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