Unsleeping

by Martha Taylor, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net

Chapter 6

 

 
 
 
 

He knew the car would stop in time. He knew the wheels would roll backward off the curb, not make one last revolution forward. No question in his mind. The late afternoon sun was shining low on the horizon, and the sky was pale in the last hours before sunset, and there was no way he could be run over trying to cross Prospect on his way home. He kept scrabbling and flopping backward anyway, since the universe might not realize this was all some ridiculous mistake, until at last he sat on a strap from his backpack and went sprawling, his legs kicking out like a beetle flipped on its back. He looked helplessly up at the sky too beautiful to die under, feeling the corner of a book digging into his spine. The car was so close the heat of the engine panted across his legs.

And then, nothing. The dead sound of the engine stalling out, then of a car horn somewhere on the other side of the intersection blatting impatiently. Blair rolled over. The palms of his hands were burning. His elbows hurt, as well as his butt, and he could hear the tinkle of broken glass inside his backpack. That would be his thermos liner, wouldn't it? Third one this year. The car was still on the sidewalk, barely three feet from him, and he crawled away so he wasn't right in front of the grill. He was breathing in quick gulps of air, and he was shaking too badly to stand up just yet. The driver's door swung open, and he saw scuffed running shoes and blue jeans swing out. The driver was talking in terrified gasps of sound. "Oh god," she said. "Oh god, oh god."

"Take it easy," Blair muttered. "Nothing's broken."

"I'm so sorry. I was watching the bus and I didn't even see the light change. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry." She crouched beside him on the sidewalk, babbling in shock. Straight, fine brown hair swung forward, partially hiding her face, but Blair recognized her all the same.

"It's all right. I'm all right."

"God, I'm sorry. I could have killed you. Mr. Sandburg, I'm so sorry." She took his hand as though to help him to his feet, saw his skinned palm and moaned, "Oh, you're bleeding. Oh, god, I'm such an idiot."

"Look, calm down, I'm all right." Blair got his feet under himself and tried to stand up. The woman grabbed his elbow and supported him strongly when he staggered.

"You're not all right. We should get you to a hospital. Oh, I'm so, so, sorry."

Blair took an experimental step. He'd wrenched his ankle in the fall, and he felt it when he put his weight on it. His skinned hands hurt worse. "I saw you," he said bluntly, as his own shock began to wear off. "You were watching me while I was talking to Peter Nagle. Your car was sitting at the bus stop. What's going on? Why are you following me?"

She let him go. "I just wanted to talk to you."

"What, you couldn't stop by during office hours?" He took another step, wincing. "You know, you really need to watch where you're going. You could kill somebody."

"I know," she whispered. "I'm so sorry." Tears rose in her eyes. Her plain, angular face was flushed and blotchy with emotion.

"Look, calm down," Blair said, sighing. "No harm done except I think I broke my thermos. You can buy me a new one and we'll call it square, OK?"

She gulped and nodded quickly. "I was watching the bus," she explained again. "I was trying to see if you'd gotten off yet or not, and the sun was in my eyes and I didn't even see the light. I'm so sorry."

"All right, all right, I got that," Blair said, his voice gentler. "What's your name? You're not an anthro major, are you?"

"Susan. My name's Susan Pera. I'm writing my senior honors paper in history."

"OK, Susan, the first thing you need to do is get your car out of the intersection before somebody comes sailing by and takes the rear end off."

"Oh, you're right. You're right." She took a hesitant step backward. "You're sure you're really not hurt?"

"I'm sure."

She slid back another step. "I'm really sorry. I guess -- I don't know -- maybe I'll be seeing you around?"

Blair sighed. "Something was so important that you followed me all the way home from campus, and now you don't want to talk about it?"

"I thought after practically running you down you wouldn't want to talk to me." One tear slipped down her cheek and she wiped it away with the back of her hand.

"Please don't do that," Blair said quickly. "Sure we can talk. Tell you what, you move your car, and we can have a cup of coffee." He indicated the bakery two stores down with a tilt of his head. "The coffee isn't the greatest, but they make a mean chocolate croissant."

"Thank you." Susan smiled cautiously at him, her hazel green eyes lighting up for a moment. "I really appreciate it."

Blair watched to be sure she didn't plow into anyone while she backed her Nova off the sidewalk, then made his way to the bakery to wait for her, going slow and trying not to limp. Well, well, well -- a senior history major too afraid to talk to him on campus. Three guesses whose class she was in, and the first two didn't count.

When he came in the door of the bakery, Joey, the day chef, glanced over his shoulder and then stopped midway to the ovens. His arms were full of a tray of pale, raw hard rolls for pan bagnats. "Look what the cat drug in," he announced to Blair with a broad grin. "What does Jim mean, letting you out of his sight?"

"Between him and school, I've been pretty busy," Blair said, smiling back. "Can I use your sink for a minute? I just wanna wash my hands."

"Sure, you know where it is." Joey stepped back so Blair could make his way around the counter. "What happened to you? Somebody try to run you over?"

"Just about. I don't think she meant to, though."

Joey shook his head, grinning. "No wonder Jim has to keep you on such a tight leash."

"Yeah, yeah, very funny."

Blair washed the blood and sidewalk grit from his hands in the tiny alcove of a bathroom behind the bakery racks. Mr. April sneered at him from the calendar over the toilet, and Blair found himself wondering if he ever got those chest hairs caught in the buckles. Ouch. He blotted his hands dry on a paper towel, and by the time he came out, Susan had arrived and was ordering a cup of coffee and a chocolate croissant for him, getting a bottled water for herself. Figured, Blair thought, as he thanked her. Susan didn't look like the pastry type. Her hip bones were hard, angular planes under her jeans, and her face had a pale clarity that suggested sugar and butter and chocolate were rare indulgences. Track and field, he thought. Or maybe swimming, he amended, noticing the broad shoulders under her flannel shirt.

They sat down at the little café table Susan picked out, near the counter and away from the window. Blair wasn't really in the mood for decadent pastries either. He sipped at the coffee Susan had bought for him while Susan sat watching him worriedly, twisting her hands together under the table.

"So," Blair said at last. He put down the coffee cup and smiled at her. "What can I do for you?"

Susan put her hands on the table. No jewelry, her nails trimmed short and neat. "This is going to sound really stupid," she said. "It's about my honors paper."

"The one you're writing in history," Blair couldn't help pointing out. "Not in anthropology."

"That's exactly why I wanted to talk to you. I can't go to anybody in the history department because I'm afraid it would get back to my advisor. My friend Monica Underhill's in your class this quarter, and she said you were really easy to talk to, and I just thought maybe you could give me some advice, or at least point me in the right direction, because it's gotten so bad by now that I don't know where else to go."

Blair held up his hands. "Whoa, one step at a time. Is your advisor by any chance Peter Nagle?"

Susan nodded.

"OK, I can see where you wouldn't want to talk to people in the history department about him. What's the problem with your paper?"

She took a deep breath. "I'm writing about Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft. I don't know if you know anything about it or not."

"Just a little. I've never read it, but he's supposed to be one of the great debunkers, right? At the height of the witchcraft hysteria he writes this book to show there's no such thing as magic or witchcraft. Pretty brave thing to do. At the time even doubting the reality of witchcraft could be grounds for execution."

"Yes, that's right." Susan's face had lit up with pleasure. "He takes on everything -- the confessions of condemned witches, the claims of alchemists and sorcerers, all kinds of stuff, and shows how it's all just fear of torture or sleight of hand tricks. I mean, basically he's saying there's no such thing as the supernatural."

"Sounds like a really interesting paper topic. That kind of skepticism is pretty scarce even these days. So what's the problem?"

"Well, it's Dr. Nagle." She made a helpless gesture with her hands. "He approved my topic and everything -- he's my advisor! But when I turned in my outline and first draft he started to get very weird. He told me I was being close minded -- that I wasn't considering other points of view."

"He wanted you to give equal time to sorcerers and witchcraft judges?"

Susan smiled faintly. "Yes, something like that, I think."

"Is it possible he just meant you should refer to more primary sources? You know, maybe see what Scott's contemporaries were saying about him?" Personally, Blair didn't believe for a second that's what Nagle had really meant, but he wouldn't do Susan any good jumping to conclusions. He hadn't been there -- he didn't know what Nagle had actually said. Susan seemed bright, but Nagle had toyed with him as well. No telling what he might have said to an undergrad. He'd certainly strung Blair along without raising a sweat.

"Well, that's what I thought at first. Once I got over being kind of mad about it, I mean."

Blair nodded. "Yeah, I understand."

"But then he brought it up in class, in front of everybody. I can't even tell you what it was like. He was talking about my paper like it was heresy. He just went on and on, saying how disrespectful it was to ancient beliefs, how arrogant I was to dismiss the testimony of so many learned men. Everyone else just turned around and looked at me. I felt like I wanted to die." Susan planted her elbows on the table and buried her face in her hands. "This sounds really stupid, doesn't it?"

"No, it doesn't sound stupid. It sounds like a very uncomfortable experience."

"You must think I'm being such a baby about this. I mean, if I disagree with Nagle's point of view, I just need to work harder and write a better paper."

"That's the way it's supposed to be," Blair said ruefully. "It doesn't always work out that way."

"Anyway, after that, everybody in class stopped talking to me. I'm not, you know, very outgoing or popular anyway, but now no one in that class will even look at me. And Monday I found somebody had stuffed this into my backpack." She dug a folded sheet of notebook paper from the pocket of her jeans and handed it to him.

He looked in her face before he unfolded it. The corner of her mouth was shaking. He unfolded the sheet of paper on the cafe table to reveal a grid of Hebrew letters identical to the one that had been on his board this morning. Blair swallowed. "Do you know what this is?"

She nodded. "It's from one of the sorcerers that Scot demolishes as a total fraud in Discoverie. One of the guys we studied in class, Gottfried von Junzt. He used Kabalistic signs like this to describe magic he claims he found on his travels in the middle east."

That son of a bitch, Blair thought. "Nagle talked about it in class?"

"Well, yeah, of course." She blinked in mild surprise. "Anyway, I went and showed it to him after I got it. I told him it felt like a threat. I mean, it scared me."

Blair's mouth was dry. "What did he tell you?"

"He said I didn't believe in magic, so what did I have to worry about?" Susan took a hitching breath. Blotches of red appeared on her cheeks. "And now Ross is dead. Mr. Sandburg, I think they're half crazy, all of them. Who would do something like that unless they were crazy?" She knotted her hands together, squeezing until her knuckles turned white. "I'm so scared," she whispered. "I don't know what to do anymore."

***

Blair had made the salad, thawed the steaks, had a couple of foil wrapped potatoes baking in the oven, and was propped on the sofa reading when he heard Jim's footsteps in the hall. About time. He was starving. Jim was sure to be hungry too, the poor guy, unless he'd broken down and stopped at Tacos Tacos on the way home. He let himself in before Blair could get to the door, looking tired and out of sorts, but he nodded at Blair and said, "The potatoes smell good."

"Hey, good. Does that mean you're ready to eat? I can have the steaks on the table in fifteen minutes."

"Thanks, Chief." Jim relaxed a little, some of the tension leaving his face. He shrugged his coat off his shoulders and hung it on the rack by the door.

"No problem. I'm gonna sautè some mushrooms and onions to go over them, that sound all right to you? -- and then we'll be good to go. But listen to me a minute, Jim, something's happened. I think I've got this all figured out. Peter Nagle is behind the whole thing."

Jim paused on the first step up to his bedroom, already stripping himself of the literal weight of being a cop, handcuffs and cellphone in his hand. "Nagle. That history professor you were talking about before."

"That's right, man. It turns out he's even weirder and scarier than I thought." Blair made his way to the kitchen to get the rest of dinner started. "I talked to one of his advisees this afternoon and she told me about some of the stuff that goes on in his class, and I'm sure he's the one who convinced Ross to try and steal that book. It has to be him."

"You're limping," Jim said.

"Yeah, I know. I'm OK. But this girl I talked to, Jim, she's so scared of Nagle and the other people in his class that she didn't want to risk anyone seeing us talking on campus. See, she's writing a paper about these medieval magician guys Nagle is so hot on, basically saying all their magic is a crock. You know, that nobody was really summoning demons or raising the dead, no matter what they claimed they could do."

Jim had reached the head of the stairs, unbuttoning his shirt one-handed. He looked back at Blair. "Doesn't sound like it would be a real hotly contested point of view."

"Well, not in a normal place it wouldn't be, but I don't think Nagle's classroom is normal at all. I'm not totally sure whether Professor Nagle really believes in all that magic and stuff or not, but that's not all that important. What's important to him is the power trip. This is a guy who loves to play games with people's heads. He could make the undergrads in his class believe anything he wanted to."

"You think Nagle convinced Ross to try and steal the book," Jim called down, out of sight for a moment upstairs.

"Yeah, I do. I was able to get a look at Ross's transcript this afternoon, and it turns out he took his first history class from Dr. Nagle back when he was a sophomore, right after he transferred out here. Nagle had his hooks in that poor kid for nearly two years."

"Pretty slim evidence," Jim said mildly. He reappeared at the head of the stairs, shirtless.

"I know it's not a whole lot to go on so far, but I'm telling you, I really think I'm right about this." Caught up in trying to convince Jim, Blair dropped half a stick of butter into the hot skillet instead of slicing off a tablespoon. It sizzled and ran to the edges of the pan, and Blair, after briefly considering going to the trouble of pouring most of the butter out again, gave up and threw in the onions too. They were already having steak, after all, not much point in trying to spare their arteries at this point. "Nagle lied to me. First he told me they didn't talk about the von Junzt book at all in his class, and then he said he mentioned it, but they didn't talk about any specifics. This poor girl I talked to this afternoon, she tells me they talked about the book a lot. And she's scared, man. After what Ross did, she thinks the whole class is crazy, and I don't know if maybe she isn't right after all. I told her not to go back to class, and I'm going with her to talk to the dean tomorrow about the whole situation. I think Peter Nagle's got his students so wound up there's no telling what they might do."

The frying onions smelled fantastic. Blair turned the heat down and shook the pan, and Jim came back down the stairs as though pulled there by the scent. He was tugging a sweatshirt over his head on the way. "Wound up enough to steal Ross's body?" Jim asked. "I agree we haven't got a better suspect at this point, but it's just not very much to go on."

"But take a look at this. Here, can you stir the onions for a minute? Don't let them burn."

Jim frowned skeptically at him, the same expression that always crossed his face when Blair tried to give him cooking advice. He took the wooden spoon from Blair and carefully scraped chopped onions from the sides of the pan all the same while Blair found the piece of paper Susan had given him. "You're still limping," Jim said, watching him. "What'd you do?"

"Didn't check both ways before trying to cross the street. Look at this." He held up the paper for Jim to see.

"Is that the same thing that was on your board this morning?"

"Sure is."

"Where did it come from?"

"The girl in Nagle's class. Someone put it in her backpack. Jim, it's from the von Junzt book Ross was trying to steal, and Susan thinks it's a threat."

Jim looked at him, then back at the piece of notebook paper. He put the spoon back in Blair's hand and took the paper to examine it more closely. When he looked up again, there was a serious, unhappy expression on his face Blair wasn't sure how to interpret. "I think we need to have a talk with Professor Nagle," Jim said.

***

Ray Weston was dead, lying in the mud with the rain pouring down on his upturned face. The air was thick, unbreathable. Everything reeked of blood and raw lumber, wet earth and burned flesh. The stench turned Jim's stomach. He reeled and fell hard against the railing on his way up the stairs, trying to get back in the house. Trying to get to Blair. Angie was so intent on reaching her daughter she didn't even notice Jim had staggered. The door banged shut behind her, leaving Jim alone in the storm. Ah, god, everything hurt. His head, his hands, his arm. The bullet wound seared him, the rain-soaked bandages weighed him down. He had to get out of this. He had to find Blair, and they both had to get out of here.

Ray Weston was behind him on the ground, his stringy blond hair dark with water and blood, and his dead eyes looking up at the cloud-choked night sky. Jim knew he was dead, but in a storm like this, maybe dead wasn't quite good enough. Madness, Jim thought, but he couldn't force himself to look over his shoulder at Ray. He dragged himself to his feet and made it the last few steps up the outside stairs. The door was banging in the wind, a wild and lonely sound. Where was everyone? God help him, where was Blair?

He staggered across the threshold, calling for Blair, and found himself in the loft. Outside the storm still howled and thundered, but though the rain splattered against the clerestory windows and balcony doors, inside it was warm and dry, and the world smelled like onions frying in butter instead of mud and blood and death. Blair was standing by the stove, holding his palm against his head, a dazed expression on his face. "Chief," Jim called to him, and Blair turned. His eyes took too long to focus.

"Jim," he said. He smiled at first, but then he realized the state Jim was in, and his gentle expression of pleasure turned to one of alarm. "Oh, Jim, you're hurt," he said. He tried to reach Jim, but his knees buckled and he had to brace himself against the counter to keep from falling.

"Easy," Jim said in alarm. He reached Blair's side, his own injuries forgotten. "Easy, there. Weston clipped you pretty good."

"Is that what happened?" Blair asked, slurring his words a little. He sagged into Jim's support, allowing Jim to guide him out of the kitchen and across to the sofa. Blair's feet tangled together and the toes of his shoes dragged against the carpet.

"That's what happened," Jim told him. "Easy, just sit down here and let me see what we're dealing with." He tried to push Blair down into the sofa, but Blair flopped like a rag doll, as though his joints were all bending the wrong way.

"Don't burn the onions, Jim," he demanded worriedly.

So that was the problem. "Onions are fine," Jim said. "I turned off the burner."

The reassurance was enough, and Blair allowed Jim to sit him on the sofa. He slumped with his head back, his hands lying empty and open on the cushions. Jim bent over him, pushing the hair back out of his face to expose the bloody abrasion on his forehead. He laid the side of his thumb gently beside the wound. "How's that feel?"

Blair smiled up at him, his eyes half-closed and fogged with pain. "Actually, it kinda hurts, man."

"Well, I'm not too surprised." Jim slid his hand around to the back of Blair's head, looking for the evidence of the second injury. He found a warm, tender knot under the curve at the back of Blair's skull and said, "I bet you can feel that one too, huh, Chief?"

Blair's lips had tightened for a moment in a wince of pain, but he smiled again at that. "Is that how you made detective, Jim?"

"Just for that crack you're doing the dishes too," Jim told him. He held Blair's chin in both hands and carefully tilted his head up so he could look into Blair's eyes. Blair held still for the examination, only blinking once or twice.

"Am I gonna live?" he asked, a smile at the corner of his mouth.

"Afraid so," Jim told him, grinning back. "How do you feel about a trip to the ER anyway?"

"Aw man, do we have to? It's pouring down rain outside."

"Humor me," Jim said, and then, still holding Blair's face cupped in his hands, said the rest as well. "You saved my life, Sandburg. Weston would have killed us all if you hadn't jumped him when you did."

Blair closed his eyes, for a moment unable to meet Jim's gaze. "I was stupid. I didn't even realize he was in the house until it was too late." He opened his eyes again, his expression miserable but somehow, terrifyingly, resigned. "He's in the house now, Jim."

Everything stopped for an endless, eternal moment, and then Jim whirled around to see that he'd left the loft's front door standing part way open. A bitterly cold draft of air blew in, stinking of rain and earth and burned, dead flesh. There were footsteps in the hallway, and a voice just on the other side of the half-opened door. Humming a little, mumbling the words. Jim started to run even though he knew he couldn't make it in time. "S'all coming back to me," the voice muttered, almost singing. Then the door swung open with a bang, but Jim woke himself up before he could see what lay on the other side.
 
 
 

***

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