Unsleepingby Martha Taylor, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net
Simon caught up to him as he was pulling out of the parking garage, taking long strides across the 'no pedestrians' ramp, yelling as though Jim might not notice him otherwise. "Dammit, Jim, what the hell do you think you're doing?"
Jim rolled down the window to answer, though he didn't turn off the engine. "I need to see Sandburg."
"In the middle of your IA hearing? Have you lost your mind?"
"More important than your career?"
Jim kept his gaze locked straight ahead. "I don't know, sir. Maybe it is."
"Don't pull this with me. If it's so damned important why don't you just pick up the phone and call the kid?"
"I already tried. He's not answering."
"You think he might be in trouble? Why didn't you tell somebody instead of just haring off like this?"
"Sandburg isn't the one in trouble. He probably just left his phone in his backpack somewhere."
"Then who -- oh. " Jim heard Simon swallowing. When he spoke again his voice was much softer. "You're the one in trouble. It's a sentinel thing."
Jim didn't look at him. "I don't know, sir. I think so."
"Dammit, Jim," Simon breathed softly. He sounded as angry and helpless as Jim felt. "I thought you two had this thing under control by now."
"Yes, sir." Jim slid his hands down the steering wheel, then back up again. "I thought so too."
Looking up through the tinted back windows, Blair saw the pocked gray concrete ceiling of the parking garage give way to the shock of hard blue sky. The van turned to the left. Must be heading up the hill toward the dorms. Seth was driving slowly, doing nothing to draw attention to himself. No one spoke, though Eddie was still breathing hard, and Seth snuffled through his bloody nose. Blair was thinking he could probably manage to kick the back door at least a couple of times before any of his captors could stop him. He'd wait and try it when they were stopped in traffic, and there was a chance someone would actually hear him. The carpeted floor was hard under his shoulder. Every bump in the road jarred his busted ankle and his aching balls. The gag in his mouth tasted like old tupperware. His jaws were beginning to hurt from being held open, and he was drooling. He could feel the trail from the corner of his mouth across his jaw.
The van slowed and then stopped, which seemed vaguely surprising. They couldn't have made it past the dorms, could they? Probably not even that far. All Blair could see out the window was blue sky, and stark against it, the branch of a tree not yet budded out. Then suddenly he could hear the outside world as well as see it. Someone must have opened a window or a door. Now, Blair thought fiercely, and kicked the back door as hard as he could. A globe of fire seemed to shatter in his ankle. He lay stunned with pain, his heart ratcheting in his chest, and he couldn't make himself kick the door again. For a second he couldn't even remember why it was so important that he try. All that mattered was waiting for the pain to go away.
Aw damn, it hurts, Jim. It really hurts.
He was pretty sure this wasn't the way Jim would have done it anyway. Jim would have recognized Susan and wouldn't have walked into the ambush in the first place. Jim wouldn't have tripped and broken his ankle trying to get away. Most of all, Jim wouldn't have let a trio of undergrads truss him up like a refugee from a bargain basement b/d flick and throw him in the back of some kid's SUV. This was so stupid. So incredibly, unbelievably stupid.
A door slammed and the van lurched into movement again. His shoulder rolled against the hard carpeted floor. His ankle didn't hurt any less, but the horrifying surprise of the pain was fading, and he realized he had lost the chance to draw attention to his plight. In sheer frustration he tried to shout even though he knew he couldn't, and once more felt the panic of suffocation when the gag trapped his cries in his throat. His eyes flew open wide, and he breathed hard through his nose until he began to feel lightheaded, like he was on the verge of hyperventilating. He had to calm down, dammit. Somehow he had to relax and wait for his next opportunity. Be ready for it when it came.
A girl's head popped over the back of the seat and looked down at him. Her head was haloed with white-blonde hair, distractingly shiny with just the faintest tinge of green that all the swimming shampoos in the world couldn't get rid of. He knew her. She was Monica Underhill, Susan's friend. A straight B student in Blair's class who always seemed like she was putting at least a little effort into her work. Susan had mentioned her last night. Said Monica had told her Blair was a nice guy, easy to talk to. Someone who could help Susan with Professor Nagle. It had all been just a tissue of lies, playing him for the sucker he was. Blair trembled in rage, staring up at her balefully. She didn't seem to notice, and after a moment her head disappeared. "So what happened?" she asked.
Someone else laughed. "I can't believe you let him break your nose, man. Does it hurt?" That was a male voice, one Blair didn't recognize. How many people were in the van now anyway? And what were they planning to do? The pain in his stupid ankle seemed to be draining all his strength, or perhaps it was the frustration of being bound like this, or the terrifying constriction of the gag in his mouth, because when he wondered what in the world his kidnappers wanted with him, he felt the crush of fear bearing down on him like an unendurable weight.
OK, forget it then. If he couldn't deal with that, he wouldn't. Just concentrate on the here and now. He'd pay attention to what was going on and wait for them to make a mistake. That's when he'd make his move.
(Please, Jim. Please get here soon.)
"I think he saw Bitsy in my pack," Susan was saying. "We had to go ahead and do it in the garage."
"That stupid dog," Seth said in a nasally voice. "You could have ruined everything."
"I can't leave her in my room, you know that. If someone heard her barking I could get pitched out of the dorm."
In the middle of a kidnapping, and Susan was worried about losing her campus housing. Blair didn't know whether to laugh or scream. Didn't much matter, since he couldn't do either one.
"Can you and Eddie get him in by yourselves, Tom? Seth better stay in the van until he gets cleaned up."
Another head looked over the back of the seat at him. Tom, presumably. Blair didn't know the kid, and insanely enough, that was something of a relief. At least he wasn't another of Blair's own students. Blair didn't know how many more of those betrayals he could take.
He'd take as many as he had to, a small, doomed voice at the back of his head whispered. Until he got out of this, he would have to take everything they felt like giving him.
All right, stop it. Just stop it right now.
"We can get 'im," Tom said. He could have been talking about moving a sofa for all the concern in his voice.
"There goes campus security," Eddie said. "That was cutting it pretty close, Susan."
"I couldn't help it. He's the one who called them."
Tom grinned down at him. "If they only knew, right, Mr. Sandburg?" Then his head pulled away, and Blair could see nothing but the roof of the van and the blue sky. He had lost track of where they were by now. Still on campus he thought, or very close by. They were making slow progress through the maze of stop signs, traffic lights and pedestrian crosswalks. There were people all around him, some of them maybe even his friends and colleagues, and he was just lying here. It was enough to drive a person mad.
"There's a place," Susan said abruptly.
"I can't fit in there," Seth complained.
"There's plenty of room. You just don't know how to parallel park."
Stopping again already? Where were they?
Blair could see a streetlight against the sky, and the cornice of a building, ornate and in need of a new coat of paint. Probably they were in the Westchester neighborhood east of campus. Half a dozen city blocks of Victorian gingerbread fantasies from the Goldrush era, these days subdivided into apartments and boarding rooms. Blair had rented a room on Yakima Street for a couple of months himself just for the convenience of being close to campus, but it had been expensive and crowded, and with frat houses on either side and across the street, so damned noisy the warehouse had felt like an escape to the dark side of the moon.
Then a terrible suspicion occurred to Blair. It was incredible, impossible. He couldn't be right. He couldn't be.
The back doors of the van were suddenly wrenched open. Blair blinked against the sunlight and cold spring air. Eddie and Tom were standing there, and Eddie reached in first and grabbed the shoulder of Blair's coat. "Wanna give me some help here?" he demanded.
Tom just grinned. "This is pretty wild, isn't it?" he said. He hooked both hands behind Blair's knees and pulled his legs out of the back of the van while Eddie tugged at Blair until he was sitting up. Then the two of them gripped his shoulders and pulled him upright. When his feet touched the pavement, pain spiked through his ankle once more. Tom swore at him as they staggered.
"Watch it!" Eddie hissed. "You got him?"
Tom adjusted his grip on Blair's shoulder, bracing himself. "Yeah, I got him, I got him. What's wrong with him?"
"Seth busted his ankle. You should see it. It's already turning purple."
"He did what? I don't believe it."
"Hold on a minute, I've gotta get the doors." Eddie half turned, supporting Blair awkwardly, and managed to slam the doors shut behind them. A couple of cars were going down the other side of the street, but neither of them even slowed down. Maybe they didn't see him in the shadow of the van.
They were in front of the Psi Omega house, which was a rambling, three story mansion of a place that had seen better days, and hadn't been improved by a recent paint job in yellow and black. Even the sidewalk and the wrought iron fence had been painted. A window was open in a third story turret despite the cold, and music was blaring.
"Hey, whoa, hold up!" Someone's voice shouted from the other side of the street. Hope bloomed for an instant as Blair saw a kid come jogging across toward them. Seth had started to pull the Suburban back into the street, but he stopped at that. Blair was frantically calculating their odds. They were absolutely lousy. The kid should turn and run the other way, call the cops, get help.
He didn't do any of those things. He ran right up to the three of them, his round, friendly face flushed red from the jog in the cold. "Eddie, dude, what do you think you're doing?" Without waiting for an answer, he reached out and ran his finger under the strap holding the gag in Blair's mouth. "Whose leather is this?"
"How you doing, bro?" Eddie said, as if they had just run into each other in the campus pub. "It's Seth's. You know him?"
"Hell, yeah, I know Seth. Does he ever lend it out?"
"You're sick, man." Eddie laughed.
This couldn't be happening. Of every impossible thing that had happened this morning, this was the worst. Oh, god, this was insane. Blair shook his head frantically, trying to make the kid see him somehow. Tom said, "I don't think he wants you borrowing Seth's stuff either."
The kid laughed too. "You're about six months late for Hell Week. You know that, right?"
"We're not late," Eddie said. "We're just getting a six month head start."
"You guys are messed up," the kid said happily. He patted Blair's cheek and looked closely into Blair's eyes. Blair could hear himself panting with terror and frustrated rage, but Eddie's friend didn't seem to notice anything at all. "I hope you know what you're doing, man," he told Blair. "These guys are seriously messed up." Still laughing, he punched Eddie companionably in the shoulder and took off at the same easy lope. Blair stared after him, dumbfounded, until Eddie complained, "Come on, this guy isn't getting any lighter."
At that Blair thrashed hard, trying to twist out of their hold. The pain in his ankle stabbed at him, and the gag was suffocating, but he couldn't let them take him into that house. No matter what, he had to keep that from happening.
In the end, of course, it didn't matter how hard he fought. Tom and Eddie didn't even seem to notice. They dragged him the length of the yellow and black sidewalk, swearing and laughing, then up the staircase and across the wide stone verandah to the front door, which Eddie kicked open with the toe of his shoe. Blair's very soul felt as though it would be crushed as the smells of that crumbling house spilled out the front door. Rotting lathe and plaster work. Stale beer. Tomato sauce, cigarette smoke, unwashed laundry and pot. Those were the ephemeral things, though. The reek of age and decay was paramount, and it froze his heart in his breast. Please, Jim, Blair screamed in his mind as Eddie kicked the door shut behind them. For a few stark moments he wasn't even sane anymore. Please, Jim, please don't let them do this to me.
"Shit," Tom said explosively. "Stop a minute. Stop."
They lowered him to the floor with a gentleness that would have surprised Blair, if he had been in any position to notice. It was dark in the foyer, red light coming through the stained glass window set high in the front door. The carpet under his head was worn down almost to the backing and reeked of mildew. Blair's heart was pounding away in his chest, but the threat of suffocation had reached him through his panic, and he lay still, struggling to calm down enough to breathe.
"I thought I was gonna lose it when Stevie showed up like that," Tom said. He was bent over Blair, hands on his knees, breathing as though he too were trying to catch his breath.
"No way. I knew we were cool. It went just like we planned. As long as you act like you know what you're doing, nobody gives a damn."
"Oh bullshit you weren't scared, man."
Eddie snorted in laughter. "It's not my fault you're some kind of a wuss. I'm telling you, I wasn't scared. How about you, Mr. Sandburg?" Eddie crouched down and rolled Blair over. Blair's cuffed hands dug into the small of his back. "Were you scared?"
"Let's just get him downstairs before anybody else shows up," Tom said.
"Yeah, all right, all right. Here, get him under his arm here. I think it'll be easier like this."
The two of them picked Blair up once more, their hands digging painfully into his underarms through his coat, and dragged him backward down the hall. His bound feet trailed along the worn carpet. He couldn't see where they were taking him, only the back of the front door. On one side was a large open area with a fireplace and three unmatched sofas. Other doors along the hallway were closed. Many of them were obviously recent additions. The walls were water damaged, and in places the wallpaper had peeled off above the wainscoting in long ragged strips. Blair heard a door opening behind him, and the ancient smell of the house suddenly grew much stronger. Terror closed his throat once more, spots dancing before his eyes. He really might pass out, he realized bleakly. And if he did, he could choke to death before either of these idiots figured out what was happening. He had to calm down. He had to keep his head. Besides, he was probably all wrong about what house he thought he was in. He was just scared and jumping to conclusions because he was in a seriously bad situation. There were lots of old houses around Rainier.
Tom and Eddie pulled him through a doorway, and they were now making their way down a steep, narrow staircase. Posters of Pamela Anderson and Claire Dane were tacked to the woodwork. Blair's feet bounced from step to step as they descended, and each thump felt as though it drove a dull spike straight through his ankle bone. Thump. Thump. Thump. His head dropped back in agony, and he stared up at the slanting wood ceiling claustrophobically near overhead. A bare bulb at the head of the stairs illuminated their descent. They turned a sharp corner at the foot of the stairs at last, Blair's shackled feet catching at the corner, and then went down a short, dark corridor. The floor was smooth and very hard, stone or concrete, Blair thought. The walls were tongue-in-groove paneling. A door stood open to the left. "That's my place," Tom said. He sounded proud of it. Blair could smell dirty laundry and peanut butter.
Eddie added, "But you know who used to live here, don't you?"
Oh, god. Oh, god, no.
They dragged him another few yards and through another doorway into a large, open bathroom. The plumbing was a mixture of ancient and modern, two urinals against one wall, a single stall with steel walls painted mud brown, a sink that looked as though it had been designed for washing laundry by hand, and shower heads along another wall. The entire room was tiled with tiny white octagonal tiles, many of them cracked and broken, mold growing black in the grout. The smell was indescribably foul. Blair felt himself trembling violently, his eyes darting around his surroundings, trying to take in as much as he could and terrified of what he would see.
They dragged him across to the showers and dropped him once more, this time rolling him over onto his face. His head was near a drain, and he could smell the water standing in a trap. "You ready?" Tom asked above him. Blair felt them fumbling at his cuffed wrists. Something clicked, and then they were no longer hooked together. His hands were dragged apart, the sudden change in position making his shoulders burn. He was yanked up and slammed back against the wall of the showers, his arms spread wide. He struggled against them, but it was already too late. Eddie and Tom snapped the rings on his cuffs around the water faucets and stepped back. He was in a half-crouch, trying to keep from putting any weight on his bad ankle, unable either to sit down or stand up, huffing through flared nostrils in pain and fear, the shower wall cold at his back. They could not leave him. Not here, not like this.
"Oh yeah," Eddie said, bending down to look into his face. "You know, don't you? These were the servant's quarters when President Bollingen lived here. His poor old housekeeper slept down here for decades before that night when she finally went upstairs to get the butcher knife. Kinda makes you think, doesn't it? It does me, anyway."
Blair stared at them, struggling to breathe.
"Let's get out of here," Tom said. "I'm starving."
Eddie straightened up. "Me too, man. We've got a couple of hours. What about Papa John's?"
"Oh yeah, that's only the worst pizza on the planet." They turned their backs on Blair and walked out of the bathroom, still arguing about lunch, shutting the door behind them and turning out the light.
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