THE VIRGIN SUICIDES

By

D.L. Witherspoon

Day 1

THE CASCADE EVENING STAR, page 4, lower right quadrant

COLLEGE STUDENT FOUND DEAD. A college student was found dead in her dorm room this morning, according to a spokesperson for Rainier University. Police have not ruled out foul play and the Homicide Unit is investigating. The student's name is being withheld until...

Day 3

THE CASCADE EVENING STAR, page 1, lower right quadrant

ANOTHER RAINIER UNIVERSITY DEATH. Another female student has been discovered dead in her dorm room. Although authorities are not linking the death to the one earlier this week, both victims were members of the same sorority and lived in the same dorm...

Day 7

THE CASCADE EVENING STAR, page 1, upper right quadrant

SUICIDE PACT? After the body of a third coed was discovered this morning, many are speculating that college life in the '90s is perhaps too stressful for coeds who are trying to balance the need for a successful career with the desire to have a social life. (See page 7A for "The Superwoman Effect"). Had these young women made a pact to end their lives and are they the only ones? The university has hired a team of psychologists to speak to the inhabitants of Drury Women's Dormitory in hopes of nipping this trend in the bud...

Day 11

THE CASCADE EVENING STAR, page 1, headline

FOURTH STUDENT DEAD! THE VIRGIN SUICIDES CONTINUE. As coined by several students at Rainier University, the "Virgin Suicides" add another victim. However, latest casualty's roommate denies that her friend committed suicide. "Keisha and I talked after seeing our friend, Melanie, dragged out of here," Marya Spencer said as she waited for her family to come get her. "We both thought suicide was stupid. We joked that if a boy got on your nerves that bad, don't kill yourself--kill him. I don't know what happened, but it wasn't suicide."

Authorities may be in agreement. The case has been reassigned to the Cascade Police Department's elite Major Crime Unit...

Day 13

THE CASCADE EVENING STAR, page 1, headline

DEATHS HAUNT COLLEGE--FIFTH STUDENT PERISHES. Authorities scramble to find answers as the death count at Rainier University continues to rise. The university was rocked again this morning by the discovery of yet another body of a young coed, the fifth in less than two weeks. Concerned parents are questioning if the university is doing enough to protect its charges and some are taking their children out of school....

Day 16

"Jim, we have another one."

"I'm on my way."

Jim Ellison clicked off his phone and slipped into a soft cotton pullover. Already clad in jeans, after the addition of a pair of socks and shoes he was out the door. Captain Banks hadn't had to give him the details. "Another one" could only mean there had been a suspicious death at Rainier University. Another dead girl. Another dead child.

He slammed the door of his truck.

"The Virgin Suicides." Catchy name, except for the fact that at least three of the five victims weren't virgins and no one was quite sure if they were suicides or not. Five girls found dead in their beds with no known cause of death. No sign of struggle. No marks on their bodies. No trace of drugs. No indication of previous health conditions. According to the autopsy and toxicology reports, these girls shouldn't be dead.

But they were.

Jim got out of his truck and surveyed the motley crowd outside Drury Women's Dormitory. A smaller grouping than last time. Didn't mean the girl was liked less or that the students were growing callous--just that these six a.m. occurrences were becoming too part of the norm. Besides, as one young woman had told him at the last crime scene, if you hid your head beneath the covers and ignored what was going on, maybe you'd be safe.

Who could argue with such logic?

"Morning, Detective."

"Morning, Sims." Officer Alicia Sims had worked the campus beat for three years. Besides a couple of drug busts, three drunken frat boy smackdowns, and one attempted rape, she'd had a non-eventful career and enjoyed it. Five--no, make it six now--deaths on her watch had to be hard to take. "What floor?"

"Third." She walked along with him.

"Any obvious connections to the other victims?"

"Just the usual--same school, same dorm."

At least the first two had been sorority sisters. After that, they just seemed to be random connections. A shared class, dinner at the college cafeteria, maybe a similar taste in music. Nothing that said in two weeks, six would be dead.

Jim glanced around as they arrived on the proper floor. Henri Brown was sitting on well-worn carpet across from a tear-streaked-faced girl. Roommate or best friend, he hazarded. Brian Rafe was questioning another girl, who, if the way she was leaning toward the detective was any indication, was in full flirt mode. Jim gave both men a nod. Apparently the captain wasn't sparing any expense. Three of his best detectives at one death scene. The mayor must have crawled up his ass again.

He turned into the room that was flanked by two uniforms. He stepped back as a flash went off, then continued inside. Dan Wolf, Cascade's M.E., and his assistants were around the bed, carefully turning the tee and panty-wearing body and taking pictures. "Anything new?" he asked softly.

Dan shook his head. "Ride shotgun on the opening?"

"Sure." Ever since he was a kid, Jim had had heightened senses. Generally, he kept it a secret, but he and Dan had an arrangement. Dan gave him medicine when hard use of his senses ultimately led to a migraine, and he provided a second opinion when Dan ran into a difficult autopsy. By focusing, he could smell a foreign chemical in a body, spot an injection site, or notice tissue damage without Dan having to wait for tests to come back. It was nothing Dan could write down in an official report, but time-wise it kept him a step ahead.

With a sigh, Jim studied the body. Borderline anorexic like most young women these days. Blonde--no, a quick look revealed she was actually a brunette and probably scheduled for a bikini re-waxing or shave in the next day or two. Fingers were manicured. Two rings on the left hand and one on the right. Feet oddly corned and calloused. "Dance major?"

Dan nodded. "Senior. On track to graduate in May."

Jim closed his eyes. What a damn waste. He shivered as one of the assistants unzipped a body bag. He hated that sound. Hated it in the Army, hated it when the retrieval detail had exhumed the men he'd buried in South America--his men, injured beyond help in the helicopter crash that had left him stranded for a year and half with a tribe he'd been taught was primitive and had learned was not.

"Seen enough for now, Jim?"

The doctor's soft question jarred him back to the present. "Yeah. I'll catch up with you at the morgue." He wandered back out into the hallway. His fellow detectives seemed to be conferring at the far end, so he joined them.

"Anything?"

Both shook their heads. "We're getting ready to have a full-blown panic on our hands," Rafe warned. "There's talk of evacuating this whole dorm, and the CDC has been alerted.

Jim shrugged. "Maybe the Centers for Disease Control will have better luck than we're having."

"The mayor's gonna be pissed, which means the captain's gonna be pissed," Brown muttered.

"When isn't the captain pissed?" Jim replied.

Brown grinned. "Not all of us have that effect on him."

Jim rolled his eyes. It was true that Simon Banks was always annoyed with him for one reason or another. What were you thinking, going in there alone, Ellison? Don't you know what backup is, Ellison? Rewrite this report, Ellison, and make it read like it's reality and not science fiction! The captain knew he had heightened senses, but he really didn't want to know. So Jim made up stuff in his reports and the captain signed off on them. Sometimes he wrote his reports honestly just to watch Banks chomp on his ever-present, but unlit cigar and stomp out to the bullpen to make him rewrite it. Jim hadn't figured out yet whether that made him a sadist or a masochist.

"Do you really think it's some kind of germ causing this?" Rafe asked.

"I don't know. I'm going to the opening. Maybe we'll find something there."

"Better you than me, bro."

Jim gave Brown a grim smile. He wasn't exactly thrilled about autopsies, but he'd gotten used to them.

And he never slept that much anyway.

"Sims, walk me down?"

The officer detached herself from her brethren and joined him. "Anything?"

He shook his head. "I hate mysteries."

"Make that two of us."

"You okay?"

"Yeah. I'd just feel better if there was some--threat I could protect them from, you know? These are my kids. I talk to the freshmen each year, tell them to trust me, convince them that I'm not the enemy. I feel like I'm failing them."

"You're doing the best you can. We all are."

She shook her head and grinned. "And just how much of that are you buying, Detective? Think I haven't seen your truck cruising around the campus at all hours of the day and night since this whole business started?"

Jim shrugged, somewhat uneasy with the feelings he had for Cascade. From the moment he'd gotten discharged from the Army, he'd known he had to return to Cascade, to his city and protect it from harm. Sure, it was his hometown and his dad and brother still lived there, but that wasn't why he returned. In fact, they were the reasons he'd left in the first place. No, he came back because he had to, like it was a biological directive or something. Crazy as hell, he knew. But what wasn't in his freaky life?

He looked out over the few stragglers that remained outside. Killers sometimes liked to witness the aftermath of their work, but nothing about the onlookers raised his very reactive hackles. His gaze fell on one guy. His dark, curly hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and an earring flashed silver in the rising sun. He was talking to someone else, but what caught Jim's attention was the notepad in his hands. "Who's Mr. Ponytail? A reporter for the school paper?"

Sims shook her head. "That's Dr. Sandburg, not a student. I think he teaches something in the Social Sciences--at least that's the building his office is in. He's real popular with the kids. Not much older than they are."

"Why is he taking notes at a crime scene?"

"Probably writing an article or something. It's the same here as it is at other universities--publish or perish."

"Ah. Something like 'Pervasive Fear: The Psychological Matrix of a College Under Threat.'"

Sims snorted delicately. "These college people live in a totally different world from reality. The faculty, the students... Another reason why I want this solved. If they can avoid the nastiness of real life for four or five years, I say let them. Reality isn't going anywhere soon."

"It never does," Jim replied, and walked away.

*****

"How'd the autopsy go?"

Jim shrugged as he stood in front of Banks' desk. "Nothing new. No apparent cause of death. Just a body that decided to stop living."

"Damn," the captain muttered. "What now?"

Jim rubbed at his left temple. He'd concentrated too hard during the autopsy. "I'm heading over to the university to talk to one of the professors."

"A suspect?"

Jim shook his head and watched the hope dim in the captain's eyes. "I don't think so, and neither does Sims. I ran his name through the system. Parking fines and a dropped charge of trespass--he chained himself to a tree when he was an undergrad."

"So why are you going to see him?"

"He's been hanging around taking notes outside the dorm after each death. He's an anthropologist, so Sims and I figure he's writing an article or doing a study. I'm hoping he might have a different perspective on the matter. Maybe he's noticed something we haven't. And Sims says he's popular with the students so they could have told him things they haven't told us."

"You're grasping at straws, Detective," Simon said with a sigh.

"I know." He rubbed at the right temple.

Simon looked at him compassionately. "I know how much you want this solved, Jim, but working yourself into an early grave over it won't help. Carolyn said she had to kick you out of her lab a few days ago."

"The calibration's off on several of the instruments. It took most of the afternoon just to convince her of that."

"Maybe it took most of the afternoon because you like spending time with your ex."

Jim gave a smile that didn't reach his eyes. "I will always love Carolyn, but the marriage is over, Simon. It's for the best. I'm just not--husband material."

"Don't let this damn job consume you like it did me, Jim."

"Easier said than done. Besides, you know how it is for me." The heightened senses didn't understand the concepts of duty shifts and days off and celebrating anniversaries with your wife.

"Maybe the CDC will--"

"Find nothing," Jim finished. "It's not some microbe or virus doing this."

Simon's eyes widened. "Don't tell me your vision has gone microscopic or something?"

"No, but I would smell the decay of something like that. The bodies are perfect, just non-functioning." He looked at his watch. "The professor's class is going to end soon. I want to catch him before his next one."

The captain nodded. "Keep in touch, Detective. And get some lunch while you're out."

"Aye, aye, sir," Jim said with a mocking salute.

*****

"Dr. Blair Sandburg?" Jim called, tapping on the open office door.

"Come in." A pile of books was moved from the corner of the desk, revealing the speaker to Jim and vice-versa. Blue eyes widened. "You're a detective, aren't you? I've seen you at Drury."

"Jim Ellison." He held out his hand when he reached the desk. "And that's why I'm here--to speak to you about the recent deaths."

"I'm not a suspect, am I?" the professor asked with a shaky smile.

"Not at this time. I just have some questions."

"O-kay," Dr. Sandburg said dubiously. "Why don't you have a seat?"

"Thank you. I've noticed you've taken an interest in the events that have occurred here on campus."

"Everyone has."

"Not to the extent that they take notes."

"Oh. Well, see, I'm sort of an investigator myself." He moved some things around on his cluttered desk before grabbing a small white card and shoving it toward Jim.

Jim scanned the business card: Blair Sandburg, Ph.D, MSI. "MSI?"

The man squirmed a little. "Monster Scene Investigator."

Jim's fingers tightened, then relaxed. It was okay, he told himself. The professor could still be useful. It wasn't like the man was the first nutcase he'd dealt with. One of his best informants only accepted athletic shoes as currency. "Interesting. May I keep this?" he asked, slipping the card into his pocket. "So in your investigation, have you come across any human suspects? Someone hanging around, perhaps too curious--or maybe not curious enough?"

Sandburg stared open-mouthed at him for a second, then gave a wry smile. "You hide your condescension better than most of your colleagues."

"Is that why you made your 'confession'? So I'd leave you alone to do whatever it is you do during your kind of investigation?"

The professor flushed. "Sorry, it's a knee-jerk reaction to, well, the typical knee-jerk reactions I usually get when people find out about my other profession."

"So why tell me?"

"Because when you run your background check on me--and you will--it's going to come up. I've found it better to make a preemptive strike rather than wait and be accused of wasting a 'real' investigator's time."

"Do your investigations often overlap police investigations?"

A shrug. "Sometimes. Sometimes it's just a sighting that I'm looking into."

Jim nodded, figuring he'd done his part in being an understanding colleague. Wasn't nearly as bad as listening to Sneaks bemoan his moral dilemma of coveting the handiwork of enslaved Asian children. "Back to my question--have you any human suspects?"

Sandburg sighed. "I don't think there are any."

Jim stood. "Thank you for your time. Here's my card. If you have any--"

"Please, Detective, listen to me," Dr. Sandburg said, leaning forward earnestly. "You have nothing--all your scientific equipment and procedures have not made a dent in solving the deaths of these women. If you want the dying to stop, you need to at least accept the possibility that the answer lies outside the realm of the known. Do you know where the word 'monster' comes from? It has its roots in the Latin word, 'monstrum,' which translates to 'that which is shown forth or revealed.' The same root is found in our words like 'demonstrate' and 'remonstrance'--words that are about revealing, displaying, showing. Monstrous beings used to 'show' what was going on. They appeared when the world was screwing up, or the gods wanted to give us a message."

"You think the gods are trying to send us a message?" Jim didn't bother to hide the skepticism in his voice.

"The definition of monster changed with the Scientific Revolution. Monsters were swept into the world of fantasy and insanity because, according to the scientific 'authorities,' if they couldn't prove something existed, if whatever it was couldn't fit within the parameters set by the science of the day, it wasn't real. Just like what your police department is doing. No evidence, no proof, no existence."

Jim's jaw tensed. "I'll make a deal with you, Dr. Sandburg. When you find your monster, give me a call and I'll come bust its ass, all right? Scientific mumbo-jumbo be damned. Right now, all I want to do is stop the dying."

"And what if it's beyond your means to stop it?"

"Then find me someone who can. See you around, Professor."

*****

Jim sat in his truck outside the faculty offices and tried to get a grip on his nerves. The professor was a fruitcake--that he could handle. What rattled him was the man's definition of a monster. Something defined as unreal because it was unproven. How many doctors had he been through trying to find out why his senses were like they were? CAT scans, X-rays, tests that were unpronounceable, and tests he was sure the doctor was making up as he went along, showed nothing. So he'd been shuffled to the psych staff and told that his mind was just imagining the smells, the sounds. But he knew it wasn't his imagination. He just couldn't prove it. Like monsters.

Like maybe he was a monster.

Insanity was sounding better and better.

Day 19

The phone rang at 4:20 a.m. "I'm on my way."

"Wait, Jim," Banks said before he could hang up. "Waverley Men's Dormitory this time. It's on the other end of campus."

Reaching for a shirt, Jim tucked the phone into the crook of his neck. "Male victim?"

"No, still female. An unsanctioned coed visitation. What's interesting is that we have an eyewitness to the actual death. The boyfriend was awake when it happened."

*****

"Just tell us what you remember, Mike," Jim said gently. The pale young man sitting across from him nodded.

"Me and Tina, we went to see some chick flick--I couldn't tell you nothing about it, but she liked it. Then we came back to the dorm, ordered pizza, then--well, you know."

"What about your roommate?"

"I got one, but he doesn't live there. He's shacked up with his boyfriend in an apartment across town. Doesn't want his parents to know, so he pays for the room. Since his family only calls him on his cell phone, it's cool."

"Okay, so you and Tina--"

"Yeah, we do it and then I fall asleep. I wake up a few hours later and have to take a piss. I get back in bed, but I have trouble going back to sleep, so I go over my mass comm notes in my head. All of a sudden Tina tenses up and starts breathing heavy. She squirms around for a minute, then makes a little squeak like when she's--well, you know, and then she's not breathing at all. I called 911, but it was too late." Mike dropped his head into his hands.

Jim shared a glance with Sims who was sitting in on the questioning. Poor guy. Had to sit through a chick flick just to get sex, then the girl ends up dying in his bed. Definitely hadn't been his night. "Had you and Tina been dating long?"

Mike shook his head. "Maybe a month."

"Did she make it a habit of staying over in your room?"

"Nah. I always drove her back when we got finished. But she wanted to stay last night because of what was going on over in Drury. She lived across the hall from the other girl."

Jim shared another look with Sims. She stood and patted the student on the back. "Come on, Mike. I'll drive you back to the dorm, okay? You can't get back into your room just yet, but I talked to Student Affairs and there's an empty one on second floor where you can crash for a couple of days."

"Thanks, Officer Sims."

Jim extended his hand. "I'm sorry about your loss, Mike. I want you to know we're doing our best to find out what happened to Tina and the others."

Mike shook his hand, then left. Jim felt like sending a fist through the wall of the small room, but instead just flung a chair in frustration, wincing when it crashed against the floor. His senses were on a hair-trigger.

"So is this one of the Virgin Suicides or is it a case of using one crime to hide another?" Captain Banks asked from the doorway.

Jim sighed and picked up the chair. "I think it's the real thing. I'll let you know for certain when I come back from the opening."

"You've been spending quite a lot of time down in the basement. Thinking of a career change?" Simon asked lightly.

Jim gave a small smile. "My father always did want a doctor in the family, although I don't think he'd consider a medical examiner a real doctor. Hard to talk the dead into elective, but expensive, procedures."

Simon gave him a quick once over. "You doing okay? Do I need to order you to go home?"

"Why? Walls are walls, no matter which ones you stare at."

"Shit, Jim. When's the last time you slept?" Jim didn't deign to answer. "Listen, Detective, you are no good to me if you can't function--"

"Save the lecture," Jim snapped, then gave a small shudder. "Sorry, sir. I have an autopsy to attend."

"Just as long as it isn't yours, Jim," Simon muttered, walking away.

If it would give them some answers, Jim admitted, as he stepped into the elevator to the morgue, it might not be such a bad idea.

*****

"Dan?" he asked the coroner hesitantly.

"Yeah, Jim?"

"You check the body thoroughly before you start the autopsy, right?"

"Yes," the doctor said quietly.

"Have you noticed if the women were sexually aroused at the time of death?"

Dan frowned. "What are you getting at?"

"Something the boyfriend said. I know you've run all sorts of tox screens but what if the deaths are related to some kind of new aphrodisiac?"

The M.E. looked intrigued. "The deaths have been happening so fast that some of the longer tox screens are still being processed."

"So it's a possibility?"

"It's harder to note arousal in women than men, but yes, I've seen signs of it. I hadn't made a general note of it because certain body functions occur at the time of death that can mimic arousal, and I didn't want the press getting hold of the information and exploiting the young women."

Jim pictured the probable headlines and agreed whole-heartedly with the doctor. "I'm going to talk to Vice, see if they've heard anything about a new designer drug with that effect."

"I'll alert the lab. It helps to have something in particular to look for." Dan patted Jim on the shoulder. "Good work."

Jim shrugged. "Only if it helps."

Day 21

"Damn it, Simon," Jim said into the phone, rather than his usual greeting. He was fully dressed and already had his truck keys in his hand. "Which dorm this time?"

"Not a dorm."

Whatever it was had spread off campus. He shut his eyes and took a deep breath. "Where?"

"Jim...shit, Jim, I don't want you to freak out on me, okay?"

The keys cut into the soft flesh of his palm. "Just tell me."

"The victim...it's Sims." Jim stared at the phone like it was a live snake. "Jim?"

"I'm on my way."

*****

The medical examiner looked up as Jim stepped into the room. "Don't you have assistants, Dan?" he asked as he approached the body on the bed.

"Aren't there other detectives, Jim?"

Jim sighed and looked at the familiar form sprawled across dark blue sheets. "This has to stop," he whispered.

"I agree. I notified the lab, by the way."

Jim shook his head. "This is making me think we're barking up the wrong tree. Alicia wouldn't have taken anything."

"Could have been slipped to her."

"Maybe. Let's get her to the morgue. I want to go over her inch by inch."

"Meet you there."

Jim walked out of the bedroom. Brown was questioning/comforting Harold Sims in the den. Harold was an accountant. He did Jim's taxes and often badgered Jim into completing a foursome on the links when his usual crew was a man short. Alicia never failed to laugh at that.

"Jim."

"Simon." His boss had just arrived since he lived all the way on the other side of Cascade. "I'm going to be in late. The opening is going to be a lengthy one."

"You sure about this, Jim?"

"She would want me to solve this case, not sit around missing a friend."

Simon nodded. "Do we even have a clue as to what's going on?"

Jim thought about the aphrodisiac lead, then thought about Sims. "No."

*****

"The opening get to you?"

Jim looked up from his position on the floor in front of the toilet. "Headache."

"You were downstairs for a long time," Simon said, as he wet a paper towel and handed it to Jim.

"Wanted to be thorough."

The captain sighed. "You finished in here?"

"I guess." Jim allowed Simon to help him to his feet. He washed his hands, rinsed his mouth and plucked a couple of pills out of his pocket. He stared at them for a minute, then put them back.

"What is that?"

"Dan gives them to me when the pain gets bad."

"Why aren't you taking them? I'll get one of the uniforms to drive you home if that's what you're worried about."

"I'm not going home," Jim replied, making sure his shirt was tucked neatly into his pants.

"Jim, you look like you're going to collapse any minute. Where the hell are you going?"

Jim grimaced and dusted off the knees of his pants. "Trust me, Captain, you don't want to know."

*****

"Dr. Sandburg?"

The man looked up from the book he was reading. His hair was loose, brushing his shoulders, and narrow, wire-rimmed glasses sat on his nose. "Detective Ellison! I heard about Officer Sims, man. I'm sorry. I know how close a society the police--"

"Tell me what you think is going on," Jim said, cutting him off. He sat down in front of the desk.

"What?"

Jim took a deep breath. "Tell me about the monster you're investigating."

"What?"

Jim understood the professor's skepticism. Jim's own skepticism was seated beside him, rolling its eyes and tapping its fingers annoyingly on the chair arm. "Surely you have some idea, some inkling, a few suspicions, maybe, of what you're looking for."

"I think it's some form of hagging," Sandburg said, frowning as he sank into his thoughts. He took off his glasses and set them aside. "In folklore, the hag is a spirit that attacks at night while its victim is sleeping. It presses down, strangling and/or smothering its target. The attacks often end in death, but there have been enough survivors that the Old Hag, as it's called in several regions, is a well-known spectral presence. And the Old Hag is not an indigenous entity. It's known worldwide. The government even came up with a name for its attacks--Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome or SUNDS."

Jim nodded, familiar with the government's summary of the occurrences. It'd been part of the preparatory reading for working the Chopec. "The Hmong, a tribe of the hill country of Laos. They were brought to America because of their help in the Vietnam War. SUNDS hit their camps a few years later. According to older members of the tribe, it was because of dab tsog, a type of demon that loved to sit on the chests of sleepers and suffocate them. Back in Laos, it was custom to pay homage to the ancestral spirits and in return, the spirits protected the people from the dab tsog. In America, that sort of thing was frowned upon, and hence, the dab tsog was free to murder at will. The government officials called it pure folklore--a.k.a. heathen bullshit--but when the traditional ways were reinstated, the dying stopped."

Silence as Sandburg stared at him in unadulterated amazement. "You're not the typical dumb cop, are you?" he asked breathlessly, then he flushed. "Sorry about that; I seem to be channeling my mother."

Jim smirked. "I guess it's safe to say you're father isn't a cop."

"Actually, I have no idea. My mother doesn't think it's information I need to know."

Jim's eyes widened. "If not you, then who?"

Sandburg shook his head. "I've been scaling that brick wall for so long that I've decided to take a break and let my nails grow back in. So we're in search of a hag?"

Jim, having a mother that had walked out on him and his brother while they were still young, agreeably let the subject of Sandburg's mother drop. "What if it's something different we're after? Another kind of monster? Maybe one with sexual designs on its victims?"

"An incubus?"

"I've heard of a succubus. What's the difference?"

"A succubus is a female demon believed to have sexual intercourse with sleeping men. An incubus is the opposite--a male demon believed to have sexual intercourse with sleeping women."

"What? No gay or lesbian demons?" Jim teased, knowing he was probably giddy from exhaustion but couldn't stop himself.

Sandburg smiled. "Maybe that's why so many bogeymen are found in closets." They shared a locker room snicker, then sobered. "Why the focus on sex demons?"

"The bodies show signs of arousal. It can be an involuntary reaction to their deaths, but the last coed victim's boyfriend mentioned that she may have had an orgasm just before her death."

"A demonic assault, huh?" Sandburg stood and started scanning his overburdened bookshelves. "What would be helpful is some idea of where this demon came from. Something or someone had to open the door between the realms."

Jim got out of his seat. "I'm on it, Chief."

Sandburg looked up with a bemused grin. "Chief?"

"Something I learned in the Rangers--he who has the most knowledge is the one in charge."

"Thought soldiers had to follow the chain of command?"

Jim winked. "Now you know why the Rangers are the elite."

"Smarter than the average bear, eh?"

"You got it, Chief. I'll let you know if I find something."

"Any idea what you're looking for?" Sandburg asked belatedly.

"Something freaky?"

The professor laughed. "Definitely smarter than the average bear."

Jim tipped his baseball cap. "Thanks for the compliment."

*****

Carefully keeping track of where his horn was, Jim placed his head against his steering wheel and laughed until tears fell from his eyes. He knew he was bordering on hysteria but figured it was allowed. Lack of sleep. Lack of food. Lack of any kind of sense in the entire world.

Seven dead because of a Mary Kay party.

In search of something freaky, Jim had started at the beginning. Homicide had turned over their files to Major Crime, of course, but a quick review hadn't triggered a "we must check into this" response, so Jim and his fellow detectives had let the Homicide investigation stand and moved on from there. But that was when the world was normal. Or more precisely, that was when Jim was pretending his world was normal. Now, to stop the dying, he'd admitted to himself that nothing about him was normal and the world was probably twice as strange.

So when he went to talk with members of the sorority the first two victims belonged to, he opened himself up to possibilities he'd ignored earlier. The women lied very prettily, but Jim didn't allow his senses to be fooled. He pushed until they admitted that the makeup party they had two nights before the first victim died wasn't exactly a standard makeup party. Yes, there were Mary Kay products to be sampled and ordered--one of the members had a traffic fine to pay and didn't want her parents to know about it, so she figured she'd sell some makeup and her troubles would be over. All well and good until the party turned into a séance to contact the ancient beauties of the world. Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Marilyn Monroe (who, according to one of the girls he'd interviewed, had a J-Lo-sized butt, but she'd had a great lip job done). They had chanted words found in an old book and a strange breeze had coursed through the room. After a moment of shock, they had squealed, laughed, cut the lights back on, and fixed cherry daiquiris. Jim figured when they left they had parting bags of sample makeup, a handful of cheap jewelry, and a horny demon.

Hell of a world, wasn't it?

Jim raised his head, wiped his eyes, and pulled out his cell phone. "Chief, I think I found the 'freaky' we were looking for."

Day 22

"You're unreal, man," Sandburg said from the passenger's seat as the truck rumbled up the mountains toward a place where, according to Sandburg, they could find the help they needed.

Jim tensed, wondering if the monster investigator had figured out what he was sitting beside. "What do you mean?"

"You're nothing like you're supposed to be. No disrespect, but from a distance you come off as a no-nonsense, by-the-book, competent but with a stick up your butt cop, utterly lacking in free thought and a total conformist. But here we are--hunting demons together. That's so far out there that I need an oxygen tank."

Jim just snorted. "Maybe your mother should have taught you about judging books by their covers."

Sandburg shrugged. "Yeah, well, let's just say Mom has a few prejudices she needs to get a handle on. She's supposedly working on that with her latest guru."

"Since we're being all buddy-buddy here, what about you? Why aren't you out in the field somewhere, discovering the latest undiscovered tribe? Why aren't you hosting 'Unsolved History' or the latest 'Walking With...' episode?"

Sandburg's eyes lit up. "And you watch the Discovery Channel, too! Quit it, Detective, or you're going to end up being my hero."

Jim shook his head at the theatrics. "Call me Jim, and just answer the question, Chief."

"Question?" Sandburg blinked as he tried to remember. "Oh. Why I'm here at Rainier. Just felt the need to settle for a few years. I grew up traveling with my mom. I came to Rainier for undergrad. Dr. Stoddard, my anthropology professor, took an interest in me, made anthropology really come alive, you know? So I did my grad work with him, summers in every country under the sun. When the university offered me a permanent position, I surprised Dr. Stoddard and myself by accepting."

"How long have you held your second job?"

"Second--oh, monster investigator. I just fell into that. I always enjoy the folklore of any area I visit. I started noticing how so much of it sounded the same no matter where I went. I began to research, ran across an organization that specialized in making sense of the coincidences in folklore, and the next thing I knew, I was getting a MSI card in the mail. Make a left just ahead. Why are you here?"

"So I can be thankful I just had my shocks replaced?" Jim muttered as they bounced up a nearly washed out road.

"It's my friends' way of making sure that whoever is coming to visit really wants to be here," Sandburg said, gripping the dashboard to steady himself. "I'm just curious about why you're in Cascade. You were a Ranger, probably saw your share of the world. Why Cascade?"

"I grew up here." It was the excuse he'd given when others had questioned his return to the Washington city. Because of his military contacts, he'd had offers from a variety of bigger and more exciting cities.

"Family?"

"A father and a brother."

"Get together for an Ellison conclave often?"

"No." Jim could feel his jaw flexing and stopped himself. His dentist had warned him he'd either need surgery or a full upper plate if he didn't control his habit. "I haven't spoken to either in about, maybe, fifteen years?" Damn. Had it really been that long...and why was he telling this to Sandburg?

"Oh. So you came back because they're here, but you don't bother to see or talk to them?"

Jim shook his head, understanding why Sandburg was confused. Hell, he was confused. "I didn't come back because they're here. In fact, I think it was in spite of it. Cascade was where I needed to be after I was retrieved from Peru."

"Retrieved?"

"My helicopter went down on a mission. Spent eighteen months with the Chopec."

Sandburg's eyes lit up. "That. Is. So. Cool!"

"Yeah, yeah," Jim scoffed, upset with himself for mentioning his past. Who was this kid of a professor and why was it so easy to talk to him? "Let's focus on the present for a minute. I think it's about time you tell me who we're meeting."

"Three sisters--triplets. They're Wiccans, but a little on the weirder side."

"Oh, you know you're going to have to explain that."

"Most Wiccans are known as witches, but these three really are--they have powers, Jim."

"'Wiggle your nose' powers?"

Blair sighed and looked across the truck. "There you go, being my hero again. I was too young to watch the first run of Bewitched--it was canceled in '72 and I was like three or something. But I watched the repeats big time."

"I'm surprised your mom let you watch TV. It was full of cops and soldiers. Starsky & Hutch, the A-Team..."

"Yeah, but 'Bewitched' has some serious female empowerment vibes."

Jim shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. Listening to Sandburg required focus and although the man was fascinating, he didn't have time to indulge himself. "About these women I'm about to meet?"

"They have this really freaky connection to the earth. It 'talks' to them and they talk to it. They share all kinds of secrets. I'm hoping they'll ask the earth if a demon has crossed over."

"Do you consider the triplets monsters?"

Sandburg shrugged. "I guess they fit the denotation, but not the connotation. But I certainly wouldn't call them that to their faces."

Would you say it to me? Jim gripped the wheel and focused on reaching the cabin that had just appeared.

"Marilyn's the oldest by thirty-seven minutes," Sandburg said. "Then Jocelyn, and Carolyn came on the scene nearly two hours after Marilyn. Carolyn still runs on the late side," he added with a grin.

"My ex-wife is named Carolyn." Lack of sleep, Jim concluded silently. Lack of sleep equaled diarrhea of the mouth. They'd warned him of that in Ranger training.

"And how many years has it been since you've spoken with her?"

Fair enough question. "Two days. She works at the station." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sandburg shaking his head. "She tried to understand me, too. One of the reasons she's an ex, I guess."

"Man, after this case is solved, you and me are gonna have to get together over a bottle of tequila."

"Deal." He stopped the truck and reached for his seatbelt.

The door to the cabin opened before they got out of the truck.

"Blair Sandburg!" A brunette in a long dress ran out of the house and jumped into Sandburg's arms as soon as his feet hit the ground.

"Marilyn! It's good to see you. Where are--?"

"Blair!" Another brunette rushed out of the house and into Sandburg's arms.

"Jocelyn!"

Jim focused on the house to drown out the nearby squeals of joy. "Wiccans, my foot," he heard someone muttering. Had to be Carolyn. "Witches, the lot of you. You'd burn the cabin down if I wasn't here." A clank of a pot being moved. Silencing of the hiss of gas. Footsteps headed toward the door.

"Blair!"

He grinned. "Carolyn! Knew you'd be along eventually."

"Well, you know me," the third brunette said good-naturedly.

Jim snorted, and she turned to look at him. He just winked.

Marilyn noticed the exchange. "Who's your friend, Blair?" she asked curiously.

"Marilyn, Jocelyn, Carolyn, I'd like you to meet Jim Ellison. He's a detective in Cascade."

"A detective?" Marilyn delicately stepped in between her sisters and Jim. "What's going on, Blair?"

"Bad manners," Carolyn said as she deliberately walked over to Jim. "Come on inside, gentlemen. I'm sure you're not here to arrest us, are you, Detective?"

He smiled. "No," he said politely, then whispered, "Nor am I here to cause your sisters to burn down the cabin." He liked how her eyes widened, then narrowed speculatively before giving him a conspiratorial wink. Jim returned the wink, glad his feeling of instant camaraderie with the woman hadn't been wrong. Maybe it was the "watching out for my sibs" vibe that drew him to her.

She cocked an eyebrow and reached out to take his offered arm. While doing so, her fingers brushed against the back of his hand. She gasped and took a step back. Her sisters and Blair stopped in alarm. Carolyn took Jim's hand again, her pupils dilating until her eyes looked completely black. "You are the gatekeeper to the Unknowable. You understand the paths of chaos, navigating them without fear of darkness. You seek our help, but the sight is within you. We will walk this road with you, but you are the one who knows the way." The curious black orbs shifted to normal again. "Sorry, Detective. The black jaguar is extremely powerful. I wasn't prepared, although I should have been."

"Sister?" Marilyn questioned.

"We have to help him. The Earth Father dwells within him."

Jim looked helplessly at Blair.

"Your totem animal is apparently the black jaguar," the professor explained, looking sharply at Jim when he merely nodded. "The black jaguar is known as the Earth Father to the Mayans. They believed the sun was Eagle flying high in the sky. At night, the sun became Jaguar, its spots representing the stars. The Earth Father presides over the sacred power in the earth and the animals who live upon it. Very powerful karma. But something tells me you know most of this."

Jim shrugged. "Some. The Mayan and Incan cultures shared some similar tales. The Chopec are descendents of the Inca."

"They don't normally talk to outsiders," Blair said as they followed the women into the cabin. "I know of at least four researchers who tried to interview the Chopec and were summarily dismissed from the area."

Jim chuckled. "'Summarily dismissed.' Sounds better than 'run out with their tails between their legs.'"

"You didn't, by chance, happen to take part in the chasing, did you?"

"Maybe once. Damn pompous fool. If it wasn't for Incacha's intervention, the Chopec would have taken his head and put it up on a pike. 'We want to understand how you primitives live,'" Jim said, imitating the man who'd treated the Chopec like they were children for the hour he'd been with the tribe.

"Not all of us are like that, man," Sandburg said solemnly.

"I believe you, but I understand why the Chopec don't want that kind of attention."

"Yet they accepted you?"

Jim shrugged. "Incacha apparently warned them I was coming."

"Incacha?"

"The tribe's shaman."

"A shaman foretold of your coming?" Jim shrugged again and gave a nod. "Wow. Just...wow," Blair said, looking a little dazed.

"Focus on the now, Chief. The rest of this can wait for that tequila."

They stepped into the cabin and Jim started sneezing.

"Oh, dear, it must be the sage," Marilyn said, looking at Carolyn who was waving the smoking weed around. "It's to cleanse--"

Jim shook his head and backed toward the door, his eyes streaming. "It's okay. Dr. Sandburg can explain what's going on. I'll just wait outside." He retreated all the way to the truck before the sneezing stopped.

*****

"Jim, we have a problem."

He'd watched Sandburg leave the cabin, heard the rapid beat of his heart, and figured those words were going to come out of his mouth. "Tell me."

"I told the trips about the séance, and they agree that that's when the demon entered our plane."

"And the problem?" Jim tried not to spy on non-suspects, so he'd focused on listening to the animals in the woods while Sandburg told the whole tale to the sisters.

"They think the incubus is a 'leaper.' When its victim dies, it leaps to another victim."

Jim stiffened. "So the demon has already possessed its next victim?"

Sandburg nodded. "It likes its victims young and, well, hot--I guess it gets more jollies that way."

"But Sims--"

"Was the only available female. That particular death occurred in the male dorm."

Jim paled and pulled out his cell phone. "Captain? I need a list of the females who had contact with Sims' body. Don't ask, sir. Thank you, sir."

Sandburg stood blinking at him. "You really are different, aren't you?"

"You don't know the half of it. What next?"

"You just did it. The trips want to know how many women are in danger. They are going to consecrate amulets which will hopefully ward off the incubus."

"But I thought the next victim was already possessed?"

"The amulet should keep the incubus from leaping into someone else when it senses you're trying to banish it."

"When you and your friends are trying to banish it," Jim corrected.

"Actually they want you to handle it, Earth Father," Sandburg said, eyeing Jim warily. "I'm just Wolf--not as powerful, but I'm a hell of a good teacher. So, don't worry, I'll teach you everything you need to know by tomorrow night."

"Tomorrow? You must be a fast worker."

"So I've been told." Sandburg sported an impish grin.

Jim just groaned and shook his head.

*****

Jim dubiously eyed the small, red flannel pouches Sandburg dangled before him by their red cords. "So I just put these around the women's necks and they're safe?"

"Not safe--more like, protected," Carolyn clarified. "If the incubus has possessed one of them, the contents of the amulet should weaken it enough to keep it from killing her. But the banishment should be done as soon as possible. The incubus' damage is cumulative."

"Dr. Sandburg says I have to do the banishment?"

"We don't want to give the incubus three other possible sanctuaries," Jocelyn explained, and Jim felt a spark of guilt for not considering that. "Also, your spiritual energies are greater than the three of ours combined. With Blair as your anchor, you are up to the task."

"Thank you for your confidence," Jim said softly, "and your help."

"Detective," Carolyn said, grasping his arm but careful not to touch his bare skin.

"Jim."

"Jim, your restraint is admirable but unnecessary. Let go and you will find control easier. The energies you expend in denial can be put to greater use, like letting the world see more of your beautiful smile." Jim snorted and looked away. "You are one of the lucky ones, Jim. You know your calling and have accepted it willingly. What you fear most can be your greatest ally in your mission. Please, when the demon has been dealt with, stay close to Blair and let him teach you. He can guide you through your fears and onward to your destiny."

"I'll--I'll think about it," Jim promised.

Carolyn smiled. "Blessed be, Jim. And you, too, Blair."

After farewells from the other sisters, the men climbed into the truck and left. As they bounced along, Jim heard Sandburg chuckling. "What's funny, Chief?" he asked curiously.

"You blushed."

Jim's reply was delayed as a particularly big and unavoidable rut had his head bumping the truck's ceiling. "What?"

"You blushed. When Carolyn mentioned your be-yoo-ti-ful smile."

"I did not. I don't blush."

"You blushed."

"Maybe you need glasses for more than just reading."

Sandburg snorted. "Sunglasses, maybe, to shield that bright glow from your cheeks."

"I don't blush," Jim muttered.

Blair went back to laughing.

Day 23

"I can't do this."

"This doesn't make any sense," Sandburg mumbled, fingers combing through his hair. The ponytail tie had been discarded hours ago as the frustration level in the room grew. "You're intelligent. You have a talent for following mindless orders, or you never would have lasted so long in the Army. Your magical aptitude is well above normal. Why can't you do this?"

"I don't know," Jim barked, his teeth grinding. He'd reported to Sandburg's office at 0700 to learn the basic rituals for banishing a demon. It was now 1400 hours and they had accomplished nothing. For some reason his head refused to memorize the information given it. His body refused to copy the gestures, his tongue refused to say the words. What should have been no harder than memorizing a couple of lines in a school play was becoming Jim's Big Failure. Apparently his brain cells were disappearing more rapidly than the hairs on the top of his head.

He wasn't happy with himself at all.

He picked up a Styrofoam cup of coffee, not concerned that it was cold but that his hand was shaking. Hold it together, Ellison.

"What's holding you back, Jim? Is it because it's not 'normal'?" Sandburg asked, grasping his own cup of leftover coffee.

Was he still freaking out because it was freaky? No, he'd gotten over that last night. He'd convinced himself that he was doing what he had to do, convinced himself enough that he could convince others. The four women who'd been in contact with Sims' body--Mendoza, one of the paramedics; York, a patrolman who'd responded to the 911; Ledbetter, Dan Wolfe's assistant; and Juanita Barrett, the next door neighbor--had been reluctant to hang a sack of unknown contents around their necks for the next twenty-four hours, but he'd turned on the charm, given his best "Don't worry, I know what I'm doing" gaze, and they'd bought the whole boatload of crap he'd been selling.

But he didn't know what he was doing. And it was all going to come back and bite him on the ass when the next woman died. He set the cup down before he spilled the cold liquid.

"It doesn't feel right," Jim admitted as he rubbed his temples. "It doesn't--fit. It's like the things you're having me do are all squares but I'm round." God, he was going to end up in a mental facility, picking lint out of his navel.

Sandburg stared at him for a long moment. Then, eyes widened dramatically. "Damn, I'm an idiot," the professor exclaimed. He headed toward the door. "Sit. Chill. I'll be back in a few."

"Where--?"

"Library."

"I need to check in at the station."

"Okay. Meet back here at," Sandburg glanced at his watch, "four o'clock? If I'm right about this, we can have you in fighting form by sundown."

"That confident, huh?" Jim asked dryly.

Sandburg just gave him a quick grin. "Yeah."

*****

"Jim, I've been pretty lenient with you through the years."

"Yes, sir."

"But--" Captain Banks downed a handful of aspirin. "But this takes the cake. Voodoo?"

"Not voodoo, sir. Just...magic."

"I honeymooned in New Orleans. I know voodoo, and putting little bags of crap around people's necks is voodoo."

"How did you find out?"

"Stacey York told her partner and her captain overheard. Naturally, he called me to see what kind of flakes I have working for me."

Jim winced.

"This is an important case, Detective."

"I know."

"Then why aren't you out investigating instead of being cooped up with some long-haired egghead who's trying to convince you to try wand-waving?"

"Because if wand-waving keeps anyone else from dying, then I'm going to wave my wand. Sir." And yes, he'd have never dared to utter a line like that when he was working Vice.

"You're on a ledge, Jim. Come back in before you find out that first step is one you can't take back."

Jim shook his head. Too bad Simon didn't know he was already falling. Of course, it wasn't the drop that killed you; it was the landing. "I've committed to the course, Simon. I can't turn back now."

"This isn't the Rangers. You have choices."

"Not when it comes to another woman dying."

"And you really think all this is going to stop it?"

Jim pictured Sims on Dan's table, Y-shaped incision gaping. "Yes," he said firmly.

It had to.

*****

The sound wove itself around him as soon as he stepped into Hargrove Hall. He felt it buffet him gently, then settle inside. By the time he knocked on Sandburg's office door, he was calmer than he'd been in days.

"Come in, Jim." The professor sat behind his desk, smiling. "It's working, isn't it? I see it in your shoulders, and your jaw doesn't look like you're chewing rocks."

"What?"

Sandburg pointed at the CD player on the corner of his desk. "Sounds of the Rain Forest. You like it, don't you?" Jim nodded and sat down. "I made a rookie anthropologist's mistake, Jim. Instead of accepting you as you, I colored my perceptions with things as I know them to be. I was attempting to force you to perform ritual magic of the Western tradition. But you're a practitioner of a much older school. Your roots are in the shamanistic tradition. You are the Earth Father, and I was confusing you with all the modern style that I'm used to."

"I'm not a practitioner of anything, Chief."

"I think your shaman friend would beg to differ. I think he taught you a lot more than you know. That's why the rituals felt wrong to you, why the squares wouldn't fit."

Jim sighed. He would argue, except he had no idea what to argue. "So what do I have to do now?"

"Nothing."

"Nothing?"

"Well, a good dinner would help. You're looking a little peaked."

"You're not looking a hundred percent yourself," Jim shot back in confusion.

"Thanks, I accept your dinner invitation." Sandburg smiled and grabbed his jacket. "You got a player at your place?" he asked as he extracted the CD.

Jim nodded.

"Cool. You'll probably be more comfortable there. Chinese?"

"Sure."

*****

"I can't believe no one at the station has found that restaurant," Jim said as he opened the door to his loft.

"One of my students came into class raving about it. You know, the two of us should get together and make a list of the best places to eat in Cascade. Between you being a cop and me picking the brains of my classes, it'd be a snap." Sandburg stopped and gave a low whistle. "Nice place, man. How much does this set you back a month?"

Jim shrugged, although he was kind of pleased by the loft too. "It's mine, bought and paid for. Had to do something with the retro pay I got after Peru."

"So you're one of those 'handed lemons, make lemonade' type dudes. I can dig it."

His background check said Sandburg was born in '69. Sometimes he sounded like he'd gotten stuck there. "You want something? Beer, soda, water?"

"I'm cool, but help yourself."

Jim knew he was too tired for a beer; one sip and he'd be down for the count. He grabbed a bottle of water. "About this 'nothing' I have to do," he began.

"All of the world's religions, from the largest denomination to the smallest sect, every spiritual path ever practiced, owe their roots to Shamanism. What you learned with the Chopec is Shamanism at its most elemental. That stuff I was trying to teach you earlier is just trappings to help us modern, educated folk accept the fact that our modernism and education don't mean a thing when it comes to interacting with spirits and the spiritual world. The interaction is the same, whether you make the journey via a series of complicated rituals or you just sit in front of a fire and think yourself there."

"I'm not a shaman."

"I think you are. It would explain your openness to the existence of the spiritual world, and your natural acceptance of the role you must play in banishing this threat to our world. Your problem with the rituals I was teaching you was not that they were magical rituals, but that they 'felt' wrong. But this feels right, doesn't it?"

"What? Standing around in my apartment holding a bottle of water?" Jim snapped.

Sandburg shook his head, his dark curls whipping gently. "Take a seat in your favorite chair." Jim obeyed, flopping into a yellow armchair. "Close your eyes and listen." A few seconds later, the CD player broadcast the soft jungle sounds. "You are the black jaguar, the Earth Father, and this doesn't surprise you, does it?"

Jim found himself sinking into the music. "No, I've--I've seen the jaguar. He came to me in the jungle. He became a part of me. He became me. I became him."

"You are one."

"Yes."

"The jaguar knows of the spiritual world. He understands the ways of demons, that they are parasites to the human soul, that they suck away human vitality and strength, leaving the body weak and the soul without anything to anchor it. This incubus has drained these women, attacking them through their sexuality, feeding off of the power of their femininity. They are weakened and ashamed. They fear this shadow rapist and lose the spirit to fight. The jaguar knows this."

"Yes," Jim hissed.

"You have the heart and the courage of a shaman, Jim. Become the jaguar and protect those you love. You want the dying to stop. Stop the dying, Jim. Stop the dying."

*****

Jim looked around at the flush of colors and smiled. He knew where he was: his garden, a secluded glen with a small stream and hundreds of exotic plants. He'd discovered the site while hunting with the Chopec. They had teased him later when he rejoined the group empty-handed, and he'd accepted the gentle ribbing without embarrassment because what he'd found was worth the small loss of status in the perpetual warrior pissing contest. He'd never been a man of peace, of contentment, but he'd felt both when he stepped into his Eden and drank in the sight of the abundant colorful blooms, grew dizzy at their heady scents, and got lost in the velvety texture of their graceful petals. His garden, this place where he now found himself, was where he escaped to when memories of the life he'd had--the friends, the apartment with hot water and a soft bed, hell, even the familiar phrase, "You want fries with that"- threatened to overwhelm him, when he grew frustrated at the delay of his relief team, when he felt too foreign to be comfortable with the Chopec. This was where he could find his center, even when center was ten degrees of right.

This was home.

He walked tall here, sure of his footing--because he had four. Feet. Four paws. Oh. He'd changed into his jaguar form. He hadn't done that since leaving the rainforest. Being the jaguar felt--like home, too. He nosed a brilliant flower and sneezed delicately when pollen showered down on him. He dipped his nose in the stream to wash off the pollen and stared at his reflection. He looked like Bagheera from The Jungle Book or at least the stuffed version he'd given his first girlfriend. Now that he thought about it, the orchid behind him looked like the flower he'd bought her for the Semi-Formal. He hadn't liked flowers then; his mom had worn some kind of floral scent. But it was different in Peru, the flowers triggering not a sense of loss, but of familiarity. The Chopec women braided them into their hair, the children teased each other with them, and Incacha always had a bunch drying in the sun. The scent had been a constant presence, hanging heavy in the humid air. It was nice to be here again, nice to remember that there were good things to remember.

He padded farther into the garden, investigating every nook and cranny. Insects buzzed him, teasing him. He swiped at them, growling but not really irritated. He chased a huge dragonfly around a wide hedge and--froze. Blossoms lay on the ground. Broken and brown. Petals strewn, withered and yellowing. What was happening to his paradise? Why was his garden dying?

Snick, snick.

His eyes followed the sound and trained upon a fuzzy, iridescent green caterpillar chewing on a stem. If the insect felt the hard stare of the jaguar, he didn't show it.

Snick, snick.

The bloom at the top of the stem drooped precariously.

Jim reached out his hand--hmm, he was human again--and plucked the caterpillar off the stem. It folded over on itself, a furry ball with stinging bristles. Jim wanted to be angry, but the caterpillar was only doing what a caterpillar did.

But not in his garden.

He walked to the edge of the garden and placed it on the ground. A second later, it uncurled and inched away into the dense underbrush.

Snick, snick.

Turning back to the desolation, he picked up the broken blooms and carefully laid them in the stream. They floated out of view.

Changing back into the jaguar, he curled up beneath the caressing sun and slept.

Day 24

The scent of coffee teased Jim into waking. In a matter of seconds he realized he was in a chair with an afghan thrown over him. What the--?

"You okay?"

He ran a hand through his hair and reached for the mug Sandburg held out. "Yeah." Squinting at the amount of light outside, he realized it was somewhere around six in the morning. "You didn't sit up with me all night?"

"You have a comfy sofa."

"Didn't mean to bail on you like that. Not much sleep lately."

Sandburg sat Indian-style on the sofa and since his shoes were off, Jim didn't complain. "I was gonna wake you, tuck you into bed and all, but you seemed so peaceful. Are you at peace, Jim?"

Jim closed his eyes, remembering. "Yes."

"The incubus?"

"Is gone. No more 'virgin suicides.' The dying has stopped."

Sandburg picked up his own mug. "Wanna tell me about it?"

Jim nodded and confessed the vision he'd had. Sandburg sipped his coffee and listened intently. When Jim finished, the professor had a smile on his face.

"What?" Jim questioned.

"I know a couple of feminists who'd be outraged that you think of women as a flower garden."

"Would it help to know that ninety-nine percent of those plants are deadly in some form or fashion?"

Sandburg grinned. "I think that would definitely impress them. So, the incubus was a caterpillar?"

"Stupid, huh?" In the movies, the heroes fought eight-legged beasts and slime-trailing ghouls. He did battle with an inch-worm and left it alive in the end. Oh, yeah, Hollywood would be knocking at his door any day now.

"Not stupid; just the opposite. It shows you have a highly sophisticated sense of good and evil."

"Huh?"

"Most people would have equated the incubus, the killer, the demon, with pure evil. You didn't. You didn't perceive it as a malicious being. You saw it as a natural force, doing what came naturally to it. You didn't assign malevolent intent to the spirit's actions or judge those actions by the code of the mundane world."

"Maybe I'm not part of the mundane world," Jim said hesitantly.

Blue eyes gazed at him intently. "Maybe you aren't," Sandburg agreed softly. "But there's nothing wrong with straddling two realms. It just means you're flexible and have a real good sense of balance."

"It means I'm a monster." Sometimes things were easier to admit at six a.m.

Sandburg shrugged. "You've revealed to me prejudices I didn't know I had about cops and soldiers. You've shown me just what a determined spirit can do; untrained, you performed a flawless exorcism. You've given me the message that what I do matters, that I'm not wasting my life in search of bogeymen and things that go bump in the night, that knowing about these things can make a real difference here on this plane, in this realm. So, yes, in the purest form of the word, at its true essence, you are a monster, Jim, and I'm grateful for that."

Jim blinked and jumped up from the chair. "Breakfast, Chief?"

"Sure. You don't happen to have the fixings for an algae shake, do you?"

Jim snorted. "And I'm the monster?"

They had omelets, and finished off a carton of juice.

Epilogue

"You let the CDC take the credit."

Jim lay back in the lounger on his balcony and shrugged. "Glory hounds. Didn't even question the 'miracle of their quick action' of saturating the area with every anti-microbial-bacterial-fungal agent in their arsenal. God only knows what they've done to the environmental balance. Probably won't even be able to get a weed to grow around there for a while. But hey, better them than me. As it is, my captain is avoiding me."

"Is that going to be a problem?"

"Simon'll get over it. He always does."

"You know, this isn't what I meant when I said we would get together over a bottle of tequila. This is..." Sandburg just let the sentence drift.

Jim smirked as he held up his snifter filled with amber liquid. Herradura Selección Suprema--an excellent, if expensive, Tequila Añejo. Its smoky, woody flavor came from being aged in a white oak cask for more than a year. The aroma alone sent him back to some very interesting moments in his past. "Just wanted to remind you that you're not hanging around with a college student."

"A bottle of this stuff would probably pay for a semester," Sandburg said, leaning back in his chair and propping his feet up on the railing. "But I'm not complaining, not in the least."

"Think the triplets would enjoy it? I thought I'd take a bottle along next weekend." He figured he'd need it as he embraced the freak in him. Hell, enough Herradura and he'd embrace just about anything.

"If they weren't already crazy about you, bringing along a bottle of this would do the trick," Sandburg said. He took a sip and sighed appreciatively. "So, is this going to be the way we celebrate the successful completion of a case from now on?"

"What?"

"I figured since we work so well together, um, here." Sandburg fumbled with his wallet for a minute and handed Jim a card.

Jim Ellison, MSI.

Jim laughed, then stuck the card in the pocket of his unbuttoned bowling shirt. "Sure, why the hell not, partner. I get to keep my day job, right?"

"Of course. You'll need the pay to keep buying the tequila." Sandburg smiled.

"I guess if we're going to work together, you should know what you're getting into. I have heightened senses."

"As in?"

"Sight, touch, smell, taste, and hearing."

Sandburg lowered his feet to the balcony. "All five?" Awe turned his voice into a whisper.

"All five."

Sandburg's eyes gleamed with a fervor that surprised Jim. "You know what that means?"

Jim shook his head, glad the tequila was already mellowing him.

"You're a sentinel!"

"A what?" Just how many kinds of freaks was he?

"I'll tell you all about it later. I have books and everything."

Jim refilled his glass. He had a feeling he'd be doing that a lot before the night ended. "Whatever you say, Chief."

"You know what else this means?"

Jim could feel his new friend vibrating excitedly, nearly bouncing where he sat, and he couldn't help but smile. The partnership was going to be...interesting. "What else does it mean?" he questioned obediently.

Sandburg grinned. "You have officially become my hero."

Sometimes, Jim thought, as Sandburg chattered beside him and the setting sun turned the sky into a Pollock painting, sometimes being a monster wasn't such a bad deal.

THE END

Comments? D.L. Witherspoon