Unsleeping

by Martha Taylor, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net

Chapter 8

 

 

Blair tried to judge the distance to the stairwell without turning his head. A dozen steps behind him and a little to the right, he thought. "So I guess you're not really writing your paper on Reginald Scot," he told Susan, saying the first thing that came to his head. And you know what? Even at a moment like this, that really did piss him off.

"Actually I am." She was circling to cut off his escape. "You should have done your homework better, Mr. Sandburg. Scot wasn't arguing there was no such thing as magic. Just that the witch courts were executing the wrong people for it."

Great, just great. "Eddie," Blair said, "Listen to me. Ross is dead. There's nothing you can do for him anymore."

"That's not what you said yesterday." Eddie was still smiling, sheepish and somehow determined all at the same time, as though he were trying to talk his way out of a term paper deadline. "I heard all about what you told your class. You said you owed Ross a debt you didn't know how to repay."

"For the love of-- Eddie, not like this. Not like this." Blair tensed for flight and kept talking. "Remember what you told Jim and me? Whatever you two are trying to do, I promise you, it won't make any sense the morning after. Forget about the morning after. It doesn't make any sense now. Dead is dead."

Eddie pulled the gun he had hidden under his coat and leveled it at Blair. "If you really believe that, then you better do exactly what we tell you."

"Hey, wait a minute, easy, easy." Blair raised his hands as high as his shoulders, wondering if Professor Nagle's entire damn class was packing. "Come on, you don't want to use that."

"Get down on your knees," Susan said. "Put your hands on top of your head." Eddie was advancing on him carefully, holding the gun like it was a wild animal that might suddenly turn on him. He looked like he'd never fired a gun in his life. At the very least he didn't know much about the weapon he was holding now. It occurred to Blair that three years ago, he wouldn't have known Eddie's gun was a single action Colt either, much less that it wouldn't fire because Eddie hadn't racked the slide.

(Thanks, Jim.)

Of course, if he'd never met Jim, he never would have needed to know so much about guns in the first place, would he? Oh man, never MIND already. He could work out the balance sheet some other time.

Susan had reached back, still circling closer, and dug something out of an outside pocket of her backpack. Blair saw it from the corner of his eye, but couldn't figure out what it was. Some sort of knotted wad of leather and snaps. He heard the metal pieces rattling together in her hand. "Come on, Mr. Sandburg," she said. "Don't be stupid."

"Funny, that's what I was going to tell you."

Eddie was almost within range. His hands were white-knuckled, forefinger braced at the trigger. "Get down now. I'm not scared to use this."

"Yes, you are," Blair said gently.

Susan shouted, "Eddie, don't!" at the same moment Eddie leaped for him, the easy-going smile wiped off his face, replaced by a rictus of mortified rage. Blair only had time to think that had worked just a little too well before Eddie shoved the pistol against his jaw.

"Now get down before I blow your head off!" Eddie's breath reeked of coffee and sausage.

"All right, all right, easy." It wasn't hard to act terrified. Blair craned his head back from the muzzle of the semi-automatic and began to lower his hands.

"Just chill, Eddie," Susan said urgently. "Don't let him psych you out." The chihuahua in her backpack was yipping on and on. Eddie didn't relax. Now or never, Blair thought. He felt very calm, and was a little amazed at himself. Maybe more of Jim was rubbing off than he'd ever realized. Or maybe the whole thing was just so damn stupid he didn't really believe any of it was real. That was the more likely explanation.

He clapped his hands around the barrel of the pistol, and in the same motion wrenched it out of Eddie's surprised grasp. Eddie roared, "No!" and tried to grab it back, but Blair had already skidded out of range He turned, trying to cover Susan, but she rushed him anyway, as heedless of the gun as Blair had been. He expected her to go for the gun, but instead she clasped her hands together and swung a two-fisted blow at the side of his head. Blair ducked the worst of it, curling forward to try to protect his grip on the gun, but she still managed to land a solid whack across the back of his skull. The force of the blow staggered him, and as he stumbled, the pistol went flying. Blair heard a solid, metallic clunk as it hit a nearby car and skittered across the concrete. Eddie and Susan both dove after it.

Time to leave the party. Blair ran for the stairs, hearing Susan shout behind him. Grabbing the pillar, he swung himself around and into the stairwell and leaped down, taking the steps three at a time. Metal and poured cement thundered under his feet. Susan was still yelling, her voice muffled by the walls of the stairwell. Down to the first landing, then the second. He would get to ground level and make it back to the law library. They weren't crazy enough to try anything with so many people around. On the other hand, maybe they were that crazy, but with so many witnesses, surely someone would call the police. He'd be OK as long as someone got word to Jim.

Susan's voice rang out above him, suddenly clear and loud. She must be at the head of the stairs.

"Stop him!"

Who was she yelling to? Blair wondered with a sinking feeling. Surely there wasn't anyone else. Please, please, don't let there be anyone else.

He bounced himself off the wall at the next landing and used the momentum to rocket himself down the next flight of stairs, just as someone stepped into the stairwell from the ground level. Blair recognized him. It was Seth Lamb, one of Blair's own students. "Seth!" Blair shouted down to him, "Get out of here! Call the cops!"

Seth looked up the center of the stairwell, almost smiling, and started up the stairs toward Blair at an easy lope. Blair felt a wave of sick, hot rage. Seth too, then. That son of a bitch. He wasn't sure if he was angrier at Seth or himself. Seth had been on the front row of class yesterday, his regular features fixed in an expression of bland almost-concern as Blair struggled to find the words to grieve for Ross's death, and Blair had never even suspected. He wouldn't have thought Ross the Nihilist and a pre-med golden boy like Seth would have been able to agree on the color of the sky, much less something as elaborate and screwed up as all this. Whatever this was, heaven help him.

He felt another vibration on the steps, and looked up to see Susan and Eddie coming down behind him. At least they hadn't found the gun. Small blessings, very small blessings. He thought he might be able to make it back up half a flight to the second floor of the garage before they reached him, which was probably exactly what they expected him to do. He'd be better off just getting out of here as soon as possible. He backed up a couple of steps, keeping a wary eye on Seth's progress. He was a big kid, six inches on Blair and proportionally broader. Blair might be able to bowl him over and get past him, but it was equally likely Susan and Eddie would catch up to them during the tussle, so when Seth reached the turn of the staircase right below him, Blair put both hands on the railing and hoisted himself up. One foot on the second railing, step up to the top railing, moving fast before he could lose his balance or his nerve. Jim wouldn't even think twice about a move like this. He would just do it like Jim would.

He stepped forward into space, dropping to the stairs half a flight below. He felt instant of mingled terror and exhilaration as he fell, totally worth it for that glimpse of Seth's expression of baffled rage. It was going to work, he thought, ready to scream with triumph as he felt the bone jarring impact under his heels. God, Jim, look at that, it worked. Three more steps to the ground level. He was practically home free.

And then when he tried to take his first step down, still staggering a little from the impact of the jump, his bad ankle rolled beneath him. He heard and felt something pop, and the next seconds passed in a hot blur of pain. He didn't remember falling, but he was sprawled at the foot of the steps, breathless with agony. He knew they were right behind him; he knew he needed to get up and move goddammit, but when he tried to pull himself up, the pain made his head begin to swim. Something was really wrong with his ankle, dammit, dammit all to hell. It felt like ripped rubber bands and broken glass, swelling so rapidly his shoe was already painfully tight, and oh, Jim, this is so stupid. I was practically out of here. It's so damn unfair.

 "It's OK!" Seth bellowed behind him, "It's OK, I've got him, I've got him."

Not yet you don't, Blair groaned to himself, sick and shaking. His ankle hurt so badly he just wanted to wrap himself into a little ball and cry, and he was so angry he almost thought it was a good thing he hadn't held onto the gun, because he'd sure be tempted to use it. He began to crawl, trying to get to his feet. Seth was right behind him, not even hurrying, just pacing Blair, waiting for Eddie and Susan to catch up. Blair kept going even though every movement sent shivers of agony through him. Cmon, the heroines in monster movies were able to get up and keep limping away decoratively until the hero arrived, weren't they? Jim wasn't here to play hero, worse luck, but that didn't change the fact it should all be a question of mind over matter. Just get up and move already.

He curled into himself, drawing his legs up, and tried to stand, lunging forward as though sheer momentum would be enough to keep him on his feet. A terrific spike of pain shot through his ankle, and then he was falling again, nothing he could do to stop it, sprawling across the concrete. Right behind him Seth snorted in exasperation. "Would you give it a rest, already? It's over." He grabbed Blair's upper arm and dragged him over onto his back. The pavement was gritty and hard under the back of Blair's skull. Seth dropped to straddle his chest, reaching down to try to pin his wrists. "Just stop it before you hurt yourself any worse."

Panting in fury, Blair balled his right hand into a fist and swung as hard as he could. He felt a sickening, yielding crunch as his knuckles hit Seth's nose. Seth screamed and covered his face with both hands. Blood spurted between his fingers. Some of Blair's rage was lost in a shudder of self-disgust. He had to get out of this. He had to stop this before anyone else got hurt. Geez, things get a little out of hand, and the best thing he could think of to do was break a student's nose?

OK, to be honest, things were a lot out of hand. He heaved up, pushing hard, and managed to dislodge Seth. Then he rolled onto his belly again, sobbing with every breath. He couldn't run, but he could crawl under a car. Wouldn't hold them off for very long, but maybe just long enough for someone to happen in on them, see what was happening and call the cops. Surely someone would start to wonder about that incessantly yapping dog if nothing else.

Once his head was under the carriage of the nearest car, he could hear the sounds he was making. Cripes, he was in bad shape. He had to calm down, keep his wits about him. The air seemed colder under here. He could smell motor oil and his own sweat. Then someone grabbed his bad ankle and yanked hard, dragging him backward. Blair groaned in pain and scrabbled uselessly at the cement as he was hauled out inch by remorseless inch. "God damn." Eddie's voice. "I thought this was supposed to be easy."

"It would have been if you hadn't lost the gun," Susan said. "Mr. Sandburg, for the last time, we're not going to hurt you. We just want to talk."

Oh yeah, he believed that all right. He twisted himself onto his side so at least he could come out swinging. He was dizzy and sick to his stomach, and turned like he was, the pain in his ankle shot up his leg in agonizing spurts of heat. His three attackers were crouched around him, and it was Eddie who had the grip on his ankle. Seth held one hand cupped over his bloody nose, his white shirt front spattered red. As soon as Blair was free of the car he kicked hard with his free foot, hitting Eddie's thigh with a good, solid thump. Eddie grunted and let him go, and Blair pushed himself up to a sitting position against a tire. No one tried to stop him. In fact, now that he was trapped, they all seemed a little at a loss. It was like being chased down and cornered by a trio of dull witted hyenas, Blair thought, exasperated. He could see better what Susan was holding in her hands, but it didn't make it any easier to believe. "How long have you been planning this?" he croaked.

"Ross had everything planned," Susan said. "He just didn't know your cop friend was a big enough pig to kill him."

"Wait a minute." Blair braced himself against the tire and tried to push himself up. "Wait a minute." Oh, man, he should have known ever since he and Jim first talked to Eddie. All the pieces had been right there. "Everything was planned? You mean Ross meant to walk out of the library with the book and me too?"   "But we're going to fix it." Susan's expression hardened. Her fierce demeanor was only marginally compromised by the chihuahua barking away in her backpack. "We're going to give Ross back what you took away."

Blair was braced against the car in a half-crouch, all his weight on his right foot. He tried to fend Susan off when she lunged for him, but she blocked his punch with her other arm, grabbed the collar of his coat, and yanked him violently forward. He couldn't catch himself before he was pushed flat onto the pavement. One of the three grabbed his wrist and wrenched it up between his shoulder blades. "Stop it," Susan hissed in his ear. "Mr. Sandburg, we don't want to hurt you."

That same idiotic refrain, repeated every time they proceeded to hurt him again. The dragging pressure against his wrist brought his shoulders up, but his other hand was still free. He slammed his elbow back, and had the satisfaction of hearing someone beside himself grunt in pain. The person holding his wrist let go and Blair forced himself to his hands and knees, trying to crawl away. Surely someone would show up to get their car soon. If he could just hold them off another few minutes --

"Dammit." Seth's voice sounded like he had a bad cold. "I've had enough of this."

A knee in the small of his back forced him flat once more. He writhed under the unbearable pressure of a kneecap against his spine, shouting at them and belatedly screaming for help. But then someone pushed a merciless hand between his thighs, found a grip through his khakis, and clamped down hard. Blair's screams died in his throat.

"Now for the last time," Seth moaned at him, leaning so close Blair could feel splats of blood falling on his back, "Stop fighting and shut up."

"Please," Blair whispered, lying absolutely, positively still. "Please."

"That's more like it," Seth announced, panting and satisfied.

"Don't hurt him," Susan said.

"I'm not." The knee on his spine lifted away, but at the same time, the hand between his legs clenched harder, twisting remorselessly. Tears came to Blair's eyes. "I'm just showing him who's in charge."

"Come on, hurry up already." Eddie sounded nervous. "This is taking way too long."

Blair lay unresisting, hardly able to breathe. A leather cuff was buckled around one wrist, then the other. The leather was smooth and slick, and the snaps and hardware jangled as Susan worked. His wrists were pulled to the small of his back, and the cuffs were linked together. He felt his pants leg being pushed up next and his sock bunched down as a similar cuff was fasted around his right ankle. He didn't move when his left foot was lifted and his sock pulled down, but he moaned. It came out low and strangled, from deep in his throat. "Oh, god, Seth, look at this," Susan said. "Do you think it's broken?"

Someone's hand cupped the outside of his ankle, then bore down gently. Blair whimpered.

"I don't know, but it's not my fault. He's the one who tried to jump." Another squeeze, as though in reproach, and Blair laid the side of his face on the concrete and wept.

"Oh man," Eddie said, "Oh man, this was not supposed to happen."

"What are you whining about? He fucking broke my nose."

"Look, both of you, just calm down. It's going to be all right if we just keep our heads." Another strap of leather went around his left ankle, buckled more loosely than the first one. His ankle was so swollen it felt like a flesh balloon under the strap. The cuffs were linked together as his wrists had been, and then a hand slipped under his jaw and lifted his face. No, Blair thought, weeping in rage as well as pain. No, no, no, no, no.

It didn't matter how furiously and silently he protested. His jaws were pried open and the ball gag forced into his mouth. Wide, soft leather straps crossed his face and were buckled together at the back of his head, catching at his hair and pulling painfully. Finally the hand between his thighs was withdrawn and Blair curled slowly onto his side. He was dizzy, his face prickling with heat as though he was about to be sick. He breathed hard through his nose, trying to swallow back his nausea.

"Hurry up, Seth, get your wheels, and make sure nobody sees you. You look like hell."

Seth growled something unintelligible and took off at a jog. Blair closed his eyes for a long moment, then opened them again, trying to take in as much of his surroundings as he could. There were droplets of Seth's blood on the concrete -- Jim would see them, if he was looking, but he ought to be able to leave a better sign. C'mon, Sandburg, think, think. It wasn't easy, sick and hurting and mad as he was.

His wallet. Of course, his wallet. He looked up at Eddie and Susan. Eddie was fidgeting nervously, walking out and then back again. Susan was leaning against a car. She'd scooped the incessantly yapping dog out of her bag and was cradling it against her chest. The little beast had long, silky red hair, and Blair could only hope a few strands would float down for Jim to find. Had he ever even told Jim what Susan's full name was last night? He strained his fingers, trying to reach his wallet in his back hip pocket. There, he had it. He felt the pain in his ankle throbbing in time with his heartbeat, and wondered if it was broken. Remembering the pop and the first shock of pain nearly made him sick all over again.

Man, he had to calm down. Keep a clear head, that was the most important thing.

Let's be honest. That was the only thing he could do anymore.

He eased his wallet the rest of the way out of his pocket and held it cupped carefully between his palms.

"Jesus, what's taking him so long?" Eddie came stalking back.

"Take it easy," Susan said. "He's only been gone a minute."

Blair dropped his head so the side of his face rested on the pavement. Tears were trapped under the leather strap that crossed his cheeks, but his eyes were dry. He heard and felt a rumbling in the concrete. Probably Seth's car, but in case it wasn't, he should be ready to move. If he kicked out hard and fast enough, he might be able to knock Susan down. Create enough of a ruckus and surely someone would look to see what was going on.

"See," Susan said, relieved. "There he is." Even though he'd known what a longshot it was, the disappointment was numbing. Blair swallowed hard. So OK, back to plan A. And keep your cool, man.

A big gray Suburban pulled up, blocking the slanting sunlight. A door opened and slammed shut again, and at that moment, Blair flicked his wallet out of his hands, hoping it would land under the car behind him and go unnoticed.

"All right, help me get him up, come on, come on." The chihuahua was stowed in the backpack once more and Susan bent to grab him under his shoulder. Eddie hooked his hand under Blair's other arm, and together they hauled him upright. The sudden change in position and the weight on his ankle was excruciating. Blair moaned, his voice trapped by the gag holding his mouth open. For an instant he couldn't even breathe, and he thrashed in panic.

"Dammit, don't you ever give up?" Seth grabbed a handful of hair at the top of Blair's scalp and yanked his head back. "Did you forget already that I know how to make you behave?"

"Oh knock it off," Susan snapped. "We've got him, that's all that matters."

Seth snarled and let him go. He was a pretty scary sight, blood still dripping from his purple nose, the dried and drying blood smeared across his face and over both sleeves. He turned away and wrenched open the back doors. The space behind the seat was littered with pizza boxes and the remains of a sixpack or two. Seth swept it out with the side of his hand. The cans went bouncing and rolling.

"Get his legs," Susan said, and Seth wrapped his arm behind the back of Blair's knees. "On three," Susan directed. "One, two --" On three, all of them heaved up, and Blair was rolled over into the back of the van, ending up on his side against the bolted-down legs of the back seat. He gasped in pain and felt like he was strangling to death. Calm down, he told himself desperately, trying to do it. Calm down, keep it cool. (Please, Jim, please get here soon.) "You're not gonna just leave all the trash are you?" Susan asked.

"Oh, give me a break," Eddie complained. "Don't you have anything else to worry about?"

"At least someone does," Susan retorted. "Your address is on the pizza box."

Seth snorted in exasperation, and the pizza boxes were tossed back in. "Wait a minute," he said then. "Hey, Mr. Sandburg, looks like you dropped your wallet."

The wallet was thrown in after him, too, and the doors slammed behind him.

***

The scariest thing in the world, Jim thought, was what you already knew. The complete unknown was nothing. A cakewalk in comparison. Say you go around the corner, and something you've never even imagined in your whole life is standing there. Well, hell, either your heart stops, or you just bust out laughing.

But suppose it's something you already know about, something you've been waiting for. Something you've been dreading, worst of all. Like these damned senses he'd known about all his life, really, though he'd buried them deep. Sandburg comes along out of the blue and holds them up where Jim has no choice but to see him. Now that was scary. The kind of scared that makes your heart clench like it might never beat again, turns your bowels to ice, your blood to water. The kind of scared that made a fighter like Jim explode. He was lucky he hadn't slammed poor Sandburg right through the wall that morning in his office.

Or like those sounds. Liquid and soft. Far away, but drawing ever closer. Even today, when he was deliberately not listening for them, Jim knew they were there. After all, they had walked through his dreams the past two nights. All he would have to do was to let his guard down just a little, and he would hear them now, he was certain of it.

He would not listen anymore. He would not, because he thought he had figured out what they were, and he could not bear to listen, knowing.

"Detective Ellison, did you even hear the question?"

Jim looked up from his white-knuckled hands, clenched together on the conference table. Sheila was losing patience with him. Her mouth was tightlipped and angry.

"No, ma'am." Jim forced his hands to unclench. "I don't think I did."
 
 

***

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