I don’t like getting treated like a lower life form. That’s why I went into business for myself. You pull pecking order here and sorry but our caseload is overbooked. Catching would-be peckers is one reason I work at our receptionist’s desk. The other reason, of course, is that the agency can’t afford a receptionist. Nobody here has much business sense. My associates get more excited by a challenging puzzle than a consistent paycheck. And me, I guess I’m just a sucker for a tragic soul.
That’s why, when Mrs. Wife of Doctor Henton walked in, it was inevitable we’d try to help her.
She opened the door just as my phone rang. “Hello, I – ” she looked at the blinking phone light. “Do you need to get that?”
I nodded, while answering, “Good morning, Causal Relationships Investigated, Mysteries Elucidated… He just got back, hold on.” I put Stan on, but listened in to take notes. I’d never known Stan to forget anything work-related, but one keeps one’s rear clad.
It was the lab, with the results of the Douglass septic tank analysis… “Diazanene, none detected, benzene, none detected, 3,3,3, Trichlorethene, 10 ppm – ”
Stan interrupted, “Parts per billion, you mean.” The lab reiterated ppm, parts per million, and Stan whistled. “No wonder the poor guy – ”
“Stan,” I warned. Confidentiality means not even trusting the lab.
“What about the arsenic residue? Was it native or introduced?” Stan resumed.
I can take notes without looking at my pen or really listening to the speaker; it’s a skill I learned in grad school. So while the lab droned on, I studied our visitor. When she caught me staring at her I put my hand over the receiver. “I’ll be a few more minutes.”
“I don’t mind waiting.” She had cat green eyes and an inclusive smile. Being a polite person, she looked away to resume waiting. Now I understood what was odd. She was completely still. No fidgeting, no nervous mannerisms. And this was not the smoothing of antidepressants. She was truly calm.
She was also in great pain, a sorrow too deep for tears. Perhaps that was what drove her to seek us out – few clients visited our offices. It was particularly surprising to see someone so, well, respectable. Rent on our downtown office remained a real deal, much to the dismay of Eugene’s city powers, which had struggled and finagled and shelled out mightily for over a decade, trying to renovate the district. But unless they paid all those homeless street kids to hang elsewhere, all resurgences would be short-lived.
The lab call concluded just as Bill arrived, looking vague. “Morning,” he mumbled, dropping print-out on my desk, “e.e. worked on names last night.” So he’d been up until all hours, playing on the Internet. He tried to hide the dark circles under his eyes, averted his gaze and got it stuck on the lovely stranger sitting by our door. She wasn’t a looker; her beauty came from the grace she brought with her. The room itself felt lovelier now that she was in it.
The coffee maker finished its first pot of the morning and a low whistle blew in every room of our complex. Bill grabbed the pot, attention on our guest even while his back was to her.
“So you’re in need of a detective – excuse me,” I cut myself off as the phone interrupted again. “Creative Reductionism,” I answered, reading from Bill’s new printout. “No, there’s no Louie here. No problem,” I hung up.
Beata wandered in from the back, scraping the interior of her coffee mug with a fingernail, then flecking whatever had been dislodged onto the floor. Bill filled her mug.
“Coffee?” I asked our guest.
“No, thanks – but I’m happy to wait while you get some.” From her, the smarmy line sounded sincere, even though she was starting to aspirate her bilabials in a way that suggested impatience.
Bill already had mine pouring. I savored my first inhalation of caffeinated steam before prompting, “You were about to tell me why you’re here.”
“I’m married to Doctor Etheridge Henton,” she explained, as though she had.
Beata reacted. “The volcanologist?”
Stan, completing his morning pilgrimage to Master Coffee, flashed his pun geek grin. “He studies Mr. Spock?”
“Nyuk nyuk,” I said, but got overridden by Beata.
“His death was a terrible loss to the research community,” Beata told his widow.
“And to his family,” Mrs. Henton whispered, dropping her gaze.
Stan got that open-mouth-insert-foot look and concentrated on stirring his coffee.
The sounds of stir sticks filled the room.
At last Mrs. Henton looked up again. “That’s why I want to know who killed him!” she spat the words.
(Memo to self: never cross this person.)
“But – he died in a volcanic explosion.” Beata said.
“That doesn’t mean it was an accident,” the widow replied, with such conviction I was almost convinced.
I looked around. Usually by now everyone would have wandered back from whence they came, caressing mugs of coffee. That we were all still congregated could only mean one thing: we were taking the case.
The door slammed, admitting Akiko, juggling newspapers in three languages, her laptop, and an emptied paper cup from Javaville down the street. We turned to watch our favorite parlor trick – Akiko pouring fresh coffee into the sipping slot on her take-out top, finding just the right rate for rapid filling with no spills.
She took a swig and beamed. “The insurance company position is not tenable. I ran the analysis at school.” Akiko had declined tenure at the university to join C.R.I.M.E. Science, but still taught math at Willamette Valley Middle School: she still liked students, before their brains got bleached by higher education. Now Akiko nodded briefly at our visitor. “I have interrupted you.”
“I’m certain my husband was murdered, but of course you’re skeptical. The police refused to hear me out.” Our guest produced a thick manila folder, and from it passed around reprints of scientific papers.
“Was there an autopsy?” Stan inquired.
“None. As I’ve indicated, the officials saw no need for one. And he was cremated before I thought clearly enough to arrange one. My husband was one of the foremost volcanologists yet to live. Predicting explosive eruptions was one of many specialties, as you can see from these papers. It’s simply not possible that he could have been surprised by this one.”
“‘Ah, yes, ‘Modeling magma propagation based on 3-D inversion of anisotropic Q values'”, Beata read one title aloud.
Nothing like a scientist to make the mother tongue sound like a foreign language.
“You’re familiar with it,” the widow Henton said, expecting no less.
“Never familiar enough. I almost flunked my orals on it.”
“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Henton replied.
While my colleagues leafed through the life work of a dead man, I held out my hand for the still-bulging manila folder. “May I? By the way, what is your given name?”
She proffered the folder, then withdrew it. “Does this mean you’ll help me?” I flexed one shoulder in what might have been a shrug. “I’ll pay a bonus – you name the amount – if you can publicly prove that his death was not the stupid, careless accident the authorities claim. At the least, I want to know who killed him. Will you help me?”
“We’ll do what we can,” Bill’s gentle resolve persuaded her to fork over the folder.
Inside was one of those personal organizer calendars for someone really fussy or busy or both: it could arrange your life in five-minute increments. Most pages were blank, however, except for a few scribbled lines that looked like notes during a phone call. Also in the folder were three photos, and a membership directory of the IAGR – the International Association of Geoscience Researchers – with post-its flagging the addresses of two members.
“Is it not true that in each year volcanoes kill volcano experts?” Akiko inquired.
“My husband had tremendous respect for the power of an active volcano. Under no circumstances would he have hiked on Mount Mazama if an explosion were imminent. His love of life was too great. He took scrupulous care of his health. I once heard him tell a colleague that he intended to still be making important discoveries when he was 90.”
The first photo was of a lean angled face in timeless read fashionless spectacles, marginally styled black hair, and the smile of someone who rarely laughed, but found most things amusing. He probably had never much cared that he was so handsome.
The second photo displayed the family Henton. I decided to study this one later. You can learn a lot from a family photo – who’s looking where, who’s not touching whom. But I only do such analysis in the presence of family members when I want to tiss them off.
I wasn’t ready for the third photo.
She mistook my gasp and smiled proudly. “Many people thought of Etheridge as a lab and computer researcher, but he was really happiest when out in the field. I love that photograph for the way it captures his enthusiasm for his work.”
One of us was reading the photo all wrong.
He was standing on a boulder, the only solid ground in a river of lava. Behind him, a tree was ablaze. Heat streaked the film. Fire glinted in his glasses. His arms were raised and his mouth was open in a roar of exhilaration – the thrill of having just beaten death in a close game.
“Wow.” Stan was looking over my shoulder. “How did he get out of there?”
“I – don’t know.” Must have figured he flew.
“Did you take this picture?” Bill was looking over the other shoulder, sharing it with Akiko and Beata.
“Oh, no, I never accompanied Etheridge in the field. I don’t — actually know who was with him then. I – ”
The phone rang and she looked at it eagerly.
I obliged. “Good morning, Cadres of Researchers… No, there’s no Louie here… You’re welcome. Louie’s friends are sure polite,” I noted.
“Just a moment, what is the name of your agency?” our guest demanded.
“C.R.I.M.E. Science,” Stan replied.
“But what does the acronym stand for? I’ve now heard several versions.”
“There are a finite but large number of possibilities. Bill’s computer comes up with them when it’s idle.” I hefted some printouts.
“Isn’t that clever.” She imitated a chuckle. “Now, where was I?” She knew exactly where she was. She’d just bought herself the time to get over her discomfort at our last few questions – or her last few answers.
“Any idea who might have killed your husband?” Bill drawled, starting at the top of the checklist: twenty questions clients expect to hear.
“No, I’m afraid not. Nor why anyone would want to kill him,” she replied, disposing of checklist question number two. “Like any great man, he had his detractors – in that directory I’ve marked some names – but surely none of his colleagues could…” She couldn’t continue.
“What was he researching at the time of his death?” Beata inquired.
“I’m – not certain. But I know who his most frequent collaborators were. They should be able to tell you about his research.”
“Any vices? Money problems?”
“His only vice was his collection of old port. She smiled wistfully. She missed him. “Otherwise, he was frugal yet made sure his family was comfortable.”
“How’d he get to Mount Mazama?”
“He flew. The airports were still open at that time.”
“Did he fly out of Portland or Eugene? Has his car been retrieved from the airport?” Bill asked.
“I’m not sure.”
“Should be easy enough to check. Know his license number, by any chance?”
“I never recall things like that.”
“Me neither. What kind of car did he drive?”
“I don’t know that either.”
“You don’t know what kind of car your husband drove?”
“Well, I – no, he — kept it at the university, since the garage was patrolled. I – simply never needed to know. I imagine I could find out.”
“Actually we’d appreciate if you didn’t. The fewer questions you start asking, the better, especially since the killer could be someone you know.”
She blushed, seemingly more embarrassed to have not thought of the obvious, than disturbed by the prospect of encountering her husband’s killer.
I was having trouble reconciling the different pieces of her. Usually that meant some were bogus. But I didn’t have enough data to draw that conclusion yet. Certainly, if I checked the dictionary, next to the definition of Faculty Wife there’d be a sketch of our new client. But she’d be there only in silhouette. I was anxious to flesh out the picture, if only to ease my mind about Bill’s infatuation with her, which gave me twinges I had to chalk off to sisterly protectiveness. There’s a finite amount anyone can get hurt, and Bill had about reached his limit.
Reservoir, I hate it when I Wander. Stan had just asked our client something that had nonplussed them both. For a moment, she was off-balance enough to reveal herself, had I been ready with the right question. But I was not.
“Tell us more about your husband’s detractors,” Bill requested.
“There are two I know of. One is Terence Dunn, who was a graduate student of Etheridge’s. He couldn’t keep up and eventually dropped out, blaming my husband for sabotaging him and stealing his ideas – though Terry had none, that was the problem. For several months after he quit school, he made nasty phone calls to Etheridge at home. That was a few years ago now, but the way people nurture grudges these days.”
“Indeed,” I agreed.
“Then there is Rasor.”
Beata reacted. “Are you accusing Viktor Rasor of murder?”
“It seems unfathomable to me as well. But I thought I must mention him, as he and Etheridge were bitter rivals for decades. He was the one subject on which Etheridge could become irrational.”
We asked her a lot more questions, and with some, the answers mattered as much as her reaction to the question.
Finally she left and we talked about our new case. None of us were convinced Henton had been murdered. Yet despite the lava flow photo, Beata didn’t believe Henton would routinely risk his life. She’d known him, a little, so we listened to her.
Akiko thought the possible ways he could have been murdered on the mountain were limited enough that we could come to a firm and thus scientifically aesthetic conclusion.
Bill thought the investigation might allow e.e. to test some new software Bill was developing.
Stan figured death by any means had to be more interesting than septic tank analysis, even when the poison came from a virulent ex-spouse. All of us sensed elements that weren’t jiving, and a Big Picture outside that painted by the client – perhaps outside her field of vision, as well.
That afternoon, we did some preliminary poking around, checking her stories. Then, that evening, we all got together as usual at our real office the F ‘n’ B Lounge.
I was late, because I’d gotten a call from my daughter, Aggie. She was still having a great summer with her dad. Don’t ask me what we talked about; all I can remember of our conversations these last six weeks is my terror at the prospect of losing her. I’m not divorced like you’d think. George and I had the most amicable of marriages, and the friendliest of splits. It just wasn’t there anymore and the presence of the spouse had a dulling effect that caused its own sort of pain. None of our friends understood, so why should our children? It must be my fault, since their father is perfect. George took Paul, my son and harshest critic. Agata stayed with me. Aggie loves her mother despite all those flaws but, with each month that she advances into teendom, she appreciates her even-keeled, no-surprises father more.
She hadn’t asked if she could move in with her dad and brother, but she’d also stopped shushing Paul when he asked me how I was doing with my promises. Had she joined his tough love campaign to get me to change?
Shaking my head to knock some sense into myself, I dodged a cluster of dreadlocked youth who were too stoned to successfully block my path. I ran past the obscene dry cleaners and up the stairs to the F ‘n’ B Lounge. I smiled, remembering Stan’s reaction the first time we’d come here. ‘If the alcohol doesn’t get us, the carbon tetrachloride will.’ And he’d laughed his shy little cackle that you had to know him years before you’d hear.
Officially we were in the Fire and Brimstone Lounge. But some of the locals complained, especially after discovering the owner was an ex-priest. Apparently not only Wall Street hates insider info. Quenching the Fire and Brimstone was an issue on which Eugene’s old hippies and timeless white trash had united against one of the few bright spots in this stinking boring county.
Father Dan had my new usual, a wineless spritzer, waiting for me at the bar. I paused and stared vacantly at the Jack Daniels. He glanced at the wall calendar and said, “Two weeks and Paul’s home for a visit, isn’t that right Nola?”
“That’s right, Father Dan, thanks,” and I carried my wineless wonder to our booth in back. He smiled, thinking he’d just saved me from myself, but he didn’t really understand. It was easy, giving up drinking this summer. Giving up swearing was a whole blanking lot harder. Nevertheless, he’d reminded me of priorities: making an effort for my son’s sake was worth the effort. And Paul had decreed that he wouldn’t even visit unless I cleaned up my act.
I went back to our usual booth by the “window”: a pane of glass with outside view obscured by the French Hand Laundry & Cleaners neon.
“Don’t wives know things about their husbands?” Stan was asking, and not rhetorically, as I arrived.
“It is curious that she couldn’t say what kind of car he drove,” Beata agreed.
“But wives and husbands can be this curious,” Akiko concluded. “It is evidence of nothing.”
“So what kind of car did he drive?” I asked Bill, as I slid into the booth with a long sigh. Bill had tapped into the public-if-you-know-how-to-use-them databases that afternoon.
“Chevy Nova, 1972. Mostly sky blue with some primer gray. An eyesore in good running condition.”
“Then what did he do with his money? And how much did he have?” Tenured researchers of his caliber and grant-earning prowess could be wealthy when they wanted to be.
“He actually funneled most of it back into research. It seems to be the way his wife portrayed it. His family was comfortable, but I haven’t found any signs that he cared for money or what it could buy.”
“One mortgage, two minor credit card bills.”
“Professional jealousy seems to be giving us our only suspects so far, then,” I remarked.
“I haven’t located Terence Dunn yet. I traced his email addresses to a server he used three months ago, but there’s a solid firewall on it. I assume he’s having his mail forwarded but I don’t know where he is currently.”
“I know how to get around that wall,” Stan said.
“So do I, but it’s not right to do it. I’ll find another way.”
“I knew you would say that,” Beata shook her head and dipped another pretzel in her beer.
Can you believe the guy? Bill is a lawyer, of all things. And on a computer, he’s as good a hacker as somebody a fourth his age. He could rule the world – but not only does he refuse to break the law, he upholds a personal moral code, to boot.
“I expect to find Dunn by morning,” Bill said, then winced, didn’t look at me and added, “In the morning, I mean.”
I’ve considered re-programming e.e. to make no Internet connections at midnight. It was the only way Bill would ever get enough sleep. But then, who was I to thwart another’s method of getting to dawn? Anyway, Bill could out-re-program me. “Speaking of morning, I’m going to talk to Rasor, ask him to confess.”
“I’ll ride over to campus with you,” Beata said, “I hope to resolve some contradictory information I’ve accumulated.” It was up to Beata to find out what Henton had been researching, and who might care. “From what I’ve determined, Henton had boasted -”
“In a subtle way appropriate to his status, of course,” I interjected.
“- and by all accounts he was in the midst of a breakthrough that would revolutionize thinking about – something. He said this would be his most lasting accomplishment – and that would be lasting, indeed. But his only known research during the last few years is represented in a JGR paper published one year ago. In the early pre-print his wife showed us, he was first author. And he’s P.I. on the grant. Yet, just before publication he demanded to have his name removed. That’s certainly queer.”
The principal investigator removing his name – and in so public a manner – was strange indeed.
“Who and where are the co-authors?” I asked.
“Leslie’s at MIT, Munter’s in Berlin, and Everhart’s here.”
“I’ll chat with Everhart tomorrow, then, too,” I decided. “Bring both copies of the paper, with and without his name. I’ll need you to explain the work to me.”
“Yes, I can do that.” Beata made a note to herself on a damp cocktail napkin, and stuffed it in the breast pocket of her shirt, where it quickly stained her pocket. It was the first blue stain; all the others seemed to represent her meals of the last week or so. “A point I must reiterate is that we don’t know how Henton died. He was presumed to succumb in the first eruptive episode on Mount Mazama. However, his body was not recovered from the volcano’s summit until one week later. Furthermore, as we know, no autopsy was performed.”
“Well, we can be reasonably certain it wasn’t a drive-by shooting,” Bill joked.
“How do you know?” Stan wondered. Akiko choked on a pretzel. All other activity paused as we reflected – not for the first time – on our partner’s capacity for opacity. “What?” he demanded.
I love you, I almost replied. I love you all – so much. But only Bill might have handled hearing that, and only after several more beers. “Exactly how he died is one of the questions we’re hoping you and Akiko will be able to answer.” They were driving to Mount Mazama in the morning.
“The feud between Henton and Rasor has interest for me,” Akiko said. I studied it during my school years, although until this day I did not learn the identities of those I studied.”
“You studied their feud?” And here I thought I’d heard or at least imagined everything. “What does a rivalry between two T-Rex academics have to do with numerical analysis?” I regretted the T-Rex reference when I saw that I’d embarrassed Akiko because she didn’t understand it. She got the gist enough to answer, though.
“Over many years they have engaged in attacks and revenge for attacks, by writing code that would injure the other’s research. As graduates, for an informative exercise, we calculated the magnitude of error in their research computations after certain of these sabotages.”
“Computer sabotage?” Bill looked a little green. He shut e.e.’s lid.
“For example, inside a very complex program of Henton’s, Rasor once added an assignment that changed a plus sign to a minus sign on every 100th calculation. After Henton realized his work had been compromised, he required seventeen months to restore the damage. He got his revenge when he caused each seventeenth entry in a data array to be erased.”
“Jesus,” Bill swore for me. He had turned white. “And they still published that research? How did they get away with that?” He was going from white to crimson. “How long ago was this?”
“These events, perhaps ten years, but there were many others.”
I could tell Bill was thinking about statutes of limitations. Like he was going to go after Rasor for this. Bill had this eccentric idea about justice. He thought it was possible; he maybe even believed it existed in the absolute. He didn’t like it when I tried to talk sense into him – he called it cynicism – so I simply noted, “Ten years. That’s just before Rasor’s Nobel, but after the Henton wing at the university was dedicated.”
As anticipated, next morning’s trip to the university was a mixed blessing. I picked up Beata at her farm in Lorane, and on the drive in to town, I got to listen to long stretches of her beautiful speech as she explained the scientific gist of the paper with the disappearing author’s name.
Even when exhausted or tipsy, she never slurred her syllables nor scrambled her diphthongs. Her words sounded clipped but that was just because they were correct. I always imagine she produces sounds just as her brain encodes them, while with the rest of us, our brains are probably in pain while we’re mangling their intentions. Okay, okay, I can hear my pathologically precise co-workers complaining. I realize brains don’t feel pain. The rest of you know what I mean.
Beata also helped me understand why Henton’s research mattered – why the rest of us, the world’s non-volcanologists, should care how magmas change composition with time. I can’t recreate the argument for you, so perhaps I was merely swayed by her enthusiasm. But then, enthusiasm is not a “merely” in science (nor much else). The enthusiasm of some lone obsessive explorer has fueled most of the important discoveries made by the human race.
The indignant bleating of a bicycle horn told me my attention was wandering. Such sojourns to the ozone are the only way I can deal with the down side of a car trip with Beata: her semi-suppressed gasps and whimpers, her terror at the basic necessities such as lane changes, left turns on yellow, and above all, the dreaded merging.
She could dance up cliff faces so steep they gave vertigo to birds, but she’d had her driver’s license revoked for failure-of-nerve infractions. Driving 35 on the freeway, that sort of thing. She knew her noises annoyed me, for which we both felt chagrin: “I feel unusually safe when you drive,” she insisted.
“Well, at least Stan isn’t behind the wheel.” Mutual involuntary shudders at the thought. Stan got his best ideas when he drove. Fortunately, he lived close to our office, he had no social life except with us, and with us he was the designated never-driver.
Once we got into town, it would have been nice to park at work and walk to the school, but we couldn’t. Our downtown office was less than two miles from the university. As any street kid could tell you, it’s a five-minute skateboard trip – three minutes if you don’t stop for pedestrians. It’s also an easy stroll, so long as you keep your ears peeled for the clack clack clack of three-minute skateboarders. Problem is, it’s pollen season. At this time of year, it takes mere moments outside to set the old airways spasming. And since we knew we’d have to do a bit of walking on campus, we needed to breathe now.
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