Chapter 12. Reductionism

A sharp cry beyond their heads made them jump. “Morning, Jess.” Tommy reached to pet the cat, who wasn’t due to eat for another hour but what the hell, the humans were awake, give it a try. As Tommy’s hand touched Jessie, she braced and hissed, then ran for the bathroom. “Nice to see -” Tommy stopped and tightened his hold on Clare as someone knocked at the door with wood-rattling force.

“Who – is it?” Clare forced her voice not to quaver.

“Pac Bell. Installation,” a muffled female voice replied.

Of all times for the phone company to be prompt. They scrambled for clothes. Tommy whispered, “What if it’s not. The phone company.”

Clare sighed. “Can you prove you’re from the phone company?” she called through the door. “We’ve had a few break-ins here,” she explained sheepishly to the silence outside. Meanwhile, Tommy raised an iron pot and flattened himself behind the door, preparing to brain any intruder.

Sounding more wary than Clare had, the female voice replied, “Down here.” A corner of paper slid under the door, catching on the carpet. Clare unfolded an official looking Pacific Bell document. “Need that back, though,” the voice added. “Work orders for the day.” Clare showed it to Tommy. He shrugged and Clare unbolted the lock, handed the paper to a petite chubby blonde whose waistful of equipment jangled as she waved off Clare’s apologies. “Life in the big city.” She returned the paper to a clipboard. “New jack, right? Where you want it?” Clare led her to the kitchen and the installer set to work.

Uncomfortable now, Clare sat in a chair, facing Tommy on the couch, fighting images of Robert breakfasting alone.

The installer reappeared. “Out to my van.” She opened the door briskly. “In and out a lot. Want me to do a special knock?” She demonstrated a syncopated series of raps.

“Nice rhythm.” Tommy smiled at her and thereafter, she was on their side. Before she left, she even told them which purchases at what hardware store would be required to put a fish-eye peephole in the front door.

It took two hours and uncountable trips in and out for the jack to become operational. As soon as the installer departed for the final time, Clare phoned to arrange for the bedroom window to be replaced and barred, and for a locked iron grill door to be added to the bottom of her stairs. Tommy insisted on staying until these rush-order security measures were completed. Clare was particularly happy for his presence when Mrs. Manning appeared, her mouth set in a narrow eviction line. After chatting with Tommy over coffee at the kitchen table, she left with brow furrowed, seriously considering a rent reduction for the improvements Clare was funding.

Immediately, Tommy set to washing Mrs. Manning’s coffee cup at the sink. “I can get that later. Come sit with me.” Clare dragged his chair closer to her own, marveling at her comparatively brazen assurance, today.

“Guess it’s been a long time since I lived in a place that didn’t come with ants and ‘roaches. I’m automatically Mr. Clean.” Plunking down at the table, he kissed Clare, scratched Jessie’s chin. The cat lounged on the table, shifting occasionally to stay in a swatch of morning sun. Tommy frowned into his coffee cup, extracted a multicolored cat hair. “You let her hang anywhere she wants, huh?”

“Except the stove.” A houseguest had once expressed shock, so Clare knew disapproval was possible. “It’s not that she’s a discipline problem. It never occurred to me that she ought to stay on the floor. Does – it bother you?”

He dropped the fur back into his cup. “I’ll get used to it.” He took a swig of coffee, grew very serious.

“If it bothers you I-I’m not sure what I’ll do.” Her stomach cramped. Could such an issue really drive a wedge between them?

“Clare.” He remained sober. “What happens if we get fur balls?” He smiled a smile as loving as his kisses. “Your face when you laugh. It makes me pray I never go blind.”

Outside, one of the iron workmen smashed metal against metal. They started; Jessie twitched. “Wish we had more to laugh about.” He stared into his coffee cup. “You know what gets me? The more I think about Hugo, the less scared of him I feel. Maybe because I don’t remember everything. But look how Jessie – shit, she isn’t as friendly with me as she was with him.”

“I know. I’m not sure I remember much more than you do – the whole encounter’s a blur to me. But by the time he left, I didn’t feel threatened by him, either. Perhaps we’re suffering a shock reaction of some kind.”

“Stop me if I sound like I should be locked up. But. The way he knew about cop stuff? Maybe he was a cop. Maybe Beaudine was trying to scare us into confirming some crazy theory of his.”

“I’m afraid we should both be locked up – that doesn’t sound unlikely. I’ve been thinking about Hugo’s questions. Didn’t he make it sound as though Colton and Haffner were doing research together? I’m sure that can’t be true. Dr. Colton would never have allowed it, even if their research fields weren’t so different. And even then, if research was their connection, that still wouldn’t explain the other murders.”

“Some psycho’s out to get lab coats. That’s the only possibility that ties all four murders together.”

Clare nodded. A serial killer preying on research scientists was the unthinkable yet most credible explanation for the murders. Yet, she didn’t mention that a psychotic killer might seem just as harmless as Hugo had; she didn’t want to taint her efforts to ask Tommy’s right brain what it thought of Hugo, later. “Do I what?” She wasn’t sure she’d heard Tommy’s next question correctly.

“Know how to use a gun.”

“You pull the trigger and bullets come out the barrel.”

“Yeah, that’s about what I know, but we’ve got to learn more. Pronto.” His voice made her shiver. “By the way.” He slung his arm around her, nuzzled her cheek, provoking a different sort of shivering. “No more lab coats. You don’t even stand near somebody wearing one. Yes?” He licked her ear lobe. She nodded, turned to face him.

Their kiss froze, lips infinitesimally still apart. “All through, lady,” an iron workman called as he pounded the door, seemingly with a mallet. “One hour, fifty one minutes.” She’d promised a bonus if the work was completed within two hours.

After she tested the new iron entry door and learned to emergency-release the window bars, Clare praised and paid the workmen, dropped the extra key in Mrs. Manning’s mailbox, as promised, then ran upstairs to call the bank: to empty her savings into her checking account, to cover the hefty payment.

Tommy took the phone and punched a number repeatedly, listening intently. When he came to find Clare in the living room, she kept her voice light. “No answer? Maybe she’s at the gym.”

He looked briefly befuddled. “Oh. No, I was calling this number to learn the tones. You thought I was calling home?” He lunged and landed beside her on the couch. “What? And waste time I could spend with – Jessie?”

The cat had hopped up to perch between their heads. They reached to pet her simultaneously, clasped fingers and stroked her with one large hand. When they strained to kiss over her back, she leaped away with a little puff meow, to perch on a box, facing a wall, rump fur and tail twitching at them. She had never been jealous of Robert, if this was jealousy. Perhaps she sensed that -”

Tommy interrupted Clare’s pondering. “What time do I get hypnotized today?”

“Damn! That’s today! Our appointment is at three in Encino so we’ll need to leave at two. Thank God, it’s just noon. I completely forgot that today is today. Doesn’t it seem like it should be tomorrow already?”

“Time crawls when the phone company knocks at dawn.” Tommy crumpled Clare’s installation receipt and tossed it to Jessie, who regarded the paper ball, rose, and walked stiffly out of the room.

“You do have time to check in at home before we leave.”

“I know.” He wrapped his legs around hers. They kissed for a while, then Tommy pulled away and slapped hand against thigh, signaling his leave-taking.

They descended the stairs as slowly as they could without losing balance. “We forgot something,” Clare realized as she unlocked the grill. “How will I know you’re down here when you get back? Wait. I know.” She ran upstairs, tossed and dug through her ravaged belongings, at last found the rape whistle her mother had sent for her Christmas stocking. Mother’s gifts. Always early and invariably bizarre.

Standing outside the grill, Tommy puckered lips against iron mesh for a final kiss, then tooted the whistle lightly, creating a brief soft shriek. “Two toots means it’s me, three toots means it’s not.”

“That makes a lot of sense.” Clare smiled. One final final kiss and he receded from view. Clare waited for his got-to-the-car honks then plodded upstairs.

She spent their separation attempting to straighten her living room and to not think about Robert. Instead she alternated hopes of Bianca moved out with Bianca simply not home. What she feared was a lengthy confrontation occurring – she and Tommy had to leave on time or they’d get caught in early rush hour and miss the whole appointment. Why had she encouraged his heading for home? It had been a test, perhaps. A test with no right answers.

Two muffled shrill toots cut through her quandary. She dashed downstairs to welcome Tommy back.

“Jesus.” Bianca had made him that pale and shaken. “What did she say to you?”

Tommy walked past her, up the stairs. “She was totally cool. I told her about the break-in and Hugo and no phone and she could see how you couldn’t spend the night alone.” He sank onto the couch. “Don’t we have to go or something?”

“Not just yet. If you don’t want to talk about it …” She retreated to a couch corner.

He gave her the world’s weakest smile. “I drove home, nobody followed me. Bianca wasn’t mad at all – she figured I’d be sneakier if I was cheating so she was just relieved I was okay. Then she started asking me what Hugo looked like. It took a while for this to sink in – all I could think about was getting back here to you.” He said this like he’d just confessed to embezzling from children’s charities. “Finally, Mr. Sensitive notices something’s really wrong. Turns out she was getting ready for bed last night, heard the doorknob rattle, then the window tap – which is what I do when I forget my house key. She opened the door and a guy blew in. The room was dark and she was scared, but she thinks it was Hugo. Whoever it was, he shoved her against a wall and said, ‘Tell him to stop or you’re next.’ Then he blew out again.”

“Hugo? She’s sure it was Hugo?”

“No of course she’s not fucking sure. He didn’t leave her his card.”

Clare forced herself to remain seated beside him.

“Sorry. I’m sorry. It’s just. I was over here with. While.” His face twisted with self-loathing. “It never occurred to me he’d go after Bianca.”

Ah. It was allowable that Clare be threatened, so long as Bianca – No! She had no right to think this way.

“Bianca was so quiet after that. When she’s truly scared there’s no emoting. I tried to comfort her and I guess I succeeded.”

“Beaudine should be informed about this, right away.”

“Bianca called him last night.”

“And she reached him?”

“Yeah. Said he was real nice. Guess it’s just us he goes rude on.”

“How is she feeling now?”

“Okay. She went to work. She’s going to hit them up for a loan so we can turn our place into an iron cage, too. And she’s going to have people bring her home – in case I’m not there.”

“So you think Hugo has been around often enough to know your signal to Bianca and -”

“I don’t know what I think, I don’t know what I know, my fucking brains are such assholes. If this hypnotism doesn’t work, maybe I should go for a lobotomy.”

“I know it’s not the same class of damage at this point, but if it’s any help, I spent the time away from you brooding about what I’ve done to Robert.”

He looked at her as though she were too contemptible to consider. “No way is it the same thing.”

“I simply meant – if we’d been in the lab all night, you wouldn’t feel nearly as bad.” She forced herself to meet his gaze.

After a time he conceded, “I guess you’re right.” He studied the air. “I don’t mean to take this out on you.”

“Of course not.” She studied her watch. “We should go.”

He kissed her like a brother would and they headed out, exchanging nods with Beaudine’s current watcher as they walked past his car.

They drove west from the San Gabriel Valley, across the San Fernando Valley; their route required merging or branching onto five freeways and traffic was slow, so Clare could study the branching patterns of drivers behind them. She could not detect anyone following them, which disturbed her: were the car phones no longer interested or was the killer getting more adept, while she continued to fumble? She forced herself to stop thinking of this, and further refused to recall her last exchange with Tommy, lest she then not be able to face Norelle.

Tommy seemed equally preoccupied with interior conflicts, until he at last inquired, “So who’s going to hypnotize me? We’re not going to a psychic, are we?”

“Norelle Westin is a psychologist. She – used to be my therapist.”

“During your breakdown?”

“Primarily.” Revealing experience with therapy generally provoked one of two reactions: excited rhetoric about the listener’s own experiences; or defensive discourse about the uselessness of all such efforts. Whenever possible, Clare avoided the whole subject.

“Is it weird, going back again?”

“I’m expecting her to look at me with deep disappointment. Or shriek and hide her eyes. Otherwise, no.”

As could have been predicted, these things did not occur. Norelle seemed the same as ever; though perhaps her sensuous eyebrows were a bit darker, making the contrast with her white hair that much more pronounced. She still leaned forward when listening, intent on every syllable. And she still transmitted her unique blend of assurance, ease, and anticipation: she hadn’t seen it all, never would, and didn’t want to; however, she did expect to manage whatever might arise.

Perhaps it was Norelle’s ability to transmit acceptance, even of the just-met; perhaps it was Tommy’s residual reaction to Bianca’s night without him. But for the first time, Clare watched him meet someone and not pour on the charm.

Or perhaps it was Norelle’s lack of facility with chitchat. Irrelevant conversation always died an early death in her vicinity. “Come in,” she said after introductions, guiding them from waiting cubicle to office. “I’ve got to leave right at four.”

“I’m sorry we were late,” Clare began.

“You were always eight minutes late,” Norelle patted Clare’s back and chuckled. “It forced me to do work on my billing. That’s eight minutes a week I now don’t spend on it.”

Clare forced a smile, distressed that she had missed such an obvious personal pattern.

Perhaps it was residual reaction to Bianca’s night; perhaps Tommy simply could not be hypnotized. But fifteen minutes later, Norelle informed Clare, “We’re not getting anywhere.” She turned to Tommy, who had compressed a foam pillow to fit in his hand. “You seem to be having trouble relaxing.”

Tommy released the pillow. It flew across the room. “What makes you say that?”

Norelle laughed, her broad shoulders bobbing with each deep rasping exhale, wheezing a bit from the lungs she’d developed before she quit smoking and the weight she’d acquired since. “Try less hard this time. Follow my instructions but don’t think about what they mean. Imagine you’re from another planet and you only know a few words of English and you have to concentrate on each one completely. Now, sit comfortably. Oh, and another thing. You don’t breathe the same air, you’re wearing a portable alien air supply system, but it jams unless you inhale very, very carefully. That’s it. Now close your eyes,” Norelle added quietly.

Over the next few minutes, Norelle coaxed him through relaxation exercises. Clare felt envious and protective as she watched the gradual transformation – to the way he used to look. What had it done to her – and how much could Norelle see?

On the phone with Norelle yesterday, Clare had explained what hypnotism efforts she had made, with what results. Norelle tried some other avenues, but wound up in the same place; whenever Clare started to question Tommy, she could not get to his right brain without interference, albeit muted, from his left. Finally, Norelle and Clare exchanged a look, and shook their heads.

“Anything?” Tommy asked eagerly as soon as Norelle told him to open his eyes. He found his answer in Clare’s expression. “Now what?” He sounded hopeless.

“Now we go back to the lab and try something else,” Clare looked at her watch, warned Norelle. “You’re going to be late.”

Norelle shrugged. “I understand your disappointment, Tommy, but I have tremendous confidence in Clare. This didn’t work but something else will. Doesn’t seem like it at the moment though, does it?”

Clare looked away to get her briefcase.

Norelle saw them out to the cubicle, then asked to speak with Clare alone. Here it comes, Clare decided, as Norelle shut the adjoining door. You look worse than I’ve ever seen you, Clare, I’d like you to come in five times a week until – “I wanted you to hear this from me, before you learned it elsewhere,” Norelle began. “Robert called me a few days ago. He said he was worried about you and asked me to get in touch, see what I could do. I suggested he tell you that; and I would be happy to talk to you if you called me.”

“Thanks for telling me.” Clare wondered if she was going to faint. “There, um, seems to be a pattern in the men I pick, doesn’t there?” She tried to laugh, it came out strangled. She pretended not to notice Norelle’s scrutiny. “I was expecting you to recommend I get committed or something.” The next attempt to laugh was aborted lest it turn to sob.

“Would you like to come back later and talk about any of this?”

“There’s – really no time. Until the murders are solved.”

Norelle enfolded Clare in her arms. How hokey, how California nouvelle neurosis, Clare had sneered the first times Norelle had hugged her. Apparently Clare had been brainwashed, for Norelle’s hugs were now an incredible source of nourishment.

Nothing further was said, until Norelle had ushered them across the waiting cubicle. “I’ll be away for three weeks – beginning tonight. But I’ll call you if I come up with any new ideas for your hypnotism; and my service can reach me for the next week, if you think I can help in any other way.”

Clare nodded thanks and simulated amusement. “Where to this time? White water rafting on the Amazon? Norelle’s vacations are always either brave or risky, depending on who you ask,” she explained to Tommy. Norelle loved jumping cliffs into the unknown. It was a quality Clare had always wished was contagious.

“Africa,” Norelle replied. “We’ll be hiking into some game preserves. I hope I’m ready for it physically.”

“Hey. Take care of yourself,” Tommy bid Norelle good-bye. “And thanks for trying with my brains.”

Once they were in the car, he demanded, “What the fuck did she say to you? You look like she’s making you get rid of Jessie.”

Clare zoomed up the freeway onramp, hit the brakes. Traffic edged forward from their entrance to beyond the horizon. She pounded the steering wheel and cursed, then spat the news of Robert’s phone call to Norelle.

“I can see getting a little irritated but you’re approaching frenzy.”

“There’s more to it. Bernie did the same thing and when -”

“Hold it. Who’s Bernie? The married man?”

“No. During my breakdown, there was someone else.”

“Man.” Tommy massaged his forehead. “The rush I just got. It does really bad stuff to me, hearing about men who knew you before I did. I didn’t mean to interrupt though. In fact I gotta know everything.”

Clare’s internal raging eased. Tommy’s feeling rather than provoking jealousy proved a curious tonic. “Bernie. He said he was destined to save me – he liked to talk like that and at the time I needed big statements to hear at all. He loved taking care of me. But it seems he didn’t want me to get better. And he didn’t want me to lean on anyone but him. Not that I understood any of this at the time, of course. God, was it confusing.”

“Two slimeballs in a row. Or were there others I don’t know about?”

“Not really.” Clare shifted up to second gear. Traffic had sped to a crawl.

“Seems like it’s a good thing Robert happened along, or you wouldn’t even be able to trust me as much as you have.”

“Yes. Robert was good for me. Or better, anyway. What’s so upsetting now is that he knows about Bernie’s tactics. I’ll skip the gory details but Bernie had devised a whole campaign. He’d call Norelle secretly, then bit by bit try to convince me that she was conspiring against me. And this was at a time when Norelle was my one link to sanity. It was terrible. Robert knows all that. Yet he did the same thing.”

“Not necessarily.”

At last she could shift into third, then fourth gear, accelerating past the problem – a car shouldered with a flat, causing massive spectator slowing by rubberneckers yearning for an accident.

Tommy groaned. “I love L.A., don’t you?”

“You’re certainly promoting Robert today.”

“I just want you to see him clearly. Because then I’ll be sure you don’t just like me because I’m not Robert.”

It was a charming sentiment, but after his earlier displays regarding Bianca, she couldn’t trust this response.

Tail lights suddenly flashed red all around them. Screeching tires, crunching bumpers echoed in her ears. The victim cars limped to the shoulder, the other tail lights inched past the scene. For some miles, Clare concentrated on the road – twilight was a dangerous time to drive: too dark to see detail, too bright for night lights to really be visible. And they needed to hurry; she wanted to be in her lab before the campus developed its echoing nighttime emptiness.

“I hope you can see better than I can,” Tommy said finally. “Although everything looks like this, these days. It’s getting dark, doc, it’s going black, this is the end, eunnhh.” He finished the death scene and leaned over to swipe her cheek with a kiss then left his head resting on her shoulder.

Ignoring her wiser impulses, she laughed and kissed at him. “If you keep distracting the driver you’re going to have to move to the rear of the bus.”

“So pull over,” he said. “We can both get in back.”

“I’d consider it if the back seat wasn’t designed for midgets.”

“Hah. Some excuse. Well, we haven’t tried that couch in your office yet.”

When they reached her office, an hour and fifty minutes after commencing the thirty-minute drive, they did indeed try the couch. For a short time, they pretended their biggest problem was fear of being discovered in a clinch. But the lab door gaped beside them. They disembraced and stood with a mutual sigh.

Clare’s was partly a sigh of relief: it was too easy for her to forget to be wary of him. But she stopped short of entering the lab. “The fact is, I need to make a tape and pull some slides. I’d been planning to do it last night but I forgot, after Hugo.”

Tommy pivoted her to face him. “Clare, I hope Hugo wasn’t the only man who made you forget about work last night.”

She looked around the office. “His visit was the point when I forgot, yes. I did remember again later, but by then we were – on the floor.”

“On the floor. I like the sound of that.” He started nuzzling her neck. She stiffened, then could no longer resist, once he got her laughing, with: “We can talk dirty anywhere and no one will know. ‘I’m sorry, Dr. Hyde, I can’t attend your symposium, as I’ll be doing floor work at that time.’ So how long is this tape business going to take?”

“At least an hour, I’m sorry to say. Do you mind waiting out here?”

“Naw, I can handle it. I’ll just be thinking about all the floors we’ve still got to try.” He pulled her in for a good-bye kiss. After some time, he stepped away. “This isn’t making it easier to let you go. Better make some tapes for tomorrow, too, you’re going to get forgetful again tonight.”

She continued smiling at the closed door, while rapidly and efficiently planning words and phrasings for the new tape. It was impossible to remain wary of him. Interesting, also, was his jovial acceptance of a testing delay; and lack of irritation that she was composing a tape to hide questions from his left brain. Gee, they should have hit the floor a long time ago. Speaking purely from a research viewpoint, of course.

Tommy knocked, opened the door, caught her laughing. “Don’t ask,” she advised.

“Stop having fun in here and get to work.” Then he turned serious. “Listen. I should call Bianca, make sure she’s okay. I just – wanted you to know so you wouldn’t. You know.” She nodded, tried to keep smiling. He blew her a kiss, shut the door.

She heard him cross to her desk, pick up the phone; refused to hear the ensuing half-conversation or analyze his voice tone. Instead she switched on the tape machine, with such force it shut itself off, as during a power surge. And here she was waiting for another marriage to fail. No, this one had failed. Tommy would not otherwise have approached her.

One hundred minutes later, having prepped as many tests as she could envision for today and tomorrow, then steeled herself to hear how Bianca was, she at last could reunite with Tommy. The door stuck, she yanked and rattled it noisily until it popped open – revealing Tommy asleep on the couch, exhaustion evident in the jagged arrangement of his limbs; he’d passed out before he could fully stretch out. He twitched occasionally, as Jessie did when dreaming. Hmm, dreams. That gave her another testing idea. She returned to her lab table to jot notes, looked up to find him stumbling into the room.

“What year is it?” He swooped down to kiss her; missed; corrected.

“Two thousand forty-nine. It took a little longer than I expected to finish the tape. How’s Bianca?”

“Fine. She’s fine. The cage is installed, Trish and Andy are staying with her tonight. I told her we’d be working pretty late, she said good luck.” He flopped into his chair. “This morning when I was comforting her, way back inside I kept thinking, shit, too bad she got attacked, now I have to wait longer to move out on her.” He brooded a moment. ‘I didn’t want to talk about that. How long was I asleep?”

“I don’t know. Do you feel awake enough to get started? Are you sure? We’ll start with headset and tachistoscope then. I’m going to ask questions about this.” She spread the bikini beautied ad page, now somewhat tattered, on the table in front of him. “You’ll see possible answers on the screen. Pull the toggle switch to answer yes or no, tap the question mark card if you can’t answer.”

“Roger wilco. Why do they say that anyway? Never mind, wasting time.” He manned his headset and stared fiercely at the dot, a fighter pilot on a mission.

Clare asked about every possibly important word or phrase she’d been able to imagine, based on their previous efforts with the photo: homonyms, synonyms, antonyms; puns, adages, slogans, rhymes. She started with sand/hand; finished with the song lyrics he’d sung in her apartment. Two hours later, she’d run through all her ideas and still hadn’t a clue to the picture’s import.

Tommy read the results on her face; tried and failed to look optimistic. “We’re not done, though, right?”

“Certainly not.” She brought a box over to his table. They kissed halfheartedly and she dumped the contents of the box before him.

“Scrabble letters? Are we taking a break? I hate board games.”

“This is going to be rough on your arm, I suspect. We can try using your toes if need be. I want you to use your left hand to spell what’s important about this picture. If you don’t know how to spell the whole word, that’s fine. Any letters will help. Let’s try a dry run. What is your name? Spell your name.”

He had to sort of stand and kind of twist to maneuver the letters. Eventually, he extricated a T and an M, fell back onto his chair for a rest, and whistled a cheer. Clare didn’t feel quite so elated. His right hemisphere’s ability to recognize certain vocabulary words didn’t guarantee ability to spell them; his own name might be the only word his right brain knew.

“Now spell my name. Clare.” He stood and twisted but his arm didn’t move. After a time, he lost his balance and she leaped to help him regain his chair. He lost his balance because his left foot was tapping; she hadn’t placed the question mark card underfoot for this test but the message was unmistakable.

“Shit, a fucking first grader’s smarter than my -”

“No, Tommy. First graders don’t fuck.” This silenced his left brain’s tirade. He snorted. “And it’s much too early to get discouraged.” She tapped the photo. “What is important about this picture? Tell me in any way you can.”

He stood, twisted. His left hand, shaking, grabbed one letter, knocked others to the floor. Clare retrieved them, checked his progress. He was lining up a series of vowels. Rather, one vowel, over and over. “Eeeeee? The fuck does that mean?”

“Let’s try to find out.” She went over every portion of the picture, testing homonyms, rhymes, puns. The only time his right brain responded was when she indicated the stretch of beach. Then it juggled the eeee’s again.

“‘Sand,’ ‘beach,’ ‘shoreline’ – what? What’s with those goddamned eeee’s?” Tommy demanded, sinking into his chair. “Is it still too early to get discouraged?”

“We’ll figure out what this means. We’re definitely closer to an answer, I just don’t know how.” This sounded so absurd, they almost smiled. “Don’t you agree that ‘e’ must mean something?” She studied his LEMs, as she had throughout this experiment. He looked left then center, then shook his head.

“I don’t know. I fucking don’t know.”

From her previous LEMs observations, he might be confabulating. Why his left brain would evade that question, she hadn’t the faintest idea. Why she tried to draw conclusions from such a pitifully skimpy sampling of LEMs was easier to explain: it gave an illusion of progress. She gathered Scrabble letters hastily, not wanting him to sense her despair.

He attempted some stretches; the twisting and reaching had kept him in pretzel postures. She helped him massage his cramped legs and back, until he touched her arm. “Better wait on that, unless it’s next stop the couch.”

“Oh.” She cleared her throat. He looked embarrassed too, so she said quickly, “Have you heard of a process called lucid dreaming? The whole field of research is controversial, and there are those who believe it’s bunk.”

“You sound like you agree with ‘those.’”

“I admit the existing data haven’t convinced me. Still, it is intriguing. In lucid dreaming, the dreamer controls the dream, first by knowing a dream is occurring; by maintaining and honing a consciousness that’s usually absent in the dream state. Some researchers discount the evidence that such awareness is possible; others question the methods used to prove that a particular dreamer is in a lucid state. None of that should hurt our efforts, though.”

“Especially since I hardly ever dream at all anymore.”

“That will slow us down, but – what’s wrong?”

“Nothing. The opposite. I like your telling me this stuff. You usually want me to know as little as possible. No, don’t defend yourself, you’re probably right to keep me stupid. But still. This makes me feel like a partner, instead of a test tube.”

“Which makes me feel like a bacterium. No, don’t defend me. It was good for me to hear that.” She led him out to her office, where she fished through a stack of neurological journals as she explained, “There’s a series of things you’ll tell yourself prior to sleep. I’ve had you prime yourself to remember dreams, yes? This priming is similar. Although now you’ll want to awaken during a dream. Then you’ll stay awake for about a half hour – once I find the article I can give you exact times. Here it is … no, false alarm. Anyway, once you’re awake you’ll do more priming. The goal is to return to sleep and that same dream, then alter its course. Eventually, supposedly, you’ll be adept enough to skip the waking up step … Here it is.” She flipped through the journal. “I’ll have to translate this from scientese to English for you.”

While she found a pen and annotated margins, Tommy joined her on the couch. “What makes you think we’re going to be getting any sleep? There’s a lot of floor in the world, you know.”

“Oh, eventually you’ll get tired for a few minutes here and there. And when you do, I want you to dream about being in the hallway, fighting with Colton’s killer. But in your dream, you’re going to shine the flashlight on the killer’s face.”

Tommy stopped tickling her ear. “Man. That sounds so easy. Damn. If only it works.” He studied the annotated article pensively.

“Now don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t work right away. Please note that this lecture is for my benefit, too. You have to keep at it.”

“Agreed. But I didn’t see his face. Why will I see it now?”

“I’m hoping that your right brain can synthesize what it knows and produce an image.”

“You still think I know a psycho-killer. Did you ask my right brain again today if Mrs. Bates is the one?”

“Yes I did. Once again the answer was no.”

“What about Hugo?”

She didn’t have to answer. Her face told him she’d had no luck with that, either. “But I repeat: it could be someone you know, we have to explore that angle.”

Tommy moved to her desk. “I need to make a phone call.” He punched a number, waited. “Ilsa? …. Yeah, it’s me. … I know, I know, too long, but you’re the one who moved to fucking West Covina. … Miss you, too. … Tonight, if you’re going to be home. … Cool. See you then.” He made a kissing noise and hung up.

He returned to sit pressed beside Clare on the couch. She got up to straighten the journals. “You’re going all the way to West Covina tonight? Isn’t it dangerous for you to drive after dark?” She stopped talking, the only way to prevent demanding explanations: who the hell was Ilsa and how dare he call her now?

“I was figuring you’d drive. You’re right, I shouldn’t have assumed you would. But. When we were talking about guns? Ilsa can get them, fast. And teach us what we need to know about using them. She’s great, you’ll love her too.”

“Tommy, I don’t want a gun.” And she didn’t want to meet any Ilsa, age under 85 or IQ over 85.

“Every time we walk out of here I feel more scared and I think you do too. It drives me nuts knowing I can’t be with you every minute and even when I am I’m no guarantee of protection. At least with guns we could pretend we were safer.”

They got their security escort to her car, then headed east over some twenty miles of especially tacky mini-malls, chain stores, and fast food kiosks, to exit the freeway into a brand new housing development where people paid voluminously to live in huge pseudo-Spanish tract homes along wide avenues with tiny trees. From what Clare could determine, no one followed them on this trip, either.

Suddenly, after crossing a boulevard, they were driving through a poorly lit but discernibly run-down neighborhood. Here were small, aging wood frame homes with falling porches and sagging chain link fences. Hieroglyphic gang graffiti marked territory on every garage wall Clare’s headlights hit.

They parked under a scrawny tree dying a slow death from smog; walked across crab grass, past a Chevy speckled with primer paint, over thick plywood laid where cement steps had once been; stopped under a yellow porch light caked with insect corpses. Tommy reached through bars to knock on the door. A voice hailed them from inside. Clare couldn’t understand it but Tommy yelled back, “Yeah it’s Dabrowski.”

A buzzer sounded. Tommy pulled the bars and held them open with his shoulder, put his hand on the doorknob. A different buzzer sounded and he pushed the door open, stepping inside and motioning his head for Clare to follow. By the time she was in the dim room, Tommy was across it, hugging the occupant of a wheelchair, then introducing Clare to Ilsa.

“Glad to know you.” Ilsa’s rousing bellow smothered Tommy’s words. “Now to see you.” She pointed an object in her hand. Click. The TV went off; the room went black. Click. Overhead lights went on and Clare regarded a frail redhead with ultrapale, freckled skin. Her legs were cocooned in a down sleeping bag. In a holder affixed to her wheelchair was a rifle. “Dick, he’s here,” she bellowed over her shoulder.

Elsewhere in the house, water stopped rushing through pipes and floorboards creaked with the arrival of a tall balding youngish man with khaki pants buckled under his belly and a towel around his neck. He embraced Tommy heartily then wiped shaving cream from his ears. “Getting ready for work?” Tommy inquired.

“‘Fraid so, they got me back on graveyard. Just for this month though, ‘til they replace the turkey who fell asleep, woke up to find every single mother dripping spray paint.”

Tommy introduced Ilsa’s husband to Clare, then explained, “While we sleep tonight, Dick will be keeping our city buses safe from graffiti.”

Dick snorted, tossed the towel onto a couch covered by a red blanket, and slipped his arms into a transit cop’s sleeves. He strapped on a holster, checked his watch, hurried into an overcoat. Ilsa frenched him farewell and he was out the door. The bars clanged shut behind him, making the house shake.

Ilsa waved them toward a couch and an orange floral chair. “Sit down, you’re giving me a neck ache.”

Clare sank into the chair and got a surprise. “This is the most comfortable chair I’ve ever sat in.”

“That’s why it’s still here, homely as it is. I used to love it but now I stay in this thing. Too much trouble getting out any more than I have to. There was a shooting down the street about five years back. I was getting out of our car. Bullet hit me in the spine. Easier to get the story out of the way so you’re not wondering all night how I got this way. Does Da-browski want a brewski?”

“Yow. That was terrible, Ilsa.”

“I’ve been practicing. Whatever you want, help yourself, kitchen’s that way.” Ilsa waved to a door for Clare’s benefit.

“I could use something. I’m not sure what.” Clare followed the wave. “Beer, Tommy?” He nodded and began explaining to Ilsa that they needed guns.

The kitchen linoleum was faded blue and mangled by wheelchair wheels. Opening drawers until she found a bottle opener for their beers, she found an entire drawerful of medication for Ilsa. Clare felt ill at ease, not in the surroundings or Ilsa’s lively company, but at the indication of such a vast gap in her knowledge of Tommy’s life. For some time she stared at a wall calendar filled with reminders of doctor appointments, birthdays, and bills due; and, in bold red letters twice a month, DICK GETS PAID. She was incapable of formulating reactions to Ilsa and Dave’s life that weren’t sappy or superficial. She instead allowed herself to simply like them, to savor the love that swept like a wind between them, and regret the anxiousness flickering over them as Dick left for the night. Meanwhile, she flipped through the calendar pages until she found a T.D. #27 in March that must be Tommy’s birthday; then hated to admit her satisfaction when she found no birthday listing for B.D.

By the time she returned to the living room, Tommy had explained their predicament and Ilsa was shaking her head. “You can’t help us?” Tommy took a beer from Clare, spilled it in his anxiousness.

Ilsa handed him the towel Dick had tossed on the couch, and he mopped up while she mused, “Can I get you a piece? Sure. I could do that tonight. Tomorrow’s Dick’s night off, he could give you a crash course in using it. But if you’re dealing with somebody who’s got one too, and who’s better at it, you’ll be wishing you were unarmed. If you’re the only one with a gun, you don’t need it anyway. Besides which, that cop’s suspicious enough of you already. Dick had an encounter with him a few years back. Beaudine’s a very bad man to let see your unregistered firearm.”

“How do you know it’s Beaudine? I didn’t tell you his name.”

“I figured. Pasadena homicide case. Aw, shit. Betsi came out here, few nights back. She made me promise I wouldn’t tell you. Bianca, I mean. When is that woman going to decide on a name? Each one’s worse than the last.”

Clare sat very still, lest she laugh; and fervently hoped Tommy would ask all the questions she wanted to ask.

“Why was Bianca out here?” When Ilsa didn’t answer, Tommy counseled, “You can’t stand her and we all know that. If she made you promise to keep quiet – to lie to one of your oldest friends – and you break that promise she’s in the wrong, not you.”

“Goddamn us, every one.” Ilsa gulped from the tumbler of whiskey and ice tucked alongside her legs. “She said she missed seeing us. Wants to get together, have us out for dinner, like that. Said she wishes you’d stay home more – and that I believed, though as you know I gotta take her with so much salt, it fucks with my blood pressure. Main impression I got, is that she’s jealous as all hell.”

“How did Beaudine come up in the conversation?”

After a brief inner debate, Ilsa asked Clare sheepishly, “You’re the doctor, right?” then matched Clare’s nod. “Betsianca was ragging about you. She thinks Beaudine’s suspicious of Tommy because of you. And thinks Beaudine should suspect you. And thinks if Tommy keeps trusting you he’s in trouble. I don’t know, my first impressions of people aren’t always right but I still listen to them and they say you’re okay.”

“Thanks.” Immediately, Clare feared she’d sounded stupid or condescending, but Ilsa smiled and returned her gaze to Tommy, leaving Clare to wonder whether Bianca had fabricated her encounter with a threatening man who looked like Hugo.

“Don’t let on I told you. It’ll just make you both crazy. She’ll have to prove it wasn’t like it was and – shit, I don’t need to tell you, you know better than anybody.”

“Oh yeah, I know.” Tommy tugged his sling. “That’s why you didn’t ask me about my arm. Bianca already told you. See, it’s just as well you spilled. I would’ve wondered about that later. You’re not good at being sneaky, Ilsa, Bianca should’ve known.”

Ilsa smiled – and yawned. “Past my bedtime, kids. Next time come earlier? For a real visit? And goddamn it, take care.” She hugged Tommy, then shook Clare’s hand firmly. “If you wouldn’t mind, Clare, could you help me get into my PJs? I can do it myself but it’s easier with help and I can’t ask the wolf, he’d take advantage of me.”

Tommy growled and nipped her neck, then took the beer bottles into the kitchen. Clare followed Ilsa down the hall.

Once in the bedroom, Ilsa, whispered, “Shut the door. Guess I’d really better change, too.” From the bed, Clare took the neatly folded nightgown Ilsa indicated, while Ilsa quickly stripped off her sweatshirt. “I’ll talk fast so he doesn’t get suspicious; if he still wants a gun, if you think he’s going to try to get one, then bring him back here. I can’t tell him that, just give him ideas. But above all make sure he’s careful. I didn’t want to tell him, because he gets so twisted up about what he owes that woman and that’s the last thing he needs now. But Bianca was scared – real scared. For him as well as herself. And I can’t recall another time I caught her thinking about anybody besides herself. She said something about getting warnings. She didn’t want Tommy to know, thought he had enough to worry about, trying to name the killer. Which sounds like the case.”

“Warnings? Plural? And she was out here several nights ago?”

Ilsa nodded after each question, leaving Clare feeling sympathy for Bianca; and respect. She really was looking out for Tommy first.

Much louder, Ilsa said, “Yeah, I love flannel, don’t you?”

Clare mimed agreement and compliance with Ilsa’s requests, then led the way back to the living room, saying over her shoulder, “The only problem is, it’s so comfortable, the temptation to wear pajamas in to work is overwhelming.”

Ilsa tittered, bid them good-bye once more, then stage-whispered to Tommy, “She’s a keeper. Don’t screw up.”

“Hey, thanks for the vote of confidence,” Tommy laughed and shut the door behind them. Clare was glad it was dark, she had to be blushing. As she pulled her car out from under the dying tree, Tommy laughed and ruffled her hair. “The Ilsa seal of approval. Good to know that when society ostracizes me for abandoning my lovely and devoted wife, we’ll have one friend left.”

“I like her, I like both of them,” Clare said neutrally, fearing the hope and warmth surging through her.

“So what was it she had to tell you in private?”

“Should I turn left or right to get back to the freeway?”

“Left. Was there more about Bianca she didn’t tell me?”

“Why would you think that?”

“Clare. Okay, maybe you’re allowed to answer this one. From what Ilsa, said, do you think Bianca lied about a guy threatening her last night? To keep me home and away from you?”

Clare fought conflicting desires, loyalties. “No. She didn’t make that up. Or, if she did, it was because she’s worried. She thinks you’re both – we’re all – in a lot of danger. Ilsa believes that if that possibility got through to Bianca, it must really be true.”

Tommy’s voice was heavy. “I wonder if other stuff’s been happening to Bianca, like last night.”

“Perhaps you should ask her if it has.”

He was silent for a time. “If I thought I could get a straight answer … Nah. It’s like you said. We’re all targets. We all have to – pay attention. I just gotta make sure I watch out for her, too.” He studied mini-malls for several miles. “By the way, Ilsa hardly ever likes anybody, so feel honored.”

“I do. Where do you know them from?”

“Dick and I were pals in grade school. After high school we didn’t see each other much – he got wrapped up in Ilsa which was fine, but she and Bianca were instant enemies and it got to be too much, always having to side against somebody you loved. I didn’t see them for years, then Bianca heard about Ilsa getting shot and started sending me to visit them. Eventually that got weird, so she and Ilsa tried to tolerate each other, and now they usually almost manage it.” He lapsed into silence. The ticking of tires on rough asphalt clocked away minutes. Then he noted, “You seem upset.”

“I’m not. I have reached my limit on Bianca stories for the night, though.”

“I get that. I keep dragging you further into my mess. What’s really a bitch is that I can’t make myself feel completely sorry about it. Which I guess proves what a selfish prick I am. Don’t respond to that. I don’t want you to defend me. And I definitely don’t want to hear if you agree.”

They grew quiet until Clare turned onto her street; as she angled into a space, her headlights caught Beaudine’s watcher sipping from Styrofoam. He vanished when the headlights went off. They ran for her building. As Clare unlocked the new grill door, Tommy kept his back to her, watching for approaching Hugos. Just before the grill clicked locked behind them, Tommy beamed his flashlight into the mirrors atop the stairs. No one was waiting in the hidden alcove. “This is great. I actually feel safe.” Clare ran ahead to unlock the door.

Inside, Jessie strolled lazily to greet them. The cat was putting on weight; unsure when she’d be home, Clare left a bowl of dry food out at all times, these days, and Jess took full advantage.

They stood in the kitchen while Jessie picked at her dinner. She’d eaten so much all day she wasn’t hungry now – and she was always hungry. “There are starving cats in Africa, Jessie,” Tommy warned. She looked up at her name, then strolled from the room, twitching her tail. Clare continued to watch Jessie, lest she notice the strain building around Tommy.

He went out to flop on the couch. From out of nowhere sprang Jessie, over him then away.“Aaaahhhgg,” Tommy yelled.

“It was just Jessie,” Clare said between laughs. “She does that once in a while when she’s been cooped up.” She joined him on the couch.

“Somebody should tell her. I don’t have nine lives.” He clutched his heart, then got down on his knees, stalked Jessie into the kitchen, tried to corner her. “Sooo. Kitty’s feeling frisky, eh?” Jessie leaped over him and bounced into the living room, onto the couch, eyes glowing, then bounded back onto the kitchen table. Tommy sat on the floor, panting. Clare came to the door. “It’s not easy crawling with three paws.” He stood, dusted his knees, watched Jessie with exaggerated mistrust.

 

Why did it seem as though he was intentionally focusing on the cat?

“Any more tests for us to do tonight?”

Clare stiffened. “I don’t know what to do next. Everything I’ve tried lately has fizzled. I need some time to just stare at the results we’ve got – there must be a pattern I’m missing – but it’s been a long day, I’m too groggy to find patterns tonight.”

Tommy took the news of deadlock remarkably well. “You’ll figure something out. I’m pretty beat, too. C’mon.” At last he looked at her, reached for her.

She took his hand and he led her into the bedroom, which for the first time felt safe to Clare. He helped her make the bed; smiled into inconsequence her explanations as to why she’d been sleeping on the couch. He kissed her tenderly, then might as well have kicked her in the gut: “I can’t stay tonight. You’re safe in here but Bianca.”

“In that case I’ll see you out.”

“Clare.” She waited for more, only heard Jessie shredding paper in the living room. He stepped in front of her, compelling her to look at him. When she at last did, he regarded her with an odd mixture of sorrow, longing, and lust. “I want to stay here,” he said. “I have to go.” He pulled her to him, awkwardly, buried his face at her throat, her hair. “I sure hope you think more of me than I do, right now.” He straightened and stepped away. “Don’t answer that.”

She walked him to the front door. “It’s okay, your leaving. Well. It’s not okay, but I accept it. I won’t forever but right now it’s the way things have to be. Were Trish and Andy going to stay until you got home?”

“I don’t know, see, that’s part of it. Maybe they’ll all be there. Or maybe I’ll walk in on Bianca and Andy, in some ways I’m hoping for that.” He looked frustrated and regretful. “We should’ve waited until I straightened out all this shit. I shouldn’t have made you go slog through it with me.”

“Yes, we probably should have waited. But I can’t say I wish we did and I’m not at all sure it would have been any easier if we had.” She unlatched the door and added quickly, “Don’t forget your lucid dreaming exercises.”

“I won’t. What time tomorrow?”

“Let’s see … Mrs. Bates is coming in, and I’ve got my classes, so let’s meet at two. No, I forgot. Those grant givers are coming to observe me testing Cynthia. I’d like you to observe them – can you be there at noon?”

Tommy nodded. “Damn, do I not want to leave you.”

“Three honks then one when you get to your car?”

Tommy nodded, gave her a swift kiss good-bye, then hurried out. As soon as she heard the grill click shut, Clare ran to get the phone and raced back to the open door, poised to call for help if … There were the honks and the engine revving.

She replaced the phone and locked the door, made coffee. While it was brewing, she wandered the apartment, briefcase in hand. The kitchen proved to be the only room in which Tommy’s absence was not palpable. She sat at the kitchen table anxious and confused. How casual they were getting about arranging murder investigation time. Granted, they could only experiment fruitfully for a limited number of hours each day. But that wasn’t it. They were losing their purpose, their belief they could reach a solution. It was up to her to break through to a new direction. She scoured her notes for clues. But they made no more sense than anything else in her life.

Go to next chapter.

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