Unsleeping

by Martha Taylor, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net

Chapter 16

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The basement staircase opened out onto a hall that was dark and drafty. Toward the front of the house the only light was a dark red glitter in the doorway, where a streetlight shone in through the stained glass window. At the other end of the hall a broad, carpeted stairway with an elaborately carved banister led to the upper reaches of the house. Jim meant to search upstairs, but instead he followed the draft of cool air blowing from the back of the house. There must be a door or window open somewhere, because along with the chill of the faint wind on his face, he could hear music and voices from the parties going on all up and down the street. Incredible. People were laughing and shouting, enjoying themselves even with this house in their midst. They were drinking and partying even though Blair Sandburg had been snatched out of his life today and was lost still, the prisoner of children who had already killed once. No one should be laughing anywhere, but that particular apathy, at least, Jim could understand. The world seldom cared anything for private grief.

This house was another matter altogether. Couldn't they feel it too? Even with his senses numbed, Jim felt this place like the sickening emptiness in the eye of a storm. He could practically hear it rattling, sub-aural vibrations that made the bones in his face ache. How could anyone ignore such a place? How could they possibly pretend it didn't matter?

He followed the sounds of that astonishing merriment down the hallway to the back of the house, around the great central staircase. The carvings on the banister depicted stylized creatures of some kind, serpents or dragons, perhaps, though the bloat of their bodies and the puzzlement of limbs reminded Jim of a nest of fat, dimpled white spiders he had once uncovered at the bottom of a woodpile. Beyond the staircase, a narrower hall led to a door that stood partially open. Jim moved silently down the hall and pulled the door inward, just enough to see around the threshhold and into the back yard.

Sandburg was alive. Jim knew because he could see him twisting in his bonds, his naked body white and defenseless in the dark of the ruined garden. Around him were people who flitted like shadows, whispering obscenities that came to Jim like the wind from a charnel house. The stench of blood was so thick Jim could taste it, coppery and vile, even across the length of the garden.

The very fabric of the universe seemed to rustle and shift around him. He listened to the terrified thunder of Blair's heartbeat, and saw the pupils of Blair's eyes dilated so widely the iris was only a sliver of blue. He could smell the lingering perfumes from a soap that wasn't Blair's, from a shampoo Blair had never used. He could smell the ashes smeared on Blair's body, and see the drops of sweat rolling down his sides and across the shaved places on his chest and belly. Blair's teeth were bared in fear, gleaming in the darkness, and his eyelashes were matted with tears.

The night and the place seethed and roiled, breaking across Jim's open senses. Darkness poured over him like an infestation, like those fat white spiders he had remembered, as though he'd stuck his fist into their nest instead of crushing them with a log. Soft spider legs scuttled endlessly. A thousand of them, a million, dragging their bloated, yielding bodies behind them. For a long instant Jim was held all but motionless, trembling under the onslaught, but then he heard Blair's voice. Blair was weeping, saying, "Please," and "No." He was begging for mercy, for help, and nothing else mattered to Jim, not all the hosts of hell. He held his weapon in both hands and forced himself to walk up that garden path, through the horror which enveloped him. He called to the woman who stood before Blair, identifying himself, telling her to step away. She snarled something in return, as defiant as Ross had been, and none of the others even turned their heads to see Jim.

Only Blair looked at him, his expression shattered with relief behind the mask of symbols painted on his brow and cheeks. But then the woman lifted something to Blair's mouth. Blair's expression changed terribly, and he shouted a warning Jim could not have heeded, even if it hadn't already been much too late.

"Jim, get away from here, Jim, please--"

The woman in front of Blair swept her hand down, and though Jim didn't see a knife, when Blair screamed, he thought she had stabbed him all the same. He could almost feel the steel in his own gut, and he was screaming, too. He was roaring at them all when creation ripped from seam to seam.

It had been so close all along. He'd felt it inside the house, stronger when he opened his senses. The relentless pressure of something elsebeating against the paper walls of this reality.

The walls gave way in a cataclysm of light and sound like the crack of doom at Trinity. It burned through Jim's closed eyelids and past the hands he had clamped over his ears, more terrible than death. Jim had always believed death would be a quiet, still place. If he had earned nothing else in his life, in his inmost heart he had somehow believed he deserved silence and soft darkness at the end of his road.

But he hadn't been able to save Sandburg. No wonder he wasn't granted the perfect stillness he had yearned for all his life. He didn't deserve it after all. Knowing how terribly he had failed, he didn't even want it anymore. Chief, he grieved. Blair. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

Then the light winked out, and the sound was hushed, and Jim found himself at long last in his soft, silent darkness. It was no comfort to him now. He had abandoned Blair, left his friend alone in the hands of enemies, and the darkness could never be thick enough to bring him peace.

***

Blair knew he was still drunk, but it didn't feel that way anymore. There was nothing fogged or muzzy about his thinking. His options were laid out clearly before him, as clear as the sight of Jim on his hands and knees and moaning like one of the damned. Seth was so close to him that if Jim would simply reach out his hand, he could grab Seth's leg and bring him down, but Jim didn't do it, not even when Seth sidled closer, a cautious hunter approaching a wounded lion, and put the gun to Jim's temple.

"You bastards," Blair groaned. Susan's fist was clenched in his hair, her blood-smeared face only inches from his own. "What you have done to him?" His voice broke. "What have you done?"

"We didn't do a thing." She smiled brutally. "You're the one who opened the door. I guess he didn't like what he saw on the other side."

"No," Blair whispered, knowing it was the truth all the same. The bloodstained rag covered the fingers of Susan's other hand, and she held it over the symbols painted on his breast, so close that one dangling end tickled flesh still raw from the razor.

"Now call for Ross," she said. "Just say his name, that's all you need to do."

"Never," Blair hissed at her. "I can't. I won't."

Seth grunted in laughter. He put his foot against Jim's shoulder and pushed him down, rolling him over onto his back. Jim sprawled beside the path, one arm flung wide, his face looking sightlessly toward the sky. He'd stopped crying out, only the rise of his chest telling Blair he was alive at all.

"Do it," Seth said, and lowered the muzzle. "Or I'll put the first bullet square in his gut."

"Don't hurt him!" Blair pleaded hoarsely. "If you hurt him, I'll never do what you want."

"I'm letting him off easy," Seth said. "He put a bullet through Ross's head, remember?"

Monica was still choking out grotesque syllables, and suddenly Eddie was at Susan's shoulder, regarding Blair with his old, earnest, not-particularly-bright expression.

"Ross was my roommate," he said. "He was my friend. Come on, man, he was a student in your class, and now you won't even say his name? What kind of a jerk are you, anyway?"

Blair couldn't see Jim anymore with Eddie standing in his way, but he heard a dull thud. "Next one's a bullet," Seth announced in a flat voice.

"Damn you!" Blair thrashed against his restraints. "Don't hurt him. Don't you dare hurt him."

"Last chance, Mr. Sandburg," Susan said. "Detective Ellison doesn't have any time left."

Blair closed his eyes. Somehow Susan must have known he had already surrendered, because she pressed the bloody cloth to his chest even before Blair said Ross's name. He said it loudly, almost shouting, so all of them would be sure to hear him. So they wouldn't hurt Jim anymore.

Everything seemed to move much more slowly this time. He felt the slide of the cloth over his shaved chest. The cloth was sticky and sodden with blood, smearing the letters, unwriting the words. Somewhere deep inside himself, far away in the secret places of his soul, he felt the loosening bonds, tethers snapping one by one as each letter disappeared. When the last tether gave way, he felt a crack as though his spine had been shattered, or his skull cracked open wide, and everything he was rushed out into the place worse than oblivion.

The dark city knew him this time. Hell, he wasn't a visitor anymore. This was practically home. He felt a stretch, an accommodation, and realizing that he was recognized in this No-when, No-where bent his soul. He howled without voice, and when he saw the bright thread, he lunged after it. It was a way out of here, and he did not care where it took him as long as it was away. He felt a terrific pressure as he journeyed, squeezing and reshaping him, and he realized suddenly the bright thread he held gleamed only with ichor and grue.  It was as warm and slick in his grasp as an unraveled intestine.

Then the wrench came once more, his body jerking and twitching as he arrived home. The return of sensation was more difficult this time. He felt the pressure and weight of the blessed, ordinary world, but everything else was so strange he wondered if he were still dreaming. He lay huddled on his side upon wet stone or concrete, and he could hear the drip and rush of water, but nothing else. There was little light, and he saw it reflecting off the water onto the smooth, curving walls around him. He was sluggish and immeasurably tired -- no surprise, considering -- but he was surprised to be alone. Where had everyone else gone? Where was Jim? He opened his mouth to call, and felt something spilling out over his lips. Fat white worms which splatted on the hard surface under his cheek.

Maggots. His mouth was full of maggots.

Son of a bitch, Blair thought, beyond horror, beyond any emotion at all. They'd actually done it.

He wrenched himself free of Ross's corpse and tumbled backward, Alice falling down the rabbit hole and straight to hell, but it had turned out there were far worse places to be. The dark city welcomed him, but he continued to fall, faster and faster, until the leather shackles on his wrists stopped his descent with a jerk that all but dislocated his shoulders. His eyes were open. His mouth was open, and he was screaming. He wondered if he'd been screaming all along. Susan was trying to say something to him, but he couldn't hear her over his own shrieks. He couldn't stop, even though his throat was hurting, not even when Susan took his head in her hands and shook him, her bloody and exhilarated face only inches from his own. Not even when she slapped him, backhand, forehand, backhand, again and again until Eddie grabbed her arm to stop her. She shook herself free angrily, but stepped away, and at last Blair saw Jim. He was still sprawled beside the garden path, sightless eyes staring up at the heavens. Blair's cries stopped. The band was still playing "Tequila."

Eddie turned to Blair, smiling through the mask of drying blood on his face. "You're doing great, man. Now you just need to go one more time to make it stick."

Blair stared at him. He tried to swallow. His throat muscles were aching, and the back of his throat felt raw. "Give me some water," he whispered.

"Soon," Eddie promised. "Just do this one last thing for us, Mr. Sandburg, and you can have all the water you want."

"Why are you doing this to me?" Blair was trembling violently, though he couldn't feel the cold night air anymore. All he felt was a sickness that went as deep as his soul.

"You already know why." Susan drew near him again, still holding the bloody rag. "Now ask Ross to come back. Say his name one more time."

"No."

Seth drew back his foot and kicked Jim so hard Jim's body rolled slightly before settling back. The sound of that blow was worse than the patter of maggots on stone.

"You're going to kill him anyway," Blair said, and felt the tears running down his cheeks. Had he been crying all along?

"No we won't. I promise." Eddie smiled, utterly sincere. "Why would we? Once it's finished, you'll tell him everything's cool. I dunno if you'll keep riding around with him is the only thing. Ross hates cops." Eddie turned and looked down at Jim. "It may not matter. Who knows how much of a cop he'll be after tonight anyway?"

"Just one more time. Say Ross's name, Mr. Sandburg." Susan raised the bloody rag to his face. "I know you're tired. I know you're scared. But you want to help Jim, don't you? That's what friends do. They help each other out, just like we're helping Ross." The rag was so close Blair could smell the blood. "So call him, before I tell Seth to blow Detective Ellison's brains out."

They would kill Jim no matter what he did, Blair knew that, and facing the reality of it gave him a peculiar clarity of vision. He forgot the pain in his hanging body, he forgot his terror and rage, and he thought about the beginning of all this. Ross hadn't intended to die, after all. He had wanted the book and he had wanted Blair, too, but not for this. Or perhaps the beginning was even older. Perhaps it had begun the first time David Lash had seen him across the conference table in Major Crime nearly three years ago. Seen him, and seen what he was. Ross had seen the same thing. And Professor Nagle.

And Incacha.

No wonder they had poured a bottle of wine down his throat, Blair thought, wonderingly. They had wanted him to be too drunk to realize the truth. And you know something? It had almost worked.

"C'mon, Ross," he snarled, and the rasp in his voice made it sound like a growl. "I'm ready. Come on back if you can."

Caught off guard, Susan flinched, but then she grinned in triumph and touched the rag to his forehead. At the same time good old Eddie, who was not so dumb after all, screamed at her, "No, wait!"

It was already too late. Susan swept the stinking rag across his face, and this time Blair didn't wait for the raveling tethers of his soul to snap. He broke them himself and was swept away. The dark city was terrible, but it knew him. And if he wanted to, he could know it as well. He was aware of that false, glittering thread close at hand but he pushed it from himself, and it shriveled like gossamer on the wind. Just like he'd thought. It turned out Ross didn't have the power to come here alone, alive or dead. Even with the help of his friends, with the aid of Blair's voice speaking his name, he could do nothing more than lay a trail and hope Blair would follow.

Fat chance, bub, Blair thought, and it was an amazing and terrible thing that though he could not scream here, he could laugh. The city moved with his laughter, its spires and turrets shifting violently under the starless sky. It wasn't a city. It wasn't even death. It was only the other side of the light, and as far as Blair was concerned, whatever gods ruled here could rule in peace. You stay on your side of town, he said, laughing again. So much had happened around him, to him, because of him, simply because he had the power to laugh in the darkness. What kind of a way to run a universe was that, anyway? The black towers swayed overhead as he laughed again, and the streets rippled like swells in the ocean.

You stay on your side of town, and from now on, I promise I'll stay on mine.
***

Life was a swift kick in the ribs. There was some justice in that, Jim thought, dimly amused. Sounded like his father's kind of philosophy. The pain in his side made him realize he was breathing. He couldn't see and he couldn't hear, but he knew he was breathing because every indrawn breath made the bruised bones and muscles in his right side ache. The pain was dull and far away, as if his sense of touch was almost gone as well. Not all the way. He could still feel pain, even if it was hard to be particularly grateful for that one small favor. He tried to figure out what had happened to him, but the lingering shock made it hard to concentrate. He must have blown a fuse or two, like Sandburg would say. Overloaded the circuits. He just needed to be calm, concentrate, and it would all come back to him.

Tough to be calm when he didn't know where he was or what was happening to him. Next to impossible when he didn't know where Blair was either, but when he thought about it, he felt a debilitating crush of panic, and that couldn't help either one of them. He put aside his fear and concentrated instead on the only thing he could measure in his current state. He breathed in deeply, the ache in his side building and building until he could stand it no longer and had to let it out. Then again, just as slow and measured, and again, and it seemed to him that his experience of the pain was slowly beginning to change. He could feel edges and angles, and more intangibly, the certainty this pain was his own. Lousy way to regain his sense of self, fighting for the right to claim his own agony, but it was all he had going for him right now. He kept on, a dozen breaths, and he thought perhaps he could distinguish the outlines of his own body, and knew he was lying awkwardly, his legs bent one way, his hips another. Another breath, and another, and he began to wonder if he had enough control to straighten his legs and relieve some of the pressure on his back.

Before he could try, someone kicked him again. Nothing metaphorical about that, goddammit, that was someone kicking him in the side. He wanted to cry out, but the ferocity of the blow had driven the air from his lungs, and he gasped in breathless silence, half suffocating, until the worst had faded and he could draw normal breaths again. Shit, that hurt. A little higher up, a kick like that would have smashed a rib.

More was coming back to him. He could feel dirt and rocks under him, and he thought he could straighten his legs if he tried, but with unknown enemies around him, perhaps it would be better to continue to lie here like one of the dead until he was able to defend himself. Sight and hearing were sure to come back soon. Very soon, he hoped. He was still not sure what was happening around him, but he was dreadfully certain, in a part of his mind he could not pay attention to now, that neither he nor Blair had much time left.

Then he felt the earth begin to shift and move under his back. The vibrations began in a deep place, and they moved through the ground in lateral waves. Jim felt dirt and stone impossibly stretched and compressed, as though the earth itself had become a great worm slithering across the landscape, and he knew what was coming next. He rolled onto his side, moving instictively, no time to think about who or what was around him. He drew his knees up, shouting a warning to Blair he felt vibrating against his larynx but could not hear, and covered his head with his arms. The next wave was already welling up, slower and more violent, the ground shuddering, crushed upward in ragged waves, the earth itself moving like swells in the ocean. Jim sprawled flat, clutching helplessly at the ground. It went on forever, the end of the world. Something hit his back, and something else caught him on the side of the head. He realized belatedly he still had his sense of smell, because he could smell the heat of stone and earth stressed beyond all endurance, and he could smell a broken gas line, and he could smell Blair Sandburg, bloody, sweaty and terrified, and somewhere very close.

The earth was still trembling as Jim forced himself to his hands and knees and crawled toward him. The path was littered with debris, and before he got to Blair he found a warm, bleeding body in his way. He shoved it aside and kept going. His hands touched twisted metal, and he felt a whisper of movement. He eased himself around a cage of broken iron and finally closed his hand around the warm, naked heel of Blair's left foot. Jim shook, weak with relief, and because he could not even hear himself asking Blair if he was all right, far less hear Blair's answer, he lowered his head and pressed his cheek to the top of Blair's foot, staying there for long moments until he was reassured by the thunder of Blair's pulse, steady and strong and wholly alive against the bones of Jim's face.
 
 

***
Chapter 17
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