Unsleeping

by Martha Taylor, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net

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
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