Unsleeping

by Martha, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net

Prologue

There were sounds in the stairwell. Something soft and broken, moving with slow persistence. Shambling and clumsy. Jim heard the liquid splats as pieces sloughed away and were dropped on the steps or smeared across the walls. Darkness nuzzled against the windowpanes of the loft as the soft thing on the stairs kept climbing. Squelching wetly. Jim could hear other things too. Because he was the Sentinel, right? And that meant he could hear everything, everything. Sirens screaming all over the city, the sickeningly elastic sound of the tendon in Sandburg's right ankle.

And in the stairwell, the burbles and squeaks of air moving through a spongy, rotten windpipe, rattling across vocal chords that were as brittle as autumn leaves. Something was trying its damnedest to say something. Maybe it was even trying to say something to him

"Jim!" Blair was trying to say something too. He was dragging himself across the floor, fighting to reach him. "Jim, don't listen to it! Whatever you do man, just don't listen!"

Be nice if he could just turn things and off like that, Jim thought, three-quarters past sanity. Wire those old sentinel senses to a light switch and click, welcome back Jim Ellison, Ordinary Cop, Everyman. We've missed you. And by the way, there's nothing slithering up the stairs for YOU, man. Nothing obscene whispering YOUR name in the darkness. Or if there was you couldn't hear it, so what's the difference? Do yourself just one little favor, though, and don't open that front door. Not tonight. Probably not every again. Don't know what you'd find sitting on the doorstep if you did, but dollars to doughnuts, you wouldn't ask it in for a beer and a round of poker. Probably clean you out anyway. Hell of a poker face, right?

Jim snorted, almost laughing out loud. Blair had pulled himself to his feet, groaning and cursing as he tried to put weight on his bad ankle, but when Jim laughed, his face went dead white, and he stared at Jim with wide, wild eyes. He looked as though something inside him had just died.

Blair, I'm sorry, Jim thought, and shoved the side of his hand into his own mouth and bit down hard, so that no more of those half hysterical sounds that hurt Blair so badly could get out. The pain helped him, but not enough, not nearly enough. He heard a muffled, soggy thump as something heavy bumped against the wall of the stairwell, slid wetly around, and then kept shambling onwards. The thing on the steps was blind, Jim realized joylessly.

It didn't matter. It would find its way to their doorstep all the same.

* * *

"This is one of the safest campuses in the northwest."
Suzanne Tamaki, head of campus security for Rainier University,
Smart Alec

Chapter 1

You'd think a big university like Rainier could afford a few extra light bulbs, Jim thought, shifting on the bench's vinyl upholstery. Especially in a library. It was mid-April and dusk was still early, a clear, starry darkness falling across the canopy of the sky while a ruddy haze lingered at the horizon. A beautiful night. Jim had watched the sunset through the three-story window in the lobby of the main research library, so lulled by the peaceful sunset he practically forgot his annoyance at Blair for being late, even though this little routine was starting to turn into a habit. Blair had drawn a high number in the parking lottery this quarter, meaning he didn't have a campus parking permit. Public transportation was fine, but on nights when Blair was at school and Jim was going home right past Rainier anyway, he could stop and give him a lift, right? It wouldn't be any problem, man. He'd be at the curb outside the library.

Except, of course, when Blair got involved in his work and lost track of the time, which was not exactly an infrequent occurrence. He'd been spending all his time garrisoned in Special Collections, too, so it was no simple matter for Jim to go in and drag him out by his ear, like it would be if Blair were upstairs in the stacks. Come to think of it, it would serve Blair right if Jim did go marching down to Special Collections, flashing his badge instead of a student ID. Maybe next time Blair would remember to check the clock occasionally, or heaven forbid, even wear a watch.

Nah. It wouldn't do any good. Sandburg wouldn't even notice the commotion. He'd just grin up at Jim like he'd been waiting to see him all day, then ask if they had anything in the fridge for dinner, or if Jim would rather stop somewhere on the way home. Besides, this really wasn't so bad. Stopping and just sitting still for a little while, letting the day wind away from him. It really was a beautiful night. Lights were coming on one by one across campus, softly illuminating the gray stonework of the old physics building across the way. Students were pouring into the library in a steady stream, their arms or their backpacks weighted with books. They brought the scent of the night in with them, clinging to their clothes and hair. The evening smelled cold and clean and sharp, and the library was warm, the air a little close from the overwhelming proximity of so much paper and so many books, the heat of all the computers in Reference and the constantly-running copy machines.

But it was still strange how dark it was inside. There were some kids curled up on the other benches in the lobby, apparently waiting for companions like Jim was, or actually choosing to study here in the noisiest, busiest part of the library for whatever inscrutable reasons of their own. Blair claimed some people were really like that, that they worked best when surrounded by chaos. Sandburg, Jim could believe it of, but the rest of these students? Jim didn't buy it for a minute. He thought it was more likely they were studying here because if they went someplace quiet to work, they were afraid they might actually learn something.

Still, he didn't understand how they could even pretend to themselves that they were studying down in the lobby. All the noise and people aside, it was simply too dark. Jim wouldn't have been comfortable reading even with sentinel senses. Had some of the fluorescents gone out? He glanced up at the light fixtures far overhead, hazy bars of luminescence flickering through the gloom. He could hear the fixtures buzzing, but they shed no light, and Jim suddenly sat bolt upright.

It wasn't really dark in here at all, was it?

Oh, damn. Oh dammit to hell. And he'd been doing so well for months, feeling like at last he was really handling things, that maybe, maybe at last he was finally the one controlling his senses instead of the other way around. He was dimly aware of the girl on the bench next to him looking at him curiously, and he felt the old combination of anger and helplessness, driving him to his feet.

(Blair, I need you.)

He would find Blair himself, even though it was so dark by now the face of the woman beside him looked like a white balloon nodding in a black mist. He could find Blair by scent alone if he had to.

He took one step, shuffling across the carpet, and suddenly realized the darkness which enfolded him wasn't empty. There were angles and sharp corners all around him, an entire geometry of nonexistence. He blinked, trying to focus, and saw crooked corridors marching away from him into the night. They opened into streets that wound under broken, windowless towers of unfathomable antiquity, and overhead were terrible stars that shed no light, glittering blackly in a sky that had never known a sunrise.

Jim froze. One step into that nightmare landscape, one single step, and he would never find his way back again. A voice near at hand was talking to him, making meaningless sounds.

"Hey, are you all right?"

No, of course he wasn't all right, anyone with an ounce of sense could have been able to tell that, BLAIR would have been able to tell in a heartbeat. God, Chief, where are you?

And then it was all over. The landscape of darkness dissolved. Shadows were only shadows, and there were fewer and fewer of them. A blazing path of light stretched before him, the elevator doors were opening, and Blair was standing there, resplendent in a canvas windbreaker and an Hawaiian shirt in colors so bright they hurt Jim's eyes. A riot of red and yellow hyacinths, blooming impossibly on palmettos in a field of cream. Blair's eyes were brighter still, blue as the lagoon beside which those flowers would grow. He was talking a mile a minute, his hands punctuating every word. Jim let the wash of his voice and the sparkle in his eyes and even the vibrancy of that appalling shirt wash over him. This was the real world, gaudy, loud and alive. He was all right. Blair was right here, and everything was all right.

"So Nagle's having you dig up primary sources? That's really cool in an undergrad class. Man, I don't even have time to do that for my own classes, much as I'd like to. You got a copy of your syllabus I could look at? I'd really be interested in seeing how he's got his lesson plan set up."

Blair stepped out of the elevator with the kid he was talking to, a tall, white-faced boy in a black turtleneck and jeans, not a speck of color on him from his white lips to the soles of his Doc Martins. Blair looked like a walking carnival next to him. The kid muttered something in response, shrugging to indicate helplessness, or, more likely, that he just wanted to be left alone. It was the sort of nonverbal hint Blair was a master at ignoring under most circumstances, but just then he raised his eyes and saw Jim. His face split into a broad grin, and he gave Jim a little half wave across the lobby. "Looks like my ride's here," he said to the kid in black. "Tell you what, I'll just catch you later, or maybe go see Professor Nagle myself."

Another shrug from the kid, and he and Blair parted, the kid heading for the door while Blair went to the checkout desk. He grinned at Jim again, tilting his head to the side to indicate the weight of books in his backpack. Sorry, Jim, his gesture said. Just a second here while I check out half the library, OK?

OK. Jim felt himself smile back. His moment of disorientation was already beginning to feel as unreal and distant as a dream. He probably needed to tell Blair about this, but it could wait. Maybe until after they got home. Maybe after dinner.

An alarm buzzer suddenly went off, a flat, harsh sound, shocking in even the merely relative quiet of the lobby. Every head jerked up. The kid in black was standing bewildered at a security gate which had locked when he tried to pass through. He kept pushing at the bar with mulish determination, and the work study student manning the desk called, "Oh, hey, wait a minute. I need to check your bag."

The kid looked around, a dazed expression on his face. Alarms were going off in Jim's head too. He didn't stop to analyze them, he just began to move toward the gate from the other side.

"Hang on, you can't go through there." The work study student reached across for the backpack slung over the kid's shoulder, and the white-faced kid jerked away violently.

"Don't touch me."

"Come on, Ross, take it easy." Blair came around to his side, hands extended in a calming gesture. "You don't have to let them search your bag if you don't want. Just look yourself, man. You just forgot to check out a book is all. It's no big deal."

The kid relaxed, at least enough to shrug the backpack off his shoulders with a grunt and set it on the floor between his feet. Unzipping the top, he rooted around for a moment. All an act, apparently, since the book he finally hauled out of his pack was a tremendous, leather-bound tome that must have weighed twenty pounds. He handed it up to Blair, muttering, "Yeah, I guess you were right, Mr. Sandburg."

Blair held the book two-handed, gaping down at it. "Are you nuts? What are you doing with this?"

Ross half-knelt on the floor, still groping deep in his backpack. All at once, Jim knew what was about to happen, and he also knew he was too far away to do anything about it. He took a step, almost running, trying to reach the student anyway. Ross must have seen the movement out of the corner of his eye, because he suddenly made a decision, pulling a .38 out of his bag and aiming it squarely up at Sandburg. "Oh man," Blair said softly. His eyes darted to Jim, less than three yards away. It might as well have been three football fields for all the good Jim could do that moment, but when Blair spoke again, his voice was louder and steadier. "Ross, this is really stupid."

The work study student backed away fast, and a woman somewhere behind Jim blurted out, half-screaming, "Oh my god, he's got a gun." A chaos of movement erupted on all sides. The people behind Jim who could reach the outside doors broke and ran. Those who couldn't escape milled frantically backward, seeking the relative safety of the stairwell and reference lab. Ross stood up, keeping the gun trained on Blair the whole time. The whites of his eyes rolled like a panicky horse. "C'mon, let's go," he told Blair in a shaking voice. "You carry the book."

Blair only shook his head. "That isn't going to work," he quietly. "The police are already here."

It was all the distraction Jim needed. When Ross's head whipped around, Jim pulled his gun and trained it on the student. "Drop it, son," he said. "Let's not make this any worse."

Ross stared at him, then down at Jim's gun, an expression of bewildered disbelief contorting his white features. He was practically snorting in terror. Typical, Jim thought angrily, heartsick all the same. Not as much fun to be on the other end, was it? "Put the gun down, Ross. Do it now."

The kid wasn't gonna do it. Jim saw the brutal moment of decision in the stupid child's frantic eyes, and Jim made his own decision just as quickly. He was too close to miss.

Until Blair stepped forward to shield Ross with his own body. He met Jim's eyes in mute apology, blinking a little before the naked rage he must have seen on Jim's face. Ross had no idea that Blair had just saved his life, or if he knew, he didn't care. Hissing in fear, he knotted his hand in Sandburg's hair and dragged his head down and to the side, staggering him, and put the gun to the back of his head. The book fell from Blair's hands to hit the floor with a crack like a gunshot, and Ross screamed, "Pick it up! Pick it up!"

Blair swallowed. Pulled off balance, one hand on the security gate to keep from falling, his eyes once more found Jim's. He was afraid, but his voice was calm and low. "Just take a deep breath, Ross, and think about this for half a second here, all right? I can't reach it unless you let go."

Ross gave a wild, senseless cry and yanked again, pulling Blair's head back hard. "Stop talking to me like I'm an idiot! I know you set me up."

Blair was watching Jim's face the whole time. "No, I didn't," he told Ross quietly. "You did this all on your own."

"Do you want to die?" Ross demanded. "Is that what you're really doing here?" He lowered the gun and jabbed it hard between Blair's shoulderblades.

Blair blinked in pain. "No, I don't want to die," he said. "And neither do you."

"You don't know shit. You give all these big lectures and you talk about knowing so much, but it's all a crock. If you knew anything, you wouldn't have brought your cop friend here to try and kill me."

Blair's eyes went wide as he realized just how badly he had misjudged Ross and the entire situation. "Take it easy, man. Nobody wants to kill you."

"You're such a liar, but I don't give a damn about that, and you know why not? Because you can't hurt me, that cop can't hurt me, nobody can."

"I'm not lying to you." Blair swallowed. "And nobody wants to hurt you, least of all me."

"Yes, you do. How stupid do you think I am? But it won't work, Mr. Sandburg, I can't die. Too bad you can't say the same, huh?"

Sorrow and regret were written plain across Blair's face. There was no reaching Ross. He would do what he threatened, probably right here in front of Jim, and Blair regretted that most of all.

"Now pick up that book, goddamn you," Ross moaned furiously. He yanked hard, pulling Blair's head down, forcing them to kneel together. Blair reached for the book, and as his fingers touched it, Ross gave an obscene, bubbling cry of relief. He let go of Blair and reached around, straining to touch the book as well. Half a dozen strands of Sandburg's hair hung from his fingers, snagged on the setting of Ross's high school ring. They caught the light, brighter than the dull gold of the ring. Blair raised his eyes and found Jim's face.

Please, Jim thought desperately. Please, Chief, for the love of God.

Blair heard him. He closed his eyes and deliberately bowed his head.

Ross's gray eyes dilated wide, and Jim looked into the madman's left pupil as he pulled the trigger. He saw a geometry of darkness within, a black corridor leading away into endless night just for an instant before the bullet tore its way through, dragging in light and air and heat in a violent, permanent dawn. Ross sat down hard, then flopped backward. The back of his head hit the carpet with a thud. Blair scrambled away on his hands and knees, but he turned back at once, finding Ross's gun lying on the floor and shoving it away from them both with the heel of his hand. He knelt, reaching automatically for the pulse in Ross's throat before he saw the hole where the student's left eye had been. Blair groaned and bowed low over the dead student, shuddering like he was about to be sick.

Ross's arm jerked up suddenly, and his hand knotted in the front of Blair's shirt.

Jim felt the crazy tilt of reality like a storm at sea. He cleared the security gate in a single long-legged stride to grab the shoulders of Blair's canvas jacket and drag him violently from the dead man's grip. Ross was dead. No respiration, no pulse. The sea of reality calmed. The muscle spasm was freakish, but wholly mortal, Jim knew that. Blair did too. He was silent, save for his panting gasps for breath. He kicked out, stumbling awkwardly to his feet as Jim pulled him up and turned him around, supporting him until Blair could stand on his own. He was white with shock, and the center of his Hawaiian shirt was crumpled from Ross's grasp. "You hurt, Chief?"

Blair stared at him, then shook his head carefully. He didn't try to speak yet. "I need to call it in," Jim said, not letting go until Blair nodded again. Ross lay behind him on the floor, his left arm still bent at the elbow, his clutching fingers frozen, grasping nothing, as they would for all eternity now. Blair looked over his shoulder, his nostrils flared, his upper lip curled and trembling. A woman crouched behind the reference desk was crying softly and Jim heard faint and far off, the first wail of a siren.

Blair finally spoke. "He's dead."

"Yeah," Jim said.

"You know," Blair said in a weak voice, "I wondered what the heck he was doing in Special Collections."

* * *

"I mean, he was a Junior in a European history seminar." Blair was leaning heavily on the break room table outside Major Crime, holding a cold paper cup of vending machine coffee between his hands. He was telling the story again; Jim had lost track of how many times it was by that point. It didn't make any more sense as Blair launched into another bewildered rendition. "It's more rigorous than a 200 level survey, sure, but it's still not the sort of class where you would have your students go out and read original works in Middle High German. I knew there was something screwy about that. I knew it." He balled one hand into a fist and stared down at it. The blue eyes that had looked bright as a tropical lagoon to Jim six hours before were muddy and dull with exhaustion now.

"That's what he told you?" Simon had heard the story over and over again too, and it wasn't making any more sense to him than it did to Blair. He had the book Ross had died for in front of him on the table, and from time to time he put his hand on the black cover, as though all the answers were contained within, if only he could figure out how to get at them.

"Yeah, that it was for Nagle's seminar. That's what he told the librarian who pulled the book for him too."

"So he knew what he wanted. He didn't just grab the first thing he saw that looked old and valuable."

"Right, right. Special collections houses non-circulating books. You have to request the book, explain why you need it, do a whole little song and dance before they'll even pull a book for you in the first place. Then you can only look at it right there in the room. There's a librarian there the whole time."

"If they're so careful with their books, how did he get as far as he did with it?"

"I've been thinking about that." Blair shoved his hands through his hair, fruitlessly trying to push it out of his eyes. It was looking lank and unwashed, and probably felt that way as well, because he dug a tie out of the pocket of his jeans and pulled it back into in a sloppy pony tail as he talked to Simon. "Just when I was packing up my stuff to go meet Jim, there was all this commotion across the room because some girl had smuggled in a puppy in an outside pocket of her backpack. Some tiny little long-haired mutt. I didn't get a good look at it. Anyway something set it off. It starts barking, and the librarians freak, hustling the girl out of there, and nobody noticed what Ross was doing."

"You think she was in on it?" Simon asked.

"I don't know." Blair shrugged and looked across the table at Jim. "I don't think so, though. Ross had a gun. I think he was probably planning on using that to get out, and the thing with the dog was just a lucky break for him."

"Do you know who she was?"

"No."

"Would you recognize her again?"

'I don't know. Maybe, but I just don't know. I wasn't really paying attention."

"Sandburg not paying attention to a woman," Simon said, exasperated. It was probably supposed to be a joke, but they were all tired, and he ended up simply sounding brutal. "You really weren't good for anything tonight, were you?"

Blair let his hands drop to the table again where they lay empty and open, palms up in a blank sort of surrender. "Guess not."

Simon abruptly pushed himself back from the table. "It's late," he announced angrily, sounding ashamed of himself. "Go home, gentlemen. And, Jim, I want you on campus tomorrow with Sandburg. Find out how Ross Malitz got such a fatal bug in his ear about this old book."

"Yes, sir."

Simon leaned over the table, his hand on the book once more, this time as though he intended to push it across the table toward Blair. Jim had been leaning against the wall, but he straightened up fast, irrationally feeling he didn't want that damned book anywhere near Blair tonight. In the end, though, Simon simply made a gesture of dismissal and stalked out of the break room. Blair continued to sit where he was, looking at nothing in particular.

"It's after two," Jim said quietly. "I don't know about you, but I'm about ready to get home."

Blair nodded. "Yeah. Me too." He finally lifted his head, stretching from side to side as though trying to stretch a crick out of his neck. "We should leave this in Evidence on our way out. Ms. Jerome in Special Collections will be freaking out about it being out of the library bad enough as it is."

Jim was abruptly tired of hearing about it, and he reached across the table and lifted the book himself, mostly to keep Blair from picking it up. It was heavy and reeked of antiquity. "She'll just have to hold her horses on this like everybody else. This a is police investigation."

Finally, a crooked little almost-smile from Sandburg. Oh, his look said. Is THAT what this is?

Somehow heartened, Jim glanced down at the book. There was no lettering on the front, just a circle of seven stars stamped into the leather. The title was written on the spine, black on black in ornate lettering Jim couldn't have read even if it hadn't been in German. "What's the name of this again?"

"Unaussprechlichen Kulten."

"Right," Jim said, smiling.

"I don't know enough German -- and I can't read the old Gothic typeface print even if I could to know what it's about. I mean, 'Unspeakable Cults,' though, you assume it's probably about the witch trials. Germany got into that in a big way. Something like a hundred thousand people were executed. There's a famous account of so many stakes on the execution grounds in Cologne that it looked like a whole forest on fire." Blair's expression darkened, a terrible sadness coming over his face. "Sometimes it seems like there just isn't a whole lot of hope for the species, doesn't it?"

"Come on, Sandburg." Jim regretted the book in his hands that kept him from reaching out and putting his arm around Blair's slumped shoulders. "Let's go home."

Chapter 2

Blair realized he had been waiting ever since Jim fired. Even before that. In one tiny, screwed up corner of his mind he had been waiting from the moment he decided to step in front of Jim's gun. Sure, he had been mostly concerned with trying to get him and Ross both out of the mess alive, but in case he didn't, his consolation on the way to eternity would have been that at least he was missing the lecture.

OK, now that was seriously messed up. Blair grinned out at the empty night streets, but seeing his own wan reflection smile back, dropped the grin fast. He looked like a corpse. Poor Ross lying dead on the library carpet had had more color in his face. He glanced miserably back at Jim, wondering if it would come now, on the drive home. Jim's eyes were fixed on the road, though, and he hardly said a word except to ask, as they were passing the garish orange lights of an all-night coffee shop on Fifth, if Blair would like to stop for dinner. Breakfast. Whatever you called the meal you ate at 2:30 in the morning.

"No," Blair said. "Let's just get home," not thinking until the orange diner lights were only a reflection in the rear view mirror that Jim was probably the one who had really wanted to eat.

Their building looked abandoned and bleak, the bright, unpeopled storefronts on the ground level only seeming to emphasize how dark and still the upper stories were. Of course, somebody was obviously home since there was no street parking left on the whole block. Blair's Volvo was hogging a prime spot right across from the stairway door, for all the good it did them. For all the good it did him He didn't know if he really saw the parking ticket under the windshield wiper as Jim drove by, or if it was just knowing it had to be there that made him imagine a flash of yellow paper. "Oh shit. It's Wednesday night."

"Thursday morning by now," Jim corrected, not without sympathy.

"And I wasn't here to move the car. Goddamnit. Another twenty-eight bucks down the tube."

Jim shrugged, one hand coming up in a 'don't blame me' gesture, and turned onto Lincoln toward the waterfront.

"Come on, Jim, you can let me in on your big cop secret by now, don't you think? This weekly 'street cleaning' business -- it's all just a scam to raise revenue, isn't it?"

"Looks like you're onto us, Chief. Parking tickets on your car alone paid my salary last year."

"I can just about believe it," Blair pretended to grumble. He was smiling. A ribbing from Jim made him feel safe for the first time since Ross had pulled his gun. The fragile crust of order and reason might have fractured around him, but Jim was still here, they were both safe, and eventually most of the pieces would get picked up again. Just not Ross.

Jim swung an enthusiastic U turn in the middle of Lincoln and pulled the truck into a space Blair would have sworn was too small for it. They were right across from the dry cleaners, which reminded Blair he had dropped off a coat to be cleaned a month -- two months? -- ago, and he really should go claim it before they donated it to Goodwill. Then he dropped his head and fumbled for his seatbelt in exasperation, wondering what the hell was wrong with him anyway. His ideas and emotions were jumping around like drops of water on a hot skillet, everything in the universe apparently of equal import in his messed up head. How could he be thinking about his dry-cleaning when only a few hours ago he allowed Jim to kill one of his own students? How could he be joking about parking tickets?

"Sandburg," Jim said quietly, but Blair flinched anyway. The yellow glare of the streetlights fell on Jim's brow and hid his eyes. "Just a minute."

NOW? Blair thought. You don't say a peep to me whole way home and you bring it up NOW? "Yeah, Jim?" he said.

"What the hell were you thinking?" Jim's voice wasn't angry at all. He only sounded genuinely puzzled, and a little sad.

"Oh come on, Jim, I don't know," Blair snapped. He hadn't meant to sound like an jerk, and made a gesture of apology, not able to say more.

Jim stayed maddeningly cool. "You're telling me you don't know what you were thinking when you blocked my shot? Sandburg, three years you've been riding with me now. I count on you, you understand that? I've got to know you'll be backing me up."

"Jim, I am. I mean, of course you can count on me. I'm your partner."

"Then you wanna explain to me what happened?" The words themselves were brusque, but Jim's voice was still gentle.

"OK, so I was thinking you were about to shoot Ross, and I didn't want you to. What else can I say, man? I just wanted him to get a second chance, and I guess it was stupid of me, but I don't think I can apologize for that. I mean, he's a student of mine. Was a student of mine. God, the poor guy. I never even liked him. One of those bored with the whole world assholes that I can never reach, but he didn't deserve to die for that."

"I didn't draw on him because he was an asshole," Jim said. "He had a weapon and he was obviously dangerous."

"Yeah, I know, I know."

"I just want to be sure you do. It's bad enough that you were putting yourself at risk, but you were endangering me and every other person there by allowing Ross to hang on to that gun. I know you're carrying a heavy load right now. But if Ross had taken anybody else with him, it'd be a hell of a lot worse."

Blair stared out the front windshield of the truck. The yellow lights made everything so ugly at street level. Artificial, flat and washed out. Daylight turned inside out, showing you what you were better off not seeing in the first place.

"And if he'd taken you out, Chief, it would have left me knowing I let you ride with me all this time, and never taught you to handle yourself." Blair looked back at Jim. He was staring out the front too, his hands wrapped hard around the steering wheel like he expected someone to try and take it away from him. "And I'm not real sure what I could do with that, you understand me?"

Blair understood. Probably too well. "I know," he said, swallowing hard. He made a fist and bounced the side of his hand off Jim's solid shoulder a couple of times. Unable to meet Jim's eyes just yet, he groped under his feet for his backpack, then swung himself out of the truck. Before he had gone five steps, Jim caught the shoulder of his canvas jacket, and when Blair stopped, he slung his arm around Blair's shoulders without a word. They walked the long block together, the weight of Jim's arm keeping Blair tucked possessively close all the way to the stairway door. There was a parking ticket on the windshield of the Volvo, all right, but it didn't seem to matter very much anymore.

* * *

That night Jim dreamed of Emily, and in his dream it seemed to him that things had worked out between them after all. They shared a house in the suburbs, he and Em, and though it was small and cramped, with low ceilings and no view of the bay, Emily was happy. Midafternoon sun shone through red gingham curtains on the kitchen window, and Emily jogged a smiling baby boy in her arms, cooing at him. Jim glanced down at his own hand and saw a wedding ring. The child must be his son. "Can I hold him?" Jim asked, feeling a contented sense of wonder.

Emily smiled with that toothy little overbite of hers Jim especially liked. Jack had always been pestering her to see an orthodontist -- hell, honey, I'll pay for it, and I won't even run around on you while you've got a mouthful of metal, ha ha -- and Jim was glad she had refused.

"Jim, of course," she said, and shifted the child carefully into his arms. He gathered his son to his chest, marveling a little at his solid weight, at the way his fuzzy, oversized head bobbled forward against his chest and then rested there, one tiny fist curled in contentment against his shirt front. Emily was smiling at him, and the sunlight spilled through the kitchen window to make an elongated square of light on the linoleum at their feet. This was the way things were supposed to turn out, Jim thought to himself. It didn't matter that the ceilings were too low and the neighbors too close. This was the ordinary life he had always wanted, wasn't it? He'd found it at last.

And then a shadow crossed the square of sunlight. It was shaped something like a man, although the head was terribly misshapen. Jim looked up fast, but whatever had cast the shadow was already gone.

"What is it?" Emily asked, and before Jim could answer, both of them heard the rattle at the front door, and a voice Jim had never expected to hear again calling, "Emily, let me in."

Emily's eyes widened in horror. "Jim," she breathed, "You told me he wouldn't be back."

"Emily, don't do this," called the voice from the front of the house. "I know I'm an old dog, but I can change."

"Jim," Emily said again, "Jim, how could you?" She took the baby from Jim's arms and both of them melted away like a morning fog, leaving Jim alone in the claustrophobic house with Jack Pendergrast banging at the front door.

Jack was shouting for him now. "Slick? Are you in there?" Jack, who had spent the last four years in an unmarked grave, his face full of shotgun pellets, the soft places in his throat and belly eaten by the fishes nine miles down the river. "Come on, they killed me while you were at home screwing my old lady, and now you won't even let me in the front door? Have a heart, Slick."

*NO,* Jim shouted in his mind and sat bolt upright in bed. His bedroom was drenched in sunlight. He curled over his bent knees, breathing hard. It was only a dream. Jack hadn't come back. Emily was another man's wife, and she deserved every happiness. He was still breathing hard though, soaked in a cold, uncomfortable sweat.

And it was the middle of the day. Good lord, no wonder he was having nightmares. He should have been on campus with Sandburg hours ago.

He crashed his way out of bed and went thundering down the steps bellowing for Blair. "Sandburg, get your lazy ass in gear. We're late."

There was no answer from Blair's bedroom. Jim pushed open the French doors, and saw the bed was empty. "Blair!" Jim shouted, and nothing answered him. He was alone in the loft.

Oh, this was crazy. No way Sandburg would have gone off and left him. Just to be sure, though, he stepped out again and checked. The chain was still on the front door, and Jim felt something very cold trickle down the back of his spine. Blair wasn't in the loft, but wherever he had gone, he hadn't left by the front door. Jim turned around slowly, trying to reach out with his senses, but they seemed blocked and sluggish somehow. He moved back into Blair's bedroom, trying to be calm, forcing himself to concentrate. There was a draft in here. How had he not noticed it before? The window that overlooked the fire escape was open.

This wasn't possible. This couldn't be possible. Moving like a sleepwalker he walked to the side of Blair's bed and looked down at the bedclothes. Sandburg wasn't big on making the bed every day. Or every week. But even he didn't sleep in a bed with the sheets yanked up from under the futon and spilled halfway across the floor. It looked as though Blair had grabbed them and tried to hang on while someone pulled him out of bed.

Madness. Jim could never have slept through something like that. It just wasn't possible. Nevertheless, he walked slowly around and looked at the floor between the bed and the window. The geometry of the room seemed all wrong. The angles had never been square, but now they tilted and verged on the edge of insanity. Jim had to shut his eyes against a wave of vertigo, and when he could open them again, he saw the line of muddy, bare footprints leading away to the window. There was an indescribably foul smell in the room, and as Jim clapped his hand over his nose and mouth, trying to block it out, he saw that little toe on the left foot was missing.

"Jack," Simon was laughing sadly in his head. "So vain of that damned toe he even showered with his socks on."

Jim woke himself screaming for Blair. He heard the last shout dying away as he awoke to the darkness of his bedroom, but it was only a hoarse whisper. He lay still, eyes wide open, heart pounding with remembered terror. He reached out violently, despairingly, and found Blair safely asleep in his room below. His senses were so wide open he could hear every rustle of the blanket as Blair's chest rose and fell in a deep, steady rhythm. Sandburg, at least, was untroubled by bad dreams tonight.

It had to be almost morning, didn't it? He looked toward the skylights, but could see no predawn glow. The disorientation of the dream threatened to seize him once more, and he rolled over fast to look at his alarm clock.

It was only 3:30. He'd barely been asleep for an hour.

Damn. He rolled back onto his back and looked glumly upward, not wanting to close his eyes again lest the images of the dream come back to him. Think about something else. Let it go. Don't let your emotions get involved, isn't that what he was always telling Blair? He had to smile a little at that. And Blair listened so earnestly to those little cop lectures too. He'd have to ask Blair someday if he believed a single word Jim said.

Then he heard it. A dull, loud click, like a heavy latch releasing, and then a softer sound, a muffled smack like a body impacting against something that wouldn't yield easily.

Jim was out of bed, his gun in his hand, and half way down the stairs, before he realized the sounds weren't coming from inside the loft. He froze, straining to hear, but he had lost his bearings completely and couldn't find it again. It could have come from anywhere on the block, hell, anywhere in the city, just about, as widely as he had cast his senses when he awoke in the first panic of the dream. It wasn't here, though. He made his way slowly down the stairs, listening to his surroundings, feeling them on the surface of his skin, assuring himself everything was safe and reasonable. Everything in order. He walked to Sandburg's bedroom door, pushed it open, and looked in on his friend. Blair lay on his back, one bare arm on top of the covers, looking peaceful as a child as he slumbered. Jim wanted to speak to him, to comfort himself with the sound of Sandburg's voice, but it wouldn't be fair to wake him just because Jim was having a bad night.

He backed away from the open door, but though he was as quiet as he could be, he heard the change in Blair's respiration, and then a sleepy, quiet, "Jim? Something the matter, man?"

"No, Jim said, and was not surprised to find that it was now the truth. "Go back to sleep."

Chapter 3

Blair's Anthro class met in a room on the fourth floor of the Chemistry building. There were lab tables instead of desks, white boards on every wall covered with scrawled formulae and, in the air, a lingering miasma of sulfur, formaldehyde, and other, less identifiable substances that made Jim flinch when Blair opened the door for him.

"Yeah, I know," Blair said, flashing a smile like sun breaking through on a stormy day. "You think they're trying to tell me something here? First no parking permit, then I get stuck in a chem lab all the way across campus from Hargrove. It's enough to make a guy paranoid." Then the smile was gone as the dull, resigned grief Blair had gotten up with this morning settled over his features once again. Jim felt a stab of anger at Ross, and it didn't matter that the kid was dead. In some ways that only made it worse. He put his hand on the center of Blair's back and followed him into the room.

Most of the seats were already taken. Blair had wondered over breakfast this morning if anyone would even show up for the class, but Jim had known better. "You called it, man," Blair said quietly, dumping his books and notes on the instructor's desk. It was another lab table, this one with a sink and gas jets and a length of rubber tubing coiled on one side. "There's people here I haven't seen since the first day of class."

Blair's students fell silent, watching with wide, unblinking eyes Jim found faintly unnerving. "You can just, um, sit down anywhere there's a seat, I guess," Blair told him. Jim raised an eyebrow at that, hoping to make Blair smile again, but Blair was already turning his attention to his class and away from Jim. A few last students had slipped in behind them, scrounging for the remaining seats. The backpacks slung over their shoulders made them clumsy as turtles trying to navigate a maze, so Jim walked to the back of the room to get out of the way and stood against the wall by the window. The sill was littered with ballpoint pen caps and vending machine food wrappers, and through the grimy pane, Jim could see students on the sidewalks far below scurrying to make their classes.

He looked back toward Blair, who had stopped fussing with his books and papers to shove his sleeve back, obviously looking for the watch he had forgotten to wear once again this morning. "Anybody got the time?"

"Five of," someone volunteered on the front row, at the same time another student said, "I have three minutes after."

"That's great, thanks," Blair mumbled, and stepped out to check the clock in the hall. While he was gone, curious heads swiveled to examine Jim gravely, and Jim found himself wondering how Blair got used to it. Not that Sandburg was exactly the shy type, but being the object of such dispassionate interest felt a little too much like being a lab rat to Jim. It was a relief when Blair came back into the room, and the unblinking, passive eyes turned back to the front. Blair walked around the desk, ignoring the notes he'd been worrying over, and smiled at his students. Not the Sandburg radiance that could blind Jim in unguarded moments, but a quirky, half-sad expression, sympathetic and somehow vulnerable. Under the influence of that smile Blair's class lost some of its air of watchful tension.

"The Nambikwara are a nomadic band in Brazil's northern plateau," was the first thing Blair said. "And despite the fact they live now with only the barest rudiments of material culture, some anthropologists speculate they're really a southern offshoot of the great Chibcha civilization, which was still flourishing when the Spanish arrived."

There was a sudden scrabble for notebooks and pens -- obviously no one had been expecting anything substantive today -- and a querulous voice called out, "Can you spell that for us, Mr. Sandburg?"

Blair held up one hand, palm out, an expression that was half surrender, half a plea for patience. "It was all in this week's reading, people. Give me a moment and just listen, all right?" He was wearing that ugly green checked blazer that was at least two sizes too big for him, his glasses were sliding down his nose, and he looked to Jim as though he had suddenly leapfrogged a decade or two, and was already deeply immersed in the role of tenured professor. An eccentric one at that. This was where Blair really belonged, wasn't it? The ride with Jim these past three years was only a stepping stone along Blair's path, not the end of the journey. Funny how hard it was to remember that sometimes. Even funnier how miserable that little reality check could make Jim feel.

He glanced back out the window. In just the minute or two since he had last looked, the sidewalk below had cleared. There was only one person below the window now, an anonymous student in jeans and three layers of flannel, clutching a tall white paper coffee cup identical to the ones half of Blair's students had brought with them to class this morning. The student seemed to be gazing up at Jim's window.

Jim narrowed his focus, trying to meet the eyes of the watcher outside the window. He zeroed in on a hazel - colored iris flecked with gold, the pupil shrunk to a pinpoint in the bright spring sunlight, and as he did, he felt the first, floating contentment of a zone begin to creep over him. Whoops. He shut his eyes fast, and turned his head before he opened them again. He half expected Blair to have noticed what was happening, and felt a foolish instant of disappointment when he saw Blair was going on with his lecture, quite oblivious.

"One unique aspect about Nambikwara culture is their lack of burial rituals. They mourn bitterly when a friend or family member dies, but they believe the souls of the dead are carried up into the air, dispersed by the wind, and vanish forever. The body of the deceased is simply left on the ground where he or she died."

Blair put his hands behind himself on the lab table and heaved himself up with a grunt and his usual disregard of personal dignity. His feet swung six inches off the floor. "You and me, though," he said in a quieter voice, "We live in a society with a very different attitude about the responsibilities the living owe to the dead."

Rubbing his palms on his jeans he went on, "We feel a debt to those who die before us. Even the body of the deceased is accorded reverence. It's as though, by showing respect to the carcass left behind, we can somehow assuage what is often a profound sense of indebtedness, even guilt, at our own survival. We owe the dead something tremendous, even though the very nature of that debt makes it one we can never repay, no matter what we do."

Finally Blair looked over the heads of his class for a moment, finding Jim before he said the rest. "Ross Malitz was shot to death last night in the research library. I suppose everyone here already knows that. The morning paper had a pretty accurate write-up. I heard the channel 11 news last night called it a gun battle, but it really wasn't. There was only one shot fired, and that was by Detective James Ellison."

There was little reaction from the class, but Jim didn't think it was callousness, necessarily. A degree of shock, perhaps, at hearing what they already knew described so starkly. Only one woman on the back row turned to look at Jim.

Blair's face was composed, his voice mostly level, save for the little rumble as it dropped too low. "I don't know why Ross did what he did last night, but I want to understand it, if I possibly can. It won't take away what I feel for having survived when he didn't. I know it won't change the way his family and friends feel either, or any of you here today. The thing is, not trying to understand is worse. For us, regardless of our beliefs about the afterlife, the dead continue to matter, long after they're gone. This is a debt I owe to Ross."

Blair's class was silent, no one shifting on those uncomfortable lab stools, not a piece of paper rustling. Jim turned his head to glance out the window once more, and saw that the student who had been watching Blair's classroom window from far below was gone. He extended his senses instinctively to search, finding a trail of footsteps and following the sound until he realized there was no scent of coffee nearby. He followed another thread of sound and scent as it pattered away across campus, footsteps on cement, then asphalt, the strong smells of patchouli and grass mingling above and almost drowning out a faint, slightly stale scent of coffee. That wasn't the watcher's trail either. Casting about further he found the sharp acidity of fresh coffee in a paper cup, and followed it until he distinguished the click of heels on linoleum bearing the coffee away. Wrong again. He found another trail, then another, following more for the challenge of the hunt than with any real hope of finding his quarry. Besides, he had entirely lost his bearings by this point -- was he even following sounds on campus anymore? -- when suddenly he happened across a sound and its entwined scent he didn't understand. Clumsy footsteps, shambling and slow, splashing through water. A sewer. Those smells, at least, were unmistakable. What he didn't understand was the impossibly faint, far away glimmer of scent that was Blair Sandburg.

A mistake. It had to be. Blair's presence here in the classroom must be fooling his senses, but it was a damned odd illusion, Blair's scent reflecting back to him from such a distance. He was still trying to puzzle it out when the sound of Blair's voice saying his name broke Jim's concentration, and he lost the trail and the scent altogether.

"That's Jim at the back of the room there. Any of you who have taken classes from me before, you've probably already met him, I guess, or at least seen him around campus. He's the detective with the Cascade PD who lets me tag around with him while I research my dissertation, so you know he's got to be a pretty easy going kind of guy, right?"

Blair raised his head to smile at Jim, and this time Jim hardly noticed the curious faces that turned to regard him once more. He even managed what he hoped would pass as the advertised easy going smile himself. "If there's anything any of you know about what was going on with Ross," Blair went on, "please, you can talk to either one of us. You can catch me at the office, or call, or drop me an email, whatever. Just let me know. Even if it's just to talk. Same with Jim. You can call him at the station if you don't catch him here on campus." Blair rattled off the phone number, then slid off the desk and walked around to write it on the board. There was hardly an inch of clear space on the board, so he wiped a smeary space clean for himself with his sleeve.

So that's how he was always ending up with black and red stains on his shirt sleeves, Jim thought. He'd wondered.

Then Blair stopped talking. The hand holding the board marker froze, and Blair just stood there looking at something in the tangle of numbers and Greek letters. The hesitation lasted only a moment, but when he finally wrote down Jim's number at the station, Jim saw his hand trembling. What in the world? He was on the verge of going to Blair's side himself, to hell with this classroom full of sheep, but Blair finally turned back on his own and looked at the faces of his students without speaking. A long moment passed. Too long. Heads finally turned aside or looked down to escape Blair's searching gaze, and at length Blair shook himself slightly and said in a quiet voice, "That's all for today. I don't think any of us are in the mood for a lecture."

The resulting gust of movement was as sudden and irreversible as dry leaves whirled away by the wind. Notebooks were slammed shut and stuffed into backpacks, lab stools shoved back, and students streamed out of the room as through blown by that imaginary wind. Blair stood at the front, his hands empty at his sides, white faced, saying in a voice that sounded forlorn to Jim, "If there's anything you can tell me about Ross, please, you can call any time. Just let me know."

If anyone was listening, they gave no sign of it, and in a moment more the room was empty of students. Jim pushed himself away from the back wall and walked to the front, where Blair was stacking his notes and books together. He didn't look up to meet Jim's eyes until Jim was on the other side of the desk from him. Then he straightened up and shrugged. "Guess I didn't handle that very well, did I?"

"There wasn't really any good way to do it," Jim said, reaching across to pat the side of Blair's face.

"I guess not," Blair agreed, a fragile smile appearing for an instant.

"What's on the blackboard?"

"Did I jump that much? Oh man, I wonder if everybody else saw it too?"

"What is it?"

"I don't know. Probably nothing, but it gave me a nasty shock. There I'd been talking about poor Ross, and then to turn around and see this on the board -- I dunno. Look at this."

In the midst of scribbled formulae in half a dozen different handwritings was a grid of symbols that did look different. Jim came around the desk to examine it more closely. "See what I mean?" Blair said. "When's the last time you saw Hebrew letters in the middle of a stoicheiometry problem?"

"It's been a while," Jim said dryly, and was rewarded with another quick smile. "What is it? Can you read it?"

"I think so." Blair ran his finger along the top line of letters. "Pe-gimel-resh. It means corpse. Or carcass, I guess. You see why I nearly lost it? And look at this." He traced a line of letters along the side of the little grid as well. "It spells the same thing going down too. Just at first glance, it looks half way like Hellenic iamblichan theurgy mixed up with the Qabala, but I'm not sure at all. Or maybe I've just got the book Ross stole on my brain, and everything is starting to look all mysterious to me now."

Jim seized on the only word he recognized. "Kabala? Like magic spells, fortune telling?"

"Well, kinda." Blair made a warding-off gesture with one hand, palm out, as though shutting himself up before he could begin another lecture. "I really don't know anything about it, that's just what it looks like to me. Or you know, Jim, maybe this is all just crazy. I bet you anything a class in Hebrew mysticism meets in this room too, and I really need to relax." He ran his hand back through his hair, pushing it out of his face and looked up at Jim earnestly.

"Or maybe it does mean something," Jim said.

"Yeah." Blair nodded fast and picked up his notebook. "Yeah, maybe it does. I'll find someone in the religion department who can tell me more about this." He copied the letters carefully, and when he had finished, Jim reached for his wrist and wiped the odd little grid of symbols from the board himself with the sleeve of Blair's coat. "Are you sure that was a smart thing to do?" Blair asked, hardly seeming to notice being used as a human eraser. "It might be evidence or something."

He had a point, actually. Erasing the symbols had been unthinking instinct. "Too late now," Jim said, since he couldn't really explain what he'd done.

Blair looked at him curiously, but in the end he didn't ask Jim about it. He simply gathered his notebooks into his arms and said, "Let's go."

* * *

Ross's dorm mate was a kid named Eddie Norton. He was just as thin and pale as Ross had been, and his T-shirt and jeans were black, as was the duster he wore against the cold April wind. Even so, Jim thought he believed Eddie when he protested plaintively that he hadn't had any idea what Ross was planning, or why he had wanted the book so badly he'd been willing to kill for it. He was red-eyed, and his voice shook when he answered some of Blair's questions, but he was glad enough to let Jim buy him a hamburger and a double order of cheese fries at the student union, and he ate them with a gusto that went a long way toward convincing Jim this was a kid too interested in living to have had anything to do with Ross's self-destructive plans.

"I mean, lookit," Eddie said, interrupting himself to stuff half a dozen dripping cheese fries into his mouth and swallow them apparently whole. "He couldn't have needed the money -- his folks own like half of Rhode Island. And how much money could you get from a weird old book anyway? It doesn't make sense."

"Rhode Island?" Jim asked. "He was a long way from home, wasn't he?"

"No kidding," Blair put in. "Rainier's a good school and all, but it doesn't usually attract rich New England kids."

Eddie shrugged and picked up his burger again. The hamburger patty was beginning to slip out the back of the bun, along with a mayonnaisey slice of tomato. "He went to school somewhere back east his freshman year. I can't remember the name of it now. No place I've ever heard of."

"Do you know why he transferred?" Blair asked.

A frown creased Eddie's white brow. Thinking was apparently an unfamiliar activity, and that tended to convince Jim as well that Ross had not shared his plans with Eddie. Ross hadn't acted any too bright either, but his delusions had seemed, if nothing else, the end result of too much thinking rather than too little. "No, I don't know why he came out here," Eddie said at last. He pushed the innards of his hamburger back into the bun. "He would talk about stuff sometimes, but that was just Ross. Shit, I can't believe any of this. Ross was whacked, but he was a pretty good bud. I can't believe he's gone."

"What kind of stuff did he talk about?" Blair's voice was gentle. "I know this is rough, but if you can help us understand what happened, it would mean a lot."

Eddie nodded, his grief not preventing him from taking another bite before he answered. The wind picked up, whistling around the end of Apter Hall, scattering papers from the tables of other students. It was a cold afternoon to be eating on the outside patio, but the rare golden light of a sunny day and the cloudless blue sky seemed worth braving the wind.

"I don't know," Eddie said at last. "Just stuff. It always sounded pretty cool but -- I don't know. Things that seem really mind-blowing when you've got a buzz on, but the next morning don't make all that much sense. You know what I mean?"

Blair nodded, shivering as a fresh gust of wind blew his hair into his face. "Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. What kind of stuff did Ross talk about?"

"You know, about Rainier, about all the people who were getting offed here."

"What?" Blair asked incredulously. "Offed? Murdered?"

"Well, yeah." Eddie looked at Blair as though he was a little thick. "You know, like that maintenance guy who got stung by poisonous spiders, and the professor in the anthro department who was killed in the parking garage out behind Hargrove, and then the chick who taught archeology. Ross would talk about how they were all related, really, but the cops and everyone were too stupid to figure it out." He glanced at Jim and shrugged with an apologetic grin. "Like I said, just crazy stuff."

"That is crazy," Blair said sharply. "Hal Buckner and Emily Watson -- there was no connection between their murders."

"Hey, I'm just telling you what Ross said. Other stuff, too. Did you know they were storing a canister of ebola right here on campus, and that it got stolen? They tried to hush it all up so there wouldn't be a huge panic, but Ross said he knew all about it, that it was all true. And that research farm the university runs? If people had any idea the kind of things they were really breeding out there they would freak, just totally freak."

Blair's jaw was set, and he was looking away from Eddie expressionlessly. His hair blew in his face, hiding his eyes, and he didn't push it aside. Jim said, "OK, so Ross believed there was all this sinister stuff going on here on campus, and that it was all connected somehow. You're right, Eddie, it's all pretty incredible. But what I want to know is what he thought the connection was."

Eddie made a face, scrunching up his nose. "Well, that's the part that never made all that much sense the next morning. But you know on those episodes on Star Trek, where something goes wrong and the hologram starts to buzz and get staticky and then Captain Picard or the Romulans or whoever it was can see through the hologram and see what's really there? Well, Ross said Rainier was like that, and if you were standing at the right place at just the right time, then when the hologram went down you would be able to see what was really there too. It could be really dangerous, which is why people keep dying, but Ross thought it would be totally cool too. He said he had it all figured out."

"I don't think I do," Jim observed mildly.

"Well, he didn't really believe Rainier was just a giant hologram," Eddie said. "At least, I don't think that's what he meant. But that's why he was so psyched about finally getting into your class, Mr. Sandburg." Eddie finally put down the remains of his burger, his face going sad again, as though he had just remembered his room mate had been shot to death last night.

"My class?" Blair turned. "He wanted to be in my class? Why?"

Eddie looked appealingly at Jim, as though Jim would understand what Blair was apparently too dense to get. "That's the only thing that was obvious about it. Whenever something bad happens on campus, Mr. Sandburg's like always there in the middle of it."

Blair reeled like a man who'd just been blindsided. "What?"

"Come on, man," Eddie said with a snort of disgust. "Don't act so stupid. It happened again last night."

The beep of Jim's cell phone interrupted them. Great timing, Jim thought in helpless exasperation. "Excuse me," he said, and rose and walked a step away from the table to take the call. "Ellison."

"Jim." Simon's voice, angry and curt. "Where the hell are you?"

"Here on campus with Sandburg, sir. Where you told me to be."

"Well now I'm telling you to get back to the station," Simon growled. "Everything's just gone to hell in a handbasket."

"Excuse me, sir." Something was really riding Simon's ass. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Dammit, Jim, someone broke into the morgue before dawn last night and stole Ross Malitz's body."

Chapter 4

Blair was waiting in the corridor outside Nagle's history seminar, hoping for a chance to talk to the professor when class let out. Hard to believe Professor Nagle or his medieval European seminar could have had anything to do with Ross's death, but Ross had mentioned Nagle that evening, so it couldn't hurt to check. Blair was covering all the bases. Doing things in neat, tidy Jim-fashion. Best way he knew to impose order on chaos.

And things were chaotic. Let's not forget crazy. Spooky crazy. Keep-looking-over-your-shoulder crazy. It was like David Lash all over again. Even worse, in a weird sort of way, and that was saying something. Eddie's story was a special little nightmare in a class all its own. Not that it was such a revelation to learn Ross hadn't been dealing from a full deck. That much, at least, had been abundantly clear during the last minutes of the kid's life. But if Eddie were to be believed, Blair had been the hapless star of Ross's private delusions for months. Maybe even for years. It was that cautious, careful, spider patience that made the face of Ross's madness so frightening. Just too damn much like David Lash, wasn't it? But even worse, because apparently Ross's delusions weren't so private after all. For crying out loud, someone had cared enough about them, or at least about Ross, to break him out of the morgue last night. David Lash's own father had refused to claim his son's body.

And hey, you know, wasn't it way, way past time to stop thinking about David Lash?

A door slammed somewhere in the building, and Blair flinched, drawing curious stares from students beginning to congregate in the hall for their next classes. "Not enough sleep last night," Blair offered with a shrug and a grin. "Always makes me jumpy."

Nobody smiled back. Not the jock in the Jags t-shirt, shoulders straining at the seams, no surprise there, but the little hippie girl in the broomstick skirt looked just as blankly at him, and the copper-haired, porcelain-skinned beauty queen who didn't even bother pretending to carry books around (a backpack would have wrinkled that linen dress) made a faint grimace of distaste. Okaaay. Blair's hands came up, making a whoa-excuse-me-for-living gesture. What was the matter with these people?

Or maybe a better question would be what was the matter with him. He was a walking bundle of nerves. No wonder he was weirding out the people around him. He needed to just calm down, stop thinking everyone he passed might be in Ross's coterie of true believers. Like his own class this morning. They had been so distant, so cold, when he talked about Ross's death. Had some of them known what Ross had been planning? Had one of them written those symbols on the board?

And on and on and on, and give it a REST already. That kind of thinking was just crazy, paranoid nonsense, because if Ross had been proselytizing, it hadn't been during class. Blair couldn't remember seeing him even talking to anyone else. He had just sat in the back row with a sullen frown on his face, barely even pretending to take notes. Not that anyone in that class had shown signs of becoming the next Richard Leakey. Spring quarter classes were notorious for attracting students who were only there because they'd suddenly realized they needed another GE on their transcripts, and Ross had seemed like another face in the listless crowd. Anyway, Blair thought, trying to be fair to his class, one of their classmates had been shot dead the night before. No wonder they'd been a little stunned and dull. Kids that age liked to pretend they had seen it all and were incapable of being shocked by anything, but Blair knew himself what a facade that was. At nineteen or twenty, firsthand evidence of one's own mortality wasn't accepted easily. Ross certainly hadn't accepted it. Right up until the moment Jim put a bullet in his head he'd been insisting on his own immortality.

Oh, good going, Blair. That line of thought will calm you right down.

Damn. Maybe it was childish of him, but he really, really wished Jim could have stayed on campus with him. They were supposed to be doing this together -- that had been the plan for today, before Ross's body had so inconveniently disappeared. Jeez, who could have anticipated something so crazy? Of course, knowing Simon's managerial style he was probably blaming Jim anyway. He'd have been happier scapegoating Blair, but Blair wasn't within reach. Jim was. So Blair wouldn't call, no matter how badly he wanted the reassurance of Jim's voice. He didn't have any new information, and Jim had enough on his hands. Jim was doing his job. He was counting on Blair to do his.

There, that was better. By the time the door to Nagle's classroom swung open and people began trickling out into the corridor in groups of two and three, Blair felt as though he was finally getting his emotions under control. Nothing to be ashamed of, still feeling shaky and vulnerable less than twenty-four hours after the shooting, but it wasn't useful either. It could be put aside for the time being, while Blair dealt with more important things.

He made his way into the classroom along with the students who were coming in for their next class, and saw Nagle still at the front of the room, surrounded by half a dozen students who were vying for attention, or simply listening with every evidence of being enraptured. Nagle's sharp black eyes darted across the room, picking out Blair instantly from the other people coming into the room, but he didn't pause in his monologue.

Blair sat on the corner of a desk in the front to wait. He had a passing acquaintance with Nagle. Back in the days when he had been trying to scare up a dissertation committee, Buckner had suggested Nagle for one of the required out-of-department committee members, so Blair had dutifully gone and talked to him. Professor Nagle had been profoundly unimpressed with Blair's prospectus, and told him so, but Blair really couldn't hold that against the man. Almost every faculty member he'd approached had turned him down. It had taken nearly 18 months just to put together a committee.

Nah, he had a much better reason to dislike Nagle, he thought, and had to laugh at himself. Jealous, Sandburg? Well, all right, maybe he was, just a little. Nagle was a hugely popular instructor. His lectures were dynamic, sparkling performances, brilliant, accessible, and funny. At sixty, he still wore his blue jeans convincingly, and had aquiline features and a shock of silver hair that made him an arresting figure. His classes routinely had waiting lists fifty names long, and his students adored him.

He was the kind of teacher Blair had always thought he could be too, at least in his secret, immodest, heart of hearts. Hey, he was funny, he was smart, he loved teaching, loved his subject matter, knew he could identify with his students, was certain he could connect with them. His first solo 101 class had been a revelation. It turned out not every important idea in the world could be made funny and accessible. And while he was close in age to his students, there was some stuff about them he'd just couldn't understand. The intellectual laziness, the fashionable ennui. The implicit demand that it was somehow his responsibility to coax them into wanting to learn. Blair just didn't get it. This was the whole world, and you only got one lifetime. Just one shot, folks, so what sort of lazy-assed blockhead would waste any opportunity? Sometimes, he even got exasperated enough to tell his class so, and by the end of his first quarter of teaching, he had figured out he would never be a very popular teacher.

Oh well, he still had a lot to learn about being a teacher, he knew. Funny how hanging out with Jim had made him realize that, more than all his years at the university ever had. And if there was anything Blair knew he despised, it was teachers who blamed their students for their own shortcomings. Look at him, already on his way to becoming just as bad. Maybe he should audit some of Nagle's classes sometime, see if he could pick up some tips.

The lecturer for the next class had arrived by then and, acquainted, no doubt, with the difficulty of prying Nagle out of the room, was drawing attention to himself by erasing the blackboard with wildly enthusiastic strokes. At length Nagle waved his lingering disciples away, saying, "Regular office hours on Thursday," picked up his briefcase, and made his way out of the room.

Blair had to take a few quick steps to catch up. "Excuse me, Dr. Nagle, if you have a minute, I need to talk to you."

Nagle never even slowed his pace. "Blair Sandburg, isn't it? No, I'm sorry, I have an appointment off campus. I'm afraid it will have to wait."

It was like trying to keep up with Jim, Blair having to take a step and a half for every one of Nagle's. "Please," he said, "this is important. It's about Ross Malitz."

"A terrible tragedy," Nagle said flatly. "You were there when it happened, weren't you?"

"Yeah," Blair said. "Yeah, I was. And now I'm doing the best I can to try and figure out why it happened."

The professor shook his head. "The only person who could have answered your question is dead already."

"Ross, you mean." They passed through the double doors out of the history building and into the brightness of a spring afternoon. The wind was blowing colder than ever, driving stray papers twisting and spinning across the lawn. Blair shivered and shoved his hands deeper into his coat pockets. "You're probably right -- I mean, of course you are, but I'm just trying to put together the pieces."

"What good can that do now?"

"Maybe none," Blair answered, choosing his words carefully. "But I won't know until I try. Ross was in your history seminar, wasn't he?"

"Clearly you already know that he was," Nagle said. "I resent being asked questions you already know the answers to. You sound like someone who's been hanging around police departments too long."

"I'm sorry," Blair said, a mostly sincere apology. "I'm just trying to understand the sequence of events. Did you know what book Ross was trying to steal? It was von Junzt's Unaussprechlichen Kulten. What's tough for me is figuring out how a guy who practically slept through all my classes knew the first thing about rare 15th century German witchhunting manuals."

Nagle turned his head and raised an eyebrow. "It seems you don't expect very much from your students, Blair. And von Junzt's treatise is not about -- about witchmongering." He spat the word out with distaste.

"So you did talk about the book in class?"

"I certainly discussed Rainier's collection. This is a seminar on the late medieval mind -- of course I wanted my students to be aware of the treasures we have here. The Bollingen Collection is the finest of its kind west of the Mississippi. With the exception of Cornell's White collection and of course Miskatonic's library holdings, it's probably the finest in the country."

"The Bollingen Collection. Right, that's right, I know a little bit about it. Books on alchemy and magic and stuff. The first president of Rainier purchased them from monasteries and private libraries all over Europe while he was in service as minister plenipotentiary to Berlin. I've never had much opportunity to use them in my field, but I understand there are a lot of pretty amazing books."

Nagle nodded in grudging approval. The brick walks were crowded with students hurrying to make their classes, and Blair had to turn sideways to make room for the flow of people going the opposite direction. Nagle didn't wait, and Blair stepped off onto the grass and half-jogged to catch up to him. "But the book Ross took. Did you mention it specifically in class?"

"I really don't remember."

"Was the von Junzt book particularly rare or valuable?"

"Rare? Well, all the books in the collection are rare and unusual, but this one was merely a seventeenth century reprint. There were many books that would be worth more to a collector of antiquities than that particular volume." Both he and Blair had to stop and wait at the crosswalk to the north campus parking lot.

"Can you think of anything at all? I'm just trying to figure out why, of all the books Ross might have asked for, he wanted that particular one. So it wasn't about witchcraft. Then what was it about?"

At a break in the traffic, Blair stepped out into the crosswalk, expecting Nagle would continue on his precipitous way. Instead though, the professor just kept standing on the curb, an expression on his face, Blair saw when he stepped back, as though he were making up his mind about something.

"Von Junzt's Kulten has a special status, I suppose you could say," Nagle explained at last. "It's one of those books that's widely known by specialists in the field, but seldom actually read."

"Oh, I understand," Blair agreed quickly. A definite thawing, there, wasn't it? "Like anthro profs that I swear get all their information on Girard from the digests, or lit people who've never really made it all the way through Middlemarch."

Nagle almost smiled. Probably the same smile that enthralled his undergrads, but Blair could live with that. At least they were finally making some progress.

"As a young man in the service of Count Palatine of Siradz, Gottfried von Junzt traveled as far east as Constantinople. In the course of his travels, he observed certain, ah, survivals that were very surprising to an educated man of his day."

"Survivals?" Blair darted a quick glance over his shoulder, suddenly having the unpleasant sensation he was being watched. The walks behind him were crowded with students and faculty. If someone had their eyes on him, there was no way for him to know it. Feeling the cold wind more keenly, Blair pulled his coat tight, crossing his arms over his chest. "Survivals of what, exactly?"

Nagle cocked his head, black eyes sparkling in the sunlight. "It would probably be an anachronism to call them religious observances. Say, then, certain rites and practices that were already ancient when Sarab and Ganj-Dareh themselves were young."

Blair fell back a step, struggling to keep his face neutral. "Von Junzt noticed that Marian shrines looked a little bit like pagan goddess worship?" he said, wondering if the tone of his voice betrayed him. "Something like that?"

"Oh no. Oh, no, even the ancient fertility cults are only a cover for something far older. Rites that came down from the Pa I-Taq Pass to Samarra on the banks of the Tigris, and thence to Ur and Nippur."

"Dr. Nagle," Blair interrupted, "A man of von Junzt's time couldn't have known about Kermanshah villages, I don't care how widely traveled he was. Excavations didn't even begin until the 19th century, and I seriously doubt he would even have known anything about Samarran caravan routes. What are you talking about here?"

"I'd expect an anthropologist to understand. Mankind's oldest secret. The dark rites that predate civilization, that will continue long after civilization's end."

Blair wiped his hand over his mouth. He could feel himself trembling. "Professor, is that the sort of thing you've been telling your class?"

"What a closed mind you have, Blair. Surprising from a scholar who's based his own life work on finding Burton's superman."

He's baiting you, Sandburg. Blair could almost hear Jim's voice saying the words in his head. You hit the jackpot, all right, so keep it cool, and don't lose your head now.

He met Nagle's mad, bright black eyes steadily. Jim was right. There was no point in arguing with a lunatic. "At any rate," Blair said, keeping his voice quiet so it wouldn't shake, "it sounds to me as though you did discuss Kulten with your class. Probably extensively."

Nagle gave a little shrug of acknowledgement. "It would be difficult to conduct a class in the medieval world view responsibly without discussing von Junzt's findings. Naturally, there was no reason for me to go into detail. Not with a class of undergraduates, at any rate. Now if you'll excuse me, I do have to be going."

"Go into detail about what?" Blair asked, physically moving in front of Nagle before he could step into the crosswalk.

Nagle laughed, whether at the question or at Blair's attempts to impede his progress, Blair didn't know. "There's a very good reason von Junzt's book is often spoken of, yet seldom read. Not all knowledge is a good thing, is it, Blair? You know that as well as I do." He grinned at Blair. "Like the kids say, 'Too much information, man.'"

Blair was really starting to hate that smile. "How about this?" he asked. He swung his backpack off his shoulder and dragged his notebook out.

"Blair, I'm going to be late," Nagle complained mildly.

"This," Blair said, flipping it open to the grid of symbols he'd copied from his classroom board. "Is this from Kulten?"

He couldn't read Nagle's expression at all. He looked down at Blair's notebook, and then up at Blair with a face as blank as an egg. "Dr. Nagle?" Blair prompted at last, at the same moment his cell phone shrilled in his backpack, the sound startling them both.

Dr. Nagle shook himself and stepped away. "I'm late," he announced, and took off across the street, half-loping in his haste. Blair was tempted to follow, but hoping it was Jim calling him, he dug out the phone instead and let Nagle go. "Sandburg."

God, it was good to hear Jim's voice.

"Jim, you won't believe the conversation I've been having with Ross's history professor. He is nuts man, lock 'im up and throw away the key certifiable." Blair turned and started to walk back toward Hargrove, trying to keep his voice down and thinking, as he stepped off the sidewalk onto the grass to keep from getting run over by a pack of sorority girls in matching plaid wool miniskirts, how much he hated people who walked around chatting on cell phones. "The things he's been telling his class, I don't know, it's no wonder Ross went off the deep end. Somebody's got to get that man out of the classroom before he can screw up any more kids, and I wouldn't be surprised if he told Ross to steal the book himself. What's up at the station? Do you need me to come down there? Can you get Simon to ask for a warrant? I think somebody should search Nagle's office. There's no telling what you'd find."

"Whoa, hold on, hold on. Who is this guy?"

"Peter Nagle. A history professor here. Ross was in his class -- they had talked about the book Ross tried to steal in class."

"Doesn't sound like a lot to go on."

"No, Jim, you don't understand. You should have heard this guy, trying to tell me about secret rituals dating back to paleolithic times, practically. Crazy stuff. I expected him to tell me next that aliens built the pyramids. I'm telling you, this is not the sort of thing you'd expect to hear from a tenured history professor. Something is way wrong there. You gotta trust me on this."

"OK, OK, sounds like we should both have a talk with him."

"What's going on at the station? You find out anything?"

Jim sounded tired. "Just that whoever stole Ross's body had to have followed the ambulance straight from the school last night, been right here in the station with us."

"What? Are you sure?"

"I'm sure. The perpetrators broke out of the morgue last night, not into it. They must have been locked in with the body."

"Oh my god." Blair stopped dead. "Jim, this is all just too weird. You want me to come down to the station?"

"No, I'm sorry, Chief, that's why I'm calling. Ross's parents are flying in, and they're due any time now. Simon doesn't want you around while they're here."

"Jim, I don't think --"

"He's got a point. This isn't a good time to draw any more attention to your observer status than we have to. Not while things are still such a mess down here. You can imagine how the comissioner is breathing down Simon's neck on this."

"OK," Blair agreed reluctantly. "All right, I guess so."

"Good man. I'll see you tonight. Might be late getting home."

"All right, I --"

When he realized he was talking to a dead line, Blair turned off the phone and stuffed it into his backpack. Just when he thought things couldn't get any stranger, he thought ruefully. What next?

And then there it was again, dammit, that creepy, cold air on the back of his neck feeling. He whirled around fast, just in time to lock eyes for an instant with a woman across the quadrangle, standing on the steps of the Law Library. Blair raised his hand in a tentative wave, even though he didn't recognize her, and the woman quickly ducked her head and turned away.

Chapter 5

Blair realized he hadn't stopped thinking about Lash. He was thinking about him as he crossed to the Law Library and walked through the lobby and the first floor stacks, not actually looking for the girl he'd seen watching him, just refusing to turn his back on her, because that was the mistake he'd made with David Lash. Turned his back on him. When he'd seen Lash reflected in the window of the cab, some part of his brain had already started putting the pieces together, but what had he done about it? Nothing but glance over his shoulder and be mostly relieved to see that whatever had cast the reflection of someone who was Blair and yet so absolutely not-Blair had already stepped out of sight. Out of sight, out of mind. That sort of thinking had allowed Lash to herd him home like a scared sheep split off from the flock. Practically invited Lash to grab him.

Well, never again. Never, ever again. Hey, there was a time and place to turn tail and run, he knew that. But not when running was exactly what your enemy wanted you to do. Assuming there were any enemy here at all. Assuming the girl he'd glanced from across the quad had really been watching him in the first place. For instance, maybe she'd just seen him from across the way and been so taken by his boyish good looks she hadn't been able to tear her eyes away. Blair grinned to himself, cheered for a minute. Right, Sandburg. Well, it was just about as likely as assuming she was in Ross's big secret posthumous cult.

Or maybe it was Nagle's.

At any rate, it was a moot point because there was no sign of her here, and the longer he walked through the stacks, peering around every carrel and glancing into the windows of all the conference and study rooms, the less certain he became he'd even recognize her if he saw her again. She'd been wearing blue jeans, right? With some sort of flannel jacket and shoulder length light brown hair. In other words, just like half the students on campus. In all probability she'd gone right through the building and out the other end, taking the shortcut between the student union and the upperclass dorms on the north side of campus, and he was completely wasting his time.

He turned around and went back out the double front entrance again, blinking in the bright sunlight. The sky was a hard, clear, cloudless blue, and budding trees on the quad were bent double by the bitter wind, their branches outstretched like imploring arms. Spring or not, Blair was freezing. Maybe he had another coat in his office he could get. Probably he had half a dozen. He was bad about leaving them at school and then being forced to borrow Jim's. Which was fine until he left Jim's at the office too.

Then he should see what he could find out about Peter Nagle. That had to come first, whatever else happened with the investigation. It would take a helluva smoking gun to get a tenured professor out of the classroom, but the man was bad, bad news. Blair had to try before any other kids ended up like Ross. He'd look up Nagle's vita, check his publications, see if he had committed any of his lunatic ideas to print. Hard to imagine anyone would publish his rantings, but it was a place to start.

There, that sounded like a plan. Then catch the bus back home and see what was up with Jim. The poor guy had sounded beat on the phone, and with Ross's parents arriving, the worst was yet to come for him. Blair would get to the loft first, be sure there was a good dinner in the oven for them both. Least he could do. And if that meant he would have to be sure and leave campus well before dusk, well, then, so that's what it meant. He shook his head at his own skittishness but didn't try to argue himself out of it as he half-jogged across the quadrangle, his backpack jouncing on his back and his hands shoved deep in his pockets as protection against the cold wind.

* * *

Ross's parents didn't want to see Jim, and he was unabashedly relieved by that, though he would have talked to them if they had asked. Even over Simon's protests. It was Simon's job to protect the department, and any expressions of sympathy could come back to haunt them in the liability suit the grieving parents might bring one day down the road. Jim knew that. He even understood it, in the same way he understood why a two-bit stickup artist with a couple of convictions behind him would kill the clerk at the next store he robbed, rather than leave an eye witness who could send him up again. Understanding the point of view didn't mean he agreed with it. As far as Simon's concern about liability issues went, well, there was a limit. You couldn't let lawyers dictate your humanity, because once you did, you were well on your way to forgetting what justice was supposed to be all about. Too many people in the system like that already.

Something about having Sandburg around made it all the more important to stand fast against the creeping, incremental compromises, too. Jim had never been very good at those games anyway, as Carolyn had always been quick to tell him. Simon didn't exactly keep his opinions to himself either. But with Sandburg there, watching him in unguarded moments with that -- that look in his eyes. Like Jim could save the whole world if he wanted to, given enough time. It would be an impossible expectation to try and live up to, except Blair never gave Jim time to think about it. The very next minute he'd be pushing Jim toward the door demanding they go to Waterfront Park while the wind was coming out of the west and a fog was rolling in, and they should do a couple of experiments to see how that affected his ability to judge distance and by the way Jim, you didn't really want to go to that steakhouse tonight for dinner, did you? Not when there's a great new Vietnamese place that's just opened up, organic AND vegetarian, sounds great doesn't it?

Jim smiled to himself, shaking himself out of his musings. As a matter of fact, the Vietnamese place had been pretty good. Worlds better, at any rate, than the fast food Mexican joint where Jim had stopped on his way to the station this afternoon. The soda he'd gotten with lunch had been sitting mostly forgotten on his desk all afternoon, and a puddle of condensation was slowly spreading from its base, advancing on a stack of files in inexorable degrees. That really had to be dealt with, sooner rather than later by this point. Jim picked up the paper cup, swinging it out in a wide arc to try to avoid dripping all over the desk, and succeeded about as well as he had expected he would. Now he had a puddle of condensation on the desk and an arc of water droplets splattered across all the files and papers. What a mess. Looked like Sandburg had been sitting there.

He carried the cup over to the water fountain, still dripping water with every step, pried off the lid, and dumped the remains down the drain. The melted ice had settled in a layer of water on top of the darker soda, and they poured out together in mingling ribbons, circling the drain and disappearing down the tiny holes punched in the metal. There were sparkles of round brightness where the surface tension held bubbles of water poised for an instant before they broke and were replaced with darkness.

"It's called a water fountain." A heavy hand fell on Jim's shoulder, the weight of it and the sound of Joel's amused voice bringing Jim back. "Makes you wonder what they'll think up next, don't it?"

"Hey," Jim said, shaking his head. He'd been gone there for a minute, hadn't he? He crumpled the empty cup in his hand and dropped it into the trashcan across the way. A neat hook that would have made Sandburg proud. "Little tired is all."

"Yeah, I hear you. How you feeling? IA got their claws into you yet over this?"

"Not yet. I've got an appointment in the morning, but I don't think it'll be any problem. It was pretty cut and dried."

"Hell of a thing, though. Come on, a library book? And now the body's missing? Makes you wonder what's next. Is Sandburg all right?"

"Little shook up. He's all right."

"Good." Joel nodded. "Good. You tell him he's doing all right."

"I will."

"Hey, he's keeping you on the straight and narrow." He elbowed Jim in the ribs, hard enough for Jim to feel it, laughed at Jim's exaggerated wince. "I know that's gotta be a fulltime job."

There was a trail of dark drops leading back to Jim's desk, and the puddle of condensation on the surface had reached the end of his desk and was dribbling to the floor a drop at a time. Have to wipe that up. Jim scanned the other desks, looking for napkins left over from somebody else's takeout lunch. Water continued to fall, a quick rush of droplets spilling over the edge, then slowing, and Jim was still standing there, thinking about the grid of little round holes in the drinking fountain drain. Sparkling with reflected light for a moment as they held the water, then rushing away into darkness.

Jim could hear things in the darkness. Water splashing in vaults of stone and metal. And the other thing. It was really always with him, wasn't it? All he had to do was be still a bit and listen. Footsteps coming in slow procession. Clumsy but indefatigable. For the love of heaven, Chief, what is that?

And then, just like before, something of Blair shimmered out at him from the darkness, bright as a lock of his curly hair in the sunlight. He reached for it, scent, sound, a vision, touch or taste, but whatever he was sensing, it was too subtle to be caught. Something had caught Blair, though. What other explanation could there be? Why else would Blair be with something that shuffled endlessly through the wet, stinking darkness?

"Jim! What's wrong with you? Siddown before you fall over."

Joel was practically holding him up, both big hands wrapped in the shoulders of Jim's coat. "I'm OK," Jim heard himself muttering. He brought up his hands, trying to pull free, but Joel wasn't buying it. He steered Jim forcibly around and sat him down at his desk.

"Are you sick? You look like you've seen a ghost."

Jim shook his head. "I'm fine," he lied. "I'm fine." He couldn't find his way back to the darkness now, the way his heart was pounding in his chest, certainly not with Joel still leaning over him, one hand still on his shoulder.

Jim groped for the telephone on the desk and punched in Blair's number. It rang once, twice. One more time and Jim was going to hang up and drive straight to campus himself, but then Blair picked up the phone, saying, "Hey Jim, is that you? You should have called me on my office phone. These calls cost money, you know."

I know, Jim thought, weak with relief at the sound of Blair's voice. He was the one who paid the cell phone bill, and it had never seemed a better investment than it did at this minute.

"What's going on?" Blair said. "Has anything new turned up?"

"Is that Sandburg?" Joel asked. Jim nodded, and at that, Joel finally let him go and moved away to his own desk, still scowling with worry.

"No," Jim said. He swallowed. "No, nothing new on this end. We might have something when the fingerprint analysis comes back. I was just wondering -- uh -- if you wanted a ride home this evening."

"Sure," Blair said happily. "When have I ever turned down a ride? Are you leaving now?"

How he wished he could. "No. It may be a little while. Simon's meeting with Ross's parents. He wanted me to stick around until after they left."

Blair's voice was warm with sympathy. "Do they want to talk to you?"

"Not so far. It may be a couple of hours, though. I'll just give you a call before I leave."

A moment of hesitation, then Blair said, "You know, it's a little after five now. I was just gonna catch the bus home anyway. Tell you what, I'll go ahead and do that, then I can have a good dinner started by the time you walk in the door. I think we could both use some home cooking. I'll even thaw out a sirloin for you. Heck, I'll get one out for me too. It feels like a red meat sort of night."

There had to be some good reason to tell Blair to just stay put on campus until Jim could get there. A reason besides persistent auditory hallucinations anyway.

"Jim? Hey, Jim, are you all right?"

Or maybe he could just blow off Simon and go pick up Sandburg right now. "I'm all right," was all Jim said.

"I've got a better idea," Blair announced in a quiet, quick voice. "I'll come down there, meet you at the station and we can head home together. Don't worry about Simon, I'll be invisible. Nobody will even know I'm there."

Sandburg going unnoticed. Oh yeah. Things might be a little crazy and out of sorts today, but not THAT crazy. "Nah, Blair, your first idea was better. I'll see you at home. Need me to pick up anything for this big dinner?"

"Not that big. Just salad and some veggies and I think we've got plenty of frozen. I'll be sure not to start anything that won't keep in case you get held up there. I should just expect you when I see you. Is that about the size of it?"

"Sounds like it. Listen, Sandburg --"

"What is it?"

Jim looked at the puddle of water on his desk. Most of the water had bled away onto the floor, and little more than the outline remained. "Blair, this is a funny kind of case. Just keep an eye out, all right?"

"Hey, I always do," Blair assured him. "Jim, listen to me for a second here, though. You're really all right?"

"I'm all right," Jim said. "See you tonight."

* * *

Blair wasn't so sure Jim was all right. When was the last time Jim had called him just to say hello? There'd been the excuse of offering a ride home, but that had only been an afterthought, Blair knew. He sat there in his office after Jim hung up the phone, thinking about it. Wondering if he should show up at the station anyway, because it sure sounded as though Jim needed some moral support there. Blair was feeling pretty shaky himself, but Jim was the one who had pulled the trigger last night. No matter how justified it had been. Despite the fact there had been no other way, it must be rough on Jim, especially with Ross's parents there. It made Blair's heart ache to think about it.

In the end, though, he decided to go straight home after all. If Jim was having a hard time, Blair showing up at the station when he'd been emphatically uninvited wouldn't help. Sighing, he stuffed the books and xeroxes he'd gathered during the afternoon into his backpack, found Jim's nice brown bomber jacket hanging on the back of his office door, and jogged across campus to the bus stop where he was just in time to see he'd wasted so much time dicking around trying to make up his mind that he'd missed the five-twenty bus.

Shit. It was a fifteen minute wait until the next one, and it was cold outside. He sat down on one of the concrete benches, the cold leeching quickly through his blue jeans. Man, was he ready for summertime. April was lovely and all, but it was just too damn cold for him. He dug a handful of photocopies out of his backpack to distract himself while he waited. Professor Peter Nagle's academic legacy. Nagle wasn't a prolific author, but the articles he had published were in sound journals. Blair didn't much expect to find ranting about secret religious rites in them, and glancing over them as he had copied them seemed to bear out his prediction. He read over the first article in his stack with more care, doggedly looking for something -- a word, a phrase, just a hint of the same craziness that had gleamed from Nagle's eyes this afternoon.

Nothing. Just brittle post-structuralist play, punning deconstruction of texts in four languages. Densely composed, even brilliant in their way, if a little dated by now. Utterly empty. Clean as a newly white-washed room. Nagle wrote about the forces and counter forces of Catholicism and Protestantism, sacred and profane languages, the rise of literacy, witchcraft prosecutions, the education of women and the tradition of alchemical texts with assurance and verve. Blair couldn't fault his scholarship, though he felt his lip curling at Nagle's characterization of the ecclesiastical courts who sentenced countless thousands to die at the stake as victims themselves of stresses in the texts. (Can you put down your Derrida for a half a second, Professor? People died here.)

Whatever Blair thought about the critical approach, though, there was no substance to condemn Nagle in these articles. He even mentioned Unaussprechlin Kulten in one, in connection with a related work, De Vermis Mysteriis, but he afforded them the same treatment as every other text and historical event mentioned in his article. Simply fodder for the great critical guns. The author's own beliefs -- however nutso they might be, Blair thought gloomily -- simply didn't enter into it.

Well, it had been a thought. Most of the other articles looked the same, and after only glancing through a few more, he stuffed the rest of them back into his backpack. His fingers were too cold to hold the papers, and besides, wasn't it about time for the bus to get here? He stood up and walked to the curb to look, despite the way it violated his superstitious certainty that looking for a bus was the best way in the world to be sure it never arrived. Why hadn't he just waited for Jim to show up? A couple more hours on campus wouldn't have killed him. He had just been sick and tired of feeling like everyone was watching him, that's what it had been, and he wanted to escape to the safety of the loft.

Oh well. He'd be home soon enough. If the bus ever arrived. He had to step out into the street to see around a green Chevy Nova parked inconveniently up the hill above the bus stop, the late afternoon sun reflecting blindingly off the windshield, and hello, can you say hallelujah, brother? There was the bus at last. What a hell of a day. It was going to feel so good to get home.

He piled on board with half a dozen other riders, most of them people Blair knew from the same route. He forgot to look at the readout after he fed his debit card through, but he knew he was getting pretty low. Might not even have enough for another ride, so he'd better check that before he got on a bus again. There were some empty seats near the back, and Blair snagged one for himself, sinking down on the hard molded plastic with relief. It beat the heck out of that ice cold concrete bench. It was stuffy in the bus, and a little too warm, and someone a seat or two over was playing a walkman at such earsplitting volume Blair could hear the tinny bass rattling through the seats, but at least he wasn't cold anymore.

The rush hour streets of Cascade slid past the grimy windows in fits and starts. Blair settled back as well as he could on the unyielding seat, his arms crossed over his backpack on his lap, and let his eyes close. At once he felt himself beginning to drift. Slow and easy, back and forth, gliding into darkness like a skater making ever-widening circles on a frozen lake somewhere deep in a snow-wrapped forest. Night was falling, stars twinkling one by one in an indigo sky, and still the skater turned and turned. Ice hissed under her blades, and the forest pressed closer, and there was something odd about the outline of the trees against the sky. Blair looked, trying to understand, but the cold caught in his throat and he awoke with a violent start.

Oh man. He sat up straighter, pushing his hair out of his face. Man. Have to watch that. Last time he'd fallen asleep on the bus he hadn't woken up till the end of the line. Let's not even talk about how much that would suck tonight. He looked out the window, hoping they were near home. Nope. They hadn't even crossed Main. He wiped his eyes, almost regretting his promise to make dinner tonight. It'd be nice to get home and just catch a little shut eye.

On the other hand, Jim would be just as tired, and he wasn't even on his way home yet. Have a heart, Sandburg. OK, so he didn't regret promising Jim dinner. All he had to do was stay awake until he got home. He pulled out the sheaf of xeroxes that was starting to look a little crumpled by this point, and smoothed the last one down over his backpack. It was the only one that looked different from the others, if for no other reason than the journal it had appeared in. The Illinois Journal of American Folklore? Didn't sound like Nagle's bag, and neither did the topic. "Notes Toward an Originating Source for a Dis-Arming Prank Tale."

No, it didn't sound like Nagle at all. In fact, it sounded so far afield he'd checked twice before he'd even bothered copying it. But no, this was Rainier's Peter Nagle all right. The writing was breezy and familiar, a nice change from the high critical sterility of the other articles. In it, Nagle recounted an urban legend that had been current at least since the 1920's, with dozens of versions recorded at various colleges all over the country in the past seventy years. In most versions of the story, a malicious medical student decides to play a prank on his girlfriend by leaving an arm borrowed from an autopsy cadaver in her bed. The girlfriend arrives home, and when the waiting boyfriend doesn't hear the anticipated screams, he breaks into her room to find the prank has gone horribly wrong. Blair found himself wondering how a prank like that could ever have gone right. At any rate, so the story went, the girlfriend's hair has turned white as snow, and she's crouched in a corner of the room chewing on the arm ... driven completely out of her mind.

Great story, Blair thought. Remind me never to date a doctor.

In his article, Nagle went on to suggest the genesis of the story could be found in events that actually transpired at Rainier in 1927. Rainier's first president Rudolph Bollingen, long since retired, still lived in a grand Victorian house just off campus. A very old man by then, suffering from senile dementia, he was attended by a housekeeper who had been with him for decades and could not have been much younger than her employer. At length, it was noticed that no one had entered or left Bollingen's home for several days. When all attempts to rouse the occupants failed, the police entered the house and found poor old Rudolph strangled to death in his bed. His ancient housekeeper had apparently hacked off both his forearms with a carving knife, and when the police found her, she was engaged in boiling them in a stewpot on top of the stove.

Whew. Well, that was a pretty story. Blair watched the view outside the bus window for a few minutes, reassuring himself with the view of ordinary people walking down ordinary streets, no lunatics or cannibals in sight, before finishing the article.

The official explanation, and certainly the right one, was that Rudolph Bollingen's housekeeper had been as mad as her employer, her own dementia going unnoticed until it was far too late. The story on campus, as one would expect, ascribed more lurid motives to the grisly events. Bollingen's legendary collection of books on magic and exotica had still been housed in his home at the time, though they were promised to Rainier in his will. The story went that reading those books had driven Bollingen mad decades before, and his housekeeper had followed him into madness when she had read them in turn, thinking only to while away the long night hours alone in a house with a poor lunatic.

Yeah. A great story all right, and Nagle told it all with a certain ghoulish glee that seemed in keeping with his attitude this morning. But something else was bothering Blair. In the article Nagle pointed out how the old story about the "cursed" book collection had lingered on at Rainier in various guises for decades, giving a peculiar twist to other urban legends. When they were told on Rainier, they took on an edge of madness that was often absent in other versions, a peculiarity Nagle ascribed to the existence of the Bollingen collection, and faint memories of a horror connected with it that lingered long the original events had been mostly forgotten.

Nothing so surprising about that. It was the nature of legends that had any whisper of truth at their back to spread thinner and thinner with retellings and the passage of time. But what was odd was that Nagle hadn't said anything about it this morning when Blair had asked him about one of the books in the Bollingen collection. Instead, he'd fed Blair a line about dark horrors from prehistory, and then just grinned when Blair had floundered in protest. Was THAT why he'd been grinning? Because he'd been pulling Blair's leg?

Christ, a kid was dead. Nagle wouldn't have been joking at a time like that. Would he? Blair shuffled back through the earlier articles. High and dry, unemotional academic exercises unaffected by the tens of thousands of women and children dead at the hands of men Nagle described as victims of intertextuality. You know, maybe it wasn't so far fetched. Maybe Nagle had been laughing at him all along.

His face started to burn. Blair raised cold fingertips and touched his cheek. Red hot, all right. He was way out of his depth. Losing all sense of perspective, chasing phantasms, letting an arrogant SOB like Nagle toy with him. God, he needed Jim. Jim wouldn't have let Nagle get away with it for a minute. What a screwup he was turning out to be on his own. He crammed the papers back into his backpack, shaking with anger, feeling more than a little sick.

A screwup who was just about to miss his stop. He leaped to his feet, yanked the bell and stumbled to the back doors, lurching as the bus jerked to a stop on the other side of Prospect. The cold dusk air burned his flushed cheeks like dry ice as the double back doors swung open. He took the long step down to the street, and the bus rattled away behind him.

Deep breaths. Calming breaths.

Oh like hell. He swung his backpack violently over his shoulder and stalked to the intersection, waiting impatiently for the light. Where were all the cars coming from anyway? Yeah, rush hour, whatever. The instant the light changed he stepped out in the street, heard tires squealing on the pavement, and looked up to see a green Chevy Nova fishtailing across the lane. No way it could stop in time. No way. He stumbled backward, trying to get out of the way, caught the heel of his shoe on the curb and fell hard on his butt on the sidewalk, skinning the palms of his hands on the concrete. The Nova swerved through the crosswalk, one tire bumping up onto the curb, and Blair was eye level with a dented chrome bumper like the maw of a unsouled beast.

Chapter 6

He knew the car would stop in time. He knew the wheels would roll backward off the curb, not make one last revolution forward. No question in his mind. The late afternoon sun was shining low on the horizon, and the sky was pale in the last hours before sunset, and there was no way he could be run over trying to cross Prospect on his way home. He kept scrabbling and flopping backward anyway, since the universe might not realize this was all some ridiculous mistake, until at last he sat on a strap from his backpack and went sprawling, his legs kicking out like a beetle flipped on its back. He looked helplessly up at the sky too beautiful to die under, feeling the corner of a book digging into his spine. The car was so close the heat of the engine panted across his legs.

And then, nothing. The dead sound of the engine stalling out, then of a car horn somewhere on the other side of the intersection blatting impatiently. Blair rolled over. The palms of his hands were burning. His elbows hurt, as well as his butt, and he could hear the tinkle of broken glass inside his backpack. That would be his thermos liner, wouldn't it? Third one this year. The car was still on the sidewalk, barely three feet from him, and he crawled away so he wasn't right in front of the grill. He was breathing in quick gulps of air, and he was shaking too badly to stand up just yet. The driver's door swung open, and he saw scuffed running shoes and blue jeans swing out. The driver was talking in terrified gasps of sound. "Oh god," she said. "Oh god, oh god."

"Take it easy," Blair muttered. "Nothing's broken."

"I'm so sorry. I was watching the bus and I didn't even see the light change. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry." She crouched beside him on the sidewalk, babbling in shock. Straight, fine brown hair swung forward, partially hiding her face, but Blair recognized her all the same.

"It's all right. I'm all right."

"God, I'm sorry. I could have killed you. Mr. Sandburg, I'm so sorry." She took his hand as though to help him to his feet, saw his skinned palm and moaned, "Oh, you're bleeding. Oh, god, I'm such an idiot."

"Look, calm down, I'm all right." Blair got his feet under himself and tried to stand up. The woman grabbed his elbow and supported him strongly when he staggered.

"You're not all right. We should get you to a hospital. Oh, I'm so, so, sorry."

Blair took an experimental step. He'd wrenched his ankle in the fall, and he felt it when he put his weight on it. His skinned hands hurt worse. "I saw you," he said bluntly, as his own shock began to wear off. "You were watching me while I was talking to Peter Nagle. Your car was sitting at the bus stop. What's going on? Why are you following me?"

She let him go. "I just wanted to talk to you."

"What, you couldn't stop by during office hours?" He took another step, wincing. "You know, you really need to watch where you're going. You could kill somebody."

"I know," she whispered. "I'm so sorry." Tears rose in her eyes. Her plain, angular face was flushed and blotchy with emotion.

"Look, calm down," Blair said, sighing. "No harm done except I think I broke my thermos. You can buy me a new one and we'll call it square, OK?"

She gulped and nodded quickly. "I was watching the bus," she explained again. "I was trying to see if you'd gotten off yet or not, and the sun was in my eyes and I didn't even see the light. I'm so sorry."

"All right, all right, I got that," Blair said, his voice gentler. "What's your name? You're not an anthro major, are you?"

"Susan. My name's Susan Pera. I'm writing my senior honors paper in history."

"OK, Susan, the first thing you need to do is get your car out of the intersection before somebody comes sailing by and takes the rear end off."

"Oh, you're right. You're right." She took a hesitant step backward. "You're sure you're really not hurt?"

"I'm sure."

She slid back another step. "I'm really sorry. I guess -- I don't know -- maybe I'll be seeing you around?"

Blair sighed. "Something was so important that you followed me all the way home from campus, and now you don't want to talk about it?"

"I thought after practically running you down you wouldn't want to talk to me." One tear slipped down her cheek and she wiped it away with the back of her hand.

"Please don't do that," Blair said quickly. "Sure we can talk. Tell you what, you move your car, and we can have a cup of coffee." He indicated the bakery two stores down with a tilt of his head. "The coffee isn't the greatest, but they make a mean chocolate croissant."

"Thank you." Susan smiled cautiously at him, her hazel green eyes lighting up for a moment. "I really appreciate it."

Blair watched to be sure she didn't plow into anyone while she backed her Nova off the sidewalk, then made his way to the bakery to wait for her, going slow and trying not to limp. Well, well, well -- a senior history major too afraid to talk to him on campus. Three guesses whose class she was in, and the first two didn't count.

When he came in the door of the bakery, Joey, the day chef, glanced over his shoulder and then stopped midway to the ovens. His arms were full of a tray of pale, raw hard rolls for pan bagnats. "Look what the cat drug in," he announced to Blair with a broad grin. "What does Jim mean, letting you out of his sight?"

"Between him and school, I've been pretty busy," Blair said, smiling back. "Can I use your sink for a minute? I just wanna wash my hands."

"Sure, you know where it is." Joey stepped back so Blair could make his way around the counter. "What happened to you? Somebody try to run you over?"

"Just about. I don't think she meant to, though."

Joey shook his head, grinning. "No wonder Jim has to keep you on such a tight leash."

"Yeah, yeah, very funny."

Blair washed the blood and sidewalk grit from his hands in the tiny alcove of a bathroom behind the bakery racks. Mr. April sneered at him from the calendar over the toilet, and Blair found himself wondering if he ever got those chest hairs caught in the buckles. Ouch. He blotted his hands dry on a paper towel, and by the time he came out, Susan had arrived and was ordering a cup of coffee and a chocolate croissant for him, getting a bottled water for herself. Figured, Blair thought, as he thanked her. Susan didn't look like the pastry type. Her hip bones were hard, angular planes under her jeans, and her face had a pale clarity that suggested sugar and butter and chocolate were rare indulgences. Track and field, he thought. Or maybe swimming, he amended, noticing the broad shoulders under her flannel shirt.

They sat down at the little café table Susan picked out, near the counter and away from the window. Blair wasn't really in the mood for decadent pastries either. He sipped at the coffee Susan had bought for him while Susan sat watching him worriedly, twisting her hands together under the table.

"So," Blair said at last. He put down the coffee cup and smiled at her. "What can I do for you?"

Susan put her hands on the table. No jewelry, her nails trimmed short and neat. "This is going to sound really stupid," she said. "It's about my honors paper."

"The one you're writing in history," Blair couldn't help pointing out. "Not in anthropology."

"That's exactly why I wanted to talk to you. I can't go to anybody in the history department because I'm afraid it would get back to my advisor. My friend Monica Underhill's in your class this quarter, and she said you were really easy to talk to, and I just thought maybe you could give me some advice, or at least point me in the right direction, because it's gotten so bad by now that I don't know where else to go."

Blair held up his hands. "Whoa, one step at a time. Is your advisor by any chance Peter Nagle?"

Susan nodded.

"OK, I can see where you wouldn't want to talk to people in the history department about him. What's the problem with your paper?"

She took a deep breath. "I'm writing about Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft. I don't know if you know anything about it or not."

"Just a little. I've never read it, but he's supposed to be one of the great debunkers, right? At the height of the witchcraft hysteria he writes this book to show there's no such thing as magic or witchcraft. Pretty brave thing to do. At the time even doubting the reality of witchcraft could be grounds for execution."

"Yes, that's right." Susan's face had lit up with pleasure. "He takes on everything -- the confessions of condemned witches, the claims of alchemists and sorcerers, all kinds of stuff, and shows how it's all just fear of torture or sleight of hand tricks. I mean, basically he's saying there's no such thing as the supernatural."

"Sounds like a really interesting paper topic. That kind of skepticism is pretty scarce even these days. So what's the problem?"

"Well, it's Dr. Nagle." She made a helpless gesture with her hands. "He approved my topic and everything -- he's my advisor! But when I turned in my outline and first draft he started to get very weird. He told me I was being close minded -- that I wasn't considering other points of view."

"He wanted you to give equal time to sorcerers and witchcraft judges?"

Susan smiled faintly. "Yes, something like that, I think."

"Is it possible he just meant you should refer to more primary sources? You know, maybe see what Scott's contemporaries were saying about him?" Personally, Blair didn't believe for a second that's what Nagle had really meant, but he wouldn't do Susan any good jumping to conclusions. He hadn't been there -- he didn't know what Nagle had actually said. Susan seemed bright, but Nagle had toyed with him as well. No telling what he might have said to an undergrad. He'd certainly strung Blair along without raising a sweat.

"Well, that's what I thought at first. Once I got over being kind of mad about it, I mean."

Blair nodded. "Yeah, I understand."

"But then he brought it up in class, in front of everybody. I can't even tell you what it was like. He was talking about my paper like it was heresy. He just went on and on, saying how disrespectful it was to ancient beliefs, how arrogant I was to dismiss the testimony of so many learned men. Everyone else just turned around and looked at me. I felt like I wanted to die." Susan planted her elbows on the table and buried her face in her hands. "This sounds really stupid, doesn't it?"

"No, it doesn't sound stupid. It sounds like a very uncomfortable experience."

"You must think I'm being such a baby about this. I mean, if I disagree with Nagle's point of view, I just need to work harder and write a better paper."

"That's the way it's supposed to be," Blair said ruefully. "It doesn't always work out that way."

"Anyway, after that, everybody in class stopped talking to me. I'm not, you know, very outgoing or popular anyway, but now no one in that class will even look at me. And Monday I found somebody had stuffed this into my backpack." She dug a folded sheet of notebook paper from the pocket of her jeans and handed it to him.

He looked in her face before he unfolded it. The corner of her mouth was shaking. He unfolded the sheet of paper on the cafe table to reveal a grid of Hebrew letters identical to the one that had been on his board this morning. Blair swallowed. "Do you know what this is?"

She nodded. "It's from one of the sorcerers that Scot demolishes as a total fraud in Discoverie. One of the guys we studied in class, Gottfried von Junzt. He used Kabalistic signs like this to describe magic he claims he found on his travels in the middle east."

That son of a bitch, Blair thought. "Nagle talked about it in class?"

"Well, yeah, of course." She blinked in mild surprise. "Anyway, I went and showed it to him after I got it. I told him it felt like a threat. I mean, it scared me."

Blair's mouth was dry. "What did he tell you?"

"He said I didn't believe in magic, so what did I have to worry about?" Susan took a hitching breath. Blotches of red appeared on her cheeks. "And now Ross is dead. Mr. Sandburg, I think they're half crazy, all of them. Who would do something like that unless they were crazy?" She knotted her hands together, squeezing until her knuckles turned white. "I'm so scared," she whispered. "I don't know what to do anymore."

* * *

Blair had made the salad, thawed the steaks, had a couple of foil wrapped potatoes baking in the oven, and was propped on the sofa reading when he heard Jim's footsteps in the hall. About time. He was starving. Jim was sure to be hungry too, the poor guy, unless he'd broken down and stopped at Tacos Tacos on the way home. He let himself in before Blair could get to the door, looking tired and out of sorts, but he nodded at Blair and said, "The potatoes smell good."

"Hey, good. Does that mean you're ready to eat? I can have the steaks on the table in fifteen minutes."

"Thanks, Chief." Jim relaxed a little, some of the tension leaving his face. He shrugged his coat off his shoulders and hung it on the rack by the door.

"No problem. I'm gonna sautè some mushrooms and onions to go over them, that sound all right to you? -- and then we'll be good to go. But listen to me a minute, Jim, something's happened. I think I've got this all figured out. Peter Nagle is behind the whole thing."

Jim paused on the first step up to his bedroom, already stripping himself of the literal weight of being a cop, handcuffs and cellphone in his hand. "Nagle. That history professor you were talking about before."

"That's right, man. It turns out he's even weirder and scarier than I thought." Blair made his way to the kitchen to get the rest of dinner started. "I talked to one of his advisees this afternoon and she told me about some of the stuff that goes on in his class, and I'm sure he's the one who convinced Ross to try and steal that book. It has to be him."

"You're limping," Jim said.

"Yeah, I know. I'm OK. But this girl I talked to, Jim, she's so scared of Nagle and the other people in his class that she didn't want to risk anyone seeing us talking on campus. See, she's writing a paper about these medieval magician guys Nagle is so hot on, basically saying all their magic is a crock. You know, that nobody was really summoning demons or raising the dead, no matter what they claimed they could do."

Jim had reached the head of the stairs, unbuttoning his shirt one-handed. He looked back at Blair. "Doesn't sound like it would be a real hotly contested point of view."

"Well, not in a normal place it wouldn't be, but I don't think Nagle's classroom is normal at all. I'm not totally sure whether Professor Nagle really believes in all that magic and stuff or not, but that's not all that important. What's important to him is the power trip. This is a guy who loves to play games with people's heads. He could make the undergrads in his class believe anything he wanted to."

"You think Nagle convinced Ross to try and steal the book," Jim called down, out of sight for a moment upstairs.

"Yeah, I do. I was able to get a look at Ross's transcript this afternoon, and it turns out he took his first history class from Dr. Nagle back when he was a sophomore, right after he transferred out here. Nagle had his hooks in that poor kid for nearly two years."

"Pretty slim evidence," Jim said mildly. He reappeared at the head of the stairs, shirtless.

"I know it's not a whole lot to go on so far, but I'm telling you, I really think I'm right about this." Caught up in trying to convince Jim, Blair dropped half a stick of butter into the hot skillet instead of slicing off a tablespoon. It sizzled and ran to the edges of the pan, and Blair, after briefly considering going to the trouble of pouring most of the butter out again, gave up and threw in the onions too. They were already having steak, after all, not much point in trying to spare their arteries at this point. "Nagle lied to me. First he told me they didn't talk about the von Junzt book at all in his class, and then he said he mentioned it, but they didn't talk about any specifics. This poor girl I talked to this afternoon, she tells me they talked about the book a lot. And she's scared, man. After what Ross did, she thinks the whole class is crazy, and I don't know if maybe she isn't right after all. I told her not to go back to class, and I'm going with her to talk to the dean tomorrow about the whole situation. I think Peter Nagle's got his students so wound up there's no telling what they might do."

The frying onions smelled fantastic. Blair turned the heat down and shook the pan, and Jim came back down the stairs as though pulled there by the scent. He was tugging a sweatshirt over his head on the way. "Wound up enough to steal Ross's body?" Jim asked. "I agree we haven't got a better suspect at this point, but it's just not very much to go on."

"But take a look at this. Here, can you stir the onions for a minute? Don't let them burn."

Jim frowned skeptically at him, the same expression that always crossed his face when Blair tried to give him cooking advice. He took the wooden spoon from Blair and carefully scraped chopped onions from the sides of the pan all the same while Blair found the piece of paper Susan had given him. "You're still limping," Jim said, watching him. "What'd you do?"

"Didn't check both ways before trying to cross the street. Look at this." He held up the paper for Jim to see.

"Is that the same thing that was on your board this morning?"

"Sure is."

"Where did it come from?"

"The girl in Nagle's class. Someone put it in her backpack. Jim, it's from the von Junzt book Ross was trying to steal, and Susan thinks it's a threat."

Jim looked at him, then back at the piece of notebook paper. He put the spoon back in Blair's hand and took the paper to examine it more closely. When he looked up again, there was a serious, unhappy expression on his face Blair wasn't sure how to interpret. "I think we need to have a talk with Professor Nagle," Jim said.

* * *

Ray Weston was dead, lying in the mud with the rain pouring down on his upturned face. The air was thick, unbreathable. Everything reeked of blood and raw lumber, wet earth and burned flesh. The stench turned Jim's stomach. He reeled and fell hard against the railing on his way up the stairs, trying to get back in the house. Trying to get to Blair. Angie was so intent on reaching her daughter she didn't even notice Jim had staggered. The door banged shut behind her, leaving Jim alone in the storm. Ah, god, everything hurt. His head, his hands, his arm. The bullet wound seared him, the rain-soaked bandages weighed him down. He had to get out of this. He had to find Blair, and they both had to get out of here.

Ray Weston was behind him on the ground, his stringy blond hair dark with water and blood, and his dead eyes looking up at the cloud-choked night sky. Jim knew he was dead, but in a storm like this, maybe dead wasn't quite good enough. Madness, Jim thought, but he couldn't force himself to look over his shoulder at Ray. He dragged himself to his feet and made it the last few steps up the outside stairs. The door was banging in the wind, a wild and lonely sound. Where was everyone? God help him, where was Blair?

He staggered across the threshold, calling for Blair, and found himself in the loft. Outside the storm still howled and thundered, but though the rain splattered against the clerestory windows and balcony doors, inside it was warm and dry, and the world smelled like onions frying in butter instead of mud and blood and death. Blair was standing by the stove, holding his palm against his head, a dazed expression on his face. "Chief," Jim called to him, and Blair turned. His eyes took too long to focus.

"Jim," he said. He smiled at first, but then he realized the state Jim was in, and his gentle expression of pleasure turned to one of alarm. "Oh, Jim, you're hurt," he said. He tried to reach Jim, but his knees buckled and he had to brace himself against the counter to keep from falling.

"Easy," Jim said in alarm. He reached Blair's side, his own injuries forgotten. "Easy, there. Weston clipped you pretty good."

"Is that what happened?" Blair asked, slurring his words a little. He sagged into Jim's support, allowing Jim to guide him out of the kitchen and across to the sofa. Blair's feet tangled together and the toes of his shoes dragged against the carpet.

"That's what happened," Jim told him. "Easy, just sit down here and let me see what we're dealing with." He tried to push Blair down into the sofa, but Blair flopped like a rag doll, as though his joints were all bending the wrong way.

"Don't burn the onions, Jim," he demanded worriedly.

So that was the problem. "Onions are fine," Jim said. "I turned off the burner."

The reassurance was enough, and Blair allowed Jim to sit him on the sofa. He slumped with his head back, his hands lying empty and open on the cushions. Jim bent over him, pushing the hair back out of his face to expose the bloody abrasion on his forehead. He laid the side of his thumb gently beside the wound. "How's that feel?"

Blair smiled up at him, his eyes half-closed and fogged with pain. "Actually, it kinda hurts, man."

"Well, I'm not too surprised." Jim slid his hand around to the back of Blair's head, looking for the evidence of the second injury. He found a warm, tender knot under the curve at the back of Blair's skull and said, "I bet you can feel that one too, huh, Chief?"

Blair's lips had tightened for a moment in a wince of pain, but he smiled again at that. "Is that how you made detective, Jim?"

"Just for that crack you're doing the dishes too," Jim told him. He held Blair's chin in both hands and carefully tilted his head up so he could look into Blair's eyes. Blair held still for the examination, only blinking once or twice.

"Am I gonna live?" he asked, a smile at the corner of his mouth.

"Afraid so," Jim told him, grinning back. "How do you feel about a trip to the ER anyway?"

"Aw man, do we have to? It's pouring down rain outside."

"Humor me," Jim said, and then, still holding Blair's face cupped in his hands, said the rest as well. "You saved my life, Sandburg. Weston would have killed us all if you hadn't jumped him when you did."

Blair closed his eyes, for a moment unable to meet Jim's gaze. "I was stupid. I didn't even realize he was in the house until it was too late." He opened his eyes again, his expression miserable but somehow, terrifyingly, resigned. "He's in the house now, Jim."

Everything stopped for an endless, eternal moment, and then Jim whirled around to see that he'd left the loft's front door standing part way open. A bitterly cold draft of air blew in, stinking of rain and earth and burned, dead flesh. There were footsteps in the hallway, and a voice just on the other side of the half-opened door. Humming a little, mumbling the words. Jim started to run even though he knew he couldn't make it in time. "S'all coming back to me," the voice muttered, almost singing. Then the door swung open with a bang, but Jim woke himself up before he could see what lay on the other side.

Chapter 7

It was a little too warm in the loft, and it was much too light. Jim lay curled on his side with his pillow clutched hard in his arms. His heart was thudding in his chest so violently he could feel the reverberations through the mattress. Through the floorboards, practically. He wondered if Blair could see the floor shaking.

Blair.

Jim held his breath, listening. There. Blair was right downstairs, right where he was supposed to be. Well, almost. He should have gone to bed hours ago, but apparently he was still sitting up working. Jim could hear the rustle of turning pages, then the quiet, muffled patter of his fingers on the keyboard. A lamp was on in the living room, and Blair hadn't turned down the thermostat. He only did that when he went to bed. No wonder it was too warm upstairs.

Jim slowly uncurled his long form on the bed. His calves and forearms ached, making him wonder how long he'd been bundled up on the bed like that. Angie Ferris's song was still going through his head like a bad taste he couldn't get out of his mouth. What a hell of a dream. He rolled onto his back and sat up, raising his arms above his head and trying to stretch. There was a knot under his left shoulder blade that made him gasp and curl into himself again. Blair's fingers paused on the keyboard, as though he had heard Jim's gasp, but then Jim heard pages turning again. Blair had simply taken his hands off the keyboard to pick up his book.

Jim straightened up again, breathing carefully. Must be getting old. A couple of bad nights, and he was knotted up tighter than a clenched fist. No question of getting right back to sleep, either. Not when he was still afraid to close his eyes. He got up quickly, angry with himself, and padded downstairs before he could think about the dream anymore.

Blair looked up at him. He was sitting sideways on the sofa in a nest of pillows. His glasses were half way down his nose, hair falling out of his ponytail and tumbling around his shoulders. The laptop was on his stomach. He had one book propped open on his knees and a second, much fatter one, lying just in arm's reach on the coffee table. "Jim, man," he said, "What's up?"

"Why aren't you asleep?" Jim demanded instead of answering the question. He turned the thermostat down and then came and stood over Blair, his arms crossed over his chest. "You should have been in bed hours ago."

Blair shrugged, picking up the book on his knees. "Yeah, I know. I just wanted to get a start on the Huysmans here before I packed it in for the night. It's slow going, though. Taking me longer than I thought it would."

Jim plucked the book out of Blair's hands and looked at it. The text was French, and not the kind his Introduction to Conversational French would be any help with. He handed it back. "Still trying to get something on that history professor?"

"Yeah, I am," Blair admitted. "Trying to find out more about the book Ross was trying to steal. There aren't any English translations, but while I was in the library this afternoon I found that Huysmans translated some of Kulten into French around 1870 or so. My French isn't great, but it's better than my Middle High German, I can tell you that much." Blair scowled, picked up the book on the coffee table and dropped it again. A French-English dictionary, Jim saw. "At least I thought it was, but this stuff isn't making any sense to me. Either I'm getting it all wrong, or Huysmans added a lot on his own when he translated von Junzt's book, because whatever this is, it isn't sixteenth century Qabala."

Jim sank down on the other sofa. The dream was receding, pushed from his mind by the sound of Blair's voice, the light in his eyes, even his left hand making frustrated circles in the air. "What is it, then?" Jim asked.

"Damned if I know." A quick grin. "Not something to joke about, is it? Seriously, though, it's majorly bizarre, even though he starts out with the ordinary stuff. A lot of necromancy, mostly, which is what you'd expect to find in a book like Kulten. Raising the dead, using corpses and body parts in magic rituals, that sort of thing. I found the symbol that was on the board in my room, by the way. The same one someone put in Susan's backpack. It's a sign you're supposed to write on the forehead of a corpse you're trying to bring back to life. Anyway, all this stuff, it's old, well-known, well documented rites, going all the way back to the Greeks. No surprises there. But then von Junzt takes this left turn into nowhere, and things get totally weird."

"Weirder than raising the dead," Jim said, and tried to smile. He could feel how miserably he failed. Blair saw it, too.

"Jim, are you all right? What are you doing out of bed, anyway?"

"Just couldn't sleep. Tell me what the really weird part is."

"OK, this is what makes me think I must be getting the translation wrong. He talks about a void of blackness, but he's real vague about just what it is and where it is. Either it's right around the corner, or maybe it's on the far side of the stars, one way or the other." Blair shook his head. "I don't know, it's all crazy. Anyway, this black place, that's where the Olds Ones come from. Or maybe it is the Old Ones. They're entities and a place, both at the same time. I think."

"Old Ones?"

"I don't know. It doesn't seem like von Junzt is talking about demons or familiars. Doesn't sound like any system of demonology I've ever come across. It's more like the Old Ones are part of the whole shape of creation. The dark side. The part we can't look at too close, because it would probably blow our minds if we saw how the pieces really fit together. I think that's what von Junzt is hinting at, anyway. He just won't come out and SAY anything." Suddenly Blair slammed the book shut on his knees. "Stuff is giving me the willies, man. And anyway, maybe I'm getting it all wrong. There's a guy at Miskatonic, Professor Howell Phillips, who seems to be the reigning expert on von Junzt and his ilk. I'll try to give him a call tomorrow." Blair set his laptop over on the coffee table and stretched hard. "You want something to drink? Maybe some hot tea?"

"Nah, thanks." Jim stood up, took one of Blair's outstretched arms and pulled. Blair allowed himself to be hauled to his feet with a tolerant grin. His wrist and the back of his hand were cool to the touch, and Jim felt a little stab of guilt for turning back the thermostat. "I'm just going to go back to bed," he told Blair. "You should, too. You're not going to be any good to anybody if you get so obsessed trying to pin this on Nagle that you can't sleep. Believe me, Chief, I know what I'm talking about here."

"Yeah, I guess you're right," Blair agreed reluctantly. He knelt in front of the coffee table, saved his work and shut the cover of the laptop. Then he reached expectantly for Jim's hand, and Jim pulled him to his feet again. "What do you think, Jim, really? Do you think I'm going off the deep end with this stuff?" He gestured back to his books, then answered his own question. "Maybe it doesn't have anything to do with what happened to Ross, but I won't know until I've done the research."

"I know," Jim said. "And there's no such thing as researching a case too much. You taught me that, Sandburg."

A startled smile spread across Blair's face. "Thanks." He stood there for a moment longer, grinning up at Jim contentedly. "I'm glad you woke up. The truth was, this stuff was all starting to get to me. I think I really didn't want to turn out the lights and go to bed. Pretty dumb, huh?"

Jim couldn't help smiling back in the face of that look. "Well, yeah, it is. I won't tell anyone though."

Blair laughed out loud. "Know what I'm going to do if I have nightmares tonight? I'm gonna come crawl in bed with you."

"Is that a promise or a threat?"

"Guess you won't know till I get there, will you?" Blair tried to dance out of range, but his wrenched ankle made him clumsy, and Jim cuffed the side of his head with his open hand. Blair just laughed again. "Sweet dreams, man. Don't let the bedbugs bite."

In the end, though, joking about it didn't help. The nightmare lurked at the center of Blair's consciousness like a whirlpool in the middle of the ocean. Blair circled it all night long, coming ever closer, knowing every time he awoke from his shallow, restless sleep, that it was waiting for him still. It was Jim's alarm clock that awoke him the last time, and he opened his eyes with a sense of panic, knowing his fragile craft was whirling about the very edge of the maelstrom. One more revolution and it would have him. He clutched at the sheets, trying to wake himself up completely. He could hear Jim overhead, footsteps crossing the floor, then padding down the stairs. There were Jim's steps passing his bedroom door, making the french doors rattle just a bit in their frames, and if he would just say, "Sandburg get your lazy ass out of bed already," that would be enough, but no, this morning of all mornings, Jim decided to let him sleep in, and he passed the doors without a word.

A moment later Blair heard the chunk of the pipes in the bathroom, and then the rush of water, and it dashed him back into sleep. He spun at the edge of the whirlpool, looking down at the blue green depths. Then he was over the edge, whirling down into the abyss, and the dream had him. He'd known it would get him in the end. What else could he have expected after obsessing about David Lash all day long?

Despairing, helpless, he was dragged down to the bottom of the ocean of sleep and into the middle of his nightmare. Less dream than memory, though Jim always told him that couldn't be true. He was in the kitchen, bracing himself with a hand on each countertop. He had dialed Jim's pager, and he was waiting for Jim, because there was no one else who could help him, and nothing he could do to save himself. He couldn't even run anymore. How could he run from someone who was everywhere at once? A rattle at the back door, thundering footsteps on the fire escape, a shadow across the skylight and at the balcony doors. That couldn't be one man, a single pursuer. It couldn't be, but if it wasn't, then what in the name of sanity was coming for him? It whistled around the outside of the loft like an evil wind trying to slip through a crack in the wall -- Jesus, Jim, please, please help me -- and then came the inevitable snap like the crack of doom. All the diffuse energy of madness coalesced once more, became solid and human, and David Lash kicked in the front door.

The only mercy was that in the dream, he felt no terror. He almost felt no fear at all. Terror only came from anticipation, Blair thought. It was the fear of not knowing how things were going to turn out, and the terrified hope you might after all be able to fight hard enough and run fast enough to escape your fate. But all this had already happened. There was no hope of escape, and without hope, there could be no fear.

He ran head on into Lash, hardly even seeing him, no plan of escape at all besides bowling him over and perhaps managing to make it as far as the hallway. They both fell hard in a tangle of limbs, and Blair was screaming. Lash didn't make a sound. They rolled over and over, and when Blair felt the wooden floor under his hands and knees he crawled toward the open door. Hot fingertips raked his skull and knotted themselves in the hair at the back of his neck, and Blair didn't spare breath for another scream. He hoarded all his breath and all his strength trying to fight his way free. He slammed his elbow back and twisted his head down, not caring about the hold Lash had, not caring frankly if he scalped himself as long as he got away. But his elbow sank into something yielding, and Blair screamed silently then, because he knew there was nothing yielding and soft anywhere on David Lash. He was pure sinewy strength, everything extraneous burnt away in the fires of utter madness.

Something always broke in that instant, deep inside Blair's mind. Just like the first time. Just like every dream he'd ever had since then. He didn't stop fighting, though. Not even then. He hurled himself to the side, trying to dislodge the monstrous thing on his back. Feeling a sudden gust of air, he was able to get his feet up under himself and stagger toward the smashed open door. For an instant the way seemed clear, but then, impossibly, Lash was in front of him once more. Blair veered off, running doubled over, trying not to think, not to reason, because figuring out what was really going on might be worse even than allowing Lash to take him. He jumped the coffee table, put one foot on the sofa cushions and the other on the back, and fell forward as the entire sofa tipped back under his weight. He was planning to hurl himself straight through the balcony windows. Nothing mattered except getting away.

Before he could make it, a hot, strong hand suddenly slipped under the waistband of his jeans from behind and yanked him backward with vicious force. Blair struck out in animal desperation and slipped to his knees. One flailing hand grasped the blinds and pulled them down in a papery rustle. He shook himself free and saw David Lash standing on the other side of the balcony window, smiling in at him.

Everything was broken, everything was lost, but his body still didn't have enough sense enough to stop fighting. He lurched to his feet again, turning once more and staggering toward the front door even though he knew he would never reach it. He tripped over an electrical cord and fell headlong, hearing the television set smash to the ground behind him, and this was the moment he never could avoid, the blinding pain at the back of his skull, and then the terrifying age in limbo until he awoke in a place that smelled like standing water and hot candle wax, chains weighing down his hands and feet.

But it didn't happen like that this time. He realized he was frozen, waiting for Lash to hit him, and when he didn't, the breathless terror of hope bloomed in his heart. Once more he pushed himself to his feet and ran. This time he would make it. This time he would get out. He believed it so completely he didn't even see Lash standing in the doorway, waiting for him. Lash caught him effortlessly in his outspread arms and embraced him with all the passion of his violent need. Blair shuddered, his body going rigid with horror, and the moment of helplessness seemed to be all the creature David Lash had really needed all along. The shambles of Jim's living room spun sideways past Blair, and with a muffled thud Blair found himself dropped onto his own bed, the futon unforgiving under his shoulders and tailbone. David Lash knelt over him, smiling in obscene satisfaction. "I can be you," he whispered to Blair, caressing his face with fingers that elongated into drumsticks. They beat a restless tattoo upon his cheekbones.

"No," Blair whispered back in horror. This was not the way it had happened. It was supposed to be over by now. He was supposed to wake up. "No."

Lash leaned closer. His breath smelled like anise and tea tree oil. God, he's even using my toothpaste."I can -- be -- you," Lash said again, and the universe contracted violently, squeezing the breath from Blair's lungs and his soul from his body. So this is the void, Blair thought, and yeah, von Junzt was right, it was pretty horrible all right. It was his own little taste of hell. But then it went away, and he was kneeling on his own bed, holding a man down under him.

Wide, frightened blue eyes stared up at him, and tangles of curling hair covered the man's face. As Blair watched, the fear in those blue eyes slowly faded, and the mouth opened in a wide grin.

"What do you think?" Blair Sandburg asked him. "Do I make a pretty good you?"

NO. Blair scrambled backward off the bed. Oh, no, oh no, this was not possible. His hand flew to his head and he pulled off the wig, then stood staring with stupid horror at the wad of brown curls in his hand.

And then he finally heard the voice he had been waiting for all along. "Freeze," Jim barked from behind him. "Just step away slow."

Blair whirled around. "Jim, you've got to help me. Look what he's done to me."

Not a spark of recognition showed in those steely eyes. "I said freeze, you son of a bitch."

"But Jim--"

Jim didn't hesitate. He fired again and again, though Blair didn't fall until the force of the bullets themselves drove him back against the bed. He slumped to his knees, dying. The void was opening for him, but Jim pushed him away, reaching out for the body on the bed that was not Blair Sandburg and would never be him.

Blair opened his eyes with a shriek, escaping the dream like a man who would escape a fire by flinging himself out the window.

"Blair!" Jim shouted back at him. His hands were on Blair's shoulders, holding him. "Blair, buddy, come on, you're awake now."

Blair felt his own body flinch violently, as though he really had gone out a window and hit the pavement hard, and he stared up at Jim, wide-eyed with shock, desperately trying to figure out what was going on. He gave one more cry, a hoarse, strangled squawk as his body finally caught up with his head. He gulped for breath, and Jim pulled him up and wrapped his arms around him. Blair buried his head against Jim's shoulder, not giving a damn about anything except the glorious realization he was alive, he was safe, and it had all been just a dream.

Jim still held him, rocking just a little, his warm, gentle hands patting Blair's back. "Steady," he said, "You're doing great." Warm, gentle, and very wet hands. Blair's T-shirt was sticking to his back where it was soaked through. His front was even wetter where Jim held him cradled against his chest.

Aw, Jim. Blair raised his head, and Jim released him, trying to smile at Blair, but worry still obvious in his eyes. He was sopping wet from the shower and naked as a baby. He hadn't even finished washing the shampoo from his hair, and a little trail of foam trickled down the side of his face. "Jim--" Blair said helplessly, "Jim, hey, I'm all right."

"Good," Jim said. He touched Blair's face. "You didn't sound all right there for a minute."

"I am." Blair took a deep breath to demonstrate how all right he was. "Go finish your shower before the soap gets in your eyes."

Jim nodded and made no move to get up. "You were talking about Lash," he said. "In your sleep. Yelling." There was a haunted look just under Jim's slightly desperate smile.

"Yeah, it was that old dream again," Blair admitted softly. Jim had his own nightmares about David Lash, Blair knew. "But it was all mixed up with the stuff I was reading about last night. Weird."

Jim relaxed a little. "It's this case," he said, nodding. "Stirring things up again. It's happening to me, too."

"Is it? You're having nightmares too?"

Jim nodded again. "An instructor at the academy told us all once that when you stopped having bad dreams, it was time to get out of the business. Not much fun, though."

"No. Not really."

"You're OK, Chief?"

"I'm OK." Blair reached up and wiped away the shampoo suds curling toward Jim's eye with the side of his hand. "Get back in the shower." He wiped the suds in turn on his wet T-shirt. "I know it was only a dream."

Jim padded back to the bathroom, dripping the whole way. Blair rolled out of bed, pulling off the wet sheets and comforter. Only a dream. He believed that. After all, that's what Jim had kept telling him in the weeks after Lash's death. Blair had taken a blow to the head, and he couldn't remember what had really happened the night Lash attacked him in the loft. Those dreams were just his mind's way of trying to fill in the missing gaps, and they hadn't done a very good job of it. Lash was only a man, and a dead one at that, buried in Potter's Field with five bullets from Jim's gun still in his chest. It was all just a dream, not memory at all. That's what Jim told him, and he believed that, he did. After all, what other choice did he have?

* * *

"I don't know how long this song and dance with IA will take," Jim told him. Blair stood at the curb, leaning in the open door of the truck. "I hope it doesn't run into the afternoon, but with Sheila you never know what she'll pull out of her hat."

"Yeah, I know. You sure you don't want me there? Just in case?"

Jim smiled at him, but Blair could still see the faint lines of worry around his eyes. Jim had had a bad night, too. Probably worse than he'd admitted this morning. "Thanks, Sandburg, but I'm a big kid. I'll be OK."

"I know you will. Just give me a call when you get done to let me know how it goes. I'll be working on things from this end -- maybe have something for you by the time you get back. That'd be good, wouldn't it?"

"That'd be good," Jim agreed. "Just leave me a message if anything turns up before I get out of the hearing."

"I will."

Blair stepped back from the truck, but before he could swing the door shut, Jim said in a serious, low voice, "Sandburg, keep an eye out, all right? Ross was willing to die for that book. If it looks like there are any more like him around, I expect you to keep your distance till I can get here."

"I know, Jim." Blair swung the door shut. "I will."

It was another clear, cold spring day. A shame it was almost too cold to enjoy the sunshine, Blair thought, scurrying across the quadrangle to Hargrove. Wasn't like they saw all that many sunny days in Cascade, was it? In the light of day, surrounded by students bundled against the wind and hurrying to make their own classes, last night's dreams and terrors seemed very distant and more than a little foolish. He had to calm down, remember he was living in a mostly rational world, and stop taking the rantings of people like Nagle and poor Ross seriously.

He swung himself up the stairs to his floor in Hargrove. His ankle was a little stiff, but he'd live. It was a couple minutes after nine, and the halls had cleared. His own footsteps were the only ones scuffing along the tile. He rounded the corner, and saw a woman huddled on the floor against his office door. Her head was resting on her knees, her backpack on the floor beside her. Susan.

"Hey--" He ran to her side and half crouched beside her. "Hey, what's wrong? I thought we were going to meet at the dean's office at ten. Is something wrong? Are you all right?"

She lifted her head. Her face was streaked with tears, her eyes still streaming. "I can't," she said, her voice quavering. "I can't go to the dean."

"Susan, I want you to calm down and tell me what's happened, please. Come on, it's all right."

She made a helpless, despairing gesture with both hands. "They broke into my room. I hadn't been gone five minutes, when I remembered I'd left my calculator in the desk. I went back and it was all over everything." She took a desperate, hitching breath.

Blair fumbled for his keys and managed to get his office door open. "Come on, let's get out of the hall," he said, and helped her to her feet. "What was all over everything?"

"That corpse sign. It was painted on my door, on my bed, on the mirror -- I hadn't even been gone five minutes. Not even five minutes." Her voice was rising dangerously. "Why are they doing this to me?"

"I don't know, but we'll find out, I promise. Have you called campus security yet?"

"Oh, god, no, I just tried to find you."

"All right, that's the first thing." Blair dumped his backpack on the floor and picked up the phone on his desk. "What dorm are you in?"

"I'm in Mathers. Room 206. Blair, I don't know, what if this just makes it worse?"

"How can it get worse? Now they're destroying your property. Come on, Susan, that's way over the line."

"I guess so," Susan agreed unhappily, twisting her hands together as Blair called. He tried to reach Suzanne Tamaki, but she wasn't at her desk. He talked instead to the campus safety officer the switchboard routed him to, giving him Susan's dorm room number and the barest details of what had happened.

"All right, they'll meet us there in ten minutes," he told her when he put down the phone.

Susan looked at him unhappily. "Are you sure this is the right thing to do?"

He felt like Jim as he said, "If you have any other suggestions, I'd be glad to listen. Susan, this is vandalism, pure and simple. This makes the case against Nagle and the rest of the class even stronger."

"I guess so," she agreed reluctantly. Blair handed her a box of tissues and she wiped her eyes and blew her nose. "I'm sorry," she said, sounding calmer. "You're right. It's all just so crazy. It feels like the whole world is coming apart. Why would anyone hate me so much just because of an old book?"

"I don't know, but it is crazy." Blair herded her gently out of the office again and locked it behind them. "We've been saying that all along, right?"

He smiled at her and was rewarded with a tentative near-smile back. She tucked a lock of her fine, mouse brown hair behind her ear and nodded. "Right," she whispered.

They walked back across the quadrangle and cut through the law library, and then through the faculty parking garage built into the hillside under the upperclass dorms. By the third flight of stairs in the parking garage Blair's ankle was aching in earnest, but for Susan's sake, he was determined not to limp. He let Susan lead the way all the same. Across the fourth level ramp was the sidewalk that wound up the hill to the dorms. Almost there. The sun slanted in through the open sides of the parking garage, and coming out of the shadow of the stairwell, Blair suddenly noticed something odd about Susan's backpack.

It was moving. Something in it was moving.

Blair stopped dead. "Susan?" Understanding was just dawning, and he couldn't keep it out of his voice. Susan must have heard it, because she stopped so abruptly the Chihuahua nestled in her backpack raised its pop-eyed head to look around, and gave an indignant yip.

"It was you," Blair said, and goddammit, he was too furious to be scared, not even when Ross's roommate Eddie suddenly appeared from behind one of the concrete barricades, smiling almost apologetically. "It was you. You were the one in Special Collections with Ross."

Susan turned around slowly, nothing apologetic on her face at all, just bright, angry tears. "Of course it was me." She took a step toward him. "You didn't even recognize me." Her face twisted. "I could have run you down last night, Mr. Sandburg. The only reason I didn't is because Ross needs you in one piece."

Chapter 8

Blair tried to judge the distance to the stairwell without turning his head. A dozen steps behind him and a little to the right, he thought. "So I guess you're not really writing your paper on Reginald Scot," he told Susan, saying the first thing that came to his head. And you know what? Even at a moment like this, that really did piss him off.

"Actually I am." She was circling to cut off his escape. "You should have done your homework better, Mr. Sandburg. Scot wasn't arguing there was no such thing as magic. Just that the witch courts were executing the wrong people for it."

Great, just great. "Eddie," Blair said, "Listen to me. Ross is dead. There's nothing you can do for him anymore."

"That's not what you said yesterday." Eddie was still smiling, sheepish and somehow determined all at the same time, as though he were trying to talk his way out of a term paper deadline. "I heard all about what you told your class. You said you owed Ross a debt you didn't know how to repay."

"For the love of-- Eddie, not like this. Not like this." Blair tensed for flight and kept talking. "Remember what you told Jim and me? Whatever you two are trying to do, I promise you, it won't make any sense the morning after. Forget about the morning after. It doesn't make any sense now. Dead is dead."

Eddie pulled the gun he had hidden under his coat and leveled it at Blair. "If you really believe that, then you better do exactly what we tell you."

"Hey, wait a minute, easy, easy." Blair raised his hands as high as his shoulders, wondering if Professor Nagle's entire damn class was packing. "Come on, you don't want to use that."

"Get down on your knees," Susan said. "Put your hands on top of your head." Eddie was advancing on him carefully, holding the gun like it was a wild animal that might suddenly turn on him. He looked like he'd never fired a gun in his life. At the very least he didn't know much about the weapon he was holding now. It occurred to Blair that three years ago, he wouldn't have known Eddie's gun was a single action Colt either, much less that it wouldn't fire because Eddie hadn't racked the slide.

(Thanks, Jim.)

Of course, if he'd never met Jim, he never would have needed to know so much about guns in the first place, would he? Oh man, never MIND already. He could work out the balance sheet some other time.

Susan had reached back, still circling closer, and dug something out of an outside pocket of her backpack. Blair saw it from the corner of his eye, but couldn't figure out what it was. Some sort of knotted wad of leather and snaps. He heard the metal pieces rattling together in her hand. "Come on, Mr. Sandburg," she said. "Don't be stupid."

"Funny, that's what I was going to tell you."

Eddie was almost within range. His hands were white-knuckled, forefinger braced at the trigger. "Get down now. I'm not scared to use this."

"Yes, you are," Blair said gently.

Susan shouted, "Eddie, don't!" at the same moment Eddie leaped for him, the easy-going smile wiped off his face, replaced by a rictus of mortified rage. Blair only had time to think that had worked just a little too well before Eddie shoved the pistol against his jaw.

"Now get down before I blow your head off!" Eddie's breath reeked of coffee and sausage.

"All right, all right, easy." It wasn't hard to act terrified. Blair craned his head back from the muzzle of the semi-automatic and began to lower his hands.

"Just chill, Eddie," Susan said urgently. "Don't let him psych you out." The chihuahua in her backpack was yipping on and on. Eddie didn't relax. Now or never, Blair thought. He felt very calm, and was a little amazed at himself. Maybe more of Jim was rubbing off than he'd ever realized. Or maybe the whole thing was just so damn stupid he didn't really believe any of it was real. That was the more likely explanation.

He clapped his hands around the barrel of the pistol, and in the same motion wrenched it out of Eddie's surprised grasp. Eddie roared, "No!" and tried to grab it back, but Blair had already skidded out of range He turned, trying to cover Susan, but she rushed him anyway, as heedless of the gun as Blair had been. He expected her to go for the gun, but instead she clasped her hands together and swung a two-fisted blow at the side of his head. Blair ducked the worst of it, curling forward to try to protect his grip on the gun, but she still managed to land a solid whack across the back of his skull. The force of the blow staggered him, and as he stumbled, the pistol went flying. Blair heard a solid, metallic clunk as it hit a nearby car and skittered across the concrete. Eddie and Susan both dove after it.

Time to leave the party. Blair ran for the stairs, hearing Susan shout behind him. Grabbing the pillar, he swung himself around and into the stairwell and leaped down, taking the steps three at a time. Metal and poured cement thundered under his feet. Susan was still yelling, her voice muffled by the walls of the stairwell. Down to the first landing, then the second. He would get to ground level and make it back to the law library. They weren't crazy enough to try anything with so many people around. On the other hand, maybe they were that crazy, but with so many witnesses, surely someone would call the police. He'd be OK as long as someone got word to Jim.

Susan's voice rang out above him, suddenly clear and loud. She must be at the head of the stairs.

"Stop him!"

Who was she yelling to? Blair wondered with a sinking feeling. Surely there wasn't anyone else. Please, please, don't let there be anyone else.

He bounced himself off the wall at the next landing and used the momentum to rocket himself down the next flight of stairs, just as someone stepped into the stairwell from the ground level. Blair recognized him. It was Seth Lamb, one of Blair's own students. "Seth!" Blair shouted down to him, "Get out of here! Call the cops!"

Seth looked up the center of the stairwell, almost smiling, and started up the stairs toward Blair at an easy lope. Blair felt a wave of sick, hot rage. Seth too, then. That son of a bitch. He wasn't sure if he was angrier at Seth or himself. Seth had been on the front row of class yesterday, his regular features fixed in an expression of bland almost-concern as Blair struggled to find the words to grieve for Ross's death, and Blair had never even suspected. He wouldn't have thought Ross the Nihilist and a pre-med golden boy like Seth would have been able to agree on the color of the sky, much less something as elaborate and screwed up as all this. Whatever this was, heaven help him.

He felt another vibration on the steps, and looked up to see Susan and Eddie coming down behind him. At least they hadn't found the gun. Small blessings, very small blessings. He thought he might be able to make it back up half a flight to the second floor of the garage before they reached him, which was probably exactly what they expected him to do. He'd be better off just getting out of here as soon as possible. He backed up a couple of steps, keeping a wary eye on Seth's progress. He was a big kid, six inches on Blair and proportionally broader. Blair might be able to bowl him over and get past him, but it was equally likely Susan and Eddie would catch up to them during the tussle, so when Seth reached the turn of the staircase right below him, Blair put both hands on the railing and hoisted himself up. One foot on the second railing, step up to the top railing, moving fast before he could lose his balance or his nerve. Jim wouldn't even think twice about a move like this. He would just do it like Jim would.

He stepped forward into space, dropping to the stairs half a flight below. He felt instant of mingled terror and exhilaration as he fell, totally worth it for that glimpse of Seth's expression of baffled rage. It was going to work, he thought, ready to scream with triumph as he felt the bone jarring impact under his heels. God, Jim, look at that, it worked. Three more steps to the ground level. He was practically home free.

And then when he tried to take his first step down, still staggering a little from the impact of the jump, his bad ankle rolled beneath him. He heard and felt something pop, and the next seconds passed in a hot blur of pain. He didn't remember falling, but he was sprawled at the foot of the steps, breathless with agony. He knew they were right behind him; he knew he needed to get up and move goddammit, but when he tried to pull himself up, the pain made his head begin to swim. Something was really wrong with his ankle, dammit, dammit all to hell. It felt like ripped rubber bands and broken glass, swelling so rapidly his shoe was already painfully tight, and oh, Jim, this is so stupid. I was practically out of here. It's so damn unfair.

"It's OK!" Seth bellowed behind him, "It's OK, I've got him, I've got him."

Not yet you don't, Blair groaned to himself, sick and shaking. His ankle hurt so badly he just wanted to wrap himself into a little ball and cry, and he was so angry he almost thought it was a good thing he hadn't held onto the gun, because he'd sure be tempted to use it. He began to crawl, trying to get to his feet. Seth was right behind him, not even hurrying, just pacing Blair, waiting for Eddie and Susan to catch up. Blair kept going even though every movement sent shivers of agony through him. Cmon, the heroines in monster movies were able to get up and keep limping away decoratively until the hero arrived, weren't they? Jim wasn't here to play hero, worse luck, but that didn't change the fact it should all be a question of mind over matter. Just get up and move already.

He curled into himself, drawing his legs up, and tried to stand, lunging forward as though sheer momentum would be enough to keep him on his feet. A terrific spike of pain shot through his ankle, and then he was falling again, nothing he could do to stop it, sprawling across the concrete. Right behind him Seth snorted in exasperation. "Would you give it a rest, already? It's over." He grabbed Blair's upper arm and dragged him over onto his back. The pavement was gritty and hard under the back of Blair's skull. Seth dropped to straddle his chest, reaching down to try to pin his wrists. "Just stop it before you hurt yourself any worse."

Panting in fury, Blair balled his right hand into a fist and swung as hard as he could. He felt a sickening, yielding crunch as his knuckles hit Seth's nose. Seth screamed and covered his face with both hands. Blood spurted between his fingers. Some of Blair's rage was lost in a shudder of self-disgust. He had to get out of this. He had to stop this before anyone else got hurt. Geez, things get a little out of hand, and the best thing he could think of to do was break a student's nose?

OK, to be honest, things were a lot out of hand. He heaved up, pushing hard, and managed to dislodge Seth. Then he rolled onto his belly again, sobbing with every breath. He couldn't run, but he could crawl under a car. Wouldn't hold them off for very long, but maybe just long enough for someone to happen in on them, see what was happening and call the cops. Surely someone would start to wonder about that incessantly yapping dog if nothing else.

Once his head was under the carriage of the nearest car, he could hear the sounds he was making. Cripes, he was in bad shape. He had to calm down, keep his wits about him. The air seemed colder under here. He could smell motor oil and his own sweat. Then someone grabbed his bad ankle and yanked hard, dragging him backward. Blair groaned in pain and scrabbled uselessly at the cement as he was hauled out inch by remorseless inch. "God damn." Eddie's voice. "I thought this was supposed to be easy."

"It would have been if you hadn't lost the gun," Susan said. "Mr. Sandburg, for the last time, we're not going to hurt you. We just want to talk."

Oh yeah, he believed that all right. He twisted himself onto his side so at least he could come out swinging. He was dizzy and sick to his stomach, and turned like he was, the pain in his ankle shot up his leg in agonizing spurts of heat. His three attackers were crouched around him, and it was Eddie who had the grip on his ankle. Seth held one hand cupped over his bloody nose, his white shirt front spattered red. As soon as Blair was free of the car he kicked hard with his free foot, hitting Eddie's thigh with a good, solid thump. Eddie grunted and let him go, and Blair pushed himself up to a sitting position against a tire. No one tried to stop him. In fact, now that he was trapped, they all seemed a little at a loss. It was like being chased down and cornered by a trio of dull witted hyenas, Blair thought, exasperated. He could see better what Susan was holding in her hands, but it didn't make it any easier to believe. "How long have you been planning this?" he croaked.

"Ross had everything planned," Susan said. "He just didn't know your cop friend was a big enough pig to kill him."

"Wait a minute." Blair braced himself against the tire and tried to push himself up. "Wait a minute." Oh, man, he should have known ever since he and Jim first talked to Eddie. All the pieces had been right there. "Everything was planned? You mean Ross meant to walk out of the library with the book and me too?"

"But we're going to fix it." Susan's expression hardened. Her fierce demeanor was only marginally compromised by the chihuahua barking away in her backpack. "We're going to give Ross back what you took away."

Blair was braced against the car in a half-crouch, all his weight on his right foot. He tried to fend Susan off when she lunged for him, but she blocked his punch with her other arm, grabbed the collar of his coat, and yanked him violently forward. He couldn't catch himself before he was pushed flat onto the pavement. One of the three grabbed his wrist and wrenched it up between his shoulder blades. "Stop it," Susan hissed in his ear. "Mr. Sandburg, we don't want to hurt you."

That same idiotic refrain, repeated every time they proceeded to hurt him again. The dragging pressure against his wrist brought his shoulders up, but his other hand was still free. He slammed his elbow back, and had the satisfaction of hearing someone beside himself grunt in pain. The person holding his wrist let go and Blair forced himself to his hands and knees, trying to crawl away. Surely someone would show up to get their car soon. If he could just hold them off another few minutes --

"Dammit." Seth's voice sounded like he had a bad cold. "I've had enough of this."

A knee in the small of his back forced him flat once more. He writhed under the unbearable pressure of a kneecap against his spine, shouting at them and belatedly screaming for help. But then someone pushed a merciless hand between his thighs, found a grip through his khakis, and clamped down hard. Blair's screams died in his throat.

"Now for the last time," Seth moaned at him, leaning so close Blair could feel splats of blood falling on his back, "Stop fighting and shut up."

"Please," Blair whispered, lying absolutely, positively still. "Please."

"That's more like it," Seth announced, panting and satisfied.

"Don't hurt him," Susan said.

"I'm not." The knee on his spine lifted away, but at the same time, the hand between his legs clenched harder, twisting remorselessly. Tears came to Blair's eyes. "I'm just showing him who's in charge."

"Come on, hurry up already." Eddie sounded nervous. "This is taking way too long."

Blair lay unresisting, hardly able to breathe. A leather cuff was buckled around one wrist, then the other. The leather was smooth and slick, and the snaps and hardware jangled as Susan worked. His wrists were pulled to the small of his back, and the cuffs were linked together. He felt his pants leg being pushed up next and his sock bunched down as a similar cuff was fasted around his right ankle. He didn't move when his left foot was lifted and his sock pulled down, but he moaned. It came out low and strangled, from deep in his throat. "Oh, god, Seth, look at this," Susan said. "Do you think it's broken?"

Someone's hand cupped the outside of his ankle, then bore down gently. Blair whimpered.

"I don't know, but it's not my fault. He's the one who tried to jump." Another squeeze, as though in reproach, and Blair laid the side of his face on the concrete and wept.

"Oh man," Eddie said, "Oh man, this was not supposed to happen."

"What are you whining about? He fucking broke my nose."

"Look, both of you, just calm down. It's going to be all right if we just keep our heads." Another strap of leather went around his left ankle, buckled more loosely than the first one. His ankle was so swollen it felt like a flesh balloon under the strap. The cuffs were linked together as his wrists had been, and then a hand slipped under his jaw and lifted his face. No, Blair thought, weeping in rage as well as pain. No, no, no, no, no.

It didn't matter how furiously and silently he protested. His jaws were pried open and the ball gag forced into his mouth. Wide, soft leather straps crossed his face and were buckled together at the back of his head, catching at his hair and pulling painfully. Finally the hand between his thighs was withdrawn and Blair curled slowly onto his side. He was dizzy, his face prickling with heat as though he was about to be sick. He breathed hard through his nose, trying to swallow back his nausea.

"Hurry up, Seth, get your wheels, and make sure nobody sees you. You look like hell."

Seth growled something unintelligible and took off at a jog. Blair closed his eyes for a long moment, then opened them again, trying to take in as much of his surroundings as he could. There were droplets of Seth's blood on the concrete -- Jim would see them, if he was looking, but he ought to be able to leave a better sign. C'mon, Sandburg, think, think. It wasn't easy, sick and hurting and mad as he was.

His wallet. Of course, his wallet. He looked up at Eddie and Susan. Eddie was fidgeting nervously, walking out and then back again. Susan was leaning against a car. She'd scooped the incessantly yapping dog out of her bag and was cradling it against her chest. The little beast had long, silky red hair, and Blair could only hope a few strands would float down for Jim to find. Had he ever even told Jim what Susan's full name was last night? He strained his fingers, trying to reach his wallet in his back hip pocket. There, he had it. He felt the pain in his ankle throbbing in time with his heartbeat, and wondered if it was broken. Remembering the pop and the first shock of pain nearly made him sick all over again.

Man, he had to calm down. Keep a clear head, that was the most important thing.

Let's be honest. That was the only thing he could do anymore.

He eased his wallet the rest of the way out of his pocket and held it cupped carefully between his palms.

"Jesus, what's taking him so long?" Eddie came stalking back.

"Take it easy," Susan said. "He's only been gone a minute."

Blair dropped his head so the side of his face rested on the pavement. Tears were trapped under the leather strap that crossed his cheeks, but his eyes were dry. He heard and felt a rumbling in the concrete. Probably Seth's car, but in case it wasn't, he should be ready to move. If he kicked out hard and fast enough, he might be able to knock Susan down. Create enough of a ruckus and surely someone would look to see what was going on.

"See," Susan said, relieved. "There he is." Even though he'd known what a longshot it was, the disappointment was numbing. Blair swallowed hard. So OK, back to plan A. And keep your cool, man.

A big gray Suburban pulled up, blocking the slanting sunlight. A door opened and slammed shut again, and at that moment, Blair flicked his wallet out of his hands, hoping it would land under the car behind him and go unnoticed.

"All right, help me get him up, come on, come on." The chihuahua was stowed in the backpack once more and Susan bent to grab him under his shoulder. Eddie hooked his hand under Blair's other arm, and together they hauled him upright. The sudden change in position and the weight on his ankle was excruciating. Blair moaned, his voice trapped by the gag holding his mouth open. For an instant he couldn't even breathe, and he thrashed in panic.

"Dammit, don't you ever give up?" Seth grabbed a handful of hair at the top of Blair's scalp and yanked his head back. "Did you forget already that I know how to make you behave?"

"Oh knock it off," Susan snapped. "We've got him, that's all that matters."

Seth snarled and let him go. He was a pretty scary sight, blood still dripping from his purple nose, the dried and drying blood smeared across his face and over both sleeves. He turned away and wrenched open the back doors. The space behind the seat was littered with pizza boxes and the remains of a sixpack or two. Seth swept it out with the side of his hand. The cans went bouncing and rolling.

"Get his legs," Susan said, and Seth wrapped his arm behind the back of Blair's knees. "On three," Susan directed. "One, two --" On three, all of them heaved up, and Blair was rolled over into the back of the van, ending up on his side against the bolted-down legs of the back seat. He gasped in pain and felt like he was strangling to death. Calm down, he told himself desperately, trying to do it. Calm down, keep it cool. (Please, Jim, please get here soon.) "You're not gonna just leave all the trash are you?" Susan asked.

"Oh, give me a break," Eddie complained. "Don't you have anything else to worry about?"

"At least someone does," Susan retorted. "Your address is on the pizza box."

Seth snorted in exasperation, and the pizza boxes were tossed back in. "Wait a minute," he said then. "Hey, Mr. Sandburg, looks like you dropped your wallet."

The wallet was thrown in after him, too, and the doors slammed behind him.

* * *

The scariest thing in the world, Jim thought, was what you already knew. The complete unknown was nothing. A cakewalk in comparison. Say you go around the corner, and something you've never even imagined in your whole life is standing there. Well, hell, either your heart stops, or you just bust out laughing.

But suppose it's something you already know about, something you've been waiting for. Something you've been dreading, worst of all. Like these damned senses he'd known about all his life, really, though he'd buried them deep. Sandburg comes along out of the blue and holds them up where Jim has no choice but to see him. Now that was scary. The kind of scared that makes your heart clench like it might never beat again, turns your bowels to ice, your blood to water. The kind of scared that made a fighter like Jim explode. He was lucky he hadn't slammed poor Sandburg right through the wall that morning in his office.

Or like those sounds. Liquid and soft. Far away, but drawing ever closer. Even today, when he was deliberately not listening for them, Jim knew they were there. After all, they had walked through his dreams the past two nights. All he would have to do was to let his guard down just a little, and he would hear them now, he was certain of it.

He would not listen anymore. He would not, because he thought he had figured out what they were, and he could not bear to listen, knowing.

"Detective Ellison, did you even hear the question?"

Jim looked up from his white-knuckled hands, clenched together on the conference table. Sheila was losing patience with him. Her mouth was tightlipped and angry.

"No, ma'am." Jim forced his hands to unclench. "I don't think I did."

Chapter 9

Simon caught up to him as he was pulling out of the parking garage, taking long strides across the 'no pedestrians' ramp, yelling as though Jim might not notice him otherwise. "Dammit, Jim, what the hell do you think you're doing?"

Jim rolled down the window to answer, though he didn't turn off the engine. "I need to see Sandburg."

"In the middle of your IA hearing? Have you lost your mind?"

"It's important."

"More important than your career?"

Jim kept his gaze locked straight ahead. "I don't know, sir. Maybe it is."

"Don't pull this with me. If it's so damned important why don't you just pick up the phone and call the kid?"

"I already tried. He's not answering."

"You think he might be in trouble? Why didn't you tell somebody instead of just haring off like this?"

"Sandburg isn't the one in trouble. He probably just left his phone in his backpack somewhere."

"Then who -- oh. " Jim heard Simon swallowing. When he spoke again his voice was much softer. "You're the one in trouble. It's a sentinel thing."

Jim didn't look at him. "I don't know, sir. I think so."

"Dammit, Jim," Simon breathed softly. He sounded as angry and helpless as Jim felt. "I thought you two had this thing under control by now."

"Yes, sir." Jim slid his hands down the steering wheel, then back up again. "I thought so too."

* * *

Looking up through the tinted back windows, Blair saw the pocked gray concrete ceiling of the parking garage give way to the shock of hard blue sky. The van turned to the left. Must be heading up the hill toward the dorms. Seth was driving slowly, doing nothing to draw attention to himself. No one spoke, though Eddie was still breathing hard, and Seth snuffled through his bloody nose. Blair was thinking he could probably manage to kick the back door at least a couple of times before any of his captors could stop him. He'd wait and try it when they were stopped in traffic, and there was a chance someone would actually hear him. The carpeted floor was hard under his shoulder. Every bump in the road jarred his busted ankle and his aching balls. The gag in his mouth tasted like old tupperware. His jaws were beginning to hurt from being held open, and he was drooling. He could feel the trail from the corner of his mouth across his jaw.

The van slowed and then stopped, which seemed vaguely surprising. They couldn't have made it past the dorms, could they? Probably not even that far. All Blair could see out the window was blue sky, and stark against it, the branch of a tree not yet budded out. Then suddenly he could hear the outside world as well as see it. Someone must have opened a window or a door. Now, Blair thought fiercely, and kicked the back door as hard as he could. A globe of fire seemed to shatter in his ankle. He lay stunned with pain, his heart ratcheting in his chest, and he couldn't make himself kick the door again. For a second he couldn't even remember why it was so important that he try. All that mattered was waiting for the pain to go away.

Aw damn, it hurts, Jim. It really hurts.

He was pretty sure this wasn't the way Jim would have done it anyway. Jim would have recognized Susan and wouldn't have walked into the ambush in the first place. Jim wouldn't have tripped and broken his ankle trying to get away. Most of all, Jim wouldn't have let a trio of undergrads truss him up like a refugee from a bargain basement b/d flick and throw him in the back of some kid's SUV. This was so stupid. So incredibly, unbelievably stupid.

A door slammed and the van lurched into movement again. His shoulder rolled against the hard carpeted floor. His ankle didn't hurt any less, but the horrifying surprise of the pain was fading, and he realized he had lost the chance to draw attention to his plight. In sheer frustration he tried to shout even though he knew he couldn't, and once more felt the panic of suffocation when the gag trapped his cries in his throat. His eyes flew open wide, and he breathed hard through his nose until he began to feel lightheaded, like he was on the verge of hyperventilating. He had to calm down, dammit. Somehow he had to relax and wait for his next opportunity. Be ready for it when it came.

A girl's head popped over the back of the seat and looked down at him. Her head was haloed with white-blonde hair, distractingly shiny with just the faintest tinge of green that all the swimming shampoos in the world couldn't get rid of. He knew her. She was Monica Underhill, Susan's friend. A straight B student in Blair's class who always seemed like she was putting at least a little effort into her work. Susan had mentioned her last night. Said Monica had told her Blair was a nice guy, easy to talk to. Someone who could help Susan with Professor Nagle. It had all been just a tissue of lies, playing him for the sucker he was. Blair trembled in rage, staring up at her balefully. She didn't seem to notice, and after a moment her head disappeared. "So what happened?" she asked.

Someone else laughed. "I can't believe you let him break your nose, man. Does it hurt?" That was a male voice, one Blair didn't recognize. How many people were in the van now anyway? And what were they planning to do? The pain in his stupid ankle seemed to be draining all his strength, or perhaps it was the frustration of being bound like this, or the terrifying constriction of the gag in his mouth, because when he wondered what in the world his kidnappers wanted with him, he felt the crush of fear bearing down on him like an unendurable weight.

OK, forget it then. If he couldn't deal with that, he wouldn't. Just concentrate on the here and now. He'd pay attention to what was going on and wait for them to make a mistake. That's when he'd make his move.

(Please, Jim. Please get here soon.)

"I think he saw Bitsy in my pack," Susan was saying. "We had to go ahead and do it in the garage."

"That stupid dog," Seth said in a nasally voice. "You could have ruined everything."

"I can't leave her in my room, you know that. If someone heard her barking I could get pitched out of the dorm."

In the middle of a kidnapping, and Susan was worried about losing her campus housing. Blair didn't know whether to laugh or scream. Didn't much matter, since he couldn't do either one.

"Can you and Eddie get him in by yourselves, Tom? Seth better stay in the van until he gets cleaned up."

Another head looked over the back of the seat at him. Tom, presumably. Blair didn't know the kid, and insanely enough, that was something of a relief. At least he wasn't another of Blair's own students. Blair didn't know how many more of those betrayals he could take.

He'd take as many as he had to, a small, doomed voice at the back of his head whispered. Until he got out of this, he would have to take everything they felt like giving him.

All right, stop it. Just stop it right now.

"We can get 'im," Tom said. He could have been talking about moving a sofa for all the concern in his voice.

"There goes campus security," Eddie said. "That was cutting it pretty close, Susan."

"I couldn't help it. He's the one who called them."

Tom grinned down at him. "If they only knew, right, Mr. Sandburg?" Then his head pulled away, and Blair could see nothing but the roof of the van and the blue sky. He had lost track of where they were by now. Still on campus he thought, or very close by. They were making slow progress through the maze of stop signs, traffic lights and pedestrian crosswalks. There were people all around him, some of them maybe even his friends and colleagues, and he was just lying here. It was enough to drive a person mad.

"There's a place," Susan said abruptly.

"I can't fit in there," Seth complained.

"There's plenty of room. You just don't know how to parallel park."

Stopping again already? Where were they?

Blair could see a streetlight against the sky, and the cornice of a building, ornate and in need of a new coat of paint. Probably they were in the Westchester neighborhood east of campus. Half a dozen city blocks of Victorian gingerbread fantasies from the Goldrush era, these days subdivided into apartments and boarding rooms. Blair had rented a room on Yakima Street for a couple of months himself just for the convenience of being close to campus, but it had been expensive and crowded, and with frat houses on either side and across the street, so damned noisy the warehouse had felt like an escape to the dark side of the moon.

Then a terrible suspicion occurred to Blair. It was incredible, impossible. He couldn't be right. He couldn't be.

The back doors of the van were suddenly wrenched open. Blair blinked against the sunlight and cold spring air. Eddie and Tom were standing there, and Eddie reached in first and grabbed the shoulder of Blair's coat. "Wanna give me some help here?" he demanded.

Tom just grinned. "This is pretty wild, isn't it?" he said. He hooked both hands behind Blair's knees and pulled his legs out of the back of the van while Eddie tugged at Blair until he was sitting up. Then the two of them gripped his shoulders and pulled him upright. When his feet touched the pavement, pain spiked through his ankle once more. Tom swore at him as they staggered.

"Watch it!" Eddie hissed. "You got him?"

Tom adjusted his grip on Blair's shoulder, bracing himself. "Yeah, I got him, I got him. What's wrong with him?"

"Seth busted his ankle. You should see it. It's already turning purple."

"He did what? I don't believe it."

"Hold on a minute, I've gotta get the doors." Eddie half turned, supporting Blair awkwardly, and managed to slam the doors shut behind them. A couple of cars were going down the other side of the street, but neither of them even slowed down. Maybe they didn't see him in the shadow of the van.

Maybe.

They were in front of the Psi Omega house, which was a rambling, three story mansion of a place that had seen better days, and hadn't been improved by a recent paint job in yellow and black. Even the sidewalk and the wrought iron fence had been painted. A window was open in a third story turret despite the cold, and music was blaring.

"Hey, whoa, hold up!" Someone's voice shouted from the other side of the street. Hope bloomed for an instant as Blair saw a kid come jogging across toward them. Seth had started to pull the Suburban back into the street, but he stopped at that. Blair was frantically calculating their odds. They were absolutely lousy. The kid should turn and run the other way, call the cops, get help.

He didn't do any of those things. He ran right up to the three of them, his round, friendly face flushed red from the jog in the cold. "Eddie, dude, what do you think you're doing?" Without waiting for an answer, he reached out and ran his finger under the strap holding the gag in Blair's mouth. "Whose leather is this?"

"How you doing, bro?" Eddie said, as if they had just run into each other in the campus pub. "It's Seth's. You know him?"

"Hell, yeah, I know Seth. Does he ever lend it out?"

"You're sick, man." Eddie laughed.

This couldn't be happening. Of every impossible thing that had happened this morning, this was the worst. Oh, god, this was insane. Blair shook his head frantically, trying to make the kid see him somehow. Tom said, "I don't think he wants you borrowing Seth's stuff either."

The kid laughed too. "You're about six months late for Hell Week. You know that, right?"

"We're not late," Eddie said. "We're just getting a six month head start."

"You guys are messed up," the kid said happily. He patted Blair's cheek and looked closely into Blair's eyes. Blair could hear himself panting with terror and frustrated rage, but Eddie's friend didn't seem to notice anything at all. "I hope you know what you're doing, man," he told Blair. "These guys are seriously messed up." Still laughing, he punched Eddie companionably in the shoulder and took off at the same easy lope. Blair stared after him, dumbfounded, until Eddie complained, "Come on, this guy isn't getting any lighter."

At that Blair thrashed hard, trying to twist out of their hold. The pain in his ankle stabbed at him, and the gag was suffocating, but he couldn't let them take him into that house. No matter what, he had to keep that from happening.

In the end, of course, it didn't matter how hard he fought. Tom and Eddie didn't even seem to notice. They dragged him the length of the yellow and black sidewalk, swearing and laughing, then up the staircase and across the wide stone verandah to the front door, which Eddie kicked open with the toe of his shoe. Blair's very soul felt as though it would be crushed as the smells of that crumbling house spilled out the front door. Rotting lathe and plaster work. Stale beer. Tomato sauce, cigarette smoke, unwashed laundry and pot. Those were the ephemeral things, though. The reek of age and decay was paramount, and it froze his heart in his breast. Please, Jim, Blair screamed in his mind as Eddie kicked the door shut behind them. For a few stark moments he wasn't even sane anymore. Please, Jim, please don't let them do this to me.

"Shit," Tom said explosively. "Stop a minute. Stop."

They lowered him to the floor with a gentleness that would have surprised Blair, if he had been in any position to notice. It was dark in the foyer, red light coming through the stained glass window set high in the front door. The carpet under his head was worn down almost to the backing and reeked of mildew. Blair's heart was pounding away in his chest, but the threat of suffocation had reached him through his panic, and he lay still, struggling to calm down enough to breathe.

"I thought I was gonna lose it when Stevie showed up like that," Tom said. He was bent over Blair, hands on his knees, breathing as though he too were trying to catch his breath.

"No way. I knew we were cool. It went just like we planned. As long as you act like you know what you're doing, nobody gives a damn."

"Oh bullshit you weren't scared, man."

Eddie snorted in laughter. "It's not my fault you're some kind of a wuss. I'm telling you, I wasn't scared. How about you, Mr. Sandburg?" Eddie crouched down and rolled Blair over. Blair's cuffed hands dug into the small of his back. "Were you scared?"

"Let's just get him downstairs before anybody else shows up," Tom said.

"Yeah, all right, all right. Here, get him under his arm here. I think it'll be easier like this."

The two of them picked Blair up once more, their hands digging painfully into his underarms through his coat, and dragged him backward down the hall. His bound feet trailed along the worn carpet. He couldn't see where they were taking him, only the back of the front door. On one side was a large open area with a fireplace and three unmatched sofas. Other doors along the hallway were closed. Many of them were obviously recent additions. The walls were water damaged, and in places the wallpaper had peeled off above the wainscoting in long ragged strips. Blair heard a door opening behind him, and the ancient smell of the house suddenly grew much stronger. Terror closed his throat once more, spots dancing before his eyes. He really might pass out, he realized bleakly. And if he did, he could choke to death before either of these idiots figured out what was happening. He had to calm down. He had to keep his head. Besides, he was probably all wrong about what house he thought he was in. He was just scared and jumping to conclusions because he was in a seriously bad situation. There were lots of old houses around Rainier.

Tom and Eddie pulled him through a doorway, and they were now making their way down a steep, narrow staircase. Posters of Pamela Anderson and Claire Dane were tacked to the woodwork. Blair's feet bounced from step to step as they descended, and each thump felt as though it drove a dull spike straight through his ankle bone. Thump. Thump. Thump. His head dropped back in agony, and he stared up at the slanting wood ceiling claustrophobically near overhead. A bare bulb at the head of the stairs illuminated their descent. They turned a sharp corner at the foot of the stairs at last, Blair's shackled feet catching at the corner, and then went down a short, dark corridor. The floor was smooth and very hard, stone or concrete, Blair thought. The walls were tongue-in-groove paneling. A door stood open to the left. "That's my place," Tom said. He sounded proud of it. Blair could smell dirty laundry and peanut butter.

Eddie added, "But you know who used to live here, don't you?"

Oh, god. Oh, god, no.

They dragged him another few yards and through another doorway into a large, open bathroom. The plumbing was a mixture of ancient and modern, two urinals against one wall, a single stall with steel walls painted mud brown, a sink that looked as though it had been designed for washing laundry by hand, and shower heads along another wall. The entire room was tiled with tiny white octagonal tiles, many of them cracked and broken, mold growing black in the grout. The smell was indescribably foul. Blair felt himself trembling violently, his eyes darting around his surroundings, trying to take in as much as he could and terrified of what he would see.

They dragged him across to the showers and dropped him once more, this time rolling him over onto his face. His head was near a drain, and he could smell the water standing in a trap. "You ready?" Tom asked above him. Blair felt them fumbling at his cuffed wrists. Something clicked, and then they were no longer hooked together. His hands were dragged apart, the sudden change in position making his shoulders burn. He was yanked up and slammed back against the wall of the showers, his arms spread wide. He struggled against them, but it was already too late. Eddie and Tom snapped the rings on his cuffs around the water faucets and stepped back. He was in a half-crouch, trying to keep from putting any weight on his bad ankle, unable either to sit down or stand up, huffing through flared nostrils in pain and fear, the shower wall cold at his back. They could not leave him. Not here, not like this.

"Oh yeah," Eddie said, bending down to look into his face. "You know, don't you? These were the servant's quarters when President Bollingen lived here. His poor old housekeeper slept down here for decades before that night when she finally went upstairs to get the butcher knife. Kinda makes you think, doesn't it? It does me, anyway."

Blair stared at them, struggling to breathe.

"Let's get out of here," Tom said. "I'm starving."

Eddie straightened up. "Me too, man. We've got a couple of hours. What about Papa John's?"

"Oh yeah, that's only the worst pizza on the planet." They turned their backs on Blair and walked out of the bathroom, still arguing about lunch, shutting the door behind them and turning out the light.

Chapter 10

Blair wasn't in his office, so Jim let himself in using the key Blair had given him a couple of years ago. Blair's backpack was in his desk chair, and Jim unzipped the pack and checked inside, mostly to verify what he already knew. The cell phone was right where he expected to find it, nestled in an interior pocket next to the tahini, mayo and sprouts sandwich Blair had made for himself before leaving this morning. Jim grimaced at the sharp scent of sesame paste and lemon juice, and he dug the sandwich out and stowed it on the top shelf of the little fridge under the coffee maker. Mayonnaise should be refrigerated, everybody knew that. Hadn't Naomi taught that kid anything normal?

In the meantime, though, Blair wasn't here, and Jim had no idea where he might have gone. Aggravating. The cell phone wasn't a whole lot of use if he didn't bother to carry it with him, was it? Of course, Sandburg hadn't had any reason to expect him this morning, so Jim couldn't exactly grouch that Blair hadn't been sitting around waiting for him. Jim could grouch about the phone, he supposed, if he thought it would do any good. He knew perfectly well it wouldn't.

Oh well, Sandburg probably wouldn't be gone long. He'd left his backpack, so he wasn't in class or off at the library doing research. The coffee in the pot was a day old at least, maybe more, which meant Blair had come in, dropped his stuff, and immediately taken off again. He'd be back. Jim could wait. He moved the backpack out of the office chair and settled down in it himself, propping his feet on the desk. Here in Blair's office, surrounded by the artifacts of Blair's life, Jim no longer felt so out of control, on the verge of panic. In fact, he almost wondered what he was doing here in the first place.

Almost. That was the mistake he had been making all along, wanting to believe the problem would just go away on its own. He should already have talked to Blair about his hallucination in the library, but with the shooting and everything else, it simply hadn't seemed all that important. The nightmares should have tipped him off, but Blair was having them too, so it had been easy this morning for Jim to pretend his own bad dreams were just the stress of the case as well.

Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing to worry about.

But it was something out of the ordinary when the dreams followed him back into the waking world. Things were getting worse instead of better, and he couldn't handle it by himself anymore. Blair would know what was going on, though. Blair would be able to tell him why he was being haunted by footsteps he could not possibly be hearing. He would banish them with some Blair-speak and the touch of his hand on Jim's brow or planted firmly in the middle of Jim's chest, and maybe his irritable demand to "concentrate, Jim -- how do you expect to accomplish anything if you won't pay attention to me?" And somehow, he'd fix it. Just like he had fixed everything. The only thing he hadn't been able to do for Jim was make these senses go away for good.

A part of Jim still despised his dependence. After all, what was he going to do once Blair got his degree? When he didn't need his research subject anymore? It was a subject Blair had learned to avoid, but Jim remembered every word of every conversation they'd ever had about Blair's future. The reality of Blair's profession was there were hundreds of applicants for every good teaching position that opened up. Blair was good, and knew it, and he seemed to have no doubt he could get himself hired somewhere, but it could be anywhere in the country. Maybe he'd take a lectureship at Rainier for a year or two, but that was only a temporary position, intended to help young PhDs while they looked for a job. For the sake of his career, he would eventually have to go.

Then what would Jim do when his senses turned reality inside out?

Jim swung his feet down off the desk irritably. That kind of thinking wasn't doing him any good. There was still a case to solve here, questions which needed to be answered. Why had Ross taken that book? Who else had known about his plan?

And by the way, who had taken Ross's body?

Jim's knuckles whitened on the arms of the chair. Where the hell was Sandburg anyway? He picked up the backpack again. If Blair had had an appointment this morning, perhaps he'd made a note of it. He rooted around, searching, then pulled out a thick little leather volume from the bottom of the bag. He was smiling to himself at finding the dayplanner, which had been a gift from Jim last Christmas. He'd never been able to understand how Blair could possibly keep track of all his commitments just by scribbling notes to himself on whatever scraps of paper happened to be at hand. ATM receipts, the back of Jim's grocery lists, whatever. It was true, Jim had to admit, Blair usually managed to show up more or less on time, more or less where he was supposed to be -- but wouldn't his life be easier with a little organization?

Blair had laughed, agreed that maybe his life would be at that, and had thanked Jim for the gift. Silly how touched Jim felt to find Blair was really using it. He opened the book, letting the pages fan open against his thumb, and found the whole month of April entirely blank. He paged back. Nothing in March. Almost nothing in February. The first two weeks of January had been carefully filled in, all with the same pen at the same time, it looked like. After that, the notations of appointments and classes became increasingly erratic, degenerating into post-it notes stuck to the pages, or written on the back of a deposit slip and tucked between the leaves. By mid February Blair had given it up entirely.

Jim shut the book and put it back in Blair's backpack, his smile a trifle rueful now. Sandburg must have known from the start the dayplanner wouldn't work for him, but for Jim's sake, he'd been willing to give it a shot. Why he was still carrying it around was the mystery. Well, not such a mystery after all. He would have to remember to tell Sandburg it was all right, really. He didn't need to keep lugging it around just to spare Jim's feelings. The damn thing was heavy.

But he still didn't know where Blair was this morning. Jim pulled out the sheaf of xeroxes stuffed in the center of the backpack and shuffled through them. They all seemed to be articles written by that professor Blair was so suspicious of, Peter Nagle. So maybe that's where he was this morning. Jim put the papers back and looked around on Blair's desk, then opened drawers, and finally found a campus directory under a package of coffee filters in the bottom desk drawer. He looked up Professor Peter Nagle's office number, then put the directory back in the drawer, under the coffee filters. He'd go have a word with the good professor himself this morning. Whether or not Blair was already there, Jim thought it would be a good idea for him to meet the professor himself. He trusted Blair's instincts, but he'd learned to be careful when they were dealing with a case on campus. For some reason, Blair was least reliable on his own home turf. Jim thought he understood why. It was always toughest when it was personal.

* * *

When Blair was very still, he could almost hear the words. The bass came thumping right down through the floor whether he wanted to hear it or not, the pulsing backbeat a counterpoint to his own rapid heartbeat. It was only when he held very, very still, even his breathing shallow, that he could hear the tortured voice. Shouting, not really singing at all. Crying out in anger.

Hole's second album, wasn't it? He'd always liked it, but he was pretty sure once he got out of this, he would never, ever want to listen to Courtney Love singing again. He thought the stereo he was hearing now must be the same one he had heard from out on the street, blaring out of the third story window. Apparently the CD was set to endlessly repeat, because he was sure this was at least the third time he'd heard "Violet."

Which meant he had been here -- how long? More than ninety minutes. Closer to two hours, maybe. He couldn't feel his hands anymore, and his shoulders and thigh muscles were a solid mass of fire. He'd managed to push himself up to an almost-standing position a few times, trying to stretch the muscles cramping in his thighs, but the last time he had tried, he hadn't been able to force his legs to straighten.

At least his ankle wasn't bothering him so much anymore. He hardly noticed it, really, now that everything else hurt just as badly. The gag was the worst of all. The hinges of his jaw were burning with pain, and there was something terrifying about the way the muscles in his neck and throat were tightening. He really could suffocate down here, trussed up like this, and it was very cold comfort to reflect this was almost certainly not what his kidnappers had intended to happen.

Go on, take everything
Take everything
I want you to


Oh shut UP already, he thought furiously. Great victim music, wasn't it? Maybe that's why they were playing it. Maybe they'd planned it that way. Maybe they had planned everything. Who could guess what a twisted genius like Dr. Nagle might have told them to do anyway? Apparently they had been smart enough to break Ross's body out of the morgue. So maybe everything that was happening was part of the same plan. Right down to his slow death by suffocation in the basement while Tom and Eddie went out for pizza.

Take everything
Take everything
I dare you to

Blair shook his head violently, and the movement was enough to blot out the faint, penetrating lyrics for a few moments. Too bad he already knew the words, because he couldn't stop hearing them in his head. He should think about something else already. The only problem was, nothing he could think of was much better. Like, where was Ross's body, anyway? Seemed logical to assume it was stowed somewhere nearby. Probably down in the basement with him, which was a pleasant thought, wasn't it? Stuffed in the linen closet, maybe. Why on earth had they taken the body in the first place?

Why had they taken him?

Did it really have anything to do with the book Ross had been trying to steal? Blair still didn't have a very clear idea of what was in it. A seriously twisted demonology, if the Huysmans translation could be trusted, and a lot of necromancy. That was the part that was particularly unpleasant to think about now, chained up in the dark by a gang of body snatchers. Were they seriously planning to act out the rites described in the book? Yeah, it was completely crazy, but from a certain, sick point of view, it did make sense. After all, they had a corpse, and you couldn't do much necromancy without one. For that matter, if they left Blair down here much longer, they would have two corpses on their hands. Then they could really go to town.

Take everything
Take everything


Oh, god. He thumped his head against the tile wall behind him. Not hard, just enough to feel it. What did he do to attract these types anyway? He really didn't want to start thinking about David Lash right now, but it was tough not to remember Ross had been watching him, just like Lash had. Both men had seen something in him they wanted for themselves. Something they were willing to reach out and take, risking prison, risking death. And sure enough, Jim had killed both of them. The only difference was, this time, death apparently hadn't been enough to derail Ross's plans.

A door slammed somewhere overhead. Blair started violently, and for a moment couldn't breathe. The darkness of the basement was suddenly speckled with light, phosphenes trailing away out of the corners of his eyes as he struggled to take a breath. He felt a cramp in his neck like a hand around his throat, and had a sudden, vivid image of Jim finding him like this, hanging in chains in a filthy bathroom in the basement of a frathouse. Dead of his own panic.

No. Oh no.

He held himself absolutely still, pretending it didn't matter that he couldn't breathe. All that mattered was staying calm, keeping still. Allowing muscles that were cramped so badly he couldn't imagine ever moving without pain again to relax. Peaceful and calm, easy, easy, like Jim reading the paper on a Sunday morning, wrapped in a houserobe and still a little damp from the shower. Sipping at coffee too hot to drink yet, and smiling in drowsy pleasure when the sun broke through the clouds over the bay, shining in through the skylights and touching his face with warmth and light.

The first breath burned Blair's lungs like he was breathing water instead of air. Hurting was OK, though, because it meant he wasn't dead. Through the roaring in his ears he could hear the thunder of footsteps. Someone was coming. A lot of someones. Maybe even the whole gang? Great. The more the merrier. He hardly cared what happened next, just as long as they got him down off this wall, or at least took the gag out of his mouth.

The door banged open. An arc of light spilled across the tile floor from the hallway, and Susan complained, "God, it stinks down here." Then someone switched on the overhead, and Blair had to squeeze his eyes shut against the violence of the incandescent light. Footsteps clicked across the tile to him. He squinted his eyes open again. Susan was bending down over him, her hands fumbling with the buckle at the back of his head. Oh, thank you. A few strands of hair were caught in the strap, and the sharp, contained pain of the pulled hairs when she tugged the gag away was so welcome tears came to his eyes.

"How you feeling?" she asked him.

Blair blinked up at her, taking deep gulps of air. I feel wonderful, he thought. I can breathe, and that's all that matters. "I can't breathe through that gag," was what he tried to say to her, but his jaws didn't work. He couldn't close his mouth, so all that came out was an "ahhhh," that seemed to alarm Susan almost as much as it did him.

"We better not use that anymore," she said. "He's got to be able to talk."

He supposed that was an encouraging sign. Wonder what they wanted him to say?

"Look," she said. "Don't fight this, OK? We don't want to hurt you."

Great, that refrain again. He could not remember the last time he had hurt so much. Being shot was pretty bad, but at least that was a sudden violence, not this torturously slow business. One cruel turn of the screw at a time. He almost thought he'd rather take a bullet.

"Here it is," Monica said, somewhere out of Blair's line of vision. "I measured three teaspoons."

Oh, shit. What now?

"Get his head back," Susan said, and Seth loomed over him. He'd cleaned up the blood, but his nose was still swollen and purple. He ought to see a doctor about that, Blair thought insanely.

"I got him," Seth said, and grabbed a fistful of hair at the back of Blair's head, yanking his head back. He felt Seth's knuckles at the nape of his neck as he stared bleakly upward. Even the ceiling was covered in those tiny little octagonal white tiles. Susan clamped her left hand over his chin, her strong fingers digging into the left side of his jaw. The pressure on the sore muscles there was excruciating, and he heard the open mouthed whimper that escaped him. Metal knocked against his teeth, and he felt something syrupy and thick slide across his tongue. He gagged reflexively, and Susan smashed his mouth shut with her palm against his chin.

"If you spit that out, we'll pour the whole bottle down your throat," she said. She stroked his throat with her other hand, trying to force him to swallow.

"Do you want the water?"

Blair couldn't keep track of the voices any longer and didn't know who was talking. Whatever they had poured into his mouth was slipping down his throat. When Susan released his chin he spat weakly, but there was nothing left to get rid of. The sickeningly sweet taste was thick on his tongue, but his whole mouth felt puckered and dry. He recognized the taste, he thought, and the sensation of dryness, but he couldn't quite place it.

"Looks like most of it went down," Susan said. Blair felt the lip of a plastic bottle against his bottom lip, and then water flooded his mouth. He choked and coughed, and Susan forced his mouth shut again. "Swallow it, dammit." He couldn't possibly, not as violently as he was coughing. He thrashed, choking, and Susan released him with an exclamation of disgust. "Let him go, Seth. Just let him go."

Blair's head dropped forward. Water spilled out of his mouth to run down his chin and under the collar of his shirt. Every cough sent rivulets of fire through the cramped muscles in his legs and shoulders. He would give anything in the world just to lie down, he thought. Just to curl up and lie down anywhere at all, even on this cold tile floor.

"Do you think he spit out all the stuff?" Eddie was talking. Oh, good. Glad to know Eddie was here too. Just like old home week wasn't it? Whatever that was. His coughs were becoming less violent. He'd begun to shiver uncontrollably, and his stomach was cramping from coughing so hard in this awkward position.

"I don't know," Susan said. "If he did, we'll just do it again." She crouched down in front of Blair and held something up for him to see. A bottle of water. Same brand she'd bought for herself at the bakery last night, in fact. "You see, Mr. Sandburg? It's just water." She tipped the bottle up and swallowed some herself. "So you might as well drink it," she said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. "Because if you won't do it on your own, we'll have to make you drink it."

"What --" Blair managed to whisper.

"Are you gonna drink it or not?" Susan said impatiently.

"What did you give me?" There. Oh, his jaws hurt, though. His throat hurt, everything hurt.

"You drink the water, and I'll tell you, all right?"

It wasn't much of a deal, but on the other hand, he didn't have a whole lot of leverage right now. He closed his eyes and nodded. Susan tipped the bottle into his mouth, slowly enough for him to swallow a mouthful at a time. It seemed as though he could feel every drop going down, and when his belly began to feel oddly tight, he turned his face away from the bottle. Susan straightened up. "Guess we'll wait and see if that does it," she said.

"What was it?" Blair whispered.

"Don't you think we should get him down first?" Monica asked thoughtfully.

"Yeah," Eddie said. "It'll be a real mess if he spews like that."

"What did you give me?" Blair asked again, hearing the edge of panic in his voice this time.

"You're right, man." Seth loomed over him again. "Help me with him, all right?"

"Don't try anything," Susan warned him. "You can't get away."

Blair wondered blankly what they thought he could possibly be capable of in this state. "What did you give me?"

Seth unhooked one manacle from the fixture, and Blair's arm dropped like a stone, slapping his own thigh with a crack. A gritty, raw kind of pain turned tight circles in his shoulder. His other manacle was released, and he collapsed in a heap on the bathroom floor, panting. He'd thought the only thing he wanted in the world was to get down, but it turned out being released was almost as bad. Someone grabbed his wrists again and tried to pull them together behind his back, and it felt as though his arms were being twisted out of their sockets. "Please," he gasped. "Please don't."

"Oh, leave him," Susan said. "He's not going anywhere. How's your ankle, Mr. Sandburg?"

He felt someone's hand on his calf, pulling back the bottom of his jeans. "Looks pretty bad," Eddie announced.

"For the last time, it's not my fault," Seth said defensively. "He's the one who jumped."

"It's too late to do anything about it now," Susan said. "Look, Mr. Sandburg, tell us when you start to feel sick, all right?"

"What the hell did you give me?" Blair asked again, his aching jaw moving against the cold tile floor.

"Take it easy already, it's just ipecac. Half the anorexics on my floor use it."

Monica laughed. "Oh god, I know. It's so sick."

Blair curled painfully onto his side, drawing his knees up in slow degrees, and trying to turn his head so he could see his tormenters. The blood was beginning to flow back into his hands, and his fingertips were tingling and burning. "Why?" was all he could manage to ask. His stomach was cramping, though he couldn't tell if it was really the emetic working already, or just knowing what he had swallowed that was making him feel nauseated.

"Why do you think, man?" Eddie sounded honestly puzzled, but his puzzlement switched to anger just as quickly. "It was your cop buddy who killed Ross in the first place."

Well, that explained everything, didn't it? "Eddie," he whispered. "Jim didn't want to do it. Ross was acting crazy, waving a gun around. Jim didn't have any choice."

"Hey." Eddie nudged Blair in the center of his chest with the toe of his running shoe. "You know something, Mr. Sandburg? Unless you want that gag back in your mouth, I think you better just shut the hell up."

"Take it easy," Susan said. "It's gonna be all right. Just like we planned, right? Everything's going perfect."

"Yeah," Seth agreed. "Just like Ross wants. Maybe it's even better this way, you know?"

Aw, god, here it came. Blair felt the sudden twist in his gut and his face flamed with heat. He groaned in warning, and someone yanked him up by his collar, while Monica tried to shove an aluminum pan into his hands. It fell from his nerveless fingers, and he was violently, humiliating sick. Someone held his head and perhaps someone else picked up the pan and was holding it under his head, but his awareness had spiraled down to nothing but the pain of his stomach contracting again and again, and the burn of bile in his throat. When it was over, he fell forward to lie with his face once more on the tiles, which felt cool and soothing against his flushed brow. Please, Jim, he was thinking. Now, please, would be a good time to get me out of this. He had a glimmering of the inevitable outcome of all this, and even the suspicion was enough to freeze his heart. Not that he had a whole lot of courage left to spare at this point. His only hope was maybe his kidnappers weren't really willing to follow things to their logical conclusions.

But he bet they were. After all, Lash would have understood. Him and his nice hot baths.

Blair heard a toilet flushing. The air was fouler than ever, a smell that made his stomach clench so painfully he was afraid he would be sick again. "Come on," Seth said. "Can you sit up?"

Maybe he could sit up, but he couldn't see what his motivation was, so he just lay there until two of them grabbed the shoulders of his coat and dragged him to his knees, then turned him around and shoved him against the wall. He sat with his legs extended straight before him, still manacled at the ankles. His arms hung nervelessly at his sides. "You think you can handle this by yourself?" Susan said. She crouched beside him, lifted his right hand, and put the box in his hand. "See?" she said. "It's safe, just the mineral oil kind. We haven't even opened it."

Blair looked at it numbly, turned the box to feel the liquid moving inside, then looked up at the ring of his kidnappers standing above him. They didn't even seem embarrassed. They were true believers, every one of them. God help him, but he was in deep, deep shit.

A pun. Oh god, was that a pun? He must be cracking up. "You've got to be kidding," he whispered to them. The foulness was on his lips, in his mouth. Beginning to dry on his chin.

"You didn't answer the question, Mr. Sandburg." Seth stood over his legs and looked down at him. "Maybe you just don't understand your options. See, either you do it yourself, or we'll do it for you." He smiled, the ugliest expression Blair had ever seen in his life. "The instructions are right there on the side of the box."

"You sick bastard," Blair whispered helplessly, and Seth just grinned more broadly than ever.

"What did you say?" he asked Blair, his voice still sounding stuffed up. If Blair had his way, the kid would have a stuffed up nose for the rest of his miserable life.

Blair looked around, the weight of the evil house bearing down all around him. "Help me up," he said, and tried to keep the quaver out his voice.

Take everything take everything

"My ankle's busted," he said. "I can't get to the john by myself."

Chapter 11

The secretary in the history department was a thin, unhappy-looking woman, her face deeply lined by a lifetime of rigorous diet and exercise. She was stuffing flyers printed on cheap green copy paper into the departmental mailboxes along the back wall of the history office, and she glanced up with a smile when Jim said, "Excuse me." Her smile vanished when he said, "I'm trying to find Dr. Nagle, but he doesn't seem to be in his office and he's not answering his phone. I wonder if you could help me."

"I'm sorry." Her face shut up like a steel trap. "Except for the department chair, instructors handle their own schedules. If you'll leave a message on his voicemail, I'm sure Professor Nagle will get back in touch with you."

"I'm sure he will eventually, but I'd really like to talk to him this morning. Can you tell me if he's on campus today?"

She held out her hands in a gesture intended to indicate her complete inability to be of any help at all, still clutching flyers which featured a grainy portrait of Karl Marx bisected with an equally badly copied photo of Demi Moore. Probably an announcement for the kind of lecture Sandburg would eat with a spoon. "Professor Nagle keeps his own calendar," she repeated.

"I'm sure you can at least tell me if he's teaching a class this morning."

"Well, that information would be in the class schedule."

"I'm sure it is," Jim agreed, smiling at her. "So maybe you could look it up for me."

She just gazed back at him, blank faced, apparently trying to stare him down. This was ridiculous, Jim thought. Was he really losing his touch that badly? He crossed his arms on the high counter and waited. He smiled a little more.

She turned away. "It'll be a few minutes," she muttered, talking more to the mailboxes than to Jim.

"Actually, I'd like to have that information right now," Jim said. "I'm Detective James Ellison, Cascade PD. I'm investigating the death of one of Dr. Nagle's students, and I really need to find the man as soon as possible."

She spun around and stared at the badge he held out for her inspection. The handouts slipped from her trembling fingers. A door opened behind Jim, and the sudden updraft caught the falling pages. They spun around her like a muddy green snowstorm, falling lightly to the desk, the chair and the floor around her feet. "Peter," she said in a voice as thin as her pinched face. "It's a detective. He wants to talk to you about poor Ross."

"I'm Peter Nagle," said the man who had come in behind Jim. Jim turned to confront a tall, slender man with a full head of silver hair, who took Jim's hand in an aggressively firm handshake and smiled to show his even white teeth. "And you must be Detective Ellison." He didn't let go of Jim's hand. "The whole department is still in shock, myself included, but if there's anything I can do to help you make sense of this tragedy, I'm only too glad to help."

So this was the professor Blair despised. Well, there wasn't much there to love in Jim's book, either. The man was effusive and condescending. Too damned friendly and too damned pretty as well. Reminded him of his first impression of Blair. Except in Blair's case it had been youth and nerves -- the stumbling early steps of a young man with brains and talent who hadn't quite figured out what to do with either yet. Nagle'd had thirty years to sculpt his looks and smarts into high, brittle art. Jim wasn't impressed. "Thank you," he said, retrieving his hand. "I was hoping you could clear up a couple of matters for me."

"Of course, of course. Is there any mail for me, Lori?"

The department secretary smiled miserably, and got up from the floor where she was still collecting the scattered flyers. She tucked a lock of red hair behind her ear, but the moussed, sprayed lock fell stiffly forward again, still frozen in an unmoving ringlet. "Just a few things. I'm still sorting," she apologized. She pulled a stack of envelopes from one of the boxes and handed it to him, the Karl Marx flyer on top. Nagle immediately dropped the flyer into the trash basket under the desk.

"Really a waste of trees, distributing these things to everyone," he announced. "Lori, I think the mail is supposed to be in all the boxes by ten, isn't it?"

His tone was civil, but the implicit criticism was rude in front of a third party, and more than a little out of place in the midst of a conversation about a student's death. Jim was well on his way to deciding his first impression of the man was justified.

"Of course, I spoke to Blair Sandburg about this yesterday," Nagle continued, turning away before Lori could answer. "Was that part of the official investigation as well? You see, I thought Blair was just doing an extended ride-along to research his dissertation. Am I to understand he's actually employed by the Cascade Police Department?"

"Sandburg has served as an unofficial consultant from time to time," Jim said carefully. "His background and expertise have proven helpful in certain cases."

Nagle smiled thoughtfully. "Like this one, I suppose. Does Blair get paid for this 'unofficial' work?"

"I'm not here to discuss Sandburg's position with the Cascade PD, Dr. Nagle. Is there some place we could talk?"

"Yes, of course, my office is right down the hall." He touched Jim's arm above the elbow and guided him out of the office. "I'm sure you can understand my concern, however. It's a little disconcerting to learn what I had considered an informal conversation with a colleague is actually part of an official police investigation."

"In whatever capacity Blair spoke to you, he wanted the same thing we all do. To understand why Ross is dead."

They stopped before an office door with yellowing New Yorker cartoons and an appointment schedule taped to the woodwork. "Oh really?" Nagle said. "I would have thought that much, at least, was obvious." He unlocked his office door and gestured Jim in before him. "Ross is dead because you shot him."

The room was nothing like Sandburg's office. Any student papers or blue books were carefully stowed out of sight. There was no clutter anywhere, no unclassifiable artifacts propped in heaps and piles, just a broad expanse of desk with a computer on it, a couple of file cabinets, and bookshelves on every wall. Instead of metal rack shelving, Nagles's bookshelves were oak, built flush against the wall and around the windows. The sunlight which did make it in through the deep windows reminded Jim of light filtering down into a mine shaft. "Ross had a weapon and presented a clear and present danger," he said, not taking the seat Nagle offered him. The professor shrugged and sat down across the desk from Jim all the same. "I fired to protect everyone present."

"But especially to protect Blair Sandburg. Ross was trying to use Blair as a hostage to ensure his own safety, wasn't he? It turned out to be a bad choice."

"That's an interesting interpretation of what happened in the library. Were you there, Professor? I don't remember interviewing you with the other witnesses."

Nagle smiled. "No, of course not, but students talk, you know that, and it seems to have been quite a terrible and dramatic moment. I doubt any of the students who were there that evening will ever forget it."

Jim walked to the bookshelves and began reading the titles of books which would have meant more to Blair. "I don't think I'll ever forget it either," he told Nagle truthfully. "What else are students telling you? Why Ross was willing to die to steal that book, for instance?"

"I'm sure he didn't expect to die. He couldn't have known a police officer would be in the lobby."

"The boy was armed, so he seems to have been ready to kill even if he didn't intend to die himself. Do you have any idea what would have made that book important enough for Ross to try to steal it?"

"There was no reason for him to steal it when he could study it all he wanted in Special Collections."

"Apparently that wasn't good enough for him. What was the book about? Had you discussed it in class?"

"Yes, of course. We talked about many books from the Bollingen Collection in my seminar. I'm sure Blair has already told you all this."

"I'd appreciate it if you could explain it to me yourself."

Nagle extended one hand, palm up. "The subject matter is quite esoteric, Mr. Ellison. I mean no disrespect, but I'm sure it falls far outside of a policeman's usual purview."

"My understanding is that it was a book of medieval magic. Spells, and rituals. Did Ross believe all that stuff? Is that why he wanted to have the book?"

"Really, Detective, you'll forgive me, but that's such a -- such a tremendous oversimplification of the subject matter of Unaussprechlichen Kulten I hardly know how to answer your question."

"You told Sandburg the book was actually a record of religious practices dating back to prehistory. He was a little skeptical."

Nagle gave a bark of surprised laughter. "Yes, he was at that."

"Blair is concerned that the students in your class may not have his resources for evaluating the validity of your claims about the book. Given some of the things Ross said in the library before he died, I'm beginning to share those concerns."

"What a picture you're painting." Nagle shook his head. "I sound like the Pied Piper of Rainier, don't I? Leading my hapless students away into wickedness."

"It does make an interesting picture. Any truth in it?"

Nagle laughed again and shrugged. "This all boils down to Blair's impression of me, doesn't it? Let me tell you something about Blair Sandburg. He's a very gifted scholar, maybe even a brilliant one. With discipline and hard work, he could become one of the leading lights in his field. Tragically, though, Rainier University has failed Blair. The anthropology department has allowed him to waste his time and the university's resources with ludicrous dead-end projects for years now. While Blair's peers are finishing their dissertations and entering the job market, Blair is still riding along with a detective from the local police department, looking for Burton's sentinels, I presume, though who knows what he's really doing. He's not telling his committee, at any rate. Is he telling you?"

Nagle didn't wait for Jim to answer. "The point is, the way his department has coddled Blair for so many years, he's come to believe all his own hunches and impressions. No one questions him, mostly because he's so far out there no one has any clear idea what he's doing anymore. And the inevitable result is, he's become intellectually lazy. He jumps to wild conclusions and doesn't believe there's anyone else on the planet qualified to question him. He can't go on like this forever, you know. There are people in the administration and in Blair's own department who are beginning to see Mr. Sandburg as a liability, not an asset to the university, and sooner or later, they'll decide to cut their losses and remove him from the program. I think it'll be a damned shame when that happens. The waste of a potentially brilliant mind."

"You think Blair's impression of you is just another of his unsubstantiated hunches." Jim was dimly surprised to hear how hollow his voice sounded. He had to remind himself that the man he was talking to had every incentive to discredit Blair. There was no reason to think anyone else at Rainier saw Blair that way. As a promising scholar gone astray. A great mind wasted.

"Well, of course I do. I'm teaching a seminar on the medieval world view, not recruiting disciples to the dark side."

Then Jim saw the book on the next shelf. It was just above eye level, wedged between Fox's Calendar of Protestant Saints, Martyrs, &c. and La Rire de la Meduse. The sun shone on the slick dusk jacket, obscuring most of the title until Jim raised his hand to block the sunlight. It was that book after all. He could hardly believe it. He pulled it down and turned it in his hands, looking at the hated face on the cover. The Masquerade Killer read the title in lurid red block letters, The Amazing True Story of the Many Lives of David Lash.

That damned book. All the memories it conjured up. The darkness in Blair's eyes, the twist at the corner of his mouth every time he saw it in a bookstore, even if he did go on to make a joke about it being on the cheap shelves now. Jim had actually given a couple of interviews to the author himself, and it still felt like a betrayal to him, a worse and worse one as the years went on. If he had to do it all over again, he never would have agreed to it. The whole thing had been cooked up between Simon and the Commissioner, of course, in an attempt to make the department look better in the aftermath of a badly botched investigation. Simon had hoped Jim's cooperation would put a better spin on the Cascade PD's role in finally stopping David Lash. He'd even asked if Blair would mind being interviewed for the book as well.

"Well sure, hey, yeah, it's OK," Blair had told Simon, his face as white as chalk, his voice hardly above a whisper. "I don't mind talking to him. I mean, it happened, right? No use pretending it didn't."

Jim seldom got really angry any more. He was older and hopefully wiser, and besides, Sandburg had changed him, brought the secrets that had once made him so angry into the light, and shown him it was all right -- that he, James Ellison, was all right after all. But in that instant, Jim had felt a sick, hot spurt of absolutely blinding rage. He would not let this happen to Sandburg, and he didn't care if the mayor himself threw him off the force. No one would make Blair talk about the night David Lash had almost killed him. Especially not that pompous little jackass of an author from L.A. who made his living off other men's public suffering and private grief.

And apparently he'd been saying all that out loud, and perhaps more, because when the explosion finally went rumbling away into the distance and the outside world came back, he had been sitting in the chair at his desk, Blair leaning over him with both hands on Jim's shoulders. "Hey, Jim, you know what? Simon's got a great idea." Blair had been smiling, a slightly desperate expression, but it had been concern for Jim, not his own fear any longer. Jim had looked around for Simon, and found him in his office, the door shut firmly behind him. "You give this Truman Capote wannabe his interview," Blair had said, "and I don't talk to him at all, and everybody goes home happy, OK?"

Not happy, no, but it was, at least, an imaginable compromise. He had reached up and patted the side of Blair's face to see him grin for real. "OK, Chief."

Suddenly Jim wished he had found Blair this morning before coming to talk to Peter Nagle. He wanted Blair right here, right next to him, within arm's reach. "Have you seen Sandburg today?" he blurted out suddenly, which was not what he had meant to say.

"No." Nagle's eyebrow arched in mild surprise. "I haven't seen him since yesterday morning."

Jim held the book out. "This seems a little out of place on your shelves, professor. What does David Lash have to do with medieval history?"

"More than you might think. It was an amazing case, wasn't it? And my congratulations, Mr. Ellison, on what seems to have been brilliantly intuitive detective work. You saved Blair's life. Perhaps it's no wonder he's found it difficult to leave your world and return to his own."

Jim dropped the book. It hit Nagle's polished desk with a crack. "That book doesn't disclose the name of Lash's last victim."

"Please. You know as well as I do Blair's unfortunate involvement in that case is an open secret on campus."

Jim hadn't known that. He supposed Blair did, but he'd never said a word about it. "Perhaps you can enlighten me, then," Jim said, tightlipped. "What does a psychopath like David Lash have to do with medieval history?"

"Have you read the book yourself?"

Jim shook his head, and Nagle smiled a little no-of-course-you-haven't smile at him. "Ah. Well, the author postulates that rather than being a true psychopath, Lash was actually attempting, in a maimed and probably incomplete fashion, of course, to recreate certain necromantic rites the author traces all the way back to the middle ages. If the author had consulted with specialists in the field, he would have discovered those rites are far older still."

"A specialist like you, I presume?"

Nagle shrugged again. "I certainly have some ideas along those lines."

"You know what I think?" Jim said quietly. "I think Sandburg is absolutely right about you." He shoved the book hard across the desk, forcing Nagle to block it with his hand. "I think you're one irresponsible, dangerous son of a bitch."

His anger let the door swing open wide for an instant, and there it was, right on the edge of consciousness. The footsteps were becoming clumsier with the passing hours, but that was the least of it. The squelching noises were no longer simply the splashing of water over shuffling feet. There were liquid sounds inside as well, sounds Jim recognized. He'd heard them at crime scenes, one of the sentinel fringe benefits he'd never told Sandburg about. The seemingly lifeless body crumpled there on the street within chalk outlines, or in the flophouse bed or under the boardwalk or dragged behind some bushes in the park was anything but silent to a Sentinel. Before the violence of putrefaction set in, Jim could hear the hungry, tiny, wet sounds of the corpse's stomach digesting itself.

Nothing which made those sounds could be walking upright, however clumsily. Nothing on this earth.

He heard Nagle's exclamation of surprise as though from a million miles away. Congratulate me, Chief, he thought, on the verge of laughing out loud. Or maybe that was a scream trying to get out. I've gotten so good at this sentinel stuff, now I can even hear the dead walking around in hell.

* * *

Blair wept silently while they combed his hair.

He was sitting on the floor of the bathroom, his knees drawn up to his chest and his wrists cuffed to his ankles. He was naked save for the towel around his shoulders, and Susan was carefully combing the tangles out of his wet hair. His weakness infuriated him, but he understood it. Psych 101, man. Sometimes tenderness was far more devastating than brutality. He knew that, but it was humiliating all the same.

"Sometimes I try to imagine what it would be like," Susan announced suddenly. The wide-toothed comb had gotten caught on another tangle, so she laid the comb aside and carefully pulled strands apart until the knot was gone. Naomi herself could hardly have been more gentle. Blair bowed his head and tried to wipe the tears away on his knees. Everyone but Susan had gone, probably to change into dry clothes, and he was ridiculously grateful there was no one else here to see him weep. Not that he had much dignity left to lose at this point.

"Careful," Susan said. She reached her hand over his shoulder and brought his chin up. "Don't jerk your head around like that or you'll make me pull your hair."

He felt utterly hollow, completely empty. His throat and stomach felt as though they'd been scrubbed with sandpaper, his guts sluiced out with oil. They'd used some sort of pumice soap that left his flesh as raw on the outside as he felt on the inside, but the shampoo had been a mild one that smelled of lavender and roses. The conditioner must have had balsam in it, the way his wet hair felt unfamiliarly smooth and slick and soft.

"I don't guess there's any way for you to explain it either, is there?" Susan said after a few moments of silence. "I mean for you, it's just the way the world is. You probably wouldn't even know how to begin."

Sure I would, Blair thought bleakly. See, in my world, we don't kidnap grad students out of parking garages, tie them up with bondage gear in the basement of frat houses and pour ipecac down their throats and take their clothes and -- and everything else. Just for starters.

"The way I think it must be is that everything is just a little blurred. None of the edges exactly square, or the lines exactly straight. But I guess that's probably not right either. You're probably so used to the double image you don't even notice. If I could see through your eyes though --" Susan paused, one hand on his shoulder, the other holding the comb motionless in his hair. "I don't know." She began combing again, absently smoothing her hand over his wet locks as she worked. "I mean, which seems more real to you? The ordinary, everyday stuff, or everything that's behind it?"

"I'll tell you what seems real to me," Blair said quietly. "The fact you're holding me against my will. That's kidnapping, Susan. They'll put you in jail for this, and nobody there will care whether Reginald Scot was really a skeptic or not, not for the rest of your life."

She didn't even seem to hear him. "And like when you're actually on campus, is it more intense then? Or in this house. Can you feel it more now?" She reached around and brushed her fingertips across his cheek. "Is that why you're crying, Mr. Sandburg?"

He swallowed hard before he tried to speak again. "Susan, I can still help you. It's not too late. All you have to do is get up and walk out of here. Get to a phone and call the police. That's all you have to do to end this."

"This house even gives me the creeps. Just sometimes, though. Mostly it makes me feel exhilarated, excited, like during a bad lightning storm, or just before a big meet. You know that feeling? But for you, it must be a hundred times that strong. Ross is always saying what an incredible person you must be, to live with all that and not totally lose it. Most people would, but not you." She snorted then, and the next tug with the comb was a little less gentle. "On the other hand, sometimes Ross gets completely frustrated, because you're all the time acting like you didn't even know why crazy stuff happens around you. Then he starts to wonder if maybe you're not so smart and tough after all. You know, maybe you're just stupid."

Probably the latter, Blair thought. His butt was aching and cold from sitting on the unforgiving tile floor in this position, and the muscles in his shoulders and at the small of his back were burning. His ankle was swollen painfully tight against the cuff, and despite all the cleaning, he felt filthy inside and out. "Ross is dead," he snapped with more anger than he had meant to let escape. Once it was out, though, it was impossible to stop. "Jim put a bullet through his head, remember? None of his opinions about anything really matter anymore."

She laughed angrily. "Mr. Sandburg, maybe you better shut up now."

"Where have you got his body hidden, Susan? It's been two days. It's probably starting to get pretty ripe about now."

"You're disgusting," she hissed at him. She stood up and walked around him. "You know something? I hope you really do know what's going to happen. And I hope it hurts, and most of all I hope you're scared to death, Mr. Sandburg, because you deserve to be."

"Christ, Susan." Eddie had appeared behind her and pulled her away. "What do you think you're doing?"

She shook him off angrily. "It smells like a sewer down here," she said and stalked out.

Eddie watched her go, and then walked up to Blair and crouched down to whisper conspiratorially, one guy to another, "Don't pay any attention to all that. Just sounds to me like she's on the rag."

* * *

Beebee in the anthro departmental office knew Jim. She was on the phone when he came in, but she gave him a wide grin and waved at him, the diamonds in her front teeth and on her fingernails glittering, and indicated with complicated one-handed gestures that he should wait for her. He smiled back, trying to pretend he didn't mind waiting.

Blair's department mail, he thought suddenly. He could at least see if Blair had stopped by the office today. Beebee chatted on, smiling approvingly when he stepped around the desk to look in Sandburg's mail box for himself. No, it was full of flyers. That meant Blair hadn't stopped by the anthro office today either, so Beebee probably hadn't seen him. He would wait though, and ask her. He could spare a few minutes to wait. Even if she hadn't seen him today, she might know where he usually was on Friday mornings, at least be able to suggest some place Jim could look.

Oh. He was usually with Jim at the station on Friday morning.

Jim closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them, Beebee was finally putting down the phone. "Jim-Jim-Jim," she said happily. "Where's little Blair this morning? Half the campus is looking for him."

The words were like a blow. "Who's been looking for him?"

Her eyes widened. "Oh, don't look at me like that! You'll give me a heart attack. Is something the matter?"

"No," Jim said. "No, nothing's the matter." He forced himself to breathe. "Who's been looking for him?"

"Well, Dean Thompson's secretary called me a little after ten because Blair had an appointment he didn't show up for, and I know he didn't come in for his office hours at eleven, because his students have been trickling by looking for him, and campus security called -- but take it easy, hon, it was nothing major. Apparently Blair called to report some vandalism in the dorms, and the security people they sent over there couldn't find anything, so they wanted to double check the room number with him. That's all that was."

"May I use your phone?" Jim said, already leaning over the desk to take it.

"Oh, dear, something is the matter, isn't it?"

"Probably not," Jim muttered. "I hope not. What's the number for campus security?"

"It's right here." She lifted a laminated page of phone numbers up to him, one glittering fingernail indicating the number.

Jim punched it in and waited through one, two, three, four rings before a bored operator finally answered the call. "Put me through to Chief Tamaki, please. This is Jim Ellison, Cascade PD." Then while he waited again on hold he asked Beebee, "What time did security call you?"

She shrugged worriedly. "Oh, I'm not sure, I'm not sure. I started to take a message, but then when they said it wasn't important I didn't finish it. It was early, though. Before anybody else had called looking for him."

"Jim!" Suzanne sounded happy. "It's great to hear from you. What's up?"

"I need your help," Jim said. "I understand Sandburg placed a call to you people this morning."

"Did he? I wasn't informed. What was it about?"

"That's what I'm trying to find out. Can you have your dispatcher look at the log for me?"

"Well, sure, that's not a problem. Hold for me just a moment and I'll have him check. What's going on?"

"I don't know," Jim said. He knew this feeling, he thought. Trembling deep inside where no one could see, moving like a sleepwalker through the last minutes when you could still pretend everything was still OK. "Probably nothing, Suzanne. I'm sure it's nothing at all."

Chapter 12

The plan was to take it easy and keep his cool. Blair wouldn't waste his energy fighting battles he couldn't win. Not that there had been a whole lot of battles he could win recently, bound hand and foot in the basement of the house with his captors all around him. Five to one. Even if he hadn't been shackled, even if he hadn't broken his ankle, the odds weren't great.That just meant he had to stay calm, as calm as Jim would be. He would watch, and he wouldn't fight back, and he would wait for his opportunity and be ready for it when it came. An opportunity would come, he couldn't allow himself to doubt it. They had planned everything pretty well so far, and things seemed to have gone their way, but they were sure to screw up eventually. They were amateurs, and that meant their ruthlessness had limits. Blair would stay calm and horde his strength, and he would wait and watch for the moment to prove he was more ruthless than they were.

That was the plan anyway, but it all went out the window when Blair saw the syringe.

* * *

"Really, I don't know anything about it." The girl's hands were shaking with nerves, and she kept pushing her straight black hair back over her shoulder. It slipped over her shoulder again every time she bowed her head. "Nobody broke into my room. Look, you can see it hasn't been vandalized. That's what I told the policeman who came by this morning. I don't know anything about any of this." She looked over at Suzanne Tamaki with open, pleading eyes, but apparently didn't find the solidarity she was looking for there. "I swear I don't know anything about it."

"We're not accusing you of anything," Jim said. "We're just trying to figure out why your room would have been reported vandalized. Where's your roommate this morning?"

"She wouldn't have called either. Nothing happened, I promise. I don't know why someone called you and said there was a break-in, because there wasn't. I was here all morning."

"Take it easy, Danal," Suzanne said, her tone a little short. She hadn't been happy to learn Blair had been investigating Ross's death in the first place. She hadn't been any happier to hear he might be missing. This was looking like the second year in a row her "safest campus in the Pacific Northwest" record was going to be shot straight to hell. "We need you to stay calm and just tell us what you know. What's your roommate's name?"

"Honoria. Honoria Lopez. She's been in a physics lab all morning. You can call over there and check."

"How long have you and Honoria been roommates?" Jim asked.

"Since freshman year. We're gonna try to get off-campus housing next quarter, but the places near school are so expensive, and neither one of us has a car."

Jim had heard the same complaints from Sandburg when he tried to explain why he'd been renting that warehouse space. "What are you majoring in, Danal?"

"Bio-chem."

"Doing pretty well in it?"

She shrugged, the tremor in her hands beginning to fade. "Ok, I guess. Pretty good. My folks always think I could be doing better."

Jim managed a smile for her. "My dad was always the same way. What's Honoria's major?"

"She's bio-chem too."

"Both premeds, I guess?"

She even flashed a quick smile. "Yeah."

"Have you ever taken an anthropology class here? As an elective, say, or to fulfill a breadth requirement?"

Danal smiled again, this time in slightly superior amusement. "No, huh-uh. I took Japanese lit and a couple of French classes for my GE's freshman year."

"How about your roommate? Did she ever take anthropology?"

"No. It wouldn't really be her thing."

"How about any of your other friends?"

Danal smiled, seeming pleased to finally have a question she could answer in the affirmative. "Honoria's seeing a guy who's taking some sort of anthro class. Seth something. I can't think of his last name. They've only been out a few times. He's all involved in this anthro class, I know."

"You don't think too much of anthropology, do you?" Jim asked with a faint smile, acknowledging the undercurrent.

"It's funny. Me and Honoria were talking about it the other night. To us, it just seems like a bunch of white guys with time to feel guilty now because they raped every culture they ever encountered."

"So you don't happen to know a grad student in the anthropology department named Blair Sandburg. He's teaching a class this quarter."

She shook her head. "I've never even heard of him." She was starting to look worried again. "What does he have to do with someone calling to say our room was vandalized?"

"Do you know if it was his class that Seth was taking?"

"Sorry, no, I don't."

"You wouldn't recognize Blair Sandburg if you saw him?"

"I never even heard of him until just now."

"We think he might have been here this morning, Danal," Suzanne interrupted, getting impatient with the pace of the questions. "Little guy, not a whole lot taller than me. Curly brown hair, about shoulder length. Kind of cute if you don't mind the hair. Ring any bells?"

Danal just looked bewildered. "No. If he was here, I honestly didn't see him."

* * *

Now wasn't the moment, but Blair fought anyway. His left hand was still shackled to his ankles, but Seth had freed his right arm just before Tom handed over something that was slender and steel-bright. Seeing the glint of metal, Blair lashed out desperately. Seth grunted in surprise and sat down hard, trying to scuttle out of reach. The guy was scared of him. Blair felt a dull glimmer of satisfaction. Good, he should be scared. If he came any closer Blair would break his nose again. "Keep away from me," he panted furiously, reaching down to fumble with the clasp that pinned his other wrist. "Just stay back."

"God, watch it, Seth," Tom snapped angrily, and before Blair could free his hand, Tom had dropped to his knees behind him and wrapped his arm around Blair's neck. "I've got him. Hurry up."

Blair groped back with his free hand, trying to gouge Tom's face, his eyes, anything he could reach. Tom jerked his head back, turning his face away. The grip around Blair's neck tightened. The wool flannel of Tom's sleeve was scratchy and hot against his throat, and his belt buckle was digging into Blair's naked back. Blair heard a roaring in his ears, feeling a pressure like an iron bar laid across his throat. "Get him," Tom said. "Come on, get him, dammit."

Someone grabbed Blair's wrist and yanked his arm down. "Can't you guys do anything right?" Susan growled. Her hands were strong, and her fingers dug into Blair's wrist. "I've got him. Come on, the way his veins are popping out, this should be easy."

Blair's very soul seemed to spasm in revolt. Reason didn't matter when he simply couldn't stand it anymore. He would stop this now, no matter what.

His vehement resolve meant nothing. It didn't even slow them down. Tom's arm forced his chin up so he couldn't see what they were doing. He felt a splash of something inside his elbow. It was cold and evaporated fast, and he smelled alcohol. "No," he grunted in anger, trying to wrench himself out of their hold. The arm around his neck tightened, and Susan's grip kept his arm extended. He felt something metallic bite into his inner arm, and he convulsed in his bonds. Muscles flexed uselessly, screaming with cramp, his hand jerking in Susan's grasp. "Steady," Seth muttered. "Steady, I got it." The needle slipped in, and Blair could not bear it. This far only, and no farther, he had promised himself, and it didn't do any good at all. The splinter of steel nosed into his vein, and a fierce, dragging pressure spread outward from the small wound, cold and inexorable. An ache settled deep into his elbow. The tips of his fingers went numb.

"Don't," he pleaded, because he couldn't do anything else. "Please don't do this."

"Hand me the next one," Seth said. Blair's vision had begun to fog, his empty stomach cramping with nausea. He wasn't fighting anymore. The roar in his ears had resolved itself into the rhythmic thumping of his own heartbeat. Someone took a vial from Seth and lifted it away. It passed before Blair's eyes, thin liquid splashing within, and the glimpse of his own blood seemed to leave a smear of saturated color imprinted across his mind. He saw red when he closed his eyes.

How could the world have gone so insanely wrong in so few hours? The day hadn't started out this way. The nightmare this morning had been a bad one, but Jim had been right there, dripping from the shower, banishing demons like some kind of white knight under a standard of soap suds. He'd made coffee while Blair showered, and a cup had been sitting on the sink waiting for him when Blair got out of the shower. It had tasted so good. Best damn cup of coffee he'd ever had, and he wished he had told Jim so. All he'd done instead was offer to make Jim a sandwich for lunch while he was making his own, knowing good and well Jim wouldn't take him up on it. The man had a pretty cosmopolitan diet, all jokes about wonderburgers aside, but that didn't mean he considered a tahini and sprouts sandwich "lunch." Maybe if he'd been making corned beef, Jim would have taken him up on it.

Next time, man, I promise. I promise.

* * *

"Jim, may I speak to you outside for a moment?" Suzanne Tamaki's voice was too careful, too polite. Jim shut his eyes for a moment, swallowing back his annoyance at the interruption. When he opened them he told Danal, "Excuse us for just a moment. I'll have a few more questions, if you can wait."

The student nodded solemnly, her eyes moving from Jim to Suzanne and back again. She was reading the situation as clearly as Jim was, and that angered Jim all over again. He followed Suzanne into the hall outside Danal's dorm room. It was quiet this hour of the morning. Most people were in class, but the Resident Advisor's door was standing open near the stairwell. Suzanne kept her voice down. "Jim, the girl obviously doesn't know anything. I don't want you badgering her anymore."

"A student is dead. Sandburg is missing. And you're asking me to curtail my investigation."

"Now hold on, I'm not asking you to do any such thing. But be reasonable. We don't even know Blair is missing. How do you know he didn't just lose track of the time? He could be having a cappuccino down at Starbuck's right now while you're browbeating students looking for him."

"He isn't at Starbuck's. Sandburg hates that place." Wrong thing to say, absolutely the wrong tack to take with Suzanne, he knew that, and he said it all the same. He had to get a grip here. He was acting like a man on the verge of losing control. Was that the truth? Was he really that scared?

Suzanne drew herself up stiffly. "Fine. So he's not at Starbuck's. You know what I mean. In fact, you know what I think? I think you're letting what happened last year at the research facility with that kid Alec affect your judgment. Think about it, Jim. You're so convinced that something's happened to Blair, but what are the odds of him being attacked on campus twice in the space of a year? I don't care if he is riding along with a cop, it just defies all the odds. It's crazy."

She sounded like someone else Jim had talked to recently. Eddie. She sounded like Ross's roommate Eddie, talking about the disasters that seemed to follow Blair around.

"It is crazy," Jim agreed slowly. "That's what worries me. Look at what we've got here. Blair called campus security from his office at 8:50. That's only ten minutes after I dropped him off. In other words, he walked straight to his office and called to security to report a break-in at a dorm halfway across campus. A break-in that apparently didn't even happen. Why did he do that?"

Suzanne spread her hands. "I agree it doesn't make a whole lot of sense."

"I think someone met Sandburg at his office. A student of his, or someone he knew, who told him their room had been vandalized."

"But why?"

"Sandburg said he would meet the officer at the dorm, right?"

"I think so."

"If you were going to walk from Hargrove to Mathers, which way would you go?"

She though about it for a moment. "Well, Tacoma Street winds around behind Hargrove and up the hill to Mathers, and there's a sidewalk the whole way, but probably I'd cut through the Geology Building or the Law Library and up through the faculty parking garage. You cross the street and go behind the dumpsters, and here you are."

* * *

Blair's head was resting on his knees, even though his neck didn't bend that way. Not comfortably at least. Both his hands were bound to his ankles, and the last he remembered, his right hand had been free. That made him wonder if he had fainted after all. His elbow ached, and he felt a faint trickle of wetness along the inside of his arm. The hair at the back of his neck was drying in a tangle, despite all Susan's combing. After his frantic, utterly useless fight against the needle, he felt oddly calm and detached. He could almost imagine all this was happening to some other poor sod, not him. That was good. In fact, maybe that could be the new plan. Calm and distant. Cool and collected and utterly detached. That would keep him sane until Jim found him. Which would be soon. Very, very soon. Come on, Jim. Soon.

Something was burning nearby. He could taste acrid smoke in his mouth and at the back of his throat. The smell made his nose prickle and itch. He wanted to sneeze, but didn't have the energy. Raising his head, he could see the haze of blue a few inches below the tile ceiling. No working fire alarms, obviously. This place should be reported for major fire code violations, he thought in the corner of his mind that seemed to keep up an endless stream of nonsense no matter what was happening around him. The smell was familiar, and he looked around himself, trying to place it.

Susan and Eddie were standing by the antique sink, and the smoke was curling up from there. Charcoal, Blair thought. They had lit a couple of little tabs, the kind you would use to burn powdered incense. You weren't supposed to use that stuff in an unventilated room, of course, but he didn't suppose Susan and Eddie cared very much about indoor air quality. Blair swallowed. His throat was dry, and the smoke wasn't helping any. The plume died for a moment, then began to rise again more thickly than before, another scent twisting in the smoke. It was harsh from combustion but left a faint, lingering fragrance behind. They were using the charcoal to burn some kind of resin incense. Blair thought it was probably frankincense, though it was hard to tell in the cloyingly close quarters.

"Hey," he rasped, and the effort of speech made him dizzy. Amazing what a little blood loss could do. He felt so drained. Ha ha. Drained. He was killing himself today.

"Hey," he tried again. "You keep that up, and we're all going to suffocate down here."

* * *

On the other side of the dumpsters there was a steady stream of traffic along Tacoma. The sun was shining brightly through leafless trees, and out on the sidewalk, the air smelled like spring. But these few square yards behind the dumpsters were a different world. The back of Mathers Hall rose blankly for five stories above them, the only windows small, dark squares all in a line, one window for every flight of the stairwell. The dumpsters and recycling bins stood in staggered ranks along the cracked cement. A dark, sunless little canyon it was, and Jim prowled restlessly from the street to the back door, hardly knowing what he was looking for.

Not entirely true. He did know. He simply wasn't finding it.

Suzanne Tamaki stood on the doorstep, arms crossed over her chest. She had tried the door and found the keycard lock was working, no sign the mechanism had been tampered with or the door propped open. Jim wasn't surprised. Whoever had lured Blair here probably lived in the dorm.

"Jim, I don't see anything," she complained at last. "What do you expect to find?"

Not an unfair question, all things considered. "You have to admit it's the perfect place for an ambush," he pointed out. "There are almost no windows on this side of the building. Dumpsters block the view from the street. I think they were waiting for him here."

"No," she disagreed. "I don't buy it. Anyone could have walked out the back door or come up from the sidewalk. You'd have to be desperate to attack someone in broad daylight right here."

"We're talking about people who stole a corpse out of the police morgue. I don't think they mind taking risks."

She seemed taken aback, as if she'd forgotten that macabre detail of the case, or deliberately forced it out of her mind. In other circumstances, Jim might almost have felt sorry for the woman. She wanted to believe Rainier was its own world, that it could be neat and safe and contained if she only did her job well enough. It probably wouldn't be true on any campus, but least of all here. He was dimly surprised she didn't understand that.

He looked down. The early afternoon sun threw painfully hard-edged shadows past the dumpsters and the side of the building and the bare limbs of the trees. Their shadows met upon the cement to form a strange silhouette. Almost like the skyline of an impossible city. Wavering spires and odd, blocky towers constructed at uncomfortable, impossible angles. Darker than a moonless night.

He jerked his head up, shaken by the memory of his vision in the library, half afraid he would see that nonexistent city again if he watched the shadows too closely. "They were waiting for him here," he announced with certainty.

Suzanne looked at him. "All right," she said at last. "Can you show me anything, Jim? Anything at all?"

That was the problem. He couldn't. The closest he could come were the scattered cigarette butts, but even they proved nothing. Of course people had clustered here to smoke. Especially in the nice weather they'd been having lately. Cold but sunny. Personally, Jim was starting to get tired of so much sunlight. It was so bright on the cement it hurt his eyes, and the brightness of the reflected light made the shadows so dark.

"There's nothing here," Suzanne said quietly.

She was right, and that meant there was something wrong with his theory. If they had taken Blair from here, there would be some sign, because Blair would not have gone easily. There should be something left behind. A few strands of hair. Fingernail scrabblings on the sidewalk. Fibers from a torn sweater.

A drop of blood.

And he could find nothing. Perhaps he was having trouble filtering out the stench of garbage in the dumpsters, or maybe he wasn't looking as hard as he could be. Maybe he was afraid of what he would find if he probed too deeply. He didn't really believe that, though. It didn't matter what darkness walked at the edges of his mind, nor at the furthest reach of his senses. Not when Blair needed him.

Dammit, Chief, but this is hard without you.

"OK," is what Jim said out loud. He walked out of the shadow of the building, into the harsh sunlight. On the other side of the road, he could see across the top story of the parking garage built into the hill, and down to the backs of the buildings on the south side of the quadrangle. He was still certain they had waited for Blair right here, but perhaps things had not gone according to plan. After all, they never seemed to when Sandburg was involved.

He looked back at Suzanne. "Let's check out the garage," he said.

* * *

They doused the burning frankincense with a vial of Blair's blood. Blair was watching it all, his lungs aching deep in his chest from the smoky room, his eyes burning, exhausted and light-headed. He still felt detached and unnaturally calm, even as he listened to his own blood spattering and sizzling on the hot charcoal. Eddie wrinkled his nose and stepped back.

"Get everyone else," Susan said. Her voice was hoarse from the smoke. "We're almost ready."

Eddie nodded and walked out. The door swung open and back, and the moving air made the smoke hovering below the ceiling roll back and forth like waves on the beach.

"You didn't ask me if I was ready," Blair said, and Susan turned to smile at him. She was holding a second vial of his blood. Calm, Blair said to himself, even as he felt his calm slipping away. Calm and relaxed. Jim would be here soon.

"Well, OK," Susan said agreeably, still smiling. "Are you ready?"

That was an easy one. "No. Absolutely not."

She laughed at him, baring her teeth. "It's your fault. Ross didn't want it this way."

"I don't think you mind, though," Blair said softly.

She shrugged. "Maybe I don't. I'm starting to think that sometimes it's better to just reach out and take what you want. Ross had been waiting for years, came all the way across the country, and look where it got him." She worked the stopper off the second vial and poured it into the dish of blood and ash. Blair couldn't see it over the edge of the sink, but he could imagine it too vividly, and the picture made him a little sick. He closed his eyes for a moment.

"So where did it get Ross?" he asked Susan at last.

She shook her head and made a dismissive motion with one hand, refusing to look at him.

"It got him dead, Susan. All of this -- this charade, this black magic shit, it's useless. It can't change anything. Ross is gone. Listen to me. There's no reason for you to throw your life away too."

She didn't look at him, but she raised her head and stared straight ahead. "I wish you would tell me what it feels like. That's the only thing I'm sorry for now." Her broad shoulders shifted under her flannel shirt in a shrug, and she opened the third vial of blood and poured it slowly. Blair couldn't look away. It was already clotting. A gelatinous, dark mass that came out in a rush, then the thinner, clear fluid in the bottom of the tube that poured out one drop at a time. "Ross will tell us, even though you wouldn't. That's why it's better this way."

* * *

The gun was painfully easy. Jim walked straight to it across the parking garage, not wholly sure if it was the smell or the glint of the metal or something else altogether, a tangle of impressions even Blair could not have teased into its component parts. Suzanne practically had to jog in order to keep up with his long strides, and that reminded him of Blair so powerfully his hands clenched into fists at his sides.

"Jim! Jim, wait up. What is it?"

He knelt at the grate without answering her. The Colt had fallen between the bars of the drain and caught there, the muzzle winking darkly up at him. He got a handkerchief from his pocket and dropped it over the gun before picking it up.

"My god," Suzanne said, crouching at his side. "How did you know it was there?"

* * *

Blair stared up at the tile ceiling and tried very hard to think about something else. This summer. He could think about this summer. He was planning to fly up to Fairbanks in July and spend a week in the university library. He'd seen an article in Anthropological Papers of the University of Alaska on incised stones from Chaluka and Anangula nearly two years ago that had made him think he should go up and look at the primary materials himself. This year he'd finally gotten the little travel grant from the department so he could actually do it. He hadn't told Jim that he was going yet, which was dumb of him. Especially since the only reason he hadn't said anything was because he was nurturing this fond hope Jim might want to go with him, and might even be able to clear the vacation time to do it. Pretty much a long shot. That's why Blair hadn't said anything yet, just so he could childishly keep imagining they would fly up there together, instead of dealing with the disappointment of knowing he was going alone. Dumb, he knew it was, but there you go. He would just ask Jim about it the next time he saw him, get it settled one way or another.

Which would be soon. Real soon now, Jim. Please.

The tile floor was slick and gritty under his back. Seemed a waste of time, all that scrubbing and cleaning, washing his hair and all the rest, if they were just going lay him out on this filthy floor again. He wondered when it had last been cleaned. Probably not since the days of poor old President Bollingen's housekeeper.

She must have been a pretty tough old lady, you know? It couldn't have been easy to chop off a man's forearms with a carving knife, not even a good sharp one. Of course, she'd probably deboned a lot of chickens in her day, so she must have gone after her employer the same way, cutting through the joint at the elbow. That would be easiest, but even so, it must have taken some strength.

Great, that was great. Just the line of thought to distract him from the dry scrape of the razor across his breast. He closed his eyes, trying to suppress a shudder. He was afraid even to take a deep breath, though he didn't suppose they would actually cut him. Not intentionally, at any rate.

So. Fairbanks in July. Wonder if the mosquitoes would be bad. Did they even have mosquitoes that far north? Probably, or something just as bad. He could just hear the conversation now. Hey Jim, want to spend a week swatting mosquitoes with me up in Alaska? See, there are some rock carvings I wanna look at. It'll be fun, man. He could almost see the look on Jim's face. But you know something? If there was any way for Jim to swing it, he probably would spend a week of his hard earned vacation with Blair in Alaska, if Blair asked him to. That was pretty much just the kind of guy Jim was.

Blair wished he had thanked him for the coffee this morning.

He blinked his eyes open again. There was still a haze of smoke in the room. He could see it, faintly blue against the grimy white tiles. His captors were crouched around him on the floor, their faces dark and expressionless. Blair's back hurt, as well as his shoulders. After spending so much time curled into a ball, suddenly being forced to lie flat was an interestingly awful experience. His shoulder blades felt as though they had been stitched to the muscle with red hot wires. Imagine how much real torture would hurt.

Actually, if they did cut him, that would at least be a distraction from the pain in his back. Monica was being very careful though. Blair didn't think she would break the flesh unless she intended to, which wasn't really all that reassuring, actually. She'd already shaved a patch of flesh bare from his hip to his navel without shedding a drop, and he could still feel the dry scrape of the blade. It reminded him of a patient being prepped for surgery.

Oh god, what a thought. Suddenly his heart was pounding in new terror, his breaths loud and harsh. Susan and Tom tightened their grip on his wrists, keeping his arms pinned flat, but Monica leaned forward over him and smoothed his hair back off his brow. "Just be still," she told him. "This won't hurt."

"It already hurts," he gasped out, angry at their nonsense, and tried to wrench his head away from her hands.

She said, "Seth, can you keep him from jerking around, please?"

Seth snuffled something in the affirmative, and came to kneel behind Blair's head. He put his hands on either side of his face and held on tightly, fingers spread, keeping Blair's head still. Monica got up and moved away, and when she returned to kneel beside him once more, she was carrying a small calligraphy brush and a glazed bowl. She dipped the brush and then wiped the bristles along the lip of the bowl. When she lifted the brush, it was still dripping clotted blood and flecks of ash. Bending closely over Blair, she touched the brush to the center of his forehead. The feel of the sable bristles and wet kiss of that obscene paint made his whole body flex in horror. His back arched up off the floor and his hands clenched into fists. He made a sound, wanting to scream his rage and terror, but all that escaped was a long, helpless moan of loathing.

Monica just smiled, and Susan said, "It's working. He can feel it."

Blair wanted to tell them he didn't feel anything but the ache in his back and shoulders and the still-sharp pain in his ankle, and most of all, a hatred so profound he really did see a haze of red before his eyes. Seeing red. Who knew it really happened? He wished he still didn't. He collapsed against the floor, panting and gasping. "Keep him still," Monica directed once more, and she dipped the brush again and drew it across his cheek and over the bridge of his nose. Then again, down his chin, a crosshatch stroke over his other cheek. She was writing on his flesh, and Blair knew what the letters would spell. He'd read the Huysmans translation. He'd seen the letters on the whiteboard in his class. Pretty damn brazen of them. Who had done that? Monica or Seth? Both of them together? Someone must have seen them. If Blair had stopped class and demanded an answer, perhaps someone would have said something. Maybe this whole thing could have been stopped right then and there. Stupid of him, stupid. He'd guessed wrong over and over again, right from the start. No one could be trusted. No one could be believed. That was the lesson he had learned today. He'd never forget, he swore to himself despairingly.

Then it didn't seem worth fighting about anymore. The whole world was blood red with betrayal and grief, so there was no point struggling. He didn't have to worry about keeping his calm. This was the new plan, and it was the best one yet. He would just lie here and let them do whatever they wanted to. Wasn't like he could do a goddamned thing to stop them, was it? Monica had shifted downward, and was now drawing those dirty letters on his breast, over his heart, and he stared up at the ceiling, seeing pictures in the mold of the grout. Jim wouldn't want to go to Alaska. Who was he kidding anyway? What a stupid plan that had been from the start. If he were honest, there wasn't any point in him going either. He thought he saw references to sentinels everywhere, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it was nonsense. It's called obsession, man, and look where it gets you.

The third set of letters Monica painted low on his belly, in the flat of his right hip. He trembled a little in shame and disgust, but he kept his eyes fixed on the ceiling. Heart, brains and bowels. He was marked through and through now. Anyone could look at him and see what he was. The pictures he saw in the ceiling were obscene. Bodies roiling together, the living and the dead. Limbless, eyeless, crawling down the streets of a terrible city of unimaginable antiquity. He knew now what President Bollingen's housekeeper had been trying to do, but they had stopped her too soon. Perhaps it wouldn't have worked even if she had been able to finish it.

Don't come here, Jim, he thought, and suddenly realized he was not as far gone in the apathy of despair as he had hoped. Thinking of Jim finding him this way and seeing the things Blair saw hurt him more than he had thought anyone could hurt. As Monica laid the wide, soft strip of cloth over his eyes, and lifted his head carefully to tie the blindfold, he pleaded with her not to let Jim see this. She just laid her fingertips over his mouth and laughed quietly, and did not promise.

Chapter 13

It was enough to make Jim doubt heliocentric astronomy itself. The ground under his feet was unmoving, unyielding, a platform of earth and rock rooted in the deep places of the universe itself. Jim had been straining and fighting and pushing as hard as he could ever since he realized Blair was gone, and not a pebble had shifted. Not one stone had turned. Yet every time Jim looked out a window or stepped under the open sky, he found the sun had been flying across the heavens, thieving away the minutes and hours he could never get back again. That Blair would never get back again.

It was after four o'clock before Jim even had a student list for Blair's anthro survey, and that, at least, should have been easy. But Beebee had already left for the afternoon, and no one else in the department office seemed to know how to access those particular records. They were probably on Blair's computer, but the laptop was at home, Jim didn't know the password to get into the PC in his office, and the network administrator was out. It had finally taken a trip to the registrar's office, and even then they would only release the names and home addresses to Suzanne Tamaki. Good enough, but everything was taking too damned long, and actually having the list was only a start. The only name on it Jim recognized was Seth Lamb, and Suzanne's people had been trying to find him since this morning. Just like they had been trying to find Ross's erstwhile roommate Eddie, with an equal lack of success.

That was the way everything was going. The investigation was accomplishing nothing except proving to other people what Jim already knew. The drops of blood on the first level of the parking garage weren't Sandburg's, and Jim had told Suzanne so as soon as they found them, hardly noticing the startled, disbelieving look she gave him. But the teardrops which had fallen to the pavement a short distance away were Blair's. Jim probably would have told Suzanne about them, too, except that for long moments, he hadn't been able to speak at all. When Blair's scent had reached him through all the other smells in the garage, oil and gasoline, exhaust fumes, stale cigarette smoke and equally stale beer, he had knelt and placed his hand flat on the cement, and felt the tiny crystalline salts from dried teardrops prickling his palm.

Oh, Chief.

Sandburg had fought hard, hurt his attackers, even disarmed them, but they had taken him in the end.

"Jim, what is it?"

What the hell good were his senses anyway? All they told him was that Blair had suffered. They didn't tell him how to find Blair or how to help him. He might as well have been deaf, dumb and blind for all the good his senses were doing him when he really needed them.

"Jim?" Suzanne asked again.

He shrugged painfully and stood up. "We should have all these beer cans gathered up," he said, indicating them with a nod of his head. "I want them all dusted for prints."

* * *

"Mr. Sandburg? How are you feeling?"

How nice of her to ask. Blair turned his face blindly toward Monica's voice. He was doing pretty well, all things considered. They hadn't gagged him, and they hadn't strung him up from the shower fixtures, so things could have been worse. On the other hand, he was cold, and the floor under his back was dirty and hard, and his hands, which had been pulled up behind his head and shackled to something unyielding, probably the plumbing under the sink, though with the blindfold over his face he couldn't be sure, had gone to sleep some time ago. "Let me out of here," he said, and was dimly surprised to hear how his voice rasped.

"You're shivering," Monica answered, and touched the side of his face. The brush of her fingertips reminded him of that filthy, bloody paintbrush, and he flinched violently.

"Easy," she said. "I'm not going to hurt you."

Could have fooled me, he thought, his heart thundering in his chest. He was still pretty skittish, but he was doing better. He'd calmed down considerably during the few past hours, lying alone in the bathroom. It had all gotten to be just a little too much, that was all. Blood loss, shock and stress, the works. It was no wonder he had lost it there for a little while. He was back in control, though. He wasn't really a tiny bit relieved, way deep down, that they'd left him blindfolded. He wasn't really afraid of what he would see when they took the blindfold off again. It had all been just a little too much, OK? Anyone could see that.

"Just hold on a minute," Monica told him, like there was somewhere else he might go. "I'll be right back."

He heard her footsteps crossing the tile floor, the squeak of the hinges, and then he was alone once more. How long had he been here? He had no idea anymore. It was probably late afternoon by now, but he had nothing to base that on. There had been a long period after the last time they left him that he had hardly been rational. He remembered, to his shame, begging and pleading with his captors, but he could no longer remember what favor he had been so desperate they grant. In fact, he couldn't think of a damn thing they could possibly give him he would want, save for his freedom. He would take that himself, later if not sooner by this point, but it wasn't something he would ever be beholden to these cruel, idiot children for.

Anyway, so it must be getting on in the day. Jim was sure to have figured out he was missing by now. He'd probably be busting through that door just any minute, and then the only thing Blair would have to worry about was how he was ever going to live this down. He could just imagine the conversation with his TA supervisor. Right, Lu-Ann, I had noticed I wasn't really establishing much of a rapport with this particular section of 101. No, no, you're right. Kidnapping and black magic certainly indicate there were probably some shortcomings with my pedagogy, I admit that.

Oh, lord.

He laughed to himself, and it turned into a sob before he could choke it back.

Footsteps were coming down the hall again, heavier ones. Despite himself, Blair began to tremble. He couldn't help it. Every time they promised not to hurt him, it was even worse than the time before. He curled onto his side, drawing his knees up. Hopeless, useless. It didn't protect anything, not even his modesty, but he curled into himself all the same, shaking so hard his teeth began to chatter. The door swung open, rusted hinges screaming. "I don't see the point," Tom complained mildly.

Susan had come down, too. "Monica's right," she said. "He's been on that floor for hours. It won't do any good if he's too stiff to walk."

"The dude broke his ankle." That was Eddie's voice. "Not really like he's gonna be walking anywhere, is it?"

"You know what I mean," Susan said. The footsteps crossed the floor to him, and someone laid a hand on his side. Blair flinched from the touch. "You're right," Susan said. "He's cold as ice. Should we get Seth? You think it could be shock?"

"Just 'cause he can steal needles doesn't mean Seth's a doctor. Anyway, Mr. Sandburg's just cold because it's cold on the floor." Count on Eddie to take the matter-of-fact view. Someone fumbled with the clips and D-rings on his wrist cuffs, and Blair's hands suddenly fell free. "You know if you try anything, we'll have to clobber you, right, Mr. Sandburg?" Eddie said, and then two sets of hands grasped his upper arms and hauled him a short distance across the floor, probably out from under the sink, then dragged him upright. His ankle ached fiercely, the pain dull and still unendurable.

Blair sagged against them, seeing flashes of light behind his closed lids. He was afraid he was about to be sick or faint. "Wait," he groaned. "Wait. Where are you taking me?"

"Geez, we're trying to do you a favor," Tom said. They shifted him between themselves, and Blair felt the roughness of someone else's wool sweater against his chest.

"God, watch it," Susan snapped. Blair was pushed back, the grip on his upper arms adjusting to hold him, and someone's hand touched his collar bone.

"It didn't smear," Tom said. "Chill, it's all gonna work out."

Blair's feet dragged across the dirty floor. He heard the hinges squeaking, then felt the bump of a tile or marble door jamb. He turned his head fruitlessly, eyes wide open behind his blindfold. He could see a little bit if he looked straight down along the side of his nose under the cloth, but there was nothing to see but the wooden floor, his own partially shaved chest, and the writing daubed there in blood and ash. He groaned, sickened all over again and thrashed violently, suddenly and irrationally determined to wrench himself free.

Eddie hissed "Shit!" and Blair was slammed hard against the paneled wall. Someone clamped a hand around his throat.

"Stop it. Stop it right now, or I will get Seth to take care of you." Susan's voice was low and ugly, her face so close to his he could smell wintergreen on her breath. "He'd probably enjoy it. You wanna try him and see?"

The hand at his throat tightened for a moment, and then let go. His head dropped, and while he panted for breath, they dragged him a short distance further and around a tight corner. Instead of the staircase he expected, his bare feet were pulled over another door jamb, this one wooden. He smelled dirty laundry, beer and cold pizza. There was a rug on the floor, badly in need of vacuuming. Tom's bedroom.

"Get him around, get him around like this," Eddie directed in slightly breathless grunts. They turned him and pushed him back. A mattress hit the back of his knees and he sat down hard on the edge of the bed. Before he could react, someone lifted his legs and swung them around while someone else pushed his shoulders to the mattress. He struck out blindly, but his hands were caught again easily and pulled above his head. He heard the click of the damnable rings and fasteners, and found himself chained to the headboard. He thrashed uselessly, panting in rage. "God," Susan said mildly. "You know we could have just left you in the bathroom."

"Let me go," Blair gasped. "Let me out of here."

No one answered that. They held his legs so he couldn't kick, and fastened his ankles to the foot of the bed. Blair felt the mattress yield as they stood up again.

"I'll turn on the space heater," Tom said. "I guess that should help some."

A space heater in this firetrap, Blair thought. And they were leaving him chained to the bed. Here he'd been freaking out over their Aleister Crowley games, when what he really should have been worried about was being trapped in a burning building. "Don't," he whispered, breathing hard. "Please, this is so stupid."

"For the last time, we're doing this for you." Eddie snorted. "You know you just can't help some people?"

* * *

Now that it was much too late, it was no particular surprise when Serena finally called to let Jim know the gun in the garage was registered to Eddie's father. When he and Blair had talked to Eddie yesterday, Jim just hadn't been able to see how a not-particularly-bright kid sloppily wolfing down a burger could really have anything to do with medieval necromancers.

Blair had seen it, though.

"Thanks, Serena," was all he said. "Can you transfer me to Simon?"

"What did they find?" Suzanne asked. They were walking to another dormitory in Jim's dogged, and so far largely futile quest to interview every student in Blair's class. That damned bunch of sheep. Sitting there staring at Sandburg yesterday while he struggled to make sense of Ross Malitz's death. Jim should have known. The clues were all there. He should have known.

The sun was just setting and the sky was pale and clear. It was as beautiful as the night Jim had shot Ross to death in the library. "The gun is registered to Eddie Barringer's father," he said.

"Oh." Suzanne stopped dead. Jim just kept walking, and after a moment she ran to catch up. "Jim, this changes everything."

Jim didn't ask her what she meant, because he already knew. The only thing that had really changed was that at last she finally believed him.

"Jim." Simon's voice on the phone sounded tired. "Any word?"

"Serena told you about the registration on the gun?"

"She told me. I've already contacted a friend of mine with the SFPD. They're going to send someone out to interview the Barringers."

Good procedure. Fine for tying up loose ends, but Jim didn't believe for one minute it would bring them any closer to finding Sandburg. "Simon, I want to talk to Ross's parents."

"It's totally out of the question, Jim, you know that."

The sun was setting. The trees were black against the sky. There was no time for arguing with Simon. There was no time for any of this. "Then you talk to them. Get them to tell you exactly why he transferred to Rainier his sophomore year. I want to know if Ross ever mentioned David Lash to them. What did Ross say about his history teacher Peter Nagle? Did Sandburg's name ever come up? Have they ever met Ross's roommate? What did they think about him? Don't tell them about the gun registration yet. Just see what they tell you."

"Hold on, Jim. Whoa, hold on. I know you're concerned about Sandburg, we all are, but these people lost their son two days ago. I'm not going to browbeat them over this. I'm sure they don't know anything about it."

"Excuse me, sir, but I don't know that at all. What if they hold Sandburg responsible for their son's death? What if they're looking for revenge?"

Silence. Then, "I just can't believe that."

Jim didn't particularly believe it either, but he sure wasn't getting anywhere by taking people at face value. "Someone has to talk to them, sir."

"Jim," Simon complained, "I've met these people. I spent nearly two hours with them yesterday. They're gracious, gentle, heartsick individuals, believe me. They're grieving for their son, not out dreaming up wild revenge plots."

"Then at least ask them about Eddie. Maybe they know something that can help us find him. Some place they used to hang out together, anything. Simon, give me a break here. It's been eight hours since anyone's seen Sandburg."

"I'm a policeman, too, Jim. You don't have to tell me how to do my job." Simon's voice was gentle, though. It was an apology, not a rebuke. "I'll talk to them."

* * *

His ankle was hurting badly after so much flailing around, and Tom's bed linens smelled like dirty laundry -- like a guy's dirty laundry -- but the bed was softer than the bathroom floor had been, and the noisy little space heater warmed up the room quickly. As the chill began to fade, Blair decided he didn't care if the whole place did burn down as long as he didn't have to be cold anymore. He closed his eyes under the blindfold, and before he realized what was happening, he had slipped away, back to the frozen lake in the forest he had seen once before.

The skater was still there, turning slow circles by the light of a crescent moon. Venus glowed in the sky above the horns of the moon, and the skater's blades rasped across the ice, back and forth, back and forth, a sound as steady and regular as a woodsman sharpening his axe. Blair remembered there had been something odd about the trees the last time he was here, something he could not quite make out, and he looked at their silhouette against the night sky. It must be near dawn, because there were no other stars at all. A high breeze Blair could not feel on the shore moved the tops of the trees gently, and there was something strange about the silent forest. The only sound was the rasp of the skater's blades. The high, attenuated tops of the great trees could almost be the spires of an impossible city, and the lake might have been a bottomless black tarn.

Once that dark fancy had taken hold in his mind, the forest disappeared altogether, and the city which had taken its place filled him with dread. Its turrets were darker than the sky overhead, and the position of Venus and the moon which had seemed so beautiful while the skater turned peaceful revolutions on a forest lake was full of sinister significance now. The skater was gone, but the blades were still rasping, one-two, one-two, back and forth, steady and inexorable and sure. It was one blade, being carefully honed and sharpened by someone very close at hand. Someone Blair knew, though he had never met the woman. "It's not enough," he whispered to her, and in his dream his voice carried for miles. He heard it echoing back from the obsidian towers on the other side of the black tarn. "You can cut off their arms and their legs and it still won't be enough. They'll just keep coming back all the same."

He was wrenched from sleep by the sound of tapping, and a voice quietly calling his name. "Blair? Are you in there? Blair?"

He opened his eyes wide, and for long, breathless moments, couldn't remember where he was and why he couldn't see. He tried to wipe his eyes, and only when he found his arms pinned behind his head did he realize where he was. He thrashed his head from side to side, trying to dislodge the blindfold. "Yes!" he called back, half-whispering. "It's me, I'm in here. Who is it?"

"It's Peter Nagle. Are you all right?"

Oh my god. Blair lay still, breathing hard. "No," he called back at last. "No, I'm not all right. You've got to get me out of here."

He heard Nagle try the knob, then rattle the door in its frame. "It's locked," he said. "I can't get in."

"OK," Blair said. "OK, just stay calm. Get out of here, get to a phone and call the Cascade PD. Ask to speak to Jim Ellison. Tell him where I am, tell him I'm OK, but he's got to --"

"Blair, Blair, hold on, be quiet and listen to me. I'm not going to call the police."

Blair yanked violently on his shackled hands, accomplishing nothing but hurting himself. "What are you talking about? Dr. Nagle, you've got to get out of here. You've got to go for help."

"For the last time, be quiet. If they hear you yelling this will all be over."

Blair made himself hush. "I'm listening," he stage-whispered back to Nagle. "What the hell is going on here?"

"You've got to calm down. These kids don't mean you any harm, but if you keep this up, someone's going to get hurt."

Blair 's mouth worked soundlessly, too flabbergasted to form words as Nagle explained, "I know they've probably taken it a little too far, but you've got to understand, they lost a good friend just two days ago. This is their way of dealing with grief."

"Dr. Nagle --" It all came out in a rush. "For chrissakes, Dr. Nagle, have you lost your mind? I don't know what you think you're doing, but you've got to get out of here and call Jim before it's too late." He thrashed again, pulling hard enough at his arms to make the metal frame creak. "Dammit, Nagle, are you listening to me? They've got me chained to a bed in here -- do you think that's rational? Do you think that's any way to deal with grief?"

"Blair!" A short, harsh bark of sound. "I want to help you but I can't do anything if you won't cooperate."

"Cooperate? With what? I'm hurt, I'm scared, I'm mad, and the only thing I'm going to cooperate in is filing charges against all of you if you don't help me get out of here."

The silence stretched on so long Blair began to fear he had left. "Dr. Nagle?" he called at last. "Professor?"

"This isn't up for debate," he said. "You can either listen to me, or I'll go. There's no time for anything else."

Blair swallowed. "All right," he managed to say. "I'm listening."

"This house has a special tradition. I suppose you already know that."

"It's the Bollingen house," Blair said. "I know."

"Ah, I thought you might have figured it out already. Seventy-five years ago, Brigit Stuttgart strangled her employer to death in this very house. The night of May First. Walpurgisnacht."

Two possibilities, Blair thought. There were two possibilities here. Either he was already dead, and this was hell, or else he had gone stark, raving mad, because there was no way he could really be chained naked to a bed listening to Professor Peter Nagle tell him ghost stories. He'd lived through some pretty crazy things in his life, especially since he'd met Jim, but surely this was the limit. "Professor," he said quietly, keeping his voice nice and calm, "I know the story. I read your article. Now please --"

"Did you know the very oldest forms of religious expression known to man hold that the ordinary, everyday world is just a flimsy illusion? Nothing but a bubble of make-believe sanity adrift upon a sea of chaos. But you're an anthropologist, Blair. I don't need to tell you this."

Just humor the man. Tell him what he wants to hear, and maybe you can convince him to get his butt to a phone and call Jim. "Shamanism. I know. It's a world view common to shamanistic religious practices. It isn't usually described quite so pessimistically, though."

"That's because primitive shamans today have lost the true knowledge, corrupted it with the use of psychotropics. They aren't crossing the border into the real universe at all when they eat peyote or drink ayahuasca. They're just juicing the synapses. The real heart of creation is far darker and far more difficult to reach."

"I've read Huysmans' translation of Kulten," Blair said, feeling his way with care. "You mean crossing over to see the Old Ones. The dark uber-gods who created reality. Who are reality."

"President Bollingen worked for years, and he might have made it across if his housekeeper hadn't lost her nerve. But because of his years of patient effort, the barriers are a little thinner here. A little more permeable. Makes this an interesting place to be, don't you think? Rainier is teetering on the edge of an infinite, unknowable chasm. Quite a legacy Bollingen left his school, isn't it?"

Yeah, no kidding. Hopes were fading fast that he would be able to convince this nutcase to call Jim. Nagle was as bad off as the kids who had grabbed him. Even worse, in a way, because Blair still wasn't sure if Nagle really believed any of this himself or was just enjoying the story. "Professor, Huysmans says everyone who ever tried to see the Old Ones went mad or died. Did you ever think maybe Brigit knew what she was doing?"

Nagle chuckled. "Perhaps she did. Bollingen was a very old man, after all. He might not have been strong enough to survive even if he did make it. Ever since, though, a dedicated few have kept the faith and passed the word along, watching for someone who could make the journey. Imagine how we felt when David Lash found you before we did."

"Goddamn you," Blair exploded, "Goddamn you, you're just another fucking headcase yourself." He was fighting, yanking at his hands again and again, trying to kick despite the pain in his ankle. "Do you hear me, Nagle? You're just as crazy as all the rest of them."

"I'm sorry, Blair," he said. His voice was moving away from the door. "I thought it would be easier for you if you understood."

"I don't understand!" Blair screamed after him. "There's nothing here to understand. Damn you, Nagle, don't leave me here!"

Nothing. Blair collapsed back on the bed, panting. Oh, god. Oh, god help him, he'd only thought he was in deep before. He'd had no idea how far gone they really were.

He tried to calm down, tried to get his breathing under control. He wasn't going to panic again. Look on the bright side. After all, he knew a lot more now, right? More than he'd really ever wanted to, OK, but maybe there was something here he could use. He should marshal his facts, try to see what he had. Fact: Nagle was out of his head. Great. He was making real progress now. So what was their plan? At the witching hour they would stand Blair up in the middle of a pentagram, kill a chicken and then wait for the Old Ones to show? As a way of saying goodbye to poor old Ross, who'd been looking forward to this so much.

The door slammed open with a crash so violent for instant Blair thought it was Jim arriving like the cavalry. But then Seth said, "Dr. Nagle says you're a little upset," and Blair closed his eyes under the blindfold. "He thought maybe this would help you relax."

"Get away from me." Blair's voice was raw from screaming after Nagle.

"Don't flip out, man, this is good wine." The mattress gave under Seth's weight. His hand reached under the back of Blair's head and lifted it, and Blair smelled the harsh, grape smell of cheap wine. "Well, not great wine," he admitted. "Don't make this any harder on yourself. You just need to drink enough to relax."

Blair clenched his jaw and tried to turn his face away.

"Look," Seth said with sinister calm. "I'd rather do this the easy way, but it's up to you. You don't have to absorb alcohol through the stomach lining to get the benefits, right?" He tapped Blair's hip with the side of the bottle. "That's what I've heard, anyway. It'd be interesting to find out if it's true."

Blair felt as though his bones had turned to water. Seth would do it, too. He didn't doubt that for one minute. It was too easy to imagine that bland, almost-interested smile Seth had worn day after day in the front row of Blair's class. Bright blue eyes, short blonde hair in tight little curls against his scalp, a tennis-player's tan on his face. The heart of a true sadist beating under his Eddie Bauer sweater. Oh yeah, the kid was gonna be a hell of a doctor some day.

"What's -- what's the point of washing me out," he whispered, struggling for the strength to speak at all, "If you're just gonna turn around and poison me with bad wine?"

"Don't worry about it. Wine's sacred."

"Even Manischevitz?"

"You're funny, Mr. Sandburg." He lifted Blair's head again and put the lip of the bottle to his mouth. "Now drink up."

The broken end of the screw cap cut Blair's lower lip as he drank.

Chapter 14

"Look, Jim, it's Friday night. You know as well as I do what that means. Anybody we haven't talked to by now, we're probably not going to be able to lay hands on until tomorrow morning."

Friday night, and Blair was still out there somewhere. The crush of passing time felt like a vise around Jim's chest. The minutes had slipped away, and then the hours, and now the entire day was gone. Maybe the days would simply continue to slip away. Jim knew how that worked. Once you started losing time you could never get it back. The days would go by faster and faster, and one day Simon would assign him to another case, and one day Naomi would come to collect Sandburg's things, and eventually one day Jim would wake up in the loft and not reach out first thing for the sound and heat and scent of Blair's presence nearby.

Jim crushed the styrofoam cup he was holding. Coffee gushed over the sides and drenched his hand.

"Jim!" Suzanne leaped to her feet and leaned across the table to him, helplessly proffering her napkin. "Jim, did it burn you?"

The coffee was hot, but not scalding. Jim dropped the crumpled remains of the cup on the white plastic lunch tray and blotted his hand dry, looking at the blotches and streaks of red across his fingers and the back of his hand without interest. "Someone knows something," he told Suzanne. "You can't tell me a bunch of college kids planned and executed such an elaborate plan without somebody letting something slip."

Suzanne closed her eyes wearily and sat down again. The cafeteria was almost deserted this time of night. The only other people sitting at the tables had hunched shoulders, books piled high around them, laptops open before them. They looked like grad students to Jim. "You may be right," she said. "But that doesn't do us any good if we can't find the people to talk to in the first place. All I'm saying is, this will be a lot easier in the morning. People will be in their rooms, and besides, you'll feel better after a good night's sleep, be on top of things here."

Jim looked at her. "I'd like to talk to other instructors in the history department about Peter Nagle. Can you get me a list with their home phone numbers?"

Suzanne sighed. "Yes, I can do that, but I'm counting on you to be discreet."

"How about records of any complaints that might have been filed against Nagle over the years?"

"I wouldn't have that information." Suzanne held her hands up, palms out in a 'stop' gesture. "You'd have to go through the chair of the department and maybe even the dean of faculty, and I'm sorry, but that just can't happen tonight."

Maybe it wasn't her fault everything Jim suggested was immediately dismissed as impossible, but Jim was getting sick and tired of it all the same. It was too bad her safe little world was crumbling at the edges, but continuing to slavishly follow the rules of that world wouldn't stop the creeping disintegration. Besides, couldn't she feel the rush of time at their backs? Had we but world enough and time -- Yeah, right. Before he told her just what he thought, though, he was distracted by the approach of a familiar presence, and knew it was Taggart a moment before he called Jim's name.

Jim got up quickly and turned to meet him. If there was good news, they would have called first. If the news was bad... they probably would send someone to tell him in person. There was no sign of tragedy on Joel's face, though. In fact as he crossed the vast cafeteria seating area, his nose twitched and he looked for an instant toward the steam tables at the far end of the room. Jim relaxed. "Joel," he said in greeting, and found himself cheered by the presence of an ally.

"Heya, Jim." He clamped a heavy hand on Jim's shoulder. "Any word?"

Jim shook his head, and Suzanne got to her feet, stiff as if she were on parade review. "Joel, this is Suzanne Tamaki, head of campus security. Suzanne, Detective Joel Taggart."

She nodded curtly, and took a seat again, not returning Joel's smile. "I stopped by and talked to the patrolman who's watching Peter Nagle's house," Joel explained. "No sign of the professor so far, so I thought I'd see if you could use any help from here."

"I was just telling Jim there's really nothing more we can do before morning," Suzanne announced.

Taggart shot Jim a sympathetic look and told Suzanne, "You don't really think anybody's going to get any sleep tonight until Sandburg turns up, do you?" He smiled at Suzanne, but this was her turf, and she wasn't letting her guard down, not for a minute.

"I want to help any way I can," she said, "But I can't violate university procedure. You can understand that, can't you?"

* * *

It was just like that scene from The Wizard of Oz. The farmhouse spinning round and around in the cyclone, faces appearing for a moment at the window before being swept away in the storm. Maybe there wasn't any farmhouse, and he sure as heck wasn't in Kansas, and yeah, there was no window and he was pretty sure there wasn't a cyclone either, but the room was tilting and spinning, that was exactly right. And faces came and went, that was just like the movie too, though it was odd, because he was pretty sure the blindfold was still over his eyes.

Blair tried to touch his face to see if he was still blindfolded, but his hand wouldn't move. Shit, he was still tied to the bed. Not that he had really forgotten -- it was just difficult to hold more than one thought in his head at a time. Seth had poured most of the bottle down his throat, and maybe it had been spiked with grain, or maybe it hadn't -- maybe a bottle of wine on a very empty stomach was enough to put him under the table without any extra help. He turned his head to the side experimentally, and the whole room crashed along with him. Yeah, no question about it, he thought, he was drunk off his ass.

He squeezed his eyes shut behind the blindfold, and saw another face. It was Monica's this time. Her white blonde swimmer's hair was backlit by hazy green light. She'd dispensed with the paintbrush, and was holding a still-beating heart in her hands. The broken veins and arteries were burned black. She squeezed the heart and smoky black blood dripped onto his face and ran down his chin, and it burned, it burned like fire. He cried out and tried to push her away, and found his hands were still tied, and there was still a blindfold over his eyes. The blood burned still. He could feel the marks on his chest, on his face, low on his belly. He could see them in his mind's eye. He could read them, and they were blasphemous, worse than obscene. He remembered the way Jim had grabbed his sleeve and hurriedly wiped those marks from the board in his class. Jim couldn't even stand to look at them.

Jim wouldn't be able to look at him, now.

Blair could feel something tugging at him. It had been there all along, perhaps, but it wasn't until he lay still, drunk and helpless, unable to filter anything or keep anything away, that he finally had to pay attention to that subtle, irresistible tug. Like a nudge at his back, an uncomfortable prickling at the back of his scalp. Or something infinitely worse. An ugly picture came to him, and he saw himself suspended like a marionette. The puppet strings had been threaded through his heart and bowels, through his eyes and nose and mouth. His arms and legs flopped helplessly as he went up the stairs to the loft, bouncing from step to step as the strings jerked him up in a grotesque parody of his own gait, and he prayed, as his body twitched and bobbed around the last landing, that Jim would not open the door when he knocked.

"Jesus, Seth, how much did you give him?"

Someone was slapping his face lightly, right, left, right, and he reached up to stop them. "Don't," he whispered. His hand closed around a slender, muscular wrist. "Stop hitting me."

"It's all right, Mr. Sandburg." His fingers were peeled away and his hand dropped to the bed. He realized he wasn't tied down anymore. That was progress, wasn't it? "Just seeing if you were awake. How do you feel?"

"I'm drunk," he said.

"I can tell. How'd you like to go outside for a little fresh air?"

Blair knew that woman's voice, better than he wanted to, and she was no one he could trust. "I just want to go home," he told her anyway, because he just wasn't up to manufacturing a lie. As soon as he said it, though, he remembered twitching and flopping up the stairs to the loft. "But I can't." Tears came to his eyes as he realized the truth of it. "I can't go home. Jim."

"I didn't even give him the whole bottle. How was I supposed to know he couldn't hold his liquor?"

"Oh man, everything's going wrong, everything."

"Nothing's going wrong. It's all right. So he's really, really relaxed. Probably the more relaxed the better, right? Come on, Mr. Sandburg. You want to try and sit up?"

He wondered why they bothered to ask, since he knew they would give him no choice in the matter. Hands grasped his own and pulled him up. His feet hit the floor, and a stunning pain shot up from his ankle. He doubled over, crying out. "I can't," he said, hearing the tears in his voice. "It hurts too much."

"I know. We're going to help you. Just take it easy."

He didn't want to, but as before, there was nothing he could do to stop them. There were people on either side of him, and they pulled his arms around their shoulders, each grasping a wrist, and hauled him upright. His stomach lurched.

"Easy does it. You're doing great."

He wasn't doing great and he would have told them so, but another voice interrupted, calling from an echoey distance, "Is it time? Are you moving him?"

"Oh man," said a voice near Blair's ear. "Here it comes."

"It's time, Dr. Nagle." Susan was in front of Blair, her voice quiet and calm.

Blair heard eager footsteps along a wooden floor, and Peter Nagle calling, "Be careful, don't hurt him, don't --"

Then silence. A long silence. Blair turned his head blindly. His ankle hurt. His stomach hurt. His face was prickly and hot and he was about to be sick. The way his stomach felt, he was almost looking forward to it.

"Oh my god," Nagle whispered at last. He sounded as though he was strangling. "What have you done to him?"

"Ross was willing to risk everything," Susan said. "We owe him this."

"You don't know what you're doing." Nagle sounded as sick as Blair felt.

"Yeah we do." Eddie's voice was on Blair's other side. "Everything else can wait just a little while longer, you know? Mr. Sandburg never would have gone along with your plan anyway."

"But you can't do this. It's worse than murder."

"So what if it is? Sometimes an eye for an eye is letting 'em off easy."

"I can't let you go through with it." Someone's hand fell upon Blair's shoulder. "It's going to be all right, Blair. We're getting out of here."

"Like hell you are."

Blair felt something whistle through the air very close by, and he heard a sickening, solid thump. The hand on his shoulder fell away, and a second thump shook the floorboards.

"Oh, whoa," Tom said. "All over the rug."

"Come on," Susan said. "Let's just do it."

* * *

"I was able to talk to Ross's father for a few minutes, Jim, but the man really couldn't tell me much."

"Did he tell you anything, sir? A favorite bar or hangout-- did he ever even visit his son out here? Did he know anything about his son's social life?"

Joel was watching Jim's conversation with Simon sympathetically. They were in Suzanne's office, calling instructors in the history department when Simon had finally telephoned.

"Not much. He thought his son was a scholar. He said the whole reason Ross transferred was because of the holdings in Rainier's special collections out here. You don't get a lot of sophomores changing schools because of the library, do you? But he never imagined Ross's interest had become so obsessive."

"Yeah." Jim spread his hand upon the table in front of him. "Did he happen to mention how he met Eddie? Was it just luck of the draw they ended up roommates?"

"I don't know, Jim. He mentioned they were in the same fraternity, but I don't know if Ross pledged because Eddie was already in it or --"

"What fraternity?"

"Just a second. One I'd never heard of. Here. Psi Omega."

Jim wrote it down, Suzanne watching over his shoulder. "No," she said, "I think you can rule out the Psi-O house. My people were there this afternoon."

"Hold on a minute, Simon." Jim put the phone down slowly and turned to face her. "Your people were there? Why?"

"Looking for Seth Lamb. He's in Psi Omega too, but he wasn't at the house." Suzanne picked up a spiral notebook of flimsy phone message forms and paged back. "Yeah, my people talked to Tom Middleton, one of Seth's frat brothers, and he said they didn't expect Seth back all weekend. He was complaining about it, since there was a big party tonight and Seth wouldn't be there to help with the keg."

* * *

It was a loud, cold night. Music was everywhere, staticky and harsh on stressed amplifiers, and the night breeze smelled like beer. Probably it was the smell that finally did it. Blair felt his knees buckle, and a spasm ripped through his aching stomach muscles.

"Aw, jeez, he's gonna hurl. You're such a screw-up, Seth."

They lowered Blair to the ground. He felt gravel under his knees and palms as he hung his head low and vomited up whatever wine was left in his stomach. He knew it was cold out here, because he could feel goosebumps rising on his back, but his face was burning and he was sweating with heat.

"Are you done?"

A hand rested on the back of his head for a moment, and then he was pulled to his feet again. Blair groaned when he put weight on his ankle, but with the worst of the sickness past, he was able to take more notice of what was happening around him. "Where's Dr. Nagle?" he asked, mostly to see if he could talk. His mouth tasted foul, and if he'd had any life savings, he would have given them all right now for a drink of water.

"He'll catch up later," said a voice close at hand, and laughed. That was Seth. He knew that was Seth, because he still sounded nasally and stopped up. He'd better see a doctor about his broken nose, the son of a bitch.

Someone rubbed something rough across Blair's lips, wiping his mouth. "You feel better now?"

"How d'you think I feel?" Blair demanded, and heard his voice break. Aw man, he was drunk, he was so drunk. He should just shut up, keep his head and wait for Jim. "Jim's not here yet," he said sadly, and then cursed himself. He hadn't meant to say that out loud. He was gonna give everything away.

"Nope, he sure isn't. It's just you now, Mr. Sandburg. And you're going to give back what Detective Ellison took away. That's only fair, isn't it?"

His feet dragged along the gravel. There were sticks and crumpled, dead leaves underfoot. Fair? No, it wasn't fair. Even Peter Nagle, the arrogant, heartless bastard he was, knew it wasn't fair. Some things were so unfair, in fact, they could throw the entire rational universe off kilter. "Dr. Nagle wanted a shaman," Blair said, struggling to form the words, to force his scattered, whirling thoughts into coherence. "Someone who could contact the Old Ones. But you just want Ross back."

Someone clouted the back of his head, not hard. "I don't think you're so drunk after all." It sounded like grudging admiration. The gravel under Blair's bare feet gave way to smooth stone and dry leaves.

"'S' been two days," Blair said. His captors stopped. "Haven't you even looked at the body lately?" His arms were pulled over his head, and Blair struggled weakly, his sore muscles aching with the strain. He heard the click, and then the hands that had been holding him up let go. He stood half-suspended by his wrists, trying to keep his weight off his bad ankle. "Don' you even know how gross it must be by now?" he asked, panting. "Don' you get it, people?" Impossibly, he started to laugh. He sounded completely demented in his own ears, but he couldn't stop laughing. Tears were running under his blindfold, and he wondered if that was really laughter after all. "There's isn't anything left to bring back."

Fingers touched his face. "Are you like the Nambikirawa, Mr. Sandburg? You don't believe the soul survives the death of the body either?"

Blair flinched violently from the hand on his face. "Hey, easy, easy there." The blindfold was lifted away. He squeezed his eyes shut instinctively, and then, ashamed of his cowardice, opened them again. He wasn't sure what horrors he had been expecting to see, but they were not here. This was the same low budget nonsense it had been from the beginning. The backyard of the frat house was a walled garden that had long since gone to seed, and he was hanging from a rose trellis. When he stretched his fingers out, he could feel the overgrown canes and long thorns. There were no lights back here, but the street light out front cast a yellow glow, as did the bright lights in the back of the other houses. There were parties going on all up and down the street, music and shouting and laugher.

Here, though, was only the ring of serious, pitiless faces, watching him like he was a frog in a dissection tray. "No, see," he persisted in trying to explain to them, as though if he could just say it right they would realize how ridiculous it was, cut him down from here and let him go home, "See, there's no body. I don' care if Ross does have a soul, there's nothing for it to come back too. You wouldn't want to come back to a rotting corpse, would you?" He looked around at their faces. This was so obvious, why couldn't they get it? "Not with the maggots and everything, would you?"

Susan smiled at him. "No, Mr. Sandburg, I wouldn't." She reached forward and lifted a lock of hair off his forehead and smoothed it back, her touch lingering a little too long, and the light shone through at last, his muddled thoughts aligning themselves into a hideous clarity.

"No," he moaned, and tried to wrench his head back from her touch. The brush of her fingers felt like those selfsame maggots crawling across his scalp. "Oh, no."

Seth thrust his face close, grinning. Even in the dark Blair could see how swollen his nose was. "You and Dr. Nagle never seemed to get that this isn't Anthro 101. Forget that shaman business."

There weren't any candles anywhere, but Blair imagined he could see them all the same, flickering before his eyes. What do you think? Do I make a pretty good you? It all made sense now, the compulsive cleaning, their obsession with his physical condition (the nice h-h-hot bath).

Just making sure the house was clean for the new occupant.

"No," Blair whispered, trembling. The marks they had drawn on his face and on his body were itching and burning like badly healed wounds, and the shadows in the garden were so dark. "No."

"Because once Ross is you, he won't be any new-age hippie shaman, I can tell you that." Seth's breath smelled like the bad wine. "He'll be a magus."

"Stop it, Seth," Susan complained. She pulled him away from Blair. "You're just gonna get him all worked up."

Seth didn't resist being pushed back, but he didn't stop talking, either, raising his voice to be sure Blair heard. "And you, Mr. Sandburg, you know what? You'll get to experience those maggots first hand. Too bad you won't be able to come back and tell us what it's like."

Chapter 15

He knew they had finally found the right place as soon as Joel drove up. Jim fumbled for the door latch, fingers trembling a little, swung the door open and stepped out onto the pavement, all the while watching the address across the street with an inexplicable sense of shock and loathing. Just looking at that house made him want to go home and turn on all the lights. Had they really brought Sandburg to this dark place? Blair Sandburg, who was noise and color and warmth, everything that was bright and alive and good, as gaudy and beautiful as the hibiscus flowers on that ridiculous Hawaiian shirt of his. If Blair were really here it was more than a crime. It was blasphemy. The universe itself should be howling in protest.

Joel must have gotten out of the car and walked around, but Jim didn't know anything about it until Joel leaned against the car beside him and said, "Are you sure this is the way you want to play it, Jimbo? One phone call, we could have half of Major Crime backing you up."

Jim shook his head sluggishly, pulling himself together. "No," he muttered. He swallowed and tried again. "No, I'm not going to listen to Simon complaining about having to interrupt Judge Irwin at dinner to sign the warrant. Assuming Irwin would even give us one in the first place."

Joel nodded in understanding. "And Simon would want us to coordinate with Suzanne, and she would kick both our butts for ditching her and coming out to check this out alone. All the same, man, we could at least get Henri and Rafe. They'd be happy to do this quiet."

"I know," Jim said. Up and down the street on both sides of the house were lights, noise and music. Kids were making their way up the sidewalk in packs, loud and drunk, even louder if they weren't drunk yet. Only the Psi Omega house was quiet and dark, and none of the revelers on the street turned up the walk toward that front door. He wondered if Joel noticed people crossed to the other side of the street rather than walk by that house at all. He wondered if Joel could tell why.

"I don't like it, Jim. Call it a hunch, but I don't like this at all."

"I don't either. That's why I'm going in alone." Joel grumbled, on the verge of protesting, and Jim went on, "It's just recon. I'll be in and out in five minutes, and if Sandburg isn't in there, no one will ever be the wiser. Are there any lights on?"

"There's one on downstairs, looks like," Joel answered automatically. Then he asked with concern, "Can't you see it, Jim?"

Yes, he saw it, now that Joel agreed it was there, but it looked so feeble and far away, like a candle dying on a windy, rainy night. The dark was so much fiercer. Hard-edged, implacable. None of his senses could pierce that blackness. They could only travel along its edges, slide carefully around unpredictable turnings and strange corners. Trying to follow his senses through that house would be like groping his way blind through a maze. "Wait for me here," Jim said, taking a deep breath. "I'll call if I need you."

For a moment the street was empty, and he jogged across to the sidewalk in front of the house. His movement broke the dark spell, and he saw the house as it was, just a neglected old place rotting from the inside out. Music was playing upstairs, tinny and faint compared to the blasts of sound from the houses on either side. The ground level windows were covered by a shabby mixture of curtains and Pier One shades, and the lamp Joel had seen was shining through a screen of bamboo over the window to the left of the front door. Long, narrow rays of shuttered light spilled out in the night. Jim made his way up the front walk quickly and silently, and at the foot of the front steps he paused again and reached out with his senses. He just needed to know if there was anyone on the other side of the front door. He didn't need to push any harder than that.

Immediately, though, the shadows began to change. The alternating bands of darkness through the bamboo shade took on a sleek, cold solidity, and the light seemed to freeze between the shafts of darkness. No. Jim pulled back fast, stumbling to one knee. There was something here he could not touch, could not bear to get close to, and he didn't know what it was, but he knew where he had seen it before. Once in the library, when that sudden, impossible dusk had fallen while he was waiting for Sandburg, and then once again, only minutes later, shining darkly in the pupil of Ross Malitz's left eye just before he had killed the boy.

Jim lurched to his feet again, one hand pressed hard against the side of his head, his other raised in reassurance in case Joel had seen him fall. He would just do this without his senses, then. If Jim Ellison the Sentinel couldn't cope, Jim Ellison the cop would handle things. Probably the way they should have been handled all along. He shook his head and fell back a pace or two, trying to dial it down, push everything back. The house shimmered and shifted as he imagined the heat of Blair's hand on his arm and heard Blair's voice coaching him gently but with that touch of impatience, because Jim never seemed to get it right fast enough. The darkness grew softer, lost its hard edges and dangerous, inhuman angles. It was just the darkness of night, and the only reason there were no stars in the sky was because the orange glow of the sodium streetlights blotted them out. This house was simply a house, a big rotting firetrap of a place, and Blair might be somewhere inside. That was all that mattered. He'd see if there was a way in besides the front door.

There were basement windows in the stone foundations of the front porch, square, black panes that reflected the streetlights. Jim glanced over his shoulder to confirm no one was paying any attention to him. No one was even looking toward the house. A group of ten or twelve was rambling its way down the street, laughing and shouting, but they crossed to the other side of the street as they drew near, probably not even aware of the instinctive desire to put some distance between themselves and this house.

Jim knelt beside one of the basement windows, letting the shadow of the front porch cover him, and pushed experimentally against the wooden frame. It rattled on its hinges, and the wood yielded against his hand. Rotten. He balanced himself with his hand against the cold stone of the foundation and kicked the top of the window in a tight, controlled blow. He felt and heard the wood splintering, and the hasp on the other side of the window tore out of the wood and dropped to the unseen cellar floor with a clatter. Jim froze, but after long moments without further sound or movement within, he swung the window inward.

The smell of the house reminded him of the book Ross had tried to steal. Musty, unwholesome, unclean. He ducked his head and crawled in over the wide sill. By the light of the streetlights he could just make out a stone floor some six feet below him. There seemed to be nothing else in the room but cardboard boxes stacked high in the corner, and on the other side, a pile of luggage ranked against the wall. A storeroom. Perfect. Jim swung his legs around and dropped lightly to the floor within. Once he was inside, he felt the house over him like a sudden change in air pressure. He stumbled, feeling something thrumming and buzzing around his head, around the walls of his mind. Pushing and nudging like it was trying to get in. Jim was afraid even to push back for fear of giving the thing a foothold on his consciousness. Instead of fighting back, he made himself think about something else. Sandburg. He remembered Blair this morning, so grateful at being awakened from his nightmare he had thrown his arms around Jim and held on for dear life, not even seeming to notice Jim was sopping wet from the shower. Just holding on as though Jim's mere presence were enough to keep all the darkness of the world at bay.

If only that were true. Jim wouldn't be here if it had been.

The poisonous resonance receded, no longer beating at Jim's mind for admittance, and he was able to concentrate on his surroundings. The inner door of the storeroom was outlined in faint light. Jim made his way forward cautiously, putting his hand on the door to feel for vibrations, then laying his ear against it and listening. No sound of voices, no movement he could detect with his senses deliberately numbed. Good enough. He felt for the door handle and turned it, his weapon in his other hand. The base of the door scraped across the smooth cement floor, and Jim eased his way out into a low-ceilinged corridor.

At one end was a wide door with old-fashioned louvers in the upper paneling. A bathroom and shower, obviously, the smell of inadequate plumbing reaching him even with muffled senses. At the other end, the hallway dead-ended into the sharp turn of a staircase. The narrow wood paneling on the walls and ceiling of the basement corridor made him feel as though he were shut up in a box. He was reasonably certain there was no one down here, but he didn't want to take a chance on someone coming up behind him all the same. He walked quickly down the hall and eased open the bathroom door. Empty, as he had thought. He chanced turning on the light, and there, lying in a heap near the showers, was a stack of neatly folded clothing, a pair of shoes lying on top. Blair's treasured Montrails.

Jim felt the clutch at his heart like a tightening fist. He knelt beside the bundled clothes and lifted them one by one. Those ludicrous argyles, a slightly raggedy pair of blue silk boxers. Jim's blue silk boxers. So that's what had happened to them. Jim had been on the verge of throwing them out before they had disappeared. Mystery solved, Jim thought, with an ache at the back of his throat. Blair's khakis and white v-neck tee, an ugly flannel shirt in yellow plaid, and his black leather jacket. Sandburg's idea of stepping out in style.

Everything else went away. It was second nature to Jim by now, wiping the slate clean, brushing aside everything that might interfere with doing his job. Rage and grief were emotions that couldn't help him, so he simply didn't allow himself to feel them. There would be time later, but if he did his job right, if he weren't already too late, perhaps he could ensure there would no longer be any reason to feel them at all.

He turned the clothes over once again, more carefully, without emotion this time. There were no rips or tears, not even a lost button, only a small square, perhaps three inches across, which had been neatly cut out of the front of Blair's tee shirt. And there were bloodstains, half a dozen or more drops on the back of Blair's jacket. That tidy little square of material cut from the tee shirt bothered Jim more than the blood. The blood was on the outside of the jacket, so it was almost certainly not Blair's at all, though Jim laid the jacket down quickly before the need to know for sure could overwhelm his control. Blair had been here. That was the important thing. He wouldn't worry about bloodstains, or the meaning of Blair's carefully mutilated shirt.

Jim refolded the clothes and left them stacked on the floor the way he had found them. There was a sooty, cloying smell in the room, stronger than the stink of standing water and mildew. Jim crossed to the double sink. A litter of items had been left there, a syringe, three empty collection vials crusted darkly around the ends, and burnt matches. A tiny packet of something about the texture of sand had been left beside the faucet. Jim picked it up carefully, mindful of the last time he had carelessly handled drugs packaged in a plastic bag, but this wasn't dope after all. It smelled sweet and earthy, a purer, fainter version of the same scent that hung heavily in the room. Now that he thought about it, it reminded him of the scents which clung to Naomi Sandburg's clothing and hair. Incense.

He set the package back down, then pushed open the door to both stalls, looked around the room once more to be sure there was nothing more here to see, at last switching out the light and shutting the door behind him. He wished, foolishly, that he could carry Sandburg's clothes with him.

A door stood partially open at the opposite end of the corridor. Jim stopped just before he got to it, listening, and then tried to push it open the rest of the way. It caught on something heavy and soft on the floor. Jim pushed harder, looking in to see what the door was getting hung up on.

It isn't Blair, was all he could think at first, and for a selfish few moments, that was all that mattered as well. He sidled his way into the room, stepping over the body, and when he was sure he was still alone, he crouched beside it. The dead man lay face down on the floor, the back of his skull smashed, the carpet spattered with blood. Professor Nagle was wearing the same clothes he'd had on when Jim had talked to him this morning.

Jim knelt and put his hand down to check for a neck pulse. Nothing, as he had already known, but the body was still warm. He straightened up fast. On a shelf at eye-level was the tennis trophy, its marble base bloody. Gray hairs were stuck in the still-tacky blood.

So what had happened here? Was there no honor among thieves and necromancers? Or perhaps Blair himself had struck that desperate, terrible blow, trying to escape his captors.

Jim glanced hastily around himself once more, knowing he was only a step or two behind now. The little bedroom reeked of cheap wine, the bed was unmade, and dirty laundry was piled in front of the open closet door. The bed was little larger than a cot, but the bedstead itself was ornate wrought iron that might well be as old as the house itself. Rust was flaking through the white paint, and there were paint chips scattered on the mussed sheets and dirty carpet. Jim looked again, and found twin bands at the head and foot of the bed where the paint had been very recently scraped away. It looked as though someone had been tied down on the bed, their hands and feet secured to the frame.

Jim turned away abruptly, clamping down hard on a treacherous surge of emotion. He had wasted too much time as it was. It was time for him to find Blair and end this.

* * *

It occurred to Blair he really should be screaming. Someone might hear him, after all, even as loud as it was out here, music and laughter rising to the starless sky like stone walls on every side. Friday night in the Westchester district. It was always like this on the weekends. No wonder the warehouse had seemed like such a godsend after living here. Even if it had been a fifteen mile drive crosstown to school. Even if there had been a few rats. And no central heat. And a meth lab on the other side of the building -- though he hadn't known about that, Jim, really. Besides, at least the drug dealers had been quieter neighbors than the frat brothers, right up until the night the place blew up.

Not like here, where there was so much noise you couldn't hear yourself think. So many voices, so many sounds. A girl with a high, shrill voice was laughing somewhere in the distance. She'd pause for a few moments, then begin all over again, her voice rising and rising until it reached a pitch that went through Blair's eardrums like a knife through butter. Then she'd start all over again. Her date had to be ready to kill himself by this point. Or kill her. Half a block away, a band was struggling through a neverending cover of "Tequila." The racket of young males in full rut was everywhere, their voices loud and cheerful, brassy with alcohol and the hope of a good fight.

And the smells. Stale beer, perfume, vomit, barbecue. A full scale Saturnalia, really. Complete with the sacrifice, hanging here in the darkest corner of this loud, drunken world, swaying a little on the rose trellis because his ankles had been shackled far apart to keep him from kicking. There were sounds and smells around him, too, close and secretive, hidden from the general festivities yet a part of them all the same. It all fit his little paradigm. The folk carousing in the streets of Rome hadn't known about the dark sacrifices taking place under their very noses either. The ancient world's historians could scarcely bring themselves to mention them. It had been left to the archeologists and anthropologists two thousand years later to excavate the bones under the temple. Just like no one would ever know about him. Only Jim, from time to time, would perhaps take a second look at the thing walking around on Blair Sandburg's legs, making words using Blair's Sandburg's vocal chords, and wonder what ever had happened to his friend.

To tell the truth, Blair didn't know what was happening to him either.

See, Jim, the problem here is, I think I had a little too much to drink.

That was the whole problem, it had to be. He was naked and drunk, the prisoner of certifiable nutcases, his ankle was hurting and that cover band across the way was excruciatingly bad. It would be enough to make anyone a little susceptible. That had to be the reason that after years of studying dozens of societies who believed in the transmigration of souls, Blair now found himself sincerely concerned about the transmigration of his own.

Besides, there was so much blood. The coppery reek filled his head, making him feel sicker and weaker even than the alcohol in his system. It wasn't even his own blood. Susan was standing no more than a foot away, whispering to him in schoolgirl Latin, her face bloody where she had cut herself with a razor. Her hands and arms were bleeding too. Her shirt was open to the waist, and the lace on her bra was soaked black with blood from a dozen or more slashes across her breast. There was probably ritual significance to the number and positioning of the cuts, but Blair had closed his eyes, unable to watch, and so he didn't know. He couldn't escape the hiss of her voice, though, the laughable, terrifying incongruity of a senior history major on the swim team struggling through a ritual invocation of the magna mater. Not a Saturnalia of course, he had gotten that wrong. More like the festival of Atys, the bloody, dying god whose worship came to Rome from the East, from the depths of antiquity.

Rites that came down from the P I-Taq Pass to Samarra on the banks of the Tigris, and thence to Ur and Nippur.

From before history, Nagle had thought.

Blair shook his head, trying to blink away the fog that blurred his vision. "Where's Professor Nagle?" he asked thickly.

The bloody spectacle before him smiled, showing her even white teeth. "He's with us now," Susan said. Eddie stood at her shoulder, smiling as well. His face was a mask of blood, only his eyes and teeth glittering out of the blackness. "I want to do something for you, Mr. Sandburg. I want to help you out."

Blair swallowed. His shoulders were burning with strain and his ankle was killing him. And he was freezing out here. "Why do I find that hard to believe?" he whispered.

Susan patted his cheek. The blood on her hand was sticky and hot against his face. "That's because you've made everything so much harder than it needed to be. It's weird. After all, you're the one who said you still owed Ross a debt you didn't know how to repay."

Blair almost laughed. It came out as a sort of wheeze that hurt his throat. "This isn't quite what I had in mind."

"Just watch," Eddie said. "You'll see."

They fell back a few steps and crouched in front of him. Monica was chanting softly, and it wasn't Latin anymore. It wasn't any language Blair recognized. Just harsh, guttural consonants. They didn't sound like any language meant to be spoken with human voices at all. With a sweep of her hand, Susan cleared the sticks and leaves away, revealing the stonework under their feet. Patterns had been incised into the face of the stone, worn down with age and weathering. Blair couldn't make out much in the darkness, but there was an odd symmetry to the carving he thought he might have been able to puzzle out, given enough time and adequate light. Whether he would want to expend so much effort on such a dubious project was another matter altogether.

Eddie placed two shallow white bowls in the center of the little clearing, handling them both as if they held liquid. Blair could see something dark lapping in the bottom of one, and assumed it was blood. He had seen them stretching their bleeding hands out one by one while they cut themselves. The contents of the second bowl he could not make out, and it was into this second bowl that Tom dipped a small square of fabric. Tom's arms were scored with cuts, and he had removed his shirt altogether and covered his naked chest with cross hatches before passing the razor on. He lifted the piece of fabric from the bowl, dripping, and handed it to Susan, who rose and came to stand before Blair again. She held the scrap of wet cloth to his lips. "Taste this," she said. "For Ross."

Blair's nose twitched. The cloth smelled as though it had been soaked in milk. "No," he whispered.

"You have to," she explained patiently. "You have to do this, or we'll make you do it."

Blair looked past her, finding Seth in the darkness. He was still crouched by the stone carvings, the blood from his cut forehead dripping. He raised his arm and wiped the blood from his eyes with the back of his hand, and then grinned wolfishly up at Blair.

It didn't matter, Blair thought hopelessly. Just do what they want you to. Do anything to keep Seth from getting his hands on you, anything to stay alive and relatively whole until Jim gets here.

He nodded, feeling as though his heart had turned into a lump of ice in his chest, and parted his lips so Susan could lay the scrap of fabric on his tongue. "Taste it," she insisted, and he closed his mouth for a moment. It was just milk, just like he'd thought. Nothing but a little bit of cloth soaked in milk. It didn't mean anything. It didn't really make the marks they had painted on his face and body burn anew. Having tasted it didn't really make the shadows around him darker.

"That's good," Susan told him gently, and took the cloth back. Blair felt tears standing in his eyes as she wrung out the cloth in both hands, twisting it like a sponge. Behind her, Monica croaked and sputtered meaningless syllables, sounds that seemed to hurt her to speak.

"Yganaiih ... yganaiiah. Thflthkh'ngha."

Blair heard drops of milk hitting the stone pavement one by one, and knew he had to be imagining that. Just a drop or two of milk, that's all that could have been left in the scrap of fabric. Not enough for him to hear them falling, especially not over the excruciatingly bad music from the band and that girl's appalling laughter. Simply his imagination, all of it. Susan twisted the cloth again, smiling at him as she wrung it dry, and Monica whispered harshly, "Y'bthnk ... ngh'aaa. H'yuh, h'yuh --"

All at once Blair felt the twist in his gut. His head came up in agonized surprise. He tried to cry out, but nothing escaped but a whimper. He thrashed as the pain grew, the iron of the trellis creaking under his weight. A black veil seemed to fall before his eyes, and he must have fainted for a moment or two, because through the blackness he could see the dark city, the reality beyond the shadows, and oh god, it wasn't a city. It wasn't really a city at all.

When the darkness lifted he was weeping and choking, and Susan was standing close, watching. They were all watching him, their blood-smeared faces terrible in the shadows. "No," Blair pleaded with them. "No," he said again, as Susan handed the scrap of fabric, wrung dry and empty as Blair was, down to Eddie, and Eddie laid it flat in the bottom of the first bowl and allowed the cloth to grow dark and heavy with their mingled blood. "No," Blair moaned. "No, please."

"Hush," Susan whispered to him, and Eddie pressed the bloody fabric back into her hand. "There's only one more thing you have to do, Mr. Sandburg. This is the easy part, I promise. Just say Ross's name. Like you're apologizing to him. You wanted the chance to say you're sorry, didn't you?"

"No," Blair said, his voice a breathless whisper. He was shaking and trembling so violently he could hear the trellis rattling. The sweat pouring down his body was as salty and thick as blood. He didn't know what was real anymore. He didn't know anything, but he believed it was worth more than his life not to let Susan touch him with that filthy rag. It was worth more than his soul not to speak Ross's name out loud. "I won't do what you want," he said. "I won't do it."

"Yes, you will," Susan whispered, soothingly. "You just need to relax."

This time Blair did laugh out loud, a harsh, short bark of anger and fear. "No," he said, and raised his eyes to see Jim standing on the garden path behind them all. His weapon was in his hands, and his face was expressionless with rage.

"Cascade PD," he said. "Step away from him."

Susan started at the sound of his voice, but she didn't turn her head. "Are you going to shoot us too?" she asked. She studied Blair's face, still refusing to look over her shoulder. "Just like you shot Ross?"

With that, she raised her hand and touched the bloody rag to Blair's lips.

Blair felt the tilt of creation itself, a cataclysmic darkness rushing in on him from every direction, overwhelming everything he had ever believed was sane and decent and good, and he opened his mouth and howled in despair, "Jim, get away from here, Jim, please--"

Monica had fallen silent when Jim spoke, but she began again, choking out syllables like burrs in her throat. "Thflthkh'ngha... Yog-Sothoth..." Susan dropped her hand, and in a single, vicious swipe, she smeared the blood-drenched rag across the symbols painted on Blair's stomach. Light burst in the sky above the roof of the Bollingen house, and this time it wasn't like a twist in his guts. This time it was like someone had punched their fist straight though his belly, taken a good, strong grip, and then proceeded to yank him inside out. He wanted to scream, but there were no sounds in this airless, breathless place. There was no light and no voice, nothing of space and time itself. There was only the horror of absolute negation, and a greater horror still. He was in the dark city he had glimpsed in his dreams, the landscape of Chaos, the unspeakable country beyond Acheron. And he was not alone.

But then with a wrench he was once more in the overgrown garden behind the Bollingen house, hanging by his wrists from the rose trellis, and the band was still playing "Tequila." He sucked air into his lungs with a great, desperate gasp, and Susan wrapped her fist in his hair and yanked his head back. She held the bloody rag in her other hand, hovering over the symbols painted on his breast. "Call to Ross this time," she hissed at him. "Call for Ross to come, or Seth will shoot, I swear he will."

Broken with horror, shuddering and still gasping for breath, Blair looked over her shoulder and saw Jim. He was on his hands and knees on the garden path, his head down, his sides heaving. Jim was making terrible sounds with every exhalation. Soft, broken moans, like a man beyond pain. Like a man who was dying.

Seth stood over him, Jim's gun in his hands.

Chapter 16

The basement staircase opened out onto a hall that was dark and drafty. Toward the front of the house the only light was a dark red glitter in the doorway, where a streetlight shone in through the stained glass window. At the other end of the hall a broad, carpeted stairway with an elaborately carved banister led to the upper reaches of the house. Jim meant to search upstairs, but instead he followed the draft of cool air blowing from the back of the house. There must be a door or window open somewhere, because along with the chill of the faint wind on his face, he could hear music and voices from the parties going on all up and down the street. Incredible. People were laughing and shouting, enjoying themselves even with this house in their midst. They were drinking and partying even though Blair Sandburg had been snatched out of his life today and was lost still, the prisoner of children who had already killed once. No one should be laughing anywhere, but that particular apathy, at least, Jim could understand. The world seldom cared anything for private grief.

This house was another matter altogether. Couldn't they feel it too? Even with his senses numbed, Jim felt this place like the sickening emptiness in the eye of a storm. He could practically hear it rattling, sub-aural vibrations that made the bones in his face ache. How could anyone ignore such a place? How could they possibly pretend it didn't matter?

He followed the sounds of that astonishing merriment down the hallway to the back of the house, around the great central staircase. The carvings on the banister depicted stylized creatures of some kind, serpents or dragons, perhaps, though the bloat of their bodies and the puzzlement of limbs reminded Jim of a nest of fat, dimpled white spiders he had once uncovered at the bottom of a woodpile. Beyond the staircase, a narrower hall led to a door that stood partially open. Jim moved silently down the hall and pulled the door inward, just enough to see around the threshhold and into the back yard.

Sandburg was alive. Jim knew because he could see him twisting in his bonds, his naked body white and defenseless in the dark of the ruined garden. Around him were people who flitted like shadows, whispering obscenities that came to Jim like the wind from a charnel house. The stench of blood was so thick Jim could taste it, coppery and vile, even across the length of the garden.

The very fabric of the universe seemed to rustle and shift around him. He listened to the terrified thunder of Blair's heartbeat, and saw the pupils of Blair's eyes dilated so widely the iris was only a sliver of blue. He could smell the lingering perfumes from a soap that wasn't Blair's, from a shampoo Blair had never used. He could smell the ashes smeared on Blair's body, and see the drops of sweat rolling down his sides and across the shaved places on his chest and belly. Blair's teeth were bared in fear, gleaming in the darkness, and his eyelashes were matted with tears.

The night and the place seethed and roiled, breaking across Jim's open senses. Darkness poured over him like an infestation, like those fat white spiders he had remembered, as though he'd stuck his fist into their nest instead of crushing them with a log. Soft spider legs scuttled endlessly. A thousand of them, a million, dragging their bloated, yielding bodies behind them. For a long instant Jim was held all but motionless, trembling under the onslaught, but then he heard Blair's voice. Blair was weeping, saying, "Please," and "No." He was begging for mercy, for help, and nothing else mattered to Jim, not all the hosts of hell. He held his weapon in both hands and forced himself to walk up that garden path, through the horror which enveloped him. He called to the woman who stood before Blair, identifying himself, telling her to step away. She snarled something in return, as defiant as Ross had been, and none of the others even turned their heads to see Jim.

Only Blair looked at him, his expression shattered with relief behind the mask of symbols painted on his brow and cheeks. But then the woman lifted something to Blair's mouth. Blair's expression changed terribly, and he shouted a warning Jim could not have heeded, even if it hadn't already been much too late.

"Jim, get away from here, Jim, please--"

The woman in front of Blair swept her hand down, and though Jim didn't see a knife, when Blair screamed, he thought she had stabbed him all the same. He could almost feel the steel in his own gut, and he was screaming, too. He was roaring at them all when creation ripped from seam to seam.

It had been so close all along. He'd felt it inside the house, stronger when he opened his senses. The relentless pressure of something elsebeating against the paper walls of this reality.

The walls gave way in a cataclysm of light and sound like the crack of doom at Trinity. It burned through Jim's closed eyelids and past the hands he had clamped over his ears, more terrible than death. Jim had always believed death would be a quiet, still place. If he had earned nothing else in his life, in his inmost heart he had somehow believed he deserved silence and soft darkness at the end of his road.

But he hadn't been able to save Sandburg. No wonder he wasn't granted the perfect stillness he had yearned for all his life. He didn't deserve it after all. Knowing how terribly he had failed, he didn't even want it anymore. Chief, he grieved. Blair. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

Then the light winked out, and the sound was hushed, and Jim found himself at long last in his soft, silent darkness. It was no comfort to him now. He had abandoned Blair, left his friend alone in the hands of enemies, and the darkness could never be thick enough to bring him peace.

* * *

Blair knew he was still drunk, but it didn't feel that way anymore. There was nothing fogged or muzzy about his thinking. His options were laid out clearly before him, as clear as the sight of Jim on his hands and knees and moaning like one of the damned. Seth was so close to him that if Jim would simply reach out his hand, he could grab Seth's leg and bring him down, but Jim didn't do it, not even when Seth sidled closer, a cautious hunter approaching a wounded lion, and put the gun to Jim's temple.

"You bastards," Blair groaned. Susan's fist was clenched in his hair, her blood-smeared face only inches from his own. "What you have done to him?" His voice broke. "What have you done?"

"We didn't do a thing." She smiled brutally. "You're the one who opened the door. I guess he didn't like what he saw on the other side."

"No," Blair whispered, knowing it was the truth all the same. The bloodstained rag covered the fingers of Susan's other hand, and she held it over the symbols painted on his breast, so close that one dangling end tickled flesh still raw from the razor.

"Now call for Ross," she said. "Just say his name, that's all you need to do."

"Never," Blair hissed at her. "I can't. I won't."

Seth grunted in laughter. He put his foot against Jim's shoulder and pushed him down, rolling him over onto his back. Jim sprawled beside the path, one arm flung wide, his face looking sightlessly toward the sky. He'd stopped crying out, only the rise of his chest telling Blair he was alive at all.

"Do it," Seth said, and lowered the muzzle. "Or I'll put the first bullet square in his gut."

"Don't hurt him!" Blair pleaded hoarsely. "If you hurt him, I'll never do what you want."

"I'm letting him off easy," Seth said. "He put a bullet through Ross's head, remember?"

Monica was still choking out grotesque syllables, and suddenly Eddie was at Susan's shoulder, regarding Blair with his old, earnest, not-particularly-bright expression.

"Ross was my roommate," he said. "He was my friend. Come on, man, he was a student in your class, and now you won't even say his name? What kind of a jerk are you, anyway?"

Blair couldn't see Jim anymore with Eddie standing in his way, but he heard a dull thud. "Next one's a bullet," Seth announced in a flat voice.

"Damn you!" Blair thrashed against his restraints. "Don't hurt him. Don't you dare hurt him."

"Last chance, Mr. Sandburg," Susan said. "Detective Ellison doesn't have any time left."

Blair closed his eyes. Somehow Susan must have known he had already surrendered, because she pressed the bloody cloth to his chest even before Blair said Ross's name. He said it loudly, almost shouting, so all of them would be sure to hear him. So they wouldn't hurt Jim anymore.

Everything seemed to move much more slowly this time. He felt the slide of the cloth over his shaved chest. The cloth was sticky and sodden with blood, smearing the letters, unwriting the words. Somewhere deep inside himself, far away in the secret places of his soul, he felt the loosening bonds, tethers snapping one by one as each letter disappeared. When the last tether gave way, he felt a crack as though his spine had been shattered, or his skull cracked open wide, and everything he was rushed out into the place worse than oblivion.

The dark city knew him this time. Hell, he wasn't a visitor anymore. This was practically home. He felt a stretch, an accommodation, and realizing that he was recognized in this No-when, No-where bent his soul. He howled without voice, and when he saw the bright thread, he lunged after it. It was a way out of here, and he did not care where it took him as long as it was away. He felt a terrific pressure as he journeyed, squeezing and reshaping him, and he realized suddenly the bright thread he held gleamed only with ichor and grue. It was as warm and slick in his grasp as an unraveled intestine.

Then the wrench came once more, his body jerking and twitching as he arrived home. The return of sensation was more difficult this time. He felt the pressure and weight of the blessed, ordinary world, but everything else was so strange he wondered if he were still dreaming. He lay huddled on his side upon wet stone or concrete, and he could hear the drip and rush of water, but nothing else. There was little light, and he saw it reflecting off the water onto the smooth, curving walls around him. He was sluggish and immeasurably tired -- no surprise, considering -- but he was surprised to be alone. Where had everyone else gone? Where was Jim? He opened his mouth to call, and felt something spilling out over his lips. Fat white worms which splatted on the hard surface under his cheek.

Maggots. His mouth was full of maggots.

Son of a bitch, Blair thought, beyond horror, beyond any emotion at all. They'd actually done it.

He wrenched himself free of Ross's corpse and tumbled backward, Alice falling down the rabbit hole and straight to hell, but it had turned out there were far worse places to be. The dark city welcomed him, but he continued to fall, faster and faster, until the leather shackles on his wrists stopped his descent with a jerk that all but dislocated his shoulders. His eyes were open. His mouth was open, and he was screaming. He wondered if he'd been screaming all along. Susan was trying to say something to him, but he couldn't hear her over his own shrieks. He couldn't stop, even though his throat was hurting, not even when Susan took his head in her hands and shook him, her bloody and exhilarated face only inches from his own. Not even when she slapped him, backhand, forehand, backhand, again and again until Eddie grabbed her arm to stop her. She shook herself free angrily, but stepped away, and at last Blair saw Jim. He was still sprawled beside the garden path, sightless eyes staring up at the heavens. Blair's cries stopped. The band was still playing "Tequila."

Eddie turned to Blair, smiling through the mask of drying blood on his face. "You're doing great, man. Now you just need to go one more time to make it stick."

Blair stared at him. He tried to swallow. His throat muscles were aching, and the back of his throat felt raw. "Give me some water," he whispered.

"Soon," Eddie promised. "Just do this one last thing for us, Mr. Sandburg, and you can have all the water you want."

"Why are you doing this to me?" Blair was trembling violently, though he couldn't feel the cold night air anymore. All he felt was a sickness that went as deep as his soul.

"You already know why." Susan drew near him again, still holding the bloody rag. "Now ask Ross to come back. Say his name one more time."

"No."

Seth drew back his foot and kicked Jim so hard Jim's body rolled slightly before settling back. The sound of that blow was worse than the patter of maggots on stone.

"You're going to kill him anyway," Blair said, and felt the tears running down his cheeks. Had he been crying all along?

"No we won't. I promise." Eddie smiled, utterly sincere. "Why would we? Once it's finished, you'll tell him everything's cool. I dunno if you'll keep riding around with him is the only thing. Ross hates cops." Eddie turned and looked down at Jim. "It may not matter. Who knows how much of a cop he'll be after tonight anyway?"

"Just one more time. Say Ross's name, Mr. Sandburg." Susan raised the bloody rag to his face. "I know you're tired. I know you're scared. But you want to help Jim, don't you? That's what friends do. They help each other out, just like we're helping Ross." The rag was so close Blair could smell the blood. "So call him, before I tell Seth to blow Detective Ellison's brains out."

They would kill Jim no matter what he did, Blair knew that, and facing the reality of it gave him a peculiar clarity of vision. He forgot the pain in his hanging body, he forgot his terror and rage, and he thought about the beginning of all this. Ross hadn't intended to die, after all. He had wanted the book and he had wanted Blair, too, but not for this. Or perhaps the beginning was even older. Perhaps it had begun the first time David Lash had seen him across the conference table in Major Crime nearly three years ago. Seen him, and seen what he was. Ross had seen the same thing. And Professor Nagle.

And Incacha.

No wonder they had poured a bottle of wine down his throat, Blair thought, wonderingly. They had wanted him to be too drunk to realize the truth. And you know something? It had almost worked.

"C'mon, Ross," he snarled, and the rasp in his voice made it sound like a growl. "I'm ready. Come on back if you can."

Caught off guard, Susan flinched, but then she grinned in triumph and touched the rag to his forehead. At the same time good old Eddie, who was not so dumb after all, screamed at her, "No, wait!"

It was already too late. Susan swept the stinking rag across his face, and this time Blair didn't wait for the raveling tethers of his soul to snap. He broke them himself and was swept away. The dark city was terrible, but it knew him. And if he wanted to, he could know it as well. He was aware of that false, glittering thread close at hand but he pushed it from himself, and it shriveled like gossamer on the wind. Just like he'd thought. It turned out Ross didn't have the power to come here alone, alive or dead. Even with the help of his friends, with the aid of Blair's voice speaking his name, he could do nothing more than lay a trail and hope Blair would follow.

Fat chance, bub, Blair thought, and it was an amazing and terrible thing that though he could not scream here, he could laugh. The city moved with his laughter, its spires and turrets shifting violently under the starless sky. It wasn't a city. It wasn't even death. It was only the other side of the light, and as far as Blair was concerned, whatever gods ruled here could rule in peace. You stay on your side of town, he said, laughing again. So much had happened around him, to him, because of him, simply because he had the power to laugh in the darkness. What kind of a way to run a universe was that, anyway? The black towers swayed overhead as he laughed again, and the streets rippled like swells in the ocean.

You stay on your side of town, and from now on, I promise I'll stay on mine.

* * *

Life was a swift kick in the ribs. There was some justice in that, Jim thought, dimly amused. Sounded like his father's kind of philosophy. The pain in his side made him realize he was breathing. He couldn't see and he couldn't hear, but he knew he was breathing because every indrawn breath made the bruised bones and muscles in his right side ache. The pain was dull and far away, as if his sense of touch was almost gone as well. Not all the way. He could still feel pain, even if it was hard to be particularly grateful for that one small favor. He tried to figure out what had happened to him, but the lingering shock made it hard to concentrate. He must have blown a fuse or two, like Sandburg would say. Overloaded the circuits. He just needed to be calm, concentrate, and it would all come back to him.

Tough to be calm when he didn't know where he was or what was happening to him. Next to impossible when he didn't know where Blair was either, but when he thought about it, he felt a debilitating crush of panic, and that couldn't help either one of them. He put aside his fear and concentrated instead on the only thing he could measure in his current state. He breathed in deeply, the ache in his side building and building until he could stand it no longer and had to let it out. Then again, just as slow and measured, and again, and it seemed to him that his experience of the pain was slowly beginning to change. He could feel edges and angles, and more intangibly, the certainty this pain was his own. Lousy way to regain his sense of self, fighting for the right to claim his own agony, but it was all he had going for him right now. He kept on, a dozen breaths, and he thought perhaps he could distinguish the outlines of his own body, and knew he was lying awkwardly, his legs bent one way, his hips another. Another breath, and another, and he began to wonder if he had enough control to straighten his legs and relieve some of the pressure on his back.

Before he could try, someone kicked him again. Nothing metaphorical about that, goddammit, that was someone kicking him in the side. He wanted to cry out, but the ferocity of the blow had driven the air from his lungs, and he gasped in breathless silence, half suffocating, until the worst had faded and he could draw normal breaths again. Shit, that hurt. A little higher up, a kick like that would have smashed a rib.

More was coming back to him. He could feel dirt and rocks under him, and he thought he could straighten his legs if he tried, but with unknown enemies around him, perhaps it would be better to continue to lie here like one of the dead until he was able to defend himself. Sight and hearing were sure to come back soon. Very soon, he hoped. He was still not sure what was happening around him, but he was dreadfully certain, in a part of his mind he could not pay attention to now, that neither he nor Blair had much time left.

Then he felt the earth begin to shift and move under his back. The vibrations began in a deep place, and they moved through the ground in lateral waves. Jim felt dirt and stone impossibly stretched and compressed, as though the earth itself had become a great worm slithering across the landscape, and he knew what was coming next. He rolled onto his side, moving instictively, no time to think about who or what was around him. He drew his knees up, shouting a warning to Blair he felt vibrating against his larynx but could not hear, and covered his head with his arms. The next wave was already welling up, slower and more violent, the ground shuddering, crushed upward in ragged waves, the earth itself moving like swells in the ocean. Jim sprawled flat, clutching helplessly at the ground. It went on forever, the end of the world. Something hit his back, and something else caught him on the side of the head. He realized belatedly he still had his sense of smell, because he could smell the heat of stone and earth stressed beyond all endurance, and he could smell a broken gas line, and he could smell Blair Sandburg, bloody, sweaty and terrified, and somewhere very close.

The earth was still trembling as Jim forced himself to his hands and knees and crawled toward him. The path was littered with debris, and before he got to Blair he found a warm, bleeding body in his way. He shoved it aside and kept going. His hands touched twisted metal, and he felt a whisper of movement. He eased himself around a cage of broken iron and finally closed his hand around the warm, naked heel of Blair's left foot. Jim shook, weak with relief, and because he could not even hear himself asking Blair if he was all right, far less hear Blair's answer, he lowered his head and pressed his cheek to the top of Blair's foot, staying there for long moments until he was reassured by the thunder of Blair's pulse, steady and strong and wholly alive against the bones of Jim's face.

Chapter 17

Well, if nothing else, that cover band had finally shut up. The stars were visible now, too. It was a clear, cold night, and there was no moon, just stars. Thousands upon thousands of them, glittering like a king's ransom on a field of ebony. So cold and beautiful that gazing skyward for too long made Blair feel like crying. He finally had to close his eyes, even though he knew he would never see stars like this again in Cascade.

It seemed like a night like this should be silent, too, but it wasn't. People were shouting in the near distance all around him. "Are you OK? Are you OK?" Over and over again, different voices, different answers. Every car alarm in the city seemed to be wailing. People were sobbing and yelling, and someone bellowed in a voice like a bullhorn, "Don't strike a match! I smell gas! Nobody strike a match!"

Good thinking.Blair blinked his eyes open again. Tears blurred his view of the stars, making them dance in the heavens. The spaces in between were infinitely empty and dark. He was shaking so violently he could hear the hooks and clasps rattling against the iron trellis. A rose cane was twisted in his hair, and it pricked his cheek every time he tried to move his head. Another long cane was trapped under his back. He'd be picking thorns out his butt for days after this. Or Jim would be. Poor Jim. One of those things that had definitely never been in the job description.

Blair didn't know where Jim was. He didn't even know if Jim was still alive, and he shook his head violently, wanting to feel thorns drag across his cheek this time. The sharp, contained bite of pain seemed to clear his head, and he needed that clarity, because over the cacophony of all the other sounds, he could hear someone moving in the darkness of the garden. Whoever it was hadn't answered when Blair called, "Jim, are you there? Jim, please," and Jim would have answered him. If there was anyway he could, Jim would have found a way to answer.

So Blair needed to be very cool and level headed, because it would be more than unfair, it would be brutally stupid to have survived this long only to have Susan or one of her cronies bash his head in with a brick. He didn't doubt they would do it. They seemed all too willing to settle for simple revenge if that was all they could get. He had to ignore the despairing little voice whispering from somewhere deep down inside that if Jim was already dead, then Blair didn't really much care whether they brought on that brick or not.

Stop it. He jerked his head again, feeling the thorns across his cheek. Jim would kick his butt for thinking like that. Besides, since Jim wasn't answering him, that meant Jim needed help. So Blair had to figure out a way to get out of this and help him. He stretched his fingers, feeling for the clamps on the shackles. One leg of the trellis had buckled during the quake, and the whole structure had crumpled to the ground as it fell, taking Blair with it. He had a distant recollection of falling, but it seemed like something he had watched happening to someone else, a very long way away. He had managed to shake one ankle loose after the fall, the clamps on the shackle slipping over the end of a broken iron bar, but his bad ankle was still hooked to another leg of the trellis. He tried to scoot toward the top arch, gritting his teeth as the thorns dug into his back. If he could just reach the bars where the shackles were hooked, he thought he should to be able to work himself free. In theory, anyway.

But the rusted iron of the trellis had been bent by the fall, and he couldn't find the end of the clamps. He twisted his head around, trying to see in the darkness. The tangle of metal looked impenetrable, and the other person in the garden was getting very close. He could hear the rustle of dead leaves, and then a muffled thump, as though something soft and heavy had been pushed aside. Blair thrashed, kicking out in a futile effort to push himself up and back so he could reach the clasps, and then the trellis shook, and a hand closed on his heel.

Blair went perfectly still. It was Jim. It had to be Jim. He knew it for certain as soon as the gentle grip on his heel slid around to cradle the arch of his foot. "Jim," he whispered, his voice cracking, trying to raise his head to see. "Jim, are you all right?"

As if in answer, Jim laid his head upon Blair's foot, and Blair felt as though his heart would burst. His head fell back, and he looked up at the stars, thinking he would surely weep in sheer relief. The tears didn't come, but he lay quietly, feeling the muscles in Jim's jaw working, pressed hard to the flesh at the top of Blair's foot. Jim still hadn't spoken. Maybe he felt like Blair did, too shell shocked and lost to cope with anything except the wonder of not being dead after all.

Or worse than dead. Blair felt a memory of soft, fat bodies tumbling over his lips and a violent spasm shuddered through him, his back arching helplessly, his hands jerking against the shackles. Jim raised his head at once, his hand sliding carefully up Blair's calf. "Blair," he said, speaking out loud at last, but there was something odd about his voice. The inflection was flat, and he was speaking just a little too loudly.

"I'm all right," Blair said quickly. His own voice didn't sound like his usual self either. "I'm all right. Just, if you could get me out of this, man. The thorns are scratching me to pieces." The way his voice was rising, he was starting to sound hysterical. He took a deep, gulping breath, trying to calm down. "Are you OK, Jim? When you fell like that -- I mean, I was afraid --"

Jim sat up, moving his hands to Blair's other ankle. His touch became even more gentle, cupping his swollen ankle through the soft leather of the shackle with one hand while he felt for the clasp that fasted to the trellis with the other. Blair heard the click when he found it, and then Jim carefully shifted his foot away from the thorns and broken iron. "Blair," he finally said, in that loud, flat voice. "I can't see you."

"Jim," Blair breathed. Then he yanked furiously at his bound hands, half-maddened at not being able to reach out to Jim. Jim flinched, startled by the violence of his movement, and Blair instantly went still again. "OK," Blair said, "OK, it's just shock or something, that's all it is, man, I'm sure of it. You just need to relax, we both do, and everything will come back."

Jim sat up and spread his hand across Blair's chest, coming to rest over his heart. He laid the fingers of his other hand lightly over Blair's moving lips, and Blair could feel his slim fingers trembling. "Blair," he said, and suddenly that flat voice spoke with dreadful significance. "I can't hear."

"Oh--" Blair's moan felt as though it had been wrenched from his chest. "Oh, Jim." Blair yanked again at his shackled wrists, uselessly. "Jim, you never should have been here. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. I never should have let things go so far. I should have found a way to stop it."

Jim cocked his head, blind eyes gazing down at Blair. All Blair could see of his face was the outline of his head, and a faint white glint of his unseeing eyes. Jim brought his other hand up and felt gently across Blair's face. He found the rose branch caught in his hair and carefully pulled it free, separating one strand of hair at a time until he could push the cane away. His fingers traced the scratches that ran from Blair's temple to cheek, then cupped Blair's face in both hands. "Are you all right?" he asked in that loud, uninflected voice.

Blair nodded quickly, so Jim could feel it, and spoke out loud anyway. "I'm OK, Jim. I'm fine." He pulled deliberately and slowly at his pinned wrists. "Do you think you can get me out of this?" His voice was shaking, and he was sick with shock and fear. He desperately wanted to believe this was only temporary, that Jim's senses would come back like they always had before. But nothing like this had ever happened to either one of them. Until tonight, Blair had never even imagined such a thing could happen. If he had any choice in the matter, he probably wouldn't believe it now. He'd been drunk and scared and half hysterical, and then in the middle of everything, Mount St. Helens had blown or something. It would be enough to make anyone imagine crazy things.

Nobody's imagination had done this to Jim, though. Blair gasped, taking a hitching breath. Jim felt it at once, and he patted the side of Blair's face that wasn't scratched with thorns, before running both hands up Blair's arms and closing them carefully around his shackled wrists. "Need to get these off," Jim announced flatly.

Blair nodded again. "Yeah, good idea, Jim. I've had about enough of 'em. No more bondage fantasies for me, man." He grinned, but the smile was a dreadfully fragile one. He could feel the corners of his mouth trembling. Jim just bowed his head a little, turning his face. Blair could feel the heel of Jim's hand resting lightly against his fingers as he struggled with the hasps and the rusted iron. All the noise and chaos of catastrophe still filled the night air, growing louder as the minutes passed. Blair could hear the scream of emergency sirens. The crackle and static of police radio filled the air, and once he saw a flash of a blue and red light illuminate a dark corner of the garden. The stone walls which had surrounded the garden were rubble. Looked like the big one had hit, and he wished suddenly and a little absurdly that he could call Naomi. She'd be worried when she heard the news.

Jim grunted in frustration. His hand slipped, the hasps clanking against the iron. "Hey, Jim," Blair said, "It's OK, you'll get it." It didn't matter Jim couldn't hear him. This was temporary, anyway. Shock. It would wear off. It had to wear off.

"Sorry," Jim said carefully, and touched Blair's face again, as if reassuring himself of Blair's presence. "Sorry I'm so clumsy."

He put his fingers over Blair's lips for a moment, and Blair said, "It's OK. No rush. You're doing great." He didn't suppose Jim could really tell what he was saying just from the movement of his lips, but probably the fact he was talking at all was enough for Jim right now. He wondered if Jim's sense of touch had been affected as well as his hearing and sight, and he had to resist the urge to yank on his tethered hands again. Jim was doing the best he could; there was no way to hurry things. It was maddening to be so alone in the midst of so many people, though. Just that extra touch of frustration that made everything unbearable. If the catastrophe was as bad as it sounded, it could be hours before help would arrive, before he could get Jim to a hospital. Hours longer before Jim could expect treatment. Blair had spent enough time in ER's during the best of times. In the wake of a disaster like this, it might be days. "Please, Jim," he groaned, his frustration finding voice. "I'm worried about you. Please try to get me out of this so I can help you."

Jim shifted beside him, and then carefully straightened up. He wrapped one hand around Blair's right hand, as if to keep track of where he was, and then felt along the ground on the other side of Blair, reaching up to gently pat Blair's ribs, then moving over him. He straddled Blair's chest, placing his knee with care, then reached over Blair's head once more to twist and pull at the hardware tangled in the crumpled iron. Suddenly Jim sighed out loud, and then his hand closed around the leather of the shackles themselves. "Not thinking too clearly, am I, Sandburg?" he demanded loudly, and he almost laughed, a flat, harsh sound. "I'll have you out of here in a minute." Jim fumbled with the buckles that held the leather band around his wrist, and Blair felt a slow yielding and then night air suddenly cold across the sweaty band on his arm where the leather had encircled his wrist for so long.

Blair groaned in relief, and immediately stretched his fingers for Jim's hand, clasping it hard. "Thanks, man," he whispered intently. "Everything's going to be all right. I know it. I know it."

Jim loomed over him, a darker shadow against the star-splashed heavens. He took Blair's forearm in his hands and rubbed his wrist briskly. "It's gonna be OK," Blair said again, more urgently. It seemed important to tell Jim so even if Jim couldn't hear him. "You're going to be OK."

Jim dropped his hand to Blair's shoulder. "Careful," he said loudly. "It will probably hurt."

Blair wasn't sure what Jim meant until he tried to bring his arm down, and then, aw, shit, did it ever hurt. Muscles screamed in his shoulder and down his side. The joint of his shoulder felt as though it was rotating through ground glass. "Easy," Jim said as Blair tried to curl onto his side. His strong fingers found and pressed into the pain, firm and certain. The pressure made Blair hiss through gritted teeth, but as Jim continued massaging his shoulder for a moment more, working his way along the shoulder almost as far as his neck, and then down over the biceps, the intensity began to fade. Blair felt only a tingling in his fingertips and a dull heat in the ball of his shoulder as Jim finally took Blair's hand in both of his own, and brought it down to lay his arm across his shaved chest. "Be sore for a few days," Jim said. He could have been talking about Blair straining his shoulder at yoga, save for that dreadful flat tone of voice.

"Thanks," Blair said, and when Jim laid his fingers over his lips, he said it again. "Thanks, Jim. I think I'll live." A little too close for comfort, that crack, and a shiver ran down his spine. He felt as though he were following a very narrow trail through a mental minefield. As long as he kept his thoughts focussed on the path straight ahead, he would be able to get through the next few hours of his life. Any straying off the path, though, an incautious thought or two about what had just happened here, for instance, and everything would blow up in his face. And he simply couldn't let that happen. Not while Jim needed him.

Jim let his fingers slip down over Blair's chin, and he laid his palm over Blair's throat, as though he could understand what Blair was saying by feeling vibrations in his larynx. Blair swallowed hard and then said, "I'm all right, Jim. They didn't do anything permanent." Not to me at any rate, he realized immediately, and he raised his free hand, fingertips still trembling a little, and touched Jim's lips, and then his right ear. He had to strain to reach that high. "It will all come back, Jim. I'm sure it will."

Jim nodded as if he understood. "Have you out of here soon," he announced, and ran his hands up Blair's still-pinioned arm until he found the cuff around that wrist. Blair could feel the tug and push as Jim tried to work the strap back through the buckle, and then suddenly there was someone above Jim, blotting out the stars.

Blair screamed to Jim, which did no good at all, and then grabbed his jacket and tried yank him down out of the way. Jim huffed in surprise and ducked, but it was too late. Susan missed Jim's head with the broken paving stone in her hand, but she struck him across his shoulder so violently Jim collapsed over Blair with a grunt of agony. Before Susan could raise her arm for a second blow, he had rolled to the side and was trying to get his feet under himself, staggering on the uneven ground. "No!" Blair shouted, reaching out frantically with his free hand. "Susan, it's all over. Leave him alone."

Susan didn't speak. In the darkness, Blair couldn't see how badly she was hurt, but he could hear how her breaths rattled and wheezed. He should have heard her sneaking up on them, but he'd been so focussed on Jim he had completely missed it. Or so used to depending on Jim to keep track of their surroundings that he kept on doing it even when Jim was deaf and blind. "Susan," he screamed, "Ross didn't want this! It's over."

If she heard him, she gave no sign of it, flinging the heavy stone at Jim as hard as she could before he had managed to make it to his feet. She was too close for Jim to duck even if he'd been able to see the missile was coming. It caught him high in the chest, spinning him back and to the ground. "Dammit, Susan," Blair panted, his half-numbed fingers scrabbling uselessly against the shackles that still bound him. "I'm the one who ruined everything, not Jim. It's my fault you'll never see Ross again, not his."

"I know," Susan rasped in a voice like death, and she dropped down beside him. Her face was black with blood, and fresh drops pattered down on Blair from a terrible wound in her side. She reached into her bloody shirt pocket and produced something small and rectangular that gleamed in the starlight. "I know it's all your fault," she hissed, blood bubbling from her lips, and slashed down with the razor. Blair jerked as far back as he could, trying grab her wrist with his free hand. For a moment he had her, but she snarled like an animal and clouted the side of his face with her left hand. In the shock of the blow she was able to wrench out of Blair's grasp and slash down again, going for his throat. Blair flung his forearm over his neck and felt streamers of fire trickling over his arm as she struck at him again. He could hear himself shouting, but people were shouting and crying out everywhere. One more frightened, hurt voice meant nothing to anyone. The only one who cared might never hear him again. It was as though the dark city were here after all, as if Blair had brought it back with him when he fell, and thinking about that as he fought for his life made him want to throw his arm wide and just let Susan cut his throat after all , if it meant so much godammed much to her.

Then Jim was there again, swaying on his feet, making a sound in his throat like he wanted to scream and just didn't have the energy for it right now. Susan turned, almost rising, and swung the razor in a wide arc. Blair knew she'd cut him, because he heard the sound Jim made when she did it, and it was her last mistake. Jim knew where she was now. He caught her with both hands, dragging her away from Blair. In the starlight everything was only silhouettes and shadows. Jim did nothing but shake her, once, twice, as quick and sharp as a terrier killing a rat. After he dropped her, she didn't move again.

"Blair," he said, and fell to his knees. He crawled forward, reaching out with one hand for him. "Chief."
"I'm here," Blair said. He was just out of reach. "Jim, I'm here, I'm all right, I'm right here." Jim's grasping fingers just missed his, and with a groan of frustration, Blair stretched his arm over his head, once more trying to free himself. His fingers were slippery with blood, and they skittered uselessly over the slick leather. "Jim, I'm here," he gasped again, reaching once more for Jim, and this time Jim's outstretched fingers finally touched his own. Jim moaned and crawled over Blair, wrapping himself around him. His breaths were ragged and hot against Blair's shoulder, and for long moments, Jim simply held him. Blair patted his back awkwardly once or twice, but he didn't seem to have any strength left, and his arm finally fell to his side. At that Jim drew himself up, touched Blair's face and said in that loud, flat voice, "How bad?"

Blair shook his head. "I'm all right. Jim, she hurt you. Please, you've got to let me see."

Jim asked, practically, "Are there any more of them?"

Blair shrugged hard so Jim could feel it. The gesture hurt his shoulders. "I don't know, man." He shook his head and shrugged again. "It's too dark, I don't know." Then a thought came to him. He raised his hand and touched Jim's nose. "How's your sense of smell? You can probably smell if there's anyone still here, right?" When he dropped his hand, there was a smear of his blood on Jim's face.

Jim got it. He nodded and went still. His breaths became more shallow and slow for a few moments, and then he shook his head. "Everyone around us is dead," he said flatly. He ran his hands over Blair, touching his face carefully, fingers gentle over his throat, across his chest. When he found the cuts on Blair's forearm he drew his breath in hard and sat up straighter, more affected by those wounds than by the dead students in the garden. "We need to stop the bleeding," he said. He ran his hand up Blair's other arm, found the shackle, and this time finally worked the leather strip back through the buckle. They both groaned in relief, and suddenly, and quite insanely, it all seemed a little silly to Blair. He brought his arm down, not waiting for Jim to help him, and trying not to laugh out loud. He propped his elbow under himself, hissing and swearing at the pain. There had been times tonight when he had thought he would spend the rest of his life staked out on that damned trellis. "Lie still," Jim commanded, acting in charge even in a moment like this. "Don't try to sit up."

"No, man, you don't understand." Blair reached back and finally grabbed the twisted rose cane that had been digging into his back all along. He pushed it aside and then fell back with a gasp. "You don't know how good that feels." He was still on the verge of laugher and he breathed hard through his nose, trying to control it. Above him, Jim shrugged his coat off his shoulders and pulled off his sweater and the T-shirt underneath as well. The white cotton gleamed in the starlight, save for the darkness on one side. "Jim," Blair said, laugher disappearing at the sight of blood. There, low on his side, just above his hip was a long curving cut shaped like a crescent moon. "Jim," he said again, miserably, and reached out to touch the wound, shivering as he tried to feel how deep it was. Jim caught his fingers and brought them down.

"It's not bad," he said. He laid Blair's arm down across Blair's chest, then folded the T-shirt and wrapped it tightly around Blair's forearm. "Joel's here," he said. "Out on the street. He can help us. Rest for a minute and catch your breath, then we'll go get him." He raised Blair's shoulders, gently rolling him to his side and out from under the wreckage of the trellis, then laying his coat upon the ground for Blair before easing him down again. The lining was warm from Jim's body, and Blair hadn't realized until that moment how cold he really was. Jim crouched beside him, holding the sweater for him. "Can you get this on?"

Blair reached up, his fingers all pins and needles, grasped Jim's forearm instead of the sweater and tugged him down. Jim curled obediently beside him on the cold ground, and didn't resist when Blair awkwardly lifted the sweater and draped it over both of them as best as he could. He only laid his arm over Blair's chest, reached up to cradle his cheek, and when slow tears of shock and exhaustion finally began to trickle down Blair's face, Jim wiped them away with his fingertips.

Chapter 18

He held Blair cradled in his arms, and tried to figure out how bad things really were. Pretty damned bad would be his guess. He had been in Limon during the '91 quake, and could remember watching in amazement as every bottle and glass in the hotel bar walked their way to the end of the shelves and smashed on the floor. When he and his buddies had finally been able to stagger outside, they'd found half the buildings on the street had walked off their foundations and lay tumbled and smashed as well.

This one seemed just as bad. Hard to be certain of anything while his senses were in this state, but he didn't think he was wrong about the severity of the earthquake. There were plenty of clues even without the evidence of his eyes and ears -- like the fate of everyone else in the garden, for instance. They were all dead, and that last furious, vicious beast wouldn't have lived much longer herself. Jim had smelled arterial blood and exposed lung tissue when he dragged her off Sandburg. Something had punched them all to shreds, every last one of Blair's kidnappers.

It must have been part of the house coming down, or maybe the entire building shaking itself to pieces in a hail of falling tiles and masonry, broken glass and collapsed beams. What else could have done so much damage? He had felt debris in his path when he first crawled to Blair. Amazing good luck he and Sandburg had both been spared.

Amazing luck? Try 'unbelievable' or just go ahead and call it an old testament miracle the two of them had survived a catastrophe which had killed everyone around them. 'Miracle' probably wasn't quite right, but if there was a word for the dark underside of miracles and wonders, Jim didn't know what it was, and didn't really even want to think about it. Besides, it didn't matter what he or anyone else called what had happened here. The facts were an earthquake had shaken the house down and made a hell of a bloody mess. Probably a lot of houses had come down in this old neighborhood. That would explain why Joel wasn't here yet. He must be helping other victims, trying to coordinate emergency rescue efforts. Probably wouldn't even be able to get through the wreckage of the collapsed house without heavy equipment. Hell, if the house was the pile of rubble Jim suspected it was, then poor Joel probably thought he and Sandburg were both gonners. If only there were some way to signal to him, let Joel know they were here, that they were alive and needed help.

His cell phone. Of course. It was a measure of how badly this had him rattled, Jim thought ruefully, that it had taken him this long to think of something so obvious.

He pulled Blair closer with one arm, releasing him with the other to reach back for his phone. There it was. Another little miracle that he hadn't dropped it. He dragged it out of his pocket, and by that time Blair had figured out what he was doing. His broad hand closed over Jim's fingers and took the phone. Jim felt vibrations in Blair's chest as Blair spoke, and then Blair pressed the phone back into Jim's hand. That was fast, especially for Sandburg. Too fast. "Did you get through?" he asked Blair, and reached up to touch his face. Blair was shaking his head.

Damn. The destruction must be even more widespread than he feared, or perhaps he'd simply broken the phone when he had fallen. They had to try and get to Joel, then, if Joel couldn't get to them. "How do you feel?" he asked Blair, spacing his words with exaggerated care, thinking he probably sounded like an idiot. "Can you put any weight on that ankle? Help us get out to the street? Find Joel?" His hand still rested on Blair's face, his fingers over his mouth, his palm curved under his jaw.

Blair spoke, shaking his head at the same time. No.

"Why not?" Jim demanded in frustration. Blair needed to see a doctor. Those cuts on his forearm were bad enough. No telling how serious his other injuries might be.

Blair's chest contracted sharply, and Jim felt a huff of air blow past his fingers resting over Blair's lips. It took him a moment more to realize Blair was laughing at him. Yeah, yeah, all right, Sandburg. So they didn't have a system worked out for answering "why" questions yet. It was all right. This was temporary. His senses would come back. He could imagine what Blair was probably saying to him now. That all he needed to do was stay calm, relax and concentrate, and everything would all be all right. It would all come back to him.

Jim left his hand resting on Blair's face, trying somehow to communicate he was calm, that he trusted Blair absolutely. A few new tears had fallen when Blair laughed, running through the blood and ash smeared from temple to chin. Jim laid the side of his hand across Blair's cheek, then tried gently to tuck Blair's face against his neck and shoulder, but for the first time Blair pulled back, almost flinching. Jim held very still for a moment, then touched Blair's chest. He felt the smooth wrongness of his shaved flesh and the gritty residue of dirt and blood, and once again Blair flinched. He even raised his hand and tried to push Jim's hand aside.

"No," Jim said out loud. He caught Blair's hand, lacing his fingers through Blair's and holding on tight. He remembered Blair crying out just before the cataclysm that had overwhelmed his senses. He remembered Blair screaming at him to get away, his face twisted in an agony of shame and terror. "No," Jim said again. He cradled the back of Blair's head, fingers slipping deeply into locks that were too soft and smooth against his hand. "No matter what they did, Sandburg. No matter what happened."

He felt Blair gasp. He didn't relax against Jim. He was talking a mile a minute, his breath hot and foul with wine and vomit, the hand that lay against Jim's side twitching and jerking, helplessly punctuating the words Jim couldn't hear. He pulled Blair's hand to himself, laying it flat against the center of his own chest, over his heart, and held it there until Blair no longer thrummed with angry, despairing words. Then he turned both their hands and laid them over Blair's chest. Blair's body shook with tension, but he didn't try to pull away from Jim again.

With one hand still on Blair's chest, the other carefully supporting Blair's head, Jim turned his face and kissed Blair's temple. He could taste sweat and blood and ashes, but beneath the filthy residue his captors had left on his body, he was still Blair Sandburg. Still the man Jim was doomed to follow to the ends of the earth. Jim had known the truth for a couple of years, and the first shock of surprise had long since faded into bemused resignation. It usually seemed to be enough for Sandburg, but right now it wasn't enough for Jim. Not when there was so much Blair needed that Jim couldn't give him. Clothes and medical attention, just for a start. A long hot shower, a soft bed. A glass of water and a couple of aspirin. Someone to talk to, someone to hear what he was saying. Even a blanket would be something. Jim had nothing to give him but the clothes off his back and the overwhelming, helpless truth of his devotion. That, at least, Blair would take from him, even if he wouldn't put the sweater on, and kept trying to wrap it over both of them. Wasn't like he intended to give Sandburg a choice in the matter, anyway. No more than Blair had ever given one to him.

He turned his head after the kiss, nuzzling his temple against Blair's. He felt Blair gasp harshly again, but this time when Blair released it, he began to let the tension go as well. His body slowly relaxed against Jim's, rolling closer when Jim urged him to. When Blair's forehead was tucked against Jim's neck, their clasped hands trapped between their bodies, he felt Blair sigh, and then begin to talk again. His hand jerked fitfully, but only because he couldn't talk without his hands, not because he was trying to get away. At length he did pull his hand out of Jim's grasp, but he reached up at once to lay his hand over Jim's ear, tracing the shell of his ear with his fingertips, and then tapping Jim's head very gently with two fingertips.

He didn't know what Blair was trying to tell him. Just reassurance, maybe, that his deafness was temporary. Or maybe he wanted Jim to concentrate, or to relax, or meditate or chant or who knew what. Even though he didn't know what Blair was saying, he thought he had the gist of it all the same, and he was telling the truth when he said, "I know," out loud. He caught Blair's hand and once more brought it down between them, checking that his T-shirt was still wrapped tightly around Blair's forearm. He couldn't feel blood seeping through the makeshift bandages, and that was one more small miracle for them. It could have been much worse.

Blair was still talking, rattling on undaunted by Jim's inability to hear him. Jim could feel the vibrations of his vocal chords, and the faint puffs of breath against his chest as Blair expressed himself more emphatically. He had taken hold of Jim's hand and brought it against his own chest, the way Jim had laid it there himself a few moments ago. He bore down gently, pressing Jim's hand flat against the denuded skin, and though it could not do either one of them any good, Jim remembered finding the crystalline salts of Blair's tears in the parking garage. Blair had been their captive for hours. While Jim had been searching for him in vain barely a quarter of a mile away, Blair had been attacked by his own students, abducted and brutalized. They had laid their dark, blood-stained hands on the bright man Jim loved, and they had made him weep, made him ashamed, made him afraid. Stripped him and used his body as a canvas. Jim had hardly been able to look at those symbols scrawled on a whiteboard, and they had drawn them on Blair's flesh with blood. Then staked him out like a kid in a tiger trap.

Jim felt his own blood pounding hot and furious at his temples, and his blindness turned red with anger. His fear enriched and deepened the rage, because there had been a tiger in the garden tonight, and the barest glimpse had shattered Jim's senses and broken the earth beneath their feet. If such things were possible, then nothing was beyond the pale, and Jim didn't know if there could be any place for him in a universe like that.

(How could he ever protect Blair from a universe like that?)

Blair was tugging at his hand again, shifting against Jim although he stayed curled close, keeping up a steady stream of words Jim felt puffing warmly against his chest. He brought Jim's hand down and gently urged Jim to wrap his hand around Blair's opposite wrist. Jim's palm settled over the points of Blair's wrist, and his fingers curled around instinctively to feel Blair's pulse. The anger and fear didn't go away all at once, but somehow as he held Blair's wrist that way, they became easier to bear. The leather of the shackles had rubbed Blair's flesh very smooth in a wide band, and the soft skin on the inside of his arm was slightly sticky with dried sweat. Blair turned his hand in Jim's grasp, and Jim felt the flex of muscles and the press of Blair's pulse, steady and strong past bone and tendon.

Then Blair moved Jim's hand once more, pulling it up and laying Jim's palm over his throat. Jim felt the thrum in Blair's voice box against his palm, and though he still thought he understood Blair's intent without his voice, he yearned to hear the words themselves. Every last one of them, Blair's usual chaotic mix of breathtaking insights and utter nonsense as his thoughts tumbled out too quickly for the words to keep up. All he had was this, Blair lying exhausted beside him on the hard ground, talking on in silence because he, too, could not really believe Jim couldn't hear him. The buzz of his vocal chords hummed through Jim's palm, and when Jim curled his fingers to place his fingertips in the soft hollow beneath the hinge of Blair's jaw, he felt Blair's pulse once more, steadier and more sure even than his indefatigable voice. Blair let Jim's hand rest there for a long moment, but then he took Jim's wrist again and dragged his hand down to set the heel of Jim's hand squarely over his heart. Hear this, Blair was telling him. It didn't matter that Jim was deaf. Blair believed Jim could listen to the beat of his life all the same.

It couldn't possibly be that easy. Maybe it wasn't, but there weren't many other instructions Jim could understand right now. He knew how frantic and helpless Blair must feel. Jim felt the same way himself, unable even to get Blair off this cold broken ground. It would help Blair, if he thought he was doing something to help Jim. Only thing either one of them could do for the other, which was pretty funny, when you thought about it. Jim thought about it, and didn't laugh. He brushed away the moisture he felt trickling down his cheek, and then carefully freed his other hand from Blair's firm hold. He put both of his hands on Blair's shoulders and pushed him down flat. He felt the thrum of Blair's voice rise as if in protest, but Blair didn't resist being moved. Jim raised himself over him, and then, as he had done when he found Blair still alive and whole after that last chaotic, senseless attack, when Jim hadn't been able to smell anything but steel and blood, he wrapped himself around Blair and laid his head on Blair's chest.

Blair's chest hummed in surprise, but nothing startled Sandburg for long. His hands petted Jim's head, and then reached for the sweater and laid it over Jim's back, trying awkwardly to smooth it into place. Leave it, already, Chief, Jim thought, but he said nothing, concentrating instead on the warmth of Blair's back as he spread his hands under Blair's shoulder blades. He could feel the thump of Blair's strong heart beating through his back and against his palms and fingertips, as if he were cradling everything Blair was, his very life, here in his arms. Under Jim's cheek and temple, under his ear, he felt smooth flesh dirtied with blood and filth, then the prickle of curling hair in the center of his breast. Blair's heartbeat echoed against Jim's cheekbone, and resonated through the curve of Jim's skull.

Blair was still talking. His breastbone vibrated with the words Jim wasn't hearing, and every once in a while, Blair would take a long, deep breath that lifted Jim's head on his chest. Blair's hands were resting on his shoulders, holding the sweater in place. He had been trembling before, hard shudders of cold and shock, but his shivers were growing slighter as Jim held him. He wished he could get Blair to put the sweater on, but it could wait a little while longer. Blair was already calmer. Jim thought perhaps he was too. At any rate, he was relaxed enough to feel how his ribs were aching. He didn't think any were cracked. Just bruised and sore, and getting sorer. His shoulder was bad, too, his flesh abraded and raw where the last of them had hit him with a rock, the muscle underneath sore as his ribs. He'd have a devil of a time getting out of bed tomorrow morning.

He wished he could get Blair home. That's where they both needed to be. Home in bed. What a haven the loft seemed to him, and how far away it was. So many miles to go before they could sleep. Jim tightened his embrace, apologizing without words for not being able to take Blair there now. Blair took another long, deep breath, his heartbeat steady and strong, blood filling the chambers in a liquid rush, valves snapping shut with a thump. The briefest pause, and then the second thud deep in Blair's chest, a slower, fuller pressure. Over and over and over again, so regular Jim could have counted the minutes ticking past by the rate of those steady contractions.

He wasn't counting minutes or anything else. He was lying still and holding Blair, feeling his heartbeat and trying to hear it, but he was having trouble concentrating. The night was a maelstrom, and in the middle of everything, Blair was talking in a hoarse, ragged voice about going to Alaska this summer. What a thing to be worrying about now. Jim raised himself up again, groaning at the pain in his ribs, in his aching shoulder, and laid his hand over Blair's mouth. "Chief," he pleaded, and Blair's eyes flew open wide, dark and startled in the starlight. "Can't it wait?"

Chapter 19

They compromised. Blair bundled himself up in Jim's long leather coat, and Jim finally put his sweater back on. It was too cold for anyone to be going around bare-chested tonight, even the Sentinel of the Great City. Blair wished there was some way for him to clean and bandage the long cut on Jim's side. It didn't seem to be bleeding too badly, but it was hurting Jim. He heard Jim's gasp when he raised his arms to pull his sweater on. Or maybe it was his ribs, aching from where Seth, that son of a bitch, had kicked him.

"It's all right, Sandburg," Jim said gruffly, and blocked Blair's hands when Blair tried to lift the sweater to check. At the same time, Jim turned his hands and held Blair's fingers for a moment. "I'm all right."

Blair knew Jim wasn't all right, though. He could see again and he could hear, but he wasn't all right, not by a long shot. There was a tremor in Jim's hands that matched the one in his voice. He moved his head with the self-conscious care of a man just getting over a migraine, astounded by the fragile lack of pain. "OK," Blair said anyway, since there was no point in arguing about it, and when Jim freed his hands, he reached up and touched Jim's temple with two fingertips, rubbing gently for a moment before dropping his hand. "But you have to let me know the second your senses start acting up again. You promise?"

"I'm all right," Jim said again doggedly. "It was just shock. You told me that yourself."

There were harsh lights out on the street by now, stark white, bleeding past the jagged, broken shapes that used to be buildings. It was more difficult to see now than when there had been no lights at all. The shadows were impenetrably dark, and the light blinded Blair when he looked toward it. He shielded his eyes and told Jim, "Yeah, I know. A big shock, so it might still be messing with you. That's why I wanna know the minute anything starts to go wonky."

"You'll be the first to know," Jim said, humoring him. Blair didn't mind. That was the sound of Jim coming back to him. He reached out and grabbed the sleeve of Jim's sweater.

"Something else. You probably better keep an eye on me, too. Seth made me drink like a whole bottle of wine, and it's probably still affecting my judgment." Blair suddenly realized what he sounded like. "Right, the guy made me drink a bottle of wine. Who's going to believe that? Who's gonna believe any of this?"

Jim covered Blair's hand on his sleeve. "I believe you," he said.

Blair stumbled on, wanting to explain anyway. He couldn't start holding things back, not from Jim. And if he couldn't tell Jim now, when would he ever have the nerve again? "He said if I didn't drink it - aw, man, Jim, he's such a sick son of a bitch. Seth Lamb. He always sits in the front row in class." Blair broke off. What a stupid thing to be complaining about, huddled naked in Jim's leather overcoat, surrounded by the rubble of an earthquake. "It doesn't matter. He's dead. It doesn't matter where he sat." Blair could feel his eyes burning. The glare of the emergency lights hurt, and he shut his eyes and turned his face away. Car alarms were still whooping all around them, alarm sirens screaming - like there's anyone left who hasn't figured out there's a problem? - and the racket felt like it was piercing his eardrums. Jim must be going nuts.

"Jim," he said softly, concerned. "I know this is bad, but if you can just --"

He didn't finish, because Jim laid two fingers on his lower lip, gently and unerringly finding the small wound. "Your lip's cut," he said. "Was that the wine bottle?"

"Yeah," Blair said, his voice dropping so low it hurt the back of his throat. "It wasn't very good wine."

Jim snorted, not quite a laugh, and he patted Blair's face. "First things first, all right?"

"Yeah, I know. All right."

"If we wait for someone to find us, I'm afraid we'll be sitting out here all night."

Blair swallowed and nodded. "You're probably right."

"Can you walk?"

"I think so." It wasn't really a lie. He didn't want to hang around out here all night either.

"I'm thinking we ought to be able to get over the back wall and out to the alley. You game?"

"I'm there." Blair grasped Jim's forearms tightly. "Just help me up."

Jim didn't try to stand yet. "Hang on. You can't walk around here barefoot. There's broken glass and god knows what else on the ground. Hold on for me just a minute, and I'll find you some shoes."

"Where do you think we are," Blair protested, "Macy's shoe department? Where are you planning on getting a pair of shoes out here?" He realized what Jim intended as soon as the words were out of his mouth. "No," he said then. "Jim, no, I can't. I can't."

"You'd rather cut the bottoms of your feet to shreds? They're gone, Sandburg. They don't need their shoes anymore. You do."

Blair didn't let go of Jim's arms. "I know," he whispered. "But I just can't."

"A little late in the game to get squeamish," Jim complained.

"I know," Blair said again. He was trying so hard not to cry he felt as though the back of his throat was being torn to shreds. If he had to put the shoes of one of his dead tormentors on his feet - well, that would be it. It wasn't rational, Jim was perfectly right about that, but it didn't matter. The path of sanity was too narrow, and the surrounding countryside too savage. Wild rivers rushed away into bottomless chasms, steam frothing up, hiding the sheer cliff faces that went towering away overhead. He couldn't risk a step off his narrow track through the wilderness. He wanted to try to explain it to Jim calmly and sensibly, but all he managed to say was, "Please." He hated himself for the way he sounded, abject and pleading, as though he were still begging his former captors for mercy, but he couldn't seem to stop himself. "Please, Jim. Don't make me do this."

Jim got very still. Blair tried to see his face, but the light was behind Jim, haloing him in brilliance, and Blair couldn't even make out his eyes. "Jim," he whispered miserably, and Jim pulled himself free of Blair's desperate grasp, but only so he could put both hands on Blair's shoulders. Blair felt the heat and weight of his palms through the leather of the coat. The night was so loud. Static from police radios crackled, white noise filling up all the places where silence might have hidden, and somewhere not very far away, maybe just on the other side of the garden wall, a woman giggled drunkenly.

"No," Jim said, and his voice was ragged and harsh. "No, Sandburg, you don't talk to me that way. Not ever." His voice was so rough he sounded angry, but Blair knew better, even before Jim's arms went around his shoulders. Jim's hands knotted into hard fists at Blair's back, and Blair held himself rigid in Jim's embrace. He would not lose it now, not after so much, not when Jim was the one who was really hurt. He dropped his head onto Jim's shoulder and put his arms around him, careful of his hurting ribs, as Jim told him in a low voice that carried clearly through the chaos of the night, "Because if you want anything, Chief, you just tell me, and that's the way we'll do it. Just tell me. That's all you ever have to do."

Blair stopped trying to hold everything locked inside, and abruptly discovered there was nothing there he had to keep secret anyway. He laughed a little, even though it didn't come out quite right, not the way his eyes were streaming. "Sure, you say that now," he whispered. "I think I wanna see it in writing all the same."

Jim tightened his embrace gently, opening his clenched fists and spreading his hands over Blair's back, and Blair felt rather than heard Jim draw breath as raggedly as a man fighting tears. "Remind me when we get home," he growled.

"I will," Blair said, finally relaxing into Jim's embrace, awkward as it was with Jim half-crouching beside him on the ground.

"Let's see if you can stand up first." Jim patted Blair's back and then released him, tapping his knuckles gently against the side of Blair's head. Blair could hear the smile from Jim that he couldn't see. "Then you can worry about getting anything in writing."

"I knew it," Blair said. He scrubbed the back of his hand across his face, then took Jim's outstretched hands, bracing himself. "Trying to weasel your way out already."

As Jim stood, Blair straightened his knees, forcing himself up. Jim took most of his weight, and when he was finally upright, swaying a little, lightheaded from the exertion, he chuckled in triumph.

"Careful," Jim cautioned. "It's not a race."

"Does this look like running to you?" He walked his hands up Jim's forearms, clutching hard, and then tried to take a step. The spike of pain in his ankle was a brutal surprise. He shouted and would have fallen save for Jim's support.

"Careful," Jim snapped, his voice sharp with concern. He stepped around to Blair's side, tucking Blair's arm around his back, his own arm under Blair's shoulders. "Can you put any weight on that ankle at all?"

"I think so," Blair said, mostly because he couldn't stand the helplessness of admitting he probably couldn't. He tightened his grip around Jim's waist and took a dragging step. He was going to say something triumphant about how well he was doing, but he heard Jim hiss through clenched teeth, and stopped dead. "This isn't working," Blair said at once. "I'm hurting you." He let go his grip around Jim's waist, and stood balanced stork-like on one foot. His hurt ankle throbbed, dull and insistent. "We're not going to get anywhere like this."

"It'll work," Jim announced. He kept his arm around Blair's back, supporting him so firmly Blair suspected he would end up with bruises in the shape of Jim's fingers under his arm. "We just need to take it one step at a time. Or maybe," Jim went on more slowly, as if the idea had just occurred to him and he didn't much like it, "Maybe it would make more sense for you to wait here. I could be back with help in a few minutes."

Blair swallowed. He wasn't going to blurt out his panic this time, but there was just no way in hell he was going to let Jim leave him behind. "No," he said quietly. "That's not gonna work for me. Not for either one of us. What happens if your senses cut out on you again?"

Under normal circumstances that wasn't an argument that would make much of an impression on Jim. Jim didn't fight him on it now though. "Whenever you're ready," was all he said.

Blair took a deep breath and put his arm back around Jim's waist. He would walk out of here. He could walk out of here; it was just a question of mind over matter. For some reason that wasn't a very encouraging thought. He blinked against the broken, harsh white light out on the street, and imagined he saw a dark cityscape, spires that glowed with an impossible black radiance shivering before a starless sky. He opened his eyes fast. "Jim," he said at the same time Jim said, "Brace yourself, Chief, here it comes."

He dragged Blair into his arms, heedless of Blair's yelp of surprise, and then the whole world shifted, the ground under Blair's feet rising, then shuddering from side to side in hard, sudden jolts. Jim stood firm, feet planted wide apart, only a sudden quickness in his breath betraying how badly the aftershock spooked him too. In the distance voices rose in panic. Something very big fell with a splintering crash, and a man's voice rang out, terrified, drunk, and laughing as he yelled, "Holy shit!"

"Yeah, no kidding," Blair whispered, huddling in Jim's arms. The earth was quiet again. The shaking couldn't have lasted more than a few seconds, but it felt like a lifetime. He couldn't make himself unwrap his arms from around Jim's back. "Is that what it was like before?"

He felt Jim nodding. "Pretty much. More violent, and it went on longer the first time. You don't remember?"

"No." Blair opened his eyes and looked over Jim's shoulder. "Not exactly. It's like I wasn't all there."

Got THAT right, don't you, Sandburg? said an ugly, terrified voice deep, deep inside his mind. "Jim, please," he burst out, before he could stop himself. "Let's just go home."

"That's the plan," Jim said gently. "As soon as you're ready."

A goal, Blair thought, mentally shaking himself. That's what he needed here. A place he wanted to get to. He made himself skip over everything else - how long it was going to take to walk down the alley to the main street, how long it would take to get home if the destruction were as wide-spread as he feared, how in the world Jim intended to get him over the garden wall in the first place, and only thought about being at home in the loft. Taking a shower, better yet. Scrubbing this filth from his body. Or a long bath, maybe, since he couldn't imagine standing up for any length of time. He could soak in the tub for hours, draining the water when it started to cool and filling it up again. He'd sit in there all night if he wanted to.

Keeping that vision firmly in mind, he managed to let Jim go. "I'm ready." He rested his hand on Jim's shoulder for balance as Jim moved to his side, and then tucked his arm around Jim's waist, feeling the comfortable weight of Jim's arm at his back. "Let's get out of here."

"Just watch your step," Jim said. Blair looked down obediently, and all he could see were streaks of white light and long black shadows. The shadows of him and Jim looked like Giacometti figures moving clumsily over the ragged ground. Three Legged Race with Sentinel, Blair thought to himself with a secret grin. One of the sculptor's lesser known works. Another step, another. He swung his bad leg forward with Jim's stride, and then when he had to step with his left foot, he leaned hard against Jim, allowing Jim to take his weight as he brought his other foot forward. Slow and not particularly steady, but Jim was infinitely patient.

Blair could feel broken paving stones under his feet, the loamy, cold dirt, and the thick softness of unmown grass. He hoped the stones with the symbols carved on them had been broken into a million pieces. Not a very scholarly attitude, but that was just too damned bad.

Jim guided them sideways across the garden to the far back corner. The back wall had fallen outward, leaving a narrow triangular gap. Jim could probably step sideways right through it. Blair was less sanguine about his own chances. "I'll go through first," Jim said. "Then I can reach back and help you over."

Leaving him alone in the garden, Blair thought, though he didn't say it out loud. It wasn't like Jim was really leaving him. He'd just be on the other side of the wall, and only for a moment or two. Blair could do this. He put his free hand out, intending to balance himself against the wall, but Jim stopped him. "Careful. I don't think it's a good idea to put any weight on that wall."

"Oh." Blair dropped his hand. "Yeah. Good point." He couldn't help feeling wretchedly vulnerable, though, standing there half naked, balanced on one leg, the bodies of his tormenters behind him in the shadows.

"Ready?" Jim asked.

"Ready," Blair lied as gamely as he could, and Jim stepped through the gap in the wall. For just a moment he moved to the side, beyond Blair's immediate view. An irrational, irresistible panic welled up, and Blair tried to tried to shuffle closer to the gap in the wall. The pain in his ankle made him groan, and immediately Jim was back, leaning in, careful not to touch either of the teetering stone walls. "Did you hear that?" he demanded.

There was an edge in Jim's hoarse voice Blair hadn't noticed before. "I'm sorry," Blair said quickly, reaching for Jim's outstretched hand. "That was just me."

"No, not you," Jim interrupted, almost angry. "That other sound."

Which didn't narrow it down all that much. "Jim, there are sirens and shit all over the place. What sound do you mean?"

Jim looked at him. The emergency lights shone full on his face, stark, deadly white. His pupils were shrunk to pinpoints. "Jim," Blair whispered. He managed to grab the sleeves of Jim's sweater and hold on tight. Jim looked like a man ready to bolt right out of his skin. "Is it something with your senses? Another aftershock coming? Tell me what's going on. C'mon, I can't do anything if you won't tell me what's wrong."

Jim's head was cocked, as though he were listening intently for something. From the expression on his face, Blair would have guessed it was a sound Jim did not want to hear. Almost against his will, Blair glanced back over his shoulder, toward the collapsed house and dead students. The lights blinded him and he couldn't see a damned thing. "Please Jim," he said, turning back, trying to make Jim hear him instead. "I need you to help me get out of here. Then we can figure out what's going on."

Jim shook himself a little. His eyes seemed to clear. "You're right," he said calmly. "We don't want to be around this wall when the next aftershock hits. Just step through like I did, your bad ankle first. I've got you."

"Yeah," Blair said, relieved. "OK, I'm coming." Jim's arms were rigid, locked and immovable. Hanging on tightly, Blair turned sideways and stepped through. For a moment while he straddled the broken wall, Jim was supporting almost all of his weight. He felt suspended and helpless. If there were another aftershock right now, that would be all she wrote. With a grunt, Blair pushed himself over, and then the terrible old house and its evil garden were behind him. "Oh, man," he wheezed, clutching Jim's upper arms through his sweater, dropping his head to rest against Jim's chest. "Oh MAN."

"Don't get too comfortable," Jim said, but he stroked the back of Blair's head all the same. "We're not home yet."

Blair raised his head carefully. He was dizzy and cold, his fingers and toes felt heavier than lead, and his stomach was roiling sickly. "Jim," he said, having to shape his words carefully. "What did you hear?"

Jim looked down at him. Blair was balancing himself by hanging onto Jim's elbow, and Jim reached up with his free hand and touched the side of Blair's face. The broken wall blocked most of the glaring emergency lights, and Blair could see Jim's expression clearly. He looked as white faced and fragile as Blair had known he would be.

"It's been a hell of a night," Jim said, his voice hardly above a whisper. Blair couldn't disagree with the sentiment but it didn't come close to answering his question. He started to ask again, but then Jim's head came up sharply. "Hey!" Jim shouted, raising his hand and gesturing. "I've got a wounded man here. We need help."

Blair turned, Jim slipping his arm under Blair's shoulder to help him. Coming up the alley toward them, illuminated in fits and starts by the emergency lights, was a small knot of people, three or four at the most. One of their number held a flashlight whose beam skittered along the pavement in front of them.

"OK!" a young voice yelled back. "OK, just hang on. We're coming." The flashlight swung up, finding them in the darkness of the alley, and lightheaded or not, Blair suddenly realized what he looked like. Hoping to god none of their erstwhile rescuers had ever had an anthro class, he turned away from the light and tried to button up Jim's coat. His fingers were clumsy, and Jim said, "Steady," and buttoned the coat himself. By then the others had reached them, and Blair simply tried to shut down the part of his brain that worried about what he looked like and what they must think.

It wasn't easy when the bulky dark shape holding the flashlight gave a low whistle of awe and let the flashlight play up to Blair's face. "Dude," he said. "What happened to you?"

"He's got a sprained ankle," Jim said. "He can't walk. If one of you get on his other side, I think we can make it to the street."

"Oh, hey, yeah, no prob." The voice with the flashlight handed the light to one of his friends and wrapped Blair's arm around his neck without hesitation. Jim took his other arm. "Ready, Chief?"

"Right, right, let's go," Blair muttered. He would get to that long soak in the tub a little bit faster, that's all this meant. Personal mortification didn't matter.

The strain on his upper arms made his sore shoulders ache. The pavement was buckled and cracked, littered with gravel, and Jim said, "Be careful. Watch out for broken glass."

"Yeah, I see," said the kid on Blair's other side. His breath reeked of beer.

One of his friends called from behind, "Do even you believe this? How big a quake do you think it was?"

A woman's voice said, "Have any of you heard from anyone on campus? My room mate was at a recital at Hembree Hall, and that place is only like a million years old. I bet you anything it fell. I bet you anything." Her voice rose, wavering, and broke.

She was right. It was a terrifying thought. Half the Rainier campus was unreinforced masonry and stonework; very scenic, and about as stable as a house of cards. How much of the campus was left? Blair had a sudden memory of he and Jim watching poor Eddie scarf a hamburger, telling them that garbled story about Rainier as a nexus for catastrophe. He remembered Susan's insistence he had the ability to see this place as it really was.

Well, obviously this proved she had been wrong. In his worst nightmares, he had never envisioned anything like this.

"I'm sure she's all right, Angie," said the kid who was helping Blair, his voice unexpectedly gentle. "Just try not to worry about it until we can find her."

They kept talking, asking Jim about the quake and what was happening, and Blair felt a tinge of amused pride, seeing how Jim was recognized as an authority figure without ever identifying himself - or even being seen in decent light for that matter, so it couldn't have been the hair. Eventually, though, Blair began having trouble following the conversation. He was sick and exhausted and of all the stupid things, ravenously hungry. He seriously doubted whether he'd be able to keep anything down if he actually tried to eat.

"Was it my fault?" he asked Jim suddenly. He was getting tired of holding his hurt ankle up, swinging it back and forth as they half-carried him along. He felt like the pendulum on a gigantic human clock. One that probably kept pretty shitty time.

"Was what your fault?" Jim said.

"You know." It was such an effort to put it into words. He wanted to just curl up somewhere and go to sleep. Even the bath could wait until later. "The earthquake. When I laughed, I saw the towers moving."

"Oh, whoa, did he get hit on the head too?"

"Take it easy, Chief," Jim said softly. "You're a hell of a guy, but not even you can make the earth move."

Blair laughed a little because he didn't want Jim to worry. "You so sure about that, man? Not like you ever gave me a chance."

"Yeah," Jim said, his tone warm with amused affection, "I think he got hit on the head too."

Blair wanted to whap him, but both his arms were captive. His underarms were as sore as his ankle. "How much longer?" he asked quietly, wishing there weren't an audience for everything he said to Jim.

"Not much further. You're doing great."

"I'm just hanging here," Blair muttered.

"I don't believe it," said the second girl. "Is that Mr. Sandburg?"

Oh, of course, Blair thought bleakly. Dumb to have hoped for even a moment that he might have gotten out of this unrecognized. He was trying to think of a plausible denial when he realized the ground under his feet had changed. The pavement was smoother and the sounds of catastrophe were all louder. The ball of his foot was scraped half raw, and now that the garden was far behind him, Jim's idea about the shoes sounded a lot better. How long had they been walking anyway? He raised his head to ask Jim, and the light was everywhere.

"Aw, man, Jim," he complained, turning his face away. He took one more step, and that was it. He just couldn't go any farther. His knees buckled, but he couldn't fall. The strain across his shoulders was more than he could bear. Everything was more than he could bear. He heard the helicopter overhead, the search light strobing across them all. So many voices, so many sounds. His face was painted with ashes and blood, and Jim must be going crazy in this madness.

"Jim," he said, trying to be calm, but it came out as a sob or a laugh all the same, "I really think it's time to go home."

"Easy," Jim said, and to Blair's unspeakable relief, Jim unhooked Blair's arm from around his neck. Someone supported his back as he was lowered with great gentleness to the sidewalk. Blair blinked, risking a glance up, and found Joel Taggart bending over him.

"Joel?" he whispered.

"Jim's right," Joel said, and he sounded like he was crying. Blair raised his hand to touch Joel's face, but Joel caught his hand and folded it back down over his chest. "Just rest easy. I'll get help."

Joel stumbled to his feet and out of Blair's line of vision. Blair rolled his head to the side and found Jim beside him. After another moment he realized it was Jim's hand cushioning his head from the hard concrete. He needed to talk to Jim, make sure this thing with his senses was just temporary, that he was all right. Blair blinked, trying to concentrate, and finally managed to ask, "You OK?"

He couldn't see if Jim smiled, but he felt Jim's hand on his face. "I'm OK," Jim said.

Chapter 20

Jim knew better than to think an answer like that would hold Blair for long, but it seemed to ease Blair's mind for the moment. He looked searchingly up into Jim's face, still clutching Jim's free hand, then nodded and closed his eyes. His grip tightened fiercely, then relaxed, but he didn't let go.

Dogs were howling all over the city, long and mournful, and with every new siren, their howls redoubled. A news crew was interviewing a group of sorority girls near by, the girls' competing voices rising higher and higher until one of them shrieked, "I thought it was the end of the world!" with such shrill vehemence that everyone around her shut up. At that, Blair smiled faintly without opening his eyes. His head rolled to the side, his hair soft against Jim's palm. Jim lifted his head an inch or two to free the few strands of Blair's hair caught against the back of his hand and the sidewalk, and Blair's eyes blinked open. "Jim," he whispered.

"Right here. Joel's gone to get help."

"I remember." Blair's cheek touched the inside of Jim's forearm, and his face felt too warm. There were probably bruises Jim couldn't see under the smeared dirt and blood. A second helicopter had joined the first one overhead. Both of them were flying low, searchlights strafing the shattered street. "You need to be careful, man," Blair said seriously. "Don' let the noise and lights 'n everything sneak up on you."

"I'm all right." Seeing a faint frown of concern on Blair's face, Jim amended, "I'm being careful."

"OK." Blair nodded, satisfied, just as Jim sensed the beginnings of another aftershock. He could smell it, the heat and stench of compressed earth, and he could feel it tingling on his skin as well, the electrostatic charge from stones grinding together.

"Here we go again," he muttered. He released Blair's hand and slid his arm behind Blair's shoulders in the same fluid movement. Blair gasped, almost laughing, and clutched the sleeves of Jim's sweater as the ground began to pitch and yaw.

The howling dogs fell eerily quiet as the earth shook, but people were screaming all around them. Some guy sounded like he had lost it, shrieking himself hoarse behind Jim, while his friends yelled in vain, "Take it easy!" Buildings groaned, and bricks and roofing tiles crashed down. Jim tightened his arm around Blair's shoulders and tucked Blair's head to his chest, trying to shield him from the debris.

"Oh man," Blair complained, his voice hot against Jim's neck as the ground continued to roll. "Enough, already."

A little gray cat darted across the sidewalk near Jim and disappeared into the darkness on the other side of the street. Jim knew how fruitless her search for safety was. Even after the shaking stopped, the other sounds would remain. The ones that were miles away and almost infinitely quiet, but Jim was listening to them all the same, even past the roar of half a city falling into ruin. Something of Blair clung to those distant sounds as it had from the first, bright as a gold ribbon wound through the locks of a corpse long dead. Maybe more like a noose than a ribbon, because it pulled tighter and tighter the more Jim tried to shake himself free.

He clutched Blair as the shaking finally came to an end with one last, hiccuping shudder. The night screamed around him, and Blair was holding on tight as well, saying, "Too much, it's just getting to be a little too much, here," and laughing like a man who was trying not to weep.

"Hey," Jim whispered, startled by the roughness in his own voice. He loosened his grip enough to stroke the back of Blair's head, his hand trembling. "Stay with me, Sandburg. Don't let it go now."

Blair nodded against his chest, taking gulping breaths. "Wha's going on, Jim?" He straightened a little, pushing his arms against Jim's chest and raising his head to look into Jim's eyes. "Something's wrong," he announced, seeming to find nothing obvious in that statement. "Is it your senses?" He touched Jim's face, fingers against Jim's temple. "The aftershocks? Do you need to dial it down?"

The last aftershock had started all the car alarms whooping again. The night air smelled like gas, raw sewer and beer, and the newscaster interviewing the sorority girls sounded as though he was trying in vain to wrap it up. Jim had lost track of the number of helicopters circling above. Blair was stuttering with cold and shock and nerves, but he somehow kept his hand from trembling as he laid his palm against Jim's cheek. "I know it's a lot bigger than anything we ever tried to get you ready for." His voice was quiet, trusting Jim to hear him. "But I'm right here, Jim. I can help, I know I can." His eyes were wide and imploring, and his body shook in Jim's arms. He cradled the back of Jim's head with his hand. "Tell me."

It seemed monstrously selfish to demand help from Blair while his friend clung to him hurting, in shock, blood from his untreated wounds still wet on his arm. Jim couldn't resist that voice, though. He'd never been able to. And perhaps Blair really could banish those sounds from the hinterlands of sanity. "It's my senses," Jim began quietly, uncertainly, in the midst of the chaos all around them, sirens and voices and lights, all the sounds and smells of a city cracked open wide. "It has to be."

A stark white light suddenly washed across Blair's face. Blair winced in pain and turned his head, squeezing his eyes shut. The hands that had been touching Jim's head in careful encouragement slipped down and grabbed at Jim's sweater violently. "Jim," he moaned, "Not now,"

Another camera crew. It seemed as though there were more newspeople than emergency personnel out on the street. In the impenetrable blackness behind the cruel white light, a voice Jim recognized said, "It's beautiful, beautiful. Blair -- it is Blair Sandburg, isn't it? -- if you could put your head on Jim's chest like before, and Jim I need you to sort of touch his hair like you were doing a moment ago for José to get his shot."

"But he hasn't got any pants on," complained another voice.

"We're covering a natural disaster," Wendy Hawthorne chirped. "Naked is good! Naked wins Pulitzers!"

"Oh my god," Blair whispered, his face turned away from the light. "Let me have your gun, Jim. Please, I know how to use it."

"I've got a wounded man here," Jim growled. Blair was right. A shame he didn't have his gun anymore. "Get that camera away from us."

Wendy half-knelt before the light, extending the microphone. Jim couldn't see her face in the glare behind her, but he could imagine it all too well. A carrion crow with long blonde hair and pretty eyes. During their one, disastrous date, he hadn't been able to stop thinking about the way those lovely eyes had battened on suffering as she interviewed his wounded men after the bank explosion.

"I'm talking to Detective James Ellison of the Cascade Police Department in the aftermath of the terrible Rainier quake. The injured man he's assisting is Blair Sandburg, a graduate student here at Rainier. Detective, can you give us your impression of what happened here tonight?"

"You still don't have a shred of decency, do you?" Jim tightened his arms around Blair's shoulders, keeping Blair's head tucked to his chest. "Get that mike the hell out of my face."

Wendy didn't miss a beat. "Mr. Sandburg, it looks like the nightlife on a university campus has gotten a lot more interesting since my school days. Just what were you doing on fraternity row on a Friday night wearing these --" Her hand darted out and grabbed Blair's outstretched ankle. The buckles on the leather shackle gleamed in the camera light. "-- and not much else?"

"Jesus, Wendy," her own cameraman complained. The light swung away, and Blair clutched at Jim with desperate urgency. "Let it go, man," he whispered intently. "It's not worth it. It's not worth it."

Jim wondered distantly, past the throbbing heat of rage thundering between his temples, just what it was Blair thought he might do. He didn't have his gun, and he couldn't let go of Blair to take a swing anyway.

Then Joel was back, looking like an avenging angel by the cameraman's light. He grabbed Wendy by the scruff of the neck and yanked her to her feet. "You're interfering with the operation of emergency personnel," he barked, dragging her back. "Get out of the way or you're going to jail."

"You have no right!" Wendy shouted, aggrieved and self righteous. "This isn't Azerbaijan, detective! You can't get away with this."

Blair was laughing in short, painful sobs, his head pressed against Jim's chest. "This is some crazy bad dream, right?" he whispered after a breathy gasp. "Please, man, this is too ridiculous to be anything but a bad dream."

"Give me a reason," Joel was saying, blocking Wendy with his body. His voice was low and dangerous. "Just give me a reason."

Another voice, Wendy's cameraman, said, "I'm not spending the night in jail for you, Wendy," and the violent white light swung away into the mad night along with Wendy's voice, rising and mingling with all the other sounds.

"I'm sorry, Jim." Joel was looming over them, his bulk a comforting shadow. "She never would have got near you guys if I'd seen her coming."

"I'm all right," Blair said. His arms were still wrapped very tightly around Jim. "We're all right."

"I've got bad news," Joel went on, crouching down beside them. "I can't get you an ambulance, Blair. There's not a free one between here and Tacoma."

"No ambulance," Blair said quietly and firmly. "I don't need an ambulance." He raised his head and looked at Joel. "Joel," he said, a funny tone in his voice, "What have you got in your pocket?"

Joel smiled a little ruefully. He reached into the large patch pocket on the outside of his coat and drew out a shivering bundle of fur with a pink nose and shiny black eyes. The little creature practically fit in the palm of his big hand. "I think it's a chihuahua," he said. "I found her wandering around in the street after the first quake, and I didn't want her to get stepped on." He cradled the dog against his chest, and she licked the tip of his forefinger.

"Her name's Bitsy," Blair said. "She's gonna need a good home now, I think."

Joel stroked the top of the dog's tiny skull thoughtfully with the side of his finger before slipping it, unresisting, back into his pocket. Its short nose poked out into the night air for a moment, then disappeared. Joel's pocket bulged and shifted as the dog settled itself, apparently perfectly at home.

"What's the ER situation?" Jim asked, though he suspected he already knew.

Joel pressed his lips tightly together. "You're looking at a long night."

"I don't wanna go to the emergency room," Blair announced. His voice got softer. "Please, Jim, you said we could just go home."

Jim looked at Taggart, who shrugged his shoulders, palms up. "Disaster triage protocols are in effect," he said.

"Oh, god," Blair whispered, trembling. "How bad was it?"

"We've got some casualties." Joel put his hand on Blair's shoulder. "I don't think anyone's got any final numbers yet. Jim," he continued, "He probably has a point about going home. It's gonna be tomorrow at the earliest before anyone can see him. Unless --" Joel broke off, his guileless face miserable. "Jim, Blair," he tried again, his voice breaking, "Unless there's physical evidence we'd lose by waiting."

It took Blair a moment to get it, but Jim knew the instant he did, because he went rigid in Jim's arms. "No," he said. "No, I don't need a rape kit. They didn't hurt me." He gasped, neither laughing nor crying. "Besides, they're all dead now."

Jim nodded to Joel in confirmation, and saw Joel's kind face go hard with cold satisfaction.

Blair's head fell against his chest, tension and alertness bleeding away from him, leaving only a warm, exhausted weight heavy in Jim's arms. "So can we please go home? Come on, Jim, you promised."

* * *

The seats were wrong. That was the first thing Blair noticed when he woke up. He had the muzzy idea they were going on a camping trip, driving through the night in order to be at the trail head by the crack of dawn. It was so dark, Jim's headlights looked like the only light in the whole world. Probably be a sky full of stars out there. They should stop somewhere before the sun came up, have a cup of coffee from the thermos, spend a little time just looking up at the sky. That was something he and Jim had in common. After you'd spent nights in the open air in foreign lands watching alien stars wheel overhead, the stars of home always looked like an old friend. Feeling sentimental and content, Blair reached out for Jim beside him, and Jim took his hand and held it, saying, "You doing OK? Just a little while longer now."

"Yeah," Blair said, even though the seats were wrong, fuzzy and plush under his bare butt. (And there was something a little odd about that, too, wasn't there?) Blair closed his eyes for a long moment, then looked at the dash in front of him, felt the soft headrest behind him, and said sadly, "This is Joel's Le Sabre."

Jim chuckled quietly. "I think Taggart's got a soft spot for you."

The sound of Jim's soft laughter made Blair smile too. "Letting you drive his car, you mean? Yeah, I guess he must." Blair closed his eyes again. He was so tired. "Are we going home?" He was still holding on to Jim's hand, childish as it was.

"Trying to get us there." Jim's voice was level and easy, but Blair could hear the undertone there.

"How bad is it, really?" he had to ask.

"I don't know," Jim said soberly. "A lot of buildings came down, and a lot of people got hurt. They're saying Rainier was at the epicenter."

"Oh my god," Blair whispered. It wasn't a complete surprise, but having his suspicions confirmed somehow made it even worse. The numbness in his heart became an ache. "I can't believe it," he said, although he did. "That place is practically my whole life."

Jim squeezed his hand. "I know," he said. "I'm sorry."

Jim's sympathy made him want to weep. He took a long shuddering breath, trying to hold it all together. Jim, at least, was going to be all right. That's all he needed to focus on right now, when there was nothing else he could do. No use worrying about the friends who might be hurt. No point in thinking about the years of research that could be lost. He squeezed Jim's hand back, seeking comfort in Jim's equally firm grip, and he thought ruefully it was a good thing they were in Joel's Buick. If they'd been driving home in Jim's truck, nothing would have stopped Blair from sliding over to curl next to Jim on the bench seat. Jim seemed like the last stable point in the entire universe. You couldn't even count on the stars, not really. After all, they didn't even stand still in the sky.

Blinking back tears, Blair opened his eyes again and looked out at the city streets. There were other cars on the road, stopping nervously at the dark intersections. The police radio in Joel's car hummed with the endless litany of disaster. They needed Jim out there, Blair knew it, and he was trying to steel himself to say that Jim could just drop him off at the loft, maybe help him up the stairs, but really, man, he'd be all right, but he couldn't begin to force the words past his lips.

His ankle hurt. His forearm was burning, and he felt filthy, inside and out. And he was so thirsty. In a sudden, terrible flash of memory, he saw Monica bending low over him. The bathroom tiles had been cold and painfully hard against his shoulders and the back of his head, against his thighs and buttocks and even the heels of his feet. While he lay stretched before her, trembling helplessly in cold and exposure and fear, she had lowered her hand and touched the dripping brush to his forehead.

"Jesus," Blair whispered, flinching from the memory, and he scrubbed at his forehead with his free hand.

"Chief," Jim said urgently, and he let Blair go to grab his arm above the wrist. "It's all over now. You're safe."

"I know," Blair whispered, letting his head drop back again. God, he wished they were home already. He wished he was in the bath, washing every inch of himself clean with his own soap. Then he'd let the water run out and do it all over again if he wanted to. It was a gas water heater, so it didn't matter that the lights were out. He'd sit in the tub soaking in blissfully hot water all night long if that's what it took to get clean. The way he felt now, it probably would.

This was all a little too much like another night ride home. After the ER, after David Lash. After all the noise and lights and chaos, after all the other people poking and prodding at him and asking him if he was OK, it had all wound down to just this: Jim driving the two of them home in the dark, in near silence, Jim's presence at his side saying more than words.

"I knew you'd find me," Blair told him quietly. He hadn't said that the last time. Then, he really hadn't known Jim would find him. When Lash had begun wrapping the chains around his legs, he had assumed he was going to die. Growing up with Naomi had taught him that well-meaning people would do the best they could, but that when you came right down to it, good intentions were usually just about as lovely and effective as a set of Waterford crystal under the millstone of reality.

Except for Jim. Jim didn't make plans and hope for the best, he acted. He simply was. And learning who Jim was in the years since David Lash had changed Blair somehow. Changed the way he thought about his life, his world, and especially his future. It turned out that once in a lifetime, you might find someone who would always be there, no matter what. And if that was so, then maybe permanence wasn't simply stagnation, and maybe home was more than the address you wrote down on the green mail-forwarding card for the Post Office.

Jim would always be here. Just like tonight. "I knew you'd find me," Blair said again, mostly because it felt good to say it out loud, and also because it was the truth. In the darkness of the car he felt rather than saw Jim shake his head and shrug a little, but Jim's hand slid down Blair's arm to once more clasp Blair's hand.

OK, so there was more going on tonight. Things were never that simple. Everything didn't end when you left the scene of the crime. There was all the stuff that made Blair's stomach turn over when he even tried to think about it, like the shapes he had seen in the grout of the bathroom tile overhead while Monica painted blood on his belly. But he wouldn't think about all that now, just like he wouldn't think about what was left of his school. He and Jim were alive and whole. That was about all he could handle, and right now that was plenty.

He turned his head to watch the city in darkness pass them by. A dark city, he thought for a moment, his heart in his throat, but he turned to look back at Jim's silhouette beside him, and the instant passed. Once an ambulance came screeching past them, an explosion of light and noise in the unlit streets. There was less destruction on this side of town, which gave Blair hope. Knots of people were standing on the sidewalks, sharing their stories of the quake with neighbors. He heard loud, excited voices as they passed, but there were no shouts of fear or hysteria. Every block took them farther away, and with every mile, Blair found he could release more and more of the events of the past day. Maybe it was just exhaustion catching up for good this time, but whatever it was, Blair didn't question it. He sagged back against the plush seat and let it swallow him up.

His eyes slid shut and the world turned gray. Mostly gray. There was a dull red haze where his ankle throbbed in time with his heartbeat, and a slash of orange the color of burning embers where Susan had cut him with the razor. Jim was beside him, and Blair tried to focus on that as his mind and body drifted. Warm blue, the color of a peaceful sea. The color of Jim's eyes. The color of safety and peace, and the promise Jim had made with his actions, never with words, that he would always be there to take Blair home.

Then a ripple crossed the surface of those peaceful blue depths. Blair drew closer, worried, trying to see what could trouble such placid depths, but the soft gray world contracted around him and forced him awake. He opened his eyes to find the car was stopped, the passenger side door open. Jim was leaning in, one hand on Blair's shoulder. "Swing your legs out," he was saying. "Careful of that ankle."

Chapter 21

Blair blinked, looking up into Jim's face. It was too dark for him to see the blue of Jim's eyes. "Are we home?"

"We're home." Jim drew Blair's arm around his neck. "Are you ready?"

"Ready, man," Blair said, and slowly stood as Jim straightened up. The change in position made his head spin and he closed his eyes, waiting for the dizziness to pass.

"Steady. Just go slow."

"I know." Blair was so tired simply talking was an effort. "It's still not a race. Is our building standing?"

"Looks like we still have a place to live," Jim said. "Easy there."

"Yeah," Blair agreed. He remembered Jim was hurt, and tried not to lean too much of his weight against him, but his ankle had gotten stiff during the ride home and his attempts to walk were excruciating. "Wait a minute," he begged after the first few steps. He let his head rest against Jim's shoulder, closed his eyes, and tried to find a place in his mind where the pain wouldn't matter. Jim's arm was warm around his ribs, and Blair could hear other voices in the distance. People were out on the street here like they were everywhere else, but the sirens and car alarms were far away, just another part of the shrill background noise of the broken city.

"It's OK," Blair said at last. If he couldn't banish the pain through sheer force of will, he would just have to live with it. He'd been through worse. "I'm ready."

"No rush," Jim said quietly.

"No rush?" Blair complained, forcing himself laugh. The asphalt was hurting his bare feet. "When there's a hot bath right upstairs with my name on it?" He raised his head and risked a look around, trying to distract himself from the dreadful ache in his ankle. The knot of people at the corner were laughing a little hysterically as they exchanged their war stories. Jim was a grim, quiet support at Blair's side, though Blair could hear soft, brief exhalations that were probably pain as much as weariness. "How you doing?" he asked, reaching up with his free hand to brush Jim's face. "Just a little bit further now, right?"

Jim's arm tightened around his shoulders for a moment, but he didn't spare breath for answering Blair. They had reached the curb of the sidewalk at last. To Blair the curb looked like the side of a cliff. He set his bad ankle up on the curb, but he couldn't put enough of his weight on it to step up. He leaned a little harder into Jim, trying to manage without asking any more from Jim, but he couldn't force his limbs to obey him. He dropped his head, hair hanging in his face, and gritted his teeth furiously. He could do this, dammit. How hard could it be? Then he thought of all the stairs up to the loft and practically despaired. "Jim--" he whispered miserably, and before he could say more, Jim had tightened his arm around Blair's ribs and forcibly lifted him up onto the curb. Blair heard him gasp, and he put his free hand in the center of Jim's chest, stopping him before they could take another step. "Wait a minute. Wait, this isn't going to work."

"I don't know about you, Sandburg," Jim managed in a tight voice, "but I'm not spending the night on the sidewalk. I'm all right. I've got you."

"Oh my god, Blair? Jim?" A man came jogging
down the sidewalk and skidded to a stop in front of them. "I was worried about you boys!" It was Joey, the day chef from the bakery. "Are you all right?"

"Hey," Blair whispered. "What are you doing here?"

"Peter had a hot date tonight so I covered his shift," Joey took Blair's wrist and pulled Blair's arm around his neck to support him from the other side. "Jim, how bad is it?"

"Busted my ankle," Blair answered to spare Jim the effort of speaking.

"Oh no. You at the school, weren't you? People are saying Rainier got flattened. Jim, I thought you were supposed to be taking care of our boy."

"He was," Blair said, relaxing into the two men's support, relieved that Jim didn't have to carry his weight alone any more. "Believe me, he was."

"That's the Jim Ellison I know." It occurred to Blair that of all their neighbors, Joey was the only one who would be more concerned about Blair's bad ankle than the fact he was coming home in a leather coat and nothing else.

Well, a leather coat and ankle cuffs. Memory flashed over Blair at the realization, hot and oppressive, making his face burn. He could feel Susan buckling the straps around his ankles while Seth's hand groped between his legs, hurting him, and Seth's bloody nose dripped onto his back with audible splats. He remembered the sound the kid's nose had made when he broke it, and the feel of yielding cartilage and bone against his fist. Blair shuddered and all but gagged.

"Whoa, Blair, take it easy," Joey said. Jim's arm tightened for a moment around his ribs, and he patted Blair's side with his open hand.

"I'm OK."

"Uh-huh," Joey said. They'd reached the stairwell door by now, and Joey pulled it open. Not locked, as usual. They really should talk to the building manager, Blair thought. No telling what could get in. It was a tight fit, three of them abreast up the staircase, but Blair didn't complain. He was pretty sure the only way Jim could have managed it on his own would have been by tossing Blair over his shoulder.

Jim murmured, "Careful," when they reached the turn of the landing. The staircase was in near total darkness, and Joey was talking on and on about the earthquake damage to the bakery. Not too bad, as far as he could tell, just some broken cups and saucers and all the bread that had been in the ovens when the power went off. Joey stumbled a bit at the landing despite Jim's warning, and the slight jerk reverberated through Blair's sore and aching body. A groan escaped him, and Jim and Joey both stopped, Joey saying, "God, I'm sorry. Are you all right?" Jim just patted his side again without speaking, waiting for Blair.

"I'm OK," Blair whispered again because there was no point in saying that he wasn't. His last reserves had been depleted a long time ago, and as they started the next flight, the two other men physically lifting Blair for each step, the gray haze returned. Blair didn't think he could really be falling asleep, not while he was being dragged up the stairs like the dead weight he was, his shoulders burning with the strain, but he was not precisely sure where he was anymore either. He knew Jim was close, and they were on their way to the loft, but it was hard to keep it all straight. After all, he had been waiting and hoping so long for Jim. Maybe something had finally snapped, and Jim wasn't really here at all. Maybe it was Seth and Eddie who had him, who were dragging him up the staircase and out to the garden. Professor Nagle had tried to stop them, but there had been a terrible sound, a whistle of air and a dull, flat smack, and then Nagle hadn't spoken again.

"Where's Dr. Nagle?" Blair demanded in angry despair. He tried to struggle, fruitless as it was, and suddenly Jim's voice was right there, and Jim's strong arm was wrapped tightly around his ribs. "I'm sorry, Blair. The professor didn't make it."

Blair's eyes snapped open. On his other side Joey was quietly saying, "Oh man, I'm sorry. I didn't know it was so bad on campus." They were at the front door, and Jim was fitting the key in the lock. The window at the end of the hall was dark, the street light that always shone in that window out for the first time in Blair's memory. Its absence made the whole world seem altered and wrong. That light had been shining in the darkness ever since Blair had moved in here.

He sighed and laid his head on Jim's shoulder. Jim was here, though. Jim had rescued him, just like Blair had known he would. What he hadn't known was how high the price for finding him would be. He could still hear Jim's loud, flat, hopeless voice, telling him that he couldn't see or hear. It had all been Blair's fault, the experience that had blasted Jim's senses in the garden. He was the one who had called down the darkness. He had known from the moment Monica began to paint those obscene words on his flesh that Jim should never come near such blasphemies, and still he had never stopped hoping and praying Jim would find him.

"I'm so sorry," Blair whispered, useless as his regrets were. He tried to reach for Jim's face, but both his arms were still held.

"Come on, brother, none of this was your fault. He got banged up pretty good, didn't he, Jim? Are you sure you don't want to get him to the ER?" Joey's voice was concerned and helpful. "I'd be happy to drive if you two aren't up to it."

"Hospitals are full up tonight," Jim said shortly.

Blair blinked hard, trying to clear his head. Poor Jim sounded so tired. "Jim," he said as they pulled him across the threshold.

"Careful," Jim said. "Let's just get to the sofa."

Blair felt the wood of the floor, then something wet under his feet, then the carpet. He realized it was still dark, and wondered why no one had turned on the lights. Oh, he thought a moment later, remembering. The power was out. He must have voiced his revelation out loud because Joey agreed, "Yeah, and it'll probably be out for a while if things are as bad as they look."

Blair felt the sofa cushions against the back of his legs. "Easy." Jim's voice was close to his ear, and he was lowered carefully onto the seat. He groaned as his arms were freed, but the pain in his ankle became duller and less intense now that he was sitting down. Jim's leather coat creaked against the back of the sofa. He missed Jim's touch, and realized he had closed his eyes once more. He opened them and saw the stars glittering through the skylight. "Jim?"

Light flared, soft and yellow, and Blair saw Jim on the other side of the coffee table, his face illuminated by a candle flickering within the glass of a hurricane lantern. The loft seemed to have lost its clean edges, and in his exhausted state, Blair couldn't figure out what had changed. It was too complicated for him so he simply asked, "Can I have a drink of water?"

"I'll get it for you," Jim said, at the same time Joey asked, "Can you use any more help?"

"We're all right. " Jim told him. "Thanks for everything."

Joey patted Blair's shoulder. "You hang in there. The worst is over. I'll be downstairs trying to clean up, so if you folks need anything tonight, just come and get me."

"We will," Blair mumbled, feeling for some ridiculous reason like he was being a bad host. He was heard Joey moving away, then a thump and a muttered curse.

"Careful," Jim said. "There's a lot of stuff on the floor.'

"We've all got a helluva mop-up." Joey agreed ruefully. "Maybe I'll just go home and get a good night's sleep first, tackle things in the daylight. Maybe that's what you ought to do too."

It sounded like a good plan, and Blair considered saying so, but Jim had returned by then and crouched by the sofa. He found Blair's hand and wrapped it around a drinking glass.

"Thanks," Blair whispered, and raised the glass to his mouth. He felt the lingering soreness from his cut lip, and he was so thirsty he had a Jim-like awareness of the water before he took his first sip, smelling the faint staleness of refrigeration and feeling the cold an instant before the water touched his lips. He swayed at the sensation, and Jim's hand was instantly on his shoulder, his other hand steadying the glass. Jim's hands were warm, and the weight on his shoulder made Blair want to collapse into Jim's embrace and sleep it all away. The hurting, the filth on his body, the memories which kept playing in his mind like jumbled reels from a Fellini movie. The coolness of the water going down his throat reminded him for some reason of Susan's first pass with the blood-soaked cloth, sticky and wet across his stomach. The memory alone made Blair moan under his breath. He slipped his hand inside his coat -- inside Jim's coat-- and touched his own stomach, finding it still gritty with dried blood. "I need a shower," he blurted out, trying to keep the panic from his voice. "I can't sleep with this stuff on me. I can't."

"I know," Jim agreed, quiet and steady as ever. "Take another drink of water first, and then we'll get you cleaned up."

His voice was soft and tired, and made Blair wish that he could send Jim to bed and take care of everything himself. "If you can get me as far as the tub, I'll be all right," he announced, trying to convince himself at the same time. "I can take it from there."

Jim didn't answer, except to offer the water again. Blair swallowed, then allowed Jim to set the glass aside for him. "OK," he said, reaching for Jim. "I'm ready." Jim helped him rise, his hands firm around Blair's wrists, then around Blair's shoulders once he was upright. The hurricane lantern on the coffee table cast a spreading yellow glow, and as Blair looked around the loft, he finally realized the fuzzy, confused boundaries he hadn't been able to figure out when they first came in were piles of debris. Jim's bookshelves had all come down in the quake, scattering books, artifacts, and mementos, stereo components and CDs everywhere.

Aw, Jim. Every weekend for the past year, practically, Jim had suggested they spend a day taking everything down so he could finally anchor those shelves to the wall, and somehow Blair had always had something more important to do than helping his friend. Looking at the shattered bits of glass, broken jewel cases and ragged edges of smashed ceramic glittering in the candlelight, Blair wanted to weep. "We never got your shelves fixed," he whispered in apology, and Jim made a quiet, amused sound.

"Little late now. C'mon, Chief, one step at a time."

Blair staggered, clutching Jim for support. Maybe this would go faster if he just crawled to the bathroom. "Is Joey still here?"

"He's gone." Jim helped him maneuver around the coffee table. Every step was a painful effort for both of them, and if it hadn't been for the gritty burn across his chest and belly, Blair thought he probably could have curled up right there on the floor and gone to sleep. Jim's soft breaths were loud in Blair's ears as they struggled across the floor. Blair's own breaths were shorter and harsher, and another sound accompanied their movement, a soft clank and rattle. The cuffs around Blair's ankles were jingling with every step they took. At the bathroom door, Blair reached out the hand that wasn't wrapped around Jim's waist and braced himself against the door frame.

"Can you get these things off me?" Blair kept his voice soft so it wouldn't shake so badly. "This is starting to get really old."

Before he helped Blair take another step, Jim touched his fingers to Blair's face. "Sorry," Jim whispered, his own voice none too steady. "I'll get them off."

With the next step, Blair felt tile underfoot, cool and smooth against the scratched ball of his foot. "Careful." Jim caught Blair's outstretched hand and pulled it back "You try to support yourself on the towel rack, you'll just end up tearing it out of the wall."

"Yeah, you're right. Sorry."

The bathroom was far too dark for him to see anything, but that made no difference to Jim, of course. Bracing Blair against him with one arm, Jim reached out with the other and lowered the toilet seat lid, then helped Blair turn and sit down. Jim leaned down low over him, his forehead almost touching Blair's, and said in a soft, regretful voice, "You should be in a hospital. You need to have a doctor look at that ankle, those cuts on your arm." His hand rested warmly for a brief moment at the back of Blair's neck in mute apology.

"No." Blair shook his head emphatically. "I mean, yeah, I know I've gotta get a blood test." He swallowed hard, remembering Susan's wild eyes and cold, brutally sane words as the razor came down again and again. "But there's a lot of people hurt worse than me tonight, aren't there?"

Jim's hand slipped down and patted his shoulder. "That's what Joel was saying."

"Yeah. So I'd rather be here than waiting in an ER for twelve hours. Besides, just between you and me, I don't know if I could handle any more strangers, like -- touching -- me tonight, you know?" Blair's voice broke and he dropped his head, all at once mortifyingly close to tears.

"I know," Jim said. He eased his arms around Blair's shoulders and brought Blair's head to his chest, sheltering and protecting.

"I'm so sorry about this," Blair whispered, "I'm so sorry, Jim. It was all so crazy and stupid. I just couldn't believe this was really happening until it was too late."

Jim exhaled sharply before releasing Blair and kneeling in front of him. Blair heard the soft grunt of pain as Jim got to his knees, but when Blair reached for him in alarm, Jim shook his head stubbornly and said, "I'm all right, and you've got nothing to be sorry for. Other people being crazy is not your fault."

"But half of them were my own students. I saw them in class three times a week, so where was my head? How the hell could I not have noticed that kind of craziness?"

"David Lash sat right across the table from Simon and me," Jim said quietly. His hands found the clasp on the first ankle cuff and unbuckled it carefully, his voice heavy with the old guilt. "The bad guys usually aren't wearing signs on their foreheads."

"That was different," Blair said, laying his hand on Jim's bowed head and thinking it wasn't really very different at all. He had dreamed of Lash only this morning, and he'd walked right into the middle of this horror all the same. Jim got the cuff open a moment later, and it dropped from Blair's ankle. The damned thing had been a part of him for so long that his leg felt naked without it. His stomach roiled sickly, and Jim, as if divining his thoughts, wrapped both hands around Blair's ankle and gently massaged the flesh until Blair could no longer feel the naked, hot place where the gyve had been.

"Not so different," Jim said, and in Blair's exhausted state, he had trouble remembering what they were talking about. "I questioned Eddie myself, and I never suspected he was lying either. These Sentinel senses aren't much good when I really need them, are they?" He moved his hands to Blair's other leg to unhook the second clasp. His touch was even gentler, carefully cupping his palms around Blair's calf just above the cuff. "There's a lot of swelling," he said. "I'm afraid you're going to feel this one."

"I'm OK," Blair said, the old lie getting easier with each repetition. "And anyway, Jim, you didn't pick up that Eddie was lying because he wasn't lying, not really. He said Ross was crazy. He said it all had to do with me. That was all the truth. Oh dammit," he groaned as Jim tried to release the buckle.

"I know," Jim whispered. "Take a deep breath. I've almost got it."

"I'm all right." Blair knotted his fists in the shoulders of Jim's sweater. "Just get it off me."

"Nearly there." The pressure around Blair's ankle increased for an unendurable instant, and then it was gone. Jim held his heel as tenderly as he had done in the garden. "Feel any better?"

"No," Blair moaned, his fists still knotted in pain, his head deeply bowed. "It hurts like hell."

"I'm not surprised." Jim's fingers moved gently around the swollen flesh. "It's a real mess here."

Blair snorted, almost laughing despite himself. "Oh, thanks, that makes me feel a whole lot better. Is it broken?"

"Can't tell." Jim moved his hand carefully around the swollen ankle. "There's too much stuff in the way. The way the blood's pooling down around your ankle, I can tell you it's going to be a real pretty bruise."

He got slowly to his feet as Blair said, with a smile that hurt his cut lip, "So much for your new career as a human MRI."

"I want to have a look at your arm." Jim touched his elbow. "How does it feel?"

"I hadn't really noticed," Blair said truthfully, but he obediently unbuttoned Jim's coat and eased it off with Jim's help. Jim began to unwind the T-shirt that was till wrapped tightly around Blair's arm, on the second pass down finding it stuck to the wound with dried blood. At that, he loosely wrapped the makeshift bandage up again.

"I don't want to tear it off dry and start the bleeding again," Jim said. "Can you step over into the bathtub?"

His head pressed to Jim's chest, hands gripping Jim's arms just above the elbow, Blair straightened his legs and forced himself to stand. He'd been looking forward to this practically since Jim had found him, so he wasn't going to fall apart now, before he got his bath, but he honestly didn't know how in the world he was going to step over the side of the tub.

Jim was evidently considering the same problem. "What if you just sit on the edge of the tub and then swing your feet around?" he suggested.

Blair would have smiled if he hadn't known it would hurt. Undignified, but it ought to work. "OK." He lowered himself with Jim's help until he felt the cold enamel under his butt, then inched around until his feet were in the tub. Amazing. Home stretch now. The hot water was going to feel so good. He clutched Jim's shoulder and managed to stand up again, this time in the tub. "I wanna try to get most of this shit off under the shower first," he said. "Then I'm gonna soak in the tub for the rest of the night. I hope you didn't have any other plans."

"OK with me," Jim agreed quietly. "Got your balance?"

"I'm cool," Blair said, one hand flat against the tile wall. He was perched on one foot, the toes of his other foot barely resting against the enamel. Jim turned on the water for him and adjusted the temperature while it was still running out of the lower spout. Blair felt cold water splash against his legs, and new shivers wracked him. When the warmer water touched his toes, Jim turned the faucet so that an easy, warm stream poured down from the showerhead. Blair turned his face up eagerly and felt the water spill across his cheeks and brow, drip off his chin, and stream down his chest and back. Jim took his hand and held on tightly, and Blair realized he was making little sounds as the water poured across him, moaning as though he were hurt. He opened his mouth, intending to tell Jim he was actually all right, this just felt so good he couldn't help it. Before he could speak, he tasted blood and ash and the perfume of the conditioner they had used in his hair, and something gave way. He felt it breaking in his chest, a pain as sharp and final in its own way as the pop when he'd broken his ankle.

He curled forward until his forehead was pressed against the cold tile of the shower. The tears on his cheeks felt much cooler than the hot water running down his back. During the kidnapping he had somehow numbed his emotions and managed not to feel the humiliation of having his clothes stripped from him, but he was feeling it now. They'd hauled him under the shower, held him when he tried to fight, scrubbed his flesh raw with pumice soap, lathered shampoo through his hair, touched him everywhere, leaving no secrets, no hope.

He turned blindly into Jim's embrace, knowing that water was running all over the floor, that Jim's white sweater would never be wearable again, that he must look like a helpless, pathetic fool standing and weeping like this in the shower. Jim cradled his wet head against his shoulder and simply said, "The first night's the hardest. It gets easier."

"I know," Blair whispered, barely speaking out loud. Since Jim said so, he could believe it, difficult as it was right now. "I know, man." The warm water intensified all the smells, sweat and coppery blood, charcoal and incense. He had to get this stuff washed off himself. "But in the meantime it totally sucks."

Jim stroked the back of Blair's head with a gentle hand. "Pretty much," he agreed quietly, and Blair laughed through his tears. He put his arms around Jim and held on until he felt his muscles beginning to cramp from the awkward position. Then he straightened up slowly, Jim releasing him in gentle increments until he was once more standing under the shower. This time he balanced himself with one hand on Jim's shoulder. With the other hand he felt blindly for the bar of soap, thinking this would be easier if there were some light in bathroom, but he wasn't about to suggest that Jim leave him to go get a candle.

His fist closed around the soap at last, and he squeezed his eyes shut and smeared the bar back and forth across his face until he'd worked up a lather. The bar of soap felt very smooth and soft, bubbles popping and running down his chin. He rubbed the bar over his chest and belly, too exhausted even to be much shocked by the strange feel of his shaved skin. Then he inched forward once more into the spray of water, put down the soap, and let the water carry everything away. He ran his hand over his face, reassuring himself the last traces were gone, then tilted his face up into the water again. He could have stood there forever, except the muscles in his uninjured leg were trembling with weakness, and he remembered with a pang that Jim had wounds of his own to take care of. "That's better," he whispered to Jim. "I just had to get it off me."

He'd thought he would feel tremendous relief when the last remnants were washed away, but mostly he only felt more tired than ever. The T-shirt bandaged around his arm was sodden with water and starting to itch, and he wanted to take it off, but he couldn't figure out how to do it one-handed.

Jim turned the shower knob so the water gushed from the lower faucet, and began to pool around Blair's feet. Blair shivered once the warm water was no longer running over him. "I don't really need a bath," he said reluctantly. "You're tired, Jim. We both are."

"All I've been hearing about all night is this bath. Now you're telling me you've changed your mind?"

The mock exasperation in Jim's soft voice made Blair laugh. "OK, I guess not."

Sitting down was an ordeal, but with Jim's unflagging strength to support him, Blair settled down at last, stretching his legs out before him with a groan of relief. The water was already as high as the small of his back, and it felt like heaven. A surreal one, admittedly, sitting in the darkness, listening to the changing tenor of splashing water while the bathtub slowly filled. His lower belly prickled with razor burn, the bottoms of his feet were sore, and the hot water around his hurt ankle made it feel like a balloon getting ready to burst. He felt utterly content all the same.

"Let me have a look at that arm," Jim said, and Blair obediently laid his arm on the side of the tub. The soaked T-shirt slipped away, and Blair felt the uncomfortable, vulnerable heat of wounds too recent to have begun to scab. He looked down, but it was too dark for him to make out anything. "It could have been worse," Jim pronounced. "Probably use some stitches all the same. I'll wash it, then we'll bandage it up when you get out of the tub, all right?"

"Sounds good," Blair said, and rested his head against the back of the tub. His eyes drifted shut as the water continued to rise, surrounding him with wonderful warmth. He was aware of Jim's careful ministrations, soap and water, a clean washcloth, then the sting and pungent smell of antiseptic, and though it made his arm ache, it all seemed very far away. Jim folded a hand towel and laid it under his arm.

"Try not to get it in the water again," Jim told him, and Blair nodded his understanding. He heard Jim turn off the faucets, and then Jim's hand cupped his chin. "And don't fall asleep on me, all right?"

Blair blinked his eyes open, not that it did any good except to signal to Jim he really was awake, since he couldn't see a damned thing. "Jim, you need to let me look at that cut on your side," he insisted, his tongue feeling thick in his mouth. The water was so warm. Seemed like the first time he'd been warm enough in years. "Bring a candle or something in here so I can see."

Jim patted the top of his head. "Will you be all right for a minute by yourself? I'll be right outside."

"'Course I will," Blair said with a sinking heart. He'd forgotten Jim would have to leave in order to bring back light. "Go on. I'm fine."

"I'll be right back," Jim assured him again. Blair strained to follow the blurred white shape that was Jim as far as the bathroom door. When he couldn't see him anymore he closed his eyes rather than trying to make out forms in the darkness, and tried to relax.

He'd never noticed before what an eerie, hollow sound water made as it lapped in a bathtub. He swallowed hard and opened his eyes again. He had heard that sound once before during the night, that hollow splash of water in darkness. He clenched his hands into fists so hard that he felt the long cuts on his arm begin to bleed again, and he remembered the tunnel and the sound of running water echoing off tile and stone, and the thing huddling there in the dark.

Jim, he thought in desperation, but didn't dare call out loud. If he opened his mouth right now, nothing would emerge but a scream.

"Hey, Chief," Jim called then. "What happened to all the emergency candles? Last time I looked we had a whole drawer full."

Blair let his breath out in a whoosh, sanity and safety returning to him all at once with just the sound of Jim's voice.

"Blair?" Jim called again, concerned, and this time Blair was able to answer him.

"Uh, those were emergency candles?"

Silence from Jim. Blair even smiled a little, imagining the long suffering look on Jim's face. "I was using them for meditation, man, so there should be a few stubs left in my bedroom. And I think Naomi borrowed some the last time she was here."

"Great," Jim said. "Ah, that's just great."

"Check on my dresser. There should be one or two there, I'm almost sure, unless Naomi borrowed them too." He sank down in the bath as he waited for Jim, trying to horde the warmth as the water began to cool. About time to drain it and fill it up with hotter water, but he waited, not wanting the quiet sounds of Jim moving around the loft to be drowned out by the noise of his bath water. He slid down an inch or two more, feeling the ends of his hair floating on the surface of the water. He'd wanted to wash his hair too, he remembered, wash away all the scents from the past twelve hours. He didn't know how he could do it without getting his arm wet, which would mean Jim would have to clean it again, and that was just too much work for either one of them tonight. He could live with Susan's conditioner in his hair for a little while longer. As long as he didn't let his memories or his imagination run away with him again, he could get through tonight, and Jim had promised him it would get better. He would hold onto that, and they would both survive this.

He scooted down another inch. His ankle still throbbed, but the suspension in warm water numbed the sharpest pain. The tight ache in his thighs and shoulders was finally beginning to unknot as well. His eyes drifted shut. He was certain he wasn't falling asleep, but suddenly he was breathing bath water, and he sat bolt upright, coughing and sputtering. He hung over the side of the tub, his nose and throat burning, all his sore muscles aching again. So much for long, peaceful baths.

With a groan, he bent forward and opened the drain. The bathroom was still dark, so he guessed Jim hadn't found any more candles after all. Jim still needed someone to clean that nasty cut on his side, though. "Hey, Jim," he called, vaguely surprised Jim hadn't appeared as soon as the water began to drain. "I think I'm ready to get out now."

Nothing. The loft was silent save for the sound of water draining from the tub. Muttering a curse, Blair forced himself to bend forward again and close the drain. It clanked loudly, the last of the water in the pipes gurgling away, and then there was silence save for the quiet lapping of water in the tub.

"Jim?"

No answer at all. Blair felt a panicky rush of heat burning across the top of his scalp and tried to argue his fear away. Jim had probably gone downstairs to borrow some candles, that was all. He was sure to be back any second, just any second now, so it was stupid to get all worked up about it.

"Jim?" he called again. "Jim?"

Oh god, Jim's senses. They must have cut out on him again. He never should have let Jim out of his sight. Cursing himself and weeping at the pain, Blair braced his arms and hauled himself up. He managed to sit on the side of the bathtub and swing his legs around just as Jim abruptly called back in a flat voice, "Joey left the door open downstairs."

Blair froze, perched uncomfortably on the side of the tub, shivering after the warmth of the bath. "Someone's always leaving that door open," he called back. His voice broke. "Jim, man, what's going on?"

This time Jim didn't answer. The pulse in Blair's neck was beating so hard it felt like a hand tightening around his throat. He managed to stand, one hand braced against the wall, and took a faltering step. When he tried to put weight on his hurt ankle it buckled under him, and he caught himself by grabbing the sink. "Jim," he gasped. "Please."

"Don't come out here," Jim's voice was as flat and inflectionless as it had been in the garden.

"Damn you, Jim," Blair wept as he yanked Jim's robe off its hook on the bathroom door and knotted it hard around his waist. The weight of terrycloth did nothing to stop his convulsive shivers. "You're about to give me a heart attack here." He lurched to the bathroom door, hopping and stumbling, tried to steady himself by grabbing the towel bar and instead pulled it right out of the wall. He crashed to the floor along with it, feeling nothing except the hot, sick exhilaration of absolute terror. He crawled the rest of the way, not wasting enough breath even to call Jim's name again. When he reached the dining table he tried to pull himself up on one of the chairs, but it flipped over, hitting the floor with a crash and almost braining him in the process. He dragged himself to the next chair and tried again, panting for breath, all but out of his mind with fear for Jim. This time he was able to pull himself upright, grabbing the edge of the dining table and bracing himself hard. "Jim," he shouted at last, "What the fuck is going on with you?"

Jim was standing by the sofa. Just standing there, making no move to help. In the light of the hurricane lamp his face was pale and expressionless, but when Blair yelled at him, Jim finally turned his head. A flicker of emotion crossed his features for an instant as he spoke in a soft, lost voice. It was the same voice Blair had been hearing from Jim all evening, and dammit, he had known something was wrong, he'd KNOWN it, and he'd been too wrapped up in himself to stop and make Jim tell him what it was.

"He's here," Jim murmured. "He's coming up the stairs."

Blair was breathing hard through his mouth, and it was tough to hold his breath long enough to form words. "Jim," he gasped, having to take another breath before he could continue. "Jim, I don't understand. Who's coming up the stairs?"

"Ross Malitz." Jim was perfectly calm, utterly mad.

"No!" Blair shrieked back at him, his own attempt at calm smashed away forever. "Jim, goddammit, Ross is dead. You shot him yourself. Jim, he's dead."

"I know," Jim said tonelessly as his long legs folded up underneath him, and he sat down hard on the sofa. "But I've been listening to him all along." Jim's head dropped for long moments, and Blair stared at him, feeling as though his heart was about to pound right out of his chest. Then Blair heard a sound, a muffled thump like someone had tripped out on the stairs, and Jim's head jerked up again. He turned to look at Blair with eyes that were wide and black in the gloom of the single lantern.

"He's here, Chief," Jim said.

Chapter 22

The worst thing in the world, Jim thought, was what you already knew. The complete unknown was nothing, a cakewalk in comparison. Say, for instance, you walk out the back door of a house on fraternity row, and something you've never imagined in your whole life is there waiting for you. Well, hell, either your heart stops, or your senses blow like a string of bad fuses. Either way you're out of your misery.

But suppose it's something you already know about. Something you've been waiting for and dreading all along. Maybe it's so terrible you tried to argue it away and pretend it didn't even exist, or maybe you wanted to tell Blair Sandburg about it, but Blair was just too hurt and too exhausted to deal with your problems on top of his own. And now the damned thing is dragging itself up your front steps, so it's a little late in the day to try and argue it out of existence anyway.

In fact, the only thing left to do, Jim thought, helplessly watching as Blair staggered and cursed, yelling at him and crying out in pain and shock, was to simply turn tail and run. Out the back way or down the fire escape, keep running as long and hard and as far as his legs would take him. It would mean leaving Blair, and there had been a time not very long ago when it would have been easier for Jim to contemplate leaving an arm or a leg behind. But then there had also been a time when he thought he could protect Sandburg, and obviously that wasn't so anymore, if it had ever really been true. Professor Nagle had been right about one thing. When Jim had shot Ross Maltiz in the head, he hadn't been thinking about all the other people at risk in the library, no matter what he told Blair afterward. He had killed Ross because he was holding a gun on Sandburg. No mystery, no two ways about it. The only strange thing was how the hell Nagle had known.

It didn't matter, because if death itself wasn't enough to keep a bad man down, then there was nothing Jim could do for Blair anymore. Jim had been a soldier for eight years, a cop for seven more, and if there was one thing he had learned, it was that there was no fighting the dead. They'd lay you out every time. The friends you were too late to save, the enemies who died in your place--Jim carried them all in his head, quiescent for the most part as the years rolled away, but he'd never forgotten what an uneasy truce it was.

Shattered forever, now. Nothing could pick up these pieces again.

"Jim," Blair gasped. He was supporting himself with one hand braced on the dining room table, stretching his other arm desperately out to Jim, and though his face was agonized, he made his voice gentle and soft. "Help me, Jim. I can't get to you by myself."

Jim couldn't help him. He couldn't even help himself. He remained where he was on the couch, shaking with horror, and Blair drew his hand back, supporting himself with both arms on the dining room table, his eyes darting back and forth, obviously trying to gauge the best way to make it to Jim's side without Jim's help. "Hey," he said again in that same measured, gentle voice, "I don't know what you're hearing right now, but it's been a real bad night for both of us, and until we can figure out what's going on here, I want you to just shut it down. Whatever's out there in the hall, just don't listen to it anymore."

Blair didn't believe him. What else had Jim expected? Jim hardly believed it himself. "But Chief," he said anyway, helpless to stop the words rising in his throat like bile. "Blair, it's trying to talk to me."

Blair made a terrible sound, low and choked, and he lurched toward Jim. His bad ankle gave way beneath him and he sprawled headlong. Blair never stopped crying out, pleading with him, trying to make Jim listen to him. Jim was listening; he just couldn't do what Blair asked. The best he could do was jam the side of his hand into his mouth to stop himself from laughing out loud, because when he laughed, Blair's eyes went cold and dead, and Jim could not stand to see it. Blair reached the loveseat, crawling, and hauled himself upright. He was hurting so much. Jim heard his pain in every labored breath, in the sickening, yielding crunch in Sandburg's ankle, in the sobs that didn't stop him from calling to Jim over and over again.

Jim had to get away from here. He couldn't do anything for Sandburg, and his presence was just making matters worse. Another thump came, this one louder and closer. Blair's head jerked up, and he looked toward the front door, the whites of his eyes gleaming in the light of the single candle. The thing wasn't in the stairwell anymore. It was closer than that, in the hall that led to their front door, a man three days dead and falling to pieces with every step. Jim heard everything. Blisters tearing open in the decomposing flesh, maggots pattering to the floor, blood sloshing in its lower limbs. Jim heard a soft, wet pop, smelled the sudden seepage of gas, and heard the rotting remains of Ross Malitz's internal organs drop to the wooden floorboards.

Jim moaned. He stumbled to his feet, intending to run, but his legs gave way and he crashed to his knees. "Jim," Blair gasped, and even though Jim knew he would never escape if he looked at Blair again, he turned his head to see. Blair had clamped his hand over his nose and mouth, and his eyes were round as saucers. "Oh my god," Blair groaned past the hand over his mouth. "Oh my god." He gagged and doubled over the loveseat, the knuckles of his left hand white as he gripped the cushions. The fetor stood in the room like the darkness itself, and although Jim's heart and mind were scoured with horror, still he felt a startled sense of relief so sudden and profound tears welled up in his eyes.

"Blair," he whispered. He planted his hands on the coffee table and staggered to his feet again. He was shivering clear through to the marrow, weak as a kitten, but himself for the first time in days. For the first time since he had awakened from a dream of Jack Pendergrast coming back from the river, and heard Ross breaking himself out of the morgue.

Supporting himself on the arm of the loveseat, then leaning his hip hard against the back to keep from falling, he reached Blair at last and raised Blair's head with his own trembling hand. Blair's face was wet with sweat and tears and bath water, and he was panting for breath, his teeth bared, his eyes wild with terror. "Chief," Jim tried again, and his own voice cracked. The thing in the hallway managed another impossible, monstrous step, dragging its guts along behind. Air currents shifted with its movement and brought a fresh gust from the graveyard rolling into the room. "He's out there," Jim gasped. "Can't you smell it?" He was less afraid of the thing outside their door than of the possibility Blair might deny it still, leaving Jim alone in this terrible new world where the men you killed sometimes came back.

Blair looked at him. His mouth worked, but nothing came out for what seemed to Jim an eternity. "Jim," he spoke out loud at long last, his voice almost conversational save for the rising quaver. "Ross is dead. He should not be walking around out there."

Jim laughed out loud, and this time it was the laughter of wild relief, not the bray of madness. He put his arms around Blair and pulled him into a fierce embrace. "I know," he whispered, and almost started laughing again. Instead he held Blair tighter. Blair's arms were around him in turn, Blair's head pressed hard against his shoulder. He was taking snuffling breaths, hands clutching the back of Jim's sweater, and when he managed to speak, Jim couldn't tell if he were laughing or crying either.

"Jim, what are we gonna do?"

"Damned if I know." Jim raised his hand to stroke the back of Blair's head once, then loosened his embrace, wanting to get Blair around the sofa so he could sit down. Neither one of them was very steady on their feet. "I think I was hoping you could tell me."

Blair remained rooted in place, but he lifted his head. His face was white as the bathrobe belted around his shaking form, but a bewildered, terrified smile was on his face. He slid his arms forward and clutched at the front of Jim's sweater. He couldn't support himself that way, and Jim grabbed his forearms, trying to brace him. "First thing let's do," Blair announced, swaying, "is let's not open that door."

"Yeah," Jim said, choking back another half-mad urge to laugh. "Yeah, OK." As he spoke, a terrific blow fell upon the front door, shaking it in its frame. Blair cried out and started violently. Jim shouted too and tried to hold him, but he wasn't strong enough to support them both. He managed a clumsy two-step, then Blair yelped as his weight came down on his bad ankle. Struggling to hold him, Jim tripped on the end table behind the sofa, and the light table tumbled over and flipped up, spilling books and catching Jim soundly in the thigh as they both fell. It hurt far more than it should have, as though the cumulative effect of so many blows and so many shocks was finally catching up with him, and this last slapstick was simply beyond endurance. He curled over Blair on the floor, grunting at the pain. Blair's fists were still twisted in the front of Jim's sweater, and Blair was groaning too. In between groans he was laughing.

"Chief," Jim whispered when he could manage it, understanding for the first time how his own laughter must have frightened Blair. "Are you all right?"

It was an idiotic question, one Blair didn't even bother to answer. Blair craned his head back just as another terrific blow smashed against the front door. Both of them jerked at the sound, and Blair stopped trying to see behind himself. "Just tell me that door is locked," he whispered, still sounding as though he were trying not to laugh. "Please."

It was a horrifying and somehow hilarious thought. "I locked it after Joey left." Jim raised his head to double-check all the same. The deadbolt was pushed home, the chain in place. Jim saw the dark glitter of round glass in the spy hole, too. The angle was wrong from him to see through the door, but the thought of what might be looking back with blind eyes made him drop his head fast. "It's locked," he muttered.

Another terrific crash made the front door rattle in its frame. Blair squeezed his eyes shut, his fists tightening in Jim's sweater. "Ross knew," he breathed, his voice shaking. "He told us in the library. Like his, uh, contingency plan in case he didn't make it out alive with that damned book -- oh shit." Blair broke off as another blow thundered against the front door. Jim could hear bones breaking and flesh sloughing away at the impact.

He slid his arms around Blair's shoulders and lowered his head until his forehead nearly touched Blair's. They had to stop this somehow. If nothing else, they had to get out before they both went insane. "So what can we do about it?" he asked, almost begging.

Blair's eyes opened wide. "Jesus, man, how would I know?" His voice broke. "I kept telling Eddie and Susan, I don't know anything about any of this. It doesn't have anything to do with me." His fists worked convulsively, clutching and releasing the front of Jim's sweater.

"Easy," Jim said, feeling anything but calm himself. He held the back of Blair's neck with his hand and lowered his head further, so he could lay his cheek against Blair's. The wounds on Blair's forearm had begun to bleed again, and Sandburg reeked of blood and terror. It was far preferable to the smell of the dead man trying to beat down their front door. "Then we've got to get out of here," Jim told him. "Come on, try to sit up. We'll go out the back."

"Yeah." Blair nodded once, quick and nervous, and finally unclenched one hand and laid his palm flat against Jim's chest. "Yeah, all right."

Jim rolled to his side, groaning at the pressure against the new bruise on his thigh and feeling the tender edges of the cut over his hip tearing open. "He's pretty spry for a dead guy, but I think we can beat him," Jim said, mostly to distract himself from the pain. A laugh bubbled up, but when it escaped it sounded more like a sob. Blair put his hand on Jim's face in sympathy for an instant, then rolled onto his side as well and pushed himself up until he was sitting, moaning at every change in position.

"Would it help if I wrapped up your ankle first?" Jim asked, drawing one knee up and getting ready to stand. "Maybe you could put a little more weight on it, move a little faster if it was stable."

Three thundering blows crashed against the front door in succession. "Oh jeez," Blair groaned at every crash. "We don't have time for that. We've got to go now."

Ross's spongy, splintering fists and forearms hit the door again. Blair took Jim's outstretched hands, gripping tightly. "Enough to wake the dead," Blair muttered miserably, and only then seemed to hear what he had said. He gave a bark of laughter that didn't have much amusement in it.

"Ready?" Jim said, not entirely certain he had the strength to pull Blair to his feet.

"Yeah already, come on, come on."

As Jim began to stand, though, he felt something give in his side, and he had to let go. He curled up, his forehead on his knee, panting and trying to control the pain. Blair moaned along with him, as though Jim's pain was just as agonizing for him. "Forget it," Blair said, his hands on Jim's bowed shoulders. "We'll do it another way." He pulled at Jim's sleeve, urging him to crawl, and somehow Jim did it, the two of them dragging themselves around the back of the loveseat, shoving books and the overturned table out of their way, then around the corner of the sofa where they collapsed against the back of it. It wasn't much protection, but somehow not being in a direct line to the door felt less vulnerable. Jim dropped his head against the back of the sofa, holding his aching ribs with both hands. Blair was beside him, breathing as hard as Jim was but otherwise silent.

As Sandburg's silence stretched on, Jim started to tremble, and he reached out for Blair's hand. Finding it, Blair's fingers wrapped tightly around his own, just as the thing out in the hallway spoke.

It was voice and sense only. Whatever animated that decomposing flesh could force air through its lungs and out its mouth, but there wasn't enough left of the lips or tongue or vocal chords to form words. That was a small blessing, Jim thought, and realized he was screaming along with it. He broke off at once, and turned enough to press his forehead to Blair's shoulder. "I'm sorry, Chief," he whispered, squeezing Blair's hand tighter, meaning the apology to stand for all his weakness and all his terror.

Blair bent his head to rest against Jim's, reaching his other hand to cup the edge of Jim's jaw. "I think there's a way," he said very, very quietly. The wheezing, tortured cry in the hallway ended, and another crash shook the front door in its frame.

"We'll go down the back steps on our hands and knees if we have to," Jim said, suddenly knowing he would not like whatever Blair was about to tell him.

"Like Rudolph Bollingen's housekeeper," Blair said, as though the name would mean something to Jim. "When the police broke down the front door, they found her cooking Bollingen's hands and arms in a soup pot. You know why she was doing that?"

"Sandburg, I don't know what you're talking about. We've got to get out of here."

"I figured it out while they had me strung up in the garden," Blair said, unhappy but absolutely inflexible. "It's a belief as old as mankind. I guess people believe it still. Why else would we go to the trouble and expense of embalming the dead?"

"I don't understand," Jim said helplessly. "Blair, please --"

"It's because no matter what we say, we don't actually believe the corpse is an inanimate object, you know? And it isn't, not really. Until you embalm it or burn it or excarnate it, it's this mass of disgusting, decomposing meat. All sorts of biological processes are going on, so from a certain point of view, it's not dead at all. And if it's not dead, then maybe the soul hasn't gone very far. Maybe it's just waiting for the opportunity to come back."

Another crash against the front door. Blair shouted in fright and squeezed Jim's hand so tightly the bones in Jim's hand began to ache. "Did you know that in Greece and Tibet and Catal Huyuk and Amasya and Borneo they used to strip the flesh from the bones before burying a body? Laplanders would remove the entrails and smoke and dry them in the sun. Do you see what I'm saying here, Jim?"

"No --" Jim said, but Blair wasn't to be stopped, talking on frantically, impassioned, as if the sheer flow of words would be enough to end the horror enveloping them.

"You almost can't find a society that allows the dead to rot on their own. Even like in Europe and the Balkans where bodies were buried, the custom right through the nineteenth century was to dig up the corpse after six months or so and scrub the flesh off bones before burying it again. Risky business, waiting so long. No wonder vampire legends are almost universal. And in Egypt before mummification came along as a way to make dead bodies inert, they would cut off the arms and legs of a corpse before they buried it. Why would they do that unless it was to make sure it couldn't walk? Jim," Blair was gasping, almost weeping, "In some dark, awful corner of our collective consciousness, we've always known that as long as a corpse lies rotting, there's a possibility of that." He flung out his arm, jabbing a finger in the direction of the front door. "That the soul, or some twisted piece of it, might find a way back. Rudolph Bollingen was a necromancer. He was fucking around with life and death, trying to get to that -- that other place where death doesn't matter."

Blair's voice quavered, and he got up on his knees, groaning but unstoppable, and grasped Jim's upper arms through the sweater, fingers digging into the muscle painfully in his frenzy. "His housekeeper was trying to render the flesh from his bones one piece at a time because she knew otherwise he might come back."

Madness. In any other circumstances, a madness Jim might have welcomed, since Blair fighting his way through a problem with a blur of words and knowledge was such a heartbreaking reminder of the ordinary world. The world wasn't ordinary anymore, though. Maybe Blair could find a place in his world view for a dead man trying to pound down their front door, but Jim couldn't follow him there. He couldn't. "What are you saying, Sandburg?" Jim's voice was harsh with terror. "Wait until that thing beats down our front door, and then meet it with a carving knife and a stock pot?"

"Dammit, Jim," Blair shouted back in frustration, "I don't know. I just thought --" He took a shuddering breath and all the fire went out of him. He let Jim go and sagged back on his haunches. The position must have hurt his ankle, because he groaned and shifted onto his hip, awkwardly trying to stretch his leg out in front of himself. "I don't know. You're right. It doesn't do us any good."

"Come on," Jim said. "We'll go down the back stairs. We just have to get out of here before we both lose our minds."

"It won't work," Blair said flatly, despairing. "I'm too slow with this ankle. It'd take me an hour to get down the stairs. What if it's faster than we are?"

Jim looked back at him, not knowing what to say. They were both imagining the same thing, he knew -- meeting that dead thing on the narrow, dark stairs down to the basement.

"What's that?" Blair suddenly asked, at the same time Jim realized the noises out in the hall had changed. No splintering crashes had fallen against the door for long moments. Instead, Jim could hear soft, wet patting sounds, soggy flesh against wood. Then a rattle. Dear God in heaven, it was trying the knob. He didn't have to tell Blair. Blair had pressed the back of his hand hard against his mouth, his eyes going wide with the same terrible realization. It didn't really matter, Jim tried to tell himself, fighting back the cold helplessness of panic. The door was locked. That thing could turn the knob all it wanted, and there was no logical reason why a dead man trying a door knob was so much worse than a dead man flinging itself mindlessly against it.

No logical reason, anyway, until Blair moaned, "Oh Jim, the key."

"Chief," Jim moaned just as softly, though he wanted to scream. "You promised you wouldn't leave the key over the lintel anymore."

"I haven't been, I swear. Just last week when Benoite needed to borrow my copy of Des chinoises and I wasn't going to be around -- oh, god, Jim, I'm so sorry."

The soft paddling sounds continued, hideously patient. "We've got to go," Jim said, squeezing the words out of his constricted throat. He grabbed the sleeve of Blair's bathrobe. "We can't wait anymore."

"No." Blair pulled his arm free. "No, Jim, I know what to do. There is another way. Where's that book?"

"Christ, Sandburg." Jim was all but weeping. "What book?"

"That Huysmans translation of Unaussprechlichen Kulten." Blair's voice had become horribly bright and brittle, cracking as he tried to explain to Jim. "It had the symbols in it. The ones Susan and Eddie wrote on my board in class, the ones they wrote on me." Blair made a violent gesture, and before Jim realized what he intended, he had grabbed the back of the sofa and hauled himself to his feet with a cry like a scream. "It must be in my room," he gasped out, clinging to the back of the sofa. "Help me, Jim, I've got to get it."

Jim managed to get to his feet, ruthlessly driving back the pain in his side. "What do you want with that?" he demanded, taking Blair's arm and pulling it around his neck. "Chief, we should just go. I'm walkin' a real fine line here."

Blair refused to rest his weight against Jim, trying to stand by himself even as he demanded Jim's help. "I can use those signs, too," he burst out. "I can send Ross back."

For a long moment Jim couldn't react at all, and in that instant, Blair impatiently pulled himself free and turned around, balancing himself against the back of the sofa. "There it is," Blair said suddenly, "Oh thank god, it's still right there on the coffee table."

Out in the hallway, something small and metallic hit the wooden floorboards.

Blair started as though it had been a gunshot, then in an inelegant but efficient move, hoisted himself up onto the back of the sofa and rolled over onto the seat. He hissed sharply in pain but didn't slow down, sitting up fast and reaching across for the book on the table. There was a soft wet thump against the front door, as if something large and damp and clumsy had been carelessly propped against it. Blair flinched at the sound but didn't look up from his book. He was flipping through with desperate haste, bending down low over the coffee table to see it by the light of the single hurricane lamp. "I know there's a way," he was muttering, more to himself than to Jim. "I saw it last night when I was trying to make some sense out of this crap."

"No," Jim said abruptly. "Sandburg, you can't."

Blair turned his head to look up at Jim, his face white and desperate and determined. "Yes I can. They used this evil to hurt you, man. They used it to hurt us both, because they thought I wouldn't fight back. They've already been wrong once tonight." A gleam that was half terror and half exultation shone in Blair's eyes. "I'm gonna do it again, and end this for once and for all."

No, Jim thought. This wasn't right. That look on Sandburg's face wasn't right. Ridiculous to have qualms at this point, maybe, when everything had already gone wrong beyond Jim's power to imagine it ever being right again, but the thought of Blair re-writing those obscene symbols made Jim feel sick and faint with despair. "Sandburg, don't," he said, uncertainty choking his voice. Blair was bent low over the book again, and didn't even lift his head to answer. He just waved his hand in a gesture of abrupt dismissal.

On the other side of the front door, clumsy hands were patting the floor with blind persistence, looking for the dropped key. Quite a job with no eyes. Jim's bullet had put out one, the other was probably oozing down its cheek. It made up in patience what it lacked in dexterity, though. Pat, pat, pat. A sticky sound as bits and pieces were left behind on the floorboards.

Then Jim sensed it. He thought it was more subtle and ephemeral than scent, though that's what it must have been all the same, and Jim was distantly astonished he could smell something so fragile and sweet when the air in the loft was as thick and foul as the draft from a slaughter house. It was something of Blair, the same faint trace Jim had sensed from the first, and at long last he knew why. He heard the thunk of metal that wasn't the key against the floorboards, and remembered the high school ring on Ross's hand and the long strands of Sandburg's hair caught in the setting, gleaming under the florescent lights of the library.

Without another thought Jim stepped over the back of the sofa, standing on the cushions to step down to the floor. He snatched the book out from under Sandburg's hands and flung it away.

"Jim!" Blair lurched to his feet, having to hold on to Jim to manage it. "What do you think you're doing?"

Jim held Blair's upper arms, trying to steady him without falling over himself. He didn't know how to explain what he was so certain of to Blair when he had nothing but memory and gut instinct. Two nights ago in the library Jim had taken a wrong turn into the dark illusion of the city, that other place where Blair had told him death didn't matter. Then the elevator doors had opened, and the color and light that was Blair Sandburg had stepped out into the lobby and lit a path through the darkness.

And now Blair wanted to use that darkness himself.

No. Oh, no, nothing was worth that, never, no matter what.

Out in the hall, a soft weight thumped against the door, and then came the sharp, quiet scrape of metal against metal. "Jim!" Blair struggled wildly in his arms for a moment, and Jim tightened his grip to hold him. Blair stopped fighting at once and stood motionless save for the heaving of shoulders as he panted for breath. "Jim, listen to me," he said, trying to make his voice calm. "I need that book. You've got to let me go, then walk over there and get it up off the floor and bring it to me. I can stop this, I'm sure of it, but I've got to have that book."

"No," Jim said. "Not that way. You can't."

"Dammit, Jim, yes I can." For all his vehemence, Blair's voice was still soft. He reached up and managed to touch Jim's cheek with the side of his hand. "Believe me, man, I know what you're thinking. It's all been way too much. It's still way too much. This is all my fault, but I know how to fix it. You've got to let me try."

"No," Jim told him. "Not that way. Not their way."

The soft scraping sounds ended with a solid, forcible chunk as the key slipped into the hole, and Blair screamed, "Jim, for the love of God--" He pulled away violently, but Jim caught him and yanked him back, throwing his arms around Blair to hold him against his chest. Blair shouted at him and fought to free himself. The key turned in the lock, releasing the deadbolt. Blair hit at Jim's back and wrenched his body from side to side, trying to knock Jim off balance, but Jim braced himself with his feet apart, keeping Blair pulled to his chest through sheer strength, and tucked his head down close to Blair's shoulder so Blair couldn't hit him as he thrashed his head and shouted and begged.

"You don't know what you're doing," he wailed furiously. "Jim, you've been listening to that thing coming after us for three days now, haven't you? Jim, try to understand me! You're not yourself. Please, dammit, please let me stop this before it gets in." He beat his fists against Jim's back and sides, half-maddened with rage and terror. "Jim, you're out of your head! Do you understand me, man? You've got to let go!"

The door swung open as far as it could before the chain stopped it, and the change in air pressure dragged the worst of the reek over both of them. Jim kept his head buried hard against Blair's shoulder, his hands locked into fists across Blair's back. He was weeping as Blair screamed and fought and told him he was crazy. The door bounced against the flimsy security chain over and over again. "Goddamn you, Jim, let me go!"

His voice muffled against the shoulder of Blair's house robe, tears making his voice thick, Jim whispered, "But that's what he wants, Chief. That's why he's here."

Blair didn't relax, but for a shocked instant he stopped fighting and held himself rigid in Jim's arms. Jim could hear the wood splintering around the security chain and the groaning yield of the metal. His eyes squeezed shut, Blair's heart beating a furious tattoo against Jim's chest, his back and sides aching from Blair's clumsy, furious blows, he remembered the way Blair had looked stepping out of the elevator in that ridiculous Hawaiian shirt of his. All that color and light and the transcendent smile on Blair's face when he raised his eyes and saw Jim waiting for him. The memory gave Jim the words to tell Blair what he knew.

"If everything went wrong, they still had this, Sandburg. The hope that if you were angry and desperate enough, you would work their dirty magic for them. If you do it, he wins. He'll take everything you are." Blair didn't move or speak. "You can't fight a dead man," Jim said, telling Blair what he'd known from the first. "You can't possibly win."

For an endless moment Blair remained tense with fury in Jim's arms, and then one hand came up and he touched the back of Jim's head with his palm. He turned his face and looked toward the front door as the chain snapped and the door banged open. "I won't do it," Blair said to what stood beyond the open door. His voice was low and clear. "I'm sorry, Ross, but it's over, and you're dead."

The thing that used to be Blair's student shuffled wetly over the threshold, and Blair flinched violently, but he didn't look away. "I already told you," he said, raising his voice until he was shouting. He wasn't talking to Ross anymore. Something breathless and terrified wove a trembling high note through Blair's cry, but Jim heard other threads as well, and one of them shone like the golden light of Sandburg's laughter.

"I'm staying on my side of town," Blair screamed to the darkness. "And you're supposed to stay on yours."

All at once the air felt hot and sharp and alive to Jim. Blair hissed and wrapped his fists in the back of Jim's sweater, burying his face against Jim's neck and shoulder. "Forgive me," Blair whispered, and then the floor under their feet rose with a sudden jolt and rocked hard. Bricks and mortar ground against each other, roaring, and the wooden beams moaned. The hurricane lantern rolled off the coffee table and smashed. The flame guttered wildly for an instant in a pool of spreading wax before it died, and the thing on the threshold collapsed into itself like a pile of greasy rags. As the last shudders of the aftershock died, Jim heard Ross's high school ring hit the floor and go rolling across the boards until it hit the kitchen island and fell over.

Blair's hands, still wrapped in the back of Jim's sweater, suddenly let go, and his head lolled back.

"Sandburg!" Blair was a deadweight in his arms, and although Jim would not look toward the huddled thing at the front door, he could see the cold blue flames out of the corner of his eye. They licked at the terrible folds and edges of the motionless heap, consuming it from within.

Jim did not think he had the strength to hold himself up any longer, much less Blair, but he made it to the windows dragging Blair with him all the same. He shifted Blair in his arms so Sandburg's head lay on his shoulder, and he swung the window open to the balcony. The cold night air smelled clean and sane, and Blair gasped and lifted his head. His eyes were confused, but he looked trustingly up at Jim. "So tired," he said. "Isn't it morning yet?"

Jim brushed his lips over Blair's brow. "Soon now," he said, and it was the truth, even though dawn was still six hours away.

Epilogue

Not for the first time this evening, it occurred to Blair that it was a beautiful night for stargazing. With no city lights to blur the skyline, he could see Vega, Deneb, and Altair ascending from the northeastern horizon in a brilliant triangle, as if pointing the way toward summer. Blair pulled the blanket more tightly around his shoulders and tucked his hands back under his armpits for warmth. Hard to believe summertime would be here almost before he knew it. Arcturus was high in the sky, yellow-gold, the brightest star in the heavens. When his neck started to ache from craning his head upward for so long, he dropped his head to lay his chin on his chest, trying to stretch out the cramping muscles, then rolled his head from side to side.

At once Jim's hand was on the back of his neck, palm warm, strong fingers making careful circles over tensed and aching muscles. "Sore?" Jim asked. His voice was a hoarse rumble.

"I'll live," Blair replied without thinking, and then it struck him as funny when he heard what he'd just said. He chuckled weakly, feeling the strain through his shoulders. Man, he was getting stiff. He wouldn't be able to move tomorrow. He was hardly able to move now. Jim had done the best he could, but this nest of blankets and sofa cushions heaped against the balustrade was uncomfortable and cold.

It still beat the hell out of the alternative. Too bad they couldn't get even further away. Neither one of them was in good enough shape to get down the back steps, though, so this would have to do. Well, that wasn't strictly true. Jim probably could have managed it on his own, but he hadn't suggested it, and Blair wasn't about to. Probably made him a pretty selfish bastard, but on the other hand, Jim wasn't showing any signs he wanted to go traipsing off by himself either. In fact, it seemed whenever Blair was silent for more than a few moments at a time, Jim would come up with some excuse to start a conversation again.

"Cold?" Jim asked, right on schedule. He adjusted the blanket around Blair, despite the fact Blair had done that himself not two minutes ago, and then left his arm draped around Blair's shoulders. In the warmth and strength of that casual embrace Blair almost forgot about the cold night air and his aching body. He let his eyes close and dropped his head back.

"Nah, I'm good," he told Jim, and it wasn't precisely a lie.

"I could get another blanket," Jim said after another short interval.

"No." That was an easy one, even if it was cold out here. Jim had made four or five trips back inside already, hauling out sofa cushions, a blanket, sweat pants for Blair and even the first aid kit from underneath the sink. Every time he came back he was moving more slowly, and his voice was more strained. Blair wasn't sending him back in there again. He didn't know what was left on the threshold, and he couldn't smell it with the balcony windows firmly shut, but of course Jim could. Blair opened his eyes fast and shook his head, trying to banish that line of thought. "You see that bright star right overhead, man? The one that almost looks orange?"

Jim obediently craned his head back. "I see it."

"That's Arcturus. The cool thing about it is it'll only be close enough to see from Earth for about a million years or so, 'cause it's not orbiting galactic center in the equatorial plane of the galaxy. It's just passing through, and then it'll be gone." Blair worked his arm out from under the blanket and made a swooping motion with his outstretched hand to illustrate. Then he pointed straight up. "If you follow Arcturus down to the north there, the first constellation is the Northern Crown, and then Hercules is the next one and just to the west there is M13, that little fuzzy dot. I've seen it in a telescope a couple of times, though, and it's really beautiful then, like this cloud of light all glittering with stars. I bet you can see it that way without a telescope. You see which one I'm talking about?"

But Jim shook his head, and reaching out, brought down the hand with which Blair was pointing to the sky. "I don't want to look at the stars," he said quietly. "The spaces in between are just too damned dark."

Blair swallowed, feeling a chill. He knew what Jim meant all right. Reaching up with his other hand, he caught the hand Jim had draped over his shoulder and squeezed tightly for a moment. "Screw the stars," he said, and managed a laugh. Jim squeezed back, and Blair suddenly realized Jim must have been humoring him while he rattled on about the stars. The man had been a Ranger, after all. He probably knew a little something about dead reckoning by the night sky.

He was trying to think of something to talk about that didn't involve the stars when Jim asked, "You want to try to get some sleep? We could lay these pillows out flat so you could stretch out, maybe get a little shut-eye."

That was another no-brainer. The last thing Blair wanted to do was sleep. He couldn't imagine leaving Jim alone that way. Not when Jim was willing to listen to his bargain basement astronomy lectures rather than face the silence of the evening. "No," Blair announced. "I'm fine. Hey, how does your side feel? Is it still bleeding? Do we need to wrap it up tighter?"

"It's all right."

"You'll tell me if it's not? Because it's gonna be a long time till morning."

"I'll tell you," Jim agreed, and another silence fell.

"Don't want you, like, quietly bleeding to death right next to me or anything."

Jim was good enough to chuckle even though it wasn't remotely funny. "I'll keep you posted," he said.

Blair's neck was beginning to cramp leaning against Jim's upper arm. He didn't say anything about it and didn't move, but Jim must have felt it anyway, because to Blair's regret he lifted his arm away so Blair was only leaning back against the sofa cushion. It was squishy and cold after the warm solidity of Jim's arm, so Blair leaned his shoulder a little harder against Jim's. "Guess I can kiss my fellowship good-bye," he blurted out, and then wondered why the hell he'd told Jim that. He felt Jim stiffen against him.

"What do you mean?"

"Nothing, man. Just thinking out loud."

Not that he'd believed Jim could be put off so easily. "Why would they take away your fellowship?" Jim persisted.

Blair shrugged, then equivocated. "For one thing, this is my fourth year of teaching already, and there aren't all that many positions for anthro grad students, you know? It's not like the English department or something where they have to have a steady supply of new blood to teach all the freshman comp classes. It's real dicey whether I could have gotten teaching again next year or not. I'm supposed to finish up and be out of here by now."

"You never told me that."

Blair smiled a little in the darkness. "You never asked."

"So just how were you planning to keep yourself in seaweed and carrot juice next year without your fellowship?"

"You make it sound so final. Something would have come along. At least this way I know I need to start looking now."

"Why? You mean because of what happened today?"

"Well, yeah." Blair sighed. "You think they're going to let me step back into a classroom after this?"

"Sandburg, you were kidnapped at gunpoint from a parking garage." Jim's voice was low and angry. "It was not your fault. Nothing that happened was your fault."

"They were my students. It was my class."

"A congregation of bad head cases taking your class doesn't make it your fault either. The school's not gonna try and lay this on your shoulders."

"They don't have to lay anything on my shoulders. All they have to do is not offer the fellowship again. Look, Jim, forget about it. I don't even know why I said anything."

Jim shifted beside him. Blair could feel unhappiness radiating from every tensed muscle. "When you come right down to it," Jim announced at last, "Rainier's probably liable, at least in part. They've got some responsibility to provide a safe working environment. At the very least, not to hire professors like Nagle. He egged those students on, Sandburg. He was probably in on it from the first."

The night breeze was penetratingly cold, sneaking under the collar of the house robe and raising chills down Blair's spine. The street below them was quiet, everyone finally having gone in for the night, and Blair shivered and laid his head against Jim's shoulder. He remembered his surreal conversation with Nagle through Tom's locked bedroom door. "They killed him," Blair said, raising his head again. "At the very end he finally tried to stop them from hurting me anymore, and someone killed him. I was blindfolded, so I didn't see who it was." He took a long, shaky breath. "I don't guess it matters any more."

Jim didn't answer, and Blair couldn't tell if that was because Jim agreed with him, or just because Jim didn't want to discuss it right now. Probably the latter. There would have to be an investigation, Blair supposed, much as he wished they could blame it all on the earthquake and pretend the rest of it never happened. He couldn't imagine what the results of an investigation like that would be. What were he and Jim going to tell people about the last twelve hours?

What was he going to tell himself?

"Ross's school ring," Blair whispered suddenly. He forced himself to look through the dark balcony windows for an instant and into the living room. He couldn't see anything but the blank, black panes of glass, and thinking about Jim's complaint about the darkness between the stars, he shut his eyes fast and turned his head. "I heard it roll into the kitchen. We should - I mean, how are we supposed to explain how it got there?"

"We won't," Jim said quietly. "I put it away."

Oh, Jim, Blair thought, imagining Jim having to pick up that terrible artifact. "Where did you put it?"

Jim almost laughed. "They'll find it if they toss the place, but I'm not expecting anyone to. I dropped it in a bottle of bleach."

"Oh man." For some reason that struck Blair as funny in a horrible sort of way. "Just be sure we get rid of that bottle before laundry day."

Jim snorted. "What," he said, "you mean waste a perfectly good bottle of bleach?"

"Oh my god," Blair moaned. It hurt to laugh, but he couldn't help himself. The laughter came like hard blows to the gut, and the more he tried to stop, the worse they became. He curled over his bent knee, holding his sides, dimly aware of Jim patting his back and saying "Easy, Sandburg, you're gonna pop a seam," which just made him laugh harder than ever, and when the gasps of laugher became hard, dry sobs, Jim folded his arms around Blair and pulled him up so Blair could tuck his face against Jim's throat. His arms went blindly around Jim, trying to be careful of Jim's hurt ribs, but it was hard to be gentle when he was so exhausted and so afraid. Jim's arms tightened around him, understanding even though Blair couldn't explain, and held him firm against the world, even against the darkness between the stars.

"Jim," he whispered in a choked voice when he could speak. He didn't know how much time has passed, only that he could feel Jim's strong arms trembling with the strain, and the flesh on Jim's neck was damp from Blair's breath. "What are we gonna do?"

Jim took a long, shuddering breath and squeezed Blair so tight they both groaned. "The first thing we're gonna do, Sandburg," he said, his voice grim and serious, "is buy a brand new industrial size bottle of bleach, and then we're going to scrub every inch of floorboard from the street to the front door. Hope you didn't have any other plans for this weekend."

"Dammit, Jim," Blair wheezed, his head pressed hard against Jim's shoulder, "I told you, don't make me laugh anymore. I can't stand it."

"You think I'm joking? It's that or put the place on the market."

"Nah, that wouldn't work," Blair whispered, trying to get into the spirit of things. "We'd still have to wash the hall." He shifted a little, looking for a comfortable way to lay his head on Jim's chest. There wasn't one sitting up like this, but he stayed as long as his sore back and shoulders could stand it. Jim helped him sit back then, and Blair heard his tight, controlled breaths. The sound of Jim's pain made everything inside feel cold as ice. He reached for Jim's hand again and held on hard. "Sorry," he breathed, and felt Jim shake his head a little.

What a cold, clear, quiet night it was. Not the way the evening had begun at all. He couldn't even hear any sirens anymore. "Is there anything I can do?" he asked Jim quietly.

"I'll be all right."

That wasn't what Blair had asked, but it wasn't worth arguing about. Besides, Jim had a point. There wasn't anything he could do for Jim right now anyway, except maybe keep on talking.

"We'll tell people what they want to believe," Jim said abruptly, answering an earlier question. "That's all we have to do. Most people are like Pops after all. They don't want to read the stuff scribbled in the margins." Jim snorted softly. "Guess I'm a little like that myself, huh, Chief?"

"Right." Blair smiled. "Good ol' by-the-book Ellison. That's you, man."

"Damned straight," Jim agreed, sounding content.

"Hey," Blair said when the silence threatened to stretch out too long, "One good thing. While I'm laid up with this ankle, maybe I'll finally have time to finish that paper I've been noodling around with. That one on the unintended consequences of the federal gun regs on Cascade's inner city drug culture. All that's really left to do is double check some authorities. I should've done that months ago."

"That'd be great," Jim said. "Simon's been driving me nuts asking about it."

Blair chuckled. "Poor Simon. He's convinced if I give that paper at the DEA conference in June it might make some difference in the way the dough gets spread around. I keep telling him this is the Feds, man. They're not gonna listen to some long haired academic trying to tell them what the problem is."

"They might. It could be a chance to really make a difference."

"Maybe." Blair was more cautious. "Anyway, I'll finish it up and see. You know what I'd really like to do, though? There are some spots for guest lecturers at the Academy over the summer session. I told Simon before that I wouldn't have time, but my summer's suddenly looking a lot more open."

"You should give it a shot if you're interested. It would have made a lot of difference to me if I'd heard someone like you when I was at the Academy."

"Really?" Blair felt a stab of surprised pleasure so sharp that for an instant he forgot all about the cold and his hurt ankle and the rose thorns in his butt. He almost forgot about the puddle of muck on Jim's front door. "You would have listened to someone like me?"

"I'd've thought you were a total hippie flake." Jim put his arm around Blair's shoulders again. "But once I got out on the street, yeah, it really would have made a difference."

"No kidding," Blair said softly. He laid his head back against Jim's arm.

"But I thought you were going somewhere this summer. Alaska," Jim said after a short pause, and Blair realized he must have heard more in the garden than Blair had thought. "You told me you were going to Alaska this summer."

Not anymore. That travel grant would go the same way as his fellowship, but there was no need to tell Jim that. Especially not now, when Blair was considering the world from such a new and interesting point of view. "Nah, why do I need to go to Alaska to look for paleolithic sentinels? I've got my own right here."

Jim growled and cuffed his face, then pointed to the east with his other hand. "Those are a couple of planets just above the horizon there, right? Which two are they?"

Blair had to crane up to see over the balustrade. He hadn't thought Jim was watching the sky anymore, and it made him feel that things were a bit better if Jim were willing to look up. Of course, Jim probably knew as well as he did which two planets they were, but Blair told him anyway. "Jupiter and Saturn are the only ones we could be seeing this time of year. It must be closer to morning than I thought."

"Sure you don't want to try and get some sleep? Joel probably won't get here for hours yet."

"I'm sure," Blair said. Jim's arm was still around him, and Blair shifted closer, laying his head back against Jim's shoulder. The stars overhead were cold and distant, but there were other worlds on the horizon, some of them as warm as Jim's encircling arms. "I don't really feel like sleeping tonight."

* * *

The End
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Acknowledgments

After such a long story, I can't just shut up and go home without another word or two. Kitty has been helping me fight the walking dead in my prose since the story began last September, and I couldn't have written it without her. (thank you, dear)

For everyone who took a chance and read this story as a work in progress ... you are as foolish and trusting and brave as Blair Sandburg himself. Thank you. I know it was a leap of faith. And if you're a sensible soul who waited until it was done before jumping in ... well, I love Jim just as much. I hope the story was fun either way.

"Unsleeping" itself, as fans of the genre will have recognized long before now, is an overblown pastiche of Lovecraft's short story, "The Thing on the Doorstep," among others. Most of the books Blair mentions in the course of the story are Lovecraft's famously fictitious creations, but others are real, and were useful guides to raising the dead: The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage (1458 - I was using S.L. Mac Gregor Mathers' 1900 translation); Crowley's Magic in Theory and Practice (1929); The Discoverie of Witchcraft (Reginald Scot, 1584); Paul Barber's Vampires, Burial and Death, Folklore and Reality (1988); and Dead Men Do Tell Tales (Maples and Browning, 1994).

J.K. Huysmans (1848-1907) was a real person, author of occult classics like A Rebours and La-Bas, but alas, he could not have translated Unaussprechlichen Kulten, which exists only as one of those "banned and dreaded repositories of equivocal secrets and immemorial formulae which have trickled down the stream of time from the days of man's youth, and the dim, fabulous days before man was ..." in the rear vestry room beside the apse in Lovecraft's "The Haunter of the Dark."

Thanks for reading, and happy Halloween,

Martha

October 1999 - July 9, 2000