Unsleepingby Martha Taylor, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net
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,
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?"
"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."
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?"
"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."
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