Unsleeping

by Martha Taylor, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net

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."
 

***

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