by Kristine Williams
Blair walked into the bathroom and closed the door, leaning against it for a moment. Professor Kinyon's voice was still ringing in his ears, and her words were trying to penetrate his numb mind. Emily was dead. She had just arrived that morning, how could she be dead? Blair was talking to her no more than 18 hours ago. Diving accident? What the hell kind of diving accident did you have at a site no more than 80 feet down? Something inside made him push off the door and walk to the shower, turning the water on and stripping off his clothes. He stepped inside and let the hot water rinse the paint from his hair, closing his eyes tight so as not to get any of the run-off inside. He willed the water to rinse out that phone call, but it was still echoing between his ears. What the hell was he going to do? With her family out of the country, and her...She was in Canada, he'd have to arrange things with the authorities in order to have her brought back down. Surely that didn't involve much? It was just Canada, there were no passports involved, and she was there with the research group. God, why Emily? Why him? If Professor Kinyon wasn't home sick, she'd be the one to go. Then Blair wouldn't even have heard about this until they were back.
What the hell was he going to do? He forced himself to open his eyes and work the rest of the paint from his face and hair, giving himself a quick once-over with the soap. When he stepped out and wrapped a towel around his waist he could hear Jim on the phone. He'd have to fly up there, float plane was the most common way to get to the little island. It was too late to leave tonight, so maybe there was time to figure out what to do. Suddenly the thought of going up there alone, on behalf of the University, to bring back the body of a girl who had so recently broken his heart, was more than he could take. He sat down on the edge of the tub, hair dripping on the floor, and waited for the tears to come.
When he heard the knock on the bathroom door he realized he hadn't been crying, just sitting there staring at the floor. He looked up as Jim came inside.
"Hey Chief, you okay?" Jim stood inside the open doorway, looking down.
"No." Blair replied, still sitting on the tub. "No I'm not. Jim, I don't know what to do." His friend walked over and put a hand on his shoulder as he stood up. "Listen, do you think...maybe you could..."
"Yeah Chief, I can come with you. I got us a flight out tomorrow morning, and I've called Simon." Jim pushed him towards the door, "Now, go get dressed. We'll clean up and I'll fix dinner."
Blair nodded, "Thanks Jim." He left the bathroom then, swallowing hard against the lump forming in his throat. He wasn't sure if the lump was there because Emily was gone, or because Jim was there, but it didn't matter right then. He finished toweling off in his room, then found a clean pair of sweats and long-sleeved shirt. When he came back into the living room, most of the paint had been cleaned up, so he busied himself with removing the plastic from the furniture, trying not to think anymore. By the time Jim came out of the bathroom, he had most of the plastic bunched up and was working on the tape.
"You can just leave that, I'll take it out to the dumpster as soon as I get dressed."
"Yeah, I'm almost done." Blair wanted to keep working. As long as he had something to do, he didn't have to think, and he could avoid talking. Jim went up to his room and Blair found more tape to pull up. The paint fight seemed such a distant memory, he wasn't even sure it had happened. Jim came back down, gathered up the plastic and as much tape as he could carry, and went outside to the dumpster. Blair couldn't find any more tape to remove, so he started pushing the furniture back into place, arranging rugs, re-positioning tables. Jim came back just as he was trying to get the bookcase back against the wall.
"Wait a minute, let me help with that."
Blair had been struggling with the case, not wanting to empty it out. He paused, letting Jim take one end, but didn't want to look at him. He could feel the burning in his eyes and was reluctant to let Jim see it. The fight with the shelf had been occupying his mind, and he didn't want it to end, but with Jim's help the case slid back into place easily.
"Come on, why don't you sit down and I'll make dinner." Jim put his hand on Blair's shoulder and pushed him towards the couch.
Blair let himself be pushed to the couch and sat down, staring out the window at the storm brewing in the late-afternoon sky. He wondered if it was raining up there, on the island where Emily was. He knew when he got up there, they would expect him to take charge. The other students there, the staff, they would expect that whoever the University sent up there would know what to do. What was he going to do? Hadn't Jim said...
"Jim?" He didn't turn around to face his friend, he couldn't.
"Yeah?" Jim was in the kitchen, setting out pots.
"You said you called Simon?" He wanted to make sure he had heard his friend correctly, but he was afraid if he came right out with it, he would be wrong.
"Yeah Chief, I'm coming with you."
Jim's calm reply sent waves of relief and guilt through Blair. He sank down lower into the couch and laid his head back against the pillows, closing his eyes. "Thanks, Jim." God, Jim was always there. Was there anything he didn't think of first? Here he is, thinking only of himself and how he was going to deal with this tragedy, and there was Jim, thinking of how best to take care of things for Blair. And taking care of things.
They ate in silence. Blair was grateful for the time to compose himself. He assumed Emily's boyfriend, Kenny, would be waiting for them, and probably was going to accompany them back. Blair had never cared much for Kenny Pritchard, even before Emily left him for the younger, wealthier archeology student. He was too self-satisfied with his position in life, which had more to do with his father's influence than any skill on his part. Since she came from a family with no financial concerns herself, Blair had never understood Emily's choice. He assumed her mother had influenced her decision to leave Blair and attach herself to Kenny. The younger man was her height, and just as blond and blue eyed as a mother could want.
"Leave those, I'll do the dishes." Jim stopped Blair as he was unconsciously gathering the plates. "Want a beer?"
He paused, thinking for a moment. "Yeah, sure." He really should do the dishes, it would help to keep his mind on something else. He couldn't let Jim handle everything, could he? But he wanted to, at least for now. Maybe he could just sit and watch the rain. Jim started to clear the table and he returned to the couch, staring at the night sky, waiting for more lightning. What if the weather didn't clear up tomorrow? He'd have to take a ferry out to the island, and that could take twice as long. Typically the float plane could take them from the bay, right up to the long pier off Puffin Island. But in times of extreme weather, a three hour ferry ride to Lummi Island was the only choice, followed by the hassles of finding a charter to take you out to the smaller islands. What if they couldn't get out there by tomorrow? And the fog, it was foggy a lot this time of year. What if they couldn't get out to the research station for a few days? What would--
"Here." Jim handed him a beer and sat down on the couch opposite his. "You okay?"
Blair accepted the beer, but just held it, fingering the bottle's top. "You got us a plane?"
"Yep." Jim took a drink, then leaned back into the couch cushions. "Leaves tomorrow morning at eight. It can take us right up to the island. The weather should clear up tonight, at least that's what they said." He took another drink and glanced outside. "I've got a friend in the area, with the RCMP's, and I gave him a call."
"Yeah. He can gather up the paperwork they'll need for customs. And the death certificate." Jim took another drink and set the bottle down on the coffee table. "Sometimes the paperwork in these cases gets a little bogged down. Just technical stuff, but it can take a few days on occasion."
Blair looked up then, suddenly worrying about the process he was supposed to take care of, but didn't know how. "Will there be a problem with this case?"
Jim shook his head. "I don't see why. But even then, it can take a few days. If it was just an accident, it shouldn't be a problem."
"What do you mean? They said she...Professor Kinyon said it was a diving accident." Blair's ear were beginning to ring. She said it was an accident. What else could it be?
"I know. And it probably was." Jim picked up his beer again. "It's just going to involve a routine check, nothing more. You know that."
Blair nodded dully. Yes, he knew that. How many times had he seen something like this before, with Jim? He knew there was paperwork involved no matter what the cause of death. And in a case like this, they would have to know what happened and why. He finally noticed the beer he was holding and took a long drink, willing himself to calm down as the liquid flowed down his throat. It would all work itself out when they got there. It was just an accident. These things happen. Just not usually to a friend of mine. "I think I'm gonna turn in." Blair stood, glancing outside as the lightning he had been waiting for finally struck.
"You want to talk for a while?"
"No. Thanks Jim. I'm just tired." He finished the beer quickly and tossed the empty bottle into the trash. He was afraid talking would expose too much inside. He wasn't ready yet. "Hey," He paused just before entering his room. "Thanks for coming."
"No problem, Chief." Jim nodded at him from the couch. "Get some sleep."
"Yeah." Blair went into his room and shut the door,
then sat on the edge of the bed, wondering what to do next.
By the next morning the rain had stopped and been replaced by partially sunny skies. Jim drove them to the waterfront and parked in the charter's private lot, securing the truck for what he had explained to Blair could be a two or three day wait. They boarded the small float plane and were in the air by 8:30, settled in for the hour long flight that would take them all the way up to the research center. Blair occupied himself with explaining the station to Jim, avoiding any other subjects.
The study center was the only thing on the small private island, with a large complex for students to live and work in for months at a time. There was a generator for power, and he assured Jim it did have indoor plumbing. He'd been up there several times before, but not since the discovery of the sailing vessel just off the rocky coast. He wasn't sure about the changes that had taken place after that find from last summer.
"You said this was from the Alaskan gold rush? Was it full, or empty when it went down?" Jim asked.
"They think it was empty, on its way up with men and supplies. There isn't much left of the ship itself, most of the wood broke away in the rough currents. That's why it went so long without being found. And I think they expected it to be farther up the channel, when they first started looking." Blair looked out the window at the water below for a moment, trying to gauge their position. "Although, legend has it the ship was full, and making an end run around the authorities at the time. That's Smuggler's Cove, down there. There was a lot of inner passage piracy those days, with all the gold coming down."
Jim glanced out the window and nodded. "I'd heard about that. Maybe some of your students had visions of gold dancing in their heads, coming up here?"
Blair paused. He didn't want to talk about them. He wanted to keep his mind on clinical details, the research, the area, the paperwork, anything but the people he was about to see. "I don't think so. It was only a legend. They're here for the artifacts, and to study the natives in the area. The ship was just an accidental find."
"We'll be there in about fifteen minutes, gentlemen."
Blair was grateful for the pilot's interruption. He knew Jim was trying to get him to talk. Jim seemed to think talking would make him feel better, somehow. But Blair didn't see how it could. He looked out the window again and could see the island tiny they were approaching. As they circled in he watched it grow larger, taking note of the changes since his last visit.
The island was still as small as ever, with its one main building taking up the bulk of the available flat land mass. The pier off the northern shore was longer than he remembered, and docked at the very end was a large, barge-shaped research vessel. No doubt where they were diving from to reach the ship just a few more yards off, in the deep, clear-blue water. The island was enclosed on all sides by sharp, steep rocks and an abundance of evergreens. Occasionally a tent was visible from above as they came around for the right angle to land. When Blair had spent two weeks here last year, he had also enjoyed sleeping in a tent on the rocky ground at the other side of the island, away from the building. Most students slept in the bunks available indoors, where the bathrooms and kitchen remained within easy reach. But Blair, and the occasional hardy soul, preferred the adventure of sleeping outdoors in the fresh, cold air. It was easier to hear the eagles and whales, over the generator's low humming that penetrated the newly renovated building during the still nights.
They landed with little trouble in the roughening seas and came to a slow stop beside the pier, several yards in from the ship docked at the end. Blair climbed out, glancing up the pier for any sign of someone coming down to meet them. While he held the door open for Jim, he caught the flash of sunlight off glass as a door opened in the building above the landing. They had each packed simple overnight bags and Blair flung his over his shoulder, leading the way up the pier to the steps that would switchback up the cliff to the building above. The person he had seen coming out of the station was now on the landing, in front of them. Blair glanced up, reluctantly, expecting to find Kenny or the station's supervisor. Instead, a man he didn't recognized smiled back at him. He thought the man waiting for them must be Jim's friend and he stepped aside, happy to let his partner take charge right away. Relieved when he did.
"Jim, it's been too long." The Mountie stepped forward and shook Jim's hand, glancing from him to Blair.
"Hey Tim. Thanks for coming out." Jim smiled at his friend, then looked at Blair. "This is my partner, Blair Sandburg. He's here on behalf of the University. This is Constable Phillips."
"Hey, that's Inspector now, tough guy."
Blair smiled and shook the hand that was offered, then looked back at Jim. He didn't know where to start, or how.
"Why don't you come on up? I've started the paper rolling, but you understand, these things take some time." He had turned and now Blair and Jim followed him up the long switchback of stairs. "With the weekend and all, and then there's Victoria day tomorrow, which all the government offices are taking off." They reached the top and paused. "I do apologize for these little inconveniences. This can't be easy for the family."
"Her family is in Europe, so a few day's delay won't affect their plans." Blair replied, looking around. "Um, where is...?"
"The medic is upstairs, I believe the deceased is down in the basement." he paused, looking at Jim. "Some of the other students took a boat in to the mainland this morning, to get her a nicer casket. They should be back soon. Come on, I'll introduce you."
Blair held up a hand. "That's okay. I know most of them already." At least he thought he did. The last time he was there, the resident medic was the wife of the station supervisor, a registered nurse who babysat the clumsy students who constantly slipped and slid on the rocks surrounding the island. The rest of the staff would change with each semester, but he did know five of them up from his own neck of the woods. Emily had come up to join Kenny and a group from his class that had been up there for just over one month already, most of whom Blair at least knew by face, if not name. He proceeded to the building, Jim and Inspector Phillips following close behind. Once at the top of the landing, he paused for just a moment before going inside. He heard Jim come up behind him and reached out for the door knob, leading the way inside.
They entered the building at the middle level, walking in to a large room with a common area off to the left, filled with couches, comfortable chairs, and lined floor to ceiling with books. To their right, the room opened up to a kitchen area and large dining room containing three long tables ringed with chairs of various sizes, shapes and colors. Straight ahead was a circular staircase leading up, and behind it, a matching one leading down. Beside them was a hallway leading to two long rooms filled with bunks for resident students. Blair glanced around the rooms, seeing no one. The Inspector had said some students went in to the mainland, and he could account for five, or rather, four, that should be there. Then there would be the station supervisor, and his wife if things hadn't changed too much.
"The supervisor and medic are here, and I think there's two more around somewhere." Inspector Phillips had followed them into the room and was now looking from Blair to Jim. "I've got a boat coming in to pick me up in an hour, it will bring the other three back."
"Come on Chief, let's tell them we're here and get the hard part over with." Blair felt Jim's hand on his shoulder and he turned around.
"Blair? Is that Blair Sandburg?"
Blair had been trying to swallow enough of the lump in his throat to answer Jim when they all heard the woman's voice projecting ahead of her as she came down the stairs. They all looked up to see a woman in her forties, with short black hair, dressed in heavy wool sweater and jeans. She smiled at them all in a sad way as she approached, reaching out for Blair's hand.
"They didn't tell us you were coming. I'm so sorry."
Blair nodded, shaking her hand, then turned to Jim. "Jim, this is Mrs Hathaway. She's the resident medic. Mrs Hathaway, this is my friend, Jim Ellison."
"Medic and den mother." She shook Jim's hand and smiled. "And it's Katie." She nodded at the Inspector, then turned back to Blair. "I can't tell you what a shock this has been, Blair. She had only just arrived, and then...well, it hasn't been easy for any of us."
Blair nodded, glancing around, trying to find something he could focus on long enough to steady his voice. "Her parents are still overseas, so the University asked me to come up. Actually they asked Professor Kinyon but..."
"Yes, I know, she's out sick. She did call our parent station, back on the mainland, to say that she couldn't come up, but that they were sending someone. I am sorry, Blair." she turned to Jim. "Are you with the University also, Mr. Ellison?"
"No, no ma'am, I'm not. I'm a Detective with the Cascade PD."
"Detective? You are aware that this was just an accident? I thought that's why Inspector Phillips was here?"
"Yes ma'am. I'm just here as a friend, to help Blair get this taken care of. Inspector Phillips is an old friend."
"As I've said, Mrs. Hathaway, everything seems to be in order. I'm just here to collect the papers for the office."
"Yes, you did say that. I'm sorry. I just can't help but feel responsible." She looked back to Blair. "You two will want to get settled in. I understand you'll be here for a couple of days, what with the holiday, and the...well the paperwork involved. Why don't you come with me, I can show you to a room." She turned and Blair followed with Jim right behind.
They walked down the hallway, past the larger rooms to either side, to a room at the far end of the corridor. "We've had a few remodelings since your last visit, and got a couple of more private rooms. There's only a handful of students here right now, but we try to separate the sexes in the bunk rooms. Admittedly, it doesn't always work, but we're supposed to try." She opened the door and led them into the room. It was spacious for a research facility dorm room, with a bed on either side, a desk in the center, and a full view of the pier they had walked up through two large picture windows.
"Why don't you get settled? My husband's upstairs arguing with the supply plane about the weather. We've had an awful lot of fog lately, and they haven't brought in supplies since last week."
"The others, will they be back soon?" Blair asked, glancing out the window at the early afternoon sky.
"Yes, I imagine within the hour. The Inspector's boat should be bringing them back with the...well, they didn't want her to stay in the metal one we had here. You understand?"
"Yeah. Thanks Mrs...I mean Katie. Thanks." Blair turned to set his pack on one of the beds and stepped over to the windows. He could hear Katie and Jim, who were still standing in the doorway.
"She's down in the basement, when he's ready," she was saying. "He'll know where."
"Thank you," Jim replied. Blair saw her reflection in the glass as she looked at him for a moment, then left. "Chief, I'll be right back."
Blair nodded without turning around. He focused on the barge at the end of the dock, trying to see as many details from that distance as he could. Trying to imagine that the diving barge was the most important, fascinating thing he had seen in a long time. Trying not to think about what was waiting for him one floor below, in the basement. In the freezer.
Jim returned several minutes later and walked up to the window, looking out. "Tim has the paperwork we brought up. He'll take it back with him this afternoon, but the offices are closed all day tomorrow." he paused then and Blair nodded, still trying to count the barnacles he couldn't see. "You don't have to go down there, Blair. But it would be a good idea. It helps, sometimes. Get it over with, then you can move on easier."
Blair felt Jim's hand on his shoulder. He didn't understand how seeing her body was going to make anything easier. He sighed and pulled his eyes off the barge he could barely see, turning around completely and leaning on the windowsill. He felt cold suddenly, despite his heavy sweater. "I guess you're right," he said, surprising himself with the steadiness of his voice. "I should get this over with before they come back." He pushed off the sill and started for the door. Jim was right behind him and he stopped, turning around. "Listen, Jim...I think I'd like to do this alone, if that's okay?" If he was going to fall apart, he'd just as soon his partner wasn't there to be ashamed of him.
Jim stopped, nodding. "Sure. Just take your time, okay? It's not an easy thing to do." He paused, looking at Blair. "I'll be upstairs with Tim and Professor Hathaway, if you need me."
"Thanks Jim." Blair raised his eyebrows, trying to gear himself up, and turned back around, walking down the corridor and back to the staircase. He waited until Jim was walking up, then he started down. The metal staircase wound around three times before reaching the lower floor where most of the food and supplies were stored. The main room was crammed with equipment and boxed findings from their dives and whatever else they were digging up at the time. Blair took his time winding through the boxes and crates, idly glancing at the labels as he made his way towards the giant walk-in freezer at the far end. Once inside he knew he'd find the front area stuffed with supplies to feed the entire facility for months at a time, and Professor Hathaway's secret stash of mango peach ice cream he thought no one knew about. The freezer was twice as big as it needed to be. Either that, or it was always half-filled, because Blair knew there would be plenty of room for the silver metal box he found at the far side. He let the door to the freezer shut behind him as he entered. The door was equipped with an emergency handle, and the lock had been broken for years.
She was there, way in the back, past the Professor's ice cream. Blair approached the coffin, wrapping his arms around him for warmth against the cold that was creeping, oddly enough, from the inside out. He stood for a long time beside the metal box, staring at the frost accumulating on the edges. Twice he reached out to open the lid, and twice he stopped himself.
"This won't help either of us now," he said, his teeth chattering slightly. "I'm sorry." Sorry I wasn't here. Sorry this happened. Sorry I couldn't be Kenny for you. Blair shook his head and quickly left. He couldn't open the box, no matter what Jim said. That wasn't Emily in there. Not anymore. There was a shell in there now. A shell that would be cold, and covered in ice. No, seeing that couldn't help. It couldn't help at all.
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