Word count: 10, 733
Hope you enjoy it.
Many thanks to Niki, Night, and Lyn for the beta help.
Blair had wondered how long it would take for Jim to start questioning him about his life with Naomi once she’d gone. As it turned out, it didn’t take long. In fact, no sooner had Blair arrived back at the loft from dropping his mom off at the airport than Jim was peppering him with questions. It was, Blair thought somewhat ruefully, as he answered as many as he could in the briefest and most unenlightening way possible, probably the most Jim had spoken in a sitting since Blair had known him.
“Why do I get the impression you’re not exactly being forthcoming with me?” Jim asked, having seemingly run out of questions at last, casting a narrow look across the kitchen island at Blair.
“Hey, it’s no biggie. I mean I don’t know anything about your family.” Blair shrugged casually as if to give the impression it didn’t bother him, though truth be told it really did. There were times when he was burning with curiosity over Jim’s family. After all, who knew if Sentinel gifts were perhaps passed on genetically? Burton certainly hadn’t mentioned anything about that in his book but then, not a lot was known about genes and DNA back in his day, so Blair guessed that wasn’t too surprising.
“Earth to Sandburg!” Blair blinked and jumped as Jim snapped his fingers under his nose.
“Sorry, woolgathering,” he said. “Just wondering about whether the Sentinel thing might be familial or hereditary.”
Now Jim shrugged then walked away, over to the living room, where he flicked on the TV. “Couldn’t tell you,” he said. “I’ve told you I don’t remember anything like this happening to me when I was a kid.”
Blair narrowed his eyes suspiciously. He was never sure when Jim deflected his questions about his childhood whether it was that Jim really didn’t remember or whether it was just that – deflection – because Jim had good reasons for not wanting to talk about it. As Jim well knew now, since meeting Joe Moreton, and most recently, Naomi, Blair’s own childhood hadn’t been all picket fences and roses either.
But speaking of his own childhood brought up something else he’d been meaning to tell Jim. “You going to be able to manage without me if I take off for a few days?” he asked casually.
That got a quick head up from Jim, who picked up the remote again and switched off the TV. “Where you going?” he asked.
“Just some people I need to go see,” Blair replied. “I was thinking of going to see my grandparents.”
“I didn’t know you had grandparents,” Jim said.
“We all have grandparents, Jim. I mean, Naomi didn’t just spring from the earth fully formed, you know.” Blair grinned as Jim shook his head.
“I meant I didn’t know they were alive. You’ve never mentioned them.”
“I never mentioned Naomi till I pretty much had to either, did I?” Blair sighed. “We kind of lost contact with them, or rather they deliberately lost contact with us, when Naomi decided to take me and move out of their home,” he explained. “We’d lived with them from the time I was born till I was about 3 when Naomi decided that traveling the world would be a better education for me than staying in a small town and going to the same school.” Blair couldn’t help the tinge of bitterness that laced his tone. He’d never really been sure that he wouldn’t have preferred to have done just that.
“What were they like?” Jim asked, sounding genuinely interested.
Blair gave a small shrug. “To tell the truth I don’t really remember much about living there. Like I said I was only 3 when we left.”
What he did remember but didn’t say aloud was the night they’d left, though it was more an impression of noises than anything concrete. People shouting at each other, his mother crying loudly as she dragged him out of the arms of a big man Blair assumed must have been his grandfather. The anger implicit in the shouting terrified him and he remembered vividly bursting into tears and adding his sobs to the cacophony assaulting him. Within minutes the door had slammed behind him and the next thing he had any real memory of was living in a small commune with some of Naomi’s free spirit friends.
“Must have been tough for such a little kid,” Jim observed softly. “Hey, I’ll be fine. You go see your grandparents.” He held up one hand as his cell phone rang and he picked it up off the table. “Ellison,” he said into the receiver. “You’re kidding? What about Homicide? This should be their case, shouldn’t it?” He gave a heavy sigh and looked over at Blair. “Okay, sir. We’ll check it out.” He disconnected the call and put his phone in his pocket then went across and grabbed both his and Blair’s jackets from the coat hooks, handing Blair’s over to him. “Any chance you can hang off on that visit for a little while? We’ve just picked up a murder case.”
“Of course,” Blair said, grabbing his keys from the basket then waiting at the door while Jim strapped on his gun. “Why us?”
“Guy’s some bigwig computer guy. Works for the government from time to time retrieving lost data. Seems the commissioner knows him personally so he wants Major Crime to take it on.” Jim let Blair out through the door first then locked it and they headed for the elevator.
The house they’d been directed to was set back from the darkened street, tall trees shading its exterior even more. Blair got a creepy kind of prickling at the back of his neck as he and Jim made their way up the graveled driveway to the front door. It was a sensation he often got when attending crime scenes, no matter that he’d been doing so for some months now. He wondered briefly if Jim still felt the same way or if you just got used to it eventually.
Jim tossed him a reassuring smile over his shoulder as they reached the porch. “Eerie place,” he said as he rung the doorbell and Blair couldn’t help an answering smile crossing his own face at the thought that once again Jim seemed to be able to read his mind. The smile was wiped away the minute they stepped inside though and Blair saw a man and a woman with a young baby seated on the couch in the living room. The man and woman were both crying, and the baby was wailing as the woman rocked her almost frantically back and forth.
Jim and Blair both walked across to speak to the first responder, a uniformed patrolman named Dan McGinty whom they both knew well.
“Hey, Jim, Blair.” McGinty lowered his voice a little and turned away from the small family group on the couch. “Victim is a 23 year old woman named Laura Barnes. She was shot twice in the chest at what appears to be close range while she was asleep in bed. We haven’t recovered the weapon yet. The people over there are Dennis Barnes, her husband, local bigwig computer genius, and Polly Brewster, the victim’s younger sister. The baby belongs to Dennis and Laura. Katy Barnes, 8 months old.”
Blair looked surreptitiously at the people on the other side of the living room. Now, looking more closely he could see the one he’d thought was a woman was a young girl, probably not more than 15 years old. She handled the child on her lap deftly though, which had perhaps given the impression she was older. The man looked middle-aged, his hair thinning and his face pock-marked with the scars of old acne. He was chain smoking as he sat there, lighting one cigarette off the butt of another then grinding the old one out in an overflowing ashtray at his side. Blair cringed at that, with the baby sitting right beside him but looking around he saw there were ashtrays everywhere, most of them used. There’d apparently been no concession made to the lungs of a small child in this house.
“Any idea on a perp?” Jim was asking and Blair pulled his attention back to the case.
McGinty nodded. “Polly said it was Chloe, Barnes’ daughter from a previous marriage. Get this, Chloe’s only fourteen.”
“You’re kidding?” Blair was shocked. “Where is she?”
“No idea. She was gone by the time we got here. Barnes and the girl say they don’t know where she is. Polly said Chloe came into her room just before the shooting happened and asked her to show her how to take the safety off a gun. Apparently she didn’t think much of it at the time. I get the impression they handle guns in this house as much as they do knives and forks,” McGinty said with a grimace.
“Doesn’t look like they give much consideration to the safety of the kids in this house at all,” Blair observed.
“Hey, Detective, you might want to come take a look at this,” one of the CSU guys called from a doorway leading off into a small hallway from the living room.
Blair followed Jim out to what turned out to be a laundry room. On top of a washing machine were several empty pill bottles and an empty glass that appeared to have contained water.
Jim picked up the pill bottles with a gloved hand and examined the labels. “Darvocet and Dyazide,” he said. “I know Darvocet is a painkiller. What’s Dyazide do?”
“It’s used for high blood pressure,” Blair put in. He shrugged at Jim’s quizzical look. “Mrs. Mulroney down the hall takes it. I sometimes pick up her meds for her when she can’t get out.”
“Still nothing on the missing girl?” Jim asked McGinty.
“I was going to go check the trailer out the back there,” McGinty replied. “Polly said that’s where Chloe was living.”
“I’ll go with you,” Jim said. “Hey, Chief, how about you go keep the family company?”
Blair nodded. He knew what Jim was asking him to do. Be nice, play the sympathy card and see if anything unusual was said. He wasn’t a cop so anything they said couldn’t be used in evidence as it could be if they’d been read their rights, but he was good at observing people, their facial expressions, tone of voice, the nuances of what they might say under stress. It could help down the road somewhere.
Jim unholstered his gun and stepped out the back door, McGinty at his heels.
Blair wandered back into the living room and sat down in a chair opposite the couch where Barnes, Polly, and the baby were sitting. “My name’s Blair Sandburg,” he said. “I’m a consultant with the police department.”
Barnes’ eyes narrowed. “You some sort of psychiatrist?” he asked.
“No, um, actually I’m an anthropologist,” Blair said quickly. “Look, I just wanted to say I’m really sorry for your loss. It must have been awful to find your wife like that. And you’ve got a baby too.” He leaned forward and patted Katy’s hair gently, getting a gummy grin in return.
“I just can’t believe Chloe would do something like this,” Barnes said.
“Dennis, she was always arguing with Laura. She told me the other day that she hated her,” Polly interrupted.
“Yeah, I know,” Barnes replied, “but to go this far. I mean, Chloe’s always been a handful and I’ve been telling her mom for some time now that I thought she needed to see a counselor or something but to go this far…” He shook his head then lit up another cigarette and sank back in his chair.
“She tried to kill me too!” Polly said suddenly, as if the memory had only just come back to her. “In my room. I was in there with Katy and I heard a noise and looked toward the door and I saw the shadow of someone standing there. Then there was a gunshot and Katy started screaming. Whoever it was went away and I got up and closed the door and sat with my back against it and then a few minutes later I heard two more shots. That’s when Dennis came home. I was scared. I think Chloe was going to kill me and Katy too.” The words came in a rush as if now that she’d remembered it, she had to tell it all at once.
“What sort of trouble has she been in?” Blair asked, sitting back to make himself seem less confrontational. Something about these two was pinging his radar but there was nothing he could definitively put his finger on yet. Instead he waited and let them talk.
Jim cautiously edged open the door to the little trailer home parked out back. Almost instantly he recoiled from the odor and hastily took his sense of smell down a notch or three. He looked over at McGinty with a wry and sympathetic eye. McGinty, who didn’t have the benefit of Sentinel dials, looked like he was about to puke. “You okay there, Dan?” he asked.
“It’s a little ripe in there,” Dan said, putting one hand over his nose then taking a furtive peek through the door. “Dog feces all over the floor. Girl was no housekeeper. Looks clear though. No one inside.”
Jim took a look himself then closed the door. “Kinda strange,” he remarked. “You see the inside of the big house? Every electronic gadget you can buy, expensive furniture, clean as a whistle, yet the man’s own daughter lives out here in this dump?” He shook his head. Something was wrong here but the tingle in the back of his mind would have to wait for now. First they had to find Chloe.
The trailer was pulled up against a dog run. Three little yappy dogs ran around inside, barking their shaggy little heads off. Jim decided to edge his hearing down too, at least till they could find out what Barnes wanted to do about the dogs. One of them, a little puppy that looked not much more than a few months old, kept squeezing out between a gap in the gate and the chain link fence. Jim picked it up the third time it escaped then opened the gate and carried it back in. “See if you can find something to block that gap,” he called to McGinty.
McGinty nodded and turned back to the yard.
It was even darker here in the dog run than it had been in the yard outside the fence, as the trailer blocked the light from inside the house. Jim put the little puppy down and bent to pet it in an effort to quiet its whimpering. The other two dogs had run away from him as he’d entered and gone inside one of the two kennels within the enclosure. A sound caught his attention and he nudged his hearing back up a little then tilted his head in the direction the sound had come from. Stepping closer to the other kennel, he bent down and peered inside.
At first he thought it was another dog lying inside, but, allowing his eyesight to compensate for the shadow, he was able to make out the form of a small person lying curled on the floor of the kennel. “Chloe?” he called softly, not wanting to startle her. “Chloe, I’m a policeman. I’m here to help. Give me your hand.”
After what seemed long minutes, a small hand reached out and Jim grasped it and helped the girl out.
She staggered against him and he grabbed her around the waist to keep her from falling. She smelt of vomit and stale urine and Jim was grateful he’d kept his sense of smell down. In one hand she clutched something and Jim gently unfurled her fingers and took it from her as he walked her towards the gate. Once there, McGinty took her, calling for an ambulance as he led her towards the front of the house.
Jim stood in the light from the laundry doorway and looked at what he’d taken from the girl’s hand. It was a piece of paper, rolled into a scroll with a piece of yellow ribbon around it. He untied the ribbon and flattened out the paper then scanned the writing.
“Forgive me,” it said, “I didn’t mean to hurt her.”
Blair excused himself and stood up as soon as he saw Jim re-enter the room. Crossing over to him, he asked quietly, “Anything?”
“We found her. She’s on her way to the hospital.” Jim shook his head and held the piece of paper out so Blair could read it. “Pretty much amounts to a confession, doesn’t it? These two have anything interesting to say?”
“Polly is now saying that after she showed Chloe how to take the safety off the gun, Chloe came back and shot at her in her room. Any sign of the gun yet?”
Jim shook his head. “If what she’s saying is true though, we might be able to match the bullet in her room from the ones in the victim.” He looked away from Blair as Dennis Barnes stood up and came across to them. “Mr. Barnes, we found Chloe. She’s in a pretty bad way. Seems she took an overdose of various pills. She’s on her way to the hospital. We can organize a ride for you there, if you’d like.”
Barnes shook his head, no emotion at the news showing in his flat expression. “I want to take Polly and Katy over to my parents’ house. This is the home number,” he held out a card and handed it to Jim, “you can reach me on that if you need to.”
“You sure you don’t want to see Chloe?” Blair asked, unable to keep the surprise from his voice. The girl had apparently shot the man’s wife but still, she was just a kid, and a pretty sick one from what Jim had said.
“I just can’t deal with anything like that tonight. All this stress is upsetting my stomach. I’m not a well man,” Barnes replied. “I just need to get away from here.”
“All right,” Jim agreed. “I’ll get an officer to drive you-“
“That’s okay. I can drive us myself.” With that Barnes turned on his heel, gathered up Polly and the baby and left.
“Cold fish,” Blair said with a small shudder. “So, what next? Do we go talk to the girl?”
“Not until the hospital says we can,” Jim replied. “Let’s go see if we can find the bullet in Polly’s room.”
The contrast between Polly’s room and the trailer that Chloe had so recently called home was startling. A four poster bed dominated the room and the matching bureaus were of high quality wood. Their tops were stacked with ornamental dolls and fluffy teddy bears. A large television and a video player sat in one corner, piles of movies on top. The room was spotlessly clean. The walls were decorated with several large wall hangings, plush tigers and lions cavorting with their young.
“Where was she standing when she shot the gun?” Jim asked.
“Polly said in the doorway. Polly was on the bed,” Blair replied, looking around. “I can’t see any bullet holes.”
“Me either.” Jim held up his hand for silence then slowly turned in a circle, his sight dialed up. He stopped once his back was to the doorway then looked along the line of sight a gun barrel would have taken. “Bingo,” he murmured, calling one of the CSUs over to photograph the bullet hole then pulling his penknife and gloves from his pocket. Walking across to the bed, he peered at the wall hanging behind it. Sure enough there was a hole, right through the tiger’s chest. He made a small cut with the penknife and wiggled the bullet free from where it had lodged in the wall behind the hanging.
“Let me guess,” Blair said as he entered the bullpen the next morning. He’d left the loft earlier than Jim to teach a class at the university. “The bullets matched.”
“Afraid so, Chief.” Jim looked as disheartened at the news as Blair felt.
“I thought you’d be glad of an easy resolution to the case,” Blair said, sitting down in his desk chair next to Jim’s.
“So did I,” Jim replied. He rubbed at his jaw thoughtfully. “I don’t know. Something’s not right here, but Chloe’s now made a statement admitting to shooting her stepmom and the bullets match up. There’s not much else to be done.”
“What’ll happen to her?” Blair asked. His blood ran cold at the thought of a fourteen year old girl being sentenced to life in prison, no matter what she’d done.
“She’ll probably get eighteen to life though at her age that’ll more likely max out to her serving time at a juvie center till she’s twenty one,” Jim replied. “Look, you want to take a ride out to the hospital? Talk to her? I need to get her official Q & A done anyway.”
“I thought you said she’d already confessed?” Blair asked, standing up to follow Jim out of the bullpen.
“She did, but only to the doctor on call in the ER last night. The court may not even accept that as a confession, though along with the note she had in her hand when I found her, I’m pretty sure they will.” Jim punched the elevator button forcefully. “I just want to hear it from her, okay?”
“Sure. I’d like to hear her side of things too,” Blair agreed.
The girl in the hospital bed looked even more child-like than Jim remembered. She was pale and had huge dark circles under her eyes.
“Hi,” he said, approaching the bed. “Do you remember me?”
Chloe shook her head and looked at him warily.
“I’m Detective Jim Ellison and this is my partner, Blair Sandburg.”
Blair waggled his fingers at the girl but hung back, staying in the background.
“I found you at your father’s house the other night,” Jim went on. He sat down in the chair at the side of the bed, hoping she’d be less intimidated then. “I’d like to ask you some questions but first I need to read you your rights and we need to have your father or mother here before I do that, okay?”
Chloe nodded mutely.
“Do you understand?” Jim asked.
She nodded again but Jim wasn’t at all sure that she did. He turned to look at Blair then stood up and motioned him to the doorway. “Go call her father and ask him to come in while I talk to her.” He turned to smile reassuringly at Chloe. “I’ll be back in just a few minutes, all right?”
He left the room behind Blair and approached the nurses station, showing his badge to the woman seated there. “Can you tell me if Chloe Barnes has had any visitors?” he asked. “An attorney or her father?”
The woman reached for a file and opened it. “It’s a locked wing so all visitors are logged in and out,” she said, perusing the papers. “No, none,” she said, looking up at Jim.
“Okay, thanks.” Jim walked back to Chloe’s room to wait for Blair. He felt torn over this case. Instead of being glad they’d been able to solve it so quickly, he felt a nagging doubt and deep sadness for the girl in the hospital room.
“Hey, Jim, you won’t believe it,” Blair said, coming up to him. “Her father says he’s not up to coming to see her. However, he has retained an attorney for her and the guy’s going to meet us here. His office is just down the block so he’ll be here in about fifteen minutes.”
“All right.” Jim sighed. They’d just have to wait on the lawyer.
Jim looked up and groaned as he saw a florid–faced little man in a too tight suit hurrying towards him. He knew Armando Flores only too well. The guy was nothing more than an ambulance-chaser, a sleazy excuse for an attorney, and Jim couldn’t help but wonder why Dennis Barnes would have engaged someone like this for his daughter’s defense when he could have easily afforded one of the best defense attorneys in Cascade. “Mr. Flores,” he said politely, rising to his feet. “I’d like to interview your client but in view of her age I thought it’d be best to have someone standing up for her interests when I do so.”
“I appreciate the courtesy call,” Flores said. “Her father has instructed me to allow you full access to Chloe. She’ll be waiving her right to not speak to you.”
Jim managed to stop his utter shock at that showing on his face. Behind Flores, however, Blair’s mouth had dropped open in complete and obvious surprise.
Jim shrugged then turned and opened the door, leading the way back into the girl’s room. “Sorry to keep you waiting, Chloe,” he said as he entered and sat back down at her bedside.
“That’s it?” Blair couldn’t keep the incredulity from his voice as he followed Jim out of Chloe’s room and over to the elevator? “She says she can’t remember and we just let it go at that? She remembered enough to make a confession to the doctor.”
Jim patted his shoulder as they stood side by side, waiting for the elevator. “She also told us ‘if Laura’s dead, I must have done it’. Not exactly a confession but tying it in with what she told the doctor and the evidence we already have-“
“The evidence is circumstantial,” Blair said hotly, preceding Jim into the car when it came.
“Circumstantial evidence is still evidence. In many cases it’s better than eye witnesses because witnesses can lie,” Jim said patiently. “Look, let it go, Chief. There’s nothing more we can do. She’ll go to trial, her lawyer may even go for a temporary insanity defence. Why don’t you take that break now, before Simon comes up with anything else for us to do? Go see your grandparents.”
“Yeah, about that,” Blair said. “I’ve kind of been having second thoughts about it. I mean, I haven’t seen them since I was a kid. What if they don’t want to see me?”
Jim pushed him forward out of the elevator as the doors opened. “You said that about Joe Moreton too and he was thrilled to see you. Do it or you’ll always wonder what would have happened if you hadn’t.”
There seemed to be a world of regret in Jim’s voice with that statement and Blair finally nodded. “Yeah, you’re right. I guess I should call first, find out if they’ll be home. Naomi gave me the address and phone number before she left.”
“She okay about you going?” Jim asked, unlocking the truck doors.
Blair climbed in and cast a rueful grin across at Jim as he slid behind the steering wheel. “Not exactly,” he admitted. “She just knew, with my contacts in the PD these days, I could probably get them for myself anyway.”
“I’m gonna take a couple of personal days while you’re gone anyway,” Jim said, pulling out onto the road. “Get some stuff done at the loft.”
“No heavy duty cleaning products,” Blair warned. “I don’t want to come home and find you zoned out or worse yet, passed out on the floor from sniffing too much ammonia.”
“I’ll be careful,” Jim agreed. “So, back to the station so I can get this Q&A typed up and filed away then I’ll shout you to dinner at Murphy’s on the way home so you can get some Irish courage into you before calling your grandparents.”
Blair brightened at that. “Deal,” he said. Besides he was pretty sure it was going to take all the Irish courage Jim could pour down his throat for him to make the call.
Blair took a deep, shaky breath and smoothed back his hair one more time. He’d tied it back in a neat ponytail and even removed his earring in concession to his grandparents’ undoubtedly more old fashioned values. He’d even given serious thought to getting his hair cut for this particular visit but had brushed the idea off quickly. If his grandparents wanted to meet him and get to know him, they’d have to accept him warts and all, or long hair and all as the case may be. Finally, summoning up his last vestige of courage he raised his hand and rang the doorbell. He’d barely lowered his hand when the door opened by a small, plump gray-haired woman.
“Blair?” she said hesitantly. When he nodded, she grinned delightedly and opened the door wider, beckoning him inside. “I’m your grandmother, Ruth,” she said.
Blair stood for a moment, looking around, trying to summon up any memories of this place he’d once called home. Nothing seemed familiar though and he turned and smiled at his grandmother. “It’s good to see you,” he said.
“Oh, it’s wonderful to see you, Blair,” she replied. “Come, come, into the living room. I’ve made coffee and cookies. Oatmeal and raisin, they were your favorite.”
“Still are,” Blair replied, giving an answering grin. He breathed a sigh of relief as some of his nervousness dissipated. “Is my grandfather here?”
“You used to call him Zeda, do you remember?” she prattled on cheerfully, leading the way into another room.
“Um, kind of,” Blair replied, casting his mind back. He thought he did but he had to admit his main memories of his time with his grandparents were more impressions of feelings than anything else.
“Well, it doesn’t matter,” his grandmother said, ushering him towards a plump armchair in front of a small table. “He’ll always be your Zeda anyway. Sit, sit. I’ll go tell Samuel you’re here.” She walked across and enveloped him in a warm hug then hurried from the room.
Blair sat down in the chair and took a few deep breaths. So far so good, he told himself. Jim had been right. It was nothing like as bad as he’d worried it would be. He looked up as he heard footsteps then got his feet as his grandmother re-entered the room, a tall man at her back.
“Hello, Zeda,” Blair said, walking over with his hand out. “It’s good to see you again.”
“Hmm.” His grandfather nodded, shook his hand briefly then walked across and sat down in another of the armchairs. He was thin and pale, his hair sparse and gray, his face more deeply lined than Blair would have expected for a man his age. “See she managed to turn you into a hippie too.”
Blair’s hand unconsciously flew to his hair and he brushed a few strands back nervously. “Mom, you mean? No, this is all my own look,” he said quickly as he sat back down and took the cup of coffee his grandmother offered him.
“I told you, Samuel, Blair works with the police now. He probably has to wear his hair like that when he goes undercover.” Blair grinned as her voice dropped to a whisper as if the walls might have ears.
“Well, I’m just a consultant to the PD. I’m actually a TA at Rainier University. I’m studying for my PhD in anthropology,” he replied, taking one of the cookies from a plate and nibbling at it, smiling at his grandmother. “This is delicious,” he said.
“See, Samuel, he’s a student, a learned man just like you wanted him to be,” Ruth said.
“No thanks to her,” Samuel put in.
“She has a name, Samuel, a name you chose,” Ruth replied, an edge to her voice. She smiled apologetically at Blair. “Naomi wasn’t much for book learning. We didn’t worry about it when she was a child. Back then girls were expected to just get married and have children-“
“She got one part of that right,” Samuel said harshly. “Pity she forgot about the married part.”
“Samuel, enough! Blair came for a nice visit. We haven’t seen him in so long. Please don’t spoil this for me, or for him.” Blair’s grandmother’s eyes were filled with tears now and Blair felt a surge of anger rise.
“Naomi is a great mother,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for her, I wouldn’t have even made it to university. I started when I was only 16 and she worked hard to keep me there till I could pay my own way.”
Samuel just picked up his coffee cup and sipped at it but Ruth smiled warmly at him. “I’m sure she did. She loved you from the moment you were born.”
Samuel slammed his cup down on the table and rose to his feet. “That was Naomi’s problem,” he said, “she loved everyone.” He looked over at Blair, his eyes cold. “She didn’t even know who your father was but we took her in anyway. We put up with the gossip from the neighbors when you were born and then she decided she wanted her freedom. Fine, I said, go, leave the boy with us. We’ll raise him right. But no, she dragged you along with her. You shouldn’t have come,” he added, walking out of the room. “Too much time has passed, too many hurts unhealed.”
Blair looked at Ruth, tears burning his own eyes. “I’m sorry. He’s right. I shouldn’t have come.”
“Don’t say that,” his grandmother said as he rose to his feet. “You’re right. Naomi is a good mother and you’re a good son to her. She raised you well, Blair. I’m sorry about Samuel. He has Alzheimers. He has so much trouble remembering the present that he lives in the past.” She hurried across and embraced him. “Please stay in touch, Blair. I don’t want to lose you again. Soon your Zeda will be gone and I’ll be alone.”
Blair hugged her back tightly then pulled back and kissed her forehead. “You won’t be alone, Bubbe. I’ll stay in touch, I promise. But I’d better get going. Maybe we can meet for lunch in town sometime.”
Ruth sniffed and dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. “Well, I do have to shop sometimes,” she said, a small smile lightening her face. “And Zeda hates to shop.”
“Good. I love to shop,” Blair replied. He hugged her again then took the handful of cookies she pressed on him and left.
He should have been surprised to see Jim’s truck pulled up next to his own car as he left the house but he wasn’t, not really. For a moment though his heart skipped a beat as he worried that something had happened to Naomi but as he got closer, the broad grin on Jim’s face dispelled his concern.
“Hey, what are you doing here? Stalking me?” Blair said with an answering smile as he leaned his arms on the driver’s side window of the truck.
“I was in the neighborhood, thought I’d drop in,” Jim replied.
“Jim, no way is this little town in the neighborhood of Cascade,” Blair said. “So, really, why are you here? Is everything okay?”
“Everything’s fine. Things are slow at the station so I asked Simon if I could extend my leave to a week. Thought we could maybe do some camping, see the sights before I have to head back for the Barnes trial.”
“You spoke to Naomi, didn’t you?” Blair asked.
Jim shrugged. “She called, wanted to know how the visit had gone. I told her you’d only just left because of the case we were working on. She seemed to think you might need a little moral support.”
“She wasn’t wrong,” Blair said ruefully. “I’m not sure my car’s up for a camping trip though,” Blair said.
“Drive it back to the motel I’m staying in and leave it there for a few days,” Jim suggested. He pointed to the back of the truck. “I’ve got all the camping gear we’ll need.”
Blair looked back at the house and saw his grandmother standing at the window. He waved brightly to her then went and climbed into his car.
It had been a great trip, Blair thought as he walked out of the PD elevator and headed for the bullpen. They’d been back two days and this was the first time he’d been at the station since they’d returned. They’d mostly spent their time hiking the back trails and sitting round the campfire, swapping tall tales about previous trips they’d been on. Jim hadn’t prodded him to talk about his visit to his grandparents and Blair had been grateful for that. His disappointment was still too raw. He needed time to process it all first before he could even begin to give voice to his emotions.
“Hey, Chief,” Jim called across to him as he walked into the bullpen.
“How did it go in court?” Blair asked as soon as he sat down.
“They tried to go for a temporary insanity defence but it didn’t fly,” Jim said. “According to the prosecution’s psychiatrists, Chloe’s a normal teenager with the usual amount of teenage angst, no more.”
“How did Chloe do?”
“She didn’t testify. Poor kid looked as if she had no idea what was going on. Her lawyer pled her out. She got eighteen to life,” Jim said gravely.
“Oh god,” Blair said. “They won’t keep her there that long, will they?”
“If she’s shows appropriate remorse for her actions and cooperates with counseling, she could be out by the time she’s twenty one,” Jim said.
“Somehow I think that’s going to seem like a lifetime to her anyway,” Blair observed. “All her friends will have moved on, graduated college, maybe even gotten married…”
“Nothing more we can do,” Jim said. “I did ask the guard to give her my card, in case she needs anything. Somehow I don’t think her father’s going to stand by her and her mom seems unable to cope with the whole mess.”
“You’re a good guy, Jim.”
“So people keep telling me,” Jim said with a wink. “Now, do you think we can get to work on some of these cases that piled up while we were off enjoying ourselves?”
*Three months later:*
Blair hurried from his room to grab the ringing phone before its jangling noise could wake Jim, who was asleep upstairs after an all night stakeout the night before.
“Hello?” he said quietly.
“I need to speak to Detective Ellison.”
The voice on the other end was young, female, and almost-familiar but Blair couldn’t place it. “Who’s calling?” he asked. “He’s asleep but I could take a message-“
“No! I really need to talk to him. He said I could call him anytime…”
“Who is this?” Blair asked, getting in before the hint of tears he could hear in the girl’s voice edged over into sobs.
“Chloe Barnes. I have to speak to him. There’s something I need to ask him, to tell him… Please! I only have ten minutes call time.” The girl sounded desperate now and Blair gave in.
“Hang on, I’ll go wake him up,” he said, putting the phone down on the table and then running up the stairs to the loft bedroom.
He shook Jim’s shoulder. “Hey, Jim, Chloe Barnes is on the phone for you. She said it’s important.”
Jim rolled over and was up sitting on the side of the bed in an instant. He rubbed at his eyes then grabbed for his bathrobe from the end of the bed and pulled it on. “What about?” he asked as he headed downstairs.
“She didn’t say. Just that she really needed to talk to you.” Blair watched as Jim went over and picked up the phone. Momentarily he wished he was a Sentinel so he could eavesdrop on Chloe’s end of the conversation but then Jim said, “Hang on a minute, Chloe, I’m putting you on speaker so my partner can listen in.”
A press of a button and then Chloe’s voice filled the room.
“My dad said I wouldn’t have to go to jail if I said I did it,” she began.
Jim motioned for Blair to grab the mini tape recorder Blair used for recording his lectures and place it next to the phone then once it was on he said, “Chloe, I’m going to tape this if it’s okay with you.”
“I don’t care,” she replied. “But I need to tell you quickly before they cut off my call.”
“Go on,” Jim said reassuringly.
“My dad said I had to say I did it but then I could pretend I couldn’t remember and everyone would think I was crazy and they’d just send me to a hospital for a little while and then he’d make sure I got to go home but he hasn’t even been to see me and it’s been three months and my lawyer said I got life.” There was a huge intake of breath on the other end of the phone and Jim jumped in quickly before the flood of words could begin again.
“So someone else killed your stepmother and made you take the blame?”
There was a moment’s silence then Chloe said shakily. “Would it stop you helping me if I did it?”
Jim and Blair exchanged stunned looks then Jim said, “You’re saying you did shoot Laura Barnes?”
“I had to. My dad said she was going to have him killed and I couldn’t lose my dad. He said he couldn’t do it because he’d go to jail and he’s sick and he’d die there. Patty couldn’t because she’s older than me and she’d get longer in jail but he said everyone would just think I’d gone crazy… Can you help me?” Chloe asked plaintively.
“Your dad told you to do it?” Blair asked.
“Not exactly. He gave me the gun before he left the house and he said, ‘She’s going to do it soon. I’m leaving. I’m not saying you have to do anything but if you really love me you’ll make sure Laura can’t go through with what she’s planning.’ There was a shaky intake of breath on the other end then Chloe went on, “My phone time’s up. Will you come and see me?”
Jim looked over at Blair and nodded then picked up the phone, switching off the recorder as he did so. “We’ll be there tomorrow morning. Chloe, you don’t tell anyone else about this, all right?”
“I won’t. Thank you.”
The line disconnected and Jim hung it up then sat down on the couch.
“I just knew there was something hinky about this case,” Blair said.
Jim nodded. “Trouble is, I don’t know if it’ll help Chloe. Even if her dad told her to do it and we can prove it, she still committed the act.”
“Yeah, but at least she won’t be the only being punished,” Blair said.
“There is that,” Jim agreed. He looked at the clock. “Want to go out and grab some lunch? I need to fill Simon in on this anyway. We can ask him to meet us.”
“Sure.” Blair went into his room to change, his heart aching for Chloe Barnes.
Blair looked across the interview room table at the teenager sitting opposite. Chloe looked drained and pale but at last she’d told the truth. Now they just needed to find a way to get at least some justice both for her and for Laura Barnes.
“Chloe, would you be willing to wear a wire if we can come up with a way to get your father out here to visit with you?” Jim asked.
Chloe nodded. “But he won’t come. He doesn’t care about me now. He’s got Polly. A friend told me she’s even wearing Laura’s clothes and she tells everyone that Katy is her baby, hers with my dad.”
“So Polly knew about all of this too?” Blair asked.
“Yeah, because my dad knew I didn’t know how to use the gun properly, but he had to not be there so he told Polly to show me how to use it,” Chloe replied sadly.
“How did the gun get fired in Polly’s room?” Jim asked.
“We were trying to get the safety thing off and Polly was holding Katy while she tried to help me do it and Katy’s dress got caught in the little catch thing and when she pulled it out, the gun just went off,” Chloe explained.
Blair shuddered at how close little Katy Barnes had come to being a casualty along with her mother that night. It seemed everyone was expendable when it came to Dennis Barnes getting his own way.
“What happened to the gun… afterwards?” Jim asked.
Chloe shook her head. “I’m not sure. I left it on top of the washer when I took the pills. I guess either Polly or my dad took it and put it somewhere.”
“When did you write the note?” Blair asked.
“Before my dad left. He said, *if* I was going to do something to Laura, it would look better if it looked like I tried to kill myself. He said his pills were proper medicines so they wouldn’t really hurt me, just make me a bit sick,” Chloe replied.
“Chloe, you realize you could have died from taking those pills, don’t you?” Blair asked.
“Not then,” she replied, “but later, when my dad didn’t even come see me in the hospital, I knew then that maybe he was hoping they would kill me.” She looked down at her hands and fumbled with a tissue Blair passed across to her. A fat teardrop rolled down her face and plopped onto the tabletop. “I thought he loved me,” she whispered, sounding stricken. “But he just used me.”
“Why would your dad want Laura dead?” Jim asked, after waiting a few moments for the girl to compose herself. “Do you believe she was really planning on having him killed?”
“At the time he told me I did because he said she wanted the insurance money but then I found out he doesn’t have any insurance. He’s too sick so he can’t get it. But he got lots of money when Laura died,” Chloe replied.
“How do you know that?” Jim asked, leaning forward. They hadn’t checked into insurance policies once Chloe had been arrested and the trial had been curtailed by her plea of guilty.
“There’s a friend of Laura’s who works at the bank my dad uses. She called me last week and told me,” Chloe said. “She’s the one who told me about Polly wearing Laura’s clothes and stuff. She also said Polly’s pregnant with my dad’s baby. She was real angry that they’d just forget about Laura like that so she called me and told me about the insurance.”
“What’s her name and the name of the bank?” Jim asked, pulling over a pen and notepad.
“Melanie Brookes. She works at Cascade First National.”
“Okay.” Jim stood up then walked around to pat Chloe’s shoulder. “Remember, don’t speak to anyone about any of this. We’ll be back in touch if we need to set up the visit from your dad.”
“Is all this going to help?” Chloe asked as she stood and held out her hands for the cuffs to be placed back on her wrists.
“Yes, I really think it will.” Jim stopped then looked gravely down at her. “You realize your dad will go to jail and that this won’t get you out, right?”
“I know,” Chloe said softly, “but they keep telling us in here we have to face the truth in order to change and have some chance of leaving here and going on with our lives. I can’t do that unless all the truth comes out.”
“Okay. I’ll call you soon.” Jim turned and left the room with Blair following closely behind.
“What do you think?” Blair asked as they headed out to the parking lot.
“I think we’ve finally found our motive,” Jim said.
“Well?” Simon Banks perched on the edge of Jim’s desk and waited for an update. “Did the bank teller verify the kid’s story?”
“Yep,” Jim replied. “I’ve applied for a subpoena for Barnes’ bank and insurance records. Sandburg went to pick it up.”
“Good. You know, Jim, I’m all for helping this poor kid out if she wasn’t totally responsible for what went down but I can’t hold you off other cases forever,” Simon said. “Besides which-“
“Besides which the Commissioner’s not going to be too thrilled when the case he tossed us because it involved one of his bigwig friends isn’t going to turn out quite they way he thought it would,” Jim finished for him.
“Yeah, well, you have to admit he’s going to get a big shock if we succeed in putting his buddy, Barnes, in the hot seat,” Simon agreed.
“Somehow that doesn’t seem all that important in the grand scheme of things,” Jim replied. “There’s a fourteen year old girl locked up for something she would never have done without her father’s machinations. I’m finding it a little hard to have sympathy for anyone in the case except Laura Barnes, her baby, who’s now growing up without her mother, and Chloe Barnes.”
“I get it,” Simon said. “I wish there was more we could do for the girl.”
“This is better than nothing at all,” Blair put in as he flopped down in his chair next to Jim’s desk. He handed over a piece of paper to Jim. “Signed, sealed, and now all we have to do is deliver it,” he said.
“Still no idea what happened to the murder weapon?” Simon asked.
“Chloe said she was told to leave it on top of the washing machine after she took the pills,” Jim said.
“Just a thought. You didn’t find the gun in the house and the kid didn’t have it on her when you pulled her out of that kennel so sounds like she might be telling the truth about where she left it,” Simon said. “You didn’t search the grieving family when they left the house that night, I take it?”
Jim shook his head. “And have the Commissioner down on our heads for treating the sorrowful widower as a suspect? Besides at that point there didn’t seem to be any reason to.” He glowered darkly. “Barnes was pretty convincing at the time and everyone was pretty sure the girl was the shooter.”
“Well, what if Barnes does have the gun?” Simon went on. “If he hasn’t gotten rid of it yet, Chloe saying she’s going to the cops as well as the news we’re about to subpoena his financials might just scare him into getting rid of it.”
“That sounds like stakeout time to me,” Blair said with a groan.
“Yep, and seeing you wanted be a part of this case so much, you get to go on it with me,” Jim said, patting his shoulder.
“Joy,” Blair said, mock-morosely. “Yet more days and nights without sleep.”
“Suck it up, Princess, you’ll survive,” Jim said with a grin. “Okay,” he stood up and picked up the subpoena. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
“What if he’s already dumped the gun or he doesn’t have it?” Blair asked on their way out to the elevator.
“Then we wire Chloe up and go with that. We’ll call this Plan A and hope we don’t have to go for Plan B.”
Jim pulled his nondescript police motor pool car level with the one Rafe and Brown were using and rolled down his window. “Anything?” he asked.
“Not yet,” Rafe replied. “We delivered the copy of the subpoena about an hour ago, told him the bank and insurance company had already been served with theirs and that he’d hear from us if we needed him to come downtown to answer any questions.”
“How’d he take it?” Blair put in, leaning forward in his seat.
Rafe shrugged. “Hard to tell. He snatched it from me and pretty much slammed the door in our faces.”
Brown leaned across to say softly, “Lights in the house just went out. Looks like everyone’s heading for bed.”
“Okay, you guys head on out and wait up around the block. I’ll radio if he makes a move,” Jim said, winding his window back up and watching as Rafe drove away. “Now, we wait,” he said to Blair.
“And wait and wait,” Blair said with a small smile. “Hey, you know I’m not really complaining about doing this, right? If it helps Chloe and it helps get that baby away from Barnes…”
“I know.” Jim flashed him a grin then turned and fixed him with a firm look. “You do what I tell you though, Chief. If I say stay in the car, you do it. You got that?”
“Sure, man, no problem. Though I think even I could take Barnes down with one arm tied behind my back. The guy’s not exactly Schwarzenegger.”
“Maybe not, but he might be armed,” Jim said. “Even you can’t stop a speeding bullet, Superman.”
“Oh man, I’m never going to live that superhero story of my mom’s down, am I?” Blair replied.
“Not anytime soon,” Jim said, laughing. He looked back towards the house then nudged Blair with his shoulder. “Someone’s on the move.”
Blair looked over toward the house and saw a shadowy figure exit through the front door, a flashlight illuminating the ground in front of him as he walked. “Barnes?” he asked.
Jim focused his sight as sharply as he could and then nodded. “Yep, looks like the rat’s taken the bait. He’s getting into his car. Buckle up, Chief, and then get on the radio and tell Rafe and Brown where we go.”
Barnes’ car made a couple of quick turns into side streets that made Jim wonder if maybe he was already onto them but then he turned back onto the main thoroughfare heading out of Cascade, keeping his speed just below the limit. “He’s making sure he doesn’t get pulled over for anything,” Jim observed as Blair relayed directions to Brown. “He’s pulling over, Chief. Tell Rafe and Brown to stay a block or so back. Don’t want to spook him now.”
Jim pulled the car over into a space a few cars back from Barnes and watched as he climbed from the car.
Barnes stood for a moment or two, fumbling with something then headed for the curb, a plastic bag clutched in one hand.
“He’s going to toss it down the storm drain,” Jim said. “Damn, we’ve had a lot of rain lately. If he gets it down there, we might not be in time to get it out before it gets swept out by the overflow.” He glanced at Blair as he climbed out of the car. “Stay here!” he warned.
Blair held both hands up in a gesture of surrender. “Staying,” he said. “Just be careful out there, man.”
Jim walked stealthily towards Barnes then cursed sub-vocally as he trod on a stone and his foot slid from under him. He righted himself by grabbing onto a nearby car then dropped to his knees as the alarm went off and a high pitched siren assaulted his ear drums.
“Crap!” Blair straightened in his seat as he heard the wailing of the car alarm and peered through the darkness, trying to see what was happening. All he could make out was the flashing lights of the car in front of them, its indicators blinking in time with the rise and fall of the undulating clamor of the alarm. He grabbed for the radio and called Rafe. “I think Jim’s been made,” he said succinctly, not bothering with details. “You better get here.” Tossing the mic down on the seat, he opened the car door and edged out, grabbing belatedly for the flashlight Jim kept under the seat on his way.
Once out of the car and with the flashlight on he could see Jim kneeling on the ground a few feet in front of him, his hands clasped over his ears.
Barnes had already moved a few steps towards Jim, one hand held out in front of him. Blair lifted the flashlight beam away from Jim and focused it on Barnes, swallowing dryly as he saw he was holding a gun.
“Stay where you are,” Blair called. “Cascade PD.” He waited with bated breath as Barnes’ head snapped up. “Put the gun down, Mr. Barnes,” he said.
Barnes bent forward and Blair let his breath seep out between his lips in relief as the man put the gun on the ground. Quickly he flashed a look back at Jim, relieved to see he’d made it to his feet though he was wobbling and holding one hand against an ear still. “You okay?” he called.
Jim nodded shakily then pushed off from the car. “Watch out, Sandburg!” he yelled.
Blair flicked his gaze back to Barnes just as what felt like a battering ram hit him head on, sending him tumbling back onto the sidewalk, breath whooshing from his lungs, his head smacking hard into the unforgiving concrete, causing stars to dance across his vision. He greyed out momentarily, hearing the sound of running footsteps and shouted voices around him as he fought to stay conscious.
“You okay there, Chief?”
Blair opened his eyes and blinked to clear the prickling flashes of light from his vision. “Not exactly,” he managed to get out as he tried to catch his breath. He focused on Jim’s face finally. “You okay?”
“Yeah, car alarm sideswiped me for a minute there,” Jim replied. “Luckily it’s one of those that only stays on for a couple of minutes.”
“Barnes?” Blair asked.
“We got him, Sandburg,” Rafe said, crouching down next to him as Brown pushed a sullen-looking Dennis Barnes along ahead of him towards their car.
“Nice tackle, Barnes,” H said conversationally. “If it wasn’t for all that baby fat you’re carrying, you might have made a halfway decent football player.”
“Bite me,” Barnes snarled.
“Not me, man. I haven’t had my shots but I’m sure there’s some big guy in the holding cells who’ll be happy to oblige you,” H replied with a grin down at Blair.
Jim helped Blair up, holding him steady till his knees stopped shaking and the ground stopped looking like it was undulating under him. “Okay now?” he asked. “You need to go to the hospital and get that hard head of yours looked at?”
Blair rubbed his hand ruefully over the lump on the back of his head and wrapped his other arm around his aching ribs. “Nah, I’m fine. Just knocked the wind out of me,” he said.
Rafe patted him gently on the back then headed back to his own car.
“Thanks for the backup, guys,” Jim called after him.
“Anytime,” Rafe called back with a wave. “See you back at the PD. I’m damn glad you’re lead on this, Ellison. The paperwork’s all yours.”
“Gee thanks,” Jim muttered with a grin. “Let’s get you back to the loft then I’ll head on in and tie up the loose ends on this case.”
“Uh uh, no way,” Blair said mulishly, walking back to the car. “I want to see this all the way through.”
Jim just shook his head and opened the door for him. “Now how did I know you were going to say that?” he mused as he walked around the other side and climbed behind the wheel. He looked over at Blair as he started the car. “Fair enough, I guess. Think you might need to get your hearing checked tomorrow though.”
“I hit my head, Jim,” Blair said. “Nothing wrong with my ears.”
“Oh, then I guess there’s another reason you didn’t do as I said and stay in the car?”
“Well, yeah, I was just doing my job, man. Remember the guide’s supposed to be the Sentinel’s backup,” Blair said defensively. “Besides I thought Barnes would be a pushover.”
“Never judge a book by its cover, Chief,” Jim said, “especially a desperate to stay out of jail book.”
“What I really don’t get,” Blair went on, “is why Barnes kept the gun all this time. He’s had plenty of time to get rid of it.”
“Who knows?” Jim shrugged as he set the car in motion. “Maybe he got complacent. More likely though he thought the gun was safer with him. After all, as far as he knew he’d gotten away free and clear. If he’d tried to dump the gun before there was always a chance someone would see him do it or that someone would find it and we’d trace it back to him. Once he knew we were onto him, I guess he figured the gun was one more piece of evidence he couldn’t afford to have us find on him when we picked him up.”
Blair leaned back against the seat and closed his eyes. “I’m just glad it’s over,” he said softly. “Now maybe there’ll be some justice done.”
“Well?” Blair asked nervously as Jim walked across the bullpen and slumped down into the chair next to him. He’d wanted to be in court with Jim today, to give moral support to Chloe Barnes and to see the case through to its absolute end but he’d had classes he couldn’t avoid so Jim had gone alone.
Jim rolled his head sideways and looked at Blair with tired eyes. “Long case,” he said.
“Yeah, jury’s been out a long time,” Blair said. He waited then when Jim didn’t speak he whacked him gently on the arm. “So, what happened?”
“Barnes got life for conspiracy and a few other charges the DA decided to tack on, - obstruction of justice, endangering the welfare of a child…”
“And?” Blair could barely sit still. He anchored himself to his chair by gripping the armrests with clenched fists. “What about Chloe?”
“Polly got ten to twenty five for conspiracy and for being an accessory before and after the fact,” Jim said slowly. He straightened in his chair. “Chloe continues her sentence,” he finished.
“That’s all?” Blair asked incredulously. “No time off for helping us catch her father?”
Jim shook his head. “Like it or not, Chief, she killed Laura Barnes. She has to do the time for that. The judge did say he’d look favorably on an early release now that she’s admitted to it and is showing true remorse.”
“I guess that’s fair enough,” Blair said softly. “I hope she gets on okay.”
“Time will tell,” Jim said. He held up a hand as the phone on his desk rang and he answered it. “Blair Sandburg? Yeah, he’s here. Hold on a moment, please.” He glared at Blair. “You gave your grandmother my work number?”
“Hey, I don’t have a cell phone so I gave her the number at the loft and this one,” Blair replied defensively, grabbing the phone. “Hi, Bubbe,” he said brightly. “How’s things?” He listened for a minute then said, “Sure. I’d love to see you. Hey, no, don’t worry about a hotel. You can stay with Jim and me.” He fended off Jim’s attempts to grab the phone then said cheerfully, “Okay, see you Saturday!”
“Tell me you didn’t just invite your grandmother to stay with us,” Jim said through gritted teeth.
“It’s only for a day or two. You’ll love her. I mean you liked Naomi, right? How bad can my grandmother be? She’s Naomi’s mom after all.” Blair stood up and grabbed his backpack. “Well, I’ve got another class to teach so I’ll see you tonight.” He headed for the door at a run then looked back as he reached it to see Jim bury his head in his hands. “Aw, suck it up, Princess,” he called as he stepped into the hall. “At least she won’t bring sage.”