Unsleepingby Martha Taylor, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net
Blair was waiting in the corridor outside Nagle's history seminar, hoping for a chance to talk to the professor when class let out. Hard to believe Professor Nagle or his medieval European seminar could have had anything to do with Ross's death, but Ross had mentioned Nagle that evening, so it couldn't hurt to check. Blair was covering all the bases. Doing things in neat, tidy Jim-fashion. Best way he knew to impose order on chaos.
And things were chaotic. Let's not forget crazy. Spooky crazy. Keep-looking-over-your-shoulder crazy. It was like David Lash all over again. Even worse, in a weird sort of way, and that was saying something. Eddie's story was a special little nightmare in a class all its own. Not that it was such a revelation to learn Ross hadn't been dealing from a full deck. That much, at least, had been abundantly clear during the last minutes of the kid's life. But if Eddie were to be believed, Blair had been the hapless star of Ross's private delusions for months. Maybe even for years. It was that cautious, careful, spider patience that made the face of Ross's madness so frightening. Just too damn much like David Lash, wasn't it? But even worse, because apparently Ross's delusions weren't so private after all. For crying out loud, someone had cared enough about them, or at least about Ross, to break him out of the morgue last night. David Lash's own father had refused to claim his son's body.
And hey, you know, wasn't it way, way past time to stop thinking about David Lash?
A door slammed somewhere in the building, and Blair flinched, drawing curious stares from students beginning to congregate in the hall for their next classes. "Not enough sleep last night," Blair offered with a shrug and a grin. "Always makes me jumpy."
Nobody smiled back. Not the jock in the Jags t-shirt, shoulders straining at the seams, no surprise there, but the little hippie girl in the broomstick skirt looked just as blankly at him, and the copper-haired, porcelain-skinned beauty queen who didn't even bother pretending to carry books around (a backpack would have wrinkled that linen dress) made a faint grimace of distaste. Okaaay. Blair's hands came up, making a whoa-excuse-me-for-living gesture. What was the matter with these people?
Or maybe a better question would be what was the matter with him. He was a walking bundle of nerves. No wonder he was weirding out the people around him. He needed to just calm down, stop thinking everyone he passed might be in Ross's coterie of true believers. Like his own class this morning. They had been so distant, so cold, when he talked about Ross's death. Had some of them known what Ross had been planning? Had one of them written those symbols on the board?
And on and on and on, and give it a REST already. That kind of thinking was just crazy, paranoid nonsense, because if Ross had been proselytizing, it hadn't been during class. Blair couldn't remember seeing him even talking to anyone else. He had just sat in the back row with a sullen frown on his face, barely even pretending to take notes. Not that anyone in that class had shown signs of becoming the next Richard Leakey. Spring quarter classes were notorious for attracting students who were only there because they'd suddenly realized they needed another GE on their transcripts, and Ross had seemed like another face in the listless crowd. Anyway, Blair thought, trying to be fair to his class, one of their classmates had been shot dead the night before. No wonder they'd been a little stunned and dull. Kids that age liked to pretend they had seen it all and were incapable of being shocked by anything, but Blair knew himself what a facade that was. At nineteen or twenty, firsthand evidence of one's own mortality wasn't accepted easily. Ross certainly hadn't accepted it. Right up until the moment Jim put a bullet in his head he'd been insisting on his own immortality.
Oh, good going, Blair. That line of thought will calm you right down.
Damn. Maybe it was childish of him, but he really, really wished Jim could have stayed on campus with him. They were supposed to be doing this together -- that had been the plan for today, before Ross's body had so inconveniently disappeared. Jeez, who could have anticipated something so crazy? Of course, knowing Simon's managerial style he was probably blaming Jim anyway. He'd have been happier scapegoating Blair, but Blair wasn't within reach. Jim was. So Blair wouldn't call, no matter how badly he wanted the reassurance of Jim's voice. He didn't have any new information, and Jim had enough on his hands. Jim was doing his job. He was counting on Blair to do his.
There, that was better. By the time the door to Nagle's classroom swung open and people began trickling out into the corridor in groups of two and three, Blair felt as though he was finally getting his emotions under control. Nothing to be ashamed of, still feeling shaky and vulnerable less than twenty-four hours after the shooting, but it wasn't useful either. It could be put aside for the time being, while Blair dealt with more important things.
He made his way into the classroom along with the students who were coming in for their next class, and saw Nagle still at the front of the room, surrounded by half a dozen students who were vying for attention, or simply listening with every evidence of being enraptured. Nagle's sharp black eyes darted across the room, picking out Blair instantly from the other people coming into the room, but he didn't pause in his monologue.
Blair sat on the corner of a desk in the front to wait. He had a passing acquaintance with Nagle. Back in the days when he had been trying to scare up a dissertation committee, Buckner had suggested Nagle for one of the required out-of-department committee members, so Blair had dutifully gone and talked to him. Professor Nagle had been profoundly unimpressed with Blair's prospectus, and told him so, but Blair really couldn't hold that against the man. Almost every faculty member he'd approached had turned him down. It had taken nearly 18 months just to put together a committee.
Nah, he had a much better reason to dislike Nagle, he thought, and had to laugh at himself. Jealous, Sandburg? Well, all right, maybe he was, just a little. Nagle was a hugely popular instructor. His lectures were dynamic, sparkling performances, brilliant, accessible, and funny. At sixty, he still wore his blue jeans convincingly, and had aquiline features and a shock of silver hair that made him an arresting figure. His classes routinely had waiting lists fifty names long, and his students adored him.
He was the kind of teacher Blair had always thought he could be too, at least in his secret, immodest, heart of hearts. Hey, he was funny, he was smart, he loved teaching, loved his subject matter, knew he could identify with his students, was certain he could connect with them. His first solo 101 class had been a revelation. It turned out not every important idea in the world could be made funny and accessible. And while he was close in age to his students, there was some stuff about them he'd just couldn't understand. The intellectual laziness, the fashionable ennui. The implicit demand that it was somehow his responsibility to coax them into wanting to learn. Blair just didn't get it. This was the whole world, and you only got one lifetime. Just one shot, folks, so what sort of lazy-assed blockhead would waste any opportunity? Sometimes, he even got exasperated enough to tell his class so, and by the end of his first quarter of teaching, he had figured out he would never be a very popular teacher.
Oh well, he still had a lot to learn about being a teacher, he knew. Funny how hanging out with Jim had made him realize that, more than all his years at the university ever had. And if there was anything Blair knew he despised, it was teachers who blamed their students for their own shortcomings. Look at him, already on his way to becoming just as bad. Maybe he should audit some of Nagle's classes sometime, see if he could pick up some tips.
The lecturer for the next class had arrived by then and, acquainted, no doubt, with the difficulty of prying Nagle out of the room, was drawing attention to himself by erasing the blackboard with wildly enthusiastic strokes. At length Nagle waved his lingering disciples away, saying, "Regular office hours on Thursday," picked up his briefcase, and made his way out of the room.
Blair had to take a few quick steps to catch up. "Excuse me, Dr. Nagle, if you have a minute, I need to talk to you."
Nagle never even slowed his pace. "Blair Sandburg, isn't it? No, I'm sorry, I have an appointment off campus. I'm afraid it will have to wait."
It was like trying to keep up with Jim, Blair having to take a step and a half for every one of Nagle's. "Please," he said, "this is important. It's about Ross Malitz."
"A terrible tragedy," Nagle said flatly. "You were there when it happened, weren't you?"
"Yeah," Blair said. "Yeah, I was. And now I'm doing the best I can to try and figure out why it happened."
The professor shook his head. "The only person who could have answered your question is dead already."
"Ross, you mean." They passed through the double doors out of the history building and into the brightness of a spring afternoon. The wind was blowing colder than ever, driving stray papers twisting and spinning across the lawn. Blair shivered and shoved his hands deeper into his coat pockets. "You're probably right -- I mean, of course you are, but I'm just trying to put together the pieces."
"What good can that do now?"
"Maybe none," Blair answered, choosing his words carefully. "But I won't know until I try. Ross was in your history seminar, wasn't he?"
"Clearly you already know that he was," Nagle said. "I resent being asked questions you already know the answers to. You sound like someone who's been hanging around police departments too long."
"I'm sorry," Blair said, a mostly sincere apology. "I'm just trying to understand the sequence of events. Did you know what book Ross was trying to steal? It was von Junzt's Unaussprechlichen Kulten. What's tough for me is figuring out how a guy who practically slept through all my classes knew the first thing about rare 15th century German witchhunting manuals."
Nagle turned his head and raised an eyebrow. "It seems you don't expect very much from your students, Blair. And von Junzt's treatise is not about -- about witchmongering." He spat the word out with distaste.
"So you did talk about the book in class?"
"I certainly discussed Rainier's collection. This is a seminar on the late medieval mind -- of course I wanted my students to be aware of the treasures we have here. The Bollingen Collection is the finest of its kind west of the Mississippi. With the exception of Cornell's White collection and of course Miskatonic's library holdings, it's probably the finest in the country."
"The Bollingen Collection. Right, that's right, I know a little bit about it. Books on alchemy and magic and stuff. The first president of Rainier purchased them from monasteries and private libraries all over Europe while he was in service as minister plenipotentiary to Berlin. I've never had much opportunity to use them in my field, but I understand there are a lot of pretty amazing books."
Nagle nodded in grudging approval. The brick walks were crowded with students hurrying to make their classes, and Blair had to turn sideways to make room for the flow of people going the opposite direction. Nagle didn't wait, and Blair stepped off onto the grass and half-jogged to catch up to him. "But the book Ross took. Did you mention it specifically in class?"
"I really don't remember."
"Was the von Junzt book particularly rare or valuable?"
"Rare? Well, all the books in the collection are rare and unusual, but this one was merely a seventeenth century reprint. There were many books that would be worth more to a collector of antiquities than that particular volume." Both he and Blair had to stop and wait at the crosswalk to the north campus parking lot.
"Can you think of anything at all? I'm just trying to figure out why, of all the books Ross might have asked for, he wanted that particular one. So it wasn't about witchcraft. Then what was it about?"
At a break in the traffic, Blair stepped out into the crosswalk, expecting Nagle would continue on his precipitous way. Instead though, the professor just kept standing on the curb, an expression on his face, Blair saw when he stepped back, as though he were making up his mind about something.
"Von Junzt's Kulten has a special status, I suppose you could say," Nagle explained at last. "It's one of those books that's widely known by specialists in the field, but seldom actually read."
"Oh, I understand," Blair agreed quickly. A definite thawing, there, wasn't it? "Like anthro profs that I swear get all their information on Girard from the digests, or lit people who've never really made it all the way through Middlemarch."
Nagle almost smiled. Probably the same smile that enthralled his undergrads, but Blair could live with that. At least they were finally making some progress.
"As a young man in the service of Count Palatine of Siradz, Gottfried von Junzt traveled as far east as Constantinople. In the course of his travels, he observed certain, ah, survivals that were very surprising to an educated man of his day."
"Survivals?" Blair darted a quick glance over his shoulder, suddenly having the unpleasant sensation he was being watched. The walks behind him were crowded with students and faculty. If someone had their eyes on him, there was no way for him to know it. Feeling the cold wind more keenly, Blair pulled his coat tight, crossing his arms over his chest. "Survivals of what, exactly?"
Nagle cocked his head, black eyes sparkling in the sunlight. "It would probably be an anachronism to call them religious observances. Say, then, certain rites and practices that were already ancient when Sarab and Ganj-Dareh themselves were young."
Blair fell back a step, struggling to keep his face neutral. "Von Junzt noticed that Marian shrines looked a little bit like pagan goddess worship?" he said, wondering if the tone of his voice betrayed him. "Something like that?"
"Oh no. Oh, no, even the ancient fertility cults are only a cover for something far older. Rites that came down from the Pa I-Taq Pass to Samarra on the banks of the Tigris, and thence to Ur and Nippur."
"Dr. Nagle," Blair interrupted, "A man of von Junzt's time couldn't have known about Kermanshah villages, I don't care how widely traveled he was. Excavations didn't even begin until the 19th century, and I seriously doubt he would even have known anything about Samarran caravan routes. What are you talking about here?"
"I'd expect an anthropologist to understand. Mankind's oldest secret. The dark rites that predate civilization, that will continue long after civilization's end."
Blair wiped his hand over his mouth. He could feel himself trembling. "Professor, is that the sort of thing you've been telling your class?"
"What a closed mind you have, Blair. Surprising from a scholar who's based his own life work on finding Burton's superman."
He's baiting you, Sandburg. Blair could almost hear Jim's voice saying the words in his head. You hit the jackpot, all right, so keep it cool, and don't lose your head now.
He met Nagle's mad, bright black eyes steadily. Jim was right. There was no point in arguing with a lunatic. "At any rate," Blair said, keeping his voice quiet so it wouldn't shake, "it sounds to me as though you did discuss Kulten with your class. Probably extensively."
Nagle gave a little shrug of acknowledgement. "It would be difficult to conduct a class in the medieval world view responsibly without discussing von Junzt's findings. Naturally, there was no reason for me to go into detail. Not with a class of undergraduates, at any rate. Now if you'll excuse me, I do have to be going."
"Go into detail about what?" Blair asked, physically moving in front of Nagle before he could step into the crosswalk.
Nagle laughed, whether at the question or at Blair's attempts to impede his progress, Blair didn't know. "There's a very good reason von Junzt's book is often spoken of, yet seldom read. Not all knowledge is a good thing, is it, Blair? You know that as well as I do." He grinned at Blair. "Like the kids say, 'Too much information, man.'"
Blair was really starting to hate that smile. "How about this?" he asked. He swung his backpack off his shoulder and dragged his notebook out.
"Blair, I'm going to be late," Nagle complained mildly.
"This," Blair said, flipping it open to the grid of symbols he'd copied from his classroom board. "Is this from Kulten?"
He couldn't read Nagle's expression at all. He looked down at Blair's notebook, and then up at Blair with a face as blank as an egg. "Dr. Nagle?" Blair prompted at last, at the same moment his cell phone shrilled in his backpack, the sound startling them both.
Dr. Nagle shook himself and stepped away. "I'm late," he announced, and took off across the street, half-loping in his haste. Blair was tempted to follow, but hoping it was Jim calling him, he dug out the phone instead and let Nagle go. "Sandburg."
God, it was good to hear Jim's voice.
"Jim, you won't believe the conversation I've been having with Ross's history professor. He is nuts man, lock 'im up and throw away the key certifiable." Blair turned and started to walk back toward Hargrove, trying to keep his voice down and thinking, as he stepped off the sidewalk onto the grass to keep from getting run over by a pack of sorority girls in matching plaid wool miniskirts, how much he hated people who walked around chatting on cell phones. "The things he's been telling his class, I don't know, it's no wonder Ross went off the deep end. Somebody's got to get that man out of the classroom before he can screw up any more kids, and I wouldn't be surprised if he told Ross to steal the book himself. What's up at the station? Do you need me to come down there? Can you get Simon to ask for a warrant? I think somebody should search Nagle's office. There's no telling what you'd find."
"Whoa, hold on, hold on. Who is this guy?"
"Peter Nagle. A history professor here. Ross was in his class -- they had talked about the book Ross tried to steal in class."
"Doesn't sound like a lot to go on."
"No, Jim, you don't understand. You should have heard this guy, trying to tell me about secret rituals dating back to paleolithic times, practically. Crazy stuff. I expected him to tell me next that aliens built the pyramids. I'm telling you, this is not the sort of thing you'd expect to hear from a tenured history professor. Something is way wrong there. You gotta trust me on this."
"OK, OK, sounds like we should both have a talk with him."
"What's going on at the station? You find out anything?"
Jim sounded tired. "Just that whoever stole Ross's body had to have followed the ambulance straight from the school last night, been right here in the station with us."
"What? Are you sure?"
"I'm sure. The perpetrators broke out of the morgue last night, not into it. They must have been locked in with the body."
"Oh my god." Blair stopped dead. "Jim, this is all just too weird. You want me to come down to the station?"
"No, I'm sorry, Chief, that's why I'm calling. Ross's parents are flying in, and they're due any time now. Simon doesn't want you around while they're here."
"Jim, I don't think --"
"He's got a point. This isn't a good time to draw any more attention to your observer status than we have to. Not while things are still such a mess down here. You can imagine how the comissioner is breathing down Simon's neck on this."
"OK," Blair agreed reluctantly. "All right, I guess so."
"Good man. I'll see you tonight. Might be late getting home."
"All right, I --"
When he realized he was talking to a dead line, Blair turned off the phone and stuffed it into his backpack. Just when he thought things couldn't get any stranger, he thought ruefully. What next?
And then there it was again, dammit, that creepy, cold air on the back of his neck feeling. He whirled around fast, just in time to lock eyes for an instant with a woman across the quadrangle, standing on the steps of the Law Library. Blair raised his hand in a tentative wave, even though he didn't recognize her, and the woman quickly ducked her head and turned away.
Back to Unsleeping
Drop me a line?