"For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world."
"This is snake oil."
Jim Ellison: 'Private Eyes'
It had been raining when they left Cascade, and it was still raining when they got back.
Blair lay awake in bed listening to it patter down. Had he forgotten to close that window? Probably. Amazing that Jim hadn't come storming out to slam it shut hours ago.
He ought to get up and close it himself. He rolled over, adjusted the pillow under his head, and pulled the blanket up over his bare shoulder. There was a draft in the loft, too. Just enough to raise goosebumps. Really, he should close that window.
After another moment he rolled over on his back again. He'd missed a few spots with the sunblock, and the burns on his cheeks and nose were scratchy against the pillow.
Uh oh, there was Jim coming down the steps after all. Too late. And in the morning he'd have to sit through another lecture about house rules and common courtesy and worst of all, Jim probably wouldn't allow him to open a window again until June. Well, maybe he could try getting some more houseplants for oxygen.
No, actually, that must not have been Jim. He'd thought he'd heard something, a footstep or a creaking stair, but now there was nothing but the rain. If Jim had come down to shut that window, he sure as hell wouldn't be tiptoeing around to do it.
So there was still time. Come on, Sandburg, up and at 'em. Learning to pick up after yourself is a small price to pay for the privilege of sharing Jim's life, isn't it?
But even that argument wasn't enough to get him out of a warm bed on a cold rainy night. Besides, he rationalized, if the rain and wind hadn't already woken Jim, Blair getting up and stumbling around certainly would. He glanced over at the clock on his bedside table. Three a.m. He didn't mind being awake though, drowsy and content as he was. Kind of nice to enjoy the luxury of simply being in bed. He let himself think back to Los Angeles and the conference and bask in the remembered glory. You're all alone, Sandburg, and it's the middle of the night. Nobody will know if you gloat just a little.
He had been aware the whole time of Dr. Mooney sitting coiled like a snake in the third row, not really listening to a word Blair said, just waiting for his chance. The embittered old fossil was on the editorial board of practically every journal Blair had submitted to, and he knew good and well that was the reason his paper hadn't been published yet.
Of course, it wasn't Blair's fault that the man had practically based his whole career on one glib theory about the bhuta shrines in Rajasthan. Maybe it was Blair's fault that when he'd come across a fascinating oral tradition while doing fieldwork in Nepal that strongly indicated that poor old Dr. Mooney had been wrong for twenty-five years, he just couldn't let it go. But after all, it wasn't supposed to be about protecting pet theories. Surely there was something bigger at stake here. This had nothing to do with his Sentinel studies, was nothing, in fact, but a distraction from Blair's real work. But knowing that Mooney's erroneous research was still being cited as the last word was more than he could stand. He just had to speak out, and finally, finally he was getting his chance.
As soon Blair had finished reading, and the polite smattering of applause subsided, Mooney sprang. Blair heard him out, but he was ready for him. Man, was he ready.
He tried to make his response courteous and deferential. Even if Mooney had barely gotten off his ass in the past quarter century, he was still one of the founding lights, and Blair knew there was nothing more unlovely than a snot-nosed kid lording it over his elders. He even managed to hold still when he found himself starting to bounce a little on his toes in his eagerness to get all his words out. But man oh man, he was so right and everybody in the room knew it. Mooney shot back with a pathetic little defense that was politely ignored, and the rest of the discussion dealt entirely with Blair's interpretation.
And that wasn't the sweetest part. Not even close. The high point of the entire conference – no, the high point of the entire trip – was the moment right after Blair had gotten out his rebuttal, knowing that after all this, he'd finally made himself heard. Only then had he dared raise his eyes a little to look past all the beards and tweed jackets, seeking out that military haircut and clean-shaven face.
Jim was in the very back row. Arms crossed over his chest, tilting his chair back, not quite grinning, but a little smirk on his face, eyebrows raised, letting Blair know that even if he hadn't followed every detail, he understood that the kid had done all right.
In the darkness of his bedroom, Blair hugged the memory to himself, playing it over and over again in his mind until he started to feel a little embarrassed. Well what the hell, it would never happen again. It had just been a fluke that Jim had been there at all, and Blair certainly couldn't keep dragging him around to anthropology conferences. But for once, just once it had been nice that Jim could see him in his element. Nice to be able to show Jim that there was something he was actually good at.
And suddenly Blair was wrenched away from his pleasant memories. Damn. What was that? He lay motionless, listening. Was someone out there? He held his breath. Jim would have heard, surely. It must just be his imagination.
For some reason that didn't make him feel any better. The rain was still coming down hard, and there was a dull rumble of thunder in the distance. Blair pushed back the blanket and sat up as quietly as he could. What was he hearing? He didn't even know. He just had an unshakable conviction that something was there. He crept to the door, shivering in his boxers, and peeked out.
The only light came from the reflected glow of streetlights, making ordinary objects seem unfamiliar and strange. The staircase up to Jim's room was shrouded in shadow. He could make out the sofa and the coffee table, but the kitchen was completely dark. A few dull embers still glowed in the fireplace. There was that open window, a broad rectangle of black surrounded by panes of glass wetly reflecting the lights of the city. Blair was shivering so hard by now that his teeth had started to chatter. He was up now, he should just cross the room and close the damn window. And turn up the thermostat while he was at it.
Lightning flashed across the sky, followed by a boom of thunder. There, Jim was sure to be awake now. So, hey, Jim, old buddy, old pal, you know what? Something's giving me the heebie-jeebies real bad down here. You wanna take a little look-see around with those old Sentinel senses? Just to lemme know there's nobody here but us chickens?
He took a step out of the safety of his bedroom, then another one. His feet felt heavier than lead. Why don't you just turn on a light, Sandburg? What the hell's the matter with you anyway?
He tried to see the front door. It too was lost in shadow, and Blair had the sudden, peculiarly horrible thought that it might be standing wide open for all he could tell. His breath was coming in fast, shallow pants and his heart was pounding away so hard he couldn't understand why Jim hadn't gotten up to see what was wrong. He took another step into the living room, and then another. His eyes were straining so wide open the muscles in his forehead were starting to ache.
A gust of wind made the rain splatter against the windowpanes, and Blair nearly jumped out of his skin.
(Oh man, there's probably water all over the floor. Gotta mop that up before Jim finds out and pitches a fit.)
The sudden intrusion of the severely practical banished more irrational fears. He crossed the room quickly, skirting the sofa, and pulled the window shut. As predicted, the floor all around was sopping wet. He tiptoed back to the kitchen, realizing belatedly that he had tracked wet footprints the entire way. Oh for pete's sake.
He groped around the counter until he found a dishtowel hanging over the sink, then scooched it underfoot all the way back to the window. He mopped at the water under the windows, quickly realizing that the sodden little towel was entirely inadequate, but he was too cold and annoyed to care much anymore. Snatching it up, he carried it dripping to the bathroom, draped it over the laundry hamper, and hurried back to his bedroom.
The bed was still warm. He wrapped the blankets gratefully around himself in the darkness, suddenly so sleepy that he could hardly keep his eyes open.
He missed the pillow when he laid his head down. He scooted and scrunched around, trying to find it without having to take his arms out from under the blankets, but to no avail. He must have knocked it off the bed when he'd got up. With a sigh, he reached down, but his grasping fingers touched nothing but the cold floor. Dammit, where was it? Finally, entirely disgusted, he sat up in bed again and turned on the lamp. His pillow was nowhere to be seen. Under the bed, maybe? He hung over the edge and looked into the shadows underneath. No pillow, but a trickle like ice down the back of his spine. He sat up again quickly. Too weird. He found himself wishing he had checked to make sure the front door was actually secure when he had been up a few minutes ago.
With an aggravated sigh he crawled out of bed for the second time and went into the living room to grab a throw pillow off the sofa. He'd find his own in the morning.
Then, since he was up anyway, he checked the front door too. Safely shut and locked, of course, as it had undoubtedly been all night. He turned, his back to the door, and looked around one last time. Rain was still lashing across the window panes, but the sound was muted now that the window was shut. He glanced upwards. The clerestory across from Jim's bedroom shone with the lights of the city, but the staircase was impenetrably dark.
He had goosebumps all the way up his arms, and he was shivering hard. No wonder. It was cold, and the floor was wet. He was going to hear about this in the morning, no doubt about it. Now go to bed, Sandburg.
Clutching the scavenged pillow he scurried back to the bedroom and jumped in bed.
Just before dawn he had a horrible little nightmare, all the worse because he strongly suspected he was dreaming the whole time, and still couldn't do anything to stop it. It seemed to him that he lay frozen in his bed while Dr. Mooney crouched in the corner of his bedroom. His eyes were rimmed in red and his thin gray hair had escaped the control of his hair wax and hung over his ears in scraggly clumps. He was rubbing his hands together convulsively and pointlessly.
Blair kept his eyes fixed on Mooney. He couldn't move and couldn't speak, but he was convinced that as long as he didn't look away, nothing too bad could happen.
But suddenly, involuntarily, his eyes darted off. He wrenched them back, and found that while he hadn't been watching, Mooney had covered half the distance to his bed side. More terrible still, Blair realized that Mooney wasn't crouching at all. He was really only two feet tall, and his diminution had been grotesquely selective. His arms were no shorter, and his elbows nearly touched the ground, but his legs were mere stumps now, and the largest portion of his torso seemed to have been simply eclipsed out.
Oh god, oh god, whatever you do, don't look away—
Then he thought he heard something outside – Jim! Oh thank heavens – but when he looked, the doorway was empty and dark, and by the time he looked back, Mooney was at the very foot of his bed. He couldn't see his face anymore, lying prone as he was, just the claw-like hands at the end of those long, long arms, clutching and scrabbling at the bedclothes.
Please wake up now, Blair. This isn't funny anymore.
And you're going to wake up – now.
Oh God! Despite himself, his eyes rolled up towards the ceiling, and he felt the thump as something small and heavy landed on the bed beside him. And it was too late to look now. He kept his eyes on the ceiling because he wasn't a very brave person, he admitted it freely – I'm sorry, Jim, I tried – and there was no way in hell he could look over and see what was crouching on the bed beside him. Paralyzed and helpless, he even rolled a little towards the indention its weight made on the mattress, and cold damp fingers touched his belly, walked up his chest, tickled his throat, and in a moment he was going to feel them on his face, and when that happened, he was going to lose his mind.
Whoomf. Something weightless and suffocatingly soft covered his face, and he awoke kicking and flailing his arms and fighting to suck enough air into his lungs to scream.
"Blair!" Jim knocked the pillow away and grabbed his arms. "Calm down. I'm sorry. That was dumb of me. I didn't mean to scare you like that."
"Jim?" He sat bolt upright in bed. "Oh, man—"
The gray light of another rainy morning lit the corners of his room. It was just a dream. He'd known it was a dream all along.
"Are you okay?" Blair nodded, then saw what had awakened him. "Hey, you found my pillow. Where was it?"
"Funny thing to ask me, Chief. You got something you want to get off your chest? Maybe it's your guilty conscience that's making you so jumpy this morning."
"You woke me up by dropping a pillow on my face. That would make anybody jump. Seriously, man, where did you find it?"
Jim just looked at him. "It was at the head of the stairs," he said at last. "That really wasn't very funny, Sandburg. If I hadn't been paying attention I could have broken my neck when I got up this morning."
"At the top of the stairs? You're kidding. I didn't put it there. I was looking for it last night. I couldn't find it."
"Uh huh. I guess you don't know anything about the water all over the floor either? The wet footprints somebody tracked all through the kitchen?"
"Um, no, I know about that. Sorry. I thought I cleaned it up."
"Well, you want to take another shot at it? Maybe use a mop this time? And soap? And be sure to rinse it twice, please. I hate the smell of that Murphy's Wood Oil."
"Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you"
T.S. Eliot: 'The Wasteland'
He'd stepped in a puddle getting out of the truck, and his left foot was soaked clear to the hem of his dress slacks. He wasn't happy about the necessity for a coat and tie anyway, and sitting in the back of the courtroom with one foot soaking wet just seemed to underline the absurdity of the whole endeavor. Okay, fine, he understood the necessity of appearance and facade in the courtroom, especially with Dan Singleton sitting up there in a Brooks Brothers suit. It shouldn't make any difference whether the detective who'd arrested him gave his testimony in blue jeans, or dress blues, or bike shorts and a tank top for that matter, but appearances did matter. Especially in the claustrophobic theater of the courtroom.
Now, of course, he was hardly likely to impress anyone when he was called to the stand and made his entrance with one shoe squelching wetly all the way.
That was assuming he was even called today at all, which was beginning to seem increasingly unlikely.
It wasn't even eleven o'clock yet, and the jury had already been excused twice. Singleton could afford the best, and they were doing their job. Jim studied the faces in the jury box. Glazed with boredom, shifting in uncomfortable chairs, trying hard to concentrate on the judge's instructions, doing an increasingly poor job of stifling their yawns. Jim had been through this a million times before, but that didn't lessen his frustration. Singleton was a murderer, a racketeer and worse. He'd used Jim and the entire system, destroyed families, ruined lives. (Now you've got a chance to put his sorry ass away for good, so pay attention, goddamnit.)
He looked away. He could hardly blame the jury, really. If it weren't for the misery of this wet nylon sock, he'd probably be more than half asleep himself.
Okay, time to lighten up, Ellison. This was going to be a long enough day as it was, so he might as well think about something pleasant. Like hot, white sunshine beating down on his head. Palm trees, a breeze blowing in off the ocean, the smell of the sea mingled with popcorn, fried fish and coconut oil. Blair had been giddy as kid after giving his paper, bouncing along at Jim's side and beaming at the crowds on the Santa Monica pier. Entire families were lugging picnic baskets and beach chairs past them. Teenage boys crowded around the arcade. People thronged all around them. Hare krisnas, the homeless, gangbangers, fishermen, hustlers, hookers, skaters, joggers, the pierced and tattooed, the sight-seers like themselves.
But Jim was almost oblivious to everything but that sunshine. The warmth of it on his face more than made up for the past three months of rain. He found himself slowing to a stop as they walked so he could close his eyes for just an instant and tilt his face up to it.
Blair touched his arm. "Hey man, you all right?"
He was all right. More all right than he'd been in months.
(Oh no, not again.) While his attention had been wandering, one more question about admissibility of evidence or the judge's opening remarks must have arisen. The jury were shuffling to their feet, then trailing out the back door of the courtroom, frustration and boredom writ large on their faces. Jim hoped they at least had some decent coffee waiting for them in the jury room.
He took advantage of the break to stand up and slip out to the corridor himself. The county courthouse was full of people this time of morning, and the benches lining the walls were full. The building was modern, intended to be open and full of light. Personally, Jim had always thought it looked a lot like a shopping mall. And today the skylight three stories overhead let in only the sodden gray light of another gloomy winter day, filtered through the rain running across the plexiglas.
No doubt about it, Los Angeles had been a very good idea. And if Blair hadn't been planning to get to his precious conference by Greyhound, god help us, Jim never would have gone.
He'd been talking about it for months, and Jim was starting to wonder when he'd get hit up for a ride to the airport. He might need a day or two's warning to make sure his schedule was clear. But Sandburg hadn't said a word, and Jim had finally brought it up himself one rainy evening a couple of weeks before Blair's trip. He just wanted to spare himself that look of disappointment when Blair finally got around to asking at the last minute and Jim didn't happen to be free to play taxi driver.
Blair glanced up from his laptop. "What? Oh, thanks man, but the bus goes straight to the Greyhound station. I'll just grab that."
"Greyhound? Sandburg, do you know how long it's going to take you to get to Los Angeles on a Greyhound?"
He shrugged. "Thirty, thirty-two hours, something like that. I figure I ought to be able to get a lot of reading done. Plus, I've got an old seminar paper to write. With that much time, I ought to be able to get a pretty good start on it, don't you think?"
"Listen, Blair, I'm sure it's cheap as hell, but—"
"Not so cheap, actually. Eighty-nine bucks round trip, do you believe that? I was able to get a little travel grant from the department, but this late in the year, they're pretty tapped out. I'm barely gonna have enough left for the room. I'll have to pack some peanut butter and crackers if I actually want to eat while I'm there."
He was grinning like the whole thing was going to be one big adventure. Jim sighed. "Why don't you just drive?"
"Yeah, right. You know that car's gotta get me through grad school."
"Then let me spot you the money for a plane ticket."
Blair shook his head. "No. No way, man. Thanks, but no way."
"Correct me if I'm wrong here, but I thought this conference was a pretty big deal for you. You're finally going to get to read this paper that you've been trying to get published for years now, right?"
"Yeah, that's right," he answered cautiously. "So?"
"So, I'm just imagining the kind of impression you're going to make when you spring your big theory on the world fresh from a thirty-two hour bus ride."
"No problem. A shower and a cuppa jo, I'll be fresh as a daisy."
Jim shook his head. Thunder was rumbling in the distance, rain pattering steadily against the windowpanes. It had been raining for days. Weeks. Months. He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen the sun. "Okay, Chief, have it your way." The next words out of his mouth surprised him at least as much as they did Blair. "But I sure as hell don't intend to get to L.A. on the bus."
"Tell you what. I've been meaning to refinish the floors in here for years. You pencil in a couple of weekends to help me with the sander and the varnish, and we'll call it even on your plane ticket, all right?"
Blair looked like he didn't dare believe his ears. "What are you talking about, Jim? Since when have you been planning to go?"
"Ever since I realized how annoyed I was that you were the only one getting out of this damn rain for a few days."
The grin that broke across Blair's face was brighter than the sun. But then he quickly suppressed it. "Oh man, that's really great of you, but I just can't. I'm in too deep already."
"You have any idea what it would cost me to hire somebody to do these floors? A plane ticket's a bargain, believe me."
"So, Ellison, how's it going in there? It's the Singleton trial, right?"
Detective Brown had just come out of the courtroom across the hall, looking just as uncomfortable in a suit as Jim felt in his.
"Yeah, that's right. Damn thing's going to take months at the rate they're going."
"Don't sweat it. Those delay tactics don't usually work. Jury's just as likely to take it out on the defense as the prosecution."
"Hope you're right."
He shrugged with completely false modesty, then grinned. "I thought you knew better than to doubt me by now."
"Don't know what came over me there."
"Just don't let it happen again. You want to grab a bite across the street?"
"I can't. The judge hasn't broken for lunch yet, and the way things are going, it may be the middle of the afternoon before she does."
"Well, okay then, you take it easy, man." Brown slapped his shoulder and headed for the elevator. "Where's Sandburg? At the barber's I hope?"
"That'll be the day."
"What I was afraid of." Brown squeezed onto the elevator before the doors could close, crowding the flock of lawyers who had preceded him. Jim grinned after him and shook his head, then went back into the courtroom. The jury still hadn't returned. He slid into the same seat on the back row. For a while he just sat and glared at the back of Singleton's head, but that got old pretty fast.
He leaned his own head against the back wall, bringing back the memory of sunshine on his face.
It was so bright it bled crimson through his closed eyelids. He had opened his eyes cautiously, sorry he'd left his sunglasses in the hotel room. The light was brilliant, reflecting off the waves and on the windshields of the cars crawling across the pier to the parking garage. Their weight made the planks underfoot rumble with a vibration Jim felt clear to his fingertips.
The air was electric with sound, and Jim was relaxed and happy enough to enjoy the cacophony. A babel of languages, English, Spanish, Mandarin, Tagalog, Russian, who knew what else. Blair probably did. Tinny carousel music, the whoops and explosions from the video arcade, boom boxes down on the beach, the hiss of french fries being lowered into hot oil, all of it bound together by the crashing of the waves.
A fisherman vacated his bench just as they were passing by. Jim touched Blair's shoulder. "Want to sit down?"
"Sure," Blair agreed and flopped down on the bench facing the sea, avoiding the little pile of fish guts on the deck which the previous tenant had left behind. "Is this the life or what?"
"It's not too bad."
Blair tugged his t-shirt out of his jeans and pulled it over his head, wadded it up into a pillow and leaned back so he could rest his head on the back of the bench. He closed his eyes blissfully. Two women in cropped tank tops and bikini bottoms were passing by on rollerblades. They stopped and circled, admiring the view. Blair's shoulders gleamed like alabaster in the sunlight. One of the women grinned at Jim and touched her tongue to her upper lip before they skated on.
Jim elbowed him in the ribs. "You're gonna burn red as a lobster if you don't watch it. We both will."
"Yeah, I know." Blair didn't move or open his eyes. "Just a minute won't hurt."
Jim looked over his shoulder at the souvenir stand on the other side. "I'll be right back."
He crossed the pier, paid an outrageous amount for a two ounce tube of sunblock, and carried it back, smearing some over his own face and exposed arms as he went. Blair still hadn't moved. Jim took Blair's hand and squeezed a generous amount into his palm. "Here you go, paleface."
He scowled but dutifully sat up and rubbed the lotion on his shoulders and chest anyway.
"Turn around," Jim said. "If you're going to run around like that you need it on your back too."
"You're worse than Naomi ever was," he grumbled. Jim ignored that, smearing lotion across Blair's back in a few quick broad sweeps.
"That ought to do it." He still had some on his hands, so he wiped them off on Blair's face.
He jerked out of range. "Thanks, Jim. Thanks a lot." He rubbed in the excess lotion, then arranged his t-shirt more carefully across the back of the bench and leaned back, his arms crossed over his chest, his eyes closed. "So it's still okay with you if we go to Pasadena in the morning?"
"Pasadena. Right." (Can't we just spend the day at the beach?) "What's in Pasadena again?"
"Huntington Library, man, don't you remember? Professor Wodehouse at the conference yesterday arranged to get a guest membership for me. They've got Burton's Travels in Asia lectures in manuscript, plus a copy of Ultima Thule with his own annotations. I've seen a lot of it on microfilm, but it's not the same as being able to touch it with your own hands."
"I guess it wouldn't be."
"Sorry. I know that's maybe not so interesting for you. But the botanical gardens around the library are beautiful. I saw them four or five years ago, and it's a gorgeous place. You'll love it, Jim."
A library. Botanical gardens. He could hardly wait.
"Jim?" Blair cracked open one eye. "That is okay with you, isn't it?"
Jim felt ashamed of himself. This was Blair's trip. Buying a plane ticket didn't give him the right to dictate the itinerary. "It sounds great."
Blair closed his eyes again, satisfied. "I know you'll like it."
"I'm sure I will." Jim followed his example, closing his eyes and leaning back. Somewhere in the arcade behind them, someone finally succeeded in knocking down the wooden milk bottles at the softball pitch stand. A seagull screamed overhead. Wind flapped in the sails of a boat going past the pier.
But despite the bright warmth of the sun overhead, the thing huddled there between them was as cold and dark as a moonless winter night.
Jim suddenly sat bolt upright in the courtroom, his heart racing, his hand automatically reaching for his gun.
What had that been?
Jesus Christ, what had he just remembered?
Heads were turning. Jim forced himself to calm down, to sit back. It couldn't have been a real memory. Just the stress of this trial, the disappointment of being back in Cascade after a few days in the sun. It couldn't possibly be anything more.
As if to confirm that, Dan Singleton turned around in his seat just then, saw Ellison at the back of the courtroom, and smiled at him.
It felt a lot like being grinned at by the devil himself.
"When it was in any room, let them make what noise they would, its dead, hollow note would be closely heard above them all."
Wesley: 'Letters concerning some disturbances at my father's house at Epworth in Lincolnshire' (1716-17)
That afternoon Blair finally got down to brass tacks. He should have submitted his textbook order for the spring semester a week ago, but the latest edition of book he'd been using for the past several years was so bowdlerized, he had decided he would have to find something new. After spending the long, rainy afternoon in his office browsing through the other available options, though, he was starting to conclude that maybe his old textbook wasn't so bad after all.
Well, that wasn't really quite true. The new textbooks were uniformly atrocious, that was the truth of the matter. Bigger pictures, bigger typeface, smaller words, any hint of controversy carefully edited out. No mean feat in an anthro textbook.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor of his office, surrounded by stacks of shiny new books with "instructor's edition" stamped on the spines, he indulged himself by imagining what his dream syllabus for this course would look like. No more wasting his and his students' time with this predigested pap. Just a handful of primary texts – hey, maybe even some Burton, why not? – read slowly and carefully over the course of the semester. Sure, it would be tough going for them, not to mention for their teacher, but they just might learn something that would last beyond the final exam.
Blair stretched his arms over his head and tried to crack his back, unsuccessfully. Rain was pouring across the window panes. Thunder rumbled dull and incessant in the distance. So why don't you do it, Sandburg? Go ahead and design the course you'd really like to teach.
Man, did he ever hate the answer to that one.
(Because I just don't have the time.)
He had a million ways to rationalize these compromises. But the bottom line was, Jim needed him, and Jim came first. Pure and simple. He couldn't remember when he had first started cutting corners, but the behavior was so ingrained by now that most times he scarcely gave it a thought. Besides, it was just little things. So he used a survey text. So did everybody else. So he only assigned one research paper now, instead of the weekly essays he'd required when he'd first started teaching this class a couple of years ago. Back before he'd found a Sentinel. That didn't make him a bad teacher, did it? Just one with a few outside commitments.
God, he hated this. What was the matter with him? He had long since resigned himself to the fact that there were only twenty-four hours in the day. There was no point beating himself up because he had to stop and sleep occasionally.
Must be feeling guilty about Los Angeles. (Busy as your schedule is, you managed to find time to go show up poor old Dr. Mooney, didn't you?) That was probably the real reason he'd been so set on taking the Greyhound. Despite the time it would have wasted, the misery of the trip would have absolved him of any feeling of guilty self-indulgence.
Thinking of Mooney reminded him of this morning's nightmare. It had been with him all day, lurking as far away in the corners of his mind as he'd been able to push it. No wonder he was in such a lousy mood.
Blair stood up abruptly and walked out to see the clock that hung at the end of the corridor. Five-thirty. Looks like nobody was going to show up for office hours after all. Big surprise. Their research paper wasn't due for another month, and there were no tests this week. Might as well have gone to court with Jim for all the good he'd done by coming in to campus today. Or at least stayed home and gotten a start on that damn seminar paper. Geez, he couldn't believe he'd put that off as long as he had.
Feeling vicious and lazy, he hurriedly filled out the order form for the same textbook he'd been using all along and dropped it off at the bookstore on his way to the parking garage.
Jim wasn't home yet. He must have gotten tied up in court, which meant he would be in a wonderful mood by the time he finally got in. It occurred to Blair that he had said he would fix dinner tonight, hadn't he? So it would probably be a good idea to have something ready. Otherwise it was sure to be a long, long evening.
He hung his wet coat on a hook by the door and dropped his equally wet backpack on the floor underneath, then went to rifle through the refrigerator, only to be met with sterile aluminum shelves. Darn, he'd forgotten Jim had taken advantage of their trip to clean and defrost the fridge. Only a handful of things had survived the purge. A couple of eggs. A jar of green olives. Three bottles of beer. A hard leftover heel of parmesan cheese, and a half-pint mason jar of clarified butter that Blair used for frying curry spices.
Actually, Blair had volunteered to do the grocery shopping today too. What had he been thinking? Why had Jim agreed? They had both known he was going to have a long day at school. He had to get started on that paper. And then he was supposed to mop the damn floor on top of everything else.
"For chrissakes, Jim, I can't do everything," he said out loud, and swung the refrigerator door shut as hard as he could.
The little flash of temper vanished as suddenly as it had come, and Blair felt like an ungrateful wretch. All that L.A. sunshine sure hadn't lasted very long, had it? He tried to cheer himself up by remembering the conference, but even that memory felt empty and wrung out now, like a favorite song played one too many times.
Must be the rain, the gloom of the early winter evening, his disappointment at having to settle for that stupid textbook, not to mention the lingering emotional hangover from this morning's dream.
And it didn't help matters that the atmosphere in the loft was about as inviting as a damp, chilly cave.
He raked his wet hair back off his forehead and looked around. Usually just being home automatically cheered him up, no matter what sort of a day he'd had. Not tonight, though. Maybe it would help if he started a fire. Then figure out what to do about dinner, get things ready so he could throw it all together when Jim came walking in the door, and then if he had time, hey, go ahead and mop the floor too. Just get busy and do something. He'd be better able to concentrate on his own work after getting the chores done anyway. It was probably this standing around sulking that was getting him down.
It wasn't a bad plan, but it went wrong right from the start. He couldn't get a match to light to save his life. He crouched in front of the fireplace striking one long fireplace match one after another and watching in exasperation as each briefly flared blue then winked out, leaving only a fading plume of smoke. The living room stank of sulfur by the time he finally gave it up in disgust. They must have gotten wet last night, though heaven knew how. Or maybe it was just the humid atmosphere.
Okay, so forget the fire. He turned up the heat to compensate, then went back to the kitchen. Next on the agenda: dinner. He was almost certain there were a couple of onions still in the vegetable bin, and surely there was an old package of spaghetti around here somewhere.
Well, one onion anyway, a little shriveled and growing long green tops, but finding it felt like the first thing that had gone right for him all day. He managed to dig out half a package of egg noodles that had somehow gotten shoved to the back of the drawer with the dishtowels, and an unexpected bonus in the breadbox – a few slices of stale rye. The makings of a feast. Finally his spirits began to lift.
He broke a chili off the ristra hanging by the vent and put it in the toaster oven to puff up and finish drying out. He grated the parmesan cheese and beat it with the two eggs and set the bowl aside. He started humming to himself a little as he chopped some olives, then sliced the stale bread into little cubes, and tossed them into a saucepan with a big spoonful of clarified butter. This was gonna be pretty good, actually. A little high in fat, not exactly low in cholesterol, and not much nutritive value, but comfort food had its place every once in a while. Especially after a day like today.
He set the onion on the chopping block, sliced off the tops and the roots, made a shallow cut from end to end and peeled off the skin. The frying bread smelled wonderful. He waltzed back the oven to make sure it wasn't going to scorch, and decided to turn the burner off for now. No telling how late Jim might be. He could finish toasting the bread when he actually arrived.
You know, he really was being too hard on himself about his spring class. Show me another grad student in the department – heck, in the whole school – who wasn't juggling his time every bit as desperately between the demands of teaching and completing the degree. Devote as much time to your classes as the poor undergrads actually needed and deserved, and you'd never finish. The university might praise your high class evaluations, but that wouldn't stop them from booting you right on out the door if you didn't complete your dissertation on time.
So give yourself some credit, Sandburg. Jim did, after all. You trust him on everything else, why not this?
He smiled at a sudden recollection from the trip. He'd spent all morning and a good bit of the afternoon in the archives at Huntington Library, so enthralled that he'd forgotten all about Jim, if the truth be told. When he'd finally thought of the time and realized how long he'd left Jim to fend for himself out in the gardens, he had regretfully dropped everything – a single day wasn't enough time to pore through it all anyway, a week wouldn't have been, but at least he'd had a few lovely hours – and dashed out to the sunny afternoon to look for him.
Jim wasn't in any of the obvious places. Not on the hillside overlooking the lake, not in the Japanese gardens, not in one of the shady forest glens, not in the rose arbor. As he searched, it struck Blair for the first time that maybe, just maybe, six hours at the botanical gardens might not have been the way Jim would have chosen to spend his last day in Los Angeles.
He finally found him in the formal parterre in front of the old family mansion. A long yew alley stretched behind him, shadowed and dark despite the brightness of the day. He must have heard Blair coming long before Blair saw him, but he just waited for him, smiling as though there were no place he'd rather be than sitting there on that hard marble bench, surrounded by the carefully reconstructed elegance of an earlier age.
And just then the knife in Blair's hand slipped. The blade went skidding across the slickness of the peeled onion and bit so deeply into his finger that Blair felt the shudder of cold clear through to his spine.
He just stood there for a moment, stunned and furious with himself, watching the long white slice turn red. A fat drop of blood hit the cutting board. Dammit! Not on the very last onion. He snatched it up with his other hand and threw it into the sink. He could wash it off and Jim would never know. (And Jim thought finding a hair in his food was bad.) He suppressed a giggle, then realized there was a ringing in his ears, and that he didn't seem to be able to focus his eyes.
Oh my god, was he about to faint?
He sat down abruptly on the kitchen floor, his head between his knees, his cut finger wrapped tight in his t-shirt. This was too stupid for words. What a night! He should have just ordered out some pad Thai noodles and beef satay and been done with it.
Even with his head down he felt sick and dizzy. The ringing in his ears had given way to a dull booming that he thought must be the thunder of his pulse. His finger throbbed in time with the beating of his heart.
His t-shirt was quickly soaked through. How bad was it really? Good grief, was he going to need stitches? He gathered up more of the shirt and wrapped his finger more tightly, holding it hard with his other hand. Great. So now his shirt was a total loss too. Why couldn't he have grabbed a dish towel on his way down?
He stayed on the floor, waiting for the initial shock to wear off. His finger was starting to ache clear to his scarred knuckle, which he supposed was a good sign. His heartbeat was slowing down, and he didn't feel so dizzy anymore.
But the booming in his ears hadn't stopped. What in the world?
He sat up, straining to see around the kitchen island. It sounded as though someone were swinging a sledgehammer against a lead pipe. It must be coming from somewhere else in the building, but that wasn't what it sounded like. It sounded like it was right here in the loft with him. For the love of—
And then it stopped so suddenly that Blair wondered whether he had heard it at all. But he had, he knew he had.
(And just how did your pillow end up at the top of the stairs last night?)
Then the forgotten chili pepper he'd left roasting in the oven burst into flame.
Blair lurched to his feet and unthinkingly opened the oven door. A thin curl of black smoke rolled out, giving him a face full of airborne pepper oil. He reeled back, hacking and gagging, tears streaming from his eyes. (Oh God what had he done to deserve this?) Doubled over with coughs, he slammed the door shut again and turned the toaster oven off, leaving bloody hand prints all over it. He managed to get the vent fan on, dripping blood on the floor, the countertops, the refrigerator and the stove all the while, then staggered away, feeling like he was about to cough up a lung. He had to get out of here. He groped his way to the front door and flung it open, surprising the hell out of Jim, who apparently had those old Sentinel senses turned off right now. He stared in astonishment for just an instant before the poisoned smoke caught up to him and he began to cough as well. He pulled Blair into the hall, instinctively slamming the door behind them. The fire alarm began to whoop.
Blair was coughing too violently to stand up. Jim helped him down, his own eyes streaming with tears. Bending over him, he took Blair's hand without unwrapping the bloody shirt. "Have you got the bleeding stopped?" he gasped out. Blair couldn't answer. He shrugged and tried to nod.
"Try to keep the pressure on it. Can you do that?" He showed Blair what he meant by wrapping Blair's right hand around the afflicted finger and bearing down.
I know Jim, I know, he thought, mortified by the whole thing and wondering how dinner could have gone so disastrously wrong. He couldn't begin to suppress his coughs.
"Is the fire out?"
Blair nodded again, feeling like his esophagus was lined with chili pepper ash. All his hacking and gasping just seemed to make it worse.
"Wait here a minute."
Jim went back, leaving the door open this time. After a few moments, the fire alarm was silenced. Blair's coughs were finally beginning to ease a little. Oh man, was this ever stupid. Jim came back carrying a glass of water that he handed to Blair. "I got some windows open. Give it another few minutes to clear out and we'll get your hand cleaned up." His eyes were red and streaming tears, and his voice was just a dry rasp. (So anyway, welcome home, Jim. You have a good day in court today?)
"Was that our dinner you just immolated in the toaster oven?"
"A part of it," Blair whispered hoarsely. "Sorry."
"Uh huh. You know, pizza would have been just fine with me, Chief."
"Mammy told this tale about her stepmother. Late one Sunday evening they went to the barn to milk. One or maybe both saw a person coming across the field a way off. They didn't know who it was. It kept getting closer and closer and wobblier and limper. As it got real close, it just went down to the ground. Its arms flew up and fire came out to the tips of its fingers."
Montell: 'Deathlore In The Kentucky Foothills' (1975)
Jim was back in court at eight-thirty the next morning. By nine the jury had been seated, and by nine-fifteen hustled to their feet and ushered right back out again. Jim leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and rested his head in his hands. It had been well past midnight before they'd gotten back from the Emergency Room. Of course Blair had needed stitches. Six, in fact, curving in a bloody line from the knuckle practically up to the fingernail. He was lucky not to have sliced his finger clean off. As if anyone would believe Lady Luck and Blair Sandburg had even a nodding acquaintance.
The kitchen had looked like an abattoir. Blair's bloody handprints all over the counter tops, drops spattered on the kitchen floor and trailing a wobbly line to the front door. Blair complained the whole way to the hospital and then griped and fidgeted for three hours while they waited for a doctor. Jim didn't bother to point out this was hardly the way he had planned to spend the evening either.
On top of everything else, Jim had felt exhausted and didn't really know why, though he thought it must have been those eight hours in the courtroom. Nothing was more tiring than complete inactivity. He hadn't even gone to the gym afterwards, telling himself he didn't have time, not and catch up the work he was falling behind on at the station.
So he'd stopped by the precinct on his way home, shuffled a few files around, but was so dull his head felt as though it were stuffed with cotton batting. He'd closed his eyes just for a moment and nearly fallen asleep right there at his desk.
Then back to the loft to find his home transformed into a war zone, and Blair pretending that the cut wasn't really so bad and anyway, man, he had too much to do to waste the whole night in the Emergency Room.
Of course, that's exactly what they had ended up doing anyway. Hour after hour crawled by under the harsh flourescent lights of the waiting room while Blair moaned about the paper he had planned to work on tonight and bitched at Jim for not holding up long enough for him to bring his laptop along to the hospital.
Exasperated, Jim finally asked him how much typing he thought he could do with a half-severed finger anyway, and Blair had turned on him in earnest.
"You just don't get it! I've been carrying an incomplete for a year now because of this damn seminar paper, and now it's finally lapsed to an F. Fellowship renewals are coming up next month, and it's curtains if I don't get it cleaned off my transcript before then."
"So you've had a year to write it? Then I don't understand why you're yelling at me, Chief."
"Yeah, right, Jim. Thanks a lot. I wonder what could I possibly have been doing this past year that would interfere with schoolwork?"
"If this isn't working out, you should have said something before now. We can make other arrangements. Maybe you really should be spending at lot less time at the station, less time riding around with me—"
Of course, as soon as the words were out of his mouth, Jim had regretted them.
Blair's eyes had gone wide in dismay. "Oh, Jim, that's not what I meant. The time I spend on the job with you isn't the problem at all. It's really not. I've just had kind of a bad day."
(Way to go, Ellison. Why don't you just take a swing at him while you're at it?)
He took a breath and started over. "I haven't had a great day either. But let me be sure I understand you here. Not having finished this paper yet – that's going to stand in the way of you getting your teaching fellowship next year?"
Blair pulled his legs up onto the chair. His shirt looked as though it had been tie-dyed in blood. "Yeah, kind of. It's really stupid, it's just a little seminar paper, but I've just kept putting it off and putting it off, and it's finally caught up with me, that's all."
"You never should have told me."
Worry crept back into those huge blue eyes. "Jim, it's no big deal. I'll get it done."
"I know you will, because I'm going to make sure that you do. Now this Singleton trial is liable to stretch on to the end of the week, which means there's really no good reason for you to be showing your nose down at the station anyway. So just stay away. You think you can finish it by the end of the week?"
He nodded quickly. "No problem. It's just a matter of sitting down and doing it."
"Okay. No housework, no cooking, nothing until it gets done. I'm going to have to be checking in downtown in the evenings while this trial is going on, which means I won't be around to do it either. The bottom line is, if we have to live on pop tarts and pizza, wading hip deep through our own filth till you finish, then that's just the way it's going to have to be. Maybe that'll motivate you to get off your butt and get it done, all right?"
"All right, Jim," he said quietly. "Thanks, man."
In the light of day, Jim was a little sorry to have treated him like a child, but it seemed to be what Sandburg had needed to hear. He calmed down a little and stopped complaining quite so volubly. In fact, Jim finally must have been able to catch some sleep in that hard little waiting room chair, because his next clear memory of the evening was of Sandburg holding up his stitched finger like a trophy, shaking Jim's shoulder with his other hand and saying, "C'mon, wake up, man, let's get out of here."
Jim had to smile a little. Not four days ago he had watched Blair get up in front of a jury of his peers and take on a scholar with twice his age and experience. It was a little difficult to reconcile that memory of Blair calmly, politely, and apparently devastatingly taking apart a theory no one else had questioned in twenty-five years, with the Blair of last night who'd been fretful as a little kid on a long car ride, unable to cook dinner without precipitating a trip to the Emergency Room, worrying about an 'F' on his report card, for pete's sake.
It made Jim glad all over again that he had been at the conference. He knew Blair was perfectly capable of taking care of himself, and was even beginning to have some inkling of just what Sandburg's standing in his field was. Still, it didn't hurt to be reminded of it now and again.
The fact that he'd even heard Blair read his paper was almost as big a surprise as going to Los Angeles in the first place. That hadn't been the plan. The plan had been for him to simply drop Blair off at UCLA, then take the rental car and drive up Pacific Coast Highway maybe as far as Santa Barbara, maybe just find a quiet beach somewhere along the way. Just enjoy the day, the sunshine, the ocean, a little peace and solitude for once in his life.
Not the way it had happened, however.
"You can let me off right here, man," Blair said. "Royce Hall is at the top of the hill there. Do me good to walk. Guess I'm still a little nervous or something."
Jim pulled up to the curb. "Nothing to be nervous about, Chief. You'll knock 'em dead."
Blair was drumming two-handed on the dashboard, making no move yet to get out of the car. "Or Mooney will knock me dead. One way or the other. If you come back tonight and find my head on top of the flagpole there, you'll know how it went."
Jim laughed. Blair smiled weakly in return, then finally twisted around to get his papers out of the back seat.
"Sure you've got everything?" Jim asked.
"Yeah, I'm sure, I'm sure." He stopped nevertheless, and paged through the folder carefully. Jim looked around. He'd never been here before, but the campus had a dreamlike familiarity. It was a feeling he was getting used to in Los Angeles. Must be the result of seeing these places as the backdrop to countless movies and TV shows. Strange to be confronted with the evidence that they were more than stage props. But he still had the secret belief that he could reach out and give the scenery one hard push, and the whole thing would ripple like a painted canvas at the back of a stage.
Blair took a deep breath. "Okay. So, I'll meet you back here about eight, all right?"
"I'll be here."
"Listen, man, thanks again for all this. You were right. I'd have been a total basket case if I'd taken the bus."
There was a parking garage right across the street. Jim sighed as he suddenly recognized the inevitable. "Wait a minute," he told Blair before he could open the car door. At the first break in the traffic pouring onto campus off Sunset Boulevard, he made a hasty U-turn across four lanes and drove up the ramp into the garage.
"Think you can stand to have your own cheering section, Sandburg?"
"You're not serious." The look on Blair's face at that moment was more than worth the price of the plane ticket.
"Your call. You don't want me there, just say the word."
Blair beamed at him, and didn't say a word.
11:00 a.m. The jury still hadn't been called back. I'm in hell, Jim was thinking calmly to himself. The plane we were on must have crashed coming over the Cascade Mountains. We all died quick, messy deaths, and now I'm in hell.
At noon, court was recessed for lunch without the jury ever having been recalled. Jim glanced around at the crowds thronging out of the other court rooms, looking for someone to have lunch with, but not recognizing anyone but defense attorneys and court officials. Oh well, guess he'd be better off eating alone anyway. He still felt as lethargic and dull as he had last night. Nothing but Blair's chattering had kept him awake on the way home from the Emergency Room. He hadn't even cared about the lingering smell of charred chili pepper in the loft. He stumbled to the couch and collapsed, too beat even to make it up the stairs to his bedroom.
He was practically asleep right there on the sofa when he became aware of the sound of running water, then the quieter splash of water in a plastic bucket. He smelled detergent and managed to peel his eyes open.
"Sandburg, what are you doing?"
Blair popped up from behind the kitchen island, sponge in hand. "Just cleaning up a little."
"What were we just talking about?" It was an effort for Jim to speak at all, sleep was tugging so powerfully at his mind. He closed his eyes again.
"Yeah, I know, but I didn't think you meant we had to leave bloodstains too. It's gross, man. Looks like a slaughter house in here."
Jim supposed he had a point. That had been his impression of the kitchen, too. He drifted back into a lazy half-sleep, still aware of his surroundings. It seemed to him that he could see the entire loft without opening his eyes, could go anywhere he wanted without moving a muscle.
So he walked up the stairs to his bedroom, then turned and looked down at Blair. He was pouring the bucket of bloody water down the drain, wringing out the sponge, throwing it into the plastic basket below the sink, acting like he was all done. That good-for-nothing kid. Was that what he considered cleaning up? The kitchen looked worse than it had when he'd started. The blood was everywhere now, smeared and diluted with soapy water, running an inch thick on the floor, pouring off the countertops, running down the walls. Goddamn you, Blair, he thought furiously as the little punk disappeared into his own bedroom. Get out here and clean up your own goddamned mess.
A quiet little sound brought him suddenly out of his dream and he sat upright on the sofa, shaking his head to clear the cobwebs.
Blair really was in his bedroom. Jim ventured a cautious glance towards the kitchen. There was no blood, of course. Blair had cleaned it up. Just a bad dream. No surprise after spending the whole evening in the hospital.
Then his attention was drawn back to Blair's bedroom. What in the world was he doing in there? He pulled himself up off the sofa and went to see.
Sandburg was dragging the sheets off his bed in a frenzy, wadding them up, throwing them on the floor. He was shaking the pillow out of its case like a madman when he looked up and saw Jim standing there.
"Do you mind telling me what you think you're doing?" Jim felt like he was pushing through molasses just to get his words out. He just wanted to get up the stairs and go – to – bed. "I tell you no more housework, and you start more cleaning than I've seen you do in all the time you've lived here."
Blair smiled a guilty, absolutely miserable smile. If Jim hadn't been so damn tired he would have gotten to the bottom of the terrible grin right then and there, but he just didn't have the energy.
"Hey, sorry, man. But sometimes you just gotta change the sheets. You know what I mean?"
"I don't even want to know, Sandburg." He turned and finally got up the stairs to bed, and when he awoke this morning, he'd still been wearing his clothes.
Abruptly, Jim decided he had lost his appetite for lunch. He bought a cup of startlingly bad coffee from a vending machine in the basement of the courthouse, and spent the next hour standing by the propped-open emergency exit door, just watching the rain patter down on the sidewalk.
"'How am I to fear the absolutely non-existent?' said Huree Babu, talking English to reassure himself."
Kipling: 'Kim' (1901)
Idea of reference. There, Blair thought. That's it. That's what I was looking for.
He was certain he'd remembered there being a term for it from a class in abnormal psych, but he'd spent a grim hour browsing through a list of common delusions to find it. As wound up as he was this afternoon, everything seemed to apply to his mental state, and he felt gullible as a hypochondriac reading a medical text. On top of that, he was twitchy with guilt, as if Jim would somehow know that he wasn't working on his paper.
(I'm getting right to it, Jim, I promise. Just need to check on something first.)
But "idea of reference." That was it. Believing that things happening around you hold a special, secret significance. Like thinking a song on the radio is really meant just for you. Or that the pigeons waddling around on the ledge outside the library window are discussing your life.
Or even beginning to suspect that a few funny little mishaps around the loft, some odd noises, a misplaced pillow – or even a drop of blood in the wrong place – could possibly, possibly be anything more than that. Just funny little things. It's a funny old world, after all.
Blair read the entire entry again, resisting the urge to get up and find a more exhaustive text than the little psych reference book. He took comfort in the author's contention that ideas of reference were common, probably happened to most people from time to time, and passed without incident.
Of course, if they persisted, they could be symptomatic of mental illness. Schizophrenia, say.
That was a little less reassuring.
He slammed the book shut, drawing a disapproving glare from a guy studying at a carrel nearby, then got up and put it back on the nearest reshelving cart. Time to get to work on that seminar paper.
Actually, it was nice to have a name for what he seemed to have been experiencing. After all, there was enormous power in being able to name something. No wonder so many traditional peoples kept their soul names a secret. Once you named something, you could control it.
He dragged the file folder with his notes for the seminar paper out of his back pack and laid it open on his desk.
He hadn't even looked at this stuff in more than a year. He thought the research was pretty much finished, but frankly, after all this time, he really didn't remember. Looked fairly complete, though. A sheaf of xeroxes, some lecture notes, lots more notes from other sources, the bibliography already put together (Great! Hoped it was still on his hard drive and that he hadn't accidentally deleted it some time during the past year) and hey, here was an unexpected bonus, a tentative outline for the paper itself. He didn't realize he'd gotten so far along before being sidetracked.
He smiled a little as he looked over his work. What a different person he'd been back then. He could hardly recognize the smug, hyperactive brat who'd begun working on this paper so long ago. His smile broadened. Jim probably would, though.
Poor Jim. The guy had looked absolutely wiped last night. And then to have to spend the entire evening at the hospital while Blair had the results of his own terminal clumsiness repaired. Oh, man. Blair lowered his head into his hands, remembering. And he'd been a major jerk the whole time too. So angry and frustrated that he couldn't find anything better to do than to take it out on Jim.
Oh man. Oh, geez.
'Cause it's not like Jim's ever done anything for you, is it? Not like he paid for your plane ticket to spare you a sixty-hour round trip bus ride, not like he gave up a peaceful drive up the coast to listen to you and a roomful of other anthropologists discuss the orientation of bhuta shrines (boy, bet you got a whole lot out of that, didn't you, Jim? I bet you were absolutely enthralled) not like the poor man hadn't declared his willingness even to sacrifice the ordered tranquillity of his own home if it would help Blair finish his paper on time.
So the least, the absolute least you can do is write damn thing, isn't it?
Besides, knowing Jim, he was likely to ask to see what progress Blair had made as soon as he got back from court tonight. That was one thing about James Ellison. Once he took an interest in something, he was absolutely committed. Blair might very well come to regret having brought up the paper at all.
Which may have Jim's intention in the first place. The man was no fool.
Okay. Getting right to work.
You know, he really should have stayed at home to do this. There was no reason for him to be on campus today. If he tried to work at the library he was sure to keep getting distracted.
But really, while he was here, he should check and see if anything relevant had come out in the past year.
No, no, no. It doesn't matter. This isn't for publication, and you're not trying to ruin some poor old guy's career, all you need to do is turn out twenty or thirty pages showing you were awake during Professor Skal's seminar, have some nodding familiarity with trendy critical approaches and the rudimentary ability to digest source material, then throw it all together into something at least approximating coherence. He should be able write this in his sleep.
Well, he didn't absolutely have to go home. Maybe he could work on the computer in his office.
(Because you're scared to go home, isn't that right, Sandburg? The thought of being alone in the loft all day scares the bejezus out of you.)
Yes, it certainly did. Ideas of reference or not.
Blair laid his hands flat on the desk on top of his notes, studying the stitches in his left index finger. The bruising extended half way up the back of his hand. Lovely, really lovely.
Now let's try to think about this like a rational human being. As long as he stayed away from sharp objects, what's the very, very worst that could happen? He could obsess himself into a complete screaming panic, but really now, even if he got home and found – oh, I don't know – another blood-soaked handprint in the Wrong Place – so what? Big deal. Nothing soap and water wouldn't take care of.
Of course, there was always the possibility that his "ideas of reference" diagnosis was a little off the mark. Maybe the problem wasn't that he was attaching enormous important to trivial events. Maybe he was seeing and hearing things that weren't even there in the first place. Maybe he was actually suffering full-blown delusions.
Oh great. That hadn't occurred to him before. Now he was sorry he had washed the sheets last night. He should have shown them to Jim at least, gotten some confirmation that, whatever twisted way his mind was dealing with sensory input, at least the raw data was sound.
But last night that really hadn't seemed like an option. Jim was sacked out on the couch, and Blair wasn't much better, interested in nothing but getting to bed and putting this whole night behind him. But the kitchen had looked so awful. No matter what Jim had said about housework, they really couldn't leave bloodstains all over the floor and counters for a week.
He hadn't even gone to his bedroom, because he'd been afraid if he went in there the temptation to fall face down on the bed and immediately go to sleep might prove irresistible. No, he had gotten a bucket and sponge out from under the sink, mopped up the dried blood, then rinsed it twice because Jim hated the smell of the soap. Jim had woken up once, grumbled something about leaving it alone, and immediately fallen asleep again.
So he'd finished up, gone to the bathroom, washed his face, brushed his teeth, everything a little awkward and a little slow with his frankenstein finger here, then gone to his bedroom—
That was the first time. He had not been in his bedroom since cutting his finger. He was absolutely, positively, one hundred percent sure.
Nevertheless, the first thing he saw was the thin spray of brown droplets across his pillow, and he felt the blood still left in his veins turn to ice.
(And I always thought that was just cliche, but what do you know? There really does seem to be something about as big and cold as an ice cube stuck in a ventricle right now.)
He moved forward slowly, slowly, thinking, that's blood, isn't it? Yes it is, my friend. There's no doubt about it. There's blood spattered all over your pillow. And would you mind telling me how it got there?
His brain had been frantically casting about for an explanation the whole time. Maybe Jim had come in here? He'd gotten some blood on himself helping Blair get fixed for the ride to the hospital.
Right, Jim comes home, finds Blair bloody and half asphyxiated and the loft about to go up in flames for all he knows, so what does he do? Runs into the bedroom to sprinkle a little more blood around. That made a whole lot of sense.
Blair had probably had a nosebleed or something during the night. Just hadn't noticed at the time.
Then he remembered that he hadn't slept on that pillow, because it had been at the top of the stairs in Jim's bedroom.
Horror had made him very calm for a moment. He went to his bed side and looked down at the pillow without touching it. The sheets and blankets were twisted in a heap in the middle of the bed. He reached out slowly and pushed them aside, and there it was.
Not even a whole hand print. A thumb, the first two fingers, a jagged piece of the palm. Neatly stamped in the center of the fitted sheet in brown, dried blood.
His next memories weren't very clear. He recalled looking up to see Jim standing in the doorway.
"You mind telling me what you think you're doing?"
He had no idea what he had told Jim, but it must have worked, whatever it was. Jim made a face, then turned and stumbled away, leaving Blair to finish ripping the sheets off the bed.
That's how tired Jim must have been last night. Blair proceeds to start a load of laundry at one in the morning, and Jim doesn't complain?
More than tired. Blair thought about the way Jim had looked standing in his doorway there. No, asking him to examine the blood on the sheets and the pillow case had not been an option. Those normally piercing blue eyes had been glazed with an exhaustion that seemed to emanate from his very soul.
That Singleton trial must really be taking it out of him.
Or something was at any rate.
And here was that chunk of ice back in his heart again, lodged hard in his aorta.
Jim felt the change in air pressure a moment before he heard the hinges, and he saw Judge Juarez's eyes flicker to the back of the courtroom. A faint scowl creased her brow.
He would have known even without seeing the expression on her face. Jim could feel his suppressed energy from halfway across the room.
He glanced around. Blair had sidled into the courtroom and was standing with his back to the door. In deference to his surroundings he was trying to hold still, but though his arms were at his sides, his hands were frantic. And seeing the expression on his face, Jim forgot his own momentary annoyance. He got quickly to his feet and went back to him.
Blair managed to hold his tongue until they were outside the courtroom, but it was clearly an effort. "Are you okay?"
Not what he'd been expecting to hear. He took Blair's arm and guided him further away from the courtroom entrance. His leather jacket was soaking wet, his hair plastered to his scalp. So much for Jim's hope that maybe the rain would let up this afternoon.
"Am I okay, Chief? I'm fine. What's the matter with you?"
Blair searched his face anxiously, then sank down onto an empty bench, all that excess energy just evaporating into the air. His eyes closed for a moment and Jim heard him taking deep, slow breaths.
Jim waited for him a few moments, his arms crossed over his chest, but as it became increasingly evident that there was no immediate threat, his concern started to give way again to faint annoyance. Juarez hated interruptions in her courtroom. "Mind telling me what this is all about?"
Blair looked up at him, rueful and apologetic. "Sorry, man. Little anxiety attack there or something. I had this horrible idea and I just, I mean, I just had to make sure you were all right, you know?"
"No, I don't, frankly. Why aren't you home working on that paper of yours?"
"Sandburg, what the hell's the matter with you?"
He was twisting his hands together nervously, unable to answer, and now unwilling even to meet Jim's eyes. With a sigh that he tried to suppress, Jim sat down next to him and kept his voice calm. "Something sent you flying down here to drag me out of court. Now that you're here, doesn't it make sense to just go ahead and tell me what it was?"
He looked as though he were gathering his courage. Then he said, "Jim, have you noticed anything funny going on at the loft?"
"'Funny?' Funny how? Funny like you almost burning the place down last night? In case you didn't notice, I wasn't laughing."
"No, not that. Little things. Things out of place. Stuff like that."
"Is this about that pillow of yours, Sandburg? I've been thinking about that. Do you think it's possible you've been sleepwalking?"
"I wondered that too. I never have before, but I guess that might explain it. But all the other stuff too—"
"What other stuff?"
He hedged. "You haven't, you know, heard anything? Like a booming sound, sounds like someone's banging on a pipe?"
"Blair, what in the world are you talking about?"
"How about nightmares? Have you had any bad dreams since we got back? 'Cause I had a helluva one the night before last. I still can't get it out of my mind."
It was Ellison's turn to flinch, and he looked away quickly, so Blair wouldn't be able to read even a hint of his guilt.
(Bad dreams? Why no, Chief. Don't know what you're talking about there. Of course, last night I had a vision of you washing the entire kitchen in your own blood, and it made me so angry I could have twisted your head off without a second thought, but no, I haven't been having bad dreams.)
He put his hand on Blair's shoulder and forced himself to look into those anxious, trusting eyes.
"Blair, listen to me. Go home, or to the university, or public library, I don't care. Just find a quiet place where you won't be disturbed and can get that paper written. I'm sure once it's not hanging over your head anymore you'll feel a lot better about everything."
Blair shrugged Jim's hand away and stood up. "Right. You're right. Sorry I bothered you, man."
"And it had a glare – a staring glare to it, which was a – which was a strange thing, for a thing that had no real face and couldn't make any facial expressions."
Hufford: 'The Terror That Comes In The Night' (1982)
When he'd started working on this paper a year ago, Blair had been amused and fascinated by the Malaysian Penanggalan. The spirit of a woman who died in childbirth, the Penanggalan appeared as a disembodied head trailing its own viscera, and could be found hovering greedily about the roof during the birth of other women's children, or worse yet, worming its way through the floorboards under a newborn's cradle, hungry for the infant's lifeblood.
Grotesque as it was, the legend stirred Blair's pity too. All his training and education cautioned him against imposing his own feelings here. Nevertheless, he couldn't help but suspect that belief in such a creature must spring from the appalling irony of labor pains ending only in death. It was probably easier to demonize the poor woman who died than face up to the utter heartlessness of the universe.
And if he were very, very careful, and trod very, very gently, Blair thought he could use his personal feelings about the matter – un-intellectual, un-rigorous as they might be – to humanize what could otherwise prove just another dull romp through the hinterlands of academia.
At least, that's the way he'd thought about this paper a year ago.
This evening, however, huddled in a corner of the sofa with his notes spread around him, every light in the loft turned on, the rain washing down across the windows in sheets, lighting flashing, the power flickering with every boom of thunder, Blair really wished he could be thinking about something other than vampiric, disembodied heads bouncing around like helium balloons.
You know, the esophagus and intestines would probably look a lot like jellyfish tentacles.
Stop it right now.
Wasn't it bad enough that he'd make such an idiot of himself this afternoon? Anxious as he was for Jim to hurry up and get home tonight, part of him dreaded facing him again after pitching that fit in the courthouse.
Heard any mysterious noises, Jim? Had any nightmares lately? Oh lord. Blair closed his eyes for a moment. That had been really, really bad. Working himself up into a state of complete hysteria, and for what? Sure, the blood was a little freaky, but let's be honest now. He'd practically sliced his finger off, then nearly choked to death on that damn chili pepper, how mysterious was it that he didn't remember dashing into his bedroom for a second before going to the hospital? He'd probably run in just to pick up his coat or something, which he'd probably left on the bed. The only mystery was that there hadn't been even more blood.
Well ... that, and the fact that the sheets had washed out so clean. Last night he'd been far too crazy to think about the best way to get bloodstains out of cotton sheets. He certainly hadn't pre-soaked them, and for that matter, he didn't think he had washed them in cold water either. Now admittedly his memory of the previous evening couldn't be relied upon, but thinking back on it, he could have sworn he had washed them in hot water with some dim notion of trying to sterilize the influence of whatever filthy thing had marked his bedclothes.
Which should have cooked those bloodstains right into his sheets for good. But when he came home this afternoon, thoroughly abashed after talking to Jim, and went to pull the sheets out of the dryer, he'd found the fitted sheet and pillow case both as clean as could be. No trace of the blood that had so terrified him the night before.
Well, so what? So he was a better housekeeper than he'd ever realized.
Or here's one for you, Blair: maybe there was never any blood there in the first place.
He quickly bent over his notes with renewed attention. Okay. Let's see here. So W. W. Skete was the first Westerner to write about the Penanggalan. His 1900 Malay Magic was typically Eurocentric for the time, but interesting nevertheless for its—
There was a deafening crash of thunder. The lights flickered, then blinked out all together.
Blair sat absolutely still.
This is not a problem. The lights are going to come back on any second now.
Just any second now.
He looked towards the windows, hungry for the lights of the city. Then it occurred to him how absolutely dreadful it would be to see one of those heads bobbing gently outside the window.
He squeezed his eyes shut again. Geez, man, would you please please get – a – grip.
Think about something else for a minute. It's just because you're obsessing about this, driving yourself crazy. Jim's right. It must be this paper. It's been hanging over you for so long it's given you a major case of writer's block. Tough to come down again after a high like the conference, and of course, to come back to this – a falling barometer, endless rain, a paper that simply couldn't be put off any longer – then having that nightmare about Dr. Mooney his very first night home.
Ideas of reference. Delusions of reference. You're determined to read something sinister into every little thing that happens. You've got yourself so worked up that even Malaysian folk tales are freaking you out.
But just for the sake of argument, said that nagging, nervous little voice, just for the sake of argument, Blair, my man – hadn't Jim seemed, oh, I don't know, just the tiniest bit ... off? What did that expression on his face mean when you asked him if he'd been having nightmares? And why did he look away from you so quick?
All that expression meant was that he couldn't believe he had such an impressionable imbecile sharing his home, and he'd looked away fast so he wouldn't throttle Blair for dragging him out of court on such a ridiculous excuse. Thank you and case closed.
He dared a peek around the loft. Power was still out. He should light some candles. There was a kerosene lantern in the closet that would probably be bright enough to work from.
Except there weren't any functional matches in the whole loft. He'd forgotten that little detail.
No, wait a minute. There were waterproof matches with the camping equipment. He could just dig them out of that back storage closet ... just head right on back there in the total darkness and hunt up those matches. Piece of cake.
On second thought, what about getting out of this place for some dinner? He'd been planning to wait for Jim to get home, then ordering take out, but maybe it would do him good to get out of here for a little while. After all, he'd done the best he possibly could, hadn't he? Come straight home from the courthouse and made himself sit here for the rest of the day, and nothing bad had happened, had it?
Of course, he still hadn't written Word One of his paper.
He took a deep breath. So just stay put, Sandburg. The lights are sure to come back on any minute now.
Man, L.A. had been so nice. Who would have thought it could all fall apart so quickly? Jim had been in a great mood then. Coaxing Blair along before the conference, not letting him get too wound up, quietly sharing his jubilation afterwards, not saying a whole lot, but from time to time Blair would glance over and catch Jim watching him, a smug, almost proprietary smile on his face.
Well, the explanation was simple, of course. Act like an idiot, and Jim's going to treat you like one.
Except that wasn't totally true, was it? They'd arrived in L.A. the day before the conference, and Blair knew he'd been acting like an idiot then too, way too hyped and nervous to sit still for five minutes, hardly able to walk a straight line without bumping into walls. Jim took it all in stride, simply asking – a little wistfully, Blair realized in retrospect – if he'd like to drive to Griffith Park. James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause, you know.
Blair had jumped him like he was completely insane to have even suggested such a thing. Didn't Jim know what he had to do tomorrow? Had he forgotten the whole reason they were in L.A.?
So Jim just shrugged, palms up, and went out on his own, leaving Blair to stew in his own juices for a while.
When he returned a few hours later he had an L.A. Weekly under one arm. It didn't look like Jim's kind of rag, but Blair was too unnerved by the thought that he was finally going to get to take on Mooney to pay much attention. He was tinkering obsessively with his notes, changing articles and prepositions, practically repositioning commas. He was dimly aware of Jim sitting on the corner of the bed and paging through his newspaper, when suddenly he stood up, walked over to the little table where Blair had his notes spread out, and laid the paper open on top of them.
"Jim? Do you mind, man?"
He pointed to a little article on the open page. "What do you think, Chief?"
"What I think is I don't have time for this right now."
"This La Luz gallery in West Hollywood has an exhibit of hand-painted Tibetan signs on display right now. Sounds right up your alley, doesn't it?"
"Really?" Blair scanned the article quickly, intrigued despite himself. "Cool. But I don't have time today. Maybe once this is all over."
"I've got a better idea." Jim proceeded to gather up Blair's notes from the little hotel room table. "Let's go right now."
"Jim, no, man, wait, I can't possibly." Ridiculously, he tried to grab some of the papers out of Jim's hands. Jim refused to become involved in a tug-of-war, but he didn't let go either. He just looked down at Blair, raising one eyebrow, and Blair released his hold first.
"It's on the corner of Melrose and King's Row. Do you know how to get us there, or do we need to stop in the lobby and buy a map?"
"I'm pretty sure we can just take Santa Monica Boulevard all the way, but you're not listening to me here. I can't go. I've got to be ready for this or Mooney'll eat me alive."
"If you don't relax he's gonna do that anyway."
They had gone to the gallery.
It had been a wonderful exhibit, too, knocking Blair right out of his obsessive spiral. Hand-painted shop signs had been rapidly going the way of the snow leopard when Blair had last been in Lhasa, replaced by American and Chinese prefabs, but it had still been possible to find a few on back streets, vivid oil paintings on tremendous sheets of canvas fifteen feet long and more. Tibetan characters interspersed with the English language names like Coca-cola, Pepsi, and Levi's. Blair was charmed to find someone else treasured these signs too, cared enough to try to preserve a few before they all disappeared.
There had been another exhibit going on at the same time, a contemporary American sculptor doing found object compositions or something like that. Blair hadn't paid much attention, but Jim had seemed intrigued by them. In fact, he'd spent most of his time there in one of the sunny upstairs galleries. Blair remembered being a little surprised. He wouldn't have expected those spiky, abstract constructions of stainless steel, leather and rubber – medical instruments? antique industrial tools? who knew? – to hold Jim's interest, but then, there was a lot he didn't know about Jim.
But he certainly did know enough about Jim to understand that this afternoon in the courthouse when it had seemed like Jim was evading his questions, had almost seemed, in fact, like Jim was practically lying to him, well, that was just craziness. It was simply not the way Jim was.
You're the one with the problem, Sandburg, so just deal with it. And get that paper written while you're at it.
The universe seemed to have been waiting for Blair to take those firm steps with himself. The lights came back just then, and Jim's key turned in the front door lock.
(Don't you know he's going to ask about the paper the very first thing?)
But when the door swung open, Blair forgot all about his seminar paper.
Jim looked like he could hardly stand up. He dragged himself in the door, shrugging his wet coat off his shoulders.
He tried to hang his coat on the rack, but missed, and it hit the floor. He shook his head and just left it.
Blair got up fast. "Jim!"
He cocked his head a little and managed a wan imitation of a smile. "How's it going, Chief?"
"You look like you're dead on your feet. What's the matter with you?"
He rubbed one hand over his face, shuffling towards the couch. Blair hurriedly cleared his papers away and gave Jim a hand as he sank down heavily. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes.
"I don't know," he said at last. "Must be this damn trial. I could hardly keep my eyes open long enough to drive home."
"You think you're coming down with something? Maybe you picked up a bug while we were in Los Angeles."
"I don't feel sick," he muttered. "I just need to sleep."
"Well geez, can I get you anything? You look terrible. Would some dinner help? Is Thai all right? Would you rather have pizza? What do you think?"
Jim's mouth dropped open a little, and Blair shut up.
He was already sound asleep.
"A short time later, Drewry and Betsy saw strange creatures for which they could not account; but as the country was new and many different animals and birds were to be seen, they did not attach much importance to what they saw."
Bell: 'A Mysterious Spirit: The Bell Witch Of Tennessee' (1935)
Jim didn't move for the next five hours. Blair tiptoed around for a while, but it soon became clear Jim was so zonked a herd of buffalo probably wouldn't make much of an impression, and he stopped worrying about being quiet. Around nine-thirty or ten, when Blair's growling stomach reminded him that he hadn't had any dinner yet, he ran down to the all-night bakery around the corner and bought a baguette and large cappuccino to go. He was hoping that Jim would be awake by the time he got back, but he wasn't. He hadn't moved.
Blair put the bread and coffee down on the kitchen table and went over to him. He seemed okay, just sleeping the sleep of the pure-at-heart.
Downstairs on the couch.
Just like last night.
Blair darted a nervous glance towards his own bedroom door.
And seriously, he was starting to feel more than a little concerned about Jim. Did he have a fever? He knelt beside the couch and looked closely into his sleeping face, wondering if he could touch his forehead to check without waking him up. Probably not. He didn't look flushed, though, and his breathing was steady and regular. Very steady. Very regular.
Blair worked at the kitchen table the rest of the evening. To keep an eye on Jim, he told himself, not because he was scared to go to his own bedroom. Sometime past midnight he finally wrote the first sentence of that seminar paper, right about the time that Jim finally mumbled and stirred in his sleep, and then blearily opened his eyes.
"Welcome to the world of the living. How do you feel?"
Jim sat up slowly. "Like I've been hit by a ton of bricks. Did I fall asleep on the couch?"
"Uh huh. Do you even remember getting home?"
"Not real clearly." He stretched and yawned. "I told Simon I'd stop by the station when I got out of court, but I didn't do it. I should probably give him a call."
"It's twelve-thirty, man. If I were you, I think I'd just wait."
"You hungry? There's half a loaf of bread from that place around the corner."
"I think I'll just hit the sack. How's your paper going?"
"How far'd you get on it today?"
"I, um, laid a lot of the groundwork. That's the most important part."
Jim got to his feet, looking highly skeptical. "I'm not kidding around here, Sandburg. Get it written."
"Yeah, I will, Jim. That's what I'm doing right now."
He nodded again and stumbled off to the bathroom, then climbed the stairs to bed.
The storm picked up again sometime around three a.m. Blair glanced up from his work as hailstones spattered against the windows. At long last, he was finally starting to make a little progress. He'd rewritten the first paragraph about seventeen times, but that was okay. He knew how this worked. Sooner or later now he would hit his stride, and the rest of the paper would start pouring out faster and faster until the last half wrote itself in such a white heat he would hardly know what it said until he went back and read it. That's the way it had always happened before. That's the way it would happen this time. For some reason he'd just needed to take this little detour through the twilight zone first. And wasn't out quite yet, apparently, working with every single downstairs light on. He'd worried a little about all the lights bothering Jim, but he needn't have. The man was out cold.
He really hoped there was nothing wrong there. Could it be some Sentinel thing that Blair had been too preoccupied to pick up on? Maybe something to do with their recent travel, the change in climate, or maybe just the forced inactivity of having to sit in that courtroom day after day. Maybe his senses were running on overdrive, and it was wearing him out.
Aw, man, this was no good. He had nothing to go on here. He'd have to catch Jim awake and talk to him about it. And Jim wasn't going to be in the mood to talk about anything until Blair had made some substantial progress on the paper.
He'd known confessing to Jim had been a bad idea. Sandburg, when are you going to learn to just keep your mouth shut?
Thunder cracked and rolled in the distance.
Jim had been right, of course. (Big surprise that was.) Now that the paper was finally underway, he did feel better about everything. He could almost dismiss the past forty-eight hours as nothing more than an interesting case study in hysteria.
In fact, once his paper was finished, he thought he should go talk to his friend Gunter over in the folklore department. Gunter was writing his dissertation on ghost lore in modern urban legends, and Blair certainly felt like he had gotten a firsthand look at the psychology of a haunting these past few days. No wonder people still believed in ghosts. A few funny coincidences, a little stress, and Blair had honestly been ready to think—
Lightning forked across the sky, and the furniture on the patio glowed blue for an instant.
Blair really hoped the power didn't go off again.
(Not completely over this little attack of nerves yet, are you?)
Nope, not yet. But that was because he was sitting around daydreaming instead of writing Paragraph Two.
No need to worry though. He was prepared now. He'd pulled a flashlight and some matches out of the camping equipment, and he had the kerosene lantern all set up on the coffee table. Even if the power did go off he could keep writing. It would be great to get a real start on this tonight, be able to get up tomorrow morning and soar right through the next five or ten pages before lunch. He could do it, he knew he could, if he could just stay focused here.
Anyway, he thought the storm was moving away after all. The hail seemed to have stopped. Lightning still flashed on the horizon, but the thunder had receded to the dull, far rumble.
And Blair found himself thinking about that other half of the baguette. He could toast a couple of slices, fix himself a pot of coffee, maybe just go ahead and work the night through. He didn't have to be on campus until his three o'clock class anyway.
Yeah, that was the ticket. Just a little break here. Then second to the right and straight on till morning.
He unfolded himself from the sofa, joints creaking and popping, and walked into the kitchen. Uh oh. Getting a little low on coffee. Maybe he'd just make half a pot. Or maybe if he got enough work done tonight, Jim would let him bend the rules enough to run to the store and buy another bag.
It was odd that he heard that tiny little noise at all. He wasn't the Sentinel here, was he?
But he did hear it, and it stopped him dead in his tracks. And for just an instant, he didn't think that any power in the universe could force him to turn his head and see what was behind him.
He couldn't breathe. He couldn't think. He honestly didn't think his heart was beating any longer. It had frozen solid in his chest, so how could it beat?
The sound stopped.
The slow thaw began. Moving like he was a million years old, Blair turned to look at the living room. Nothing out of place.
(Oh, man, you have got it bad.)
He would have slapped himself if he'd thought it would do any good. He started breathing again, and then he noticed the pen he'd left on the coffee table.
It was moving.
Oh, not a whole lot. Not dancing a jig or anything like that. Just rocking back and forth the tiniest little bit.
Blair felt his throat close up. The hairs on the back of his neck stirred as though a cold, cold breeze were blowing through.
Earthquake. Right. That's what it was. Just a little tremor. 1 or 2 on the Richter Scale. That's all.
Then it rolled to the very edge of the coffee table and back again. That was the sound he had heard. Plastic rolling across wood.
Well, that settles that, doesn't it, Blair? You are Out Of Your Mind. But look on the bright side. At least they won't make you finish this damn paper in your padded room.
He caught of flicker of movement in the corner of his eye. Too much. I can't take any more of this, he thought calmly, hopelessly, but he turned to look anyway.
Something small and pale was crouching at the foot of the staircase that led to Jim's bedroom. There wasn't enough light for him to see what it was. And that made less sense than anything else, didn't it? He thought he'd turned on every light in the place.
And so he had. But something was happening to them. He looked at the lamp beside the sofa. The bulb behind the shade seemed to be growing dimmer. They all were, and as they did, the shadows sprang from the corners, reaching greedily for him.
The thing started up the staircase, and Blair got a better look at it. Something like a little white puppy dog. Or a six-month-old kitten, the way it bounded effortlessly from step to step. A kitten without a head or a tail.
At the top of the stairs, it disappeared into the darkness of Jim's bedroom.
(oh god Jim oh god)
Blair shook himself violently from his paralysis and began to run, but he knew he was already too late. He could hear a low growl rumbling out of the darkness above him. (oh god Jim I'm sorry) He flew upstairs, trying to take them three at a time, tripped halfway and sprawled full length up them, banging both shins so hard that he shouted out loud, but never stopped, crawling on hands and knees as he dragged his way to his feet again.
It sounded as though a rabid animal were loose up there. The mindless snarling rose an octave as he reached the head of the stairs, but it was so dark Blair couldn't see his hand in front of his face. The growls seemed to be coming from all around him, degenerating into barks and howls and whimpers. "Leave him alone!" Blair screamed, his voice already hoarse. "Dammit! Jim!"
Something hurtled into him. Blair slammed into the railing and somehow managed to hold on, not tumble backwards down the stairs. The weight of the beast dragged him to the floor, its claws ripping at his chest, his ribs, his back. A bony skull butted hard up under his chin. He felt the heat of its breath on his throat, felt the bristle of hair, then the teeth. Blair's shriek was cut off abruptly as they clamped down.
He brought his knee up hard, and it screamed.
Blair scrambled up. He was trying to scream too, but all that came out were hoarse little grunts. Desperately groping in the darkness, he finally found the corner of Jim's bed, followed it around to the bedside table, finally touched the lamp and turned it on.
Jim was doubled over on the floor, his hands cupped between his thighs and his face grayer than potter's clay.
Ab omni malo, libera nos, Domine.
The Litany Of The Saints
Jim was still moaning. His pain and helplessness finally roused Blair from his stupor. Stumbling a little, he knelt down beside him. "Jim?" he whispered.
(oh god it hurt to talk)
Jim didn't respond at all. Blair touched his face momentarily, just until those dull blue eyes focused a little, then let his hand rest on his shoulder. "C'mon, man. You'll be more comfortable if you can get in bed."
Jim just groaned and shut his eyes tight.
Blair sat back. Okay. Give him a minute. He reached up cautiously and felt of his own throat.
The flesh was welted, torn and wet and numb to the touch. He closed his eyes, then opened them again and looked at his fingertips. There was a little smear of blood, but most of the fluid was clear. Jim's saliva.
He had to close his eyes again.
(So anyway, Jim, now that we seem to have exchanged bodily fluids here – I was just wondering – did you happen to get an antibody test during that last physical?)
Oh god, he was losing his mind.
And that was a Very Bad Thing, because it seems that Jim has already lost his. What a kick in the head, huh? And all along you thought you were the one sliding down that slippery slope. Turns out Jim was waiting at the bottom for you all the time.
He couldn't quite suppress a sob.
"Sandburg." Jim's voice was a hollow groan. He still hadn't opened his eyes.
"I'm right here." He crawled closer so he could rest his hand on Jim's back.
"What the hell happened?"
"You were sleepwalking. Must have – run into the night table or something. You think you're going to be okay?"
"My .38's under the mattress," he gasped. "Do me a favor. Just shoot me now."
(Oh, man, you forgot about the gun, didn't you? Good thing he only came after you with tooth and claw.)
He patted Jim's shoulder and got up. "Just hang on." He had to stand still a moment to let his head clear, then he groped under the mattress until he found it.
"Just a second." He hurriedly shoved the gun in the waistband of his jeans the way he'd seen Jim do, hoping he wouldn't shoot his butt off in the process. "You want to try to get up?" He crouched beside him again. "The floor's cold."
"Yeah," he groaned. "Okay."
Blair draped one of Jim's arms over his shoulder and slowly helped him up. Supporting so much of Jim's weight brought a moment of panic, but when they reached the corner of the bed, Jim simply let go of him and slowly curled into a fetal position on the mattress.
"I'm gonna run downstairs for just a minute. You need anything?"
Jim shook his head a little. He'd grabbed a pillow and was huddled around it, clutching it tight. Blair looked back at him once, then hurried down.
All the lights were blazing brightly. The rain was still coming down hard outside. He pulled the gun out carefully and laid it on the kitchen table, on top of his notes for the Penanggalan paper.
Then he went to the bathroom to check the damage.
He studied his reflection in the mirror for as long as he could stand it, then sat down hard on the side of the tub. He was going to have a hard time passing this off as a love bite. He started to giggle. Yeah, Jim, see, Sam got really, really pissed at me the other night.
The giggles turned into sobs. They hurt his throat but he didn't try to stop them.
What was he going to do?
One step at a time. Get all the crying out of your system now, Sandburg. Don't think. Because if you start thinking, the next thing you know, you'll be running, and you probably won't stop till you're half way to Lhasa.
Oh man, his throat hurt, and those dry, husky sobs that kept forcing their way up weren't helping matters any. Bruised larynx, he supposed. (Was it possible to bruise a larynx?) He was lucky it hadn't been crushed outright.
And just imagine what Jim would have thought when he finally came to his senses and found Blair on the bedroom floor with his voice box chewed out.
Well, you always did think I talked too much, didn't you, Jim?
He could hear the hysterical edge creeping in, and tried to stifle it. He didn't think Jim was in any position to be listening to him, but if he got much noisier, he might not be able to help it. Blair eased himself down onto the bathroom floor, drew his legs up to his chest and tried to rest his forehead on his knees. But bending his head like that hurt his neck, so he leaned back against the wall and tried to control his breathing.
No good. Deep breaths hurt too.
Hey, Jim. Know what? I'm a little out of my depth here, and I'd really, really appreciate it if you could take over for a little while. Just point me in the right direction and I'll do the best I can, I swear. But not like this, man. You cannot expect me to handle this all alone.
The next sob turned into a wail. He clamped both hands over his mouth. Okay. Apparently he wasn't going to get the luxury of crying it all out. Should have known better. He could cry till the crack of doom and it still wouldn't be enough. Need to just get busy and do something and stop thinking.
One step at a time, man.
He got to his feet and made himself look in the mirror again. Oh boy. You know that's gotta hurt, sports fans. The imprint of teeth was a vicious shade of purple, and the rest of his throat splotchy and red. Nice set of canines you got there, Jim. The skin was broken in a couple of places, but there wasn't much blood. Still, a tetanus booster probably wouldn't be a bad idea.
Or a rabies shot.
Oh God. There was that hysterical giggling again. What the hell is the matter with you? If you're ever planning to get a grip, I'd say that now would probably be a real good time.
He pulled up his shirt and looked at his chest and ribs, and turning around, tried to see the reflection of his back in the mirror. There were welts where Jim had grabbed him, but nothing to worry about. Not like this monster hickey on his neck here. He snorted in bleak amusement. Then regretted it. That hurt too.
Even if he could consider leaving Jim long enough to go, an emergency room was out of the question. Cascade suddenly seemed like a very small town at a time like this. Blair didn't know anywhere he could go to have this looked at without the risk of Jim hearing about it. He'd just take care of it himself and keep an eye on it. He could run up to a clinic in Seattle or someplace later if he had to.
He washed the bite with plain soap and water, wincing, then splashed a generous amount of alcohol around and gently taped down a little square of sterile gauze. The surgical tape began to itch almost immediately. Then he went to his bedroom and dug a black turtleneck out of the back of his closet. As he was pulling it on it occurred to him that he'd certainly gotten over the fear of going to his own bedroom this evening, hadn't he? He checked in the mirror, rolling up the neck as far as he could. A dark red flush was still visible on the underside of his jaw, but it ought to get him by, as long as Jim didn't pay too much attention. As an afterthought, he found a jar of Tiger Balm and smeared the ointment all over his wrists and the back of his neck. The reek of menthol and clove oil made Blair's eyes water. It ought to encourage Jim to keep his senses turned down while Blair was in the vicinity.
Then he went to the kitchen and poured himself a glass of water. Not that he was all that thirsty. He was just curious to see whether he could swallow or not.
Well, that hurt too, but he managed it. Looks like you're going to survive after all, Sandburg.
He put the glass down on the counter and let his eyes travel up the staircase to Jim's bedroom. The lamp was still on upstairs. Good. Every light in the place was on. Blair looked at the clock, suddenly curious about the time, and was a little amazed to find out it was only four. Two and a half hours until dawn.
Might as well be a million years.
He didn't dare hesitate any longer, or he knew he'd lose his nerve. But he did glance at the gun on the kitchen table as he went by.
(Yeah, right. You really think you could use that? Against Jim? Give me a break, man.)
He climbed the stairs, feeling the sore places on his shins from where he'd fallen before. Jim was lying curled on the bed just where Blair had left him. His eyes were closed, but when Blair sat down gingerly on the far corner of the bed, he said, "Blair?"
"Yeah, Jim. How you feeling?"
"Sorry, man. I know."
There was a long silence and Blair thought he'd fallen asleep. It occurred to him that he should have brought some of his notes up with him. The idea of working on the paper was risible, but at least it would have been something to occupy his thoughts. Because he was absolutely not ready to deal with this yet. In the light of day, maybe. But all he could do now was try to get through the rest of the night without losing his mind.
And keep an eye on Jim.
"What?" he husked out too loudly, startled.
"I'm gonna be all right," Jim was sounding sleepy and relaxed now. "You don't have to sit up with me."
"I know. Go to sleep."
Really, Jim was right in a way. Was he just going to sit here and watch him sleep for the next three hours?
And what other choice did he have? Go back downstairs and wait for the lights to get dim again? No way. At least if he were here beside Jim when it happened again, he would know what was going on. Wouldn't be charging into the dark like before.
Yep. He'd have the pleasure of seeing that look in Jim's eyes up close and personal right before Jim tore his throat out.
Well it's your choice, Sandburg. Run now and abandon him if that's what you have to do. Get up. Go. Who could blame you? Hell, do you think Jim would let you stay if he suspected even for one instant what had happened?
He pulled nervously at the turtleneck. That's why Jim wasn't going to find out.
He looked at the clock on the bed side table. Three minutes had passed since he'd first climbed the stairs. It was going to be a long, long night.
But the next thing Blair knew was a hand on his shoulder, shaking him gently, and he opened his eyes to see Jim's concerned, annoyed face close to his own. "I thought I told you I didn't need a nursemaid."
"Jim." It came out as a croak.
"You coming down with something?" He helped Blair sit up.
Blair looked around himself, trying to figure out what had happened in the gray light of another rainy morning.
Oh man, he'd fallen asleep. Good going, Sandburg. You're lucky to be waking up at all.
He saw Jim's nose twitch, and abruptly Jim sat back. "You know I hate that menthol stuff."
"Sorry, man," he whispered. "Sore throat."
"So you stayed up here so I would be sure and catch it too? Thanks, Blair."
"How you feeling?"
Jim stood up cautiously. "How do you think? It's okay. I'll live." He was limping as he walked over to his dresser. "What exactly happened last night?"
"You were walking in your sleep. I heard you moving around, mumbling or something to yourself. By the time I got up here you had fallen over the bedside table, I guess. I was scared to leave you alone after that. I thought next time you might fall down the stairs."
Jim was shaking his head. "Weird. Never happened before. Not that I know of. You think it could be a Sentinel thing? How do I keep it from happening again?" He smiled ruefully. "Believe me, once is enough."
"Um yeah. Well, I'm working on that. First off I thought I'd pick up one of those little infrared burglar alarms like you can get at the hardware store, you know? Something that would make a noise if you get up and start moving around. Just as a stopgap measure till I figure out what's going on here."
(Not bad, Blair. I think you sound pretty convincing.)
Jim nodded thoughtfully. "Okay. Sounds good." He clapped Blair on the shoulder on his way down the stairs. "Just let me know."
"Yeah, man, I will." Blair said softly.
He stayed put for a little while longer, waiting for Jim to shut the bathroom door so he could have a few minutes of privacy to get any tears out of his system, when suddenly Jim shouted up, "Sandburg! What's my weapon doing down here?"
That damn gun. He kept forgetting it. "Sorry." Blair got up and came down the stairs. "But you were scaring me last night. I just didn't like the idea of a somnambulist having access to firearms, if you know what I mean."
That one worked too. Amazing. Jim merely looked concerned. "You're right. It might be a good idea to keep this a little further out of reach until you figure out what's going on."
That calm faith in him was just too much. Blair didn't think he would be able to hold together after all, but then Jim saw the papers still spread out across the kitchen table. "You should have been working on your paper last night. This couldn't have happened at a worse time."
"No, don't worry about it," he said quickly. "It's practically done."
"Really?" Jim sounded frankly disbelieving.
Oops. Overshot the mark a little there. "Well, I got a good start anyway."
Jim nodded. "Tell you what. I'll pick up the burglar alarm during my lunch break at court today, all right? You just concentrate on getting your paper finished, and then we'll work this out together."
"I have trapped ghosts myself, and I have felt something running into my hand, like trapping a mouse."
Emmons: Chinese Ghosts And ESP: A Study Of Paranormal Beliefs And Experiences (1982)
As soon as Jim left for court, Blair cobbled together a fake seminar paper by grafting the paragraph he'd managed to write last night onto the first thing he found on his hard drive, which just happened to be the paper he'd read in Los Angeles. Then on the off-chance that Jim would actually want to look at it, he did a universal search to replace to "Rajasthan" with "Malay," and "bhuta" with "penanggalan."
He printed it up and then scribbled some notes in the margins as though this were a rough draft. With the bibliography he'd prepared a year ago tacked onto the end, Blair thought it looked pretty convincing. He was even faintly amused by how well certain passages seemed to work. It's funny how vampirism keeps coming up, isn't it? The bhuta and penanggalan were both bloodsuckers. Almost be worth turning it in to see if Professor Skal was paying attention.
Yeah, right. At any rate, it certainly ought to be good enough to get Jim off his back.
(Now if you can just figure out a way to keep him off your neck, you'll really be making some progress.)
Oh man, here he was with the shakes again. His hands were trembling so hard he had to put down his coffee. There wasn't any more in the house, so he certainly didn't want to spill this last cup.
Maybe on your way to buy the wooden stake and silver bullets, you can run in a coffee place and pick up some java too. After all, you've finished the paper now, just like you promised Jim you would.
And now he was on the verge of tears again.
He thought suddenly and absurdly of a drill sergeant gym teacher he'd had in fourth or fifth grade who had spent the entire year bellowing, "That's not doing it right there, Sandburg!"
He swallowed back the tears and paced to the windows. The never-ending rain was pouring down out of lowering gray clouds. How could he have let Jim go out without telling him anything? What if he flipped out in the courtroom? Jim was armed. They'd shoot him down without a second thought. And no telling how many he'd take with him.
No. He had to believe that wouldn't happen.
(And just what exactly are you basing that hopeful little fantasy of yours on, Blair?)
Not a whole hell of a lot, admittedly. But whatever was going on, he was sure it was connected with those eerie bouts of deep sleep he'd seen overtake Jim the past two nights. As long as he didn't doze off in court, it ought to be all right.
And if you're wrong, Sandburg, hey, then I guess you'll have the whole rest of your life to think about how you didn't do it right there.
Gunter was in his office, but aggravatingly enough, was already talking to one of his students when Blair arrived. Blair hovered outside the half-open door, trying not to scream in frustration at the delay. To make it even worse, it sounded as though the kid in there with Gunter was complaining about a test grade. This was great. Just great. Jim's sanity was on the line, (and incidentally, my entire world seems to have tipped about ninety degrees on its axis), and the first person Blair turned to for help was wasting his time listening to excuses from some whiny undergrad who'd probably been up partying all night before the test and now was suddenly worried that one 'B' on a folklore midterm was going to keep him out of med school.
The kid's querulous, self-justifying voice fell silent for a moment. Gunter got in a couple of words, but no more than that, before he started in again.
Blair couldn't stand it anymore. He pushed the door open the rest of the way and announced, "Gunter, I need to talk to you."
The kid turned around, shocked that someone would have the gall to interrupt. Actually, Gunter looked a little surprised too, but obviously didn't mind an excuse to get rid of the student. "I'm sorry, Anthony. My decision's final. If you want to take it up with the department head, be my guest."
Gunter stood up. "I'll see you in class tomorrow."
"Mr. Cole, if you'll just try to see it from my point of view for a minute here—"
"Goodbye, Anthony." It took closing the door in the kid's face to get rid of him.
"Sorry about that, Blair." He turned around, shaking his head. "You sound terrible. That sore throat going around campus is strep. Have you been to student health yet?"
Blair sat down on the corner of his desk. "Don't worry. I'm not infectious."
"I'm just supposed to take your word for that? No really, what's up?"
"Gunter, something's happened. It's a little weird, and you're the only person I could think of who might know something about it, and who isn't a total flake."
Gunter smiled good-naturedly at that. He was a foot taller than Blair, tubercularly thin, his face scarred with acne though his rapidly thinning hair had already turned gray. "Uh, thank you, I think. It's not about that grad student union stuff is it? I told you I don't have time to run."
"Nothing like that. See, it's— You've met Jim, haven't you? My roommate?"
"The cop, right? Yeah, I met him over at your office that one time." He grinned, showing coffee and cigarette-stained teeth. "It still cracks me up to think of you renting a room from a guy like that."
"Yeah, well, something's happened, and to be honest, I'm a little out of my depth here."
Blair had thought he was doing a pretty good job keeping his tone light and casual, but evidently he was wrong about that. Gunter's clear gray eyes, the man's only attractive feature, suddenly widened dramatically. "Blair," he said, his voice very gentle, as though he were talking to a frightened child, "Whatever I can do. You know that."
(Oh no, not sympathy. Anything but sympathy.)
He got up quickly and walked to the window. He could hear Gunter moving around behind him, shuffling papers, stacking books or something, tactfully pretending that there was nothing strange about Blair barging into his office, interrupting a student conference, and then completely losing it before he could get out a word of explanation. (That's not doing it right there, Sandburg.)
"Sorry," Blair whispered at last, but couldn't turn around to face Gunter yet. He could have handled dissolving into tears, embarrassing as that would be, but he was afraid it would be much worse than that. He might start to scream, and if that happened, he'd probably just keep on until the men in the white coats came for him.
And then what would happen to Jim?
"Tell you what," Gunter said calmly. "I was just gonna run over to the Commons and pick up some lunch. If you don't mind hanging out for a few minutes, I'll be right back."
Blair nodded gratefully.
"Can I bring you anything?"
"If they've got chicken soup I'll get you some. Probably make your throat feel better."
Gunter was back ten minutes later, drenched from the rain, cradling a slightly greasy white paper bag, an oversized styrofoam cup, and two cokes. "Hey, turns out we were in luck," he announced, cleaning the clutter off his desk with a sweep of his arm and proceeding to spread lunch before Blair. "Chicken noodle was the soup of the day."
He opened the paper bag and got out a paper-wrapped sandwich. "Plus a BLT for me, and I thought we could share the fries, but if your stomach's upset, maybe you should skip them."
Blair fumbled for his wallet. "You really didn't need to do this. What do I owe you?"
"Put it away."
"No, really— "
"Blair, I'd like you to cast your mind back, oh, two, two and a half years ago, when a certain grad student in the folklore department who shall remain nameless happened to freak out right in the middle of his comprehensives and showed up on Blair Sandburg's doorstep at three in the morning, shaking from a caffeine overdose and crying uncontrollably. Does this ring any bells?"
"Gunter," Blair said, embarrassed.
"Lunch is cheap, believe me. Eat your soup, and then if you wanna tell me what's on your mind, I'm listening, OK?"
"I'll tell you what's on my mind." Blair gestured towards the row of cassette tapes on the bookshelves under the window. "I'm wondering if you're actually using the department's money to buy those X-Files videos."
Gunter looked towards the ceiling and innocently whistled a few notes of the theme song.
"Oh man, I don't believe it! Do you know Anthro's so cheap I ran through my xeroxing allocation by the third week this fall? I've been doing my copies for class on the mimeograph machine over in the English Department all semester."
"And I thought the folklore department was Rainier's poor stepchild. At least we've got our own mimeograph. But no, seriously, those are important for my research."
"Seriously. You wouldn't believe the impact that show has had on the urban legends I've collected over the past three years. It hasn't quite knocked The Exorcist or Poltergeist out of the running as the number one influence structuring the way people tell their ghost stories, but it's in the running, definitely."
"Yeah, well, actually, that's what I wanted to ask you about, Gunter. Your field work."
He looked puzzled. "My field work? I don't get it. You're into ghost stories all of a sudden?"
"Kind of." Blair took a deep breath. (Slow and easy, man. You're doing great so far. Just take it one step at a time.) "The people you talk to when you're out there collecting ghost stories. Are they telling you about things they really saw themselves? Or is it mostly just friend-of-a-friend stories, things they heard in boy scouts, stuff like that?"
"When I first got started a few years ago it was all FOAF stories. The Vanishing Hitchhiker, The Hook, you know. Frankly it would make me a little nervous when somebody'd tell me about personally seeing a ghost. I guess I was afraid I wouldn't be able to ID the right memorate or something. Maybe even more afraid that they would ask me if I believed them. Lately, though, I've been finding myself more and more interested in personal encounters with the supernatural."
Blair focused his attention on his soup, stirring it around in the styrofoam cup. Maybe this would be easier if he didn't look at Gunter. (You have got to pull yourself together here. How do you expect to talk to Jim tonight if you can't even stand to face Gunter?)
It's okay. Don't anticipate. Just take this one step at a time.
"So, why is that? Why are you more interested now in people telling you about things they really saw?"
"For one thing, it's a lot more complicated. I mean, someone tells you a ghost story they remember from cub scouts, and yeah, there's something going on there, there's a little play with the cultural nexus transmitting the story, but that's nothing compared to the real thing."
Blair looked up. Gunter's gray eyes were alight with enthusiasm. "The real thing? You mean you believe people actually see ghosts?"
He laughed a little. "C'mon. I'm a folklorist. Belief don't enter into it."
"Um, yeah. Right."
"I just mean when someone tells you what happened to them personally, it's a whole different ball of wax. All the cultural determinants are still in play, of course, but it's a far more subtle, far more complex process."
"And what about the original, un-mediated experience?"
Gunter cocked his head and looked at Blair. "Doesn't matter. Even if you could get to it, which you can't, of course."
"Doesn't matter?" Blair heard himself raising his voice, but he didn't seem to be able to help himself. "You're telling me it doesn't matter whether someone has really seen a ghost or not? I know all about scientific detachment, but come on, man, give me a break here."
Gunter winced with concern, but his own voice remained steady. "No, Blair, from the point of view of my research, it doesn't matter a bit. It would just complicate things if I started worrying about what 'really' happened. That's a whole different field, and not a particularly legitimate one either. All I do is collect the stories."
Well, so much for Gunter. He'd been a long shot, but Blair hadn't wanted to jettison the academic approach without at least trying it. What's next? Naomi's psychic friends network? (God help Jim and me both.)
He looked up. "Sorry. I guess I'm a little tired."
"Hey, talk to me." He grinned. "Cause I have to say, you really look like you've just seen a ghost."
Blair was surprised into a sudden laugh. Tears welled up too. "You don't know, Gunter. Oh man, you just don't know."
"Wait a minute, I think I do. Blair, I'm sorry. You really have seen something, haven't you?"
Blair covered his mouth with his hand and nodded quickly.
"Oh lord." Gunter sat back. "I've been a real jerk. Are you all right?"
Blair lowered his hand cautiously, relieved to hear that he wasn't screaming after all. "Not really, no."
"How can I help?"
Blair shrugged a little, his hands spread open wide. "I'm not sure what I was expecting from you. I'm sorry."
"What if you tell me what happened? I don't know." He smiled gently. "Would it make you feel any better if I could tell you the memorate number Baughman would assign your experience in his folk-motif index? At least you'd know you're not alone."
Blair smiled back. He was still crying a little, but it didn't look like he was going to lose it. Not right now at any rate. "I don't know, Gunter. I guess it couldn't hurt."
"It is certain that evil may attach itself to possessions, to jewelry and gems, to objects of value and objects of comparatively no worth, to pictures, to miniatures and photographs, and almost especially, perhaps, to articles of furniture."
Summers: 'The Werewolf' (1933)
Apparently he was coming down with whatever Sandburg had. Not counting the startling, hollow ache that opened across his groin whenever he shifted incautiously in his chair, every joint and muscle in his body felt sore and abused. His head hurt, his eyes were a little too sensitive to the light, and there was a ringing in his ears. Felt like stage one of a nasty bout of the flu.
That damned kid, he thought, not without affection, remembering waking up this morning to find him curled at the foot of his bed like a devoted spaniel. He really must have scared Sandburg last night. He couldn't remember much about it himself. Just finding himself doubled over on the floor, more than half-seriously wishing he could die right then and there.
And maybe he'd deserved one in the family jewels for not telling Blair what was going on before now.
(All right, Chief, I know we had an agreement, but does that really mean I have to tell you everything?)
Seriously, did Blair really need to hear every nightmare? Every twisted, unpleasant little scene his subconscious sprang on him when he was tired and frustrated? It was this damned trial, Jim knew that's all it was. This morning the jury hadn't been in the courtroom once. No wonder he was fed up. Wasting so much time while Singleton sat up there day after day, bringing the entire machinery of justice to a grinding halt for just as long as he could, for as long as his money held out. And who knew? It just might be enough. Jim had seen it happen before.
(He had a clear line of sight this morning straight to the back of Singleton's head. He could draw his weapon and take the man out before anyone knew what was happening.)
Okay, so maybe he should have been talking to Blair about this. He seemed to have known something was wrong even before Jim did. The whole business with the pillow, everything else. So it had been Jim sleepwalking. It was a little incredible to think he could have snuck down and stolen a pillow out from under Blair's head, but that must have been what happened. No wonder he'd been hearing strange noises and having bad dreams of his own. It gave Ellison the creeps too, imagining himself wandering around the loft sound asleep.
Well, Sandburg would come up with something. He always did. Some silly mental picture or meditation exercise no doubt, and that would take care of things. And if Jim had told him about his nightmares yesterday when he had run down to the courthouse in such a panic, he probably could have saved him a whole lotta hurting. It was decent of Sandburg to have resisted the temptation to point that out.
But Jim couldn't be too hard on himself for having tried to keep this from Blair. He took this Sentinel business so seriously, worked so hard at it, apparently was even neglecting his academic career because of it, which was certainly ironic – wonder how that seminar paper's coming along – how could he have come right out and told him what he was seeing and feeling in those nightmares? The rage, the disgust. The last thing he had wanted to do was confess that some dark part of himself was apparently focusing all the frustration of the past few days on Blair.
Maybe he wouldn't need to tell him exactly what he was seeing in his dreams. Maybe the mere fact that he was having nightmares at all would be enough for the professor to work with here.
Yeah, right. Dream on, Ellison. Besides, it wasn't the content of the dreams that was the real problem, unsettling and strange as it was.
The problem was the way he felt when he woke up.
Whatever he did tonight, he should avoid falling asleep on the couch.
Apparently he had come in last night and collapsed, though he had no clear memory of it. He didn't really remember driving home. The dream was far more vivid, and in his dream, the front door had swung open to reveal, not the loft but the great hall of a vast and empty mansion. No furniture, no rugs or curtains. Just painted canvas signs tacked along the walls. It was nearly sunset, and the light of the setting sun threw red streaks across the parquet floors.
Jim turned slowly in bewilderment. What the hell was this? What had Sandburg done now? When he got his hands on that kid—
"Blair!" His voice roared through the empty house, bounced off paneled walls and marble tiles and came echoing back to him. "Sandburg!"
He broke into a jog, then began to run, the canvas signs flapping in his wake. When he found a broad staircase that wound up to the second story he took the steps two at a time, bellowing for Sandburg all the way. At the head of the stairs stretched a long corridor lined with closed doors. Jim kicked them open one by one. The glass doorknobs shattered when they smashed into the walls, scratching the paneling, knocking holes out of the plaster.
Every room was empty, and the bloody red sun poured through the windows on the west side of the house. Blair was nowhere to be found.
The very last room had a single south-facing window. The walls were rough stucco, the floor red tile, incongruous enough to arrest Jim's rampage for a moment. Blair wasn't here either, but the room wasn't as empty as the others. Small structures of metal, plastic and rubber were strewn along the tile floor, and they were so unsettling Jim could hardly stand to look at them. Could hardly bear to walk past them, in fact, though he had to in order to get to the window.
He forced himself to go by without looking, but he could feel the strange angles and unsettling construction anyway, and felt as unclean as if he were holding a fistful of maggots.
The southern window looked out upon a stern, uncomfortable garden. Low boxwood hedges enclosed white gravel paths. There was a round stone pond with a fountain in the center, but it was dry. On a marble bench sat two men in conversation. They were turned away so Jim couldn't see their faces, but he knew them just the same. The bigger man was still, his head cocked to one side, listening patiently. His friend there beside him was explaining something at great length, with hands that were white and full of motion as doves flying up in the twilight.
All Jim's rage melted away as he watched them.
But then from behind him came a low metallic clank. He whirled around and found the red tile floor was completely bare. With a shudder of foreboding, he looked out the window again and found that there were now three sitting upon the marble bench in the formal garden.
And then he had awakened on the couch in his own home. And wouldn't you know it? Sandburg was still making excuses for not having written that paper yet, those anxious, eloquent hands of his saying more than his words ever did.
Forgetting, Jim shifted and sat up straighter in the hard courtroom chair, and could not entirely suppress the groan. He froze, holding his breath, until the worst of it passed and he could relax a little. (Dammit, when was he going to remember to stop doing that?)
He was almost regretting having told Sandburg he would run to the hardware store during lunch. If it had been up to him, he thought he would just go sleep in the truck for an hour.
He didn't tell Gunter what Jim had done, but he did tell him everything else. He began with the things that were absolutely real and absolutely undeniable in his mind, the pen that rolled across the table and back, the pillow at the top of the stairs, the bloodstains on his sheets, (the mark of Jim's teeth on his throat – but he didn't tell him that), and then the things he was willing to admit he had no physical evidence for, the booming noise, the headless white Something that had run up the stairs, and finally even the wholly subjective, his nerves, his skittishness, the nightmare.
Gunter remained calm, his eyes concerned but absolutely accepting, and that helped Blair keep talking, even through the most outlandish parts. But as he was winding down, almost tempted to tell him about Jim after all, it suddenly occurred to him that this was no doubt the same expression Gunter used when he was trying to coax total strangers to tell him their own stories.
Blair almost got up and walked out of his office on the spot.
He recovered immediately, of course, chiding himself for being absurd. This is exactly why he had come to Gunter in the first place. He had to share this with someone who (please, God willing) had heard it all before.
"Well?" he said at last. "Am I nuts?"
Gunter leaned across the desk and gave Blair a quick, awkward hug, patting his back. "No, man. I don't think so."
Blair closed his eyes for a minute. "I just can't – I'm just having such a hard time holding it all together."
"I think that makes you more sane than ninety percent of the people I talk to."
"So, this isn't the first time you've heard something so crazy?"
"Not by a long shot. I've got to tell you, though, this wasn't what I was expecting."
"I figured you had just, I don't know, woken up one morning and seen your dead grandmother at the foot of your bed or something. I wasn't counting on something quite so – elaborate."
"Uh oh." Blair managed an unhappy smile. "Does this mean I don't get a folk-motif index number after all?"
"Sorry, Blair. More like an entire subsection."
"Yeah, well, I never was able to do things by halves. Gunter, c'mon, now that I've made a total fool of myself, you've gotta tell me more about this. Do you hear a lot of this stuff? Does this happen to people all the time and I just never paid attention before? What do they do? How do they cope?"
Gunter held up a hand. "Whoa, whoa. First of all, no, I don't hear a 'lot' of it. I've come across two, maybe three full blown poltergeist narratives like yours since I got started doing this. But there are dozens of famous cases, from the Tedworth Drummer that Glanville wrote about back in the seventeenth century all the way to the Williams family in the Black Hope subdivision outside Houston in the 1980's. It's rare, but you're not alone."
"'Poltergeist'? You've got to be joking. Are you going to tell me Jim's place was built over forgotten burial grounds or something?"
Gunter didn't smile. "I don't assign causes, Blair, and I can't give you any explanations. I'm sorry, but I thought you understood that."
"Sorry. I know. I'm sorry. Just don't pay any attention to me when I say stupid things. Can you at least tell me what people do when something this crazy happens? How come they don't all end up in the loony bin? Because I feel like that's straight where I'm headed."
Gunter took a deep breath before answering. "Well, that's the other thing that surprised me. Frankly, Blair, you don't fit the profile."
"You're asking me how people cope. Well, in this part of the world, anyway, the odds-on favorite to be reporting a case like this is a young blue collar Catholic or Protestant Evangelical family, nine times out of ten with marital problems, at the very least a husband working third shift or away much of the time, the wife staying at home with the kids. Anyway, when things start getting strange, they turn to their pastor or the parish priest."
"Maybe it's just a problem with reporting. Like maybe it's only families with an obvious outside support system like the church who are willing to come forward in the first place. If I didn't happen to know you, Gunter, I wouldn't have had anybody to talk to."
Gunter nodded. "You could be right. But I can't speculate about evidence I just don't have."
"So does he help?"
"The parish priest, man! Can he really help?" At this point, Blair was willing to try anything.
"That depends on what you mean by 'help,' I guess. I'm sure the emotional support is very important."
"I'm not looking for emotional support! I just want it to stop right now."
"Then don't go to a priest, Blair. Exorcisms can go on for months. Years. And you'd need to convert to Catholicism in any case."
"Exorcism?" Blair had to protest the turn this conversation was taking. "Gunter, you're getting weird on me here."
"Listen, it's all a matter of definition from my point of view. What story you want to tell. If you don't like the idea of a Catholic priest performing an exorcism, you can go to a parapsychologist, and he'll bring over video cameras and infrared film, magnetometers and Geiger counters and god only knows what else, and probably tell you it's you or Jim's latent psychic energies causing the disturbances and try to get you into therapy. If it were me, I think I'd almost rather take my chances with a priest. Or go to a psychic or maybe someone who practices Wicca, they've got a nice ritual for exorcising earthbound spirits. I think it mostly involves burning black candles and thinking happy thoughts. That might be your best bet if you want quick. But you're the anthropologist, Blair, why limit yourself to Western solutions? Find a Taoist priest to burn some incense and carry a date wood sword through your apartment. Although now that I think about it, aren't there first century Rabbinical texts dealing with exorcism? Maybe you've picked up a dybbuk somewhere along the way, and it's really time for you to start going to Temple again."
"Do you think this is a joke? Something I'm playing around with here 'cause I don't have anything better to do with my time?" Blair heard his voice breaking, and he knew he should just shut up, but he just didn't seem to be able to help himself. "This is my life I'm talking about here! Gunter, this is Jim's life. I'm not interested in your ironic detachment and cross-cultural analyses, dammit, I need an answer."
Gunter reached out suddenly and grabbed Blair's hand, holding it with surprising strength. "That's what I'm trying to tell you. I don't think there is an answer. Not while you're framing the question the way you are now. You know this already. I know you do, we've talked about it before, but for some reason that I can't understand, you've decided to pretend you don't. Blair, there is no such thing as a supernatural world. No demons, no devils, no ghosts. Just the stories people tell about them."
Blair jerked his hand free and yanked down the collar of his turtleneck in the same angry gesture. "Does this look like a story to you, man?"
"Especially, he should not believe too readily that a person is possessed by an evil spirit; but he ought to ascertain the signs by which a person possessed can be distinguished from one who is suffering from melancholy or some other illness."
Exorcism of the Possessed: 'Rituale Romanum' (1614)
What the hell was he doing in Jim's bed?
Blair turned his head from side to side on the pillow, contented and comfortable, and rather wishing he could just drift back off to sleep. Unfortunately, he was quite certain that there was Something Wrong with this picture. Something that would probably require him to wake up and move his lazy ass.
Jim's bed. Right. That was the problem. What the hell was he doing up here in the first place? He tried to think back, but all he could dredge up were memories of Los Angeles, Jim on the Santa Monica Pier, still cruising along in that bossy big brother mode of his, but so relaxed and happy that Blair couldn't really mind. Determined to look out for him, even when the worst thing that could happen was a sunburn, or maybe a splinter from the bench. Lately Blair had found himself wondering if Jim were trying to make up for opportunities he'd missed in his own family.
All of which had nothing to do with why Blair was settled in so cozy and comfortable in Jim's bed.
Okay, move it, Sandburg, and figure out the why later.
But he was so tired he felt as though he were floating an inch or two above the mattress, and there was no leverage, nothing for him to push up against. His eyes started to close. "Sorry, Jim," he thought sleepily. "But really, man, it's not what you think."
Then his eyes snapped open again.
There was someone else here. He'd heard a breath, or a footstep, maybe – okay, he wasn't sure what it was, but he lifted his head a little to see, and whaddaya know, there was Jim standing in the darkest corner of his room, not saying a word, just standing there and staring at him with eyes that glittered in the twilight dusk.
Whoops. Let's hear you explain this one, Sandburg.
"Jim," he tried to say, but nothing came out. Not a whisper.
Aw, no. Please no. Not this again.
He tried to lift his arm, and nothing happened. There was a weight on his chest that kept him pinned to the bed, not floating anymore, but splayed flat on the mattress like a butterfly pinned to a board.
An intense cold began to snake its way up his backbone.
Oh man, did he ever hate this dream.
But maybe this time he'd be able to keep his eye on the ball.
It was tough going, though. Jim was terrifying, standing there so silent, so tall in the shadows, his face rigid with disappointment and anger.
It's just a nightmare, Blair told himself over and over again. Variations on a theme. That's no more Jim than that stunted monster you saw before was Dr. Mooney, so just concentrate on keeping your eyes on him, awful as that expression on his face is. Whatever you do, Sandburg, don't look away, because you sure don't want him coming any closer.
But all the best intentions in the world weren't enough. He just couldn't help it. He blinked, and when his eyes opened again, Jim was at the bedside.
(If you survive this, man, if your heart doesn't explode and you don't give yourself an aneurysm from sheer terror, you have got to do some research into lucid dreaming. There must be a way to stop this. It's so unfair! You know you're dreaming, so why the hell can't you just – wake – up?)
Jim's eyes were black, and oh god, he was so angry. Blair couldn't speak, but he was whimpering a little. He heard the scared, involuntary cries that came bubbling out of his own throat.
Jim shook his head in disgust and said, "That's not doing it right there, Sandburg."
Well, it can't get any worse than this, Blair thought, all hope gone. It simply can't, so why keep torturing yourself?
He deliberately shut his eyes.
And found out it could get worse after all.
Jim's hot, pitiless hand came down hard over his mouth, stifling his cries. His other hand covered Blair's eyes so now he couldn't see what was happening even if he'd wanted to.
Another pair of hands pinned his wrists to the mattress.
Another pair clamped down over his ankles.
And the last pair began burrowing in his chest, peeling away the flesh, carefully cracking back the rib cage and feeling their way tenderly to his heart.
Blair sat bolt upright in his chair. His eyes flew open and he stared in bewilderment at the girl who was standing there rolling a wad of gum in her jaw, a backpack so full it seemed to have permanently unbalanced her slung over her shoulder.
"Uh, Mr. Sandburg, were you asleep or something?"
He blinked at her, trying to adjust to the world. It was raining outside. Water was pouring across his office windows. It had been raining forever. He knew that much anyway.
The girl shifted her gum to the other side of her face and regarded him seriously. "You okay? Sorry I woke you."
He'd been dreaming. He'd fallen asleep in his office and had a bad, bad dream. He could have shouted out loud in relief. All a dream. Oh thank god oh thank god. He'd been working way too hard lately. Need to get out more, rain or not, catch a movie or something, read a good book.
"Did you know you missed class? I guess you slept right through it or something."
Class? Oh no. He couldn't have. He stumbled to his feet, brushing past his student, to see the clock in the hallway.
Five o'clock. Yes indeedy, Mr. Sandburg. Your discussion group ended half an hour ago, and it probably wasn't much of a discussion, because you were here catching Z's the whole time.
Okay, that was the final straw. Now you know for sure it's time to cut back, cut yourself some slack. Getting enough sleep at night would probably be a good way to start.
He turned around. The student – Veronica Hatcher, wasn't it? – was still watching him as though he were a slightly alarming laboratory specimen. "Sorry about that," he said. "I guess I really did just—"
He broke off. Why was talking such an effort? His hand flew to his throat, and the whole staggering weight of the past two days slipped back onto his shoulders. He had to lean against the door jamb for an instant to keep from falling.
(Oh, no, Blair, you don't get out of it that easily. Not by a long shot.)
He reeled back into his office and collapsed into the chair. (Veronica probably thinks I'm drunk. This time tomorrow, my whole class will probably think the same thing.)
She had backed up a few steps, but there was nothing but a slightly bovine concern in her big brown eyes. "You okay?"
Blair nodded. "I'm coming down with the flu. It's taking more out of me than I thought, I guess."
"Maybe you should go over to the clinic. You don't sound so good."
He didn't doubt that for an instant. He leaned forward, resting his head in his hands. "Was there something you wanted?"
"Oh, well, I was just wondering if we could have an extra week for our papers. Seeing as how you didn't even come to class today and everything, I thought maybe you'd let us have an extension."
"Fine, fine. Take all the time you need. Just get it in to me before the final. I'll make an announcement in class next Tuesday."
"Thanks Mr. Sandburg." Mission accomplished, she pushed the wad of gum back to the other side of her mouth and left. When he could no longer hear her flats echoing on the linoleum he got up and slammed his office door after her, locking it. No more interruptions. He couldn't handle them.
Didn't look like he could handle much of anything, did it?
He leaned back against the door, looking miserably out at the rain. It was already dark out. The lights in the quadrangle cast watery reflections across the windows. He cautiously peeled down the turtleneck and felt of his throat. He was so sore he could hardly swallow. His neck felt swollen and warm, but nothing too surprising about that, was there?
What was surprising was him losing his temper like that and letting Gunter see. Oh man, what had he been thinking? Sure, the guy was a total skeptic and a complete Sadducee, but then, forty-eight hours ago, Blair had been, too. Gunter was also a good friend, not to mention being the only person Blair knew of who held out the faintest, dimmest possibility of help. He might not be a believer, but he had the knowledge locked up in that graying head of his. And what had Blair done? Tried his damnedest to alienate him and frighten him off for good.
He must have just wanted to shut him up. It had worked, all right. Gunter couldn't have looked more stunned if Blair had just hauled off and belted him one. "Blair," he'd whispered, that ever-so-slightly snotty tone knocked out of his voice for good. "Blair, what is that? What happened to you?"
Even then it might have been possible to salvage the situation. But Blair had been too mad to start a rescue operation just then. Instead, wincing, he tugged off the gauze bandage as well and said, "What does it look like?"
"Is that a dog bite? Are you telling me this happened in your apartment? My god, Blair—"
"No, it's not a dog bite. It was Jim."
"Jim did this to me. He was out of his mind. I heard something howling and snarling like an animal and never in a million years did I suspect it was him until – well, until afterwards. Now do you understand what I'm up against? You've got to help me here, Gunter. I don't have anywhere else to turn."
Gunter fell back a little, shaking his head. But then he seemed to recover himself. It almost looked like tears were brimming in those clear gray eyes, but he didn't give vent to whatever emotion he was feeling. He pulled a notebook out of his desk and wrote a few lines on it, tore the piece of paper out and handed it to Blair.
He looked at it. An address and phone number. "What is this?"
"It's my parents' place in Oakland. Don't worry about imposing or anything like that. They've got a huge old house and all the kids have moved away. They're really good people, and they'll be glad for the company."
"What are you talking about?"
"Look, don't argue with me about this. Don't even think about what you're doing. For now let's just concentrate on getting you out of town."
"I'm not leaving town. Are you crazy? I can't leave Jim alone with this."
Gunter's jaw clenched. Blair had never seen the man look so angry. "Do you hear yourself? Do you even hear what you sound like?"
"No, I guess not. What's the matter with you?"
The anger vanished. "I'm sorry, Blair. Don't mind me." He picked up the phone on his desk and dialed information. "Yeah. The number for the Cascade Airport, please." He wrote it down, clicked the button to disconnect, then dialed again. "Have you got any cash?" he asked Blair while the phone was ringing. "Oh, never mind. Don't worry about it. I'll just put it on my plastic."
Blair pulled the receiver out of his hand and slammed it down a little harder than he intended. "Gunter, I don't know what you think you're doing here, but I'm not going to stay with your folks. I'm not leaving town. What are you thinking, man?"
"You can't just sit around waiting for him to kill you! I know you must be all screwed up inside right now, I know – hell, I guess you probably still love him or something, but that's just craziness. It'll wear off, and you'll see what kind of a sick situation you've gotten yourself into here. Right now we've got to get you away someplace safe to give you time to come to your senses. Please, please listen to me, Blair. Please trust me. I know you're not thinking straight right now— " he broke off and laughed a little hysterically, "Sorry, sorry, bad choice of words, but listen, Blair, please. If you've ever trusted anybody in your life, please, I'm begging you, please trust me now."
Blair was so stunned he couldn't even interrupt Gunter's frantic tirade until he picked up the phone and tried to dial the airport again. Then he yanked the receiver away. "For the last time, I'm not leaving town. I'm not going anywhere. You've got totally the wrong idea here."
"He's a cop, Blair! It's bad enough that he's sure to keep on until he kills you, but then he'll probably get away with it too. I can't just sit back and watch that happen."
"Wait a minute, wait a minute. Calm down. Come on." Blair tried to steady his own nerves as well. "You've got it all wrong. Jim and I – it's not like we're in a relationship or anything."
"I don't care what you call it. If he's hurting you then you have to get away."
"He's not hurting me. You're being ridiculous."
"Me? I'm not the one with teeth marks on my neck. I'm not the one who would rather believe in ghosts or possession or whatever the hell you think is going on than admit the truth."
"Stop it! Just shut the hell up for one goddamned minute. You have no idea what you're talking about. Jim would never hurt me. That's how I know how bad things are. Anything that could make him do something like this – it's something so – so wrong, so twisted up, so – oh, man, so evil—" He broke off, trembling. "Gunter, please, I don't have time to do the research myself. God knows what could happen to Jim in the meantime. I've got to know what you know. Now for the last time, are you going to help me or not?"
Gunter stood up and backed away from him. There was no doubt about it. Tears were brimming for real in his eyes. "That's like asking me to help you commit suicide, Blair. I won't do it. I can't do it. If you had your head screwed on right you wouldn't ask me for a minute."
In his office, Blair closed his eyes for a long moment. Yep. I'd say that whole fiasco wasn't exactly doing it right there, was it?
He scooped up his backpack from the desk, turned out the light, and locked the office door behind him. He needed to get back to the loft. Jim would be home any time now, and there were a couple of stops Blair needed to make first.
"The term commonly used for this is 'possession', but this sounds as if the person is wholly controlled by an alien spirit, which is rarely the case. I myself prefer to think of the possessing spirit as a kind of lodger, a tiresome lodger with very strong views."
Skelton & Kozocari: 'A Witches' Book Of Ghosts And Exorcism' (1990)
Jim felt great.
Well, maybe 'great' was overstating the case a little, since he couldn't shift in a chair or take his normal long strides without feeling a sharp, vulnerable tug. Still, compared to this morning, he'd still have to say he was feeling pretty damn good.
At three in the afternoon the prosecution had finally gotten around to delivering their opening remarks, and Singleton was going down for the count. No doubt about it. Even making due allowances for hyperbole, they had that bastard cold. Sandburg's great-grandkids would be starting grad school before Dan Singleton saw the light of day again.
Then the D.A. herself had stopped Jim on his way out of the courthouse this evening and assured him he would be on the stand tomorrow, Friday morning at the absolute latest.
He felt great. He tossed the bag from Ace Hardware with Sandburg's burglar alarm in it into the passenger side seat and climbed carefully into the truck. Ow. But at least he seemed to have shaken the incipient cold that he'd felt threatening earlier. No thanks to Blair. He hoped the kid wasn't too sick himself, but Jim wasn't very optimistic on that count. He'd sounded like hell this morning and looked even worse, as hangdog and pathetic as if he'd lost his last friend in the world. There wasn't much that would get Blair down, but a bad cold or a case of the flu could send him into a tailspin. He was liable to mope around the loft cranky and betrayed for days, as though he simply couldn't believe his talismanic ingestion and application of weird herbs and unguents could have let him down.
Well, sick or not, he damn well better get that paper written. What had possessed him to let it go on for so long? A little procrastination Jim could understand. But to put something off for a whole year? Screw around until your job was in danger? For chrissakes, how irresponsible, how arrogant could you get? What had he been waiting for? The little anthropology elves to show up one night and write it for him?
Or had he been planning this all along? Lose his job, and then he wouldn't be able to make even the feeble contributions he did now to his own upkeep. Sorry, Jim, I'd help with the rent and utilities if I could, but you know what ... I lost my teaching fellowship. Sorry, man.
Ellison's teeth were grinding so hard that his jaw was beginning to ache.
Dad would never have put up with it. If Jim had ever tried to get away with something so shiftless and lazy, he'd have gotten his butt kicked halfway into next week, and he'd have deserved it too. So that was Sandburg's problem. None of Naomi's boyfriends had ever gotten around to beating the fear of God into that pathetic little freeloader.
Way past time to correct that minor oversight, wasn't it?
Jim had to pull over to the side of the road, never mind the blaring horns of rush hour traffic. His knuckles were white on the steering wheel and he was breathing hard, heart pumping and adrenaline surging as though he'd just been in a fight.
(What the hell was that? Hey, Chief, would you mind telling me what the hell just happened here?)
He glanced over as if sheer force of will could make Blair appear in his customary place beside him.
Of course, it was a good thing he wasn't really there, because two seconds ago Jim had been angry enough to drag him out of the truck and pound that grinning face of his into the pavement. And for what? For god's sake, over that stupid paper.
He had to rest his head on the steering wheel while he waited for the aftereffects of rage to work their way through his system. All his optimism over the Singleton trial, all the good feelings, everything was gone. He was actually shaking a little, feverish and sick as though he really were coming down with the flu.
Maybe that's all it was. A touch of fever. Best thing to do was to get on home, try to sleep it off. And for heaven's sake, let Sandburg know what was going on. If it had anything to do with that sleepwalking last night, the nightmares ... Blair needed to get on the ball here and help him take care of things before they got any further out of hand.
(I'm sorry, Chief. I didn't mean any of it. And by the way, I've been meaning to talk to you about the rent anyway. All those hours you put in at the station. Why don't we just call it square for your room and board? Because there's really no need for you to be buying groceries either. I think taking a bullet because you were trying to watch my back out there in the wilderness maybe translates into a coupla jars of peanut butter and some wheat bread. Hell, I'll even spring for baba ghanouj and tofu dogs.)
Another part of his mind recognized perfectly well that this guilty apology was more than a little silly. It wasn't like Jim had actually taken a swing at him. And even though it wasn't going to be very pleasant telling him about it, Sandburg was a researcher, a scholar. He'd take the scientific approach. Probably look on the whole thing as an interesting challenge. In fact, the poor guy would probably be so excited that Jim was actually volunteering information instead of making Blair pry it out of him with a crowbar that it wouldn't even occur to him to get his feelings hurt.
Or worry that a man of Jim's size and training was having sporadic bursts of murderous rage.
Well, but he'd never hurt Blair. No matter what the provocation, no matter what was wrong here. He didn't doubt for a second that it would be easier for him to take his own hand off with a bow saw than ever lift that hand against Blair. Surely Sandburg knew that as well.
When a break in the traffic finally came, Jim eased back on to the road and headed for home. The rain was pouring down in buckets. Traffic was stop and go all the way, water running across the street from the overtaxed sewer systems, fluming high from under the wheels of passing cars. Jim's windows began to fog, so he turned on the defroster, and immediately began to sweat from the heat. He cracked the window and got a faceful of rain.
Almost out of gas too. Wouldn't you know it? He hadn't stopped at the precinct yesterday and hadn't gotten his usual fill-up at the station garage. You're pretty pathetic aren't you, Ellison? Maybe Sandburg knows you a lot better than you'd like to admit. Something throws off your careful routine just the tiniest little bit and the next thing you know you're on the verge of running out of gas on the fortieth night of the Deluge.
He turned into the next gas station he passed and had to wait in line for a pump. Apparently he wasn't the only one a little off his game tonight. It was this never-ending rain. Made everything just that much more difficult, that much more unpleasant.
Maybe Los Angeles hadn't been such a good idea after all. Nothing had worked right since they'd gotten home. A few days of sunshine and palm trees, of Blair triumphantly carrying the field – were they really worth it when you had to come home to rain and nightmares and Blair suddenly so crabby and depressed about having to write a paper Jim almost had to wonder what he was doing in grad school in the first place.
And then, of course, he accidentally poured gas all over his shoe while filling the tank. How lovely. What a perfect evening this was shaping up to be.
In clear weather, in good traffic, it wouldn't have taken any more than ten minutes or so to make the rest of the journey home. Tonight it took Jim three quarters of an hour. The reek of gas fumes was nauseating. The rain let up a little, but a heavy fog was rolling in from the waterfront. The entire world seemed to shrink to a space no larger than the distance from the dull red brake lights in front of him to the pale headlights in his rear view mirror. After what had happened before, Jim was more than a little afraid of letting his frustration build, so he focused on breathing the way Blair had taught him. Deep and slow, one breath at a time, calm, calm, calm.
It's out of your hands. There's nothing you can do about the traffic or the weather or the gas fumes either, so just take it easy. Slow and easy. Calm as darkness. Calm as night.
It worked like a charm. As the weariness and frustration lifted from his shoulders, he made a mental note to thank Sandburg sometime. It almost seemed, in fact, that Blair was where he belonged, right here at Jim's side, coaching him through this. A deep, contented sense of peace spread warmly through his chest, and Jim even felt himself beginning to smile a little. He concentrated hard on the road in front of him, what he could see of it anyway, on the mist and the red taillights. He didn't want to spoil the illusion of Blair's presence by seeing the emptiness in the seat beside him.
And by the time he was pulling into a parking place behind the loft, it almost didn't seem as though he were alone at all. Feeling honestly relaxed and happy for the first time in days, he shifted into park, took the key out of the ignition, and turned off the headlights. He was already out of the truck and about to swing the door shut when he remembered Blair's infrared burglar alarm. Shaking his head a little he leaned across the seat, groping in the darkness for the bag, and touched what had really been sitting beside him all along.
"Then, around nine o'clock, Robbie had suddenly become drowsy. Sleep came on him so quickly that he had dozed off while getting dressed for bed … The Ritual had warned about this. Sometimes the demons put the demoniac into an unnatural sleep."
Allen: 'Possessed: The True Story Of An Exorcism' (1993)
What had he done with his keys?
Blair shifted his packages to his left hand and felt through all his pockets again.
Oh, swell. Everything was slipping away, wasn't it? Not just the big stuff. Not just the deepest structures of his life. Everything. He couldn't even get in his own front door.
Jim's front door.
His lower lip started to tremble. Oh, man. And here he'd been doing such a good job these past two hours of keeping the lid clamped down tight.
All right, Sandburg. Concentrate. One step at a time. That's the only way you've got even a ghost of a chance of surviving this.
Ghost of a chance. Get it?
God help me.
Okay, the damn keys. You couldn't have driven home without them, so they have to be somewhere between here and the car, right?
Probably locked in the car.
He beat his head – gently – against the door.
Oh well. How badly did you really want in the loft anyway? Not like it's been the coziest of homes lately, has it?
He went through his pockets again. Nothing. Fine. That's it, then. I was willing to go along with it up till now, but when you mess with the house keys, that's it. I'm not playing anymore.
"You hear me?" he said to the locked door. "Go get your jollies somewhere else. I quit."
Now he was talking to It. That's certainly a step in the right direction. No wonder Gunter thought he was out of his mind.
He turned around, intending to retrace his steps to the car, but then he heard the clank of the lock turning downstairs. There was a whisper of traffic noises as the street level door was opened, lost as the door swung shut again. Footsteps on the stair.
Good timing, man.
So why was his heart suddenly pounding away a mile a minute?
Don't answer that.
He flattened himself against the door, waiting.
(Calm down. Jim will think there's something's wrong.)
He almost laughed. Right. Wouldn't want him to suspect there's anything wrong, would we? Yeah, Jim, everything's fine. Don't mind me while I sprinkle some holy water on the threshold and mark the lintel with sheep's blood – and you like black candles, don't you? How about garlic hung over the windows? And wolfsbane? And yeah, I spray-painted that gigantic red hex sign on the wall. I dunno why. Just for that special Martha Stewart kinda finishing touch, I guess. But don't worry, because there is absolutely nothing wrong.
If he could just stop trembling so hard.
What was taking Jim so long to get up the stairs?
He heard the hesitations, the frequent stops. He ought to go see if Jim needed help, but he couldn't force himself to do it. Instead, practically sick with fear and self-loathing, he began to rifle frantically through one of his two packages. And not the one with the pound of medium-roast Colombian either.
Something jangled. There we go. Found the keys, at any rate. You tossed them in the bag with the coffee, you moron.
Besides, it was too late now. Jim was already here. Blair's head snapped up as he stumbled around the corner at the head of the stairs.
His first, horrified thought was that Jim had been shot. He was cradling one arm awkwardly against his chest, hunched over a little, barely able to walk, his face blank with shock and pain.
He flew to his side. "Oh my god. Jim! What's wrong? Are you hurt?"
Jim just shook his head, seeming to register Blair's presence only with an effort. "I'm fine," he said in a calm, thick voice. "Just a little sleepy, I think."
With more strength than he'd known he possessed, Blair grabbed Jim's coat with both hands and managed to arrest his shuffling forward momentum by shoving him hard against the wall. Jim tolerated the manhandling without complaint, looking down at Blair with a faint amusement. "Something wrong, Chief?" he asked, sounding like he was about to fall asleep on his feet.
"Yes! Something's wrong. Something's very, very wrong. I really need you to stay awake for me here. Do you understand?"
Jim shook his head a little, as though trying to rouse himself, then nodded.
"Did something happen? Are you hurt?"
Jim looked down at his own hand, flexed his fingers. "No." His eyes closed.
"Jim!" Blair tried to shake him, but it had no effect. Jim's knees buckled and he began a slow slide down the wall. Blair slapped his face gently and then, his terror building, not so gently. Jim's hand came up. He caught Blair's arm easily and didn't let go, dragging Blair down to the floor with him. "Jim! Jim please!" He struck at him with his left hand, and Jim caught that one too. With ridiculous thoughts of Br'er Rabbit and Tar Baby crowding his thoughts he tried frantically to pull himself free, shouting at Jim all the while. He might as well have really been shouting at Tar Baby for all the good it did. Jim's head dropped forward. His grip on Blair's wrists was becoming painful. "Oh god, Jim, come on."
Blair tried to get his feet under himself, thinking if he could get enough leverage he could pull himself free. But he was too frantic and fighting too desperately. His feet slipped out from under him and he fell on his hip, accidentally kicking Jim hard. Jim grunted once, his eyes opened momentarily, but he remained huddled against the wall, his knees up, his breaths slow and deep, getting deeper, his grip becoming vicious. Blair thought he could feel the bones in his wrists grinding together.
Making a tremendous effort, Blair forced himself to stop struggling. He'd never win a fight with Jim. Find another way. He twisted around. "Jim," he said very quietly. "Can you hear me? You're hurting me, man."
Was it his imagination? Jim shuddered a little.
Though the pain in his wrists was starting to make him feel sick, he got up on his knees. Leaning forward awkwardly, he managed to lay his forehead on Jim's shoulder. The leather coat was wet and cold from the rain, but the side of Jim's neck was warm. "Jim," he whispered into his shoulder. "Please, man. Can you hear me?"
He kept talking, his voice getting softer. His throat was killing him after all that yelling, but there had been no need to shout. This was Jim after all.
"You've got to stay with me. This is important. You've got to come back. Come on, give me something to work with here."
He lifted his head and looked up. Jim's eyes were open and full of terror. Jim said, "Help me."
In a burst of strength – or maybe Jim had just loosened his grip – Blair suddenly pulled free and lurched to his feet. Where were the keys? Oh god, he'd found them just before Jim turned up, now where were they? There, halfway out of the little paper bag from the coffee shop. He snatched them up and got the door open and ran in so helter-skelter he nearly fell and brained himself on the dining room table. Stumbling into the bathroom he turned on the shower full blast and flew back out into the hall. Jim had fallen the rest of the way and was curled on his side on the floor. Blair didn't need Sentinel hearing to make out his deep, slow breaths.
"Aw, Jim. Jim."
Don't panic. Keep it cool. You can do this. For Jim's sake, you can do this.
He knelt down and wrapped Jim's arm over his shoulder and tried to get to his feet.
Well, it had worked last night, but Jim hadn't been out cold then. Blair managed a step and fell to his knees, Jim tumbling away and ending up face down on the floor.
(Oh, man, I'm sorry.)
They were both going to be black and blue in the morning.
If we live till morning.
Okay, try it this way.
He rolled Jim over onto his back. His eyes were open again, confused, and that gave Blair hope. Violent stimuli evidently worked, but he couldn't keep knocking him around the hall like a sack of potatoes. "Jim, can you get up?"
The eyes closed.
Okay. Back to Plan A.
He got a grip on the coat and tried to pull him, but the wet leather stuck to the wood floor. Groaning and panting, he rolled Jim over again, (I am sorry, man) and yanked the coat off his shoulders. Pushed him back, took Jim's wrists, and pulled him over the threshold, through the living room, back to the bathroom. There was water all over the floor from the shower.
By now Blair's back and shoulders were burning. He let Jim go for just a moment and straightened up. Home stretch, kiddo. You're almost there. Now let's win one for the Gipper.
He crouched down over Jim, wrapped his arms tight around his ribs, and dragged him up with a violent effort. Shaking from the strain he stepped backwards into the shower, pulling Jim with him, slipped on the wet porcelain and sat down hard.
The shock of freezing cold water was more dramatic even than the pain in his coccyx. Apparently it had the same effect on Jim. He sputtered, shaking his head, and suddenly sat up. "What the hell?"
Blair collapsed against the back wall, shuddering with relief and cold.
"Sandburg?" Jim twisted around too quickly in the narrow space, his elbow catching Blair in the chest. "Sandburg, what the hell is going on here?"
Blair grunted and rubbed at his chest, thinking that explanations could wait until they got out of the shower.
Jim evidently decided the same thing. With an effort he pulled himself up, eyes closed against the stinging cold spray, and shut off the water. He turned and looked down at Blair. "Do you have an explanation for this?"
Blair's teeth were chattering. Jim stepped out, pulled a bathtowel off the rack and threw it to him. He got another one for himself and scrubbed his face and head violently. He looked down at Blair again, then at the bathroom floor. "Do you realize there's an inch of water in here?"
Blair managed to smile, glad to take refuge in the mundane himself for a moment. He wrapped the towel around his shoulders to hide his throat and said, "Sorry, man. I'll clean it up."
"Holmes shrugged his shoulders. 'I have hitherto confined my investigations to this world,' said he."
Doyle: 'The Hound Of The Baskervilles' (1901)
All in all, the Big Guy seems to be handling this pretty well, Blair thought, trying hard to look on the bright side. "Coffee's ready. I got that Colombian you like. Not the dark roast."
Jim was standing by the windows with his arms crossed over his chest. The city skyline was lost in a dense fog that glowed yellow from sodium lights. An occasional gust of rain spattered against the glass. Blair wondered if it was just being cut off from the reassuring twinkle of the city lights that was making the loft seem so claustrophobic tonight.
Well, it sure wasn't helping matters.
"Jim? You want any?"
He shook his head without turning around.
Okay, fine, no coffee. Blair poured himself a cup, then went and sat down on the sofa. Jim showed no inclination to move from the window, and Blair decided that maybe a little bit of distance and a little bit of formality was the way to go right now after all. He got up again, took his cup of coffee to the kitchen table, and then pretended to rummage in the refrigerator as an excuse. It wasn't a very convincing cover. There was nothing left now but a jar of olives, a little clarified butter, and a single beer.
Just the way you like it, huh, Jim? Clean as can be. Not all cluttered up with food. He grinned, and then was afraid of crying, so he slammed the refrigerator door shut and announced, "We really need to go to the store, man."
Oh boy. Who are you trying to kid here, Sandburg? He's not taking this well at all. He's totally shut down, and you haven't even hinted at the worst part. As far as he knows, it's just some kind of sleep disorder. The sleepwalking, then that narcoleptic fit out in the hall this evening.
"So what do you think? You up to grocery shopping tonight? Might do us both good to get out of here for a little while."
"Not tonight, Sandburg," he said shortly.
Blair concentrated on his coffee.
It's all right. Cut the man some slack. He's just embarrassed at the idea of being hauled around like a side of beef. I'm sure he'll be perfectly willing to listen to the rest of it.
Sure he will. Jim will be delighted to hear what you think about the tenuous nature of reality in our immediate neighborhood. I'm certain he's going to listen with perfect equanimity to your stories of self-propelled ink pens and headless apparitions that go running up the stairs.
Oh man. Oh man. This was going to be bad. This was going to be the worst. You know what he's going to think. What else could Jim think after that stunt he'd pulled in New Hope last summer? Yep, Sandburg's gone off the deep end again. Didn't take a smashed hand and syringeful of yaje this time either. Just stressing over school. Or maybe a touch of sun. Whatever. It doesn't really take much to send our boy Blair howling after the moon these days.
All at once Blair thought if he didn't get out of the loft right now he really would lose his mind.
"Well, can we at least go out to dinner somewhere? What about that Ethiopian restaurant that just opened up down on Third? Or no, I've got a better idea, you've been wanting to go to that grill over in the Plaza, right? That place that brews their own beer? Where Simon says the steaks are so good? How about it?"
Jim raised one hand in dismissal without even turning around.
Blair looked away quickly, shaking with frustration that quickly turned to anger.
(Oh, and by the way, Jim, did I forget to mention that last night you tried to chew my freaking head off? So a little courtesy in recognition of the fact that I'm still here at all instead of your goddamn silent treatment would be appreciated. What do you say, man?)
He slammed his cup down on the table to punctuate the angry thought and coffee went everywhere.
He jumped to his feet with a violent curse and frantically tried to gather up his notes and papers. Jim came over without a word, calmly retrieved a dishtowel and began soaking up the worst of the spill, carefully laying coffee-soaked papers aside.
"Anything here irretrievable, Chief?"
"Yeah, the xeroxes are important. Get those first." Blair got a huge handful of paper towels and tried to blot up the papers dry.
"How about this?"
Blair looked up. Jim was holding his print-out of the bogus seminar paper. The last few pages were sodden and dripping coffee. "Uh, yeah, actually, I guess that's important too."
Something seemed to dawn on Jim. He looked at the dripping pages, then at Blair. "This is the paper you've been working on?"
Blair could feel the blood rushing to his cheeks. "Um, yeah." Oh man, how could he ever have thought he could fool Jim? "It's just about finished too." His voice was cracking like he was twelve years old. (Just shut up already, Sandburg.)
But Jim just looked away. He laid the pages down like Joel Taggart handling a detonator and stepped gingerly back. "You know what?" he said abruptly. "I think getting out to have dinner is a good idea after all. You mind driving?"
"What? No. No, of course not," Blair said, stunned. "Sounds great."
"The Ethiopian place?" Jim was already pulling his coat on.
"I don't know, Jim. You'd probably like the grill better."
"Ethiopian is fine with me."
"You have to eat with your hands."
"I can manage that."
"And sit on the floor."
"That could be a problem." Jim rubbed the back of his hip and pretended to glare at Sandburg. "What'd you do while I was out, Chief? Take the opportunity to get in a few good knocks? You know, if you've got that big a problem with the house rules, we could just sit down and talk about it."
"Funny, Jim." Blair wasn't taken in, not for a minute, but he was enormously grateful for the attempt. "Just lemme finish cleaning this up."
With the fog and the rain, Jim and Blair practically had the restaurant to themselves. The service was abysmal. Blair was used to being ignored in restaurants, but not in Jim's company. Their waiter was so annoyed at actually having to take an order and serve a meal on such a slow evening he didn't even pretend to be courteous. Blair only noticed because he was afraid it would irritate Jim, but he seemed oblivious.
Blair stuck to the easy stuff as their dinner was doled out to them at long intervals – the salad wilted and swimming in greasy Italian dressing, the steaks as overcooked and dry as the potatoes, the bread stone cold – simply laying out his plans for avoiding any more of those, um, "sleepwalking" episodes. He thought having warded off the early evening trance sleep might do the trick all on its own, but in case it didn't, they would have the infrared alarm set up, and Blair would be able to wake him up as soon as he started moving around.
In theory, anyway.
Jim had been listening intently to every word. There was none of the usual skepticism on his face, not even when Blair suggested cautiously that it might be a good idea for Jim to sleep downstairs tonight. Just in case Blair's plans didn't work out after all. If he fell, he could break his neck. (We won't even think about what could happen to my neck.)
Jim didn't even balk at that. Just nodded seriously, frowning a little.
"If you wanna take my bed, even, I'll be fine on the couch."
Jim smiled. "I'm not kicking you out of bed. I'll take the sofa."
"Okay, then. This should get us through tonight just fine." Blair returned his attention to his baked potato. The thin curl of butter he'd allowed himself hadn't even begun to melt.
"Aren't you leaving something out?"
(Well yeah, Jim, basically everything.)
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, the little question of why this is happening to me in the first place, and what you plan to do about it in the long run. These stopgap measures are fine, but how long are you planning to sit up with a burglar alarm? And I've gotta tell you, I'm not sleeping on the couch for the rest of my life." His expression changed. "What's going on, Sandburg? I get the feeling there's something you're not telling me."
Blair took a deep breath. "I don't know exactly what's happening. I talked to a friend today at school that I thought might be able to help, but he went a little weird on me, so I guess I'll just have to check in with him when he's cooled down a bit, or try to do the research myself."
"Things can't go on like this. I told you, I don't even remember the drive home. Everything after I left the gas station is a total blank. I can't trust myself to drive if I'm liable to nod off like that at any minute."
"We'll get through this, Jim," Blair said quickly. "I won't let it happen again. See, I think as long as you have somebody right there to shake you out of it as soon as it starts, you should be okay. And I'll be right beside you all the way."
Jim frowned and looked away.
"That could be a problem."
"What do you mean?"
"Sandburg – there's something I haven't told you yet."
Blair sat up straight, fear and hope roiling in his gut. What was this? Did Jim already know? What did he know? Why wouldn't he have said anything?
Well, maybe for the same reason Blair hadn't been able to say anything. The thought that he might not have to handle this alone anymore made him giddy with relief. "What is it?" Amazing how he could keep his voice calm at moments like this.
Jim drummed his fingers irritably on the table, pressed his lips together and looked away. Blair wanted to explode. He contented himself with ripping the cold dinner roll apart while he waited for Jim to get his words out.
"I've been having nightmares," he said finally.
(Wait a minute. Wait just a minute here.) "For how long?"
"I think they started the night we got back from Los Angeles."
"But – yesterday. Jim. Oh, man. When I came running down to court like an idiot. I specifically asked you – Aw geez, man. And you let me think—"
You let me think I was losing my mind. That there was nothing wrong, nothing going on. Do you have any idea how many hours I spent trying to convince myself that it was all in my head? Oh, Jim.
He was saying, "Hang on, Blair. I just didn't realize it was any big thing."
He couldn't hang on. He couldn't even sit still. He pushed away from the table and paced a dozen steps away. Jim just waited for him, confident that he would turn around and come back, goddamn him. God damn him.
I could just keep going. We brought my car after all. I should just keep going. Why on earth stick it out here? Maybe Gunter's got a point after all. Here you've been out of your mind so scared for Jim and it turns out, oh man, it turns out he's known something was wrong for just as long as you did. And didn't tell you. Let you go charging up the stairs last night like Sir Galahad the Holy Imbecile straight into the belly of the beast.
"Blair," Jim said.
And suddenly he realized that Jim wasn't nearly so sure as he pretended.
"Sandburg, I waswrong. I'm sorry. I don't know why I didn't tell you yesterday."
Blair dragged his hands through his hair and moved slowly back towards the table. Jim kept talking as though he had never left. "But it's been like – I swear it's like I've been in a fog these past couple of days. Half the time I feel like I don't even have control of my own thoughts anymore. Things just come out of left field. Crazy, violent stuff. Insane."
"What kind of stuff?" Blair heard how calm his voice was. Incredible. How do you do it, Mr. Sandburg? "It's okay, Jim. Whatever it is, I need to know. This is important."
But the moment had already passed. Jim sat back, rubbed his hand over his face, shaking his head. "Are you through with dinner? I'm ready to get out of here."
"Yeah, in a minute. But listen to me, Jim. This is important. Don't shut down on me here. That's part of the problem, I think. That's what makes this thing so powerful, so scary. It's been separating us all along. Even in the same room we're a million miles apart, and that's what makes it so strong."
"It?" The shutters came crashing down behind those hard blue eyes.
"Sorry, man. Figure of speech.
"Some psychiatrists have suggested that the cluster of behaviors and beliefs that comprise possession is sufficiently distinct from other disorders to merit its own psychiatric diagnosis – 'Possession Syndrome.'"
George: 'Alternate Realities' (1995)
A battered white Datsun was parked under a streetlight near the stairwell door. Blair thought he had seen that car before, but couldn't quite place it until he caught a glimpse of the driver's thin profile in his rear view mirror.
"Oh man. What's Gunter doing here?"
"Who?" It was the first thing Jim had said since they'd left the restaurant.
"He's a guy I know from school."
"It's getting kind of late, Chief. I don't know if I'm really in the mood for company tonight."
"I don't think it's a social call," Blair said, worrying a little. He'd never thought Gunter was the kind to cause a scene, but you just never knew.
Jim simply nodded, immediately seeming to lose interest, and Blair thought this growing apathy frightened him almost as much as anything else. Anger, confusion, hell, even rage – at least there was something to work with there. Something to fight off, if nothing else. But if Jim just didn't care, what could he do?
"Don't forget the burglar alarm," Blair said as they got out. "Didn't you say you'd left it in the truck? I'll go see what Gunter wants. It should just take a second, okay?"
One eyebrow went up, the faintest flash of the old Jim. "Okay. I think I can manage."
"Sorry, man. You know what I mean." Blair turned and jogged, stiff-legged, around the corner and across the street to Gunter's car. He saw Blair coming and got out, looking very pale and very serious.
The rain had slowed to a drizzle. The fog was lifting, though misty tendrils were still curled around the weeds in the vacant lot next door.
"Hey," Blair said. "What's up? Have you been waiting long?"
"Half an hour, maybe."
"Sorry about that."
"Don't apologize. You didn't know. I hope just dropping by like this is okay?"
"Sure. Whenever, you know that. What's up?"
"Are you all right?"
"Yes, Gunter, I'm fine."
"Still pretty pissed, aren't you?"
Blair sighed. "No, I'm not pissed. Just a little frustrated that you won't listen to me."
"Look, have you got a few minutes? I think it would be a good idea if we could go talk over some coffee or something."
"I'm sorry. That won't work for me. Not tonight." Blair glanced over his shoulder. What was taking Jim so long?
He looked back to find Gunter watching him sadly. "Oh come on, Gunter! For the last time, it's not because I'm afraid of what Jim will do if he catches me talking to another man. I told you, you're totally wrong about this."
"Then can you invite me in? Just for a few minutes."
"Hey, I'm sorry. Really, any other time. This just isn't a real good night."
Gunter pressed his lips together, but then just shook his head. He reached back in the car and got out a battered leather briefcase with a broken zipper, stuffed to overflowing with papers and file folders. "Here."
"Everything I could pull together out of my files for you. A lot of exorcisms. Some poltergeist hauntings. Some other miscellaneous hauntings that sort of rung a bell with me. Mostly Western accounts, but I've got some pretty nice notes on Emmons' work in Hong Kong in the sixties, plus some other odds and ends I thought might be useful to you. If you have any questions about anything you can just give me a call. I'll be in the office tomorrow, and home all day Friday and Saturday."
"I can't believe it! Gunter. Thanks, man. This is great. Thank you."
"Careful, the handle's broken."
"Right, got it," Blair said, hugging the briefcase to his chest. "I really can't believe it. This is great. Thank you."
"I don't know how great it is," he said sourly, getting into his car.
"Look, I've got no idea if I'm doing the right thing here or not. My gut's telling me that I should be helping you run just as far and as fast as you can. But I got to thinking about what happened in the office this morning, and I realized I was being a real asshole. You came to me for help, and then when you wouldn't accept it on my terms, I practically threw you out. I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to be a jerk. I was just scared for you. I still am."
"There's no need to be. And you don't need to apologize either. I know this is all a little hard to believe."
"Just so long as you know that the offer still stands. You can call me anytime day or night, and we'll get you to Oakland or anywhere else you want to go. Even if you just want to come stay at my place for a few days. Anything."
Blair glanced back over his shoulder, starting to feel seriously uneasy. There was still no sign of Jim.
"Yeah. Thanks, man. I appreciate it."
Blair turned and started walking back towards the parking lot, dimly registering the sound of Gunter's sigh. Gunter turned the key in the ignition, and as the Datsun's little engine coughed into unwholesome life, called after Blair, "Just promise me you'll be careful."
"Right. Sure. Thanks." He began to run, the briefcase clutched to his chest. "Jim? Jim, are you okay?" He went skidding around the corner. "Jim!"
For one appalling moment he thought he was gone. But then he realized the passenger side door of Jim's truck was open, and he saw the shadow of Jim's head and shoulders in the light from the streetlight on the corner. What in the world? Blair slowed down, but his heart was racing now. "Hey, man, what's going on?" he called, trying to sound conversational, calm. "Are you okay?"
Walking around the truck, he found Jim sitting there in Blair's usual place, a brown paper bag from the hardware store on his lap. "Jim?"
He turned and looked at him. "I think I remember something," he said quietly.
Blair laid the briefcase down on the hood and leaned in. "That's great," he said, just as softly. "That's great, man. Wanna tell me about it?"
He nodded seriously. "I had to stop and get gas on the way home this evening."
"That's right. You mentioned that to me earlier, I think."
"But afterwards. That's what I couldn't remember. Driving from the gas station."
"And you do remember it now?"
He nodded again, lips pressed together in frustration and puzzlement.
"It's okay, Jim. Just take it a step at a time. At least you remember now. That's the important thing."
"Traffic was bad. Stop and go the whole way. I could feel myself tensing up, and I didn't want to let it get out of control. I, um, I concentrated on breathing like you taught me. So I could keep calm, you know? Not get all frustrated and angry like before—" He looked into Blair's face sadly. "I got angry, Chief. This was earlier. Right after I left the courthouse. I started thinking about that stupid paper of yours, and before I knew it I was angry enough to punch your lights out. Just out of nowhere. Just this ... rage." He gave a short, bitter laugh. "I had to pull off the road for a minute. It scared the hell out of me."
Blair felt a lightness in his chest that was neither relief nor terror, but some strange commingling of both. "Yeah," he said softly, still marveling at how calm, how in control he sounded. "Yeah, no doubt, man."
"And then it was gone. Just as quickly as it happened, it was gone, but I sure didn't want to let it happen again. So this time I was counting my breaths, concentrating on staying calm, and it worked. It worked just fine."
Blair had to smile. "Good. That's good. I'm glad. But then something else happened?"
"Not until I got home. I had pulled into the parking place here, and I was feeling relieved to be here, relaxed, kind of happy, even. But there was something else, too. It's hard to put into words."
"Take your time. I'm not going anywhere."
The faintest hint of a smile quirked the corner of Jim's mouth. "No, it's not hard to put into words either. Just a little bit silly, I guess. While I was trying to do those directed breathing exercises, it helped if I imagined that I was hearing your voice. More than that. I just sort of pictured you really sitting here, and it kept me focused, made it easier to concentrate."
Blair felt himself beaming. "No kidding?"
"It was a little weird, Chief. I had such a strong sense of your presence. So vivid. And then— "
Jim put both hands on the dashboard. "I don't understand what's going on here, but I think it must be a problem with my senses. Tactile hallucinations or something. Is that even possible?"
"Sure, I mean, I guess so, but what happened, Jim? What makes you think you were hallucinating?"
"Because for some reason, I reached over to the seat here where I had imagined you were sitting. I don't remember why now. Probably to get your burglar alarm." He balled his right hand into a fist and beat it gently on the dashboard as he talked, staring straight ahead. "And I'd swear there was something here after all. And it sure as hell wasn't you, Chief."
And suddenly Blair realized that even now some part of him had still been holding out, still hoping in the teeth of all the evidence that there was some other way to explain all this. But if it were real enough for Jim to touch, then it was absolutely incontrovertible. The world spun lazily under his feet, and he clutched at the door frame, afraid for a moment that he would fall.
And then he asked Jim calmly, "What did it feel like?"
He shook his head and wouldn't look at Blair. "I was imagining things. I must have been. What does it matter?"
"It matters. Believe me." He let go of the door frame, reached in and put his hand over Jim's balled fist, holding it still. "What was it like?"
He shook his head again, but this time, it was from the effort of describing it. "I don't know. What's that stuff that gardeners use? That white, dry, pebbly stuff. Real lightweight, kind of gritty?"
"I dunno, man. Perlite? Is that what you mean?"
"Yeah. I think so. It was sort of like suddenly shoving your whole fist into a bag of the stuff. Raspy and dry, but it was warm. Almost hot." He gave a short, incredulous laugh. "It was a helluva a shock. Must have, I don't know, blown a circuit or something, because I swear to you, I have no idea how I got into the building. As far as I knew, that whole time I was just sitting right here. Burning up. It was like—" He struggled for words again. "I know I said it was like I reached over to it. But it seemed as though it shoved its fist into my chest at the same time."
"And it was bad enough touching that thing when it was beside me, but then to have that gritty, hot sensation just punch right through me—" Jim broke off, taking a deep breath. "Much as I hate to admit it, that cold shower was a good call, Sandburg. In a way, I kind of knew you were there all along. It was like I would catch these glimpses of you, but they never lasted long enough for me to shake it off. That sensation of something so alien and so uncomfortable rooting around in me – it just blotted everything else out. Took that cold water to finally wake me up, I guess."
He was quiet for a moment, and Blair waited. Then he said, "I need some help with this, Chief. It's tough enough living with these senses when I can trust what they're telling me. But if I can't believe them anymore—"
"Wait, Jim. I know this feels a little weird. A lot weird. But I think it's more important than ever that you trust what your senses are telling you. Don't push it aside because it seems impossible or crazy."
Jim cocked his head. "It is impossible and crazy, Sandburg."
"I know. But I can't help you unless you tell me exactly what's happening. Everything, man. And don't worry about how crazy it sounds, 'cause at this point, plausibility is not the issue. You with me on this?"
After a moment Jim nodded just a little.
"So, like right now. Does it seem like it's here now?"
Jim rubbed one hand wearily over his face. "Sandburg, it's late, I'm tired, and it's been a long, long day. Can't this wait?"
"No, I'm sorry, but I don't think it can. We're gonna be in court all day tomorrow, so it'll be tomorrow night at the earliest before we can really get anywhere on this, and I just don't think it's such a good idea to let things slide for that long. So, you said the shower knocked you out of it. Why do you think that worked? I'm wondering if it's really still there, inside you, but the shock of cold water just – distracted you or something, so you're not so aware of it anymore. Or maybe the shock really did do the trick. Could the sheer surprise of having your senses all turned outwards so suddenly have really kicked it out? Could it really be that simple?"
Jim raised both hands in an effort to stop the torrent of words. "Blair—"
"No, Jim, this is really, really important. If you'll just work with me here for a minute."
Jim swung his legs around and got out of the truck. "Sandburg, enough."
He didn't even look back. Blair grabbed Gunter's briefcase and had to take a few running steps to catch up.
Okay, this was frustrating as hell, but he'd finally gotten Jim to talk about it. That was the biggest thing. It would be a far, far smaller step from there to getting him to fight back. Blair felt the sudden warmth of hope. Jim never lost a fight.
He was still a few steps behind him as they climbed the stairs to the loft, and couldn't see what Jim was talking about when he stopped just a few feet from their front door and said, "Is this yours, Sandburg?"
Jim bent down and picked up the little canister of pepper spray, still blister-wrapped to its cardboard backing, and the paper bag it had fallen from.
Oh no. In all the chaos, Blair had forgotten about that.
"Um, yeah." He reached for it. "They had a display at the checkout counter in the student union. I don't know. All the crazy stuff that happens, I thought it wouldn't be a bad idea to have that on my key ring."
Jim frowned and didn't hand it over. "Well, it is a bad idea. Do you know how to use this?"
"How hard can it be? Just point and spray."
"Blair, it's no different from carrying a gun. If you're not prepared, if you don't know what you're doing, chances are better than even that you'll be the one on the wrong end of that thing, not your hypothetical assailant."
"All right, Jim. Gotcha. I'll be careful. Now, please?"
Still frowning, Jim finally gave it to him, then turned and unlocked the front door.
"Spectre and Apparition make a great Noise in the World … Between our Ancestors laying too much stress upon them, and the present Age endeavoring wholly to explode and despise them, the World seems hardly ever to have come to a right Understanding about them."
Defoe: 'Secrets Of The Invisible World' (1738)
Jim ended up sleeping in Blair's bedroom instead of on the couch.
The little alarm was designed to be mounted in a doorway, and their experimental attempts to set it up on the coffee table or the loveseat were unsatisfactory at best. "Besides," Blair said, "What if you get up and simply walk the other way? At least we know you have to come through that door to get out of the bedroom." He swung his foot out as a test. Jim winced at the resulting noise and covered his ears with both hands.
"All right already, Sandburg. It works."
"Right." He punched in the shut-off code, wincing himself at being so close to the racket. If that didn't wake Jim up, nothing would.
The other side of that statement didn't bear thinking about, so he went on quickly, "And you realize, of course, that if you get up to go to the bathroom during the night, you're going to give us both heart attacks."
"Uh huh. Maybe you better show me how to disconnect that thing."
"I don't know if that's such a good idea. If your waking mind knows how to turn it off, maybe your sleeping mind will too."
Jim nodded, scowling, then marched upstairs. Blair went to the kitchen to make himself a pot of plain peppermint tea. He'd been drinking way too much coffee lately. And how stupid was that? He'd gone through hell a few years ago when he'd kicked caffeine cold turkey in preparation for a four-month stay with the Chuckchee. (Not that many espresso bars on the steppes of Asia Minor, man.) A year with Jim Ellison, and here he was as thoroughly addicted again as ever.
Oh well. Small price to pay. His hand strayed to his throat. He'd checked the bite again when changing out of his wet clothes, and the bruising was pretty spectacular, but more worrisome was the bit of inflammation and redness around one of the places where an incisor had broken the skin. Fretting a little about infection, he'd found some of Jim's toxic Mercurochrome in the medicine cabinet and carefully applied a few drops.
That stuff was so Jim, wasn't it? The little brown glass bottle with the old-fashioned label, a red skull and crossbones on the side. Jim probably bought it because it was the same thing his father had used, and his father before him. And heck, Jim probably thought, if it was good enough for General Patton, then it's good enough for me.
Blair realized he was grinning, and it felt all right. He felt all right. Still scared and exhausted, of course, and god knew how he was going to manage to sit up again all night tonight, but he finally had Jim on his side here, working with him on this, even if he didn't know exactly what was going on yet. But he had Gunter's notes now, and Gunter's promise of help, and if there was a solution, Blair would find it, period, end of story. Just a matter of keeping his focus and not letting the spook show break his concentration.
Jim came downstairs in his boxers carrying a pillow. "You know, Sandburg, there's really no reason for you to spend the night on the couch. Why don't you just sleep upstairs?"
The memory of his dream in the office this afternoon loomed up so vividly that Blair put his hand on his chest to feel his ribs still in place and his heart beating beneath them.
"Thanks. I think I'll sleep better on the sofa."
He disappeared into Blair's bedroom. "You want anything before you turn on the alarm?" He came to the door carrying Blair's pillow and tossed it to him.
"I think I've got everything I need."
"See you in the morning then." He turned away, then looked back. "Oh, and Sandburg?"
"You see this?" He peeled down the waistband of his boxers to reveal the purple bruise spreading across his left hip. "Just so you know. I'm not forgetting that I owe you one."
Blair tried to look scared. It wasn't all that hard. "I told you I was sorry, man." He reached down and activated the alarm. "Tell you what. Next time I'll just leave you passed out in the hallway."
Jim pressed his lips together and narrowed his eyes, but there was still a twinkle in them. "Just watch yourself."
(Oh, I am, man. Believe me, I am.)
He spent the next hours reading through the material Gunter had brought him, nursing the unrealistic hope that the answer would just leap out at him. It didn't. If anything, he was beginning to have more and more sympathy with Gunter's point of view. The multiplicity of cases spread across five millennia and as many continents should have been some sort of reassurance that Blair wasn't losing his mind. But the more he read, the more he found himself beginning to doubt his own memories.
Or maybe he just wanted to doubt them. After all, there was a certain consistency to the phenomena itself, but Blair didn't find that reassuring. He knew what was happening, in the simple, literal sense anyway. What he needed to know was why and, more importantly, how to stop it.
There were plenty of suggestions. Five thousand years worth of sure-fire recipes for quieting the poltergeist and exorcising the demoniac, all the way from Homer's Odyssey to The Amityville Horror.
Let's see. Sometime around the third century BC, the predations of the demon ghost Polites had been stopped by the simple expedient of building a temple and sacrificing a virgin once a year. The description of the demon as a dark being wrapped in a wolfskin reminded Blair uncomfortably of the beast he'd encountered last night in Jim's bedroom, but the solution was a bit beyond his resources.
Modern approaches seemed just as far-fetched. Gunter had included an audio cassette of an exorcism that had been performed in a Jesuit hospital outside St. Louis in the early 1970's. Blair listened to a few minutes, but the shrieks and obscenities of the afflicted woman and the droning liturgical Latin of the priests at her bedside just gave him a sick, hopeless feeling in the pit of his stomach. He took off the headphones, worrying briefly that Jim might have overheard. It hardly improved his mood when he read in Gunter's notes that the young woman had died in a mental institution within the year.
Certain Asian approaches seemed to have a definite advantage in terms of simplicity and directness. The possessing spirit could be trapped in a hollow gourd or even, if one were sufficiently sensitive, in the palm of one's hand.
The only problem was, they couldn't all be right, could they? Gunter's collection of folklore and liturgy, ritual, marchen, frankly literary accounts and pseudo-scientific investigations by modern parapsychologists – it was all fascinating from an academic point of view.
But as a guide for practical action?
As Blair the anthropologist certainly could have predicted, he thought bleakly to himself, but Blair-the-scared-shitless sidekick had apparently chosen to forget, in extreme situations people were wholly dependent on cultural expectation and belief. They saw what they expected to see, and they banished what couldn't be endured using the rituals society provided in the event of such emergencies.
But of course, neither he nor Jim had any such rituals to call upon. Jim had been brought up in a middle-of-the-road Protestant congregation, though Blair couldn't remember exactly which one just off the top of his head. Presbyterian? Methodist? Whatever, he knew they weren't evangelical enough even to practice the laying on of hands, far less High Church enough to have formal rites of exorcism. And Blair's only personal cultural expectations of such events came from Hollywood.
Remember what happened to the priest in The Exorcist? Got tossed down the fire escape and broke his neck, didn't he?
Great. Just great. Blair threw the papers aside. He was getting giddy, pushing too hard, he knew that. Try to relax. He closed his eyes. Deep, cleansing breaths. I am relaxed. I am relaxed.
You may be relaxed, but you forgot the pepper spray, you idiot.
His eyes flew open. What had he done with it? He'd wanted to get it out of Jim's sight just as quickly as possible. Bad enough that Jim had seen it in the first place.
Here it was. He'd shoved it down into his backpack.
He fished it out, found a pair of scissors and cut open the packaging, then experimentally lifted and aimed the canister. It was about eight inches long, a little heavier than he'd expected, with some sort of easy-grip rubber handle.
He couldn't believe he was actually thinking of using this against Jim.
He turned the empty package over and read through the instructions, concentrating most on the first-aid guidelines. He'd skimmed over these in the store and been reassured by the instructions to flush with cold water and see a physician if irritation persists. So it wasn't all that bad, right?
Yeah, right. Who was he kidding here? If it came down to it, he hoped to hell he could bring himself to pull the trigger.
Look at it this way, Blair my man. You let him tear your throat out, and what's going to happen to Jim? This is important. You've got to be prepared for this. He closed his eyes and tried to picture it happening. Absolute worst case scenario.
The lights go down and the silverware goes dancing across the countertops or whatever, man, and Jim comes barreling out of your bedroom howling like Cujo and what are you going to do, Blair? You're going to keep your cool, and you're going to protect yourself, because you can't help Jim if you're dead. Got it?
Got it. He set the canister down on the coffee table with the safety switch off and picked up the next thick file folder. Case notes of the Ghost-Hunter's Club, 1886 through 1910, thoughtfully reproduced as blurry xeroxes blown up from microfilm.
Oh man. Maybe he'd better make a pot of coffee after all.
"If evil Spirits appear they cannot do us any further harm than God permits."
Taillepied: 'A Treatise Of Ghosts' (1588)
Jim was having a bad night.
Sandburg's bed was narrow, short, and hard as a board. After lying on his back for a while, feeling the ache in his shoulder blades and hip bones, he finally got up and looked. Well, no wonder. There was a plywood board between the mattress and the springs. What the hell was that all about? Was mortification of the flesh somehow conducive to scholastic endeavor? Maybe that was simply how Blair managed to get by on so little sleep. With a bed that uncomfortable, you might as well stay up and study.
He debated taking the mattress off and getting rid of that stupid board, but it seemed like too much work. It was late. He was tired. He'd had a long, miserable day and there was little prospect of tomorrow being any better. All he wanted to do was sleep.
He closed his eyes and tried to relax. Not all that easy to do on a plywood board.
Not all that easy to do when you were worried about your sanity either.
Don't even think about it, Ellison. Sandburg was on top of this, just like always. He hadn't even looked worried. Interested, concerned, but Jim could tell it was mostly because Jim was upset. He'd listened to that crazy story about something … else … being there in the truck without batting an eye. Didn't seem worried at all about the violent thoughts either. Almost relieved, even, pleased that Jim was telling him so much.
Ellison smiled without opening his eyes. Poor Blair. Maybe he was the one who ought to be questioning his sanity. No dissertation could be worth all this.
He must be drifting towards sleep after all. The bed didn't feel quite so uncomfortable. Lying here in Blair's bedroom, in Blair's bed, he was enveloped by his presence. More intimate than scent. More intimate even than touch. Sandburg was taking care of things here. He'd get everything worked out. It was all right to sleep.
The soles of his feet were hot.
That was odd. Hot and wet and gritty. Sandy. He looked down. No wonder. He was walking barefoot on the beach. In a suit, yet, though he was relieved to see that at least he'd had the good sense to roll up his pants legs. Blair was walking beside him, shirtless, wearing cut-offs, grinning and relaxed, though uncharacteristically quiet. Jim smiled back and shook his head. Oh well. It was a gorgeous day. The noonday sun was hot on his head and through the shoulders of his coat. The sea was too calm for surfing, pale green near the shore and a beautiful midnight blue out past the breakers.
He glanced back at Sandburg. The kid was going to get burned to a crisp walking around in this sun without a shirt. You'd think someone who had spent so much time in equatorial regions would have a little more sense. Ought to pick up some sunscreen, at least.
But they were all alone out here. No sign of humans or human habitation for miles in any direction. Crumbling cliffs rose to the east of them, too steep to climb. Ellison felt a stir of concern. What were they doing out here in the middle of nowhere? No fresh water, no shelter from the sun. What had he been thinking? He slowed to a stop, looking up and down the beach. Behind them two pair of footprints stretched back as far as he could see. Miles. Ahead was nothing but pristine sand, gray and smooth near the water, glistening white above the water line.
Sandburg seemed completely unconcerned. Of course he was. He was with Jim. He thought Jim could take care of everything. Counted on him to protect him even from the heat of the sun. Apparently thought he could produce food and water out of thin air, too. God help me, Jim thought. What did I ever do to merit such trust? He closed his eyes for a moment. They couldn't keep walking in this heat. Maybe they could find some shade in the shelter of the cliff, wait for dusk and then try to make their way back in the cool of the evening.
But something had changed. Someone else was here.
He opened his eyes. What had he been thinking? They weren't alone at all. There, directly in front of them was the pier. It was a quiet day, far fewer people than the last time they'd been here, that was for sure, but they were hardly alone. Someone was standing at the railing looking down at them.
They should walk the rest of the way to the pier, buy some sunscreen for Blair, maybe get a bite to eat.
He asked Blair what he thought, but he didn't answer.
He was still walking beside Jim, innocent and unconcerned as ever. Naked as the day he was born. And just as defenseless.
"Jesus." Jim grabbed his arm. "What do you think you're doing?" He yanked off his own coat, wrapped it around Blair's shoulders. What the hell was going on here? He looked nervously back toward the pier. The only other person in the world was still standing at the railing watching them. The sun was above and behind him and Jim couldn't see his face. Just a tall, dark formless shadow on a sunny day. Jim tried to focus, shielding his eyes. No good. Black spots ran across his vision, blurred into red.
He had to get Blair away from here.
He grabbed his arm again. "Come on." They could run towards the cliffs. Maybe there would be a cave or a path to the top. Everything spun around him and he was clutching, not Sandburg's arm, but the rough plank of the pier railing. There were two figures on the beach below him. One of them was Blair, staggering, half-naked, a man's dress coat on his shoulders.
And beside him – oh dear god, God help him, because Jim couldn't, he was much too far away.
Jim sat straight up in bed, struggling to hold on to the dream. He knew it was important. There was sand, and the noonday sun, and his frantic concern for Blair, but everything else had already slipped his grasp.
Shaking his head, he got quietly out of bed and crept to the inside window. Lights were on in the living room. Blair was still up. Jim stood in the darkness watching for a long time. Blair was poring over his notes, frowning with concentration. He debated going out to talk to him, but he hated to interrupt. He'd have to call Blair to come turn off the alarm before he could even stir from the bedroom.
Besides, it was going to be a long day in court tomorrow. One of them ought to get some sleep tonight. And since Jim was the one who was going to be testifying, it might as well be him.
He turned away and stretched out again on that monastic slab of a bed. His shoulders were sore, but he suspected it had more to do with the way Sandburg gotten him into the shower. Although the bed sure wasn't helping matters. He'd be lucky if he could move at all tomorrow.
Blair had to smile a little, engrossed as he was in the Roman Ritual. Here he was, a nice Jewish boy studying the Litany of the Saints as though his life depended on it. Thanks, Jim. Like my life wasn't weird enough already.
Jim found himself back at the window, but with a sense of dull surprise, he realized it wasn't the interior window of Blair's bedroom at all. Instead, he was standing on a stone ledge halfway up the side of a tremendous domed brick building, looking in at a cavernous room. There were several dozen people sitting in folding chairs arranged in rows, facing a speaker who stood at a little wooden podium. The informal congregation was dwarfed by the size of the room where they had gathered.
There was something familiar about all this. Jim recognized it. He had been here before. He glanced over his shoulder. Mansions of white and gold stood in ranks up the terraced green hillsides. The ocean sparkled in the distance. Bel Air. Beverly Hills. He had come here with Sandburg. He remembered now. The conference.
He peered back through the window. That was Blair behind the podium. How strange he hadn't recognized him at first. And there was Jim in the back row. He'd tried to follow the paper as Blair read it, but his attention had wandered for an instant, and he'd never been able to pick up the thread again.
Now he had a second chance. If he could just get in the window. He put his hand on the glass. There was a simpler way, he knew. He had done it before. But how? He looked enviously at Jim sitting in the back row with his arms crossed over his chest, and it finally dawned on him that something peculiar was going on here.
If that was Jim, then who was he?
No. It was the other way around. He was who he was. Who was the other?
He fixed the stranger with angry eyes, and the change came again, just as easily as it had on the pier. He found himself sitting on the hard little folding chair. Now the other one was outside the window. He ought to turn and look at it. This was his chance to see it in its true form, but he was distracted by something in the tone of Blair's voice and he looked up at the podium instead.
Oh lord. What now?
Blair looked terrible. Worse than terrible. Bedraggled, beaten, terrified, but still trying to fend off questions from the audience. Why didn't they leave him alone? Why didn't someone try to help him? His hair was soaking wet, crusty and matted with wet sand. (That's right, we've been to the beach, remember?) His legs were bare, he was hardly dressed at all, clutching the remains of a coat many sizes too large around himself. Oh lord, kid, what have you done now?
Jim got to his feet. Screw the conference. Screw the paper too. Blair needed help. He couldn't go on like this.
Blair's eyes darted back, saw him coming up the aisle towards him, and to Jim's unutterable astonishment, he began to back away, shaking his head, mute with terror.
No. No, Jim could accept everything else, but not this. He stopped, and said in as soothing, as comforting a voice as he could manage, "Sandburg. Hold up a minute, buddy. I just want to help."
Blair turned and tried to run, but he stumbled to his knees and Jim caught him easily, turning him around, saying the whole while, "Easy, easy now. It's all right. I just want to help you."
Blair shook his head violently. He wasn't trying to fight, but he had both hands clutched over his chest, hiding something from Jim.
"Blair? C'mon, take it easy. What's wrong?"
But Sandburg wouldn't answer him. Maybe he couldn't. Gently as he could, Jim pried Blair's hands away and opened the front of his tattered coat to reveal the gaping black hole where his heart should have been.
"When I could not be rid of the devil with sentences out of the Holy Scripture, I made him often fly with jeering words."
Luther: 'Table-talk' (1566)
Three a.m. was the bad time. Blair knew that much by now. He had been keeping one eye on the clock as the hour approached, and at a quarter of (aw man, wouldn't you know it?) the storm suddenly picked up with a vengeance.
Rain smashed against the windows. The wind howled around the corners of the building, rattled the glass in the skylight, crept in under the door and stirred the papers spread out across the floor.
He tried to keep working, but the excerpts from Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana would have been slow going under the best of circumstances. Though he kept the pages clutched in his hand, he couldn't possibly concentrate enough to read them.
(So anyway, Blair, supposing you're all wrong about this after all. Did you ever think of that?)
He looked up.
Well, yeah. Supposing he was totally wrong. He thought he had been going slow and careful here, trying to be the good scientist, waiting to see if the first hypothesis was confirmed before posing the next. But that wasn't really true, was it? What proof did he have? Physical, tangible proof, something he could lay before a jury.
Teeth marks don't count. There could be another explanation. Like some scary, major problem with Jim's senses, for instance. Something that Blair hadn't noticed because he just hadn't been paying enough attention, was a helluva long way from being a psycho-biologist and hadn't insisted hard enough that Jim get into the lab for more regular tests.
Or maybe it wasn't anything to do with his senses at all. A lesion or brain tumor might account for the hallucinations and trance sleep as well as the terrifying behavioral changes. And that would be Blair's fault too, wouldn't it? He hadn't argued with Jim when he put off his yearly physical as long as he did. Then he had assumed the cursory department exam Jim finally had gotten was good enough. He'd been more worried someone would find out about those senses than whether Jim was healthy or not.
Oh, man. Blair put down the sheaf of xeroxes and rested his head against the back of the sofa. What was he doing wasting so much time with this nonsense? He should have been arranging for Jim to see some specialists, get an MRI scheduled for him, whatever, do what he could to rule out an organic explanation before running after ghosts.
Lightning tore across the sky. Thunder crashed and the lights went out.
Blair stumbled to his feet in the darkness. "Jim? Is that you?"
No, Jim's in the bedroom. He can't get out without setting off the alarm. You know that.
Another tangle of lightning, so close that the thunder was simultaneous, filling his head with the boom. The furnishings of the loft stood out in stark relief for an instant before plunging again into darkness.
Where was the flashlight? He moved too quickly and ran into the floor lamp. It swayed and hit the floor. The bulb broke with a little crash. Then another bolt of lightning, more thunder. Trying to hold onto that second flashbulb image of the loft, he put out his hand, groping for the back of the sofa. But he must have gotten turned around somehow and lost his bearings, because his hand closed only on emptiness. Oh man. Where was the coffee table? Where was the damn pepper spray? Oh, Blair, you're hopeless aren't you? Thought you were so prepared, but here it is, it's show time, folks, and you're stumbling around blind and worse than helpless. Not doing it right there at all.
He took another step and another, arms outspread, and finally touched a brick wall. Oh, man. He was clear across the room. He felt his way around, found the bookshelves, the stereo, the bicycle.
Then the lights came back on. Oh, thank god. He turned around and saw every window standing wide open and rain water streaming across the floor in sheets.
Blair grinned. He almost laughed out loud.
Got you, you bastard!
And it had been damn close that time. There for a few minutes just before the storm hit he'd been doubting everything, the evidence of his own senses, even his sanity.
But no guilty imagination had opened those windows.
Yep, you made a mistake there, and I'm onto you now, you son of a bitch.
Then he turned and saw Jim standing just inside the door of his bedroom, not six feet away.
Blair nearly jumped out of his skin.
"Yeah, Jim?" he squeaked.
"Are you all right?"
"Me?" He swallowed. "I'm fine man."
Jim nodded a little, turned and disappeared back into the darkness of the bedroom.
"Jim? Hey, Jim, wait a minute." Blair half-ran to the door, then remembered the alarm just in time. He stopped and turned it off, then stuck his head in the door. Jim had already gotten back into bed. "Are you okay? You, um, you sleeping all right?"
"Not with you standing there talking to me, I'm not."
"Sorry." He came into the room anyway. "But I thought you'd wanna know, it looks like we're making progress. I don't think you've shown any sign of sleepwalking tonight."
"Do you know what woke you up?"
Jim grumbled something Blair couldn't hear. He came the rest of the way to the bedside. Jim just kept lying there, face towards the ceiling, his fingers laced together and resting on his stomach. He looked about as relaxed as the effigy on a medieval tomb.
"Do you know what woke you up? Was it just the thunder?"
No answer. Blair crouched by the head of the bed, and light from the living room reached Jim's face. His eyes were open.
"Another nightmare, man?"
His eyes closed.
"Jim, you know this is important. Help me out here. I'm not a mindreader."
Jim sighed. Blair shifted so he was sitting more comfortably on the floor. The waiting game. He could do that. He could sit here the rest of the night if that's what it took. Good luck ignoring me, Jim. I know you can hear my heartbeat. I know you can hear me breathing. And I probably don't smell so great right now either. Besides all the Tiger Balm, I think my deodorant let me down big time when the lights went out just now.
Jim didn't say anything, but after a time, he reached out and put his hand on Blair's shoulder. Blair managed to keep quiet. He just waited, and finally Jim said quietly, "You're all right, aren't you, Chief?"
"Yeah, I told you that. I'm fine."
"You'd tell me if something was wrong?"
What was this about? Oh god. Did Jim have some inkling of what had happened last night after all? Blair felt a rush of sympathy. Yeah, he probably did, and he was probably trying to convince himself it was just another nightmare.
He reached up, took the hand that Jim was resting on his shoulder and clasped it tightly in his own. "Jim, I'm a little scared because I'm not totally sure what's going on right now. That's the truth, and I'm sorry, man. I know you're counting on me, but I'm working on it. I'll be fine. We're both going to be all right."
Jim's hand tightened on Blair's and didn't let go.
After a while, his fingers twitched sharply, and Blair realized Jim was falling asleep. Good. The man needed his rest.
His own fingertips were starting to tingle from lack of blood, though. Moving slowly and carefully as he could, he sat up a little so he could at least rest his elbow and upper arm on the mattress. Jim didn't stir. Blair took a slow, deep breath, briefly regretting the fact that Gunter's notes were out of reach. No. It was okay. He'd accumulated enough raw data tonight. Needed to start assimilating it and try to make some sense of it all.
It was cold sitting on the floor here. All those open windows. What a mess that was going to be. Just as well he'd never gotten around to mopping the floor the other night.
How long ago had that been? Three days? Was that possible? Seemed like a lifetime away.
There was something he had been missing all along. He felt sure of that now. Something he'd ignored or overlooked because he'd been too busy doubting the evidence of his senses to try and see the big picture here.
You were scared out of your mind, that's what the problem was.
Still scared. Okay. But that stunt with the windows. That was … well, it was downright … careless.
Now if this were my story, Blair thought, if I wanted the hapless idiot who seems to be the hero of the piece to keep questioning his sanity, I'd never hand him something so unequivocal as open windows and rainwater all over the floor. Nah, keep him guessing with, oh, I don't know, a white face glimpsed over his shoulder in the bathroom mirror, or if you have to mess with the physical world, rearrange the books on the shelves or leave a couple of pictures a little askew. Just enough to worry him, keep him doubting.
That was assuming that there was intelligence – purpose, at the very least – behind all this. And what evidence did Blair have for making such an assumption?
The vast majority of the texts Gunter had given him assumed there was a malevolent intelligence behind violent hauntings. Something evil. Blair thought he had felt evil all right, but maybe he was falling into the same trap. The world was a crazy place, and if he'd learned anything in so many years of study, it was that the human mind couldn't tolerate chaos. Better to organize things, create a narrative, even if the story you told scared you silly, rather than face the horror of simple meaninglessness.
Maybe that's what had been distracting him all along. Looking outside, looking for purpose, when he should have been concentrating on … well, obviously, he should have been concentrating on Jim. He couldn't become an expert on the dubious world of paranormal phenomena overnight, but there weren't many people who knew Jim as well as he did.
And nobody else knew the Sentinel.
He tightened his grip on Jim's hand possessively for a moment, then winced in guilt, afraid he might have wakened him. Jim only grumbled in his sleep.
It wasn't simply because so few people knew about Jim's heightened senses in the first place. It had more to do with Blair's very secret, very private belief that the Sentinel was in large part his own creation.
Okay, the existence of Jim's senses, that was something quantifiable, something that had nothing to do with Blair. Any other researcher fearless and determined enough to get Jim into the lab could verify their existence.
But the way Jim used his senses. Hell, the fact that he used them at all, that he wasn't overwhelmed by them – well, that was Blair's doing.
When his heightened senses had manifested themselves after Peru, Jim had found himself staring into the terrifying face of absolute chaos. But Blair had been able to construct a story for him that gave him control and purpose. It seemed all he had to do was describe an outcome for Jim, and he would do his best to make it happen. Imagine turning down the pain dial, and the pain will stop. Piggyback your sense of hearing on your sense of sight, and you'll be able to control both. Even, god help us, rebuild the connection, and you'll see again.
Where did Jim think he was getting all this stuff? Out of Burton? Yeah, right, man. Don't I wish.
The horrifying, exhilarating truth was that Blair didn't really know where it came from, but he thought it must be what his artist friends meant when they talked about inspiration. Just a bolt hitting out of the blue. Sure, you did the research, prepared as much as you could, tried to be ready, but in the end, man, he had to keep trusting that the muse wouldn't let him down.
At long last Jim's hand loosened its grip. With a sigh he pulled it away from Blair's and curled over on his side. Blair watched him for a few minutes longer, then stood slowly, stretching the kinks out of his back. Maybe he should try to get an hour or two of sleep himself before they both had to get up. He'd have all day in court with Jim to keep going over Gunter's notes. He had to make sure he knew enough for inspiration to have something to work with when it finally struck.
When the alarm woke him, he panicked, sitting bolt upright on the sofa, his heart pounding away a million miles an hour. (Jim!) Oh god, how could he have dozed off—
Then he realized that it was morning. Another gray, sodden, overcast, dreary excuse for daylight, but at least it was a change from darkness. And that was the alarm clock, not the burglar alarm. He shut it off, then glanced back at his room. Was Jim awake yet?
Yeah, he was. Blair could hear the shower running.
How had he gotten out of the room without setting off the alarm?
Oh, right. Blair hadn't bothered to turn it on again last night. That maybe hadn't been such a bright thing to do. It was way too early to start getting cocky.
(But I've got you now, you gate-crashing son of a bitch.)
His shoulders were sore. His neck ached, and he still croaked when he talked. His wrists were so stiff he could hardly bend them. (Jim, you're killing me here, man.) He giggled, and that hurt his throat. There was something else though. He pulled up his shirt and looked down at his chest.
Oh. Oh, man. Jim had scratched him pretty good before fastening onto his throat the night before last, but at the time, Blair had been more concerned about whether he would lose his larynx to pay much attention. The scratches were sure making themselves felt now. They were raw and inflamed, and instead of scabbing over cleanly, a couple were even oozing a little pus.
Aw geez. Jim-scratch fever. He giggled again, pitiful as the joke was. He'd clean up when he could get into the bathroom, paint them with Jim's Mercurochrome (a little hair of the dog that bit you, huh, Blair?) and hope that would do the trick. He just didn't have the time to deal with this right now.
First things first. Shut those damn windows and mop up all the water. He'd been too tired to do it last night. Besides, he'd probably been nursing some vague notion of showing it to Jim as 'proof,' but in the light of day, it was obvious that would prove nothing to Jim. Probably just piss him off, and that definitely wasn't the way to go right now.
He actually got out the mop before he turned around and realized that the windows weren't open anymore. Had he shut them last night after all? It would have been pretty stupid to go to bed leaving them wide open.
His feet dragging a little, already suspecting what he would find, he walked to the windows and looked at the floor.
Bone dry. And here was the lighter stain from the water that had gotten in three nights ago. Blair could even see the faint, faint outline of his own footprints, tracking water across the floor.
Three days ago.
What about the water that had been pouring across the floor last night?
He'd seen it! He'd seen it with his own eyes! He—
He turned around and marched back, putting the mop away and starting a pot of coffee.
Okay. Okay, that was a good one, dude, I'll give you that. But it doesn't change anything, because Gunter was right all along. It's just a question of recognizing the story. I'm gonna figure your story out, you lousy, sneaking bastard, you cowardly sonuvabitch, and when I do, I'm going to un-write it line by line.
"And the evil spirit from the Lord was upon Saul as he sat in his house with his javelin in his hand."
I Samuel 19:9
Jim was beginning to wonder if bringing Sandburg to court had been such a good idea after all.
It had been another long day, with the jury out of the room more often than not, and by three in the afternoon it was abundantly clear that they weren't going to get to Jim's testimony. He was exhausted and sore, and an evil little idea had taken hold of his mind after lunch and simply wouldn't let go.
Why not just go home to bed? He knew he wasn't going to be called to the stand today. Nobody would miss him. What was the point of sitting here miserably the rest of the afternoon when he could be catching up on lost sleep – in his own bed, thanks just the same, Professor Sandburg – then be fresh and alert tomorrow when he actually might be called to testify?
Well, there was a good reason why not. It was sitting here right beside him, long hair slipping out of a careless pony tail and falling around his face. Blair was trying so hard to be quiet as he shuffled through the reams of paper he'd carted along that Jim had to fight the urge to rip them out of his hands and throw them on the floor. Sandburg would never agree to something as simple and understandable as getting the hell out of here and catching a little shut-eye. Why should he? Blair had already caught up on his lost sleep.
For lunch they had walked through the rain to a deli around the corner from the courthouse. Jim had gone to the counter to place their order, and Blair had snagged a table for them. By the time Jim had made it back with their sandwiches, he had found Blair with his head resting on his folded arms, dead to the world. He didn't stir when Jim put the tray down by his head. Didn't move, in fact, for the next forty-five minutes, not till Jim had finally touched his shoulder and told him to wake up, because he was due back in court.
And had Blair said, 'thanks for letting me sleep, Jim'? Or even, (heaven forbid) 'thanks for buying me the sandwich I didn't eat'? Of course not. Instead he'd become hysterical, apologizing frantically for falling asleep, and then jumping all over Jim for not waking him up immediately. Didn't Jim realize how important this was? Had he forgotten the whole reason Blair was here? Didn't he know how critical it was that Blair keep an eye on him today? On and on until—
Well, until Jim had actually apologized and felt kind of bad about it. But the kid had looked like he needed his rest. Still hoarse with that sore throat, reeking of menthol and eucalyptus, a wool muffler knotted up to his chin, circles under his eyes darker blue than the wool.
Jim just couldn't understand these irrational flashes of sympathy. Sandburg had been little more than a distraction and an irritation since the day they met, and how in the world he had managed to insinuate himself so thoroughly into Jim's life was a mystery indeed. The brat must be a master of emotional manipulation. Learned at his mama's knee, no doubt. If you're too shiftless and lazy to work for a living in this world, you've gotta pick up the art of sponging early. And Jim had fallen for it hook, line and sinker.
Sandburg was carefully closing a file folder and tucking it into that ratty briefcase, then slowly, slowly, pulling another one out. Jim wanted to scream. When he couldn't stand it another second he reached out and grabbed Blair's wrist.
Doesn't work anymore, kid. Look pitiful all you want. Makes no difference to me.
He tightened his grasp, shaking Blair's arm, and Blair sat up straight on the bench with a soundless gasp.
Oh, come on. What did he take Jim for?
But he looked down anyway, and saw for the first time the dull blue smudge running up the inside of Blair's wrist.
What in the world?
He grabbed Blair's other hand and turned it over. The file Blair had been holding slipped away and hit the floor, drawing a disapproving glare from Judge Juarez.
Sandburg's other wrist looked even worse, swollen and blue-green with bruises. For god's sake—
"What is this?" he whispered furiously, but Blair just shook his head, shrugged and tried to smile.
Something flashed across Jim's line of sight, like a darkly feathered wing beating once, twice – He closed his eyes and shook his head, then felt Blair's hand on his arm. "Jim?" he breathed. "Jim, are you all right?"
He stood up abruptly and jerked his thumb towards the exit. Blair followed him, leaving stacks of papers on the bench where they had been sitting. As soon as the doors had closed behind them he grabbed the shoulders of Blair's flannel shirt with both hands and pulled him none too gently across the hall. The corridors of the courthouse were quiet and empty after the morning docket call. Three stories overhead, gray rain poured across plexiglas skylights.
"Come on, man, take it easy."
"It happened again. Sandburg, this is getting serious."
Jim took a deep breath, trying to calm down.
"You were getting angry, weren't you?" Blair said quietly, answering his own question. "For a second there you looked ready to bite my head off." An odd little smile flashed across his face, like he was thinking of a private joke, but Jim didn't see anything to laugh about. He took Sandburg's left hand, gently this time, and turned it palm up.
"How did this happen?"
That expression on Blair's face … regret? No, that wasn't quite it. For heaven's sake. Was it pity? What the hell was going on here?
It was cold in the courthouse. Typical government building. Here it was the second week in November and they had the air conditioning on. Goosebumps prickled up Jim's arms.
"Talk to me, Sandburg. There's a helluva lot more going on here than you've told me, isn't there?"
"You're right, Jim," he said calmly, a little sadly. "There is a lot going on."
"And you didn't tell me?"
"Look, I'm sorry, man. You think I like keeping secrets from you? It was just because I didn't know how to explain it. I was too much in the dark myself, and I didn't want you to think, I don't know, that I was just crazy or something."
"No more riddles. No more games. I'm warning you, I'm not in the mood."
"I know, I know! But if you'll just bear with me, at least until we get home, have some dinner, geez, you think maybe we can stop at the grocery store on the way? If I don't get some fresh vegetables soon my plumbing's gonna start shutting down in a major way, and that's the last thing I need right now."
"Sandburg, no. No, this can't wait. I don't know how much longer I can control it."
"You're doing fine, man. Just a little while longer and we'll hash the whole thing out, I swear, but it won't do any good to just hit the highlights right now. Please trust me on this, Jim. Please, man. It's gonna work out, just not right this second. Now come on. Don't we need to get back in there? What if you get called to the stand?" Blair tried to pull his arm free.
Jim didn't let go. "The bailiff knows where to find me," he said, no longer able to ignore a shuddering, sick suspicion crawling up the back of his mind. He looked at Blair's hand again, then wrapped his fingers carefully around the bruises on his wrist.
A perfect fit.
Oh, my god.
"Hey, it's all right." Blair freed himself, but only so he could grab hold of Jim's shirt sleeves and hang on grimly when Jim tried to back away from him. "Listen to me. It's all right. It's not what you think."
"Dammit, Sandburg, I'm not in control anymore, am I? Was I ever? How could you have let this go on? Are you out of your mind?"
"Stop it! It's all right. This happened last night when you were out cold. I'm sorry. It was my fault as much as yours. You're a big guy, and I wasn't all that gentle hauling you into the shower. You've got bruises too, remember? So we're even, all right? Now calm down. Don't you think I'd be running for the hills if I didn't think you could handle it? Hey, give me credit for having some sense of self-preservation. It's bad thoughts, that's all it is, and you can control them. No problem. It's not a problem, Jim."
Jim wanted to believe that ridiculous tumble of words so badly that, for the moment at least, he ignored all the rest, Sandburg's thundering heartbeat, his respiration suddenly so fast and shallow, the wide eyes that alternately met his own then fled, the sweat on his brow.
"Look," Blair rolled on relentlessly, picking up steam as he went, "I know this is pretty overwhelming. I wish there was an easy solution, but there's not. This is like, well, this is a lot like what happened with your hearing. Suddenly the world got a whole lot bigger, and it just took some getting used to, right? Same thing, man."
He finally had to let go of Jim's sleeves. He was piling words up too fast for his hands to keep still. "I just don't want to start going through the whole deal right here, right now, when we can't possibly finish. I'm afraid it'll give you time to set up barricades, you know, not that you would do it deliberately, but I'm afraid that's what wouldhappen. And you know, man, I wanted to talk about this last night and you didn't want to listen then, so now you're just gonna have to hang on a little bit longer. Okay? Does any of this make sense to you? Jim? Okay, man?"
With a sigh, Jim let himself be borne away on that floodtide. He followed Blair back into the courtroom, agreeing to focus on his breathing. And for the next two hours he did, in fact, remain calm. Blair didn't return to his work. He left a few pages open on his lap, but he was watching Jim the whole time. Under any other circumstances it would have been annoying as hell. This afternoon, the steady beacon of those concerned blue eyes felt like the only point of stability left in the world.
Jim wasn't called on to testify. It was just as well. He doubted he would have made much of a witness.
Since Blair drove home, he picked the grocery store. Jim might have guessed. Why would you want to go to a convenient, well-lit supermarket when you could drive halfway across town to find an Iranian produce stall?
"Winter roots, man," Blair explained.
"Winter roots?" Jim asked, one eyebrow going up. This return to normalcy was only an act for both of them, he knew that, but he was willing to play along for now. They really did need groceries.
"Leeks, garlic, celery root, parsnips, fennel. They're great all chopped up together and baked in cream, seasoned with a little lemon thyme. Comfort food. You'll see."
Blair just grinned and lifted a bundle of vegetables that looked to Jim like white carrots. "Gorgeous, huh?"
It was raining steady and hard, and a cold, wet wind was blowing in past the slit plastic sheeting that served as a front door for the little stall. The air was heavy with the smell of sawdust and oranges. Fresh herbs were stacked in bundles by the cash register, next to a few precious half-pint baskets of raspberries. Posters of black-robed men with long white beards were tacked to the wall beside a little bulletin board feathered with announcements and notices in Farsi.
While Blair moved down the other narrow aisle in the stall, happily filling a basket with his winter roots, Jim picked through the herbs. Lemon thyme? Well, he thought he knew what the regular kind smelled like. He ought to be able to identify the obvious variation. The clerk behind the counter was watching a 12-inch black and white TV set up on an overturned wooden crate. He glanced up briefly at Jim, smiled, then returned his attention to the screen. Three's Company was on.
Okay, this was rosemary, Jim knew that. And basil. Suddenly he was in the mood for Italian. Oh well, another night. He didn't think this limp, narrow-leafed stuff that smelled like licorice could be Sandburg's thyme. These were chives. Something that looked a bit like parsley but with a sharp, surprising tang that reminded him of Mexican cooking.
He looked up, still focusing on scent, and got a good whiff of that menthol cloud that had been hanging around Sandburg for days. "Yeah?"
"You're not feeling sleepy or anything are you?"
But there was something else too. He couldn't identify it at first, but it reminded him of discomfort, infection, and pain.
"No, I don't feel sleepy," he said a little absently. He put down the last unknown bunch of herbs and walked around the cartons of grapefruit and tangerines to get closer to Blair, concentrating on that smell. What was it?
"Good." Blair smiled again, satisfied. "Told you, man. We're making progress here."
Iodine. That's what it was. No, Mercurochrome. That's all. Probably on the finger Blair had cut so badly the other night.
Then why did he feel so uneasy?
Blair was picking through a carton of fat yellow onions. The wire basket was on the ground at his feet, green tops trailing from both sides. He still had that wool scarf tied up to his chin. Nothing surprising about that, either. It was a cold, wet night, and he'd been nursing a sore throat for a couple of days now. He really ought to go to the doctor. Might be strep, though Jim hadn't heard any hint of congestion, or noticed any signs that Blair might have a fever.
Blair turned, holding up an onion. "Beautiful, huh? The spanish onions you get at the supermarket are all mushy half the time."
But then he seemed to see something in Jim's face that made him falter. He fell back a step, still clutching his prized onion. Jim hardly noticed. Blair practically reeked of antiseptic, a salty, metallic bite that Jim could taste on the back of his tongue. What had he been doing, bathing in it?
And there, faint but undeniable, was the taint of incipient infection as well.
"Sandburg," Jim said, reaching out for him in concern. "What—"
Blair backed away.
Backed away. From him.
Last night's dreams blindsided Jim, rocking him on his feet. He spun around, looking for the shadowy third, but it wasn't here. There was no one else here. Just the clerk who was still engrossed in TV.
And Blair. He turned back to him, his concern escalating into panic. No wonder Blair smelled of Mercurochrome. Must take a helluva lot of the stuff to sterilize a wound like that. Probably dumped the entire bottle into that hole in his chest.
Sandburg had backed up against a wall of crates filled with potatoes. The onion dropped with a thump when Jim put his hands on his shoulders. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Jim, please," he said, trying to push him away. It only made Jim more grimly determined. His hands clenched into fists. The buttons on Blair's flannel shirt went rolling across the sawdust-covered floor.
"Dammit, Jim! Leave me alone! What the hell do you think you're doing?"
He wasn't fooled or dissuaded by the anger in Sandburg's voice. He couldn't understand why Blair would try to hide something so horrible, so irreparable from him, but the deception had to stop now. Blair couldn't take care of this all by himself. And Jim couldn't help him unless he knew the truth.
He yanked Sandburg's t-shirt up, ignoring Blair's attempts to push him away, steeling himself for the sight of that terrible lack. Behind him, he heard the clerk belatedly but hastily getting to his feet.
Nothing. No gaping wound. No missing heart. A few welts and scratches, orange from the Mercurochrome, but that was all.
He dropped his hands and let Blair go. "Chief," he said in helpless apology.
"Geez, man, what's the matter with you?" Sandburg tugged his shirt down fast.
He shook his head, dazed, no longer sure of anything anymore. "I don't know. I thought – It's these nightmares I've been having. I thought something terrible had happened."
The anger vanished. "It's okay," Blair said hastily. "It's okay. Don't worry about it. Let's just pay for this stuff and get home, and we'll talk about it. Are you all right?"
"No. I don't think so." Blair put his hand on his forearm. "It's gonna be all right, Jim. I'm right here, we're going to work this out, and it's gonna be all right."
Why did Blair seem so relieved? Almost as if – almost as if he was getting away with something. Jim looked at him closely, and then quickly, not giving Blair time to react, he grabbed his chin and pushed his head back just enough to see the black bruises spreading up the underside of his chin.
"A priest – when he intends to perform an exorcism over persons tormented by the devil – must be properly distinguished for his piety, prudence, and integrity of life … Moreover, he ought to be of mature years, and revered not alone for his office but for his moral qualities."
Exorcism of the Possessed: Rituale Romanum (1614)
Oh man, Blair thought, furious, despairing. All he'd needed to do was stay calm, keep his cool and it would have been okay. But no, he'd seen that bloodhound look in Jim's eyes, and he'd panicked. Oh god, he'd panicked like a stupid jackrabbit frozen in the headlights.
"Sandburg," Jim let him go, but he didn't step back. "Blair, let me see."
"No," he said, putting both hands protectively to his throat, hardly able to speak. "No, Jim, I don't think that's a good idea."
"No more secrets. No more lies."
"I haven't lied to you."
Jim's face was frozen, cold as stone.
"Not here, Jim, please. The poor guy behind the counter looks like he's about to have a coronary. C'mon, let's just go home. We can talk about it there."
"That won't work anymore."
"You don't understand what—"
"No, I don't. I sure don't."
"Jim, please. Just try to calm down here for just a minute."
Jim obviously wasn't in the mood to be calm. He clamped one big hand down on Blair's shoulder to hold him still and unwound the wool scarf himself. Blair didn't try to stop him. He just stared at the floor, and when he felt the wet night air chilling his bare throat, he raised his eyes to look at him.
Granite. Marble. You could carve a tombstone on that face.
"Have you seen a doctor?" Jim asked in a flat voice.
Blair shook his head.
"Okay, Chief, County or Memorial? You got a preference?"
"I'm not going to the hospital. I'm all right."
"This isn't negotiable. Let's go." He took Blair's arm.
He shook himself free violently. "Dammit, Jim! Listen to me. We haven't got time for that now."
His eyes narrowed. "But we do have time to drive halfway the hell across town to buy parsnips? We've got time to sit in court all day? For the love of – Sandburg, this must have happened what, two or three days ago? And you haven't seen a doctor yet? Are you out of your mind? What's the matter with you? I thought you had more sense than—"
But then, all at once, it didn't work anymore. Blair was looking up into Jim's face when everything broke, and it was like watching a sandcastle give way to the tide.
He flung his arms around Jim and held on tight.
Jim just stood there, his arms at his sides, as Blair pressed his forehead to his chest and insisted frantically, "It wasn't you, man, it wasn't you!"
"No! Listen to me, that thing you touched in the truck last night, you weren't hallucinating, Jim, it's real and it's been hurting you, I know that, it's hurt you bad, and I'm sorry it's taken me so long to figure it out, but I know what we've gotta do now, and it's only gonna work if we go home, calm down and take this one step at a time."
"Sandburg." He unpried Blair's arms and pushed him back a step. "Blair, I'm not the one who's hurt here."
Blair had to look away. He couldn't stand those eyes. Broken and dead. Hopeless. "When did it happen?" Jim asked. Then he said, "It was the night before last, wasn't it? When you told me I'd been sleepwalking. I didn't walk into any damn night table, did I? It was you. Trying to save your life."
He was shaking his head, sluggish as a lion hit by a tranquilizer dart. "Blair. And then you spent the rest of the night on the bed? What were you thinking?"
Jim took another step back, and suddenly his legs wouldn't hold him up anymore and he sat down hard on the sawdust-covered floor.
"Jim!" Blair was too late to catch him, but he knelt beside him, frantic, trying in vain to coax him back to his feet. "Please listen to me. Now you're going to get up, and we're going to drive home and—"
"Shut up, Sandburg," Jim said softly and without anger. He leaned back against the orange crates. "I know you did your best, but this has gotten away from both of us. It's my fault. I knew I was slipping. I knew I was dangerous. I just didn't want to believe it."
"Here, take my cell phone. Call Inglewood and get them to send an ambulance. Be sure and tell them I'm dangerous, liable to be violent. Then call Simon. He can meet me there and fill out the paperwork. There's no reason for you to go. I'm afraid it won't be very nice, Chief. Just go home. Finish that paper of yours."
Blair felt his face growing hot. His stomach rolled sickly. "No! Jim, no, absolutely not. You're not crazy, and there's no way in hell I'm going to let you commit yourself. Do you hear me? You are not crazy. And you're not dangerous, not to anyone else, least of all to me."
"I tried to kill you."
"Are you listening to me? That wasn't you! Listen, oh god, you've got to listen to me here. Jim, somewhere along the way, I'm not quite sure how yet, but it's like you've picked up a hitchhiker. A nasty, bad-tempered hitchhiker, and it keeps trying to grab the wheel. You've felt it, right? You know when it's happening, like in court today, or yesterday when you were driving home And both times you stopped it. You're just too tough for it. I know you won't let it take control."
"Blair," Jim interrupted, "There's no point in trying to protect my feelings anymore. Did you – did you know this was inevitable? You must have." He smiled, bleak and miserable. "You know, when my senses first came back, I thought I was going crazy – I guess I was right, wasn't I? Is this what always happens to Sentinels in the end?"
"What? Jim, no, you're not listening to me."
"Is that why you wouldn't tell me what was going on? No, it's all right, Sandburg, I guess it wouldn't have done any good if I had known. I know you've helped me hang on a lot longer than I could have otherwise, but the game's up now. Please call the hospital. I don't think I can do it myself."
"Dammit, Jim, you're not going to the psych ward because you're not crazy. What do I have to do to convince you?"
"All I have to do is look at you to know that's exactly where I belong. In a straitjacket. Sandburg, you lost your scientific objectivity a long time ago and it's come this close to getting you killed. It's not worth your life. It never was."
Blair closed his eyes and swallowed hard, hurting his throat, but of course that didn't matter now. Nothing else mattered. He had to find a way to get through to him.
He opened his eyes again.
"You have got to listen to me, Jim. You've got to pay attention, because this is important. I think the only way this thing can really get control is by putting you to sleep. A hard, hard sleep. Remember those nights you came home and fell asleep on the couch before you got to bed? It was putting you out so that it could take over. And even then it was a struggle, you must have been fighting hard, even in your sleep, because nothing happened the first night, and the second night it took hours before – before this." Blair touched his throat momentarily
"But then the next night we got you in the shower, right? Shook you out of that really deep sleep, so it didn't have the opportunity to gain control. You slept normal, nothing happened except some nightmares I think, and no wonder, man, I've been having nightmares myself."
"Shut up and listen to me, goddamn you!" Blair bellowed in his face. "Can you imagine what'll happen to you locked away in a psych ward? Nobody will care about those trance sleeps. Hell, they'll probably have you tranquilized anyway. And that'll make it stronger. And that means you'll become violent, so they'll pump you full of more medication, and that'll just make it even more powerful. And on and on, until you're so zonked on Thorazine you won't even know your own name. It'll love that. Jim, it'll swallow you whole."
Jim had pulled away, shutting his eyes, but he didn't interrupt.
"And it's even worse than that, 'cause straitjackets won't work. Restraints won't work. Things get strange around it, I know, man, I've been watching it every night since we got back from L.A. So what do you think will happen to you when they can't restrain you physically or chemically? Man, you won't last a month. You won't last a week. You don't think I'd risk my life to save you from that? But I'm not risking my life, I'm not risking anything, I'm being just as careful as I know how, because if anything happens to me, you are sunk and I'm not gonna leave you alone. Do you hear me? Oh, come on, Jim, do you understand what I'm telling you here?"
Jim opened his eyes. He shook his head, but the blank, hopeless determination that had so terrified Blair seemed to be fading. "Blair – for god's sake – do you know what this sounds like?"
"Oh yeah, man, believe me, I know."
Jim closed his eyes again. "How do you expect me to believe something like that?"
"Because you've touched it. You've felt it. It's here with us now, I'm sure of it. It's with you, Jim, tucked away somewhere, hiding, because you're wide awake and alert and it can't deal with that, but oh man it's here, and you know it, don't you?"
For a moment Blair thought he had lost him. Jim sat there, his knees drawn up, his head resting against the orange crates, the muscles in his jaw rolled into knots.
But then he said, "It's here," and his eyes flew open so suddenly that Blair flinched.
"Okay, Jim," he said softly, trying to keep his voice from shaking. "Okay. Don't look at it. Don't try to touch it. You're just going to stand up nice and easy, then we're going to buy these damn parsnips, go home and have a nice, quiet dinner."
He took Jim's arm and slowly stood. Jim let him help him to his feet, trembling so violently Blair kept one arm around his waist to support him.
"And after dinner, man, we're going to sit down on the sofa, have a beer, listen to some music, and then we're gonna send this thing straight back to hell."
"But just as man must honor the spirits, so the loa are dependent on man, for the human body is their receptacle."
Davis: 'The Serpent and The Rainbow' (1985)
"You want to cut up the leeks, man?"
Jim turned, and found Blair trying to hand him an eight-inch butcher knife.
He backed away fast. "For chrissakes, Sandburg, don't give me that."
And Blair looked as though he honestly didn't know what he was talking about. "What? Jim, what is it?"
All he could do was shake his head. Blair was apparently bound and determined to pretend that this was just a normal, quiet, everyday sort of evening at home, but Jim didn't know how much longer he could keep up his end of the act.
(Sure, Chief. Here we are just relaxing at home on a Thursday night. Just you and me and baby makes three.)
His insides felt fragile as glass, as though he'd been violently ill for a long, long time, and was just now groping his way back to health.
Except he wasn't, of course. He was gripping the ledge with his fingernails, afraid that one stray thought, one incautious action would send him screaming over the edge.
He was aware of the shadow constantly now, and couldn't understand how he could have been blind for so long. All right, yeah, he'd know something was wrong, but until Sandburg laid it out for him, he'd somehow, incredibly, managed to ignore his passenger here.
Don't think about it. Blair said not to think about it.
It wasn't easy though. Hard to ignore something hot as dry ice. Something so dark and mindless and strong. Especially when it was wrapping orangutan arms around the secret places of your soul.
This just wasn't possible. It was not possible It was not possible—
He started violently. Blair was right in front of him. Thank god he'd put down the knife.
"Jim, it's okay. It's okay. You're doing great. Just hang on now."
"I can't," he whispered. "Blair, you've got to help me. I can't do this."
"Yes you can! You've got it on the run already. That's why you're so uncomfortable, man. 'Cause it's desperate. Not bothering to hide anymore. It was strongest when you were oblivious, and now that you know it's there, it doesn't have a chance. You're not sleepy, are you?"
"No. Anything but."
"See? That was its strongest weapon, and it doesn't work anymore. It's gonna be all right, man. Just a little while longer. Okay? You with me here?"
Jim took a deep breath, then nodded. "Just don't go handing me knives."
"Jim, you could take me apart with your bare hands just as easy as you could with a butcher knife."
Jim turned and walked away fast. He heard Blair scampering to catch up, and since there really wasn't anywhere to run, he turned around again and said, "I know, Chief. Believe me, I know. Listen, if you're determined to go through with this, if you're really sure this is the only way, let me get the cuffs. At least that would slow me – it – down. Handcuff me to the pipes here. Then if something went wrong—"
Blair was shaking his head stubbornly. "No. No way. You'd just end up hurting yourself. And it probably wouldn't protect me either. Like last night when I thought I was being so careful, taking every precaution, none of it did any good. I forgot to turn the alarm back on before I went to sleep, and before that, when the lights went out, I even lost the pepper spray. Now maybe all that was just me being stupid, but I don't think so. I told you before, it has some kind of effect on the physical world. Maybe just on the way you perceive it, but the bottom line is, things just aren't very stable when it's around. You can't count on them. So we've got to fight it on its own terms, otherwise it'll just chew us both up and still have room for dessert. You with me on this?"
Not really. He'd been distracted by Blair's mentioning that damn pepper spray. Dear God. So that's why he'd bought it.
He had a sudden, almost unendurable memory of Sandburg huddled on the sofa last night, poring over his notes and trying to protect himself from the forces of darkness and James Ellison himself with a $19.95 burglar alarm and canister of pepper spray.
Forgetting himself for a moment, he reached out and put both hands on the kid's shoulders.
Then he realized what he'd done, but Sandburg didn't flinch and didn't try to move away, like he should have done if he'd had an ounce of sense. He just looked up at him, earnest and concerned. "Yeah Jim, what is it?"
"What the hell's the matter with you? Why didn't you get your butt out of town when I tried to chew your throat out? Is this some kind of a death wish? You'd rather die than have to finish that stupid paper?"
Blair grinned. "Don't think it hasn't occurred to me. Now c'mon. You can at least peel the parsnips, okay? Unless you think a vegetable peeler's too risky for you, too."
He didn't resist when Blair grabbed a sleeve and cheerfully hauled him back to the kitchen, but dinner was the last thing on his mind. When Blair actually pushed the vegetable peeler and one of the long white carrot-things into his hands, though, he finally protested.
"Chief, I've gotta tell you, I don't really think I can eat a bite here. Can't we just skip this part and get right on to, you know—"
Blair had started cutting the leeks himself. "Easy for you to say. You didn't sleep through your lunch."
"What if you just run around the corner and pick up something from the bakery? It's just – Can't we just get it over with? One way or another? You don't know what this feels like. I don't know how much longer I can stand it."
"I know, man, I know." Blair glanced up at him, eyes big with sympathy, but he didn't stop cutting. Neat, precise, economical slices, rocking the blade back and forth. When Jim realized how closely he was watching, he looked away fast. Blair acted as though he hadn't noticed. "But I really think it's important that we do it this way. I wouldn't ask you otherwise."
"I don't understand. " He began peeling parsnips over the sink anyway. It felt safer somehow to turn his back to Blair while they were talking about it.
"I'm not sure I do either, but this is the way I look at it. Most cultures, they've got these careful rituals for dealing with something like this. A list of rules to follow, something to keep you going when everything rational has fallen apart. But you and me, man, a coupla products of Western Civilization at the end of the 20th Century, we've got zip. Just some horror movies and Stephen King novels. In our world view, something like your hitchhiker can't possibly exist and we've got nothing to fall back on. Except this. This right here."
Jim turned to see what he was talking about. Blair had put the knife down and was facing him as well, hands open, encompassing their surroundings.
"I don't get it."
"Just this!" Blair insisted, an intense smile on his face. "You know, life, man. Cooking dinner after a long day. The way you roll your eyes at me because I'm dragging you halfway across town to buy some vegetables you've never heard of anyone really eating outside a Peter Rabbit story. Being kind of tired and stressed out and thinking it would really be easier to order a pizza but putting up with it because sometimes it's just less trouble to do what I want instead of arguing about it. And like the way you'll shake your head at me when the casserole finally comes out of the oven as though you're making this big sacrifice by even agreeing to eat it, but then you'll have seconds anyway and do the dishes even though it's really my turn and having a beer afterwards and watching the game and—"
Suddenly Blair sounded as though he were on the verge of tears. He turned away fast, and went back to chopping leeks. The sweet onion smell was strong in the kitchen. "Anyway, man," he went on, his voice just a little muffled, "I just think we need that kind of grounding, that kind of ritual before we really step out into the twilight zone, you know? So if you can bear with me, just for a little while, I really think this is the way to go."
Because strangely enough, it seemed to make more sense than anything Blair had said all afternoon.
He concentrated on peeling parsnips.
The long white curls of skin piled up in the sink next to the disposal. He focused on the slightly earthy smell of the vegetables, the crisp texture, the sound the peeler made as it hooked a thin flap of ridged white skin. When he'd finished peeling the first one, he realized he was a little hungry after all, and took a bite. Pretty good. Sweeter than a carrot. A little bit milder.
He started peeling the next one, concentrating hard. "What is it?"
Give the professor credit. He knew Jim wasn't talking about parsnips. There was a short silence, then Blair said quietly, "It doesn't work that way."
Riddles? Did Sandburg think he was in the mood for riddles?
The parsnip broke in two under the pressure of the peeler.
"I mean, you define it by what it does, its consequences. I don't think it has any other kind of existence."
"That's no answer, Sandburg."
"I know. I'm sorry. But it's the only thing that makes sense. You almost can't find a culture that doesn't believe in possession in some form, I don't care what part of the world you're in, how far back in time you go. But there's no proof. Nothing you could take into the lab. And see, Jim, some cultures do a better job of dealing with it than others. That's what threw me off at first. Since what was happening to you was so bad, so scary, I didn't look for positive experiences, but there's lots of them! I should have known better, but I was just too scared to think straight. Man, if this had happened in Cairo or Port-au-Prince, it would have been a totally different deal. People would have recognized right off what was happening to you, known what was going on, and this is what I think's important, they could have given it a name. And that's the difference. That's why vodoun, say or some Islamic sects actually see possession as a good thing – because when you name something, you can control it. And they know the names. That's why Catholic exorcisms take so long! Why they're so messy, and don't work half the time. Their exorcism rite lists all these minor demons, and you just read through it again and again, hoping you hit the right one. But if you're in Haiti and the loa is on you, man, everybody around you can just take one look at you and say, hey, it's Ogoun or it's Papa Legba. The possessing spirit wears you out dancing, gets fed a lot of good food, and then goes on its merry way."
Jim could hardly follow that mad rush of words. He wasn't sure he really wanted to. But one thing stood out. He was peeling the broken end of the parsnip with grim determination now, sharpening it like a pencil. "You propose to name it. Something that has no existence. You think you can give it a name, and then you can control it."
"Not me, man, you. You're the one who can see it. You saw it in the first place. I think that's why it latched on to you. I'm pretty sure it must have happened while we were in Los Angeles. Somewhere or other those Sentinel eyes of yours saw it. And because you saw it – it saw you. Does that make sense?"
"Not really, Sandburg."
"Okay, I'm not totally sure it makes sense to me either, not when I try to explain it like this."
This was insanity. Sandburg didn't know what the hell he was talking about. Just grasping at straws, hoping if he threw enough big words out there, Jim would believe anything he said. Well, not this time. Enough was enough. What would it take to shut him up? Jim wouldn't even have to turn around. Reach back, grab one of his arms. He could see Sandburg's right arm trapped between his elbow and ribcage, the bruised wrist held tight, the way you'd hang onto a struggling cat. He could feel Blair beating on his back frantically with his free hand, feel him kicking, and he was screaming now, but that was okay, anything was better than words. Jim used the vegetable peeler to flay the skin from his arm one strip at time.
"Jim? You still with me, man?"
Blood and flesh were splashed all over the sink. Jim stared, mute with horror.
Blair touched his shoulder, and it swam out of focus, became damp strips of peeled parsnips.
With a groan, Jim bent forward over the sink and was violently, helplessly ill.
"The badi is not a demon, it is something more impersonal … it might almost be described as a fluid essence, a power of obsession … it is the badi that gleams in the rays of the setting sun, in the heavy hour of fear. But an attempt to define it destroys the intuition of what it is."
Fauconnier: 'The Soul Of Malaya' (1930)
So dinner wasn't quite like Blair had imagined it. He steamed some vegetables for himself and coaxed Jim into eating a little pita bread, feeling kind of bad they hadn't gone to an ordinary grocery store so he could have made some plain toast for him.
Jim sat across the table from him, tense, white-faced, and silent, and it was the silence that was hardest for Blair to take. He didn't care for it under the best of circumstances.
"You really ought to try to eat something," he told Jim at last.
Jim dutifully tore another shred from the flat white loaf. He looked like he was chewing sawdust.
"Would you like me to heat that up in the mike for you?"
Jim shook his head.
"Sure you don't want any vegetables? They're really good. I could grate some cheese over them for you."
"Sandburg." He raised one hand in weary dismissal.
Okay, okay, enough with dinner already. At least they were sitting down at the table together, refusing to be hurried into anything, carrying on in the face of madness.
"You know, Jim, horrible as it was – what you thought you did with the vegetable peeler—"
Jim drew back, his expression daring, daring Blair to go on. Blair just looked away and kept talking, fast. "No, listen to me, Jim, I think this is important. If it's hitting you with such over-the-top violence while you're wide awake, it must be getting desperate. Knows its time is up. Right? You hearing me, man?"
Jim finally nodded, but it wasn't much of a reassurance.
They tried to wash the dishes after that grim dinner, Jim standing beside Blair at the sink, dishtowel in hand. But the first glass Blair handed him slipped right through his nerveless fingers and smashed on the kitchen floor. Jim just backed away silently, and Blair knew he was afraid to touch any of the shards of broken glass.
Afraid of what he might do with them.
Blair could have wept. Instead, he swept up the glass, and after he'd dumped it in the trash, he turned around and found Jim sitting on the couch, as bolt upright as if he were in a church pew.
He asked Blair quietly, "Why does it hate you so much?"
"I don't think it does, man." Blair kept his voice just as quiet. He came and sat down across from Jim, keeping a little distance because it made Jim nervous when he got too close.
A flash of anger swept over Jim's face, quickly suppressed. "Maybe I'm not making myself clear, Sandburg. The things I see myself doing – the way your neck is torn up – I'm just not finding much evidence of good will here, you understand me?"
"No, Jim, I do, I do. But it's not human. It's not even alive. So it can't hate. It's not any more capable of that kind of purpose than water running downstream has purpose. But, I dunno, I'm like a big old boulder somebody dumped in the stream trying to dam it up, and the water keeps smashing against it, not because it hates the boulder, but just because it's … in the way."
"And you're in the way?" Both eyebrows rose, a flash of the old Jim.
"Yeah. I think it must be, well, comfortable or something with you, and it doesn't wanna leave. Just wants to keep running downstream. But I'm here, and it recognizes me as the boulder. It knows I'm gonna help you get rid of it, dam the stream, whatever! See, so we're on the right track, man. We're gonna work our way through this, and—"
Jim leaned back, arching his back a little, both hands over his face as though he had a killer headache. He probably did. "Sandburg, these little word pictures are starting to sound like so much snake oil to me."
"I guess I'd like a little more reassurance that I'm not going to wake up in the morning and find pieces of you scattered all over the loft."
Blair got up, walked over and sat on the coffee table, close enough for his knees to touch Jim's. Jim flinched back, then his face got stony and he tried to get up. "No, man." Blair put a hand on Jim's arm. "No. You've gotta trust yourself as much as I do or we're never going to get through this."
"Sandburg—" Jim began irritably. He seemed to hear himself and he stopped, swallowing hard. "Blair." He reached forward and touched Blair's throat. Blair held absolutely still, hardly daring to breathe. "How can you say that, Chief? When you know I'm capable of this?" His hand dropped.
"Then trust me, if you can't trust yourself."
Jim stared at him, and there was no forbearance in that gaze. No sympathy. No mercy.
That was all right. Even though the intensity of that look made Blair tremble inside, it was all right. There was no place for anything less right now. Not when Blair was asking so much of him.
But at last, Jim must have found what he was looking for. He settled back on the sofa. "What do you want me to do?"
Blair started breathing again.
"Okay. Right. First thing, we need to find it. Figure out where you first saw it. I think it must have been in L.A., right? Don't you think so?"
"You wanna start with the conference? You were in a room with a bunch of people who've been all over the world, and I don't know, maybe one of them was carrying it like a mutated strain of influenza or something. You would have been relaxed, kind of open-minded, probably a little bored, especially if you were trying to follow that paper I was reading—"
Jim smiled faintly.
"And that might have made you extra susceptible to it. So what I want you to do is just close your eyes and relax, and we're gonna go back there in your mind. Okay? So go ahead, close your eyes, and try to remember one thing from the conference. Just one little detail, something small, something to focus on and keep you steady."
"Like what?" Jim asked, eyes dutifully closed.
"I don't know, man. Anything. The chair back in front of you, anything. Just keep it small."
"Your right shoe was untied. I saw it when you walked up to the podium. I was afraid you were going to trip and knock yourself out on the speaker's table."
Blair grinned. "Okay, good. That's good. Keep thinking about my shoelace, and start looking around, adding more impressions, one at a time."
"I don't think this is working." Jim frowned. "I can't separate what I really saw from the dream I had last night."
"Then you're moving too fast. Slow it down. One detail at a time. Look at your own shoelaces. You didn't see them in the dream, did you?"
Jim didn't exactly smile, but for a moment the laugh lines appeared around his closed eyes. "No. I don't think so. Okay. I'm looking at my shoelaces. Now what, Chief?"
Moving slowly as he could, careful, careful, careful, he raised his head and looked at Sandburg, standing so seriously there behind the podium, and tried to suppress his smile. Didn't want the kid to think he was laughing at him. Because he wasn't, not at all. Just so proud and pleased that he couldn't help grinning a little.
After reading the first paragraph or so of his paper, Blair didn't even look back at his notes. He simply proceeded to build that elegant castle in the air one stone at a time. Jim thought he could catch some dim notion of its clean, irrefutable lines, but it was obvious to him that Blair's colleagues here were seeing it plain. Except for one hunched and fidgeting old man on the third row, Sandburg had them rapt.
Even if Jim didn't know exactly what he was talking about, it was still a helluva show.
Then he remembered, regretfully, that he was here on an errand. And not a very pleasant one at that. He looked around the room without moving his head, slowly allowing himself to recover the memories. All the important and inconsequential effluvia of human existence. The rising carbon dioxide level. The smell of waste products from bacteria multiplying on human flesh. The larding of perfumes that couldn't mask inescapable biological processes. Someone nearby was very sick. Intestinal cancer, Jim thought. And that lovely woman in the expensive suit one row up and over had rotten teeth. Must suffer some kind of phobia about dentists, a mouth that reeked like that under a gilding of mouthwash and toothpaste. The woman beside her was pregnant. Recently, almost certainly. She might not even know herself yet.
But no trace of what Sandburg had sent him to look for. At the window, perhaps? That was where it had been in his dream, wasn't it?
For that, he would have to use his eyes. He would have to turn his head and look.
The thought of it made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, but he took a deep, calming breath, focused on the comforting drone of Sandburg's voice – it seemed to be coming from more than one place, from the front of the room but it was also here in his head, reassuring him, telling him that it was going to be all right.
He believed that voice. He turned his head and looked.
Nothing. The window was empty save for blue sky.
Jim collapsed back into the chair, shaking a little with relief, but concerned, too. How he was ever going to deal with this thing when he finally found it? He rubbed his eyes, and then realized, a split second later, that he hadn't been touching his own face.
Blair was distracted by a sudden brightness and took his attention off Jim for the briefest moment to look.
It was the rice paper lamp on the table by the front door, glowing cheerfully in the gloom of a rainy November night.
Only problem was, he could have sworn it hadn't been on a moment ago.
Oh no. Was it starting so soon, or was he just getting paranoid?
Jim shifted a little on the couch, and Blair immediately turned back to him. His eyes were still closed, but something had changed. He seemed a little more relaxed. No, a lot more relaxed. His head was resting heavily on the back of the sofa. He didn't seem to have a bone in his body.
Blair felt his skin prickle with sudden heat. "Jim!"
He reached forward and touched his shoulder. Jim's hand came up, lazy and slow, patted the back of Blair's hand, and then darted forward and gouged his face with Jim's smooth, short nails.
Blair leaped backwards with a yelp. The back of his knees hit the coffee table and he sat down hard. Frantic, he scooted crabwise across the smooth surface, swung his legs around and stood up, keeping the table between himself and Jim.
Jim just lay there. His eyes were heavy lidded, not quite closed, his hands lying empty and open at his sides.
Blair touched his own face gingerly, shuddering at what he found. This is getting really old, man, he thought, trying to push back hysteria.
(Okay. It's okay. Just calm down. If he'd meant to kill you you'd be dead already.)
Boy, that was a comforting thought.
"Jim?" he whispered. "Jim?"
Oh god. What now? He had to rouse him out of this. He couldn't let him sink any deeper.
The light bulb in the rice paper lamp exploded with a soft crack and Blair started as though he'd been shot. All at once he lost his temper and shouted, "Goddamn you! Who the hell do you think you are?"
Jim's eyes opened. "I know who you are, Chief."
"That is you standing there with your knees knocking together, isn't it, Sandburg?" A grin spread across Jim's face. "Naomi's pretty little bastard?"
"Shut up," Blair whispered. "Get out."
The grin grew broader. Showed teeth. Said, "Make me."
"Got my mojo working."
Blair had abandoned him.
He didn't want to believe it. He almost couldn't believe it, but it was true all the same. The figure behind the podium wasn't Blair anymore, just a flat, silent memory. He was no longer speaking in Jim's head. He wasn't anywhere. He'd gone and left Jim alone here.
"Damn you, Sandburg," he whispered, but it was just fear that made him say that, he knew that even as he breathed the curse. "Aw come on, Chief," he said even more quietly, and maybe not out loud at all. "Don't do this to me. Please."
Nothing. Just the shadowy third taking the opportunity to nuzzle a little bit closer – but it wasn't the third anymore, was it? Blair was gone. This was his other half now.
Well, this is working great so far, isn't it, Sandburg? Just like you planned it. Good thing Jim put so much trust in you. Yep, Jim knew you wouldn't let him down and hey, Jim, wherever you are now, I am really, really sorry, man. Oh God I'm sorry Jim—
He didn't stop backing up until he hit the wall. Jim's body just sat there on the couch, head lolling back, that appalling grin on his face, eyes on the ceiling. Blair knew those eyes could see him just the same.
"Hey, buddy, what's goin' on?" It was the voice Jim had used to reach him when he'd been out of his mind on Golden. "Come over here a minute, will you? I got something to show you."
"Go to hell," Blair whispered.
"Chief." The voice was sorrowing, hurt. "All I've done for you, and this is the way you pay me back?"
"Not you, man. All you've ever done is hurt Jim and me both. Now get out." Blair tried again, shouting a little. "Get out! We don't want you here. Jim doesn't want you here. Get out before he throws you out."
"You ungrateful pup. You filthy, mewling whelp."
Jim's voice went on and on, growling obscenities, and Blair began to recover a little of his equilibrium. He had to think. He couldn't lose it now. This was monstrous, unspeakable—
— but heaven help them both, it could be worse.
That thing had Jim's voice. It had some motor control, but just a smidgeon. It couldn't even get up and walk across the room.
Okay, so it had moved in and assumed what control it could while Jim was distracted – stupid not to have anticipated that, wasn't it? – but it was weak. Limited. All Blair had to do was keep out of reach. And figure out a way to call Jim back.
And do it fast, because the damn thing was quick.
"Hey, Sandburg. You listening to me, buddy?"
"No. Why would I listen to you? You're not saying anything I want to hear. You wanna tell me who you are? Then I might listen to you." His voice was cracking just a little, but that was okay. Blair was amazed he could talk to it at all.
"That's a heck of a thing to ask me. The guy who took you in off the street. Let you make him Exhibit A in your little dissertation. Puts up with your constant prodding and prying and the way you lay those dirty hands of yours on every secret I ever had."
"And do you have any idea what it's like to come home and find your smell, your … filth … smeared all over everything? You think I don't know when you've had a swig of orange juice straight out of the carton? When you've used my razor? I hate that, Chief. I really do."
"I said shut up, you evil bastard."
"Hey, buddy." Suddenly the voice was all concern, calm and reassuring. Jim's body hadn't moved.His eyes were still turned towards the ceiling. "Hey, take it easy. Tell you what. C'mere and I'll tell you what you want to know. Is it a deal?"
"No way, man. No deals. Not with you."
"Sure you don't want to reconsider?"
"Never. Now get out." Blair wrapped his arms around his shoulders in a vain attempt to stop shaking so hard. He knew that wasn't Jim talking to him. He knew that. But he felt the sting of tears running across his scratched cheek nevertheless.
"Two steps, Sandburg. Just two steps this way and I'll tell you a secret."
"I'm not making any deals with you. Give it up."
"Jim's loss, I guess," said Jim's cold, flat voice. One hand came up and dragged four vicious stripes down the side of Jim's face.
"No!" Blair ran, but he was too late to prevent it. "Damn you!" He stopped just on the other side of the coffee table. Hard to speak through the sobs, but he got his words out anyway. "Leave him alone. You don't want to hurt Jim. There's no point in it. You're just hurting yourself – please—" His voice broke. He'd completely lost control of this. He'd never had control in the first place. Stupid kid playing with fire and he was going to get himself killed in the process and Jim—
(Jim was counting on you)
(You told Jim he could trust you)
(Jim, I'm sorry.)
"Hey, kid, calm down. It's all right. See? I'll even keep my side of the bargain. You wanna know who I am? Where I come from? I don't mind telling you that."
Blair didn't say anything, breathing hard, watching blood bead in welts across Jim's face.
"You think you can ride roughshod over other people and not pay the price? You think because you're such a boy wonder you don't have to notice the other folks on the planet? C'mon, Blair. You ruined an old man's career. And for what? Just to make Jim proud of you? Well, it backfired. I've got Jim now, and it's all your fault. Someone like Mooney still has a few tricks up his sleeve."
(Mooney? What the hell was this?)
"You expect me to believe that Professor Mooney has something to do with it?"
Jim's hand was extended lazily. "Come here. I'll tell you the rest."
"I can't do that, man. Not yet." Blair's head was reeling. He'd been so certain, so sure. He'd worked so hard to construct a little theory that didn't contradict too fundamentally Blair's laws of the rational universe – and now this? Madness.
And the sickening realization that he'd been too damn clever for his own good, and that Jim was the one who would pay the price.
"That wasn't a request, Sandburg." He lifted a curled fist, slowly, wearily, then extended his thumb like the Emperor Nero giving an unexpected thumbs up. "Or do you really want to find out how well Jim's other senses can compensate?" The thumb tilted back towards Jim's right eye.
"No!" Blair held up both hands in frantic surrender. "Please, no. Take it easy. I'll do anything you want. Just don't hurt him. Hey, c'mon. If you're going to be sharing that body with Jim for the foreseeable future, you'd like it to be reasonably intact, right? So just tell me what to do. Whatever you want. I'll do it, man, I'm listening to you."
"Sandburg." Jim's head rolled wearily from side to side. "Don't you ever shut up? Come here. I told you that before. Sit down here beside me."
Blair walked around the coffee table and sat down. He didn't even try sitting on the furthest end. It wouldn't have done any good.
One of those lazy, long arms reached out. Gripped his shoulder. Just a little too tight. Just a little.
Blair stared straight ahead.
The hand trailed up his neck, caressed his face. He became aware of a strange sound coming from somewhere in the loft – from the kitchen. It sounded like all the plates were rattling in the cabinets.
And it was impossibly cold. As though the temperature had dropped thirty degrees in the last five seconds.
There was a smell too. Not entirely unpleasant, but wholly out of place. The smell of decay, like deep woods during the first spring thaw. Rotten wood, decomposing leaves, fleshless little bodies huddled in dark places that hadn't been deep enough or dark enough to provide shelter from the long cold winter.
"What's the matter, Chief? Cat got your tongue?"
The fingers were in his hair now. And a distant, entirely detached part of his mind was remembering his dream of Mooney his first night home. How strange this was. He had never even considered the possibility that seeing that embittered little old man in a nightmare was anything more than his mind's attempt to put a face on a faceless horror.
Never even considered such a simple story.
Would it have made a difference if he had? Maybe if he had hunted up Mooney right at the start, confronted him with it—
The fingers in his hair suddenly clenched into a fist, then pulled hard.
He didn't really mean to fight back, but he jerked away just the same, crying out, and Jim's limp body came with him, tumbling them both off the couch and onto the floor. Now Jim's face was inches from his own, hand still tangled in his hair, his dead weight holding him down, those horrible eyes half-closed, his teeth bared. His breath smelled like stagnant pond.
And suddenly Blair had a funny little thought.
You know, much as he had derided Catholic exorcisms, there was one thing they had probably gotten right about the nature of possessing spirits.
Demons lie. Big time.
He looked into those eyes and said, "You don't have a damn thing to do with Professor Mooney, do you? You're just trying to keep me from figuring out your story."
And Blair screamed through that open window, "Jim! Jim!"
A shudder ran through the body laid so heavily over his own, and then Jim's lost, terrified eyes looked down at him.
"It's okay," Blair whispered, so relieved he could hardly speak. "Jim, it's me."
"Jim!" He managed to work one hand free and pushed at Jim's shoulder "Answer me."
A low moan was the only response.
"Dammit, Jim!" Blair did the only thing he could think of. He pinched Jim's ear, hard.
He flinched, then blinked. "Blair?"
Oh, thank god. "Yeah, Jim, it's me."
"Blair," he whispered again, sounding astonished. "Is that you?"
"Yeah, Jim, it's me, it's me." It was getting a little hard to breathe. Jim was no lightweight. "You think maybe you could—"
A stark, frantic joy suddenly blazed across his face. "Chief!" He grabbed Blair's head with both hands and kissed his forehead with a resounding smack.
Blair giggled, muffled a little by Jim's weight "S'okay, Jim. It's me already."
Jim nodded twice, swallowing convulsively. Then he buried his head hard against Blair's shoulder.
Blair reached up and patted his back. He could feel Jim's heart thundering and could only imagine what his sounded like to Jim.
"It's not over yet, is it?"
He'd never heard Jim sound like that before.
He let one hand rest on the back of Jim's head, wishing to god he could lie, or better yet, that his words really could make it all go away.
No such luck.
"Sorry, man," he whispered. "I'm afraid we're not even started good."
"The Archbishop authorized Father Hughes to begin the exorcism. Father Hughes understood that this should be done by a very holy man because the devil is wont to expose the sins of the priest; so the Father went to Baltimore and made a general confession."
Father William C. Reppetti: unpublished notes (1950), quoted by Allen (1993)
He didn't want to let go of Blair. He got up and pulled Blair to his feet, but he just couldn't bring himself to release the grip he still had on Blair's upper arm. Blair was apologizing for something over and over again, but Jim had no real idea what he was talking about. He was just so relieved that Blair was right here. He could feel the warmth of his arm through the sleeve, he could hear the sound of his voice, talking on and on and on just like always, he could smell his sweat, the parsnips and onions on his breath, the dishwashing soap on his hands, hear his heartbeat, feel his pulse.
Blair's free hand came up and grabbed the front of his shirt, tugged insistently. "Come on, man, stay with me here."
He managed to nod. That ought to satisfy Blair for the moment. He still couldn't bring himself to let go.
"Can you tell me what happened?"
No. He didn't think he could do that.
"Aw, Jim, are you even listening to me? I don't think we've got much time. Jim, please."
Blair covered Jim's hand with his own, gently pried up his fingers one by one and freed his arm. Jim let him do it, but he didn't help. He couldn't. Breaking that contact was too painful.
"Oh man, you're shaking like a leaf. Here. Siddown a minute. I'll get you a drink of water."
Blair's hands pressed down on his shoulders. Jim sat.
Blair walked away to the kitchen. Jim turned his head to watch him go, thinking, don't do this to me, Sandburg. Don't leave me again.
There was something in his hand. Binding but very fine. He looked down muzzily. It was hair, of all things. Long and tangled, wrapped around his fingers, several dozen strands at least with the follicles intact. There was a little blood too. Not surprising, that much hair yanked out by the roots.
He got to his feet. Blair had made it as far as the kitchen table, and he was sitting there with his head in his hands.
He was making a terrible sound. All the worse because he was trying so hard muffle it. Foolish of him. Pointless.
Maybe he thought Jim was too distracted to notice.
Well, he was close to being right on that count, wasn't he?
Come on, Ellison. Pull yourself together. Concentrate on the here and now.
And right now you're going to walk over there and help Sandburg pull himself together too.
Brave talk. But he didn't move a step.
(What the hell is the matter with you?)
Well, yeah, exactly. And who would have suspected? No fire and brimstone. No pitchforks. Just a silent room full of anthropologists.
Jim was shaking so hard by now he knew that if he didn't move he would collapse, so he walked fast and fell into a chair across from Blair at the table.
Blair raised his head in the middle of one of those hard, dry sobs and looked at him, trying to swallow back the next one.
"Sorry, Jim. I'm okay." Every word came out between noisy gasps. "Just a stress reaction. It's just physiological. I'll be okay in a minute. Lemme get you that drink of water—"
He pushed away from the table and started to get up. Jim stopped him.
"What happened to your face?" Jim looked down at his own hand. Hair still wrapped around his knuckles. Flesh under his fingernails.
"Jim, I'm sorry. It was my fault. I wasn't ready. I'm so sorry."
"It was here."
"Yeah. While you were distracted, trying to remember the conference. Jim, I'm sorry. I should have anticipated something like this. I just wasn't thinking." His voice was rising. "I could have gotten you killed."
"Sandburg, I'm not the one with—"
"You haven't looked in a mirror yet, have you?"
He suddenly realized that the right side of his face was burning. He reached up and felt cautiously of his scratched cheek.
"Blair, maybe you need to tell me exactly what happened."
"Nothing happened. I mean, yeah, it was here, but it was weak. It couldn't do anything but call me names, really. And when that didn't work anymore it – it threatened to hurt you. It did hurt you. Jim, I'm so sorry."
Blair ducked his head, making a visible effort to gain control. When he looked up again he had even managed a thin, grim smile. "But the good news is, we're finally making progress. I'm sure we are. So I need to know what you remembered about the conference. Please, I know it's bad, but I've got to know. What did you remember? Did it get its hooks into you there?"
"No." He swallowed. Tried again and managed a more normal tone of voice. "No, it was already with me by then."
"I knew it. Aw, man, I knew it!" Blair jumped to his feet and began pacing with restless energy. "This is great. Don't you see? We've got it on the run now. This narrows it way down – oh god, Jim, that Tibetan sign exhibit. Do you think that was it?"
He looked at him earnestly, as though expecting an answer.
Jim spread his hands helplessly. "I don't know."
"Right, I know. So we'll just have to go back there in your memories and see if—"
"Wait a minute." He forced himself to meet those eyes that expected so much from him. "Chief, I don't know if I can do that or not."
"Jim." He pulled a chair around the table and sat down close beside him. "I know, man. I mean, I can't know, not really, and I swear I wouldn't ask you if there were any other way. But you've got to find it before it latched onto you. See what it is. Figure out its story. Name it."
"I don't think I can do that."
Heartrending to see the way the kid's face fell. But he had to know the truth. Blair had to know that he didn't have the courage to face it again.
"Is it because of me?" Blair asked. "You don't trust me anymore?"
"No, Chief, that's not why."
"It's okay, man. I understand. I wouldn't want to have to trust me either." He was rocking in the chair a little, refusing to meet Jim's eyes now. "But I don't know what else to do, man. I don't. Ah, Jim, I'm really useless, aren't I? I do nothing but annoy the hell out of you, and then when you really need me—"
"Blair." Jim reached out, caught his head gently with both hands. Tears swam up in Blair's eyes under the close scrutiny, but none fell. "You've known for more than two days now that I could turn on you at any minute. And I have. I've hurt you again and again. But you never backed off. Hell, Sandburg, you didn't even let me know what was going on. You tried to handle it all by yourself because you were afraid I couldn't cope with the truth. And you were right. I'm not having a real easy time here. In fact, I'm scared to death."
Blair swallowed hard. But for once in his life he didn't say a word. Jim dropped his hands.
"But it doesn't mean I don't trust you. I've trusted you with my life for a long time now. Now I'm trusting you with my soul. What I'm telling you is that I can't handle being alone with this thing. It's too strong. It's too close to me." Jim felt his hands clenching into fists. "I'm sorry, Blair. I'm not like you. I can't bend my mind around something that I know is simply not possible. Heaven help me, a part of me still doesn't believe any of this."
"But, Jim—" he protested.
"I know. I have to believe it, but I can't face it alone. I'm telling you this because you need to know the truth. You've got to know that if any of your plans involve me taking on that thing by myself, then they probably won't work. I'm sorry, Chief. That's just the way it is. You're gonna have to find another way for me."
"Jim," he said again. "Jim, you're not going to be alone, I swear." He took a deep breath. "This time I'll stick closer. I'll make sure you're with me the whole time. I'll make sure that I'm with you."
"I don't know. No, I do, like this. This should do it." He took Jim's hand and held it to the side of his neck. "We'll use my pulse. You'll make sure that you can feel it whatever happens. Okay? You with me on this?"
Sweet Jesus, he thought, looking into Blair's earnest blue eyes, feeling blood surge through the carotid artery. He's just making it up as he goes along.
"All right, Chief. Whatever you say." He tried to recover his hand, but Blair hung on tighter.
"Close your eyes, Jim. Concentrate on my pulse first of all, and then start thinking about the gallery—"
"No, not yet. We both need time to catch our breath first."
"Believe me, it has to be now. We've already wasted too much time because I was stupid, got my damn feelings hurt—"
And Jim belatedly realized that something more was going on.
"What did you mean, Sandburg, when you said it called you names?"
"Just that, man, Talking trash, trying to keep me off balance. It doesn't matter. I don't even remember, hardly."
"It was using my voice. I want to know what came out of my own mouth. I think I have a right to know."
"I'm telling you, it doesn't matter. Now c'mon, we don't have time for this now."
"I don't know a damn thing about exorcisms, if that's really what you think we're doing here. But I do know that if there's something bothering you, something that you won't tell me about, then I can't see how that can be good. Not right now. Not when you're asking me to trust you with everything."
He pulled his hand away from Blair's neck and sat back. "First things first, Sandburg."
"But this is so stupid, man."
Jim crossed his arms over his chest with a confidence he was far from feeling.
"All right, all right, goddammit," Blair said furiously. "Look, I'm sorry about the times I used your razor."
"I'm sorry about drinking orange juice straight out of the carton too. I don't think I've done that in months, but maybe I forget sometimes, I don't know."
Suddenly the tears he'd held back for so long were running down his face while Jim watched in helpless amazement. Over orange juice? His razor?
"Chief, this is ridiculous."
"I'm sorry about moving in on your life! I'm sorry I've tainted everything for you. I never realized – I should have, I know – but I really just never thought about what it must be like for you. Never to be able to get away from me."
"Stop it, Sandburg. Just knock it off right now. I don't know exactly what that thing said to you, but I can guess, and you're not being fair to either one of us. So it foraged around in my head, pulled together things I may have thought when I was tired or frustrated or had a bad day at work. But that's not me, Blair. You should know that by now. If I didn't want you here I would have kicked you out a helluva long time ago."
Blair nodded unsteadily. Jim didn't know whether to hug the stupid kid or smack him one. Here they were poised for battle with a foe that contravened everything Jim believed about the rational universe, and Blair was fretting about the house rules.
"Sandburg, it's messing with your mind because nothing else worked. It's used my strength, my god, even my teeth and fingernails against you, and when none of that made an impression, it used the ugliest corners of my mind. But I can't believe you're going to let it get away with such a cheap trick. Not after all this."
"I'm sorry," Blair said in a tiny voice. He wiped his eyes with his sleeve, then looked steadily into Jim's face. "You're right. I'm sorry."
"All right, then," Jim's voice sounded a little gruffer than usual in his own ears. He reached up and laid his palm on the side of Blair's neck. His own hand looked very white and clean against the mottled bruises there. "Are you ready?"
"I am if you are, man."
Jim closed his eyes. Then, hearing something, opened them again before Blair had said a word. "What is that?"
"What do you – oh." He saw Blair's eyes widen, and he turned to see what he was looking at.
He got up fast. This was not possible. Then he said it out loud. "Sandburg, this is not possible."
The leaves of the big sentry palm between the window and bookshelves were whipping back and forth as though caught in a gale wind. But there was no wind. A book lay open on the shelves not a foot away, and not a page was stirring. "Sandburg, that cannot be happening."
Blair had gotten up too. "Just don't look at it, man. That's the best thing. Just ignore it. Now come on. We've got work to do. We can't screw around here anymore. It's getting stronger all the time – Jim! Are you listening to me?"
A sudden, sharp crack rang out, and the terra cotta pot shattered. Dirt spilled across the floor in a wide arc, and the palm toppled slowly sideways. Jim couldn't tear his eyes away from the sight. A few of the longest fronds hit the back of a chair on the way down.
"Dammit, Jim! We've got to do it now!" Blair grabbed his shirt sleeves and dragged him around. He laid Jim's hand on his throat and instantly the rhythm of his pulse filled Jim's head, steadying him, holding the madness at bay.
"Are you ready?"
Jim managed to nod, and standing there by the kitchen table, Blair told him to close his eyes, and asked him to remember.
It was seventy-five degrees in Los Angeles and sunny. Jim and Blair were standing on the sidewalk on the south side of Melrose. A sign over a door tucked between a leather shop and an alternative bookstore read "La Luz." An arrow in the shape of a staircase pointed upwards.
"This is it," Blair said. "I hope you're happy, man. Mooney's gonna skin me alive tomorrow."
Jim just laughed and cuffed the back of his head, distracted by something. There was something strange here, something just the tiniest bit off. The sun was high in the sky, a flat, shining disk through the mid-afternoon haze. It was hot standing here on the sidewalk.
He glanced skyward and realized what had caught his attention. The sun was pulsing. Contracting and expanding in a calm, steady rhythm. Just like a heartbeat.
It was a heartbeat, he realized a moment later.
He pushed open the gallery's street door, and with his other hand on Blair's back, gently herded him up the stairs.
"The little details have a theme, or a pattern. The abracadabra spells into real words."
Sitwell: 'Poltergeists: An Introduction And Examination Followed By Chosen Instances' (1959)
The broken fronds on the fallen palm were still trembling when something began to pound on the front door.
Thankfully, Jim didn't seem to hear it. With his hand warm on the side of Blair's throat, he was describing the steep wooden staircase that led up to the gallery. How hot and dry and airless it was once the street level door closed behind them. The walls such startling shades of red and green. The steps had once been painted black, but passing footsteps had worn through the first layer to the brick red paint below. The place smelled of sandalwood, clove cigarettes, plaster, mouse droppings and dry rot.
On a high shelf above the first landing were a pair of three-foot wooden skeletons dressed like a bride and groom.
"They're for el Dia de los Muertos." Blair said, repeating words he'd spoken six days ago. "Makes Halloween seem a little anemic, huh? And you should see the little sugar skulls for the kids – can you still feel my pulse, Jim?"
"I can feel it." Jim said calmly. "I'm holding the railing, and I can feel it beating through the wood and paint."
"Weird." Blair had to grin at that. "Okay, though, that's great, just make sure it's with you all the time. You're doing great, Jim."
Another rain of blows fell across the front door. It sounded as though an angry giant were trying to beat his way into the loft.
(Getting desperate, aren't you? Well, guess what, man? That's just too damn bad. Me and Jim have got your number now, you sonuvabitch.)
Then Blair heard the scream of rending metal. Turning his head just a little, he saw the hinges on the door peeling up from the wall like old paint.
Sweet mother of mercy.
He pressed Jim's palm harder against his throat and held onto Jim's shirt with his other hand. They were on the right track now. No doubt about it. Just keep cool. Don't let it separate you. "Keep talking to me, Jim. Where are you now? What do you see?"
"We're at the top of the stairs. Around the corner of the landing. There's a row of windows facing the street. All that sunlight streaming in. It's hot up here. Eighty-five, ninety degrees at least, but the girl behind the counter isn't sweating. She looks cool as a lizard. She probably hasn't moved a muscle all day."
"Oh yeah. Oh yeah, I remember her," Blair said. "That white skin and red hair."
"The ring in her nose," Jim said. "Two more in her left eyebrow. And she smells like wheat grass and carrot juice. Just your type, Chief."
"Gimme a break, man. I like a little more life in 'em – oh geez."
"Blair?" Jim shook his head a little.
"It's, okay, man, keep going. It's okay," Blair said fast, his voice rising a little hysterically nonetheless. The hinges were curling against the front door like orange peels. "Can you feel my pulse?"
"I can see it in the sunlight through the gallery windows. And I can feel it under my feet. The floorboards are vibrating with it."
When the next thundering blow smashed down, the door fell inward. Blair tried to brace himself for the crash, but the resounding boom made him flinch violently. It sounded like the whole building was coming down around their ears.
Jim's eyes flew open. "What the hell?"
"It's okay! Jim, it's okay. Don't worry about it." Blair raised a trembling hand and covered Jim's eyes. "Stay in the gallery. What's next? What do you see now?"
"Blair, something's wrong."
"It's okay." he said with an assurance he was far from feeling. "It's all right. We're on top of it here. What is it?"
"It's you, Chief. Your heartbeat's going a million miles an hour all of a sudden."
Well, that was no damn wonder. "Don't worry about it, man. Just look around the gallery and keep telling me what you see."
"I'm looking at you. Neither one of us had seen those big signs of yours at first – they were on the wall behind us as we walked in, opposite the windows. Then you turned around and saw the first one, and the way your face lit up – first time I've seen you smile all day, Chief. Finally got your mind off that lecture tomorrow." Jim was grinning a little himself.
"That's good," Blair said softly. "Great. Hold onto that thought. I've got a feeling that things are gonna get hairy here in a minute or two and we're both going to need all the good thoughts we can get. Are you ready? You want to turn around now and look at that first sign?"
Blair was wishing desperately that he'd been able to review Tibetan entities before plunging into this, but of course there'd been no time. They'd almost waited too long as it was. It was getting harder to ignore what was happening around him. He wanted to just close his eyes like Jim, but that wouldn't shut out the sounds.
The dishes were rattling in the cupboards, and something kept pattering to and fro overhead, tiny little footsteps in absurd contrast to the monstrous something that had smashed down the front door. He kept sneaking worried glances towards that open doorway. There should have been light out there. Plenty of light, and that little bookcase that Jim found at a second-hand store and set up just outside with the driftwood and seashells so the hall wouldn't feel quite so cold and industrial.
But there was nothing but thick darkness. And even though there was no light, and he couldn't possibly see anything, he was aware of movement nevertheless. It seemed as if multitudes were lurking on the threshold, pressing close, waiting their chance.
And then with just a whisper, the blanket on the back of the sofa suddenly slid to the floor, and for some reason, that was the worst of all.
Was it still moving? Just ever so slightly? As though it were hiding something small and alive that just couldn't keep still?
He turned his eyes away.
"Okay, Jim, you ready?"
"Yeah, Blair, I'm ready. I'm turning around. I'm looking at it."
"And I see canvas. I smell burlap and sawdust and linseed oil. There's a smell of incense, too, real faint. And machine oil. You're standing right next to me, Sandburg, going on and on about it, but all I can see is a big ad for Coca-Cola written in a squiggly language I can't make heads or tails of."
Blair let out the breath he didn't realize he'd been holding. "All right," he said quietly. "Let's stay sharp. It's close now. What's next? We walk down and look at the next one?"
Jim shook his head. "No. You've just noticed there are exhibition catalogs or brochures or something up at the counter. You tell me you're wondering who the collector is, whether the signs came from Llasa, whatever, and you walk over to get a brochure. I walk down and look at the next one. The only English on it is the word 'Sanka.' You're kidding me. They drink instant coffee in Tibet? I can hear you behind me trying to chat up the lizard girl, Sandburg." He smirked. "Doesn't sound like you're having a whole lotta luck either."
"I was just being friendly, Jim."
"Sure you are, Chief."
The gallery was a dump, and as far as Jim was concerned, a billboard was a just billboard whether it was written in English or Tibetan. But Blair was grinning all over himself, so this would be worth it if it meant the two them would get through the conference tomorrow without having nervous breakdowns. Anyway, Jim had noticed a record store on the other side of the street that he fully intended to visit before they went back to the hotel. You almost couldn't buy LP's in Cascade anymore.
And that would be something else to take Blair's mind off the conference. He'd be too busy razzing Jim about having an 8-track collection or something to worry about his presentation.
The sun streaming in through the windows was hot on the back of his neck. He didn't hear Sandburg's voice behind him anymore, and felt a moment of panic. He turned quickly.
Blair had given up on the lizard girl. He was standing in front of the first long painted canvas reading the brochure he'd picked up, rocking on his heels, glancingup at the sign occasionally, his face a study in concentration.
Jim shook his head, smiling to himself. It's just a billboard, kid.
Motes of dust danced in the sunlight, keeping time with the rhythm of Blair's pulse.
Jim strolled to the end of the long gallery. There were three more canvases here, and several more in a small room that branched off the main gallery. He stepped in, glad to escape the direct sunlight for a moment. A red tile staircase with a wrought iron railing hugged one wall, leading back to the front of the gallery. Sun streamed down the stairs from windows Jim couldn't see from his vantage point.
A sign on the wall said "Visit our upstairs gallery." And "Please watch your step."
"Nothing impresses the spirits so much as to hear themselves reminded of their origins. It deprives them of the mysterious prestige which they fancy they enjoy among human beings."
Fauconnier: 'The Soul Of Malaya' (1930)
Where had the blanket gone? Blair had seen it hit the floor when it slid off the back of the sofa not five minutes ago, and now it was gone. He glanced around hastily, trying not to get too involved in wondering where it was. He had more important things to worry about right now.
"You didn't wait for me, did you, Jim? I remember that now. You went upstairs to see the other exhibit. You were there for ages. I wondered where you'd gotten to."
He clutched Jim's hand a little tighter against his throat. Not the Tibetan signs at all.
(Where was that damn blanket?)
"Wait just a minute, before you go upstairs now. Was there another sign? Something describing what was on display up there?"
"I don't think so, Chief. If there was I didn't see it. There was something … appealing about those steps leading up into the sunlight. Not knowing what I would find at the top."
"Don't get too carried away, man. I'm afraid it's not very nice, what you find up there. Can you feel my pulse?"
"The tile steps under my feet are vibrating. That's your heartbeat, Chief. I can feel it, believe me."
"Okay, nice and easy. One step at a time."
If only he knew more about that exhibit. But he'd hardly glanced at it. He'd spent all that time looking at the Tibetan signs, and then when he finally went to find Jim he'd been kind of hungry, thinking about lunch, and starting to get a little uneasy under the unblinking eye of the lizard woman there behind the counter (really, he'd only been trying to be friendly). So he'd run up the stairs in the back and found Jim totally involved in the other exhibit. Small, spiky abstract sculptures, he remembered that much about them. Half a dozen or so on display on pedestals in front of the windows, the sun gleaming on stainless steel.
"Jim," he had said. "What's up, man?"
And Jim had turned slowly, not starting at the sound of his voice, not surprised to see him – but then, of course he wouldn't be. He would have traced Blair's progress throughout the gallery without even thinking about it.
"What is all this stuff?"
Jim had shrugged. Hadn't answered the question. Simply asked him if he'd seen enough and would Blair mind stopping in the record store across the street before they left?
Blair had come up beside him. Looked out through the window, down across the street. A record store? Well, sure enough, there it was.
Jim standing right beside him. Looking out the window. Those ugly works of sculpture beside them, behind them.
(Where the hell had that blanket gone to?)
"Okay, Jim, just keep going slow. Concentrate on me being right here. I think it's waiting at the top of the stairs for you, but it's going to be all right, because we know about it now. It doesn't have the element of surprise anymore. And this time you're not alone."
(Yeah, you're talking a good game, Sandburg. And I sure hope you're doing it right there for once in your misbegotten life.)
If only he knew more about those damned sculptures. Why would Jim's hitchhiker have been hanging around them? Had to be something wrong there, something so appallingly twisted that it could controvert the sane universe. What could be so terrible that it could attract – or god help us, call into existence – the horror that was waiting for Jim at the top of the stairs?
"Stop, Jim, for just a second. I need time to think here."
"It's not easy, Sandburg. I'm supposed to go up the stairs. All that sunlight—"
"Just a second, man. It's your memory. You can control it."
Jim nodded, eyes still closed, his expression fierce with concentration.
That brochure. He'd stood there reading it, Blair remembered that now. Mostly the part about the Tibetan signs, of course. But there had been a page or two about the other exhibit too, right? He remembered glancing at the picture of the sculptor, a blonde woman with an innocuous, nervous smile for the photographer. What had it said about her? What had it said about those sculptures? Dammit, Blair, think.
"Blair," Jim said, his voice soft. "I can't stay here. You're getting fainter. It's getting harder to concentrate. Chief, please."
Oh god. Should he call Jim out of this? Try to get through the rest of the night and phone that gallery in the morning, find out something more before he sent Jim into the lion's den?
The darkness was beginning to seep in through the front door, oozing like paint across the floorboards.
The windows were rattling in their frames, and there was an appalling smell, ranker than an open sewer.
No way. They'd never make it to morning.
"Okay, Jim, let's go now. Just one step at a time and I'm right – wait! Stop, stop, man, don't move. Are you stopped?"
Jim swallowed. "I'm stopped."
"Just hold still for one half second, man. Just a half second more."
The brochure. Blair had shoved it in his back pocket. He could see it back at the hotel, lying on top of the dresser, crumpled, folded in two. Had he thrown it in his luggage when he'd packed?
"Jim, are you all right? Can you hang on just a little while longer, man?"
"I don't know."
"Aw, man, we're so close here, but I don't wanna blow it. I'm gonna let go of you for just for a second, OK?"
"I'll be right here. I'm gonna run to my room for just a second. There's something I've got to get. You can do this for me, Jim. It's just a second. You're tough, man. I know you can do it."
After a moment, Jim nodded once, quickly.
"Okay, at the count of three, I'm going to let you go, but I'll be right back. Okay? One, two—"
On the count of three, Blair put his hands on Jim's shoulders and pushed him down into the dining room chair he'd been standing beside. "You still with me, man?"
Jim nodded again.
Blair removed his hands from Jim's shoulders, turned and ran to his bedroom. He'd unpacked by dumping everything into the corner of his room so he could take his backpack to campus yesterday. Crumpled jeans, underwear, tshirts – Come on man—
"Jim! You hear me? I'm right here. I'm right here with you."
Was this it? Dammit, no, just the plane tickets. Registration forms from the conference. If he couldn't find it right now he would have to give it up. He couldn't leave Jim alone any longer.
Oh lord. Here it was.
Fingers trembling with frantic haste he turned it over, skimmed the paragraphs about the upstairs exhibit.
He dropped it and turned, noticing too late how dark it had suddenly become in his bedroom. Not because the lights were dimming, but because something was blocking them out.
(Found the blanket, didn't you?)
It was standing in his bedroom door. Squat and ugly. Clumsily put together. That wasn't surprising. It was just a wool blanket. Surprising it had limbs at all. Even more surprising that it could manage a face.
No wonder it preferred Jim's.
Blair tried to speak and nothing came out.
(First time for everything, man.)
Hah, he thought, terrified as he was. You're on your last legs now, aren't you? Can't push Jim around anymore, and you're so scared of me that you're reduced to animating blankets?
"What's next?" Blair whispered. "You gonna haunt my pillow again? That's the best you can manage? You're pathetic. And I know what you are."
And hey, who would think something that looked like that could walk? But it could. One shuffling step. The blanket shivered, lost its shape for a moment, then found it again. Took another step. More confident this time. Blair backed away.
It's keeping me from Jim, he realized then. Jim's fighting it off but he can't keep it up forever, no one could. No one but Jim could hold it off as long as he had. That's why it wanted Jim so bad. Because he was so strong, and this thing was weakness and madness and horror and despair—
Just run right over it. It's a wool blanket. What can it do? You've got to get to Jim. Jim needs you.
Blair closed his eyes and ran.
When it touched him, he thought he would lose his mind.
He fell full length, smashing his face against the door frame so hard that for a moment he lay stunned, no longer sure where he was or what was happening. Blood ran down his chin. He tasted copper in his mouth. He got up on his hands and knees, groaning, and droplets from his bloody nose splattered across the wooden floor.
Blair stumbled to his feet. Something warm and woolen wrapped an arm around his waist and tried to pull him back.
He fought his way free, screaming.
"Jim! Jim!" He ran to him, threw his arms around him, held him as hard as he could. "Listen to me, Jim. Those sculptures. You know what they're made from? They're medical supplies, man. Scalpels, leucotomes, leather straps, transistors, electrical wires, god knows what else. And you know where they came from? Jim! Are you listening to me, man? That crazy damned artist bought all that crap when the state shut down the San Pedro hospital. It was an insane asylum! Sculpture made out of instruments that lobotomized people, fried their brains, strapped them down and held them prisoner in rubber rooms for decades. Someone tried to make art from so much terror and madness, and it bent the rational world. Just a little. Just enough. So you're gonna walk up the stairs, and when you see it – when it sees you— "
He broke off.
"Jim?" he asked quietly. "You listening to me? Can you hear me?"
He pulled away, looked into Jim's face, white with strain.
"I hear you, Chief," he whispered. "What do I do when I see it?"
(Oh God. Damned if I know.)
"Jim—" he faltered. "Jim, can you feel my pulse?" He grabbed Jim's hand again, pressed it to his throat.
"I can feel your pulse." Jim's voice was so soft now, so afraid. "I'm almost at the top of the stairs. Sandburg, what do I do here? When I see it, what do I do?"
"Remember what it is, man. You know its name now. And—"
And what. What?
Then he remembered.
"And whatever you do, don't look away. I always blinked, man, or closed my eyes or something. But you won't do that. You can keep your eyes on it and not look away because you know what it is, and you're a million times stronger than it is. Just push it away. Look at it and push it right out those damn windows into the sunshine."
"I'm at the top of the stairs."
There was a long pause. All the other sounds in the loft had stopped. Everything was still.
"I can see it, Chief."
Blair held his tongue.
"And it can see me."
Jim started to get out of the chair. Blair didn't stop him. Jim's hands came up, grabbed the shoulders of Blair's shirt, lifted him before Blair knew what was happening and slammed him down on the kitchen table. Jim's eyes were still closed. He bent down close over Blair, his hands scrabbling hard at his chest.
Blair tasted blood at the back of his throat. "Don't look away, man," he gasped. Jim was still here, he knew that from the horror stamped on his features. This thing was on its last hurrah. It was throwing everything it had at them, but it wouldn't be enough. He knew that. He knew it couldn't really force Jim to tear out his heart.
Blair's shirt ripped. He felt the cool night air on his chest, and the hot ends of Jim's fingers bearing down hard.
"Don't blink," he whispered. "Don't look away—"
It wasn't using Jim's nails, just the tips of those steel fingers, digging remorselessly.
"Jim," he panted. "Don't look away. Don't blink. Don't look away."
Jim's face was so close, eyes squeezed shut, his expression rigid with terror.
"Don't look away."
Oh god, it hurt. Blair didn't fight back, he couldn't distract Jim now, but he was writhing under the terrible pressure of Jim's hands.
But where was all that light coming from? So white, sunny and hot, just like L.A.
(Am I dying, man?)
He rolled his eyes up and saw the row of clerestory windows across from Jim's bedroom.
Sunlight was blazing through them. That was no celestial vision. That was sunshine. Blair could feel it hot on his face.
Jim was doing it. Just what Blair had told him. Pushing that damned thing right out the sunny gallery windows.
And there it was for an instant. A shadow across the glass, twisting in the sunlight.
Blair didn't have the breath to make a sound, but he was screaming in his mind. Please, Jim, please end it now.
Every window in the clerestory shattered at the same instant. Glass fell like sleet.
Suddenly the pressure on Blair's chest was gone.
Jim was howling. Terrified. Exultant. Blair reached for him, gasping like a goldfish out of the bowl, and the gentle weight of Jim's head came down and rested on his aching breastbone. His hands were on Blair's shoulders, clutching hard.
Lighting flashed across the sky. As the thunder rolled back, the heavens opened and rain began to pour through the broken windows.
Blair closed his eyes. He was thinking, not for the first time, that it was just as well that he'd never gotten around to mopping the floor.
"There was a wicked laugh at the door and the steps going away and I think you said, 'Thank God it's all over,' and we both cried."
Letter from the Nurse who slept with Mrs. Brooke, wife of Major Alured de Vere Brooke, Royal Engineers, on the occasion when the ghost was seen: April 29, 1883 Letter To Lord Halifax
Oughtta get up now, Jim thought, though he didn't move a muscle.
Then he thought he would wait just until Blair's heart stopped beating quite so hard and fast. He concentrated on the feel of Blair's shoulders under his hands and the heat of Blair's chest against his face. He let the smell of Blair's sweat fill his head, willed the pounding of that runaway heart to block out everything else. He even welcomed the metallic stench of his blood.
Especially the smell of flowing blood. It meant Blair was alive, and the way that knowledge made him feel was reassurance that Jim was alive too.
Alive, and moreimportantly, clean right through to his soul. He thought maybe he would lean here with his head resting on Blair's chest forever.
But then Blair made a snuffling, choked sound, as though he were having a little trouble breathing, and Jim slid one arm under his back and gently lifted him off the table, cradling his head with his other hand. "Chief?"
Blair's head nodded against his chest.
"Are you hurt?"
"Nuh-uh," he sniffled. "I'm okay."
"Let's get you cleaned up a little, all right? Can you walk?"
He obliging tried to stand on his own.
"Easy does it. One step at a time."
Jim tucked his arm tight around Blair, and the two of them lurched to the bathroom like drunks.
Jim knocked the lid down on the toilet and helped Blair sit. He turned away for a minute to soak a washcloth under the tap, and when he looked back, he found Sandburg listing so dramatically he was on the verge of falling off.
"Whoa there. Let's do it this way."
Jim sat him down on the floor, his back against the side of the tub. He took Blair's hand, gave him the washcloth, and held it to his nose. "Can you keep the pressure on till the bleeding stops?"
Blair nodded. "Jim," he said, his voice muffled by the washcloth and the bloody nose.
"Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, Sandburg."
"You did it, man. You did it."
Jim felt an icy trickle down his spine. This was not something he wanted to talk about. Not now. Probably not ever. He said quickly, "You know what the two of us are going to look like in court tomorrow?"
Blair glanced up, eyes comically huge over the top of the washcloth. Then he nodded and closed his eyes. He might have been smiling.
After all this, the kid could still smile.
"This may sting a little bit," Jim said, crouching beside him with a cotton ball soaked in rubbing alcohol.
"Then can't we just skip it?"
"Here, hold the washrag with your other hand."
Blair switched hands, eyes still closed, and Jim cleaned the scratches on his face. Blair didn't bother to complain, and that worried him. He touched his shoulder. "You still with me?"
"More or less."
"Good man." Jim got up and washed the scratches on his own face, not allowing himself to think about anything except the rainwater getting all over the living room floor. Nothing he could do about that until morning, so there really wasn't any point in worrying about it.
Well, he supposed he could bring a ladder up from the basement, try to jury rig a tarpaulin from the camping equipment to keep out the worst of the rain.
Great plan. Except there was a real problem with execution.
As in going down to the basement. Without Sandburg. I don't think so. Not until Blair's ready to walk down the steps with me.
He crouched down in front of Blair again. "You think the bleeding's about stopped?"
Blair shrugged and nodded.
"Feel like getting to bed now? Give me your arm."
Blair's eyes flew open. "I don't want to go to bed."
"You're practically asleep now."
"I don't want to go to bed. Jim, I want to stay with you. Please, man."
"All right. All right, you can help me clean up the living room. Would that be better?"
Blair sighed in relief. "Thanks." His eyes closed. "I'll mop the floor." A moment later, the hand holding the washcloth to his nose dropped. His head rolled forward.
"Hey, just a minute. Not yet, Sandburg. Come on." Jim put his hands under his arms, pulled him up and set him gently on his feet. "Hold on to me a minute. Can you do that?"
Blair mumbled something into Jim's chest.
"Doing great there, buddy." He walked Blair backwards out of the narrow confines of the bathroom. "We're doing great."
The worst of the storm had already passed them by. The rain had slowed to a hard drizzle, and every roll of thunder sounded farther away. Water was still trickling down the brick walls, but at least it wasn't gusting through the broken windows anymore.
Oh well, Jim thought. Won't have to water the house plant this week.
It wasn't until he'd made it to the sofa with Blair that he remembered to be surprised to see the palm upright in its pot, fronds glistening with rainwater.
Surely he had seen—
Don't think about it. Just don't think about it.
Blair lifted his his head. "Hey."
"What is it?"
"The door's okay," he muttered, sounding a little surprised himself.
"Doesn't matter, man."
He tried to get Blair to lie down on the couch, but Sandburg wouldn't let go of him, and in the end it was simply easier to settle down beside him, Blair's head heavy against his chest.
He ought to get up and move the bookcase. Or at least the books, dry off the ones that had gotten wet as best he could.
He tried to ease Blair away, but Blair came awake instantly, clutching at him. "Jim? What is it? What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong." He put his hand on Blair's head, pulled it gently down against his chest again. "Just go to sleep. It's all right."
The books could wait.
Jim was shaking with exhaustion himself, but he was certain he wouldn't be able to sleep. Frankly he wasn't real sure how he'd ever be able to sleep again, but especially not now. The sense of release was so profound that if it hadn't been for Sandburg dozing here beside him, he would have thrown back his head and howled his joy to the rainy heavens.
Instead, he closed his eyes and settled back. With Blair so close he thought it would be all right if he tried to think about what had happened. Just for a moment or two. He owed it to Sandburg to remember this.
But he couldn't do it. He touched the barest edge of that razor cold memory and felt as though he'd been cut to the quick.
He opened his eyes fast. Maybe he'd just sit here for a while, listening to the rain and the sound of Blair sleeping.
And Jim didn't sleep. Not really. But time passed without his being aware of it, and when he eventually missed the weight of Blair's head he looked over and found him curled on his side, knees pulled up tight, his head against the arm of the sofa. Didn't look very comfortable. Still probably cushier than his bed, the way he had the mattress rigged. He'd have to remember to ask Sandburg sometime what that deal with the plywood was.
It was cold in here with all the broken windows. Jim looked around for the blanket that usually hung on the back of the sofa, and spotted it at last in the threshold of Sandburg's bedroom door. Funny place for it.
Lotta of funny things going on tonight.
He got up gingerly. Blair muttered in his sleep, and if possible, curled into an even tighter ball, but didn't wake up. Jim walked over and looked at the damage. Water, broken glass, nothing major. Nothing insurance wouldn't take care of, strange as it was. A freak hailstorm taking out all the second story windows like that. But that wasn't right. Something just wasn't right about this.
Don't worry about it. It was three – Jim looked at his watch – no, four in the morning. Everything was bound to seem a little strange.
He retrieved the blanket and carried it over to the sofa, but stopped before he could drape it over Sandburg.
No hailstorm had done that to Blair's face and neck.
(Oh lord, Ellison, what the hell is the matter with you?)
He dropped the blanket, bent down and shook Blair's shoulder.
"Sandburg. Wake up."
Blair groaned, snuggling harder against the arm of the sofa.
"C'mon, Blair. Now."
Heavy blue eyes opened. "Jim?" He sat up suddenly. "Jim! I'm sorry, man, I must have fallen asleep. Are you okay?"
"Blair, I'm forgetting. I'm already starting to forget what happened."
Blair rubbed his hand roughly over his eyes, then pushed his hair out of his face. "Slow down. Just gimme a minute here." He yawned like a cat. Tried to stretch like one, then winced and clutched his chest. "Ooh. Forgot about that."
"It's all right. What do you mean, you're forgetting?"
"I mean I'm forgetting. Just now I was telling myself, I don't know, that a hailstorm or something broke those windows. Blair, I know it wasn't a hailstorm. I know what really happened. But for a minute there – for a minute I didn't know anymore."
"Wait a minute. Calm down. Siddown and let me think." He grabbed Jim's hand and pulled him to sit down on the sofa beside him. "It's all right, man. I should have expected this. Amnesia's almost universal after possession experiences. The surprising thing is that you remember anything at all."
"You don't understand," Jim interrupted impatiently, although in another corner of his mind, he was remembering the Blair of six hours ago, too shell shocked and exhausted even to stand up by himself. A nap of a few hours and (thank God) he was ready to deliver lectures again. "Blair, I don't want to remember. I want to let it all go."
Blair took a deep breath. "So let it go. That's probably the best thing anyway. Then a week, two weeks down the road, it'll be like none of this ever happened." He tried to smile, but there was something in his eyes that was breaking Jim's heart.
"Blair. Is it all right? Is it all right to just … forget it?"
"I'm telling you it's the best thing. Let it go."
"You won't, though."
The smile wavered. "No such luck, man."
"Well what if I don't want to forget? What can I do to make sure I remember it?"
"You don't want to remember it."
"This is my head we're talking about, Sandburg. My decision. So help me out here. Is there some kind of meditation exercise, some way to focus—"
Blair sat back, his arms crossed over his chest and that mulish look Jim knew so well in his eyes. "No. No, I won't help you, Jim. It's like the body's natural defense mechanisms are kicking in to protect your sanity. Freud had it all wrong, you know. Buried memories aren't the problem. It's the ones that you can't keep down that drive you crazy in the end. Let it go, man."
Jim grabbed one of those crossed arms and pulled him to his feet. "You up for a drive?"
"What? No. Are you crazy? It's the middle of the night."
"It's a little after four. If we go right now we'll still be able to make it back in time for court this morning."
"Jim—" His eyes fell on the blanket crumpled on the floor beside the sofa, and suddenly he said, "Sure. Sure, it's probably a good idea to get out of here. Where we going?"
Jim threw his coat to him. "Up the coast a little."
"Right," Blair muttered. "Ask a silly question."
Part 28 (Epilogue)
It was dawn when they reached the Point. Gray clouds hung low over the ocean, and a cold rain was falling. The pale glow in the east brought no warmth and little light.
Blair was freezing his tail off.
His hair was soaking wet. Icy droplets of rainwater kept sneaking under his collar and running down his back, and he couldn't stop shivering.
Jim seemed impervious to the weather, standing a few feet away with his eyes on the western horizon. Blair wondered what in the world he could see out there besides the gray sea, rocks and sky. It must be something, to be worth dragging them out here like this.
Sleet was coming down with the rain, pattering on the craggy boulders that littered the beach. Blair felt the burn of ice on his face.
And then Jim said without bothering to turn around, "Sandburg, go wait in the truck."
"I'm fine, man," Blair lied, suspecting that his chattering teeth probably gave him away.
"Blair, I have to do this. You don't. Now go get in the truck and turn on the heater before you get hypothermia."
"What? What is it that you have to do?"
Jim shook his head a little, then turned and strode away down the rocky strand. Blair just watched him go.
Oh, and by the way, thanks for everything, Chief. Lemme show you my appreciation by dragging you out to this godforsaken stretch of beach in the pouring rain to commune with the sea lions.
(Really, Jim, I would have been just as happy going out for some bagels and lox.)
And coffee. Gallons and gallons of hot coffee.
He looked up. Jim was walking fast. He was already just a tall, lonely figure in the slate gray dawn.
Blair ran to catch up.
Okay, fine. You wanna walk on the beach, then I guess we walk on the beach.
Blair thought of L.A. and almost laughed. All that damn sunshine. Who needs it, man? We've got rain and fog and sleet and rocky beaches and a wind that cuts right through you—
Even the shriek of a gull wheeling overhead sounded cold to Blair.
This wouldn't be so bad if his emotions weren't so close to the surface. But right now everything was rubbed raw. No wonder, of course. Nothing to do but ride it out, but it was maddening to be on the verge of tears over some cold and rain.
And trying to keep up with Jim was making his bruised sternum ache, but he'd be damned if he said anything.
Just knock it off right now, Sandburg. Focus on Jim. He's alive and sane and free. Does anything else in the world matter?
Well, maybe the "sane" bit was open for discussion this morning, but after everything that had happened, if Jim felt an inexplicable desire to take long walks in winter rainstorms, well, then, so be it.
Then Blair's foot hit a rock, and with his hands shoved deep in his pockets, he couldn't use his arms to recover. He pitched headlong, but Jim was there instantly.
"Watch it, Sandburg."
Jim released him. "For the last time, go get in the truck."
"Not without you, man."
"All right." Jim turned and began walking back, slower this time, so that Blair could keep up.
"Wait a minute, Jim." Blair surprised the hell out of himself by stopping. Apparently some things really were more important than getting in out of the rain. "C'mon, at least tell me what's going on here. Don't I deserve that much?"
And that stopped Jim as well.
"It's to help me remember."
"What?" Damn him! Blair was ready to weep with frustration. "Jim, didn't you listen to a single word I said?"
"I listen to everything you say, Sandburg," he replied in an even voice. He was looking toward the ocean again. Blair followed his gaze, as if he could somehow see what Jim was seeing. He couldn't. Just a dull, clouded approximation of the Sentinel's world. Like the foam from the breakers as it swirled around the rocks at the waterline. To Jim, that bit of white reflecting the first light of dawn must be brilliant as a new sun.
"Great," Blair said softly. He knew he was being unreasonable, but he just couldn't help it. "That's great man. You listen to me and just ignore it all, is that it?"
"You weree right about this from the beginning. I can't handle it. Not even the memory of it. So this is just to help me to remember what's important. Everything else I'm letting go, just like you told me."
"Okay," Blair said, even more softly. "Then I guess I just don't understand what's going on here. But I want to, man. Please. What's so important that you have to go to these lengths to remember it?"
"What do you mean?"
"Sandburg, if I'm going to lose everything else, I have to remember this. That you're carrying the burden that I couldn't. Even if I'm going to forget it all, at least I'll remember this. The two of us freezing out here in the rain when I've got to be in court in three hours. And that'll remind me why we were here."
He finally reached out, as though intending to put his hand on Blair's shoulder, but then he dropped his arm without touching him. "I won't forget," he said.
An apology, Blair suddenly realized. Jim. Aw, man. No. He reached for him blindly, wrapped his arms around Jim's ribs and clenched his fists against Jim's back. He held on tight, and at last he felt Jim's arms warm and heavy across his own shoulders in turn.
"C'mon, man," Blair said quietly. "Now can we please get out of the rain?"