Unsleeping

by Martha Taylor, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net

Chapter 3

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Blair's Anthro class met in a room on the fourth floor of the Chemistry building. There were lab tables instead of desks, white boards on every wall covered with scrawled formulae and, in the air, a lingering miasma of sulfur, formaldehyde, and other, less identifiable substances that made Jim flinch when Blair opened the door for him.

"Yeah, I know," Blair said, flashing a smile like sun breaking through on a stormy day. "You think they're trying to tell me something here? First no parking permit, then I get stuck in a chem lab all the way across campus from Hargrove. It's enough to make a guy paranoid." Then the smile was gone as the dull, resigned grief Blair had gotten up with this morning settled over his features once again. Jim felt a stab of anger at Ross, and it didn't matter that the kid was dead. In some ways that only made it worse. He put his hand on the center of Blair's back and followed him into the room.

Most of the seats were already taken. Blair had wondered over breakfast this morning if anyone would even show up for the class, but Jim had known better. "You called it, man," Blair said quietly, dumping his books and notes on the instructor's desk. It was another lab table, this one with a sink and gas jets and a length of rubber tubing coiled on one side. "There's people here I haven't seen since the first day of class."

Blair's students fell silent, watching with wide, unblinking eyes Jim found faintly unnerving. "You can just, um, sit down anywhere there's a seat, I guess," Blair told him. Jim raised an eyebrow at that, hoping to make Blair smile again, but Blair was already turning his attention to his class and away from Jim. A few last students had slipped in behind them, scrounging for the remaining seats. The backpacks slung over their shoulders made them clumsy as turtles trying to navigate a maze, so Jim walked to the back of the room to get out of the way and stood against the wall by the window. The sill was littered with ballpoint pen caps and vending machine food wrappers, and through the grimy pane, Jim could see students on the sidewalks far below scurrying to make their classes.

He looked back toward Blair, who had stopped fussing with his books and papers to shove his sleeve back, obviously looking for the watch he had forgotten to wear once again this morning. "Anybody got the time?"

"Five of," someone volunteered on the front row, at the same time another student said, "I have three minutes after."

"That's great, thanks," Blair mumbled, and stepped out to check the clock in the hall. While he was gone, curious heads swiveled to examine Jim gravely, and Jim found himself wondering how Blair got used to it. Not that Sandburg was exactly the shy type, but being the object of such dispassionate interest felt a little too much like being a lab rat to Jim. It was a relief when Blair came back into the room, and the unblinking, passive eyes turned back to the front. Blair walked around the desk, ignoring the notes he'd been worrying over, and smiled at his students. Not the Sandburg radiance that could blind Jim in unguarded moments, but a quirky, half-sad expression, sympathetic and somehow vulnerable. Under the influence of that smile Blair's class lost some of its air of watchful tension.

"The Nambikwara are a nomadic band in Brazil's northern plateau," was the first thing Blair said. "And despite the fact they live now with only the barest rudiments of material culture, some anthropologists speculate they're really a southern offshoot of the great Chibcha civilization, which was still flourishing when the Spanish arrived."

There was a sudden scrabble for notebooks and pens -- obviously no one had been expecting anything substantive today -- and a querulous voice called out, "Can you spell that for us, Mr. Sandburg?"

Blair held up one hand, palm out, an expression that was half surrender, half a plea for patience. "It was all in this week's reading, people. Give me a moment and just listen, all right?" He was wearing that ugly green checked blazer that was at least two sizes too big for him, his glasses were sliding down his nose, and he looked to Jim as though he had suddenly leapfrogged a decade or two, and was already deeply immersed in the role of tenured professor. An eccentric one at that. This was where Blair really belonged, wasn't it? The ride with Jim these past three years was only a stepping stone along Blair's path, not the end of the journey. Funny how hard it was to remember that sometimes. Even funnier how miserable that little reality check could make Jim feel.

He glanced back out the window. In just the minute or two since he had last looked, the sidewalk below had cleared. There was only one person below the window now, an anonymous student in jeans and three layers of flannel, clutching a tall white paper coffee cup identical to the ones half of Blair's students had brought with them to class this morning. The student seemed to be gazing up at Jim's window.

Jim narrowed his focus, trying to meet the eyes of the watcher outside the window. He zeroed in on a hazel - colored iris flecked with gold, the pupil shrunk to a pinpoint in the bright spring sunlight, and as he did, he felt the first, floating contentment of a zone begin to creep over him. Whoops. He shut his eyes fast, and turned his head before he opened them again. He half expected Blair to have noticed what was happening, and felt a foolish instant of disappointment when he saw Blair was going on with his lecture, quite oblivious.

"One unique aspect about Nambikwara culture is their lack of burial rituals. They mourn bitterly when a friend or family member dies, but they believe the souls of the dead are carried up into the air, dispersed by the wind, and vanish forever. The body of the deceased is simply left on the ground where he or she died."

Blair put his hands behind himself on the lab table and heaved himself up with a grunt and his usual disregard of personal dignity. His feet swung six inches off the floor. "You and me, though," he said in a quieter voice, "We live in a society with a very different attitude about the responsibilities the living owe to the dead."

Rubbing his palms on his jeans he went on, "We feel a debt to those who die before us. Even the body of the deceased is accorded reverence. It's as though, by showing respect to the carcass left behind, we can somehow assuage what is often a profound sense of indebtedness, even guilt, at our own survival. We owe the dead something tremendous, even though the very nature of that debt makes it one we can never repay, no matter what we do."

Finally Blair looked over the heads of his class for a moment, finding Jim before he said the rest. "Ross Malitz was shot to death last night in the research library. I suppose everyone here already knows that. The morning paper had a pretty accurate write-up. I heard the channel 11 news last night called it a gun battle, but it really wasn't. There was only one shot fired, and that was by Detective James Ellison."

There was little reaction from the class, but Jim didn't think it was callousness, necessarily. A degree of shock, perhaps, at hearing what they already knew described so starkly. Only one woman on the back row turned to look at Jim.

Blair's face was composed, his voice mostly level, save for the little rumble as it dropped too low. "I don't know why Ross did what he did last night, but I want to understand it, if I possibly can. It won't take away what I feel for having survived when he didn't. I know it won't change the way his family and friends feel either, or any of you here today. The thing is, not trying to understand is worse. For us, regardless of our beliefs about the afterlife, the dead continue to matter, long after they're gone. This is a debt I owe to Ross."

Blair's class was silent, no one shifting on those uncomfortable lab stools, not a piece of paper rustling. Jim turned his head to glance out the window once more, and saw that the student who had been watching Blair's classroom window from far below was gone. He extended his senses instinctively to search, finding a trail of footsteps and following the sound until he realized there was no scent of coffee nearby. He followed another thread of sound and scent as it pattered away across campus, footsteps on cement, then asphalt, the strong smells of patchouli and grass mingling above and almost drowning out a faint, slightly stale scent of coffee. That wasn't the watcher's trail either. Casting about further he found the sharp acidity of fresh coffee in a paper cup, and followed it until he distinguished the click of heels on linoleum bearing the coffee away. Wrong again. He found another trail, then another, following more for the challenge of the hunt than with any real hope of finding his quarry. Besides, he had entirely lost his bearings by this point -- was he even following sounds on campus anymore? -- when suddenly he happened across a sound and its entwined scent he didn't understand. Clumsy footsteps, shambling and slow, splashing through water. A sewer. Those smells, at least, were unmistakable. What he didn't understand was the impossibly faint, far away glimmer of scent that was Blair Sandburg.

A mistake. It had to be. Blair's presence here in the classroom must be fooling his senses, but it was a damned odd illusion, Blair's scent reflecting back to him from such a distance. He was still trying to puzzle it out when the sound of Blair's voice saying his name broke Jim's concentration, and he lost the trail and the scent altogether.

"That's Jim at the back of the room there. Any of you who have taken classes from me before, you've probably already met him, I guess, or at least seen him around campus. He's the detective with the Cascade PD who lets me tag around with him while I research my dissertation, so you know he's got to be a pretty easy going kind of guy, right?"

Blair raised his head to smile at Jim, and this time Jim hardly noticed the curious faces that turned to regard him once more. He even managed what he hoped would pass as the advertised easy going smile himself. "If there's anything any of you know about what was going on with Ross," Blair went on, "please, you can talk to either one of us. You can catch me at the office, or call, or drop me an email, whatever. Just let me know. Even if it's just to talk. Same with Jim. You can call him at the station if you don't catch him here on campus." Blair rattled off the phone number, then slid off the desk and walked around to write it on the board. There was hardly an inch of clear space on the board, so he wiped a smeary space clean for himself with his sleeve.

So that's how he was always ending up with black and red stains on his shirt sleeves, Jim thought. He'd wondered.

Then Blair stopped talking. The hand holding the board marker froze, and Blair just stood there looking at something in the tangle of numbers and Greek letters. The hesitation lasted only a moment, but when he finally wrote down Jim's number at the station, Jim saw his hand trembling. What in the world? He was on the verge of going to Blair's side himself, to hell with this classroom full of sheep, but Blair finally turned back on his own and looked at the faces of his students without speaking. A long moment passed. Too long. Heads finally turned aside or looked down to escape Blair's searching gaze, and at length Blair shook himself slightly and said in a quiet voice, "That's all for today. I don't think any of us are in the mood for a lecture."

The resulting gust of movement was as sudden and irreversible as dry leaves whirled away by the wind. Notebooks were slammed shut and stuffed into backpacks, lab stools shoved back, and students streamed out of the room as through blown by that imaginary wind. Blair stood at the front, his hands empty at his sides, white faced, saying in a voice that sounded forlorn to Jim, "If there's anything you can tell me about Ross, please, you can call any time. Just let me know."

If anyone was listening, they gave no sign of it, and in a moment more the room was empty of students. Jim pushed himself away from the back wall and walked to the front, where Blair was stacking his notes and books together. He didn't look up to meet Jim's eyes until Jim was on the other side of the desk from him. Then he straightened up and shrugged. "Guess I didn't handle that very well, did I?"

"There wasn't really any good way to do it," Jim said, reaching across to pat the side of Blair's face.

"I guess not," Blair agreed, a fragile smile appearing for an instant.

"What's on the blackboard?"

"Did I jump that much? Oh man, I wonder if everybody else saw it too?"

"What is it?"

"I don't know. Probably nothing, but it gave me a nasty shock. There I'd been talking about poor Ross, and then to turn around and see this on the board -- I dunno. Look at this."

In the midst of scribbled formulae in half a dozen different handwritings was a grid of symbols that did look different. Jim came around the desk to examine it more closely. "See what I mean?" Blair said. "When's the last time you saw Hebrew letters in the middle of a stoicheiometry problem?"

"It's been a while," Jim said dryly, and was rewarded with another quick smile. "What is it? Can you read it?"

"I think so." Blair ran his finger along the top line of letters. "Pe-gimel-resh. It means corpse. Or carcass, I guess. You see why I nearly lost it? And look at this." He traced a line of letters along the side of the little grid as well. "It spells the same thing going down too. Just at first glance, it looks half way like Hellenic iamblichan theurgy mixed up with the Qabala, but I'm not sure at all. Or maybe I've just got the book Ross stole on my brain, and everything is starting to look all mysterious to me now."

Jim seized on the only word he recognized. "Kabala? Like magic spells, fortune telling?"

"Well, kinda." Blair made a warding-off gesture with one hand, palm out, as though shutting himself up before he could begin another lecture. "I really don't know anything about it, that's just what it looks like to me. Or you know, Jim, maybe this is all just crazy. I bet you anything a class in Hebrew mysticism meets in this room too, and I really need to relax." He ran his hand back through his hair, pushing it out of his face and looked up at Jim earnestly.

"Or maybe it does mean something," Jim said.

"Yeah." Blair nodded fast and picked up his notebook. "Yeah, maybe it does. I'll find someone in the religion department who can tell me more about this." He copied the letters carefully, and when he had finished, Jim reached for his wrist and wiped the odd little grid of symbols from the board himself with the sleeve of Blair's coat. "Are you sure that was a smart thing to do?" Blair asked, hardly seeming to notice being used as a human eraser. "It might be evidence or something."

He had a point, actually. Erasing the symbols had been unthinking instinct. "Too late now," Jim said, since he couldn't really explain what he'd done.

Blair looked at him curiously, but in the end he didn't ask Jim about it. He simply gathered his notebooks into his arms and said, "Let's go."

***

Ross's dorm mate was a kid named Eddie Norton. He was just as thin and pale as Ross had been, and his T-shirt and jeans were black, as was the duster he wore against the cold April wind. Even so, Jim thought he believed Eddie when he protested plaintively that he hadn't had any idea what Ross was planning, or why he had wanted the book so badly he'd been willing to kill for it. He was red-eyed, and his voice shook when he answered some of Blair's questions, but he was glad enough to let Jim buy him a hamburger and a double order of cheese fries at the student union, and he ate them with a gusto that went a long way toward convincing Jim this was a kid too interested in living to have had anything to do with Ross's self-destructive plans.

"I mean, lookit," Eddie said, interrupting himself to stuff half a dozen dripping cheese fries into his mouth and swallow them apparently whole. "He couldn't have needed the money -- his folks own like half of Rhode Island. And how much money could you get from a weird old book anyway? It doesn't make sense."

"Rhode Island?" Jim asked. "He was a long way from home, wasn't he?"

"No kidding," Blair put in. "Rainier's a good school and all, but it doesn't usually attract rich New England kids."

Eddie shrugged and picked up his burger again. The hamburger patty was beginning to slip out the back of the bun, along with a mayonnaisey slice of tomato. "He went to school somewhere back east his freshman year. I can't remember the name of it now. No place I've ever heard of."

"Do you know why he transferred?" Blair asked.

A frown creased Eddie's white brow. Thinking was apparently an unfamiliar activity, and that tended to convince Jim as well that Ross had not shared his plans with Eddie. Ross hadn't acted any too bright either, but his delusions had seemed, if nothing else, the end result of too much thinking rather than too little. "No, I don't know why he came out here," Eddie said at last. He pushed the innards of his hamburger back into the bun. "He would talk about stuff sometimes, but that was just Ross. Shit, I can't believe any of this. Ross was whacked, but he was a pretty good bud. I can't believe he's gone."

"What kind of stuff did he talk about?" Blair's voice was gentle. "I know this is rough, but if you can help us understand what happened, it would mean a lot."

Eddie nodded, his grief not preventing him from taking another bite before he answered. The wind picked up, whistling around the end of Apter Hall, scattering papers from the tables of other students. It was a cold afternoon to be eating on the outside patio, but the rare golden light of a sunny day and the cloudless blue sky seemed worth braving the wind.

"I don't know," Eddie said at last. "Just stuff. It always sounded pretty cool but -- I don't know. Things that seem really mind-blowing when you've got a buzz on, but the next morning don't make all that much sense. You know what I mean?"

Blair nodded, shivering as a fresh gust of wind blew his hair into his face. "Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. What kind of stuff did Ross talk about?"

"You know, about Rainier, about all the people who were getting offed here."

"What?" Blair asked incredulously. "Offed? Murdered?"

"Well, yeah." Eddie looked at Blair as though he was a little thick. "You know, like that maintenance guy who got stung by poisonous spiders, and the professor in the anthro department who was killed in the parking garage out behind Hargrove, and then the chick who taught archeology. Ross would talk about how they were all related, really, but the cops and everyone were too stupid to figure it out." He glanced at Jim and shrugged with an apologetic grin. "Like I said, just crazy stuff."

"That is crazy," Blair said sharply. "Hal Buckner and Emily Watson -- there was no connection between their murders."

"Hey, I'm just telling you what Ross said. Other stuff, too. Did you know they were storing a canister of ebola right here on campus, and that it got stolen? They tried to hush it all up so there wouldn't be a huge panic, but Ross said he knew all about it, that it was all true. And that research farm the university runs? If people had any idea the kind of things they were really breeding out there they would freak, just totally freak."

Blair's jaw was set, and he was looking away from Eddie expressionlessly. His hair blew in his face, hiding his eyes, and he didn't push it aside. Jim said, "OK, so Ross believed there was all this sinister stuff going on here on campus, and that it was all connected somehow. You're right, Eddie, it's all pretty incredible. But what I want to know is what he thought the connection was."

Eddie made a face, scrunching up his nose. "Well, that's the part that never made all that much sense the next morning. But you know on those episodes on Star Trek, where something goes wrong and the hologram starts to buzz and get staticky and then Captain Picard or the Romulans or whoever it was can see through the hologram and see what's really there? Well, Ross said Rainier was like that, and if you were standing at the right place at just the right time, then when the hologram went down you would be able to see what was really there too. It could be really dangerous, which is why people keep dying, but Ross thought it would be totally cool too. He said he had it all figured out."

"I don't think I do," Jim observed mildly.

"Well, he didn't really believe Rainier was just a giant hologram," Eddie said. "At least, I don't think that's what he meant. But that's why he was so psyched about finally getting into your class, Mr. Sandburg." Eddie finally put down the remains of his burger, his face going sad again, as though he had just remembered his room mate had been shot to death last night.

"My class?" Blair turned. "He wanted to be in my class? Why?"

Eddie looked appealingly at Jim, as though Jim would understand what Blair was apparently too dense to get. "That's the only thing that was obvious about it. Whenever something bad happens on campus, Mr. Sandburg's like always there in the middle of it."

Blair reeled like a man who'd just been blindsided. "What?"

"Come on, man," Eddie said with a snort of disgust. "Don't act so stupid. It happened again last night."

The beep of Jim's cell phone interrupted them. Great timing, Jim thought in helpless exasperation. "Excuse me," he said, and rose and walked a step away from the table to take the call. "Ellison."

"Jim." Simon's voice, angry and curt. "Where the hell are you?"

"Here on campus with Sandburg, sir. Where you told me to be."

"Well now I'm telling you to get back to the station," Simon growled. "Everything's just gone to hell in a handbasket."

"Excuse me, sir." Something was really riding Simon's ass. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Dammit, Jim, someone broke into the morgue before dawn last night and stole Ross Malitz's body."
 
 
 

***

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