleared his throat. "I wish I could have done more. But I didn't have any legal standing to push for a better investigation into her death. I'm not a family member."
"I am," Blair quietly spoke. "And if Naomi's friends are at the memorial service, they'll know me. There won't be any question about who I am or how I'm related to Naomi." He glanced at Steven. "Do you think your brother will listen to me?"
"If you approach him logically and without a lot of emotion," Steven nodded. "Jim's not good with emotions." He grunted. "To be honest, none of us Ellisons are." Steven slowly entered the parking area of the Cascade Seaside Park and found a parking space. “There’s something else you need to know.”
“What?” Blair eyed his new friend and tried to smile.
“Ventriss…well, he’s a lot younger than Naomi,” Steven slowly explained.
Blair gently smiled. “That wouldn’t bother her. She was into people as persons…not by how society labeled them.” He stared at Steven then slowly continued. “How much younger?”
It was Steven’s turn to study Blair. “Probably younger than you.”
Blair’s blue eyes widened, then he slowly blinked. "You said Naomi talked to you about me. I wonder if she told Ventriss about me."
Steven grimly smiled.
Whatever Brad Ventriss' relationship had been with Naomi, Blair had to admit the memorial service was just what Naomi would have wanted. Many of her friends as possible were gathered to share their memories and stories of the woman they'd loved. And while many cried tears of grief and loss at times, just as many cried tears of joy and love. Even Steven laughed uncontrollably when Blair recalled when Naomi had gone to the Board of Education when he was starting school to prove he was six years old.
"I was kinda small then," Blair recalled with a straight face. "I remember sitting there was listening to Naomi argue that they were harassing and discriminating against me just because I was small. So when I finally got to class and the teacher introduced me to my fellow first-graders, I proudly announced I was Blair Sandburg and I was harassed and discriminated against."
Blair was pleased to see Steven start laughing. "Of course, the kids didn't know what I meant and I didn't either. But I remember Mom patting me on the shoulder and telling me to have a good day." He ruefully shook his head with a smile. "The teacher always paid careful attention to me, but it wasn't until a lot later that I realized why."
Blair saw Brad Ventriss smile when the others laughed. But, to him, it didn't look like a genuine smile and had only occurred when everyone else laughed. Brad's eyes were half-hidden behind the tinted lenses of his trendy glasses. The younger man had been steadily watching Blair ever since he'd arrived and been greeted by Naomi's friends.
Blair slowly stepped forward and took the urn with his mother's remains from the small pedastal. "On behalf of Brad Ventriss, my mother's husband, and I...thank you for attending this service."
Steven's eyes narrowed as those around him gasped in surprise. He glanced at Ventriss who had lowered his head. 'So not only does Naomi's son not know about this so-called marriage, none of her friends did either. You lying, hypocritical, murdering little bastard.'
Steven felt someone staring at him and glanced at Blair who was frowning. He slowly nodded and took a deep breath. 'Not here. Not now.'
Blair walked towards the beach, followed by the rest of the mourners. Despite himself, he was surprised when Brad stood with him, shoulder to shoulder, as he scattered Naomi's ashes into the water.
"Go into the light, Naomi."
"Go in peace, my sister."
"Return to the wheel, my child."
Hearing the murmurs behind him, Blair closed his eyes. 'I love you, Mom.' He opened his eyes and turned, when he felt someone gently squeeze his shoulder. He turned to see Steven standing behind him. When the other man mouthed 'sorry', he forced a crooked smile and nodded.
Brad stood to one side, aware of the curious looks he was receiving by those who stayed to have a final few words with Blair. He watched as Steven slowly walked away but not before coldly staring at the younger man. Brad half-smiled and held up a hand in farewell. He was amused when Steven consciously forced himself to turn and walk away.
Seeing the last of the mourners leaving, Brad stepped forward and held out a hand to Blair. "I guess I'm your step-father, huh?"
Blair slowly took the hand, squeezed it, and then released it. "I have to admit, I was surprised to hear Naomi had married."
"She was an incredible woman," Brad smiled.
"Yeah," Blair choked out. "She was."
"So, you gonna be here long?" Brad asked as they walked back to the parking area.
"I live here," Blair replied. "I work at Rainier University."
Brad barely hesitated in walking. "Really? I thought you were living in from South America.”
"I was on an expedition. I'm a Professor of Anthropology," Blair explained.
"I see. I guess you'll be heading back then," Brad nodded.
"Eventually. I have a leave of absence to take care of personal matters." Blair stopped at the edge of the parking lot. He saw Steven leaning against the side of his car, not so patiently waiting for him. "But I'm sure we'll have plenty of time to get to know one another."
Brad stared at the other man then slowly smiled. "I'm sure."
"Excuse me. Mr. Sandburg?"
Both men turned to see a man in late fifties approaching them. Dressed conservatively, he was looking around in confusion.
"I'm Blair Sandburg," Blair answered.
"I'm Victor Reed, Naomi Sandburg's attorney." He held out his hand. "My condolences on the loss of your mother. She was a lovely woman."
"Thank you, sir. She certainly was."
"Attorney?" Brad squeaked.
Victor curiously looked at Brad. "I'm sorry. I didn't get your name."
"Ventriss. Brad Ventriss. I'm Naomi Sandburg's husband!" Brad angrily answered.
"Really?" Victor studied the young man in obvious surprise. Turning back to Blair, he continued, "Your mother left a will. If possible, could you come to my office tomorrow morning at ten for the reading?" Looking at Brad, he added, “I wasn't aware Ms. Sandburg had a husband, but you’re mentioned in the will as well, Mr. Ventriss."
Blair slowly nodded. "Of course." He tried to smile. "Thank you for not wanting to do that today. I just arrived from Peru."
Victor courteously nodded, then turned to Brad. "Is ten tomorrow morning a good time for you as well, Mr. Ventriss?”
Brad barely nodded in response.
"Very well. Until tomorrow, gentlemen. And again, my condolences, Mr. Sandburg. Mr. Ventriss." Victor briefly smiled then turned and walked away.
"By the way, where are my mother's possessions?" Blair quietly asked.
"In her apartment," Brad snapped. "Did you think I hocked 'em or something?"
"No, of course not." Blair shook his head. "I'm sorry. That probably didn't come out very well. I'm exhausted and not thinking very straight right now."
"Naomi had a small apartment at 217 Park Street. 3A." Brad took a deep breath and reached into his pocket. He removed two keys from an ornate keyring. "Here's my key to the apartment and to Phoenix House. I'll see you tomorrow."
Blair accepted the keys in silence. Then he slowly walked back to Steven's car. "Can you take me to my mother's apartment?"
Steven nodded. "Are you sure you want to do that? You're more than welcome to stay at my place."
Blair waited until they were in the car before answering. "Yeah," he slowly nodded. "I need to do this."
Steven grimaced and reached into his pocket. Pulling out a business card, he quickly wrote on the back. "Okay, but if you change your mind, here's my home number. The invitation’s still open, understand?"
Blair smiled. "Yeah, thanks." He sighed. "She took your advice and made a will. Brad and I are supposed to meet the attorney at his office at ten tomorrow morning."
Steven nodded as he started the car. "I saw Victor. Thank God she did it."
Blair leaned back and closed his eyes.
"You want to stop for something to eat?" Steven gently asked as he drove towards the street.
"No, I just need to be alone!" Blair snapped. His blue eyes flew open. "Damn! I didn't mean it like that!"
"I know," Steven ruefully smiled. "No harm no foul, okay?" When Blair smiled in return, the older man chuckled. "Naomi's place is on the other side of town. Go ahead and grab a nap if you can. This time of day, traffic's going to be a bitch."
Blair nodded and closed his eyes again.
Steven slowly inched forward, following other cars out of the parking area. He saw Brad standing next to his sports car and smiled to himself. 'I bet the fact Naomi made a will has got your little wheels spinning, doesn't it?'
Brad saw Steven staring at him as he drove past. He angrily returned the stare.
Steven chuckled under his breath. 'Bring it on, brat. Bring it on.'
Blair closed his eyes and took a deep breath. 'Smells just like Naomi.' He smiled at the thought and knew it was just his wishful thinking. Slowly opening his eyes, he let his backpack slide to the carpeted floor.
True to her inclination of traveling light, there were few personal touches in the small apartment. 'Must have come already furnished.' He didn't bother looking around again, but headed for the bedroom he saw at the end of a short hallway.
Going to the closet, Blair opened the door and found Naomi's carryall sitting in a corner. He wanted to get the journal Naomi always carried with her. His mother had friends all over the world, and Blair knew her journal would help him contact them to pass along the news of her death.
Sitting on the floor with his back propped against the bed, he unzipped the carryall. Easily finding the journal, he opened it and flipped to the back where Naomi had kept addresses. He was sorely tempted to read the last couple of entries to find out what she had written about Brad and Steven. 'Later. I'll do that later.'
Nodding to himself at the silent promise, Blair found the list of addresses. He studied the list comparing the names to his memory of who had been at the memorial service. As he flipped over the last page, he saw a small photograph taped to the paper.
Choking on a sob, Blair ran a finger over his mother's smiling face. The picture had been taken when he'd graduated with a PhD in Anthropology. Naomi had been in Nepal, and he hadn't expected her to be at the ceremony. But when he'd received his doctorate, he'd looked into the audience and saw her standing with some of his students. She'd led them in a quick 'Blair' chant that had brought a grin to his face. One of his students had taken a picture of the two of them, arm in arm with Blair's head resting on his mother's shoulder. Both mother and son were happily grinning.
Blair was suddenly aware of the tears streaming down his face. He looked around the bedroom, aware of how little of Naomi was present...as though her death had erased what little of her spirit remained in the place where she had briefly lived.
"I'm alone," Blair shakily whispered. "I'm really alone now." He slowly curled up on the floor with the picture clasped to his chest and started sobbing. 'I want my mother!'
Hours later, Blair's hands were shaking as he poured hot tea into a mug. After his crying jag, he'd read the final entries in Naomi's journal. They were full of her hopes and plans for Phoenix House. She'd fondly written about Steven and their ongoing disagreement about social responsibility. She'd fondly written about Brad and their affair.
She hadn't written a word about marriage...not even that Brad had asked and she had refused.
Not one single solitary word.
Sighing, Blair sat on the aging sofa and reached for the television remote control. 'I really need to write down all the stuff I need to do tomorrow.' Taking a sip of the tea, he pressed the 'on' button. 'Maybe a few hours of mindless TV sitcoms will settle me down.'
"Recapping our special report, the Sunrise Patriots today took control of the Cascade Police Department's Central Precinct. Several officers were injured and held hostage. Two officers infiltrated the building and prevented not only the execution of the hostages but the escape of Garret Kincaid, leader of the Sunrise Patriots. Although names of the rescuing officers were not provided, sources indicate they possibly were Captain Simon Banks and Detective James Ellison of the Cascade PD's Major Crime Division. We’ll have more details during our 11 pm broadcast. For Channel 17 News, this is Don Haas reporting."
"Wow." Blair sipped his tea and shook his head. "Man, that's got to be Steven’s brother. How many Jim Ellisons could there be?" He made a mental note to stay awake for the 11 pm broadcast.
"Cascade PD. How may I direct your call?"
"Umm...I'd like to speak with Detective James Ellison, please. I think he's with Major Crime." Blair tucked the telephone receiver under his chin as he finished buttoning his shirt.
"Because of the incident yesterday, some of our lines are being rerouted. If this is an emergency, I can connect you to 911. Otherwise, it may take a few minutes to connect your call."
"No, it's not an emergency. I just need to speak with Detective Ellison." Blair had finished tying his shoes when he heard the phone on the other end of the line begin to ring.
"Ellison's desk. Detective Henri Brown speaking."
"Is Detective Ellison there? My name is Blair Sandburg."
Henri glanced around. "I don't see him at the moment. He may not have arrived yet. If you're wanting an interview, you'll need to contact the PD's Press Office."
"No! I'm not a reporter. I'm...well, I'm a friend of his brother, Steven Ellison."
Henri's eyebrows rose. 'Ellison's got a brother?!'
Blair glanced at the clock on the VCR. "Look, I really need to talk with him, but I have to be somewhere pretty soon. Can I leave a message for him?"
"Sure...hang on." Henri opened the lap draw of Jim's desk, smirking at how all the pens and pencils were carefully lined up as though standing at attention. Grabbing a pen, he resisted the urge to move the rest of them. "Okay, shoot," he urged as he found a notepad.
"My name is Blair Sandburg, and I'm a friend of Steven Ellison. It's very important that I talk with Detective Ellison. I'll be at 555-4729 this evening. If I get a chance to call back before then, I will. If not, I'd appreciate it if he'd call me."
"Got it. I'll see he gets the message."
"Thank you. 'Bye." Blair hung up the phone and sighed. "Okay, you're not going to get anything done by just sitting here," he muttered to himself. "Lawyer, Rainier, Phoenix House."
Victor Reed’s office was pretty much what Blair imagined a lawyer's office would look like. Lots of wood and leather furniture with lots of law books resting in suitably tasteful wood and glass bookcases.
Brad's dark suit nearly matched Reed’s. The subdued conservative effect was marred by his tinted glasses which, for some reason, wore on Blair's nerves. He knew his own shirt and jeans were casual in comparison and ignored Brad's quick smirk of condescension.
"Thank you, gentlemen, for coming. I apologize for asking you to do this so quickly, but I've found it's better to get the legalities out of the way as quickly as possible."
"I understand, Mr. Reed" Brad solemnly nodded.
Blair also nodded and kept his hands firmly clasped in his lap.
Reed opened the file on his desk. "First of all, Mr. Sandburg, your mother left these for you." He reached Blair several sealed manila envelopes with names on them. Consulting his notes, Reed continued, "She requested that you forward these envelopes to the people indicated. She felt you would be able to accomplish this better than the US Postal System."
Blair blinked back tears as he rubbed his right forefinger over his mother's handwriting. "I'll see it's done," he promised after clearing his throat. He saw that one envelope had Steven's name on it and faintly smiled.
"There are some specific bequests of personal property...clothing, jewelry, and such...that she wishes you to oversee," the lawyer continued. "They are listed on this sheet." He handed the paper to Blair who silently nodded.
"Mr. Ventriss, this envelope is for you."
Brad hesitated then took the envelope and opened it.
"Ms. Sandburg's only property was the building known as Phoenix House," Reed read from the file. "In her will, she leaves this property to her son, Blair Sandburg, with the hope that he will complete the project as she would have wanted."
"Now, wait just a minute! I was her husband! I should get part of that property!" Brad angrily interrupted. "All I get is a letter?!"
"Are you contesting Ms. Sandburg's will?" the lawyer calmly asked.
Brad hesitated. "Look, Blair's an archeologist..."
"Anthropologist," Blair corrected.
"Whatever! He was in Bolivia when she died!"
"Peru," Blair corrected again.
Brad glared at him then took a deep breath. "My point is that I've worked with Naomi on the Phoenix House project. Blair wasn't even in this country. He has responsibilities elsewhere."
Blair put the envelopes into his backpack and stood. "My mother's wishes are my primary responsibility. I'm on my way to Rainier to request a longer leave of absence in order to do that. There's no reason I won't get it." He calmly faced Brad. "If you have my mother's wishes at heart, you won't fight me on this."
"No problem, man. No problem at all."
Blair was impressed the younger man managed a smile to accompany the words. He turned to the attorney.
"I'd like a copy of my mother's will for my own records."
"Of course. I thought you might." Reed handed him a file. "I'll begin proceedings to file the will with the Probate Court and let you know when we need to appear."
"Thank you." Blair tucked the file into his backpack and shouldered it. "I'm staying at my mother's apartment for the time being." He looked back at Brad. "I'll be in touch."
Reed stood as Blair left. He shook his head when Brad silently followed. 'I hope young Sandburg knows the Ventriss' are bad people to anger.'
"I really appreciate your help on this, Eli." Blair smiled as he took the mug of tea that Dr. Eli Stoddard offered.
"Nonsense, Blair. I'm happy to do it." Eli sat behind his desk and sipped tea from his own mug. He waved Blair towards a comfortable chair. "Your expedition only has another four months of field work. It'll be a pleasure to get out of this office."
"Being Department Chair isn't exciting enough?" Blair teased his academic mentor.
Eli snorted. "That all depends upon your idea of excitement, young man. I can be packed and out of here in a few days. Don't worry about the expedition. I'm more than happy to take over for you." He studied the younger man. "I'm sorry about your mother, Blair. I remember her from your graduation. She was a lovely woman."
Blair silently nodded.
"How are you doing?" Eli gently asked.
Blair hesitated. "I honestly don't know how to answer that, Eli. I guess I'm doing what needs to be done, but it's like I'm doing it for someone else."
Eli slowly nodded. "You know my wife died five years ago from cancer. The only way I made it through her death and funeral was to tell myself that it wasn't Judith I was burying. It wasn't Judith's belongings I was donating to charity." He cleared his throat. "Well...you know if you need anything..."
Blair forced a grin. "You'll be in Peru."
Eli chuckled. "Yes, but you have the entire department to call upon. You have friends here, my boy. And we're willing to help however we can."
Embarrassed, Blair nodded. "Actually, there is something you could do." He sat the half-empty mug on Eli's desk.
"Anything, Blair," Eli nodded.
"My mother was involved with someone who used to be a student at Rainier," Blair slowly explained. "I've been told he left before graduating or was asked to leave. Could you access his records?"
Eli slowly nodded with a smile. "Being a Department Chair gives me some leeway in snooping. Who is he?"
Eli froze then slowly leaned back in his chair. "Ah...Brad Ventriss."
"You know him?"
Eli shook his head. "Not personally. His father's an alumnus and has donated most generously to Rainier's building fund. Mostly to keep Brad's indiscretions quiet."
"But one of them wasn't kept quiet?"
"It seemed Brad Ventriss was of the opinion that it was the grade that counted and not the study the grade reflected," Eli recalled. "He was caught plagiarizing a term paper. For an Anthropology class, which is how I got involved. Our beloved Chancellor Edwards was inclined to sweep it under the rug, despite my protests. Then it came out that this wasn't a one-time incident."
"You're kidding." Blair's eyes widened.
"A piece of advice, Blair. If you do something shady or illegal, don't brag about it to your girlfriend. And if you do, make sure she stays your girlfriend." Eli sighed. "To make a long story short, his girlfriend learned that Ventriss hadn't been faithful to her. So when the word got out that he wasn't going to be punished for the plagiarized term paper, she came forward and told about other instances."
"I don't imagine that made Chancellor Edwards very happy," Blair guessed.
Eli smiled. "No, it didn't. But the Department Chairs investigated without her blessing and got some students came forward with proof. Then more than one young woman came forward accusing him of rape."
"And he's not in jail?!" Blair exclaimed.
"It was their word against his," Eli admitted. "From what I understand, it's assumed that he used a date rape drug. But none of the young women reported the incidents to either campus security or to the police at the time of the incidents."
"So he got away with it," Blair bitterly snorted.
"I'm afraid so," Eli nodded. "However, those accusations, along with the proof of cheating, was enough that even Chancellor Edwards couldn't prevent Ventriss from being expelled." He sighed. "Officially, he dropped out just like other students have done."
"So, officially, he's clean."
Eli nodded. "I can't imagine why someone like your mother got involved with him. I'm sorry if that sounds..."
"I can't either," Blair interrupted. "I read a bit of her journal last night. She wrote how kind and giving he is."
"Oh, he can be very charming," Eli pointed out. "He defended himself quite convincingly until we produced irrefutable evidence against him. Then he reverted to his true nature. Sneaking, slimy, lying, snake."
Blair's eyes widened at the virulence in Eli's voice. "Eli! I've never heard you talk about somebody like that!"
"Make no mistake, Blair. Ventriss is a dangerous young man," Eli warned. “He has his father's money and power behind him, even though I think they despise each other. Ventriss has no conscience, ethics, or scruples. He'll do whatever he feels is necessary to get whatever he wants." He stood and smiled. "Now. Enough of unpleasant subjects. Let me take you to lunch. You can fill me in on what you've found in Peru." His dark eyes twinkled. "I'd hate to get down there and bumble around like an absent-minded professor."
"This is Steven Ellison. I can't come to the phone right now. Leave a message, and I'll call you back."
Blair leaned against the side of the telephone kiosk. "Steven, this is Blair. It's 2:30, and I'm leaving Rainier. I called your brother, but he wasn't in so I left a message." He hesitated. "If you're not busy, why don't you stop by the apartment this evening? I found out some stuff about Brad Ventriss, and I think we need to have some sort of plan." He grinned. "Oh, by the way, Naomi left Phoenix House to me. Brad got zip. But I think he's going to make trouble over that. If you can't come over, give me a call later." He hesitated again. "And Steven? Thanks again for all you’ve done."
Hanging up the phone, Blair walked to the nearest bus stop. He studied first the schedule and then the city map. 'Now for Phoenix House.’
'Steven was right. This whole area looks like it's under construction.' Blair spared a moment to observe the construction workers at two buildings close to Naomi's Phoenix House.
Sighing, Blair slowly slid the key into the lock and opened the door. Closing the door behind him, he slid his backpack to the floor and took a few steps forward. Although the windows were dusty, enough sunlight shone through them to allow Blair to easily see the evidence of construction inside the room.
Sliding his hands into his jeans pocket, Blair casually walked through the rooms, observing wires poking through holes in the walls, paper cups scattered across the floor, and hand tools lying where they'd been left days ago.
He finally came back to the large front room and the taped off area he'd first avoided. Despite himself, Blair smiled. The taped outline on the floor looked just like something from a movie.
Blair knelt on one knee next to the outline. He extended his hands over the taped outline for a few minutes. 'Nothing left. You didn't waste any time moving on, did you, Naomi?'
Standing, Blair wiped his eyes then looked upward through the unfinished ceiling. "What were you doing on the third floor anyway?" he curiously mused. Spotting a flashlight in a toolbox sitting next to a nearby wall, he checked to make sure it was working. "Let's find out, shall we?"
Taking his time, Blair climbed the steps to the third floor. He cautiously stepped off the steps onto the partially finished floor. Balancing himself, he carefully picked his way towards the opening in the floor.
Glancing down, Blair took a deep breath. 'Now's not the time to indulge in your acrophobia,' he sternly told himself. Carefully, he walked across the beams that criss-crossed the open area. Stopping just above the taped area two floors below him, he looked around. "There's nothing here. What were you doing up here, Mom?"
"Getting ready to die."
Blair barely recognized the familiar voice as he was shoved hard in the back, pushing him forward. Screaming, he frantically waved his arms to grab something...anything...to keep himself from falling. As he pitched forward and down, his head struck a wooden beam on the second floor.
Blair Sandburg never felt the impact of his body landing on the first floor.
"Hey, Ellison! You've got a couple of messages on your desk. I routed the reporters to the Press Office."
"Thanks, H." Jim Ellison called back as he sat behind his desk. He eyed the computer for a second, then shook his head. He didn't plan on being in long enough to even turn it on. He looked up when a shadow crossed his desk.
"One of the messages was from a friend of your brother's." Henri's curiosity was obvious as he waited for a response.
Jim thumbed through the pink notes. "Yeah, I see it."
Henri reluctantly shook his head. "Didn't expect to see you in today. You feelin' alright?"
Jim silently reminded himself that Henri was not only a co-worker but a friend. "Stiff and sore, but I'll survive." He leaned back in his chair, resigned to conversation with his fellow detective.
"That was some stunt you pulled...leaping onto that helicopter strut as it took off," Henri chuckled. "You're making the rest of us poor slobs look bad."
Jim grunted. "Couldn't let Kincaid make off with our newest detective, now could I? How is Rafe, by the way?"
"The hospital kept him for observation for a couple of hours then sent him home," Henri answered. "Hell of a thing to happen on your first day, huh? He asked me when I was taking him home if yesterday was a normal day around here."
"You didn't lie to your new partner, did you?" Jim asked with a brief smile.
Henri laughed. "I told him he'd find out for himself."
Jim had to chuckle in agreement. "Listen, can you tell Rhonda that if anything else comes in for me, to hold it unless it's an emergency? I'm just finishing up some paperwork, then heading home."
Henri nodded and walked away.
Jim sighed and looked at the pink message. 'Blair Sandburg. Friend of Steven's. Well, Blair Sandburg, that won't get you anything from me. Guess you'll have to find somebody else to try and fix your speeding ticket or whatever it is you want.' Crumpling the pink paper, he tossed it into the trash can sitting next to his desk.
"Ellison, what are you doing here?"
Jim looked up to see the head of Major Crimes, Capt. Simon Banks, walking towards him. "Just finishing up some paperwork, sir."
Simon eyed him for a few seconds, then motioned towards his office. "In my office, Ellison."
Resigned to another argument, Jim slowly followed, closing the office door behind him. Wanting to delay the obvious, he looked at his superior. "How's Daryl, sir?"
Simon busied himself making coffee. "As well as can be expected, I suppose. On one hand, he's still scared and reacting to what nearly happened. On the other hand, he's trying to act like it was no big deal."
"And Joan?" Jim referred to Simon's estranged wife.
"Blaming it all on me," Simon sighed as he sat behind his desk. Motioning for Jim to sit, he continued. "I expected that, but it doesn't make it easier for me or for Daryl." He eyed the other man. "How are you doing?"
Jim automatically stiffened, then relaxed. "I didn't get any sleep last night. Everything was too...loud...bright. And I had another of those episodes of lost time as well. It lasted a little over two hours."
"Maybe you did get some sleep?" Simon hopefully asked.
"Standing in my kitchen, sir?"
Simon shook his head. "You're still determined to resign?"
"I don't see that I have a choice, sir," Jim replied. "I appreciate your concern, but I can't function in the field like this. There have been too many of these episodes lately."
"But you still managed to stop Sarris a few weeks ago and Kincaid yesterday," Simon pointed out. "A lot of people are alive today because of you."
"These lost-time episodes are getting longer and occurring more frequently, Captain," Jim argued. "And I'm barely keeping from jumping out of my skin when I hear somebody two floors down slam a door." He glanced out the window. "The sun's barely shining through the clouds today, but I had to wear sunglasses when I left home." He shook his head. "I'm not fit for active duty. I'm too much of a danger and liability to be on the streets."
"That's still no need to resign!" Simon shouted. He saw Jim wince. "Sorry."
"Just another perfect example of what's wrong with me," Jim growled, rubbing his right ear..
"Jim, you’re one of the most skilled interrogators that I've ever seen," Simon gently pointed out. "And you have one fine analytical mind that's perfect for solving mysteries. AND you have more than an uncanny ability to get inside people's heads during interviews." He hesitated. "There's more to being a cop than being on the streets."
"Not for me, sir." Jim shook his head. "I appreciate what you're saying. But I can't be effective just sitting behind a desk."
Simon studied the other man, then wearily nodded. "I suppose you're right. What are you going to do?"
Jim shrugged. "I've got a few ideas. But until I finish the paperwork and see how things settle out, I'm not committing to anything."
"If there's anything I can do to help, just let me know," Simon requested. "You saved my son's life yesterday. That's something I’ll never forget."
Before Jim could reply, there was a knock on Simon's door.
"Come in," Simon ordered.
Henri opened the door and hesitated. "Sorry to interrupt, but we just got a call from Homicide. A body's been found downtown." His dark eyes stared at Jim. "It’s been identified as Blair Sandburg."
"Sandburg?" Jim frowned. "The same guy who called for me?"
"Probably," Henri nodded. "He had your brother's business card. When Homicide found it, they called here to see if there was a connection to you."
"Jim, do you know this Sandburg?" Simon asked.
"Never heard of him," Jim admitted with a frown. "He called earlier and said he needed to talk with me." He recalled tossing the note into the trash can. "To be honest, I haven't spoken with my brother since I was 18. I figured this Sandburg was trying to get out of a speeding ticket or something and tossed the note."
"Well, get it out of the trash can," Simon growled. "Now that he's dead, it needs to be part of the file." He looked longingly at the full coffeepot then stood. "We'll take it with us."
"I'll drive us," Simon decided, ignoring Jim's question. "It'll get us out of here for a while in case the Press Office wants us to make an appearance for the media. They've got a press conference scheduled to make the 6pm news."
"Yes, sir." Jim rose to his feet and pushed past Henri.
"Brown, notify Homicide that we're on our way. Ask them not to move the body until we get there," Simon ordered. "It's possible Ellison knows this guy by sight and not by name."
Standing on the sidewalk, Jim read the hand printed sign in the front window. "Phoenix House? What is that? Some New Age second-hand store?" He looked around area, noticing several nearby construction sites.
"According to what I've been told, it was going to be some sort of half-way house."
Simon smiled at the middle-aged detective who stood in the doorway. "How are you doin', Frank?"
Frank Jackson half-smiled. "Better the closer I get to retirement, Simon."
Simon grunted. "Frank Jackson, Homicide. This is Jim Ellison, Major Crime." When the two men nodded at each other, Simon stepped forward. "Thanks for calling us."
Jackson shrugged. "One of my guys is bringing your brother down, Ellison. We've got the ID confirmed, but I was curious why this guy would have your brother's business card."
Jim shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine." He followed Simon and Jackson inside to where the body, surrounded by a forensic team, was lying.
"What's the story on this one, Frank?"
"Curious, Simon. Real curious." Frank hesitated then barely nodded to his left. "Guy over there is Brad Ventriss. His father's some rich so-and-so. We know that because Ventriss has mentioned it a couple of times."
"Great," Simon grunted.
"This place was owned by Naomi Sandburg. She died last week courtesy of a fall from the third floor." Frank waited as the two men automatically stared up through the open ceiling and then back down at what little they could see of the body on the floor. "Ruled an accident."
"And the deceased? Any relation?" Simon asked.
"Her son, Blair Sandburg," Frank continued. "He had identification and Ventriss confirmed it."
"Who inherited this place?" Jim asked.
"Sandburg." Jackson lowered his voice. "Now, get this. Ventriss claims to be married to the late Naomi Sandburg."
Simon glanced to where the young man was casually lounging against a half-finished wall. "You're kidding."
Jackson shrugged. "Easy enough to confirm. Just sorta threw me for a loop. He looks younger than our stiff over there.” The detective lowered his voice. "Naomi Sandburg falls to her death from the third floor. Her son inherits the building. The afternoon after the will is read he also falls to his death from the third floor. Now I may be just a donut-eating, coffee-slurping cop, but this stinks to high heaven."
"You got all that information pretty fast," Simon noted.
Jackson shrugged. "All provided courtesy of Mr. Ventriss over there. Look, Simon, the mother's death was ruled accidental. And Captain Hoffman got that ruling awfully fast."
Simon's dark eyes narrowed. "Are you saying he pressured the Medical Examiner to get a specific ruling?"
"No, I'm saying that he didn't want to investigate any alternatives," Jackson sighed. "Any other case would have been looked at from more than the obvious angle. If nothing else, at least some questions would have been asked about who was inheriting this building and where he was when she died."
Simon rubbed his forehead. "I really don't like what you’re implying."
"Look, Simon, we both know Hoffman doesn't have the balls to resist a free cup of coffee, let alone pressure from some high-rollers like the Ventriss family," Jackson snorted. "Considering that another esteemed family of Cascade's financial elite is going to be involved, I'm hoping you'll take this one over." He grinned at Jim who had been quietly listening to the conversation. "No offense, Ellison."
Simon sighed. "How did you know Jim's related to this Steven Ellison?"
Jackson snickered. "After yesterday, there's not a whole lot about Ellison here that isn’t public knowledge."
"Great," Jim grumbled. "Just great."
"I can't promise anything," Simon decided. "But since you've brought us in as a professional courtesy because of the connection of Jim's brother to the deceased, we can provide some support."
"Major Crimes is in a better position to withstand that kind of pressure," Jackson nodded, then coldly smiled. "And I'd love to have one of your guys interrogate our Mr. Ventriss."
"We're through over here. Can the body be moved?" A Forensics technician stood, removing his gloves.
Jim walked over to where the Forensics team was packing up.
"Sure," Simon nodded after a glance at Jackson. "Let me know what you get."
Jim stared down at the face of the man lying on the floor. He suddenly dropped to one knee, gasping as his senses spiked.
RAGE! More anger than he though possible to bear! Its throbbing heat shot through his trembling body.
SORROW! The anguished howl of a wild animal! Jim felt like his heart had just been ripped his chest.
"Sir?" Jim automatically looked up at Simon.
Simon gently squeezed Jim's shoulder. "Are you okay?" When Jim didn't answer, he glanced at the body. "Do you know him?"
"No," Jim whispered. He took a deep breath. "He looks so familiar, though. But I don't know him."
Simon's eyes narrowed at the grief-stricken words. "Let's get you home," he suggested.
"No, sir!" Taking a deep breath, Jim stood. "I want in on this." He watched in silence as the Medical Examiner's team slid the body onto a stretcher. "Gentle with him," he ordered.
One of the ME team glanced at Simon. "We will," he finally answered.
"Jim, are you sure?" Simon murmured.
"Positive. I'd like to handle the interrogation of Mr. Ventriss, sir."
"Oh, I don't think so." Simon shook his head.
Jim started to argue when the front door opened. A uniformed officer entered, followed by a well-dressed dark-haired man.
The dark-haired man took one look at the body on the stretcher then looked around the room. When he saw Brad, still lounging against the half-finished wall, he snarled, "You son-of-a-bitch bastard! You had to kill him, too?"
Before anyone could move, the dark-haired man was halfway across the open space, his hands extended towards Ventriss.
Brad's eyes widened as he quickly moved away.
Jim quickly moved to intercept his brother. "Don't," he warned, wrapping his arms around the younger man.
"Let me go! That bastard murdered both of them!" Steven furiously shouted.
"That's enough! Stop!" Jim demanded, pulling Steven back.
"That's a lie! You repeat it, and I'll sue!" Ventriss yelled.
"Go ahead!" Steven urged. "I'd love to get your sorry ass into court!" He tried to pull free.
"I said ENOUGH!" Jim used his strength to shove Steven backwards. When his brother tried to move to one side, Jim blocked him. "This isn't the way to get anything settled!"
"Detective Jackson, please escort Mr. Ventriss downtown! Now!" Simon ordered.
Brad's eyes narrowed. "Am I under arrest?"
Simon smiled. "Of course not, Mr. Ventriss. We just need to take your statement." He held up his hand as Brad opened his mouth. "I know you've talked to the officers here, but we need an official statement."
Brad eyed Steven, who was furiously glaring at him. "Then there shouldn't be a problem for my attorney to be present."
"If you feel the need to have him there, of course not," Simon nodded.
Brad squared his shoulders and allowed Jackson to lead him out of the building.
Simon watched, then walked to where Jim stood, blocking Steven from following Ventriss.
Seeing Ventriss leave, Jim relaxed. "Captain Banks, this is my brother, Steven Ellison."
"I figured. I saw the family resemblance." Simon chuckled to himself when the two Ellisons looked first at each other then at him with equal confusion.
"Resemblance, sir?" Jim asked.
"Mr. Ellison, we'll need you to come with us," Simon explained, ignoring the question. "You’ve made a serious allegation against Mr. Ventriss."
Steven snorted. "And one that I'll continue to make...and prove."
"I'll have an officer drive you to headquarters." Simon motioned to the uniformed officer who had brought Steven to the scene.
When Steven had left, Jim glanced at Simon. "Resemblance, sir?" he repeated. "We don't look anything alike."
Simon waved his hand, dismissing the statement. "I'll question your brother, and Brown will interrogate Ventriss. We'll schedule them so you can observe both." He glanced around. "This stinks." He pulled out his cell phone as he walked towards the entrance. "I'll get the ME's report on Naomi Sandburg and have him put a rush on this one."
Jim hesitated, then walked back to where the body had lain. Alone in the quiet building, he could swear he heard the 'thump' of a body hitting the wooden floor.
"Man, this sucks."
Spinning around, Jim saw a man sitting on the steps…the dead man who had just been carried out of the building.
Blair's blue eyes widened when he realized Jim had not only heard him but saw him. "Oh, man...you know I'm here."
"You're..." Jim automatically glanced around the room. "Who are you?"
Blair nervously rubbed his hands on his jean-clad thighs. "Umm...the dead guy?"
Jim scowled. "Don't try to yank my chain. You're..." He stopped, realizing the only heartbeat he could hear inside the building was his own. "I can't hear your heartbeat."
"Well, that's because I'm..." Blair stopped speaking. He slowly pointed at Jim. “You...you were trying to hear my heartbeat?"
Slowly, Jim tried his senses. The control was tenuous, but there was no sudden painful spiking. He took a couple of steps towards the stairs. "This wasn't supposed to happen," he whispered.
Blair sadly stared at him. "No," he softly replied. "It wasn't."
Startled, Jim whirled around to face the front door.
"Are you coming, Ellison?" Simon worriedly stared at him. "Maybe I should take you home."
Jim glanced at the stairs, only to find them empty. "No, sir. We have a murder...no, two murders to solve."
Simon nodded and walked back outside.
Following, Jim heard a faint whisper from the inside of Phoenix House.
"Wonder if I'm stuck here or if I can go elsewhere?"
Simon, Jim, and Henri stood together in the hallway outside Interrogation Room 2 as Simon thumbed through the folder on Naomi Sandburg's death. Inside the room, Brad Ventriss was conferring with his attorney, Elliott Craig of the more than respectable firm of Craig, Dennison, and Carmichael. Down the hall in Interrogation Room 6, Steven Ellison sat nursing a cup of coffee.
"On the face of it, it looks like the accidental death ruling makes sense," Simon reluctantly muttered. "But, combined with her son's death in the same manner..."
"Not to mention Brad Ventriss was the one to find both bodies," Jim snarled.
"Brown, go ahead and start questioning Steven Ellison," Simon decided. "As soon as Ventriss deigns to speak, I'll question him. Jim, you're our liaison. Filter information as it comes out."
Brown nodded and walked down the hall.
"Sir, I'd like to question Ventriss," Jim proposed.
"Absolutely not." Simon shook his head. "First of all, your relationship to Steven Ellison would make your involvement suspect." He raised a hand to prevent Jim from speaking. "I don't care if you haven't spoken to him in years before today." When Jim reluctantly nodded, he continued. "Second, it's my belief that questioning Ventriss in the presence of his attorney will require a bit more finesse than you're capable of producing right now." He grimly smiled. "Third, you can keep track of both interviews, can't you?"
Jim slowly nodded. "I can try."
Simon nodded. "Good. Keep both Brown and I informed of anything the other needs to know."
"Very good, sir."
Steven looked up from his coffee cup when the door opened.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Ellison. I'm Detective Henri Brown."
Steven nodded and straightened his shoulders.
"We appreciate your cooperation, and I'm sorry that you had to wait," Henri apologized. "Things are still a little scrambled around here today."
"I can imagine." Steven tried to smile. "Well, actually, I can't."
Henri nodded in understanding. "Would you like more coffee?"
"No." Steven shook his head. "I'd rather get on with this."
Henri nodded and activated the tape recorder. "This is Detective Henri Brown interviewing Mr. Steven Ellison regarding the death of one Blair Sandburg. The date is April 17, 1996, and the time is 3:42 pm. Mr. Ellison, do you wish the presence of an attorney for this questioning?"
Steven shook his head, then faintly smiled. "No, I don't."
"Okay, can you explain your relationship with the deceased?"
Steven sighed. "I met him yesterday when he arrived back in town for his mother's memorial service. I tracked him down in Peru and helped him get back to Cascade in time for it."
"His mother? That would be Naomi Sandburg?" Henri leaned back in his chair. "What was your relationship to her?"
Steven ran a hand through his dark hair. "Naomi owned the property where she and Blair were killed. I went to Naomi about a month ago to purchase it. It's sitting in the middle of an area being renovated for small boutiques, club, restaurants and such."
Henri frowned. "Sorry to be asking what may be a dumb question, but I don't know anything about property values. Does that mean Ms. Sandburg's property was valuable?"
Steven shrugged. "Potentially, yes. It would depend on the use of the building. She planned it as a place of refuge for people to just find some peace and quiet." He smiled at Henri's expression. "Trust me, she explained it far better than I ever could." He shifted in the chair. "So, by itself, the property wouldn’t be worth all that much. Had she turned it into some sort of business, it would have more intrinsic worth. The real value comes with its location; and even then, that would depend on the success or failure of the adjoining business."
"Uh-huh. Okay." Henri half-smiled. "I take it she turned you down."
Steven nodded. "I don't know if any of the other developers approached her about selling, but she wasn't interested."
"And that didn't bother you?" Henri probed.
"With anyone else, yes," Steven admitted. "I would just have kept coming back with a better offer or more pressure. But, Naomi?" He sadly shook his head. "The only time I was angry with her was when she wouldn't listen about Ventriss."
"That would be Brad Ventriss, Ms. Sandburg's husband?"
"Husband, my ass!" Steven snapped. "Nobody, and I mean nobody...not friends...not her son...no one knew about that marriage! Yes, the two of them were having an affair. Yes, they went off together for a few days. But nobody saw Naomi alive after that! And Ventriss is the only one saying they were married!"
"Didn't he have a marriage license?" Henri frowned.
Steven snorted. "Give me an hour with a couple of people in my company's technical division, and I'll produce proof that you're a card carrying member of the KKK." He shook his head. "But I had no legal right to force Ventriss to prove the marriage."
"But her son did?" Henri slowly nodded. "What can you tell me about him?"
"He was a Professor of Anthropology at Rainier University. An actual bona-fide genius from what I understand. Naomi told me that he was enrolled at Rainier University at the age of 16 and got his PhD in record time," Steven recalled. "I tracked him down in Peru when Naomi died. I picked him up at the airport yesterday and explained what was going on." He leaned forward. "He met with Naomi's attorney this morning for the reading of her will. He phoned me earlier today and left a message on my office voice mail. He said she'd left Phoenix House to him and nothing to Ventriss. And that Ventriss wasn't pleased." He took a deep breath. "He invited me for dinner tonight," he softly added, wiping his eyes. "Sorry."
"It's okay," Henri gently replied. After a moment, he took a deep breath. "From your actions earlier, you think Brad Ventriss is to blame for the deaths of both Naomi and Blair Sandburg?"
Steven raised his head and stared into Henri's dark eyes. "Without question. There was a lot of vandalism at Phoenix House that put it behind schedule. I could never prove that Ventriss was behind it, but I'd bet dollars to donuts that he was. He and Naomi go away and allegedly get married. Then she winds up dead in a suspicious fall. Naomi's son shows up and is the only one who could question that alleged marriage and make inquiries into her death. Ventriss finds out that Naomi's made a will. Then Blair dies hours after learning that he inherits Phoenix House and stating that he's continuing Naomi's work. And he dies in the very same way his mother died! Yes, I think Ventriss is responsible for both of their deaths. Who else would be?"
"You." Henri stared into Steven's eyes. "You wanted that property."
Steven met Henri's look. "The day Naomi died, I was in meetings with representatives of the Mayor and City Planning Commission. Today I was meeting with my architect and project coordinators." He briefly smiled. "Of course, I could have hired someone to perform the murders for me." He sat back in his chair. "Investigate me all you want, Detective Brown. My business and personal affairs will be open books, and you’ll have all the cooperation you wish. But I had nothing to do with either death. I treasured Naomi's friendship. She was a truly wonderful woman. And Blair was like her. We could have been very close friends."
Henri silently nodded. "Is there anything else you wish to state?"
"No," Steven softly answered.
Henri turned off the recorder. "I'll have this typed up so you can review and sign it. It won't take long." He rose to his feet. "Can I get you anything?"
"A couple of aspirin for this headache and some water if it's not too much trouble?"
"No trouble at all," Henri assured him. "I'll be right back." Taking the recorder, he left the room. Walking to the small observation room next to the interrogation room, he leaned in the open doorway. "What do you think?"
"He's telling the truth."
Henri smiled at the astonished tone of voice. "He's your brother. Why are you surprised that he's telling the truth?"
"Because when I left home at 18, he was a lying little weasel," Jim snorted.
Henri's fingers tapped the side of the recorder. "Yeah, I think he's telling the truth, too."
The two men left the observation room. Henri handed the recorder to Rhonda and went to find water and aspirin. Jim walked down the hall to the Interrogation Room 2 in time to see Simon opening the door. "Captain?"
Simon looked in his direction and muttered an apology to Ventriss and his attorney. Closing the door, he waited.
"Brown's finished his interrogation," Jim reported. "We both feel Steven's telling the truth. Not only does he believe Ventriss killed both Sandburgs, but he also thinks the marriage is phony."
Simon slowly nodded. "Let's see what we get here." He waited for Jim to go into the observation room next to Interrogation Room 2 before opening the door and joining Ventriss and his attorney. "Gentlemen, are we ready to proceed?"
"My client is more than willing to answer questions," Elliott Craig answered. "However, I would ask you to be brief. He has suffered a traumatic loss with the deaths of his wife and stepson."
"I quite understand," Simon solemnly nodded. Activating the recorder, he continued. "This is Captain Simon Banks. I will be questioning Mr. Brad Ventriss in the presence of his attorney, Elliott Craig, regarding the death of Blair Sandburg. The date is April 17, 1996 and the time is 4:09 pm." Settling in his chair, he looked at Brad. "Your attorney mentioned that the deceased, Blair Sandburg, is your step-son. You'll forgive me, but you look to be younger than he was."
"Naomi Sandburg was Blair's mother. She and I were married just before she died." He smiled. "Yes, Naomi was considerably older than I. However, age wasn't important to either of us."
"Did you know she had a son?"
"She mentioned him in passing," Brad admitted. "She didn't talk about him much so I assumed they weren't close."
"What did Ms. Sandburg talk about?"
"I fail to see what that has to do with Mr. Sandburg's death," Craig interrupted.
"It's okay," Brad reassured his attorney. "She spoke about the Phoenix House. It started out as her cause. But she was starting to realize that there was more work involved than she'd anticipated. Since she loved to travel, she probably would have either sold it or turned the running of it over to someone else."
"Sold it to someone like Steven Ellison?" Simon questioned.
Brad snorted. "Possibly. God knows he put enough effort into schmoozing Naomi over it."
"Could you elaborate on 'schmoozing'?"
"He was always coming over and acting like he was interested in what Naomi was doing. He was just trying to get into her good graces to buy the property." Brad leaned forward. "You see, I know Steven Ellison. He'll do whatever is necessary to get what he wants. If he needs to play the socially-conscious businessman, no problem. He wanted Naomi's property, and he'd do whatever was necessary to get it." Smirking, he rested his folded hands on the table. “He probably would have stooped low enough to try and seduce her out of her property if he thought he could have gotten away with it.”
"And murder?" Simon probed.
Brad shrugged. "Wouldn't surprise me. I do know that Naomi was getting tired of him always hanging around. But she was too nice of a person to say anything."
"What would be his motive?" Simon frowned. "He would gain nothing by either Naomi or Blair Sandburg's deaths."
Brad leaned back in his chair. "It makes it easier to purchase the property."
"You'd be willing to sell?" Simon raised his eyebrows.
"I'm not a socially-conscious businessman," Brad smirked.
"You found both bodies," Simon noted. "How much of a coincidence is that?"
"Chill," Brad ordered his attorney. "The man's just asking the questions that he should." He looked back at Simon. "We'd gotten back from our little honeymoon, and she went over to the site early that morning. There'd been some vandalism lately...probably Ellison's doing...and she wanted to make sure everything was okay. I had a meeting with Mr. Craig about my trust fund. After the meeting, I went to Phoenix House to join her. We'd told the volunteers to show up that afternoon. We were going to tell them about our marriage."
"We met with Naomi's attorney for a reading of the will. One she no doubt made well before we were married," Brad pointed out. "I was a little upset when I found out Blair had inherited Phoenix House. After the reading, Blair said he was going to Rainier University to arrange for some personal time off. He didn't want any bad blood or arguments about the property. I figured we’d discuss matters later and come to some sort of agreement. I went over to Phoenix House to make sure there hadn’t been any new vandalism since no one had been there to check on things since Naomi had died. When I got there, I found him lying on the floor and called 911."
"And that, Captain Banks, will be all." Craig stood, motioning for Brad to join him. "Despite the absurd accusations of Steven Ellison, these deaths are simply tragic accidents. I’m putting you on notice that if Mr. Ellison persists in these accusations or continues to harass my client, we will take legal actions. I do hope that his relationship to Detective Ellison won't prevent you from doing your duty."
Simon's dark eyes narrowed. "No one prevents me from doing my duty, Mr. Craig. I don't care how well connected they are. Or how well connected their fathers are."
Brad grinned as he followed his attorney out the door. He nearly ran into Craig when the lawyer suddenly stopped. Stepping to one side with a scowl, he found himself facing a stony-faced Jim Ellison.
"You're a good liar, Ventriss," Jim quietly spoke. "But not good enough."
"Not a word, Brad!" Craig immediately ordered. "Not one word!" He turned back to Simon who had joined them in the hallway. "Captain! I insist that Detective Ellison be removed from this case!"
"I'm not on the case," Jim shrugged. "I'm merely exercising my God-given right to express my opinion."
Simon winced, motioning to a nearby uniformed officer. "Please escort Mr. Craig and Mr. Ventriss out of the building."
Jim stepped aside and watched as the two men followed the uniformed officer to the elevator. "Twerp", Jim muttered.
Simon shook his head and walked away.
Jim started to follow but stopped when he heard Steven and Henri's voices.
"We'll be in touch," Henri promised, shaking Steven's hand.
Steven nodded and turned away. He hesitated, seeing Jim, then slowly walked towards him.
Henri looked as though he might follow, but turned away after catching Jim's warning glance.
"Jim," Steven quietly said, stopping in front of his brother.
Jim nodded. "Steven."
The two men stood, staring at one another.
"Did you even try to call him back?" Steven sadly whispered. "Or did he use my name and you just blew him off?"
Jim's blue eyes narrowed. "Things were a little busy around here yesterday and this morning."
Steven nodded. "Yeah, I know. I'm sorry." He hesitated then slowly walked away.
The younger man turned and waited.
"I'll keep you informed," Jim said after a few moments.
"I appreciate it." Steven swallowed, then took a deep breath. "Detective Brown said someone would take me back to my office, but...give me a call, okay, Jim? And not just about Naomi and Blair." When Jim didn't respond, Steven continued. "We're not kids any more. Okay?"
"No, we're not," Jim admitted.
When his brother didn't continue, Steven nodded and walked away.
Jim wearily sat on his couch. "God, what a day." He knew he should at least eat a bowl of cereal but couldn't muster the energy to walk into the kitchen for it. Leaning back, he rested his head against the back of the couch and closed his eyes. "What I wouldn't give for just one good night's sleep."
Jim opened his eyes to see Blair sitting on the coffee table, looking around with curiosity. He looked closer and saw that Blair's form wasn't quite solid. He could barely make out the wood burning stove which sat against the far wall. "I'd tell you not to sit on the table, but I guess ghosts can follow their own rules," he muttered as he reclosed his eyes.
Blair shrugged. "I'm just happy I got here, you know? This is all kinda new for me." He studied Jim for a few seconds. "You're taking this all very calmly."
"Kid, you're either a ghost or I'm finally cracking up," Jim explained. "I'm not real fond of either possibility and frankly don't much care which it is."
"I can't move on," Blair softly spoke.
Jim opened one eye. "You mean all that stuff about unfinished business is true?" he mocked.
"It means I don't want the man who murdered two people to get away with it," Blair irritably replied.
Jim sighed. Rubbing his face, he sat up. "Let's assume for the moment that I'm not going crazy and you really are a ghost." When Blair nodded, he continued. "Do you remember what happened?"
Blair frowned. "I remember wondering what Naomi was doing on the third floor. There aren't any lights up there, and there are these really big holes in the floor."
"So you went up there?"
Blair squirmed. "Okay, so it may not have been the brightest idea I've ever had."
"You think?!" Jim angrily yelled. "Do you have any idea what you..." Shaking his head, he got to his feet and walked to the balcony windows.
"I remember hearing someone speaking behind me just as I was pushed," Blair softly continued.
"Did you recognize the voice?" Jim demanded, his eyes still focused on the Cascade skyline.
"No," Blair admitted after a minute. "I know it was familiar 'cause I wasn't really surprised to hear it." His fingers nervously tapped the table. "I'm terrified of heights so I think the fall must've scared anything else out of me," he feebly joked.
Jim turned around. "So the voice could have been either Brad Ventriss or Steven Ellison."
"Steven wouldn't have done it!" Blair angrily shouted. "He's my friend! He was my mother's friend! And he's your brother!"
Jim held up one finger. "First, you only knew Steven for what?...about 24 hours so how do you know he was your friend?" He held up another finger. "Second, you only have Steven's word that he was your mother's friend." Another finger rose. "Third, being my brother has absolutely nothing to do with this!"
Glowering, Blair got to his feet. He held up one finger. "First, it doesn't matter that I only knew Steven for about a day. He did nothing...I repeat nothing...to indicate that he wasn't my friend. In fact, before the will was read and we thought Ventriss would inherit Phoenix House, Steven promised me that he would buy the property from him and continue Naomi’s work!" Another finger rose. "Second, I have my mother's own words that Steven was her friend. She wrote about him quite a bit in her journal...which I read last night. And she didn't write that way about Brad Ventriss, her alleged husband!" A third finger was raised. "And third, I'm beginning to understand why Steven said he'd need a couple of drinks before trying to reconcile with you!"
Jim's eyes narrowed. "Your mother had a journal?" Without waiting for an answer, he walked across the room and grabbed the portable phone.
Blair angrily crossed his arms over his chest. "Man, all this negativity is going to play real havoc with my karma now that I'm a ghost," he muttered.
"Captain? Did Forensics secure the Sandburg apartment?" Ellison absently nodded at the answer. "Did they find any kind of journal or diary?" Slowly, the detective smiled. "Good." He glanced at Blair. "A woman who's getting married is going to write about it in her diary."
"Journal," Blair automatically corrected.
"Right, I'll take a look at it tomorrow." Jim rubbed his forehead. "A good night's sleep? Yes, sir. I'll do my best. Good night, Captain."
"Do you really think Steven could murder my mother? Murder me?" Blair demanded.
Jim shrugged. "It doesn't matter what I think, Chief. If I'm to be any good in this investigation, I've got to keep all possibilities in mind."
"It would matter to Steven," Blair gently pointed out.
Jim glared at the other man. "You're awfully pushy for a ghost."
Blair grinned. "I was always pushy." He watched as Jim sat down on the couch. "I guess I should leave so you can sleep."
Jim tiredly waved a hand in his direction. "Don't leave on my account. I probably won't get any sleep anyway."
"Why? Are you an insomniac?"
Jim reached for the remote control. "If I say yes, will you leave me alone?"
"I might if you tell me the truth," Blair countered.
Jim tossed the remote to the far end of the couch. "I hear things, okay? Things like my neighbor talking nonsense to her dog. My neighbor on the second floor!" He got to his feet and pointed to the balcony windows. "I can see boats anchored in the bay as clearly as if it were daylight! And I've about had it with this scratchy shirt!"
Blair's eyes widened. "Hearing. Sight. Touch." He got to his feet and began pacing. "What about taste? What about scent?"
"Everything about me is out of whack!" Jim snarled. "Unless, of course, I lose control of it all and wind up in la-la land!"
"Zone outs," Blair muttered. "That's what happens when your senses go into overdrive."
Jim froze. "You know what's wrong with me?"
"Wrong?" Blair shook his head. "There's nothing wrong, man." When the other man snorted, he walked closer. "Look, is there something wrong with babies when they start talking and only make syllablic grunts? No. They're learning." He began pacing. "For some reason, your senses came online." He spun around to look at Jim. "Were you isolated recently? Stuck somewhere away from everybody?"
Jim slowly nodded. "I was working on the Switchman case and got a lead that she was hiding out in the Cascade National Forest. I was on solitary stakeout for over two weeks."
"Yes! That’s what did it!" Blair pumped his right fist into the air. "But I bet you had episodes all your life and just ignored it or had it explained away."
"Maybe," Jim grudgingly admitted. "So it's a matter of control?"
"Exactly! Just like a baby has to learn muscle control in order to walk. You just have to learn to control these hypersenses of yours!"
"God." Jim shakily sat down on the couch. "I thought I was losing my mind. The doctors couldn't find anything wrong."
"Doctors!" Blair made a rude noise. "Don't get me wrong. They're great at times, but they're just too dependent on machines sometimes and are way too fond of giving shots and passing out pills."
Jim snorted, then rubbed his face. "How do you know about this sort of stuff?"
"I read a monograph about Sentinels when I was a kid. That's what you are, by the way." Blair sat on the coffee table facing the couch. "Ever since, I've looked for them." He grinned. "That's the reason I went to Peru! My team is working with a tribe in an area that is rich with legends about them!"
"Peru." Jim half-smiled. "I was in there while I was in the Army."
"The US Army was in Peru?" Blair questioned.
"Unofficially, Chief. Unofficially."
"Oh." Blair's eyes suddenly widened. "OH! You mean, like, undercover stuff?"
"It's called Covert Ops."
"Wow." Blair shook his head and thought. "You know, if I hadn't gone to Peru, we might have met when you went to the doctors. I've got friends in most of the hospitals, and they would've tipped me off about you."
"Isn't that unethical?" Jim glowered.
Blair shrugged. "Would it be any more ethical to let somebody...like you...go through all that medical testing for nothing?"
Jim grunted. "But you did go to Peru."
Blair nodded. "And I am dead." He slightly smiled at Jim's wince. "Doesn't feel right, does it?"
"No." Jim's eyes widened in surprise when he quickly answered. Then he sighed. "How do I get control?"
"Burton’s monograph mentioned that each Sentinel had a Guide. This was someone who helped to ground the Sentinel…worked with him. Sorta like a partner.” Blair sighed. “I'll work with you as much as I can. I just don't know how long I can hang around."
"Then let's get to it," Jim decided. He got to his feet and walked towards the front door. "I want to get another look at Phoenix House, and there's no time like the present. Think you can meet me there?" He spun around. "How did you know where I live, by the way?"
Blair grinned. "I looked up your address before I left Naomi's apartment yesterday morning. I figured if you didn't return my call, I'd go for a face-to-face meeting."
Jim rolled his eyes as he shrugged into his jacket. "So, you gonna do your ghost thing and meet me there or are you hitching a ride?"
Blair hesitated. "I'll have to meet you there. One thing I've found out is that it takes an awful amount of energy to stay like this. I gotta take a break."
Jim nodded. "If not there, then back here. Got it, Chief?"
Blair nodded, watching as Jim shut and locked the door behind him. He frowned and scratched his jaw. "Okay. Now...how did I do this?"
As Jim parked his truck in front of Phoenix House, he thought the overall renovation concept was a good one. Renovate a part of the downtown area for offices and businesses during the day. Then at night have enough restaurants, theaters, and clubs so that people felt comfortable being there after dark. And if the developers were successful, add some trendy yuppie-style apartments and you rake in the money hand over fist.
And Phoenix House sat pretty much right in the middle of the anticipated development. Jim silently wondered what kind of spin the local business leaders would put on it. ‘And Sandburg thinks Steven’s going to ignore profit so Phoenix House can operate like his mother wanted? Not the little brother I remember.’
"Naomi Sandburg, you must have been one hell of a woman to get inside Steven's head...or heart," Jim muttered to himself. He quietly closed the driver's side door and walked across the street to Phoenix House.
Stopping a few feet from the building, he saw the front door was ajar. Cautiously, he walked forward and paused at the partially opened door. Seconds later, walked back towards his truck.
Sheltering in the shadows, he pulled out his cell phone and quickly dialed a number.
"Captain? Sorry to call so late, but we've got an intruder at Phoenix House."
"What?" Simon sat up in bed and rubbed his eyes. Glancing at the nightstand alarm, he groaned, "Ellison, it's close to midnight. What are you doing there anyway?"
"Following a hunch, sir," Jim reported. "There had been some instances of vandalism at the site. I'm there now, and the front door is ajar. The intruder's still inside."
"Damn." Simon got to his feet and turned on the lamp on the nightstand. "I'll get backup rolling. You stay put."
Jim lowered the cell phone and tried to extend his hearing. Then he put the cell phone back to his ear. "Have them roll now, Captain. I'll keep the line open, but I'm going in."
"Ellison!" Simon reached for the phone on the nightstand to call for backup.
Gun in hand, Jim slipped inside the darkened Phoenix House. His eyes easily saw the taped area where Blair's body had lain. Forcing himself to look away, he cautiously stepped further into the building. He saw tools lying next to half-finished walls, grateful they weren't lying further out in the rooms where they would be hazards to people walking.
He was approaching the stairs when he heard a slight scuff above him of rubber on wood. He looked up at the ceiling then slowly pulled his cell phone from his pocket. "Intruder on the second floor," he whispered.
"10-4," Simon whispered in return. "Backup on the way."
Jim laid the cell phone on the floor next to the stairs. Arms extended, his hands gripping the butt of his weapon, Jim silently climbed to the second floor.
Cautiously looking into the open space of the second floor, Jim tried to peer into the darkness. He closed his eyes when his sight spiked, bringing everything into sharp focus before greying out.
He reopened his eyes a few seconds later and looked around again. This time, he managed to concentrate on the area around a large open space. Remembering the taped off area on the first floor, Jim realized this was the opening that Blair had fallen through from the third floor.
He also saw something else.
Carefully watching where he stepped, Jim walked to the opening. He knelt on one knee and reached between two overlapping boards. From the dark recess where it had fallen, Jim found the torn and ragged remains of a woman's manicured fingernail. Focusing sharply on the nearby hole, he saw faint scratches.
Jim glanced upwards at the hole in the third story floor and then down to the first floor. "Naomi tried to save herself. She literally held on by her fingernails," he muttered. Trying to focus his sight again, he moved one of the boards hoping to find more evidence.
Jim's sight suddenly spiked, bringing the grain in the boards into sharp relief. Groaning, Jim closed his eyes and tried to control the spike. 'Hell, Sandburg! Where are you when I need you?'
Too late, Jim heard someone approach. He started to spin around then screamed as he was splattered in the face with a burning liquid. Dropping his gun, he frantically tried to maintain his balance.
Jim recognized the voice just as he was pushed backwards. Arms flailing, he fell through the opening in the floor.
Landing heavily on his left side, Jim awkwardly got to his hands and knees. Choking on fumes, he tried to take a deep breath. 'Don't claw out your eyes! Gun! Where's my gun?!'
Hearing footsteps pounding down the stairs, Jim tried to force his eyes open.
"Guess they’ll just have to try and identify you from the dental records. Assuming the fire leaves that much left."
Jim instinctively turned his head in the direction of the angry voice.
"You shouldn't have come here tonight! Why couldn't you just leave well enough alone?!"
Jim screamed as something hard and heavy struck him in his lower spine and fell forward onto the rough floor. He felt his assailant kneel next to him.
"You would have been much better off if you'd just died in the fall. Now..."
Jim screamed again as he was struck a second time in the middle of his spine.
The next blow in the upper spine forced a whimper from Jim.
Jim's assailant breathed heavily and got to his feet. When there was no reaction from the man on the floor, he tossed the hammer to one side.
"That should keep you from getting out before this place is burned to the ground."
Hearing those words, Simon grabbed his radio microphone. "I need all units to 724 Dawson Street! Officer down! Alert the fire department of arson in progress!"
Tossing the microphone to one side, he activated the lights and siren. "Hang on, Jim." He floored the accelerator and began praying.
Blair groaned as he appeared down the block from Phoenix House. "Oh, man, can a ghost puke?" He closed his eyes and rubbed his stomach. "Settle down...please settle down." Taking a few deep breaths, he shook his head. "There's got to be a better way of doing this." He cautiously opened his eyes. "Hey! I can feel myself! I'm..."
Blair's voice trailed off as he saw flames shooting into the sky. Taking a few steps closer, he realized the flames were coming from Phoenix House.
Screaming denial, Blair fell to his knees.
Stunned at being seen, Blair slowly turned his head.
"Ventriss." Blair quickly looked back at the burning building. "You did this! You bastard!"
"You're dead." Brad shook his head as he started backing away. "YOU'RE DEAD!" Turning, he ran around the corner towards Dawson Street.
"Oh, no, you don't," Blair murmured. He got to his feet and sprinted after Ventriss. As he turned onto Dawson Street, he saw three fire trucks as well as police cars and ambulances.
"Help me! HELP! Don't get him get near me!"
Simon turned to see an hysterical Brad Ventriss running towards him. Grabbing the younger man, he threw him against Jim's truck. "Where's Ellison?" he roared.
"Don't let him near me!" Brad screamed, looking past Simon.
Despite himself, Simon looked over his shoulder. "There's nobody there!" he snarled, turning back to Brad. "I'm the one you should be afraid of!"
Stopping close to Simon, Blair looked down at himself and saw that he had lost his solid form. Looking up at Brad, he growled, "Confess!"
Brad's eyes widened behind his tinted glasses. The flames from the burning building shone through and around Blair's form. As the dead man took another step forward, Brad cringed away from what he thought was a fiery avenger.
"I did it. I did it!" Brad shouted. "I killed Naomi and Blair! I faked the marriage license to get the building! Now, make him go away! You have to protect me!"
Simon pulled Brad away from Jim's truck and then slammed him back against it. "Where's Ellison?!"
Brad gasped, finally looking at Simon. "Inside. I left him inside," he moaned.
Blair spun around and stared at the burning building. Without another word, he ran towards Phoenix House.
"Dear God," Simon muttered. Keeping both hands on Brad's arms, he dragged the younger man with him towards one of the fire trucks. "Chief Logan! One of my men is inside!"
The fire chief's face paled. "We can't stop the fire from destroying that building, Banks. It'll be all we can do to keep it from spreading to the other buildings."
Furious, Simon turned and pushed Brad away from him. "Three murders, Ventriss!" he spat. "One of them a cop! There's no way your rich daddy can protect you from this!"
Brad opened his mouth to speak, then slowly turned his head. Standing less than six feet away from him was a silver wolf and a black jaguar. "No. Stay away from me!"
The jaguar angrily growled as the wolf started towards the frightened young man.
"Brad Ventriss, you're under arrest for the murders of Naomi Sandburg, Blair Sandburg, and James Ellison," Simon advised as he reached for his handcuffs.
Brad threw his hands up in front of him in a futile attempt to protect himself as both animals attacked him.
Simon's dark eyes widened in surprise as Ventriss screamed and fell backwards.
There was an audible sickening sound as Brad's head cracked against the hard metal frame of the fire truck. His dying eyes reflecting his terror, the young man slowly fell to the ground.
"Logan! I need the EMT's!" Simon shouted. He dropped to his knees next to Brad. "Ventriss! VENTRISS!"
Brad heard the howl of a wolf in his ear and saw the black jaguar crouched next to him. "Save me," he whispered as he died.
"Jim! Jim!" Instinctively flinching from the fire, Blair frantically looked around. Then he shook his head. "The fire can't hurt me. The fire can’t hurt me." He forced himself to walk through the flames. "Jim!"
He was halfway up the stairs when he saw Jim lying on the floor. "Oh, God! Jim! Get up!" He ran down the stairs and knelt next to his friend. "Jim! Please! Get up!"
Slowly, Jim's eyes opened. "Blair?"
"Yeah, it's me! Now, get up!" Frightened, Blair looked up when he heard the creaking of the building above him.
"Can't. Ventriss broke my spine to pieces. Sorry…bastard got away."
"No, he didn't. The cops have him outside. He confessed. To everything." Blair wiped his eyes. "Jim, you gotta move! This whole place is on fire! I don't think they'll be able to put it out!" When he saw Jim's eyes close again, took a deep breath. "Okay," he muttered. "I became solid once. I can do it again." Closing his eyes, he concentrated for several seconds. Then he slowly reached out to touch his friend.
"I can feel you," Jim murmured in surprise.
Blair opened his eyes. "Yes!" he shouted. He slid his hands under Jim's arms. "I'll drag you!"
He managed to move Jim a few feet when a part of the ceiling collapsed, showering them with sparks and burning pieces of wood.
"No! NO!" Dropping Jim, Blair frantically brushed the fire from both his friend and himself.
Jim wearily opened his eyes. Taking a deep breath, he began coughing. "Blair! Go! You don't need to stay here!"
"I'm not leaving you!" Blair screamed. "I'm not! Ever!"
"You can't do anything for me," Jim muttered as he struggled for breath. "There's no need for you to suffer."
Blair crouched over his friend. "I said I'm not...God! What is that smell?"
"Gasoline," Jim wheezed. "Ventriss threw it in my face. I'm covered with it."
"Oh, God," Blair softly sighed. Automatically, he looked up at the burning ceiling, then slowly looked around.
There was no escape.
"No, it can't end like this," Blair moaned. "It can't!"
Blair resolutely shook his head. "I told you I'd never leave you alone, and I'm not." He protectively curled over Jim as much as possible. "Where's your favorite place in all the world?"
"Yeah," Blair nodded with a smile. "You're there, man. Standing knee deep in water so cold that it's forming ice crystals on the beer cans you've stuck down in the water." Taking quick breaths, Blair continued talking in a low, calm voice. "The sun's out. It's shining on your face...warming it without burning. The sky is a deep blue with just a few wispy clouds overhead. There’s just a bare hint of a breeze against your skin.” Blair saw that Jim's eyes were closed and his breathing was shallow but regular. "The nearby forest is full of life. All the creatures going about their business in harmony with each other. The water is running fast over the rocks...a soothing background melody."
Blair shuddered as he heard the cracking of the wood ceiling above them. "Please, God. I'm not much for praying, but I really need your help here. Don't let him feel anything. Keep him zoned so deep that he'll never know what happens." He buried his face in the crook of Jim's neck. "Jim, everything is peaceful," he whispered. "Everything is calm. Everything is perfect. I won't ever leave you alone. And I swear to God, if Ventriss doesn’t pay for this, I’ll haunt him until the day he dies!"
Blair closed his eyes as he heard the ceiling collapse. "Please, God...please...keep him zoned."
Simon looked away as the building collapsed into itself. He angrily wiped his eyes, knowing that Ventriss would never stand trial. He was dead when the EMTs had loaded him into the ambulance.
"God, Banks, I'm sorry about your man," Chief Logan mumbled as he slumped against the fire truck.
Simon silently nodded. After a few moments, he turned around, squaring his shoulders. "Did all your people get out okay?"
Logan silently nodded. "Maybe yours made it out."
Simon shook his head. "Ventriss said he left him inside. If Jim had made it out, he would've been here by now."
"Maybe he was hurt and collapsed outside the building," Logan suggested.
Knowing it was a lost cause, Simon nonetheless nodded. "I'll have my people check the surrounding neighborhood."
After a moment, Logan patted Simon's arm then moved away, shouting orders at his men.
Simon leaned against the fire truck and looked upwards. "I'm sorry, Jim," he whispered into the smoky night sky.
The phoenix was said to be a mythical creature. If it had ever existed, it had been long before mankind’s recorded history. So the form that rose into the sky above the burning building wasn’t seen as anything other than an odd smoky shape.
Jim felt fingers gently stroking his forehead and appreciatively moaned. "Haven't felt this good in a long time," he muttered.
A woman's amused chuckle forced him to open his eyes. He blinked and focused on the upside-down face above him and realized he was lying with his head in this woman's lap.
The red-haired woman smiled. "It's about time you opened your eyes. I just knew they were going to be blue." She soothingly continued to rub his forehead. "Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Naomi Sandburg."
'I've been to too many funerals lately. I'm damned if I'll ever go to another one.' Steven Ellison took one more look at his brother's coffin, then turned away.
The coffin was purely symbolic. The fire at Phoenix House had been been a hot one, reducing most of the interior to ashes. There had been just enough of a body left to positively identify it as Jim's.
Steven turned to see Simon Banks standing next to him.
"I wanted to again express my condolences. Jim was a fine man and a good friend. He’s going to be sorely missed by everyone who knew him."
Steven smiled at the grief-stricken police officer. "I know you did you best, Captain Banks. Chief Logan's department as well." He glanced over his shoulder towards the coffin. "Brad Ventriss is the one responsible for all of this."
Steven had made sure he attended that funeral, wanting to be sure the bastard was dead. He'd exchanged cold glares with Brad's father after the service, but no words had been spoken. Turning back to Simon, he held out his hand. "I hope to see you again, Captain Banks...when Phoenix House opens."
Simon shook Steven's hand. "You're going to purchase the property?"
The younger Ellison nodded. "Once all the legalities have been observed, I'll get it one way or another." He coldly smiled. "We businessmen have been known to be ruthless, you know."
"But whatever it takes is what we'll do."
Steven smiled as the older man joined him. "Captain Banks, this is my father, William Ellison."
"Mr. Ellison. You’re going to help Steven with this?" Simon held out his hand. ‘So this is what Jim would have looked like in later life.’
William briefly shook Simon's hand and nodded. "In a way, my son gave his life for this project. I don't intend to let it die as well." He smiled at Steven. "And, from what I hear, both Naomi and Blair Sandburg were important people to Steven." He hesitantly put a hand on Steven’s shoulder.
Simon nodded with a sad smile. "It will be my pleasure to attend the opening."
SOME TIME LATER
Blair sat cross-legged on the warm sand, watching the waves crash against the shoreline. A gentle breeze barely moved his hair as he took a slow deep breath. Seagulls flew overhead, occasionally gliding down to the water then back up into the cloudless blue sky. All was peaceful and calm, but it was wasted on Blair who couldn’t seem to settle down.
"I ought to kick your ass."
'So much for peace and calm.' Slowly Blair turned his head. "Hi, Jim."
"Don't 'Hi Jim' me!" Jim stood several yards behind Blair, hands on his hips. "You said you'd never leave me! Are you there when I open my eyes? No! I get your mother!" He took a deep breath. "Your MOTHER!"
"Hey! There's no one better suited to explain all this than Naomi!" Blair protested.
Jim stared at the younger man. "You promised you'd never leave me," he softly repeated.
Blair turned back to watch the ocean waves. "I failed you."
Jim sighed and shook his head. 'Naomi warned me he was stubborn.' He slowly walked to stand in front of Blair, then sat on the sand effectively getting in Blair's face. “Explain."
Blair rubbed his face. "I'm trying to meditate here."
"Meditate later. From what I understand, time isn't a factor any more."
Blair briefly closed his eyes then opened them. Staring into Jim's eyes, he explained. "I failed by going to Peru and not being in Cascade when you came online. I failed by not staying with you when you went to Phoenix House. I failed by not SAVING YOUR LIFE!" Blair caught his breath. "Is that explanation enough?"
Jim refrained from flinching at Blair's shouted words. Holding up one finger, he replied. "One. You had no idea I existed. So how did you fail me by going to Peru? Let's face it. If you should have known about me months ago, then I should have known about you. Or are you saying this Sentinel/Guide stuff is a one-way street?" When Blair didn't answer, he continued. "Look at it this way, Chief. If I'd known about you as I should have, you wouldn't have died. So who failed who?"
Blair silently shook his head.
Jim raised a second finger. "Second, did you get some sort of all-encompassing knowledge about what ghosts are able to do or not do? 'Cause nobody gave me any. You appeared to help me and to get justice for you and Naomi. You did the best you could. That's all anybody, including you, could ever ask for."
A third finger joined the other two. "Third, you couldn't have saved my life. That whole building was a death trap. Ventriss must have used other accelerants besides gasoline to make it burn that hot and that fast. But he doused me with gasoline. There was no way you could have dragged me through that fire to the outside quick enough to keep me from being burned alive." He glared at the younger man. "Not to mention that you became solid."
"Whatever! You would have been burned as well." Jim reached out and gave Blair's arms a gentle squeeze. "And don't think I've forgotten that you sent me into a zone to protect me at the end." He caught Blair's eyes, refusing to break contact with him. “So...how did you fail me?"
Blair pulled his hands free and wiped his eyes. "It just wasn't supposed to happen like that!" he yelled. "We were supposed to have years of time together!"
Jim shrugged. "Shit happens, Sandburg."
"We died! Murdered!" Blair angrily shouted. "How can you sit there and be so damned calm about it?!"
"Working myself up into a furious hysterical hissy fit will change things?" Jim asked. "You know, you aren't doing your karma any good by holding on to all this negativity."
Blair stared at him in astonishment then covered his face with his hands. "Oh, God. Just how long were you with Naomi?"
Jim chuckled. "Wonderful woman, your mother." He casually smacked Blair on the side of his head. "Shame on you for ducking out and making her responsible for getting me adjusted to all this."
"Yeah, well, like I said…she explained it better than I ever could," Blair admitted. Lowering his hands, he sighed. "It should have happened, Jim. It just shouldn't."
Jim sat in silence for several moments. "You know, a lot of what Naomi said went right over my head. But I do remember one thing, and it's probably true." He caught Blair's eyes again. "Things happen for a reason. And all I know is that some good came out of all this."
"Like what?" Blair irritably demanded. "Jim, you could have done so much good as Sentinel of Cascade."
"Probably. We'll never know." Jim slowly nodded. "But I do know what good did happen." He slowly grinned. "Let me see...Naomi said you close your eyes and think about Phoenix House. Supposedly it's centered over a crossroads of several positive energy flows." He rolled his eyes in amusement.
Blair snickered. "Don't make fun of my mom, man."
Jim raised his hands with a 'Who Me?' expression. "C'mon, Chief. Get with the program. Give it a try."
Sighing, Blair obeyed. It took several minutes before he was genuinely relaxed.
"See Phoenix House," Jim whispered. "Completed. Opened. Useful."
"This day would not be possible without the support of Steven Ellison who would like to say a few words."
Steven smiled and shook hands with Cascade's Mayor. He stood behind the microphone and nodded at the guests and reporters. "Ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for coming here today." He saw his father sitting next to Simon and smiled at them both. The two had become good friends since Jim’s death, sharing stories of the Jim Ellison both men had known.
He glanced at the note cards in his hands then slowly slid them into his pocket. "Today is not a day for a prepared speech." Taking a deep breath, he continued. "Many people have supported this project in various ways. I’m just one of them. Many people have given their money to purchase materials and equipment. Many people gave their free time as volunteer laborers. Many people gave their expertise in construction and other areas. And three people gave their lives. So, in memory of Naomi Sandburg, Blair Sandburg, and James Ellison, I officially open Phoenix House. And I pledge that as long as there is a need for it, Phoenix House will continue to rise from its ashes."
"He did it," Blair whispered with a wide smile. "He promised me that he would...and he did."
"Sure surprised me," Jim wryly admitted.
Blair's eyes opened. "I wish the two of you..."
"Enough wishes like that, Chief," Jim interrupted, holding up his hand. "Let it go. Please?"
After a few seconds, Blair nodded.
"Good." Jim squirmed around until he was sitting next to Blair, staring out at the ocean. "See any good waves?"
"It can be whatever you want it to be," Blair confided.
Jim nodded with a grunt. "So how long are we going to sit on this beach?"
"Getting anxious to get back to protecting the tribe?" Blair chuckled.
"Will I still be a Sentinel, Chief?" Jim frowned. "I mean, in the next life?"
Blair turned his head and studied his friend. "Yeah," he finally answered. "You will." A gust of wind blew his hair into his eyes, and he pushed it away. "Hey! Did you do that?"
"Just trying to get some wind and wave action, Chief," Jim admitted with a grin. "I'd like to get in a little surf time while I’m here." He leaned back on his elbows and squinted up at the sun. "So, while we're waiting...tell me about Sentinels."
Blair stretched out on his back, snuggling into the sand. Closing his eyes, he quietly began, "In every ancient culture, there were Sentinels…"
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