Unsleeping

by Martha Taylor, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net

Chapter 5

 

 
 
 

Blair realized he hadn't stopped thinking about Lash. He was thinking about him as he crossed to the Law Library and walked through the lobby and the first floor stacks, not actually looking for the girl he'd seen watching him, just refusing to turn his back on her, because that was the mistake he'd made with David Lash. Turned his back on him. When he'd seen Lash reflected in the window of the cab, some part of his brain had already started putting the pieces together, but what had he done about it? Nothing but glance over his shoulder and be mostly relieved to see that whatever had cast the reflection of someone who was Blair and yet so absolutely not-Blair had already stepped out of sight. Out of sight, out of mind. That sort of thinking had allowed Lash to herd him home like a scared sheep split off from the flock. Practically invited Lash to grab him.

Well, never again. Never, ever again. Hey, there was a time and  place to turn tail and run, he knew that. But not when running was exactly what your enemy wanted you to do. Assuming there were any enemy here at all. Assuming the girl he'd glanced from across the quad had really been watching him in the first place. For instance, maybe she'd just seen him from across the way and been so taken by his boyish good looks she hadn't been able to tear her eyes away. Blair grinned to himself, cheered for a minute. Right, Sandburg. Well, it was just about as likely as assuming she was in Ross's big secret posthumous cult.

Or maybe it was Nagle's.

At any rate, it was a moot point because there was no sign of her here, and the longer he walked through the stacks, peering around every carrel and glancing into the windows of all the conference and study rooms, the less certain he became he'd even recognize her if he saw her again. She'd been wearing blue jeans, right? With some sort of flannel jacket and shoulder length light brown hair. In other words, just like half the students on campus. In all probability she'd gone right through the building and out the other end, taking the shortcut between the student union and the upperclass dorms on the north side of campus, and he was completely wasting his time.

He turned around and went back out the double front entrance again, blinking in the bright sunlight. The sky was a hard, clear, cloudless blue, and budding trees on the quad were bent double by the bitter wind, their branches outstretched like imploring arms. Spring or not, Blair was freezing. Maybe he had another coat in his office he could get. Probably he had half a dozen. He was bad about leaving them at school and then being forced to borrow Jim's. Which was fine until he left Jim's at the office too.

Then he should see what he could find out about Peter Nagle. That had to come first, whatever else happened with the investigation. It would take a helluva smoking gun to get a tenured professor out of the classroom, but the man was bad, bad news. Blair had to try before any other kids ended up like Ross. He'd look up Nagle's vita, check his publications, see if he had committed any of his lunatic ideas to print. Hard to imagine anyone would publish his rantings, but it was a place to start.

There, that sounded like a plan. Then catch the bus back home and see what was up with Jim. The poor guy had sounded beat on the phone, and with Ross's parents arriving, the worst was yet to come for him. Blair would get to the loft first, be sure there was a good dinner in the oven for them both. Least he could do. And if that meant he would have to be sure and leave campus well before dusk, well, then, so that's what it meant. He shook his head at his own skittishness but didn't try to argue himself out of it as he half-jogged across the quadrangle, his backpack jouncing on his back and his hands shoved deep in his pockets as protection against the cold wind.

***

Ross's parents didn't want to see Jim, and he was unabashedly relieved by that, though he would have talked to them if they had asked. Even over Simon's protests. It was Simon's job to protect the department, and any expressions of sympathy could come back to haunt them in the liability suit the grieving parents might bring one day down the road. Jim knew that. He even understood it, in the same way he understood why a two-bit stickup artist with a couple of convictions behind him would kill the clerk at the next store he robbed, rather than leave an eye witness who could send him up again. Understanding the point of view didn't mean he agreed with it. As far as Simon's concern about liability issues went, well, there was a limit. You couldn't let lawyers dictate your humanity, because once you did, you were well on your way to forgetting what justice was supposed to be all about. Too many people in the system like that already.

Something about having Sandburg around made it all the more important to stand fast against the creeping, incremental compromises, too. Jim had never been very good at those games anyway, as Carolyn had always been quick to tell him. Simon didn't exactly keep his opinions to himself either. But with Sandburg there, watching him in unguarded moments with that -- that look in his eyes. Like Jim could save the whole world if he wanted to, given enough time. It would be an impossible expectation to try and live up to, except Blair never gave Jim time to think about it. The very next minute he'd be pushing Jim toward the door demanding they go to Waterfront Park while the wind was coming out of the west and a fog was rolling in, and they should do a couple of experiments to see how that affected his ability to judge distance and by the way Jim, you didn't really  want to go to that steakhouse tonight for dinner, did you? Not when there's a great new Vietnamese place that's just opened up, organic AND vegetarian, sounds great doesn't it?

Jim smiled to himself, shaking himself out of his musings. As a matter of fact, the Vietnamese place had been pretty good. Worlds better, at any rate, than the fast food Mexican joint where Jim had stopped on his way to the station this afternoon. The soda he'd gotten with lunch had been sitting mostly forgotten on his desk all afternoon, and a puddle of condensation was slowly spreading from its base, advancing on a stack of files in inexorable degrees. That really had to be dealt with, sooner rather than later by this point. Jim picked up the paper cup, swinging it out in a wide arc to try to avoid dripping all over the desk, and succeeded about as well as he had expected he would. Now he had a puddle of condensation on the desk and an arc of water droplets splattered across all the files and papers. What a mess. Looked like Sandburg had been sitting there.

He carried the cup over to the water fountain, still dripping water with every step, pried off the lid, and dumped the remains down the drain. The melted ice had settled in a layer of water on top of the darker soda, and they poured out together in mingling ribbons, circling the drain and disappearing down the tiny holes punched in the metal. There were sparkles of round brightness where the surface tension held bubbles of water poised for an instant before they broke and were replaced with darkness.

"It's called a water fountain." A heavy hand fell on Jim's shoulder, the weight of it and the sound of Joel's amused voice bringing Jim back. "Makes you wonder what they'll think up next, don't it?"

"Hey," Jim said, shaking his head. He'd been gone there for a minute, hadn't he? He crumpled the empty cup in his hand and dropped it into the trashcan across the way. A neat hook that would have made Sandburg proud. "Little tired is all."

"Yeah, I hear you. How you feeling? IA got their claws into you yet over this?"

"Not yet. I've got an appointment in the morning, but I don't think it'll be any problem. It was pretty cut and dried."

"Hell of a thing, though. Come on, a library book? And now the body's missing? Makes you wonder what's next. Is Sandburg all right?"

"Little shook up. He's all right."

"Good." Joel nodded. "Good. You tell him he's doing all right."

"I will."

"Hey, he's keeping you on the straight and narrow." He elbowed Jim in the ribs, hard enough for Jim to feel it, laughed at Jim's exaggerated wince. "I know that's gotta be a fulltime job."

There was a trail of dark drops leading back to Jim's desk, and the puddle of condensation on the surface had reached the end of his desk and was dribbling to the floor a drop at a time. Have to  wipe that up. Jim scanned the other desks, looking for napkins left over from somebody else's takeout lunch. Water continued to fall, a quick rush of droplets spilling over the edge, then slowing, and Jim was still standing there, thinking about the grid of little round holes in the drinking fountain drain. Sparkling with reflected light for a moment as they held the water, then rushing away into darkness.

Jim could hear things in the darkness. Water splashing in vaults of stone and metal. And the other thing. It was really always with him, wasn't it? All he had to do was be still a bit and listen. Footsteps coming in slow procession. Clumsy but indefatigable. For the love of heaven, Chief, what is that?

And then, just like before, something of Blair shimmered out at him from the darkness, bright as a lock of his curly hair in the sunlight. He reached for it, scent, sound, a vision, touch or taste, but whatever he was sensing, it was too subtle to be caught. Something had caught Blair, though. What other explanation could there be? Why else would Blair be with something that shuffled endlessly through the wet, stinking darkness?

"Jim! What's wrong with you?  Siddown before you fall over."

Joel was practically holding him up, both big hands wrapped in the shoulders of Jim's coat. "I'm OK," Jim heard himself muttering. He brought up his hands, trying to pull free, but Joel wasn't buying it. He steered Jim forcibly around and sat him down at his desk.

"Are you sick? You look like you've seen a ghost."

Jim shook his head. "I'm fine," he lied. "I'm fine." He couldn't find his way back to the darkness now, the way his heart was pounding in his chest, certainly not with Joel still leaning over him, one hand still on his shoulder.

Jim groped for the telephone on the desk and punched in Blair's number. It rang once, twice. One more time and Jim was going to hang up and drive straight to campus himself, but then Blair picked up the phone, saying, "Hey Jim, is that you? You should have called me on my office phone. These calls cost money, you know."

I know, Jim thought, weak with relief at the sound of Blair's voice. He was the one who paid the cell phone bill,  and it had never seemed a better investment than it did at this minute.

"What's going on?" Blair said. "Has anything new turned up?"

"Is that Sandburg?" Joel asked. Jim nodded, and at that, Joel finally let him go and moved away to his own desk, still scowling with worry.

"No," Jim said. He swallowed. "No, nothing new on this end. We might have something when the fingerprint analysis comes back. I was just wondering -- uh -- if you wanted a ride home this evening."

"Sure," Blair said happily. "When have I ever turned down a ride? Are you leaving now?"

How he wished he could. "No. It may be a little while. Simon's meeting with Ross's parents. He wanted me to stick around until after they left."

Blair's voice was warm with sympathy. "Do they want to talk to you?"

"Not so far. It may be a couple of hours, though. I'll just give you a call before I leave."

A moment of hesitation, then Blair said, "You know, it's a little after five now. I was just gonna catch the bus home anyway. Tell you what, I'll go ahead and do that, then I can have a good dinner started by the time you walk in the door. I think we could both use some home cooking. I'll even thaw out a sirloin for you. Heck, I'll get one out for me too. It feels like a red meat sort of night."

There had to be some good reason to tell Blair to just stay put on campus until Jim could get there. A reason besides persistent auditory hallucinations anyway.

"Jim? Hey, Jim, are you all right?"

Or maybe he could just blow off Simon and go pick up Sandburg right now. "I'm all right," was all Jim said.

"I've got a better idea," Blair announced in a quiet, quick voice. "I'll come down there, meet you at the station and we can head home together. Don't worry about Simon, I'll be invisible. Nobody will even know I'm there."

Sandburg going unnoticed. Oh yeah. Things might be a little crazy and out of sorts today, but not THAT crazy. "Nah, Blair, your first idea was better. I'll see you at home. Need me to pick up anything for this big dinner?"

"Not that big. Just salad and some veggies and I think we've got plenty of frozen. I'll be sure not to start anything that won't keep in case you get held up there. I should just expect you when I see you. Is that about the size of it?"

"Sounds like it. Listen, Sandburg --"

"What is it?"

Jim looked at the puddle of water on his desk. Most of the water had bled away onto the floor, and little more than the outline remained. "Blair, this is a funny kind of case. Just keep an eye out, all right?"

"Hey, I always do," Blair assured him. "Jim, listen to me for a second here, though. You're really all right?"

"I'm all right," Jim said. "See you tonight."

***

Blair wasn't so sure Jim was all right. When was the last time Jim had called him just to say hello? There'd been the excuse of offering a ride home, but that had only been an afterthought, Blair knew. He sat there in his office after Jim hung up the phone, thinking about it. Wondering if he should show up at the station anyway, because it sure sounded as though Jim needed some moral support there. Blair was feeling pretty shaky himself, but Jim was the one who had pulled the trigger last night. No matter how justified it had been. Despite the fact there had been no other way, it must be rough on Jim, especially with Ross's parents there. It made Blair's heart ache to think about it.

In the end, though, he decided to go straight home after all. If Jim was having a hard time, Blair showing up at the station when he'd been emphatically uninvited wouldn't help. Sighing, he stuffed the books and xeroxes he'd gathered during the afternoon into his backpack, found Jim's nice brown bomber jacket hanging on the back of his office door, and jogged across campus to the bus stop where he was just in time to see he'd wasted so much time dicking around trying to make up his mind that he'd missed the five-twenty bus.

Shit. It was a fifteen minute wait until the next one, and it was cold outside. He sat down on one of the concrete benches, the cold leeching quickly through his blue jeans. Man, was he ready for summertime. April was lovely and all, but it was just too damn cold for him. He dug a handful of photocopies out of his backpack to distract himself while he waited. Professor Peter Nagle's academic legacy. Nagle wasn't a prolific author, but the articles he had published were in sound journals. Blair didn't much expect to find ranting about secret religious rites in them, and glancing over them as he had copied them seemed to bear out his prediction. He read over the first article in his stack with more care, doggedly looking for something -- a word, a phrase, just a hint of the same craziness that had gleamed from Nagle's eyes this afternoon.

Nothing. Just brittle post-structuralist play, punning deconstruction of texts in four languages. Densely composed, even brilliant in their way, if a little dated by now. Utterly empty. Clean as a newly white-washed room. Nagle wrote about the forces and counter forces of Catholicism and Protestantism, sacred and profane languages, the rise of literacy, witchcraft prosecutions, the education of women and the tradition of alchemical texts with assurance and verve. Blair couldn't fault his scholarship, though he felt his lip curling at Nagle's characterization of the ecclesiastical courts who sentenced countless thousands to die at the stake as victims themselves of stresses in the texts. (Can you put down your Derrida for a half a second, Professor? People died here.)

Whatever Blair thought about the critical approach, though, there was no substance to condemn Nagle in these articles. He even mentioned Unaussprechlin Kulten in one, in connection with a related work, De Vermis Mysteriis, but he afforded them the same treatment as every other text and historical event mentioned in his article. Simply fodder for the great critical guns. The author's own beliefs -- however nutso they might be, Blair thought gloomily -- simply didn't enter into it.

Well, it had been a thought. Most of the other articles looked the same, and after only glancing through a few more, he stuffed the rest of them back into his backpack. His fingers were too cold to hold the papers, and besides, wasn't it about time for the bus to get here? He stood up and walked to the curb to look, despite the way it violated his superstitious certainty that looking for a bus was the best way in the world to be sure it never arrived. Why hadn't he just waited for Jim to show up? A couple more hours on campus wouldn't have killed him. He had just been sick and tired of feeling like everyone was watching him, that's what it had been, and he wanted to escape to the safety of the loft.

Oh well. He'd be home soon enough. If the bus ever arrived. He had to step out into the street to see around a green Chevy Nova parked inconveniently up the hill above the bus stop, the late afternoon sun reflecting blindingly off the windshield, and hello, can you say hallelujah, brother? There was the bus at last. What a hell of a day. It was going to feel so good to get home.

He piled on board with half a dozen other riders, most of them people Blair knew from the same route. He forgot to look at the readout after he fed his debit card through, but he knew he was getting pretty low. Might not even have enough for another ride, so he'd better check that before he got on a bus again. There were some empty seats near the back, and Blair snagged one for himself, sinking down on the hard molded plastic with relief. It beat the heck out of that ice cold concrete bench. It was stuffy in the bus, and a little too warm, and someone a seat or two over was playing a walkman at such earsplitting volume Blair could hear the tinny bass rattling through the seats, but at least he wasn't cold anymore.

The rush hour streets of Cascade slid past the grimy windows in fits and starts. Blair settled back as well as he could on the unyielding seat, his arms crossed over his backpack on his lap, and let his eyes close. At once he felt himself beginning to drift. Slow and easy, back and forth, gliding into darkness like a skater making ever-widening circles on a frozen lake somewhere deep in a snow-wrapped forest. Night was falling, stars twinkling one by one in an indigo sky, and still the skater turned and turned. Ice hissed under her blades, and the forest pressed closer, and there was something odd about the outline of the trees against the sky. Blair looked, trying to understand, but the cold caught in his throat and he awoke with a violent start.

Oh man. He sat up straighter, pushing his hair out of his face. Man. Have to watch that. Last time he'd fallen asleep on the bus he hadn't woken up till the end of the line. Let's not even talk about how much that would suck tonight. He looked out the window, hoping they were near home. Nope. They hadn't even crossed Main. He wiped his eyes, almost regretting his promise to make dinner tonight. It'd be nice to get home and just catch a little shut eye.

On the other hand, Jim would be just as tired, and he wasn't even on his way home yet. Have a heart, Sandburg. OK, so he didn't regret promising Jim dinner. All he had to do was stay awake until he got home. He pulled out the sheaf of xeroxes that was starting to look a little crumpled by this point, and smoothed the last one down over his backpack. It was the only one that looked   different from the others, if for no other reason than the journal it had appeared in. The Illinois Journal of American Folklore? Didn't sound like Nagle's bag, and neither did the topic. "Notes Toward an Originating Source for a Dis-Arming Prank Tale."

No, it didn't sound like Nagle at all. In fact, it sounded so far afield he'd checked twice before he'd even bothered copying it. But no, this was Rainier's Peter Nagle all right. The writing was breezy and familiar, a nice change from the high critical sterility of the other articles. In it, Nagle recounted an urban legend that had been current at least since the 1920's, with dozens of versions recorded at various colleges all over the country in the past seventy years. In most versions of the story, a malicious medical student decides to play a prank on his girlfriend by leaving an arm borrowed from an autopsy cadaver in her bed. The girlfriend arrives home, and when the waiting boyfriend doesn't hear the anticipated screams, he breaks into her room to find the prank has gone horribly wrong. Blair found himself wondering how a prank like that could ever have gone right. At any rate, so the story went, the girlfriend's hair has turned white as snow, and she's crouched in a corner of the room chewing on the arm ... driven completely out of her mind.

Great story, Blair thought. Remind me never to date a doctor.

In his article, Nagle went on to suggest the genesis of the story could be found in events that actually transpired at Rainier in 1927. Rainier's first president Rudolph Bollingen, long since retired, still lived in a grand Victorian house just off campus. A very old man by then, suffering from senile dementia, he was attended by a housekeeper who had been with him for decades and could not have been much younger than her employer. At length, it was noticed that no one had entered or left Bollingen's home for several days. When all attempts to rouse the occupants failed, the police entered the house and found poor old Rudolph strangled to death in his bed. His ancient housekeeper had apparently hacked off both his forearms with a carving knife, and when the police found her, she was engaged in boiling them in a stewpot on top of the stove.

Whew. Well, that was a pretty story. Blair watched the view outside the bus window for a few minutes, reassuring himself with the view of ordinary people walking down ordinary streets, no lunatics or cannibals in sight, before finishing the article.

The official explanation, and certainly the right one, was that Rudolph Bollingen's housekeeper had been as mad as her employer, her own dementia going unnoticed until it was far too late. The story on campus, as one would expect, ascribed more lurid motives to the grisly events. Bollingen's legendary collection of books on magic and exotica had still been housed in his home at the time, though they were promised to Rainier in his will. The story went that reading those books had driven Bollingen mad decades before, and his housekeeper had followed him into madness when she had read them in turn, thinking only to while away the long night hours alone in a house with a poor lunatic.

Yeah. A great story all right, and Nagle told it all with a certain ghoulish glee that seemed in keeping with his attitude this morning. But something else was bothering Blair. In the article Nagle pointed out how the old story about the "cursed" book collection had lingered on at Rainier in various guises for decades, giving a peculiar twist to other urban legends. When they were told on Rainier, they took on an edge of madness that was often absent in other versions, a peculiarity Nagle ascribed to the existence of the Bollingen collection, and faint memories of a horror connected with it that lingered long the original events had been mostly forgotten.

Nothing so surprising about that. It was the nature of legends that had any whisper of truth at their back to spread thinner and thinner with retellings and the passage of time. But what was odd was that Nagle hadn't said anything about it this morning when Blair had asked him about one of the books in the Bollingen collection. Instead, he'd fed Blair a line about dark horrors from prehistory, and then just grinned when Blair had floundered in protest. Was THAT why he'd been grinning? Because he'd been pulling Blair's leg?

Christ, a kid was dead. Nagle wouldn't have been joking at a time like that. Would he? Blair shuffled back through the earlier articles. High and dry, unemotional academic exercises unaffected by the tens of thousands of women and children dead at the hands of men Nagle described as victims of intertextuality. You know, maybe it wasn't so far fetched. Maybe Nagle had been laughing at him all along.

His face started to burn. Blair raised cold fingertips and touched his cheek. Red hot, all right. He was way out of his depth. Losing all sense of perspective, chasing phantasms, letting an arrogant SOB like Nagle toy with him. God, he needed Jim. Jim wouldn't have let Nagle get away with it for a minute. What a screwup he was turning out to be on his own. He crammed the papers back into his backpack, shaking with anger, feeling more than a little sick.

A screwup who was just about to miss his stop. He leaped to his feet, yanked the bell and stumbled to the back doors, lurching as the bus jerked to a stop on the other side of Prospect. The cold dusk air burned his flushed cheeks like dry ice as the double back doors swung open. He took the long step down to the street, and the bus rattled away behind him.

Deep breaths. Calming breaths.

Oh like hell. He swung his backpack violently over his shoulder and stalked to the intersection, waiting impatiently for the light. Where were all the cars coming from anyway? Yeah, rush hour, whatever. The instant the light changed he stepped out in the street, heard tires squealing on the pavement, and looked up to see a green Chevy Nova fishtailing across the lane. No way it could stop in time. No way. He stumbled backward, trying to get out of the way, caught the heel of his shoe on the curb and fell hard on his butt on the sidewalk, skinning the palms of his hands on the concrete. The Nova swerved through the crosswalk, one tire bumping up onto the curb, and Blair was eye level with a dented chrome bumper like the maw of a unsouled beast.

***

Chapter 6
Back to Unsleeping
Home
 
 

Drop me a line?