Part 6: Strengthen Your Brothers
But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers. Luke 22:32
Jim had a strange tingling feeling as he and Sandburg walked into Major Crimes. It wasn’t an irritating sensation, just one he thought he should recognize somehow. All morning this feeling had persisted. Jim pushed it aside as he pulled out the case files, determined to figure it out later.
As the two of them went through the photos from the first two murders, Jim found what he was looking for. “I didn’t see the pattern at the first scene because the nun was found in a graveled area. It didn’t show. At the second scene the grass had been cut short so it was almost unnoticeable. But now that I know what I’m looking for I can see it. Our killer is a nun.”
“How can you be so sure, man? You know better than I do that most serial killers are men. Couldn’t it just be someone dressed as a nun?”
“First, we know that all the victims were taken completely by surprise or knew their killer. It’s hard to totally surprise every one of your victims. I think it’s more likely they recognized not only what the person was, but also who. Second, I could find no unusual scents at any of the scenes. The victims all had similar aromas—clean, unadorned, with a whiff of candle and that incense from mass. I’m assuming that’s because they all come from very similar environments—although the last victim had a little more antiseptic smell to her from working in a hospice. I also picked up a hint of wood polish and cleaners. Those even smelled similar from victim to victim. I bet most of the convents around here get a lot of their cleaning supplies from the same place. Maybe a supplier who gives discounts to churches and convents. The killer came from the same kind of environment, Sandburg. That’s why I couldn’t find anything unusual at the scenes at first.”
“A serial killer nun? I’m totally losing faith in mankind here.”
“Nuns are only human, Chief. The same things that make us go insane affect them, too—only they have better self-control than the general populace. Even though they’ve devoted themselves to God, they still have human feelings and human failings. Generally speaking, they’re not that different from any other group that chooses to separate itself from the rest of the world. There were a lot of guys in the Rangers who made the military their religion. They ate, breathed, and slept military. But that kind of isolation from the rest of the world can sometimes make you a little crazy.”
“Is this from experience?”
“Yes.” Jim had a look on his face that said don’t dig any deeper.
“Now you see why I’ve done studies of closed societies. Incredibly fascinating stuff, man. You could spend your whole life just documenting something like the complex initiation rites of some of these groups.”
Simon came out of his office. He did not look happy. “Ellison, Sandburg. My office.”
Blair and Jim looked at each other, startled. A quietly angry Simon? That really wasn’t good.
“I think you should both sit down.” Simon knew what he had to say could potentially destroy these two men…his friends. Best just to lay it all out there and deal with. “I got a call a few minutes ago. Alex Barnes escaped from the mental institution. They just discovered her missing.”
Blair visibly paled, uncharacteristically unable to say a word. Jim put a hand on his Guide’s shoulder, his other hand balling into a dangerous fist at his side. Jim growled through gritted teeth. “She’s not going to get away.” He looked like he was about ready to bolt out the door to go hunt her down himself.
Simon didn’t like the way this was already going—Jim in ultra-aggressive mode, Blair withdrawing into himself. Alex’s effect on his two friends the first time around had been extremely painful to witness. There was no way he was going to watch them self-destruct again. “Jim! Outside, now! I’ll be right back, Sandburg.”
Blair nodded absently. He watched as Simon and Jim had a few tense words. Then Jim left. Simon came back to the office.
“I sent Jim to the vending machines to calm down. He’ll come back in a few minutes.” He noticed Sandburg’s attention wandering. “We need to talk. Look at me, Blair! No misdirection, no obfuscation. I mean it! What’s going on in that head of yours?”
“The woman who killed me is running around town free and you wonder what I’m thinking about?”
“I know she’s not all that’s on your mind. I don’t think Alex Barnes, the killer, scares you as much as Alex Barnes, the Sentinel…and what that means for Jim.”
Blair glared at him for a few minutes. Simon glared back. There was no way the kid was going to stare him down.
Blair suddenly sprang up from his chair, waving his arms in frustration. “I’m scared! Is that what you wanted to hear? Scared of how Jim will react to her this time. Scared of losing everything again. I can’t do this a second time, Simon! Watch our friendship fall apart. If was too hard to put back together. I don’t know if I have the strength to do that again.”
“You and Jim are stronger than you’ve ever been. You were both fooled by her before—taken by surprise. You’re prepared this time. She can’t touch either of you if you don’t let her.”
“But all the preparation in the world may not help. Jim couldn’t control himself last time—it was instinct kicking in. What if he can’t help it this time, either? What if he turns on me because of those weird Sentinel reactions again?” Blair sat down, an agitated bundle of nerves.
“Listen to me, Blair. I’m only going to say this once. You and Jim have a friendship that others envy. People would kill for what you have. But it didn’t come easy and it didn’t come cheap. Are you going to throw all that work away? Alex caught you both off guard the first time because you were still unsure of each other. And you still weren’t sure about your roles in this whole Sentinel-Guide thing. I know I sound like a touchy-feeling therapist or something here, but you both had some serious control, trust, and commitment issues. You’ve worked those out for the most part. The two of you are where you’re supposed to be and God help anyone who gets in your way.”
“Talk to Jim. Don’t make him have to guess what’s going on inside your head. That’s a pretty scary place to go when you don’t have a road map.”
Blair sort of smiled at that. Then he sighed. “But what if...?”
“You can play the ‘what if’ game for the rest of your life and it won’t do anything but give you grief. Look. If you’re still worried, I’ll make you a deal. Jim starts behaving strangely, tries to kick you out of the loft, points a gun at you, I give you permission to shoot him.”
“I’m serious. Don’t shoot to kill—maybe just get him in the leg or something. Enough to let him know you’re not his doormat. Do you understand me, Sandburg?”
“Yes, sir.” Blair thought he was joking, but he didn’t dare laugh. The expression on Simon’s face was…scary.
Simon quickly scribbled a note and handed it to Sandburg. “No questions. Just do what it says. Now go tell Jim I want to see him.”
As Jim and Blair walked back into Major Crimes, Jim’s phone rang. Simon came to stand in the doorway of his office. “Let Sandburg get it, Ellison. I need to talk to you in my office.”
Jim walked in and sat down, not meeting Simon’s gaze. Simon chomped on the end of his cigar for a moment before he spoke. “Well, Jim? You heard everything?”
“Good. I want us all on the same page on this Alex thing. Now you know what’s on his mind. What are you going to do about it?”
“I…I don’t know, Simon. I…this whole situation just…” Jim rubbed the back of his neck uncomfortably.
“I know you don’t do this emoting stuff very well, Jim. But Sandburg spilled his guts. Now it’s your turn. Saying how you feel isn’t going to kill you. It probably won’t even destroy civilization as we know it.”
Jim smiled slightly. “I think…I think we’re finally where we’re supposed to be in our friendship and the Sentinel-Guide relationship. I don’t want to ruin that. Sandburg’s right to be scared. I’m…I’m scared, too, Simon. What if I can’t control my reactions to her? What if I hurt him again without meaning to? I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror for a long time after that Alex Barnes mess. I could see what I was doing to him the whole time, but I couldn’t stop myself. And later, after he…came back from the dead, he just chalked it up to Sentinel mating urges. Do you know how small I felt? How disgusted with myself? After everything I did, that he could just…” Jim choked on the words, unable to finish what he was about to say for a moment. He took a deep breath. “I don’t want to hurt him again. I’d do anything not to. But what happens when Alex shows up? Will all my good intentions fly out the window? The price was too high last time. He’s a rare person, Simon. Too innocent, too forgiving, and entirely too good to be messed up by someone like me.”
“You’re exactly right, Jim. But I know you. You have an iron control that few men possess. Now that you know what you’re up against, you can steel yourself. You’re a man, not an animal. Control your hormones like you’ve always controlled everything else in your life. And don’t push him away. He makes you stronger. If you don’t know that by now, you’re not as smart as I thought you were. The biggest problem between you two is that you don’t talk. Not about important things. He doesn’t say what he’s thinking. You don’t say what your feeling. Promise me—and I mean it—if you notice anything odd about your senses, you’ll talk to him about it. Even if you don’t think it’s anything important. Swear to me you’ll do that and it will take a load off my mind.”
Jim nodded. “I’ll talk to him if anything comes up. I don’t want to screw this up again.”
Simon stood up and walked towards the door. “Oh, and Jim? I was perfectly serious about Sandburg shooting you. But if you screw with that kid’s head, “mating urges” or no, he won’t get the chance. I’ll shoot you myself first.” Simon’s expression was cold as ice. There was no doubt he was serious. Simon called Blair back into the office.
Jim noticed that Sandburg’s heart rate was up. Maybe something about that phone call had upset him. He’d ask him later.
Simon sat down at his desk. “Now, back to the actual work we get paid for. There’s something unusual about Barnes’s escape. I think it may tie into your serial killer case. You and Blair need to go to the asylum and check it out.”
Blair shifted uncomfortably. “I know we all have Alex on the brain, but aren’t you being a little paranoid? She was in the asylum when the murders were committed.”
“The last person to see Alex Barnes before they noticed her missing was a Sister Margaret of the Mary of the Woods Convent that runs the orphanage just outside of town. Sound paranoid now, Sandburg? She also visited the asylum yesterday right before Alex started improving. Which by the way, I should’ve been informed of by two of my people who apparently knew about it since very early this morning. I don’t like being the last to know these things, gentlemen. You both have cell phones—use them.”
Jim looked sideways at Sandburg as he directed his comments to Simon. “I was going to tell you about a theory I had on our killer, but I was beginning to think maybe I was wrong. After what you just said, though… There’s a chance the serial killer is a nun.”
Simon was taken aback at first. “So are you now thinking the killer and the nun at the hospital are the same person?”
“Whoever pulled Alex out of her coma is a Guide. We’re sure of that.” He didn’t elaborate. Simon didn’t ask. “What kind of Guide do you think a murderous, psychopath like Alex would attract?”
“I see your point, Ellison. Dead nuns, a nun at the asylum with Alex, a nun as the killer—too many coincidences for me. Coincidences always turn into connections in the Sandburg Zone.”
“Hey! How’s come I get a zone of weirdness name after me? Why can’t it be the ‘Ellison Zone’?”
Jim cuffed Blair on the back of the head. “Because weird things just seem to always happen when you’re around, Chief.”
Simon handed them a file to look over on their way and shooed them out of his office, listening to Sandburg mumble about Ellison Zones. When they were out of sight, he un-switched the intercom feature on his phone. It was only fair, after all, that if Ellison got to listen in on his talk with Blair, that Blair should get equal consideration. Since Sandburg wasn’t a Sentinel, he had to rely on the old-fashioned technology of a phone on one end and a phone set to intercom on the other. Everything he and Jim discussed had been broadcast to the phone Sandburg picked up at Jim’s desk. Sentinels, hah! They weren’t all that hard to get around.