Curse of the Sabeth, Part V
A heaviness claimed his body, dragging him toward to a shadowy brink. Distinct sensations of textures and smells collided as a sudden roar of pain swept through him. The nebulous features of a dark-skinned presence floated at the threshold as the rest of the world dissolved around him.
"The curse of the mojo follows you. Its power can reach anywhere…and anyone."
Pete listened as Coop guided Michelle through specific questions without sounding like an authority figure. Coop's non-threatening manner was complimented with thoughtful comments, further breaking down the walls that Jim had managed to crack. He had to admit; his style was impressive, especially considering that the detective was dealing with a teenager who was only beginning to grasp the seriousness of her situation. Coop was treading a fine line between getting at the truth and not frightening the kid beyond words. Pete felt for her. He could easily understand why she tried to escape the heartbreaking realities of life by running away to the fairy-tale land of Hollywood. But there was the irony--it was a fairy tale.
He took note of her struggle to remember snatches of conversation and names of various people. Coop asked her to sketch out a rough map of the interior of the Temple as well as the house on Rockdale. Pete wasn't sure how much of it would eventually prove useful but Coop was dogged as he took down each detail. Pete wondered how different the detective's method of questioning was with hardened criminals or violent suspects.
He was also surprised that all three of them weren't showing more signs of exhaustion. The last thirty minutes should've produced more than a yawn or two. Instead, Michelle was wide-awake and visibly eager to contribute. It was a far cry from the angry teen they'd met a short time ago. Coop appeared to be operating on pure adrenalin. Okay, that and several cups of wretchedly strong coffee from the vending machine.
Pete wondered about his own state of alertness. He wasn't the least bit tired. On the contrary, he felt restless, almost tense. It was uncommon for him to be this much on edge. He'd stopped drinking coffee late at night so he couldn't very well blame the caffeine. And he had no reason for a rush of adrenaline…the session with Michelle was informative but still relatively routine. Mac had even stopped by a few minutes earlier to let him know that someone from McLaren House was finally on the way. It looked like their late night would soon come to an end.
Then why does it feel like it's just begun?
Consciousness slid back with the same companion that it had departed with earlier--pain. Jim could feel the waves of throbbing pressure within his head, barely receding with each ebb and flow. Through strangely numbed lips, he tasted a nauseating bitterness that surely had to be blood. Unable to suppress the impulse to cough, he began to absorb the fact that he must still be alive…or he wouldn't hurt this much. What happened?
Gradually opening his eyes, he gazed dully at a maze of corroded metal pipes crisscrossing overhead. The station? No. That's not right. Twisting onto his side, Jim grimaced as the motion initiated another round of aching misery, this time reaching deep into his right shoulder and upper back. He realized that his hands were bound together in front of him. Slender straps of leather encircled both wrists, wrapped and twisted numerous times and biting into his skin. He raised his hands awkwardly to his head, wincing at the slight contact. The wetness he felt there was not a surprise. Head wounds were notorious for bleeding like crazy. It didn't necessary mean anything serious. There was that one game where he got beaned by a wild throw from that third baseman. What was his name--Simmons? Plenty of power…no control. Man, I thought Jean was going to faint when she saw me.
His eyes cracked open again and he braced himself against the dizzying images spinning around him. Come on, get a grip. Don't pass out now.
Jim took a deep breath and attempted to prop himself up on his forearms. The effort cost him. A sledgehammer pounded away in his head, then lessened again. With shaking hands, he wiped away sweat and blood that trickled into his eye. A sickly sweet aroma clung to his clothes and skin. Trying to stay steady, he took in his surroundings by increments. Beside him was a long, low table set with dozens of small red candles. Each one was lit, flickering brightly and casting erratic shadows against the colorless wall behind them.
Jim instinctively jerked his body upward and backed up between the table and a wall. Once again, shapes and colors spiraled dizzily around him and pressure clamped around his head. He braced his back against the cold, rough wall for support as he forced back the oncoming urge to throw up. His vision cleared slightly, giving into a single haunting image.
She sat barefoot on the hard cement floor, knees drawn up with her hands hidden behind them. The whiteness of her face was marred by an unnatural flush. Jim doubted that the color was caused by the myriad of small flames dancing behind him. Her eyes were dangerously fixated, almost feverish as she stared at him. She watched his struggling efforts to focus on her with a disturbing awareness.
"Regina," Jim said, his voice sounding weak even to him. He cleared his throat and attempted to sit up straight without falling over. "Listen to me…"
"Shhh…" Regina whispered, holding a finger to her lips. "It's too late."
"You were warned many times over. Some never learn."
"Like…Angie Barrett?" Jim asked, automatically falling back on instinct. He wasn't sure if he had anything to lose or not by asking.
"Absolute faith is essential."
Quoting Sabeth…without blinking an eye.
"Regina," Jim said, "Who killed Angie?"
She got to her feet in one fluid movement, never taking her eyes off of him. Her hands held a small bundle loosely wrapped in white cloth. "The mouth spews forth words of betrayal that must be silenced; the body acts out deeds of aggression that must be stilled. Transgressions have consequences."
Jim couldn't stop the imaginative direction his mind was going--the horrific scene at the warehouse, the lurid details of Angie's death, the suspicions raised by the Coroner's Office. But, again, he heard his partner's voice telling him to think straight. His bleary eyes searched the walls of the small room, finding only dank concrete slabs suffering from earthquake damage or poor workmanship or both. Cool moisture seeped from the deep cracks, leaving mottled skeletons escaping from every corner. Slender tendrils of vegetation trailed and looped downward, almost touching the floor.
Roots. Underground. Basement of some kind?
Looking back at the wild-eyed woman, he wondered what might be concealed in the material. Its bulk and the way she carried it bothered him.
"No one may stand in his way," Regina interrupted his thoughts with another exasperating smile. "But his power has once again been proven. This time, through Michelle…who will come back to us."
"Michelle's gone. She has nothing to do with this," Jim said, relieved that the young girl was safely tucked away somewhere…but he couldn't quite remember where. He flinched as an unexpected sharp ache settled somewhere behind his right eye. "What do you really want?"
"You tried to dissuade the Reverend's followers from their true purpose--cleansing of our minds, our bodies, our souls. You opposed the power of the mojo that only he could bring to us. Such is your fate--you hunted down one of our own, our most innocent. But the mojo's strength is so great that it can flow through the sacred purity of a child."
"I wanted to make sure no one else got hurt. The way Mr. and Mrs. Dent were hurt," Jim said, as he made the first cautious move to get to his feet. It was useless to expect logic but he might be able to get something useful from her if he kept it simple. He clutched the table and pushed himself up slowly, ignoring all the negative signals that his body was sending him. "You remember the Dents, don't you, Regina? And their little baby that died?"
"Absolute faith is essential," Regina repeated the droning response.
Jim slowly got up on wobbly legs and studied the woman facing him. The wall behind him was less indifferent. He wasn't sure if he could overpower her quickly enough, or if he even could at all, but this might be his only opportunity. There had to be at least one other person involved and if that person joined them, he'd be outnumbered two to one. Jim knew he had to be on the offensive side of the situation this time.
Regina moved slowly to one side and Jim caught sight of a door in the gloomy corridor behind her. He put one foot in front of him, fully intending to rush forward before she could react with any effectiveness. But he misjudged his ability to maintain his equilibrium and he underestimated her response time. He lost his balance as the room started spinning again, sending him backward awkwardly against the rock-solid surface. Unraveled fabric dangled from her hands as she held his gun and aimed it directly his chest. She'd been prepared and waiting for him. It was all he could do to keep from sliding down to the flooring again.
"This is a symbol of your power, Officer Reed, which you no longer possess," Regina said, in a steady and calm voice. "But it makes no difference. It's merely one choice."
"Choice…for what?" Jim edged up against the wall.
"The means to an end, of course." Regina's left hand dipped into the pocked of her loose-fitting dress. Withdrawing it quickly, she uncurled her fingers to reveal a clear syringe in her palm.
Jim's heart pounded in his chest as the hypodermic took on the power of a magnet. The implications of that empty syringe chilled him beyond words. Forcing a calmness he didn't feel, Jim pinned an unwavering glare on the woman standing in front of him.
"So little time to deal with you now." Regina backed up and opened the door behind her, never taking her eyes from him. Her hand tipped to one side, allowing the needle to fall onto the floor and roll toward him. A second later she was gone, a heavy lock sliding into place behind her.
Jim slowly eased himself all the way down to the floor as the anvil recoiled painfully in his head. It was tempting but he resisted the urge to drop in a ragged heap. He leaned his throbbing head back and looked up at the ceiling and around the room. No light fixtures, no windows, and no openings of any kind. With his left hand, he rubbed at the aching soreness in his upper right arm and realized that he still wore his watch. It's not been that long since end of shift. Why can't I remember? Pete's at home sleeping. No one will know I'm missing until Jean doesn't hear from me in the morning. Then she'll call Pete. But that's hours from now. Hours.
Still looking at his arm, he realized that he was searching for signs of a puncture mark. He stopped and closed his eyes, refusing to look at the discarded object on the basement floor. He refused to think about the tightness in his chest or the tingling in his mouth. Whether Regina's parting words held a trace of truth in them or not, he couldn't start believing them. Not now.
My God, Jean's going to be so scared when I don't call.
Forcing his eyes open again, he tried to think clearly. He tried to remember his training, everything Pete had ever told him about getting out of tight spots. He'd have to remind Pete that they'd never covered this particular situation. Jim felt a flicker of a smile on his face as he pictured the ribbing he could give his partner about his oversight. The humor of the situation passed as he recalled that Jean and Jimmy were at her parents' house. Thank God I didn't let them come home early. That much he did remember.
Another flash of memory rushed around him. The kitchen. Jean. Her arms around him. His son's laughter.
Jim clenched his jaw, blinking back tears of a pain deeper than his physical injuries could create. Staring across the room, further back into the shadows, he saw yet another door.
Sabeth is not taking it all away.
Mac appeared at the door, motioned to Pete and disappeared into the hall. Pete pushed his chair away from the table, got up and joined his sergeant who stood talking to a tall, woman, probably in her fifties, with short-cropped hair and wearing thick black-rimmed glasses.
"Pete, this is Miss Cahill from McLaren Hall. Miss Cahill, this is Officer Pete Malloy. Officers Malloy and Reed and Detective Lee are responsible for bringing Michelle in."
The woman nodded curtly to Pete. "It took three men to bring in one teenage girl?"
"There were extenuating circumstances, Miss Cahill," Mac said, evenly.
"I'm sure there were. Well, we've all had a troublesome evening, I presume. Is the girl ready?"
"I think so," Pete said, glancing back into the room. "Detective Lee's probably finished talking to her by now."
"Well, then maybe we can all get a good night's sleep before her parents' arrival tomorrow," Miss Cahill said, walking past him.
"Yes, ma'am," Pete replied as he and Mac followed. He hadn't expected Donna Reed but he hoped the woman's social skills were better with juveniles.
Coop swiveled in his seat as Michelle looked up at the woman standing in front of her.
"Hello, Michelle, I'm Miss Cahill. You'll be coming with me now."
Michelle hesitated as she looked at Coop.
"It's okay, Michelle, we're all done. You've been a big help," Coop said, shoving his notes back into his pocket.
"Okay," Michelle said, her gaze returning to Pete. "What about tomorrow? Will Officer Reed be back here with you?"
"I'm sure Officer Reed will be available, Michelle," Mac offered. "We can arrange for him to be here to meet your parents. How's that?"
"Thank you. I need to tell him something," Michelle said, a slight blush rising to her cheeks.
Pete thought that Michelle looked relaxed for the first time since he and Jim had met her. It was a nice change. He'd also be able to rib his partner about the favorable impression he'd finally made on the young teenager. He was positive it wasn't what Jim had in mind. The possibility probably hadn't even occurred to him.
"I guess I'm ready, then," Michelle said, getting up from her chair reluctantly. Her hand abruptly flew to front of the jacket draped around her. "Wait!"
"What? What's wrong, Michelle?" Pete asked, a twinge of apprehension stealing into him.
"I forgot! How could I forget?" Michelle reached around her neck, struggling to undo something beneath the shoulder-length brown hair. Her hands pulled out the leather cord and small pouch concealed beneath her clothing. "Here, take this. Regina made me wear it. I don't know what it is but…she scared me."
Coop fiddled with the soft leather bag. "How's that, Michelle?"
"She got really creepy. She said the necklace was a sign."
"A sign of what?" Pete asked.
"I don't know," Michelle said, shaking her head. "She talked about the wind and how powerful Reverend Sabeth was…stuff like that. You know, she was nice to me at first. They all were. And then it all seemed like a test or something."
"Well, let's see what Miss Cain has in her bag of tricks," Coop said, tugging on the tiny opening and allowing the heaviest item to fall into his hand. He eyed the garish charm and set it on the table. "A bug?"
"It's like a charm…it's used to cast spells. At least that's what the doctor at the hospital told Jim and me," Pete said, scrutinizing the small object. He felt his neck muscles knot up as Coop pinched a small, crinkled piece of paper and began to unfold it.
"The journey is finished only when the harbinger of fate calls upon you."
"I'm betting this is blood," Coop said, setting it down. Several streaks of a rust-colored substance marred a corner section.
A soft gasp came from Michelle.
"Could be the note Angie was supposed to have on her," Pete said, looking at Mac. "Maybe she had it with her that night and…someone took it."
"Very likely," Mac nodded. "Anything else?"
"Another piece of paper…bigger, looks like newsprint," Coop said, loosening a small rubber band and bending back the creases carefully. "She must've folded this baby fifty times."
Pete wasn't sure how he knew but he wished he'd been wrong. His jaw clenched as Coop smoothed out the newspaper clipping. It was the front-page article on "the ferret" that had appeared in the paper weeks before--the one that had gifted Jim with a fair amount of razzing from his fellow officers. Pete stared at the crinkled photograph of Jim looking dignified in his uniform. It was circled in red marker.
"That's…that's Officer Reed," Michelle blurted out. "Why did she put a picture of him in there? I don't understand."
"Coop. Is that all of it?" Pete asked, unsure of the answer he wanted to hear.
The detective turned the bag inside out, holding it over the palm of his hand. "What the…"
Pete reached out and picked up one of the delicate petals that had drifted in the air. The edges were brown and wilted, the pink pastel color faded and discolored. But Pete had no doubt.
"Pete," Mac said, looking at him with concern. "What is it?"
"These are from Jim's backyard."
Pete nodded. "I'm going to call him, Mac."
"Do it. Use my office. I'll alert the closest available unit…just in case."
"Right," Pete said, hoping that Mac's efforts would be unnecessary. Come on, Jim…let me wake you up out of a sound sleep so you can rag me about it tomorrow.
Jim was exhausted. Staggering and then crawling across the length of the underground room had used up a lot of valuable energy. He'd grabbed the only shelf on the wall and put all his weight into tearing it down. One flimsy bracket came off with it, along with him landing on his backside. He'd also swiped a candle but his attempts to hold onto both items were clumsy, at best. Under normal conditions, those actions would've taken only a moment. Normal was a word that sounded foreign right now.
Now positioned uncomfortably on the floor, he held the candle up to get a good look at the lock mechanism on the door. It didn't help that his vision shifted like sand, forcing him to stop and refocus every few seconds. It was difficult to keep the light of the candle steady when he could barely manage to do the same for himself.
Jim set the candle down and jammed the tip of the wall bracket in between the door and the frame. Straining to find a catch, he trembled as a thousand pinpricks assaulted his hands. He lost his grip and the bracket fell, knocking the candle over in the process. Both objects fused with the darkness around him and disappeared from his sight. Jim huddled in the dark corner, flexing his fingers as tight as he could but the numbness remained.
What's happening to me?
Pete stared grimly at the bulletin board on the wall as the phone at Jim's house continued to ring. He was positive that he'd dialed the right number but hung up and tried again. The results were the same--no answer. He knew Jim would pick up if he were there…if he could. Pete slammed the receiver down, ran out of Mac's office and headed toward Dispatch. One part of his mind instinctively mapped out the next steps to be taken. Another part rebelled against the grim reality that made the process necessary.
Pete stopped as he overheard bits of the radio conversation between Mac and an unnamed unit. Moving closer, he saw Coop standing nearby and listening as well. Neither man's expression did anything to alleviate the outright fear in his gut.
"1-Adam-14 is there now, Pete," Coop murmured as he saw him. "They were only a few blocks away when Mac called."
"They're checking now," Mac said, looking closely at Pete. "I take it you didn't get an answer?"
Pete shook his head.
Seconds turned into minutes. Pete counted off the time it would take to approach the house, check for a response, and gain access if needed. After that, it was difficult to keep thinking ahead.
"1-Adam-14 to supervisor."
"1-L-120, go," Mac held the mic tightly, avoiding Pete's eyes.
"We found evidence of a break-in at the residence but no one inside. We searched the entire house and the outside perimeter."
"No one? You're positive?"
"Make sure you cover every inch of the yard and start waking up the neighbors," Mac said, still not looking at Pete.
"That's not going to do any good, Mac," Pete said. He knew it wasn't cynicism he felt, but an overwhelming certainty about his partner's predicament.
"1-Adam-14 to 1-L-120," The officer's voice filtered through the radio's intermittent static.
"Go ahead, Dobbs."
"There's something else."
"What is it, Dobbs?" Mac said, concern overriding his impatience.
"We found blood, sir. On the carpet in the master bedroom."
Pete felt Mac's eyes on him but he couldn't look at him. All he could see was Jim down. All he could hear were Sabeth's words to Jim at the Temple. Deprived of those you love…alone…
Shaken by the morbid thoughts, Pete finally met Mac's concerned gaze. "Mac, we've got to find him."
"We will, Pete," Mac said. "I'll issue a broadcast and see what units are closest to the house on Rockdale and the Temple. You and Coop check the house first since the evidence we have so far points primarily to the woman. I'll find a unit to check the Temple and contact you on Tac 2."
"Right." Pete turned to leave, not bothering to confirm Coop's presence behind him. Sprinting down the hall, he heard the detective's footsteps echo his own. Somewhere in his brain, he vaguely recognized another sound--the sobs of a young girl. But someone else would have to tell her not to be frightened or worried. Right now, he was too damn scared.
Jim wasn't sure how long he'd been sitting in the damp corner. Minutes. Surely only minutes. He had to try the door again. If he couldn't jimmy the lock, maybe the hinges could be loosened. Or maybe I should dig a tunnel.
As he got to his feet, a shuffling movement at the main door stopped him. The only person he wanted to see busting through was Pete…along with the rest of the L.A.P.D. But as he stumbled back and listened to the metallic sounds of a bolt sliding back, that hope began to swiftly dissolve.
He watched helplessly as the heavy door swung back into the room, its hinges groaning as an advent. Cool air flowed in briefly before being overpowered by the heavily scented dankness. The tall figure stood in the entryway, hands clasped together in an eerie mirror image. But Sabeth's sleeveless black robe revealed bare muscled arms adorned with thick bands of gold, not fettered by cords of rawhide. Behind Sabeth, Regina hovered in her own little dance as she hugged the revolver delicately to her breast. The blissful smile on her face was a needless reminder of her unpredictable behavior.
"Sabeth, don't go any further with this," Jim said, centering on the Reverend yet trying to keep the woman in sight at the same time. "We can end it all without anyone getting hurt. You need to let me go…now."
"The journey for you is, indeed, coming to an end," Sabeth said, with a deep and echoing resonance. "And a new one is beginning."
Every instinct told Jim to proceed with caution. Even if he could elude Sabeth's reach, a bullet fired from his own gun would certainly make up for it. At the same time, his body kept issuing commands for him to get out now. He stared hard into the indistinguishable space behind his two captors, wondering how far it was to the outside world.
"Officer Reed, you'd never make it," Sabeth said. "Trust me."
"Not in a million years."
Sabeth's low, throaty laughter flooded the room. He moved heedlessly toward Jim as Regina sealed the door behind them. "I've waited for this moment. To see you kneel at my altar, defeated and humbled. Powerless against me."
"You'll…" Jim said, as he swallowed with unexpected difficulty. "Have to keep waiting."
"You will be the ultimate sign," Sabeth said, disregarding his response. "The uncertainties you ignorantly and selfishly provoked will no longer exist in the minds of my followers. All doubt will be wiped away and replaced with perfect devotion."
In spite of his injuries, or maybe because of them, Jim couldn't help himself. "A little discontent…in the Temple?"
A stone hard fist crashed into against his jaw, catapulting his head backwards into the concrete wall. Jim's legs gave way beneath him and he fell abruptly to the ground, absorbing all the impact on both knees. Jim grunted as he folded, cradling his head in his tethered hands. He squeezed his eyes against the fireball sweeping through his brain. It was then that he felt Sabeth's heavy breath close to his ear.
"As I foretold…you will kneel."
Pete was glad he was still in uniform. He could've changed into soft clothes anytime during the last few hours at the station but, for some unknown reason, he hadn't bothered to do so. It was a small thing but he hung onto it. Just as he hung onto the belief that Jim was still alive. He glanced over at Coop who was driving his car like an Indy 500 qualifier, mobile red light and all. He was relieved that the detective hadn't initiated conversation. Pete didn't want to discuss the odds or talk about Jim's chances.
"1-William-30, come in." It was Mac's voice.
Pete grabbed the mic from the clip. "This is 1-William-30. Go."
"I'm afraid we've got a problem. There's been a gas main rupture not far from you. A major evacuation of the residential district is in progress. The watch commander informed me that every other available unit is tied up. But 1-Adam 14 has been pulled from Jim's house and they're headed straight to Rockdale. And I'm on my way right now."
"Mac," Pete said. "Make sure 14 knows what we're dealing with…but we're going on to the Temple."
"That means no backup, Pete. You sure you want to do that?"
"Yeah. I'm sure."
"Listen, Pete," Mac said, concern shading the professional tone. "The two of you be careful."
"I know, Mac," Pete said, quietly. "1-William-30, out." He looked over at Coop's profile as the passing street lights played across the young man's face. "That okay with you?"
"Your call, Pete. He's your partner."
Pete didn't respond. He had no idea why he thought Jim would be at the Temple instead of the house. If he was wrong and the other unit didn't get to the house in time…or if it was already too late…
Only moments later, Pete and Coop bounded from the detective's car and quickly flanked the Temple's exterior. Both men held their guns ready at their sides. Coop ran to check the side door as Pete waited edgily at the front entrance. He'd already tested the doorknob--the Temple was accessible as every other day they'd been there.
"Side door's locked up tight," Coop said quietly, returning within seconds. "And so is the back door."
"Doesn't make a lot of sense," Pete whispered. But nothing about this place ever does.
He cautiously pushed the door open, swept the entryway with his flashlight and slipped inside with Coop one step behind him. His hand brushed over the light switch, which proved to be useless. Pete kept close to one side as Coop took the other. They moved further into the darkened interior of the building. The obligatory single candle now burned on a stand near the center of the main room.
Pete stopped abruptly as the beam of his light caught a tall, slim form standing a few feet away. The man turned around, his hands flying up to shield his face from the sudden brightness.
"Hold it! Police!" Pete said, his gun aiming at the unidentified man. "Keep your hands in the air and don't move."
"Yes…yes, sir." A stammering voice answered.
Pete's eyes narrowed as he lowered his gun a fraction of an inch. "Mr…Dent?"
Larry Dent peered around his upheld arms, blinking nervously, his face washed white in the spotlight. "Uhh, yes, sir? Officer Malloy?"
"Yes, Mr. Dent," Pete answered, glancing at Coop. "Just keep your hands up for now. Detective Lee is going to make sure you're not armed."
"Oh, no, sir, I ain't carryin' a gun or anything," Dent said, nervously watching the detective move around him. He cooperated by remaining completely still during the pat down.
"He's clean, Pete," Coop said. "Is this…?"
"Yeah, it is," Pete said, unable to shed his distrust entirely. "Mr. Dent, you can put your hands down."
"Mr. Dent, why are you here?"
"Well, I, uh…was lookin' for the Reverend. Had somethin' to say to him."
"At this hour?"
"I done made up my mind to come. Seemed the best time whiles Sue Ellen was sleepin.'"
"How long have you been here?" Pete asked, walking past the man. He continued to talk to Dent as he followed Coop toward the side hall.
"Ain't been more'n a minute. "
"Was there anyone here when you arrived?"
"No, nobody. I thought for sure the Reverend would be here."
"You did?" Pete asked, stopping in his tracks. "Why?"
"Oh, he's here late like this lots of times. For whenever people need…special favors."
Pete had no time to wonder about Mr. Dent's cryptic remark as Coop returned from checking the darkened corridor.
"Nothing." The detective shook his head at Pete. He pulled out his notebook and shined his light at one of the pages. "Maybe Michelle's map…"
Pete's throat tightened. Was I wrong? Has my split-second decision cost Jim his life?
"You're lookin' for the Reverend?"
"Maybe, Mr. Dent," Pete said. "But right now I have to find my partner. Officer Reed was forcibly taken from his home a short time ago. We believe his disappearance is connected to the Temple."
Larry Dent's slack-jawed expression was barely visible but shock was clear in his shaky response. "Officer Reed? Gone? Oh, no…no, that ain't right."
"Coop," Pete said, still watching Mr. Dent. "Earlier Jim saw a door on the back side of the building. He said it was locked from the inside."
"I can't see anything promising in here or with this drawing. We might as well take a look at it."
"Wait," Dent interrupted, bringing both men to an abrupt halt.
"Mr. Dent?" Pete asked. "What? Is there something you can tell us?"
Dent's hesitation lasted a fraction of a second. "There's something I can show you."
Jim sat hunched up, his legs bent while his wrists grew numb from the tight restraints. His thoughts were scattered one minute, and alarmingly focused on his own terror the next. An unfamiliar level of anxiety was simmering beneath his skin, trying to break its way through to the surface. He'd been able to push down the strong, unsettling feelings so far. He couldn't allow Sabeth to know. But he was afraid he was losing the battle.
Jim looked up to squint painfully at the tall figure looming over him. He shifted a few inches to his left and turned one knee further, trying to find some small degree of comfort.
Sabeth squatted down in front of him, using up the remaining crook of space. Numerous thick strands of gold chains, sparkling gems and a large pendant dangled from his neck. "There is a sacred cycle between the living and the dead. One must eventually have power over the other. You are here to serve as a reminder, as proof."
"Of…what?" Jim barely croaked out the question. It was difficult to form words when he could hardly feel his mouth or tongue.
"That I can take you from one world into the other, whichever I chose, whenever I chose. My people will see for themselves."
"You're…crazy." The response came out as a slurred whisper.
"Denial does not change reality." Sabeth's lips curved into a nasty arch of contentment. "You're weak and tired. Your heart is racing, hammering its way out of your chest…so closed off that each breath you take is more costly than the last. So many levels of physical pain to experience. And all because I reap the knowledge of many lands, many cultures. Just as I have learned the laws here to use as I see fit. Perhaps now you regret your earlier conduct in my presence?"
Jim said nothing.
Sabeth sighed loudly. "Did you know, Officer Reed, that the answers to our needs, our wants, are abundantly within our grasp? You must simply be wise enough to perceive them. Such insight grants me control over a world that you can only imagine. A loyal few are witnesses. Others will soon understand and, eventually, their numbers will multiply. But there will always be those, like yourself, whose fate rests solely in sacrifice."
"You said," Jim said, talking over the mallet beating in his head. "You helped people."
"Ahh, yes, I do help many get what they want. And the people want a great many things," Sabeth said, his face looming too closely. "We all do."
Jim's eyesight rippled as he lost the battle to maintain his focus on Sabeth. Regina's blurry and contorted features replaced that image.
"It's time," Regina whispered as a wicked smile spread amid the waves of fiery hair. She held up the discarded hypodermic for him to see. Her voice was surprisingly soft as her fingers gently touched his aching jaw and traced a line to his lips. "You've had a hint of what's to come. Can't you taste it? Or was it not enough to rattle your senses?"
"They'll…find you." Jim turned his head away from the stomach-turning contact.
"No matter. They won't find you.
A series of frantic raps on the door startled her.
"Reverend? Reverend Sabeth? Please, you gotta help me. Please!"
Jim barely caught the look of guarded suspicion that passed over the woman's face. He started to yell out but the flattened palm of Regina's right hand crushed against his mouth as the imploring cries of Larry Dent continued to resonate through the door.
"It's my Sue Ellen. Please! I…I don't know what else to do. You're the only one that can help us."
Jim wanted to believe that Larry Dent would immediately comprehend the situation and run for help before Regina could convince him otherwise. He needed to believe that a miracle was behind that door instead of a simple, misguided man. But the distress in Larry Dent's voice gave him no reassurance. With his vision graying at the edges, his eyes once again fixed on the syringe clutched tightly in Regina's other hand. As the high-pitched hum returned to fill his ears, Jim felt himself starting to slip away. The only thing he saw was the glint of the silver needle.
Where was Sabeth?
An unknown reserve of strength flowed through his quivering hands as he reached out and shoved the hypo straight up and into the woman's exposed skin. A woman's feral scream was his only reward as he slid downward with nothing to check his fall. In the darkening haze that engulfed him, he saw Pete reaching to him from the edge.
If he and Coop didn't play their cards right, Jim could end up being used as a hostage. Pete wasn't sure what they were going to do…not until he heard the blood-curdling scream from inside.
Both men barely glanced at each other before they butted the door with their shoulders. The wood cracked but the lock held fast against the combined assault. Another hard blow separated the door from its frame and granted them access to the most bizarre scene Pete had ever witnessed.
Regina stood alone, clutching one forearm as she stared at them with wild eyes full of rage and shock. Pete's mouth went dry as he made out the small object in her other hand. He kept his gun on the woman but it was the form on the floor behind her that concerned him more. There was no mistake--it was his partner.
"Drop it, put your hands up and step away from him," Pete said, taking a step sideways.
"No, no, no! You can't be here!" Regina screamed, and then caught sight of Larry Dent hovering at the door. "You know what can happen…!"
"Put a lid on it, lady," Coop said, approaching her. "You heard what the man said. Drop whatever's in your hands."
"I have only destiny in my hands," Regina said, letting the syringe fall to the floor. She glared at Pete with fierce intensity. "The mojo speaks…to remind you that the curse will forever be."
"Now!" Pete shouted at Coop, keeping the detective covered as Regina's hands were locked behind her. Hurry, Coop, hurry!
"Got 'er, Pete," Coop said, stepping back into position as he pulled the woman away from Jim.
Wasting no time, Pete crouched down beside his partner. "Jim," Pete said, automatically cutting the cords wrapped around his wrists. "Jim, can you hear me?"
No response. Jim's hair was matted with blood and streaks of red ran down his neck. His skin displayed a contrasting mixture of paleness, fresh abrasions and harsh bruises. Pete felt a shiver rush over his own skin--Jim's normally bright blue eyes were open but they held no sign of awareness.
Pete leaned over and pressed two fingers firmly against his partner's neck, searching for a pulse, watching for the rise and fall of his chest…neither were visible. Frowning, Pete repositioned his fingers and forced himself to stop shaking. He glanced at the ashen face and saw Jim's eyes slowly close. Jim, don't…
Mac's unexpected voice startled Pete but not before his fingers detected a faint but steady rhythm.
"I got a pulse," Pete said, finally releasing the ragged breath that he'd been holding.
"Thank God," Mac said. "There's an ambulance on the way, Pete."
Pete nodded and looked down to find one of Jim's hand slipped inside of his. He couldn't recall when that had happened…his right hand had been too busy trying to locate some thread of life. He stared transfixed, unsure of exactly why until it suddenly struck him. He wasn't gripping Jim's hand. Jim was holding on to him.
"Pete," Coop said, breaking the stillness with his brand of confidence. "He'll be okay."
His eyes moist and his lips tight, Pete could only nod.
"Pete, we'll take the suspect out to the unit and wait for the ambulance. It shouldn't be long. I've got that fellow Dent out there now," Mac said, holding onto Regina. "You'll be all right here?"
"Yeah, Mac." Pete looked up briefly as Mac guided the subdued woman ahead of him.
Regina stopped suddenly, looking directly at Pete. "What must be shall be."
"Let's go," Mac ordered, propelling the woman through the threshold.
"Don't listen to her, Pete," Coop said, stopping at the door. "We found him. That's all that matters right now."
"Yeah," Pete replied, keeping an eye on Jim. Had it been pure luck that brought Larry Dent to the Temple at the same time that he and Coop arrived? Pete preferred to think of it as sheer providence instead. If it hadn't been for Dent, they would never have known about the sliding wall panel that doubled as a hidden entrance. It belonged in a bad horror movie, not present day downtown Los Angeles.
Pete squeezed his partner's hand, wondering if he could sense his presence. Jim Reed was not going to die in this cold hole in the ground, secreted away for reasons they had yet to discover. Doing nothing while seeing his partner helplessly sprawled on the hard floor ate away at him. He knew the smart thing was to wait until help got there. He also swore that if the ambulance didn't turn up in the next sixty seconds, he'd throw Jim over his shoulder, into Coop's car and the hotshot detective would get a chance to top his earlier driving record.
A clatter disrupted his thoughts as two ambulance attendants attempted to fit a gurney down the steps and through the doorway. He watched, biting back an urge to tell them how to do their job. It wasn't necessary. They somehow managed without his advice.
"Officer, let me check him out." The lanky young man with a marine haircut knelt down across from him. He repeated Pete's actions by checking for a pulse.
"He's alive," Pete insisted. "We need to get him to a hospital now. I think there's a chance he might've been drugged."
"No!" Pete almost growled. "Given something against his will. He needs help now!"
The attendant hesitated, exchanging a look with his co-worker as he tried to confirm Pete's statement. In a matter of seconds, his doubtful expression changed abruptly to one of surprise. "You're right--he is alive." He gestured at the other man to join him and then looked squarely at Pete. "We can take it from here, sir."
"I'm going with you."
"Okay, sir, but can you to do one thing?"
"Tell me," Pete said.
"You gotta let go of him, sir."
Pete reluctantly released Jim's hand, fighting the urge to tell the attendant to take a flying leap. He'd looked after Jim Reed since the first day they'd met…he wasn't about to stop now. He couldn't.
Bringing his partner to Central Receiving for the second time in the same week was two times too many. If he never saw the inside of a hospital ever again, it'd be fine with him. And he was sure he'd get no argument from Jim. Unless, of course, it involved newly delivered babies, Pete mused. That would be an exception they would both be happy to make. Well, for Jim and Jean, anyway.
Pete hugged the wall with one shoulder, arms crossed in frustration. How long is this going to take?
"How long did they say it would take?"
Turning at the sound of Mac's voice, Pete responded wryly. "You keep coming out of nowhere."
"Sorry," Mac replied, a smile barely there.
"Don't be. I couldn't ask for better backup." Pete kneaded the back of his neck as he looked past his sergeant and down the long hospital corridor. "And to answer your question, no, they didn't say when they'd know something. How's Jean doing?"
"Pretty much as you'd expect. Worried, scared, confused. But holding it together."
"Yeah, too familiar. How about you? Are you holding together, Pete?"
"Me? I'm okay," Pete said, keeping an eye on the movements of various hospital staff bursting in and out of the treatment rooms. "I'm not a wife and mother, you know."
"Just a friend and partner," Mac said, his soft blue eyes reflecting a common understanding. "I know."
"Thanks for sending someone for Jean, Mac," Pete said, finally looking at the older officer. "I couldn't leave him. I wasn't sure…"
"It's okay, Pete. I know Jean felt better knowing you were sticking close."
"You think so?" Pete asked, the lines in his forehead coming together. "I kept thinking that she'd realize how serious it was because I did stay."
"Whatever the case may be, Pete, she's here now."
"By the way, I haven't had a chance to update you."
"We got two for the price of one tonight. The unit that ended up at Ms. Cain's house…it seems that not everyone was at the Temple tonight."
"No, afraid not. When Browder and Sanchez arrived they did find a vehicle backed up to the door with the trunk wide open."
"Who'd they find?
"One Russ Tinneman," Mac answered, crossing his arms in clear satisfaction.
"Tinneman? What was he taking? It's not like there was anything worth stealing in that house."
"Whether he was stealing property or taking what belonged to him really won't matter much. The packages he had on him will pretty much speak for themselves."
"Packages," Pete's eyes narrowed. "Dope?"
"Hashish to be exact. Enough to land him some serious prison time, especially since he's got previous convictions."
Pete was silent for a moment, still watching for any sign of Jim's doctor.
"I was just thinking, Mac. We've got two people in custody--Regina Cain and Russ Tinneman. Both of them tied to that Temple. Yet Sabeth is nowhere to be found."
Mac sighed loudly. "We have to take what we've got, Pete. And that's not half bad. Tinneman was caught red-handed so the drug possession charge should hold up. Taking Jim hostage…you and Coop located the woman with him and that's a fact. Even a clever lawyer's going to have a difficult time defending that."
"Tinneman could've helped her grab Jim," Pete nodded. "But Sabeth…"
"Look, Pete, I know this is frustrating but for now there's no hard evidence against the man, just speculation. We'll pick him up for questioning, though. Until we have more information, that's all we can do. Of course, there's also Larry Dent."
"Dent?" Pete couldn't remember seeing Dent after they'd broken into the underground room.
"Yeah. Something seems to have changed his position on Sabeth and his Temple. Look at how he helped you find Jim. Regina Cain made some wild threats against the man but I have to give him credit--he stood his ground."
"I don't know why Dent decided to help us but I'm glad he did."
"With Jim's testimony and whatever else the detectives can come up with, we should have pretty good cases against both of them."
"Jim's testimony…" Pete's voice drifted.
"He'll pull through, Pete. And if Sabeth was involved, Jim can tell us all about it."
"Mac, I've never been so sure of anything in my life," Pete said, his hazel eyes grim as he looked at the older man. "Sabeth is at the center of this whole mess."
"I don't doubt your judgment for one minute, Pete. But you know how we have to play this."
"Oh, and one more thing. You and Jim have a certain detective working overtime for you. I'd say that narrows the odds quite a bit."
"Yeah," Pete cracked a smile. "He's young but he's got a lot on the ball."
"Like someone else we know?"
Pete allowed the smile to linger.
"Is that Reed's doctor?" Mac watched a short, balding man in a white coat walking toward them.
"Yeah," Pete said, tensing as he tried to read the doctor's expression. It was an exercise in futility. The physician maintained the same poker face he'd worn earlier, only this time large, black-framed glasses overshadowed it.
"Doctor Patterson," Pete gestured to Mac. "This is my commanding officer, Sergeant McDonald."
"Sergeant," Doctor Patterson replied with a clipped, down-to-business tone. "Let me tell you what's happened so far. A head injury such as this, will most likely, result in a concussion. We won't know the severity until he regains full consciousness. The x-rays didn't show any signs of a skull fracture, although it's no entirely conclusive. There was blood loss, of course, but it certainly could've been worse. Several stitches took care of that. At this time we want to prevent any swelling. I don't know what hit him but he's a very lucky man. A little harder, a little higher or lower…the prognosis might be very different."
Pete hoped that was the end of the doctor's statement. It wasn't.
"Now…as far as the possibility of toxin in his system…we're doing what we can."
"And that means?" Pete said, irritation finding a place in his voice.
"Easy, Pete, let the doc finish," Mac said, setting a hand on Pete's shoulder.
"We found no apparent evidence of puncture marks. But, in light of what you told us, we did run a urine test. And it revealed some…irregularities."
"Irregularities?" Pete asked.
"A very scant amount of a toxin was present, barely enough to register." The doctor consulted the medical chart in his hands, flipping a page over. "It could very well be the substance you spoke of. I've run across shellfish poisoning cases but never this particular toxin. Very unusual."
"What about the syringe we found at the scene?"
"Clean, unused. It's of no help whatsoever. I'm sorry. But we've pumped his stomach and we're presently flushing his system with fluids. So perhaps the worst is over. Now…we wait."
Pete's own stomach tightened in response. "Wait?"
"Yes. He'll be monitored, of course. That's all we can do in these situations. If Mr. Reed shows any signs that are inconsistent with his head injury, it will alert us. But his vitals are stable and he's shown no signs of an acute reaction since he was brought in."
"Which is good. Right, Doctor?" Mac asked, glancing at Pete.
"Yes, Sergeant, it's very good," Doctor Patterson nodded. "We'll know more when he fully regains consciousness. In the meantime, is his family present?"
"His wife is in the waiting area," Mac offered.
"Fine. Perhaps you both would like to be present when I talk to her?"
"Yes," Pete said.
The doctor might be able to relieve some of her worries but she'd still have questions for him and Mac. Some officers' wives preferred to be shielded from the harsh realities of their husbands' jobs. A lot of their husbands preferred that as well. Pete had always admired the way Jim and Jean were honest and open with each other. He'd always felt that was a quality of their marriage that would get them through a lot of tough times. And he knew there would enough tough times…one of them was happening right now.
Doctor Patterson gave them no assurances as to when Jim might fully come around but he remained optimistic. That positive outlook was also obvious in Jean. Even after hearing the bare bones version of Jim's ordeal, she had resolutely decided that her husband was going to be fine. Pete was not going to argue with that; in fact, he latched onto her belief because his own was questionable. Jean hadn't seen what he'd seen this night…or what he and Jim had both been witness to each and every time they'd had any contact with T. Leland Sabeth and his Temple. Everything connected to the man had turned into a walking nightmare for them all, but especially for Jim.
Instead, he and Jean had stayed close to Jim's hospital bed those first few minutes. Jean had gently stroked Jim's face while embracing him with soft words of love and assurance. Pete felt awkward--a trespasser in an intimate scene between husband and wife. He'd stepped back several feet, intent on slipping outside to the hallway.
"Pete?" Jean said, still watching over Jim.
"Just going to wait outside, give you some privacy."
"I wish you'd stay, Pete." Jean turned around and looked at him.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes." Her eyes glistened as she blinked several times. "Unless you really need to leave."
"No," Pete said, with a brief shake of his head.
Pete felt the discomfort fade away as a smile touched Jean's face. He saw her eyes fill with tears before she quickly turned around again. I guess the positive attitude needs a little back up.
And so they had sat in mismatched vinyl chairs--Jean's positioned close to her husband's bedside while Pete placed himself discreetly near the door. Jean kept up a constant dialogue, telling Jim about all the things he'd missed seeing or hearing over the last few days. She made sure to mention that Pete was there as well. But most of it consisted of little Jimmy's latest antics, which covered a broad range of adventures. Pete knew what Jean knew--if there was one thing that Jim hated, it was missing out on a special moment with his son. Surely the combination of Jean's voice and the mention of his child would be the thing that would bring Jim around. But half an hour later not much had changed. A nurse came and left several times, always giving them soothing reassurances about Jim's condition.
Pete wished he could shake his partner, yell at him, anything to get some kind of reaction. Jim didn't stir or make a sound. It unnerved Pete to no end. Seeing Jim out of action was always unsettling but this faraway stillness was something else. It was entirely unnatural.
The same white-uniformed nurse returned to poke her head inside the room. "Mrs. Reed?"
"Yes?" Jean's head bobbed around, her hand still massaging Jim's arm.
"Your father's on the phone. He's quite concerned about your husband's condition. I tried to assure him but I think he'd feel better if he heard it from you."
"Oh no," Jean gasped, looking at Pete. "I told my parents I'd call them after I spoke to the doctor. I completely forgot."
"You can take it at the nurses' station if you like." The nurse held the door open wider.
"Do you want me to talk to them for you?" Pete asked, rising to his feet.
"No. No, I need to check on Jimmy. He was running a bit of a fever last night."
"I'm sure he's fine, Pete. But I need to talk to Dad. I won't be long." Jean stood, taking a hesitant step toward the door.
"Go on. I won't leave his side. I promise."
Jean walked over to him, captured his hand and smiled. "I've always counted on that."
Pete nodded, no words finding their way to his mouth as Jean gave his hand a tight squeeze.
"Talk to him, Pete."
The door closed behind her and a draining silence filled the room. He moved to the windows as the gray morning light sifted through the blinds and reminded him that the long dark hours were nearly over. But his fears were still with him. He couldn't stop thinking about Sabeth. Could they have given Jim something new, something that hadn't even hit the street yet? Doctor Patterson hadn't completely ruled out the possibility. It had almost happened to Angie Barrett. The only thing worse did happen to her. The memory of those lifeless green eyes jarred him. Blue eyes... Pete shook himself, rubbing a hand across his face. He remembered how much that blasted coroner's report got to Jim. He hated to admit that it'd disturbed him as well.
Talk to him, Pete.
It was only a few steps to Jim's bedside but Pete felt like he could've been on the moon for as much good as he was doing his partner. What could he possibly talk about at this point? The only things that came to mind were chilling images that he'd rather forget. Pete's hands gripped the side rails as he pushed down the dark thoughts.
"Okay, Jim. This is it. That wife you adore has been patiently waiting for you to wake up so you can tell her you're fine. Don't you think it's about time you got off your can so she can stop worrying about you?" Pete hesitated, and added softly. "So we can all stop worrying?"
Leaning slightly over the rails, Pete continued but with a lighter tone. "Of course, I could always get Wells to come up here. I'm sure he'd love a chance to pull your leg again--especially since you're making it so easy for him. How 'bout it, partner? Don't make me call Wells."
Pete waited, his shoulders tensing as he counted the seconds.
"Come on, Jim."
While he had hoped for a response, Pete hadn't really expected Jim to wake up and start telling one of his corny jokes and for the world to somehow return to normal in the next moment. Turning in frustration, he nearly missed seeing his partner's eyes slowly open. A cautious measure of relief trickled back into his system.
Dull and unfocused, the blue eyes stayed open and unblinking. Pete felt those nerve-wracking seconds in the basement of the Temple all over again.
His partner's eyelids dropped in a slow-motion roll, unresponsive to the sound of Pete's voice.
"Hey!" Pete snapped, clutching Jim's shoulder. "Don't you go out on me again, Reed!"
His answer was a raspy, incoherent groan but it was enough to spur Pete on. "Okay--now that I know you can hear me, how about trying to see me?"
Jim's effort to push open his eyes was noticeable this time around. Pete was thankful to see awareness, although pained, return to his partner's eyes.
"Pete? Tha' you?"
It was a watered-down version of Jim's normal voice, slurred and as dry as sandpaper but understandable. His partner's eyes wandered lazily in no particular direction.
"Yeah, it's me," Pete said, grasping Jim's hand. "Here."
The grip was returned, surprising Pete with its intensity. Jim's eyes narrowed as he moved his head to look at him.
"It's okay," Pete said. "Take it easy."
Pete flashed a quick smile as he poured water into a glass that the nurse had left earlier. "Yeah, a very good idea. And since I know what your first question will be, the answer is yes, Jean's here. She's on the phone with her parents and she'll be back in a minute."
"Oh. 'kay. Tell 'er…I'm okay."
"She'll be able to see that for herself. Don't worry," Pete said, holding the glass and straw carefully. "Here, have a drink of water. The nurse said it was okay."
Jim sipped the liquid like a man in the desert who thought he'd found an oasis. "Thanks." He shifted in an attempt to look at his surroundings. "What…happened?"
"What do you remember?" Pete watched as his partner took in the fact that his other hand was ensnared by an i.v. line.
"Hospital," Jim said, frowning as he eased into his pillow again. A grimace marked his expression as he raised a hand to his head. "My head…"
Pete winced in sympathy. "I bet you have one monster of a headache."
"Yeah…Godzilla-size," Jim said, swallowing again to clear his throat. "Kid."
"What kid?" Pete asked, setting the cup aside.
"Chased him. Fire 'scape."
Pete hesitated, wondering how much he should tell his partner, if anything.
"Anything else hurt besides your head? You feel okay otherwise?"
Jim didn't answer right away. The eyes underscored with gray shadows closed briefly.
"Feel funny," Jim said, his eyes opening to look at Pete again. "Little hard…ta' talk. Really tired."
Not liking what he heard, Pete tried again. "That's the last thing you recall? The purse snatcher?"
"Yeah," Jim replied, drawing the one word out slowly. "What's…goin' on?"
Before Pete could reply, the door open and he heard Jean's sharp intake of breath.
"Jim! You're awake…"
Pete stepped out of the way as Jean rushed to the side of Jim's bed. The complete joy she felt showed clearly on her face and in her actions as she leaned over to gently embrace her husband.
"I'll go tell Doctor Patterson," Pete said, reaching for the door.
Jean's bright eyes and smile turned to him. "Thank you, Pete. For everything."
Pete returned the smile and caught a fleeting glimpse of the uncertainty on Jim's face before he left the room. He paused, using the wall as a temporary backrest until he saw Coop appear from around the corner.
"Pete? Hey, how's Jim?"
"He's awake. His wife is with him right now."
"Man, that is great news," Coop said with a tired grin that quickly wore out. "So does she know what all happened last night?"
"Coop," Pete said, with a low exhale of breath. "Right now, I'm afraid she knows more than he does."