Chapter 14. Strange Attractors

She opened her door to Jessie howling and the telephone jangling. Her number was unlisted, so this had to be a wrong number. Or. She hurried into the kitchen, ignoring the phone, and fed Jessie, who continued her staccato indignant meows between gulps of breakfast, though it was only 6:30 – earlier than the cat ordinarily ate. The phone ceased, mid-ring. Clare relaxed momentarily, until Jessie abandoned her bowl to wind around Clare’s ankles. Clare’s being gone all night had clearly disturbed Jessie greatly.

The phone started again. “What is it?” she snarled into the receiver, in as tough a voice as she could muster.

“Clare? It’s Cynthia. I’m terribly sorry to ring you so early.”

“How did you get this number?”

“Why – I called Information, they found it in new listings. I didn’t know you’d moved, what a lot of extra stress at a time like this.” Clare said nothing, trying to decide how much truth Cynthia was telling: she tuned back in to hear “ … thought I should try to reach you right away. My husband attended a charity dinner last night. A group of them got to talking about the murders and someone of high rank in the police department revealed that Lieutenant Beaudine is about to make an arrest for Dr. Colton’s killing; that the culprit had known him for years and they had been feuding, professionally. My husband said it all sounded quite definite, and was told to friends; this official had no need to pretend the case was any further along than it actually is.”

Tommy had been right. Beaudine had beat them after all. Clare felt a twinge of competitiveness, then vast relief. Now she could get on with her life. But – “What about the other murders? Surely the same man wasn’t feuding with all four.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know any more. Although it does seem as though, if you haven’t given those files to Lieutenant Beaudine, there is no longer a need to do so. After all, it would land us both in trouble.”

Perhaps it was the limitations of the telephone, but Clare did not detect shiftiness or dissembling in Cynthia’s manner. “I see what you mean,” she replied noncommittally, “And I appreciate your calling, for both our sakes.”

Mrs. Bates sounded a titch mistrusting. “I’ll let you go, then. I hope I didn’t wake you. But I thought you’d want to know – that.”

“I’m glad you called.”

“Will you let me know if you hear anything further?”

“Of course. Good-bye, Cynthia.” As soon as she hung up, Clare called Information. Sure enough, her number was in new listings. Incompetent bastards.

She put water on for coffee and called the phone company to demand a new number. A recording told her to call between nine and five. Instead, she called 611 and vented so much frustration and anger that the poor repair order taker assured her a new number by noon. Feeling marginally better, Clare poured water into the drip coffee filter with one hand, petted Jessie with the other. The cat undulated on the kitchen counter, butting her head into Clare’s arm.

Besides the obvious problems believing Cynthia, could Beaudine really be hunting four separate felons? Or was he planning to charge the suspect with one death at a time? Dare she call him and ask? Or should she wait until his next move became clear? If only she could discuss this with Tommy. But he was at home with his wife.

She sat down with coffee and briefcase at the kitchen table. Jessie immediately hopped in her lap. If this was a trick on Cynthia’s part – to keep Clare quiet about the files – it had worked.

Was there something in those files Cynthia wanted to keep hidden? Clare opened her briefcase to stare at the scarf-bound folders, then hurried into the living room to paw through boxes and returned with a pair of thin rubber gloves. Now she examined and compared the three files exactingly. Each folder contained the expected records of exams and medications, surgical procedures and repercussions; descriptions of current treatments and extrapolations about future avenues to explore. She came to the same conclusion she’d reached after yesterday’s quick perusal: there was nothing unusual in nor obviously missing from any of the three.

Another dead end. She rewrapped the files in the scarf, hid them in the back corner of her bedroom closet, then rushed around to get ready to return to the lab: she had time to make another tape before Tommy joined her.

She tried not to notice Jessie sitting in the hallway, watching her exit. The cat’s life had narrowed considerably: no one home except to sleep and not always then; no way to go outside; and now that she was waddling, no mountain of dry food to flatten. Clare dropped her briefcase and plopped down on the floor, waving a length of packing string to invite Jessie to come and play. Ten minutes later, Jessie was curling up on the couch to sleep and Clare could head out with a clearer conscience.

On the street, Beaudine’s current watcher regarded her with terminal boredom. Would the poor man still be stuck out here if an arrest were imminent?

Walking across campus, the sun was so low and the light so golden, Clare checked her watch: 7:30. She’d never been here quite so early, except long ago, departing after working all night. Amazing, the number of early risers on the grounds. She also thought she recognized several night shift security guards, though they looked quite different in sunlight.

As she opened her office door and hit the light switch in one rote maneuver, it registered that a faint light came from inside her lab. Her locked desk drawer yawned open, exposing data on her current murder tests with Tommy; files from her cabinet were piled on her chair. On her desk was a drawer key she recognized as the one she’d give Steve – the key Constance had sworn she didn’t have. Constance.

There was Clare’s assistant, standing frozen in the lab doorway, holding a flashlight and a box of tachistoscope slides.

“Dr. Austen. I know you said I shouldn’t come in her alone and I’m sure you’re mad and I don’t blame you. But please hear me out. I only wanted to understand what we’re doing here in the lab and I -”

Clare slammed the exit door behind her. “Cut the crap, Constance. You’re spying for him and now you’re going to tell me why. Talk fast.”

“I – he – we’re just interested in what research you’re doing. You don’t like to discuss it so …”

Constance’s voice faded as Clare examined the files piled on her chair. “You’re especially interested in my current tests with Tommy. Steve knew I mistrusted him so he figured you’d have a better chance. Don’t give me that confused look, I know about you and Steve. Or do you really expect me to believe it was just a coincidence he brought his girlfriend in to replace him, right before he disappeared? Stop insulting my intelligence and tell me why he’s so interested in my work.” Clare leaned against the door, pretending to block the exit in case Constance tried to flee, but really to regain equilibrium. The balance of power had just shifted, she could feel it. Constance had momentarily looked confused, then unburdened, and now poised.

Still, when Constance spoke, she sounded shaken and tentative. “I don’t really know what Steve wants to find out. He told me to learn everything I could, and he wouldn’t let me question him about it. He just said I had to trust him, that he was in a bind and I was the only one who could help him. It was like I didn’t care about him if I didn’t operate on blind faith. So – I did. Unfortunately, because I don’t know what I’m looking for, I haven’t been able to tell him anything he was satisfied to hear.”

Clare sensed factual elements in the story, but there were definitely fictions as well. “Get Steve on the phone. Right now!” she shouted when Constance hesitated.

“I can’t! I can’t!” Was Constance buying time as she paced the room, turmoil evident? “I don’t know where he is. He calls me around eight at night. Not always, but I stay home then just in case. Sometimes the connection is bad like long distance and sometimes it’s not. He hasn’t called in three days, I don’t even know what that means.”

Clare moved toward her desk, but Constance’s attention shifted to the door. “If you run now, you’ll have to keep running.” Constance threw herself onto the couch like a teenager who’d just been grounded.

Clare picked up her phone and found Beaudine still at home. Hearing the urgency in her voice, he simply said, “I’m on my way.” Twenty minutes later, he arrived and, after Clare explained why she’d called, he took Constance into the hall for questioning.

Stuck in her office, Clare first put away the files Constance had gotten out: they included all records on Tommy, murder related or no; several folders on Mrs. Bates; and a few previous, now closed, subjects – no pattern was obvious in Constance’s choices. Then, sitting at her desk, Clare struggled to plan the tape she had come in to make, but couldn’t concentrate with Beaudine and Constance’s voices rising and falling beyond the door.

She picked up the interdepartmental transit envelope that had tripped Tommy outside her door earlier. She began to imagine his homecoming, forcibly detoured her attention: this side of the large square transit envelope was blank; the other side would have fifty “deliver to” lines. It was reusable up to fifty times: you crossed out your name, wrote a new recipient’s name, and campus mail did the rest. Clare enjoyed reading the names preceding hers, studying the patterns: who sent to whom and how often. It was mindless, but entertaining. She flipped the envelope over.

All previous names had been obliterated by a heavy black felt marker. She dropped the envelope. Too late. Her fingerprints had to be all over it. She should let Beaudine open it – but Constance’s voice sounded tearful; it sounded like a bad time to interrupt. Clare went to get the cotton gloves she used when handling tachistoscope slides. She felt far more curiosity than fear. At times Lieutenant Beaudine might seem inept, but it certainly helped to have him just outside her door.

Within the interdepartmental envelope was a layer of Bubble Pak, wrapped around another envelope: bright green and orange; it was a junk mailer that showed up periodically. Uncover the secrets of the universe and receive a free beach blanket, embossed letters promised. It was a come-on for a video science series. She and Robert used to laugh about it, envisioning a related T-shirt: I UNCOVERED THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS CRUMMY T-SHIRT.

Oh, God, had Robert left those black markered notes? No, this mailer showing up now could easily be coincidence. Everyone on campus received them, periodically – students, faculty, and staff. Come to think of it, she’d seen them in the trash bin at her old apartment complex, too.

By now she had the Bubble Pak unwrapped and the envelope flap lifted. She could feel a bulge inside, hard as metal or wood. Perhaps it wasn’t a horrible note, but a gift from Robert, trying to make amends.

She extracted a folded piece of paper with black spots where the heavy ink had bled through. She unfolded it, already knowing what it said. This one was a little different: STOP OR YOU DIE TWO. Robert couldn’t be the author, he wasn’t semiliterate like this jerk. She jammed her fingers into the mailer envelope to extract the bulge.

In her palm was a delicate antique silver and marcasite hair clip in the shape of a parrot. The clip held a thick hank of black hair, with a brownish red, leathery patch at one end. Even before she was fully aware of what she held, she began screaming.

In retrospect, she could recall how Beaudine smashed into the room; how Constance followed, hesitantly; how curious faces soon appeared in the doorway. A hand gripped her shoulder, shook it; she continued to scream. Another hand made her drop the object and covered it, but she could nonetheless see it, feel it. It was the hair clip she’d given Lalitha, with the murdered woman’s hair still in place, and a section of her scalp, clotted with blood, at one end.

Clare clutched at the hand gripping her shoulder. Beaudine drew her to her feet and vised his arms around her. Eventually, she stopped shaking. He sat her on the couch and shut the door on the faces peering at her.

Constance had her own fit when she learned what Clare had received. Beaudine took her into the lab until she stopped flailing and shrieking. Clare heard him questioning the girl for a time, then he escorted a quivering, pink-cheeked Constance back through the office and out, warning her not to speak with any of those still congregating in the corridor.

He slipped on Clare’s gloves, though they barely covered his thick fingers; and gathered the components of the package to take in for analysis. While he did this, he questioned Clare. Between gulps for air, she explained what the hair clip was and how she had received it that morning. She couldn’t speak for a time, realizing the murderer had been less than five feet away at some point last night, while she and Tommy slept on this couch. Would they have awakened in time, if the killer had come in?

“You’ve thought of something.”

Clare began an explanation, but after a time, noticed that Beaudine was lost in thought, staring at the grisly package. “Are you even listening to me?”

“Outside envelope’s addressed to ‘Dr. Clare,’ inside one says ‘Mr. Dabrowski.’ Who calls you Dr. Clare?”

“No one. I didn’t notice that, frankly.”

He unfolded the note. “’Stop or you die, t-w-o.’ This a misspelling of the ‘too’ that means ‘also,’ or’s it supposed to mean the two of you will die?”

“How the hell should I know?” His tone, his attitude, were suggesting something incomprehensible. “You think Tommy and I wrote these notes, don’t you?”

He regarded her blankly. “Do I?”

“Which means you must also think we’re the killer. Killers. Of all the hideous, moronic. Aaahh!” she yelled, then began to cry. Beaudine remained impassive. “I loved Lalitha. I could never have. Oh god. Lalitha.” She choked.

“Dr. Austen.” His voice was soft. She looked up and found traces of sympathy in his eyes. “You have to understand. Anybody who’s not dead is a suspect.”

Clare recovered enough to feel her skin crawl. “Did the murder victims receive threats?”

“Not that we’ve been able to determine.” He revealed information as if each word cost a year of his life.

“Why are we being warned instead of killed?”

He relaxed back into her chair. “Now there’s one I was hoping you could tell me.”

“Were you able to find out anything about the other notes we received – or the nails in my tire?” His shrug infuriated her. “Or about the man who held us at gunpoint? What about the man who threatened Tommy’s wife? The accidents Tommy’s been having, that may not be accidents? Don’t you know anything?”

With this, she went too far. His expression caused her to appreciate Tommy’s fear of the police. “I mean,” she amended, “anything that you can tell me? Did you get any information from Constance?” He shook his head. “How did she get in here? Did Steve give her that key after telling me he’d lost it?” Beaudine shrugged. “Steve has an uncle in Daly City who might help you find him.”

Beaudine watched her minutely. “Steve is in the middle of a murder investigation and he’s not stupid. He knows he’d be in deep hot substance if he left town without my approval.” His tone made him sound like a doting older brother.

“Oh.” Nonplussed, she became captious. “Where is he? I need to talk to him.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s spying on me, dammit. I want to know why.”

“How’s your investigation of Dabrowski’s brain going?”

His condescension was galling. “I sent you a list of what we’ve learned so far. I’d hoped to get some response from you about that. Instead, I heard a rumor that you’re close to arresting Dr. Colton’s killer. What about the other murders? Or is one out of four the best that can be hoped for?”

“Where did you hear this rumor?”

“Around. Is it true?”

“Why would I want to tell you police business?” he mused.

“Because if it is true, Tommy and I can stop trying to name the killer.”

“You got a point. No, you go ahead and keep trying.” His manner was so offhand it was unreadable.

“If the rumor were true,” she pressed, “would that suspect be wanted for all four killings?”

“We’re not in danger of leaving an extra psycho on the streets once we wrap this up, no,” Beaudine said affably. The phone rang. On the second ring, he answered. “Austen’s office … Yeah this is Beaudine … Yeah she’s here but she’s busy right now … Are you alright?” he asked Clare, then replied before she could react, “Seems to be hanging in there … Sure I’ll tell her … Same to you.” He hung up. “That was Dabrowski. He’s going to be late.”

“Since when do you screen my calls?”

“Only trying to help. Seemed like you weren’t in a condition to answer it.” He stretched and collected his new evidence. “Who has access to these intercampus envelopes?”

“Just about anyone.” She relived opening the mailer and moaned. “Tell me when you find out anything about this. Please.”

“I can almost promise, you’ll be the first to know.”

With that he was gone, leaving Clare shaking, and trying to pinpoint what about his exiting manner had seemed so very ominous. Perhaps it was simply that he was gone, that Clare was alone, with no distractions.

She stumbled into the lab, fumbled through making a tape, but each minute alone was more oppressive. The package and its import smothered her, as though the air had turned to Bubble Pak plastic. She had to get outside, had to be around people. Anyone, so long as she wasn’t alone.

It was nearly ten. How late was Tommy going to be? What could she do in the meantime? She could try to locate Steve, she concluded, then ask him why he’d gotten Constance to act as a spy. Clare locked up, left a note for Tommy, and set out on a Steve hunt. She would check back now and again to see if Tommy had arrived.

She started at the Biology office, going the long way around to avoid Dr. Colton’s hall. She copied Steve’s schedule of classes; then visited his professors and questioned three separate yet identical administrators. Where he was no one could – or would – say to her. She was in such a state, trying to not think about the morning’s events, that at first she didn’t notice how she was received. But finally, as she sat on a courtyard bench watching passersby and wondering what to try next, she began to recall fragments of conversations, reactions, expressions.

Of course it was all innuendo, sotto voce, double entendre. But she’d been part of this so-called intellectual community long enough to read between the lines: among her peers, she had become an object of suspicion, aversion, and contempt. Much of it was gleeful, for in the past, she had competed with the most ambitious of them, spoken out against the most pompous of them, retaliated against the most vicious of them. And once having engaged, she would always be considered part of the game. Which in turn made her fair game.

She thought of that transit envelope. Anyone could obtain one, affiliated with the university or no. But could it be that the murderer was not just preying on lab coats – as Tommy called them – but used one, too? So many of Clare’s peers were willing to destroy with subtle words, refined sabotage. Had someone taken it further?

No longer did she feel safer, surrounded by people. Most of those in the courtyard were just students; but then, baby rattlers have the most venomous bites.

Still, she couldn’t bring herself to return to the isolation of her office. So, envisioning herself as a moving target, she bustled around campus, aimlessly – until, passing the monolithic library building, she recalled that she’d once seen Steve chatting familiarly with a library clerk. Perhaps the clerk would know Steve’s current whereabouts.

Perhaps. However, the clerk was not at work today, she soon learned. Exiting the library, she walked up the cement ramp across the moat – turned a corner – and there was Robert.

At some point they realized they were stock still and staring, which led to feigned smiles. Clare thought about walking on. As she concentrated on trying to get her feet to move, Robert said, “This is both easier and harder than I’d expected. Seeing you for the first time, that is. How – have you been?”

If she told him she would cry; or scream. “Not terrible. Busy. And yourself?”

“Making sense of it all. And worrying about you. It’s odd, suddenly being on the outside of your life – people have been speaking to me differently. And disturbing me, with the amount of hostility that exists towards you at present. I can’t win: if I defend you, I’m carrying a torch; if I prove they’re misinformed, I’m still blinded by love.” He seemed to wish he’d answered “fine thanks,” instead. “I take it you and Tommy haven’t solved this thing yet.”

She shook her head. “And I’ve been so immersed – in that effort, I’ve only just discovered the hostility you’re talking about.” She explained about her Steve hunt, and the disturbing reactions she’d encountered. “What are they saying about me, Robert? Do you have any idea why? No, please tell me. I need to know.”

They were blocking the library exit, it became belatedly apparent to them. Three students with freshman timidity hovered across the ramp, waiting for the professors to move. “Let’s walk,” Robert suggested, and they made a partial circuit of the library, eventually sitting on the cement edging the library’s shallow tiled moat. Meanwhile, Robert reviewed the anti-Clare sentiment. “I believe it has several origins. Fear about the murders makes everyone think – crookedly. You’re in the limelight closer to the center of the investigation and thus a more convenient lightning rod for discontent about quick publicity and slow results. This has gotten mixed up with rumors that you and Tommy know something or are advising the police or withholding information – here the stories get confused, you see. Further, there’s gossip that you and a research subject are … involved. Fueled by the news that we’re no longer living together.”

Even with such subject matter, his deft, precise analysis of facts could calm her.

He reflected a moment. “I’ve defended you, and not blindly. We both made mistakes; I behaved in a particularly ugly manner towards the last.” He seemed to want her to deny this. When she didn’t, he sighed. “You were – still are – under great pressure and what did I do? I reacted viciously. I see now that you would never be so flighty or fickle as to move right on to Tommy – whether or not there’s any hope of our getting back together. I also see that it wasn’t an easy or unmeasured decision for you to move out. This has been a time of revelations for me, I hope it’s been as fruitful for you. However, I’m not fishing for any kind of response. I didn’t intend to get into any of this, but I’ve been doing so much thinking about it; you know how I get.”

Incapable of moving, much less speaking, Clare stared at the turquoise moat tiles. Finally she said, “I haven’t been privy to any revelations. I can see we have a lot left to talk about, to sort out, but I can’t do that yet. I appreciate your defending me; at the same time I wish you wouldn’t. I’ll go back in my shell until the killer’s caught, then campus opinion won’t matter until I’m able to face it. God I hate them, haven’t they got anything better to do than …” She stopped short. It was of course herself she hated. Flighty, fickle, a coward, and a liar.

“The worst part of all is how we used to love a good rumor, ourselves.” They shared a sort of chuckle. “There is something you should be aware of. Bo Lantz was playing handball with Janet Robitaille and Sid Stein. And Sid mentioned, as though it were common knowledge, that because of some supposed long-standing hatred of Colton, and jealousy of Lalitha, if the police didn’t initially think you were such a frightened mousy type, they’d already have you locked up for those murders.”

“Oh. My. God.”

“Neither Bo nor Janet understood why Sid would spread such garbage. That’s one rumor you can ignore – no one will believe it. But you seem to have quite an enemy in Sid Stein. Do you have any idea why? I’ve rarely heard you mention him.”

Clare’s fingers scraped raw as she clutched the concrete, trying to stop the world from gyrating, her thoughts from flailing. How vindictive was Sid Stein? And why? Could it be Sid who had sent the black-markered notes? Or was he simply privy to Beaudine’s plans? Had Mrs. Bates told the truth? Would Clare be taken into custody soon? Would she then be safer than she was out here, where all she knew was how little she understood?

Robert was watching her with some alarm. “I shouldn’t have told you. It’s really nothing for you to concern yourself with right now, Clare.”

She had to make Robert stop staring. “I’m glad you told me. Well, ‘glad’ is the wrong word. I’ve got to get back, though. I’m – late meeting Tommy for testing. Thank you for being so honest with me.” Each new word sounded lamer than the last.

“I miss -” Robert cut himself off, with chagrin.

Clare touched his arm, then stood. “So do I,” she said softly, and realized it was true. She did miss his presence in her life. A new source of confusion, as though she needed any others. She waited for him to stand, too.

“I’ll just sit here for a while, I think. Good-bye, Clare.”

She headed off abruptly, feeling him watching her departure. She nearly ran to her office.

Tommy was standing outside her door, frowning. “Oh thank Christ,” she moaned, embracing him in full view of a group of lab coats down the hall. She nearly fell into her office. Tommy locked the door and joined her on the couch.

She told him what had transpired since they’d separated that morning. It took over an hour for her to relay the information, and for both of them to recover from it. Tommy’s distress about Bianca’s suffering threats while alone was nothing compared to his reaction now. Clare filed away this knowledge for some future time when she was capable of pleasure.

Eventually, they noted that the murderer could keep them from progressing without killing them: they could readily envision reaching a point where they so feared the next communiqué that they would be incapacitated. But for now, the package made them more determined to catch the bastard. And so they analyzed every aspect of Clare’s morning, concluding with Robert’s warnings. Clare suggested, “Mrs. Bates may have been telling the truth after all. It’s so insane. But it could be that Beaudine is about to arrest someone – me.”

“Or us. Since you’re the scared mousy type, I have to help you kill them.” Tommy was able to find this amusing, for a second.

“Somehow that’s strangely comforting.” She studied her hands. “Why were you so late? Bianca?”

He stopped petting her hair. “That’s putting it mildly.”

“About us?” She could feel his nod but couldn’t stop staring at her hands. “Do you want to tell me about it?”

He lay down with his head in her lap; perhaps this wasn’t intended to force her to look at him. “When I walked in she was on the phone, in real bad shape. She said, ‘Here he is now,’ hung up and then blammo. She started hysterical and took off from there. I’ve told you how she gets, you’ve seen little versions of it. Multiply that by the deficit, that’s how much worse this was. I didn’t have a lot to say in my own defense – nothing, to be exact – so I just listened. Watched. Ducked. I thought I was going to lose my mind when I called here to say I’d be late and Beaudine answered. Even though he said you were okay, all I wanted was to get over here right away, but at that point I couldn’t leave. I seriously believed she might kill herself – and Bianca has never been big on pain.” He squeezed his eyes shut.

Clare waited, then prompted, “I take it the situation improved.”

He kissed her stomach, sat up, entwined around her. “After I called here, everything changed. She talked real rationally about why I’d taken up with you, what was wrong with our marriage. Have to give her credit, she’s noticed more than I thought. But after I agreed with her and added a couple more points, she must’ve bawled for an hour. She wasn’t the only one watering the rug, either. Then she decided she needed to get away for a while and called her gym to get in on a trip they’re taking, some aerobics weekend sabbatical thing. At which point I got extremely pissed.”

“Because Andy’s going to be there?”

“No, no, because I couldn’t put my finger on how but I was sure she was faking, sure she’d decided to go way before now. I don’t know why she’d bother to pretend but it turned everything we’d just gone through into a game.”

“Not necessarily. I’d guess that she’s frightened, and wants to protect herself, but doesn’t want to admit that to you.”

“I can see that,” he said at length. “Guess she couldn’t play any scene totally straight. She’s always got to have that little edge. So. How was it seeing Robert?”

Clare heard his voice stiffen. She allowed herself a second’s clandestine satisfaction that Tommy was unsure of her response. “It was like running into somebody I used to sort of know but hadn’t seen in ages. Which made it strange that -” She stopped but not soon enough.

Tommy examined her face, searching for the whole truth as he waited for her to continue.

She hated Bianca for being a dissembler. It forced her to be otherwise. “I realized that, in some ways, I miss him too.”

Before he looked away, his eyes displayed empathy. And injury. “There’d be something wrong with you if you didn’t. If you could just walk away, not look back.”

They kissed, tentatively, then held one another, fiercely. There was a knock at the door “Who is it?” Clare called, unable to keep her voice from quavering.

“I’m looking for Dr. Maxwell,” an unidentifiable voice announced.

“Two doors down.” The footsteps receded but Clare felt no less exposed. “I haven’t seen anyone following us – not since the night Hugo questioned us. Do you think there could be a connection?”

“Probably, but don’t ask me. My brains don’t make connections. Think Beaudine will let us keep testing after he arrests us?”

“He won’t – he can’t arrest us. He couldn’t be that stupid.”

“He doesn’t have to be stupid. Hopeless and pressured would do it.”

“I still can’t believe he could convince himself we’re guilty.”

“Yeah. Me neither,” Tommy agreed slowly. “’Course, if he did bust us we wouldn’t have to go in there anymore.” He grimaced toward the lab. “Or out there.” He waved the world away.

“I appreciate your helping me look on the bright side.”

“There is one piece of good news. Bianca’s gone. Until Tuesday morning. So I don’t even have to go home to check in. Unless you want me to.”

“What do you think?”

He leaned over to his jacket, folded on the floor alongside the couch. He fished in a pocket, extracted a toothbrush, displayed with equal parts swagger and shyness. Then he pulled out a bottle that had been wrapped in the jacket. Champagne. “We’re going to solve the murders tonight so we can celebrate this weekend.”

“Or if not, at least we’ll have a consolation prize.”

“Hold on there, Clare. I’m the one who’s supposed to say stuff like that.”

“I’m just a little disappointed that Beaudine may intend to arrest us, that’s all.”

“We’ll prove him wrong. Or you will.” Tommy led her into the lab, after checking the deadbolt on the outside door. “I know I’ve ragged on you in the past but that was because I was afraid I’d let you down. We’ve been hitting the wall lately but you’ll break through it. We just can’t give up, that’s all.” He kissed her and sat her down at her testing station. “I was thinking about how you ask my right brain which body parts are more important. Maybe you should ask it which experiments to go further with, you know? Maybe you can get it to say, ‘getting warmer, getting colder.’”

“That’s definitely worth a try. Let’s finish up the test we started yesterday and I’ll think about how to do that.” A week ago, Clare would have been thrilled by yesterday’s results – by Tommy’s right brain decreeing that the killer was not a stranger, not a friend. But at this point she expected to dead end when she tried to determine who that not a stranger was.

Nevertheless, she dichotically ran through the short list of possibilities: “Is the killer in the hallway Mrs. Bates?Is Steve the killer?Is the killer Hugo?” rephrasing each question several times. Meanwhile, on the screen flashed YES or NO and Tommy pulled the levers to indicate his responses. NO every time, as he’d answered previously. Why had she even asked the questions again? Probably to avoid the results when she made a few weak grasps at new straws.

From their nighttime security escorts, she’d learned that Bruce the security guard had disappeared, right after he’d brought the fake cops to Clare’s office. “Bruce the security guard. Is he the killer?” NO.

Constance was spying on Clare and many of the papers she’d had out that morning involved the murder experiments. She wasn’t tall enough to be the one they’d encountered in the hall – but who knew if any of their data were correct? Therefore: “Did Constance have the knife in the hall?” NO.

Is Sid Stein the killer?” NO. Clare felt a pang of disappointment with that last negative response, but no surprise. Sid’s going out of his way to spread nasty rumors about her was not much evidence for murder.

Yesterday when she’d tested right brain comprehension of not a stranger, she’d overlooked one possible wrinkle. Tommy’s right hemisphere classified people never met nor seen as strangers. What about people he’d encountered but didn’t know? She motioned for him to remove the headset, while laying out YES and NO cards in reach of his left foot.

“I don’t want to take the time to make a tape to ask you these questions,” she said. “This new test has to do with the possibility that you are acquainted with the killer. I’m telling you this because I don’t want to waste time waiting for you to get mad, once the line of questioning becomes clear.” As hoped, he reacted with chagrin. The goal was to shame his left brain into remaining cooperative.

“Ready? Good. You’ll touch a card to answer each question. Is the man who attacked me in the parking lot a stranger?” NO. “So that man is not a stranger?” YES. “Is Lalitha not a stranger?” After a pause, his left foot tapped YES.

She asked a few more questions, confirming the wrinkle she’d previously overlooked: anyone that Tommy’s right brain had encountered, dead or alive, was no longer considered a stranger. “Put the headset back on, please, Tommy.”

For a long moment he seemed about to speak, but ultimately complied without a word. She queued the tape for her final prepared set of questions, variations on one theme: “Is the surfer attacker the killer?” These questions had been the toughest to prepare, because his right brain didn’t comprehend deranged, and long descriptive phrases like “the man who attacked Clare in the parking lot” caused technical problems, dichotically. However, she did believe she’d formulated at least three successful ways to ask the question. But each time, the answer was NO.

Clare fought an internal war: if she weren’t so ready to admit defeat, she’d be able to see new avenues to take; no, the answer would elude her no matter what. Meanwhile, operating via rote memory of clinical techniques, she asked Tommy’s right brain which lines of testing should be pursued further. She showed his right brain examples of each test they had done, then asked question after question, phrased and rephrased, about the usefulness of continuing each test. The YES and NO answers appeared on the tachistoscope. Dutifully, she recorded the hesitant, unenlightening and seemingly random responses his right brain gave by pulling the levers. Why she hid these answers from his left brain, she couldn’t say. Both his hemispheres were cooperative today. It was her brain that was causing the problems.

The fact is, she was giving up. She had given up yesterday, when even the Ouija board came to naught; but she was admitting it only now. At least the killer would be happy: no more threatening notes would be needed to get them to stop.

Tommy disrupted her brooding. “Uh, Clare. What’s going on with you?”

“Roadblock, stalemate, impasse. I’ve tried everything I know how to try. I don’t know what else to do. Most frustrating of all, I feel like the answer’s in here, somewhere.” She slapped her notebook. “But I can’t find it. I just can’t see it.”

“Maybe it’s not there. Maybe that’s why. Maybe my right brain doesn’t really know enough to give us a name, after all.”

According to her studies of his LEMs, he was confabulating. Which should she distrust, her admittedly shaky LEMs data or Tommy? In lieu of screaming, she started to cry.

From across the room he reached for her and without drawing nearer she felt his touch. “Would it help if we went through your notes together?”

It hadn’t done any good to hide them from his left brain. “I don’t see that it could hurt, anyway.” She dragged her chair and notes over to his table.

For the next few hours, they went through them all, line by line by page by page. So much data; how could it add up to so little? Here and there Tommy would find an interpretation she hadn’t considered; she would formulate a few more questions; his right brain would make a few more inscrutable replies. By the time they reached the last page, Tommy was astonished she’d discovered so much without his awareness; and impressed with her ingenuity. She was glad he still thought well of her, but it didn’t mitigate the reality: her cleverness had gotten them nowhere.

She closed the notebook. He took her hand and they stared at the back cover. “I might come up with something else to try, later. But this is definitely it for now. As Dr. Colton told me when my first big research project fell apart, sometimes straight lines lead to labyrinths, and sometimes those mazes have no exit but your starting point, and sometimes you’re lucky to even make it back to that point.”

“Terminate.” Tommy went around the lab shutting off equipment. “Sometimes you can build your own mazes, too. We’re taking the weekend off. Pack your bags, woman, we’re moving on.”

Getting away from the lab lost some appeal when they called for a guard escort. A water main had burst over in Engineering and all available guards were involved. It would be at least ninety minutes before an escort could be freed.

It was only five o’clock – just turning dark. And the guards were congregated halfway between Clare’s lab and her car. So they opted against waiting for an escort.

For Clare, the journey to the parking lot was a tour of murder and failure. No longer feeling she had purpose in Neurobiology, with every step she felt Colton’s bloody carpet tugging at her shoes. Once outside, over there in that courtyard was where she’d last spoken with Lalitha, along with Mrs. Bates. It was the penultimate time Clare had seen the hair clip. Just up there were the koi ponds where pieces of Larry’s corpse had been scattered. Ah, there was her Nova. She hadn’t thought she could make it this far. Her strength was eroding, her nerve had failed her. Even her fear was no longer accessible. As they had walked, she had sensed Tommy’s alertness to that echoing step behind them; his awareness of each long shadow shifting beside them. But she had been incapable of paying heed, herself.

“We made it,” Tommy announced to the parking lot.

“Now what?” Clare asked, as Tommy waited for her to unlock her car. She was having trouble finding her keys. He took her purse, shook it, gave it back to her to hold while he dug his good hand in and extracted her keys. When she continued to stand there, he unlocked her door and helped her get inside. “Now you drive me to my car,” he said softly, touching her cheek.

They drove separately to her apartment. Tommy gestured for her to park behind Beaudine’s watcher, then drove her to a supermarket to buy supplies: groceries, wine, condoms, coffee; and a catnip mouse for Jessie. Back at Clare’s he instructed her to put away the supplies while he fed Jess and started dinner. Then he reluctantly assigned her food preparation chores – he couldn’t chop and dice with one hand.

Clare gladly put herself on automatic and obeyed Tommy’s commands. Not thinking yet keeping busy was exactly what she needed; by the time they were sitting down to a dinner of wine and pasta, she was refreshed emotionally and had regrouped mentally. Most restorative of all was the realization that Tommy had figured out what she needed; and also sensed when to stop playing commander. By the time she was restored, he’d resumed being a partner, not a boss.

They did the dishes then adjourned to the couch, to sip wine, kiss, and watch Jessie harass the catnip mouse. To convince themselves that no other reality existed.

The phone rang. Tommy flipped a coin and it came up heads, meaning Clare did have to answer. It was Mrs. Manning, who chastised Clare for making her call 411 to get her new tenant’s number. (How nice. The phone company had now listed Clare’s new unlisted phone number.) But that wasn’t why Mrs. Manning was calling. There was a Lieutenant Beaudine downstairs, wanting to see Clare but unable to reach her, due to the iron gate, which he wouldn’t allow Mrs. Manning to unlock for him.

“Are you here to arrest us?” Clare greeted Beaudine, reassured to see his obligatory sidekick look briefly amused.

“Should I be?”

Clare responded, “Would either of you like some wine? Coffee? Here, at least let me clear you a seat.” Seeing the room through Beaudine’s eyes, she was humiliated. It was messier now than it had been the night of the break-in and Hugo’s advent.

“What can we do for you?” Tommy inquired once the cops were off their feet. Beaudine’s eyebrow raised at the “we.” Clare took a quick gulp of wine.

“From whom did you hear the rumors of your impending arrest?” Beaudine kept shifting his gaze from Clare’s eyes to hands to jaw to eyes, until Jessie sprinted across his shoes. He glanced at the cat and this gave Clare private time to formulate her answer.

“I pieced them together, actually. I’d heard bits of information from Constance; from Robert – Dr. di Marchese; for that matter, from a variety of people around campus. First I heard you were close to making an arrest, then that the motive was an old grudge, then that people were claiming, falsely, that I’d been feuding with Dr. Colton for years. It all seemed to add up to your targeting me.”

Beaudine grunted and scrutinized Tommy. “Any new accidents?”

Tommy shook his head. “We’re not being followed anymore, either. Or they’re getting a lot sneakier at it.”

“How’s the research going?”

“Moving along,” Tommy said, at the same time Clare replied,

“Dead ended.”

Beaudine looked from one to the other, sagely. “How’s the police investigation going?” Tommy inquired politely.

“The same,” he admitted, then smiled inscrutably as he noted the look of surprise they exchanged at his apparent forthrightness. He and the sidekick stood.

“That’s it? That’s all you wanted to ask? Why did you come here?” Clare kept revising – trying to sound chummy, not suspicious – with poor results.

“We were in the neighborhood.” He opened the front door.

“What have you found out about the latest note?”

“We never know anything this soon.” He shut the door behind him.

The iron grill snapped shut downstairs. “What the hell was that about?” Clare demanded of the room at large.

Jessie batted the fraying mouse back into view, pounced, found a weak point and ripped it open. Catnip flew. She alternated wallowing in the crumbled twigs and shredding the gray fabric casing. “I know exactly how that mouse feels,” Tommy said.

Clare got the wine bottle from the kitchen and refilled their glasses. “Let’s pretend he didn’t happen.” She looked around the room and sighed. Somehow the shredded cat toy made the whole mess unbearable.

“Tomorrow we’re moving you in,” Tommy vowed. “Tonight, we’re forgetting everything happened. Except this.” He gave her a long deep kiss, guaranteed to produce amnesia. Then she took his hand and led him into the bedroom.

Undressing one another, they set a slowness record. Although now more adept at removing each other’s clothing, they also took more time to kiss and caress each inch of flesh exposed. Sensation built upon sensation until Clare was no longer aware whether they were standing or prone, whether Tommy was licking her wrist or kissing her breast. She could taste his voice, feel his scent enveloping her, see her own love and pleasure mirrored in his eyes. Gradually, eventually, the sensations began to recede and separate, until she was aware of him lying beside her, fingers stroking her arm, exhalations tickling her ear.

He whispered her name as though it was a secret they shared. She shifted to look at him, a laugh or sob catching in her throat. “I’m going to nod off any second,” he said apologetically.

“So am I,” she assured him. He rolled onto his back, she helped him straighten his sling, then shut off the light and lay beside him. He found her hand, entwined her fingers, threw one leg over hers. “Lucid dreaming exercises,” she reminded him.

“I thought you were giving up on our investigation,” he teased.

“Oh. I forgot.” She considered. “Well do them anyway.”

“Yes master. Although there’s no way I’m going to be dreaming about murder tonight. I’m going to dream I’m the size of an ant spending my life wandering around on …” She waited for him to finish, instead heard his breathing grow more shallow and regular. He was asleep. And she had lied – she was nowhere near joining him.

Without Tommy to distract her, she started thinking: about their failed investigation, her encounter with Robert, Beaudine’s visit, Bianca’s weekend away. With each new topic, restlessness grew, for looming behind each of these unpleasant thoughts were other, unthinkable ones. She wanted to get up and pace, but if she did she’d awaken Tommy. Damn, she was going to be awake all night. Panicky, she cut off new thoughts as they began to sprout, but newer ones kept replacing them. She tried to mimic Tommy’s breathing. That helped a bit. She reviewed their activities before he’d fallen asleep, and that helped a little more. Jessie jumped onto the bed and settled purring alongside Clare’s ear. The rhythmic rumbling filled her head and at last she drifted off, counting kisses.

 

Come morning, she awakened feeling delirious, realized Tommy was kissing her knees, working his way up from her toes. Jessie sat on Clare’s other side, watching somberly. “Good morning,” Tommy greeted her and went back to work, then stopped, meeting Jessie’s gaze. “Jessie, do you mind? It’s really rude to stare.”

A few more halfhearted kisses and he looked at Jessie again. “We have two options,” Clare informed him. “Get used to it or get up and feed her. It won’t do any good to shoo her away, she’ll come back. If we shut her out she’ll scratch at the door.”

Tommy jumped out of bed, took Clare’s hand, drew her up to stand beside him. “So let’s go feed the little assbite.”

They escorted each other to the kitchen. Clare poured food and Tommy set it down, then petted Jessie with sarcasm and affection. On their way back to the bedroom, Clare remembered she had to change Jessie’s water. Reluctantly, Tommy let her go, then upon her return, ambushed and tackled her onto the couch, to make love while laughing – and shivering in the unheated room.

Afterward, they lay smiling and shivering. “Why are you staring at my leg?” Clare inquired.

“Thousands of goosebumps on this thigh alone.” Tommy jumped up to turn on the heat, returned to announce, “I have to kiss you for every bump. One.” Kiss. “Two.” Kiss. They were in the twenties when, “Uh oh I lost count. Guess I’ll have to start over.”

“Don’t bother counting – every time you kiss me I get more bumps anyway. We’ll never catch up.”

“Cool,” Tommy started kissing her again frantically, until she was laughing so hard she was gasping. Then they lay quietly, inhaling the other’s exhales.

When he started humming, she asked eagerly, “What are you singing?”

“‘Got me a lady doctor, she cures the pain for free, mm mmm mm lady doctor, no there ain’t nothing wrong with me,’” he sang suggestively.

Clare was mortified. “Oh. I thought it would be a clue.”

“Ha! The will to investigate returns.”

“I wouldn’t say that, but – oh. Did you have any dreams?” He shook his head and darkened until she kissed him lightly. “Let’s not think about it. Any of it. Let’s just pretend this weekend will last forever.” Which got her thinking about Bianca. She turned away from him. “I could use some coffee.”

After caffeine and food, they commenced housecleaning and unpacking. Clare hadn’t brought much with her but it took hours to put it away – Tommy had to examine every item as though it contained the key to her soul. At some points she cringed at his discovery of her secret banalities, at other points she relished his interest.

During these enterprises they remained naked, with which Clare gradually grew comfortable, for it was obvious that Tommy was embarrassed too; and despite such discomforts, it made even housekeeping erotic.

In fact they didn’t get dressed again for three days, Clare realized in retrospect, although during that period she lost all track of time. They kept the curtains closed and the lights on while they made love and lay around together; cooked and ate; played with Jessie. Clare hadn’t noticed how nervous the cat had been these last few weeks, until she realized that now Jessie was behaving like the old Jess.

“Know what this feels like?” Tommy asked at one point, as they sprawled on the living room floor going through Clare’s childhood photo album, exchanging questions and answers about their pasts. “When I was a kid there was this orchard behind our house where I’d build tent forts and hide out. Cardboard and sheets over branches, a little breeze and the fort blew down, but me ‘n’ Dick would lie in there and tell everything we knew. I never felt so close to anybody – until now.”

Tuesday a big wind would hit their tent. “I didn’t realize you and Dick had been friends all your lives.”

He looked disappointed at this response but replied, “Not so much these days, like I explained before. Although a few months ago when Ilsa kicked him out, Bianca was away and we stayed up talking all night and that was great.”

“Ilsa kicked Dick out? I can’t even imagine them fighting.” This news upset her inordinately. Once again, she’d been completely wrong in an assessment.

“Man they’ve separated so many times. They keep going back and trying some more, though. Gotta hand it to them, they don’t give up.”

This made them both very quiet. “I hate thinking of them fighting,” Clare said at last. “I hardly know them but somehow I was setting them up as – a goal, in some way.”

“I get that. When it’s working between them it really works.” He touched her chin, forcing her to look at him. “I’ve got different goals though.” He kissed her hard, as though to suffocate all her doubts.

They returned to Clare’s baby pictures, with Tommy delivering a running commentary. “Here she is, queen of the first grade. I’ve got to have a copy of that one. Uh oh, storm warnings. ‘Give me another new toy or else!’ Hey, I like the shorts here. You could fit three kids in each leg. Look at those eyes, you were hot stuff before you could walk. I’ll need a print of that one, too.” They moved into more recent albums and he got progressively quieter. The last page of photos, he studied a long time. Clare decorating last year’s Christmas tree, herself festooned with strings of lights to keep them above Jessie’s reach as she looped them around the tree.

She sensed something was wrong but couldn’t imagine what. “Don’t tell me you want copies of those, too. They’re not even in focus.”

“I missed out on so much of your life.” He shut the album, stared at the back cover.

“I understand why that bothers you. I guess I’m not as affected because I’m so much older than you are, I’ve seen so many more years.”

He yelled and pinned her to the carpet, using both legs and his one arm. “Give. Me. A. Break. Next you’ll be telling me you count wrinkles every morning when you get up. Then I break every mirror in the house. With your head,” he concluded with mock violence.

“No I don’t. Really.” He released her, looking satisfied. “I can’t count that high,” she added with a giggle that turned to a shriek as he tickled her ferociously. “Stop. Stop. When I laugh I get more wrinkles. No! Please please stop I was joking.”

He unpinned her and they lay panting and laughing, eyes locked. His expression changed and she had to look away. When she looked back, he was still watching. “What?” she demanded, feeling exposed.

He stretched out beside her, still staring. “You’re the best thing I ever laid eyes on,” he whispered. “You don’t believe me – I can see it in your face. But I’ll make you see it too, Clare. I will.”

She was incapable of response. They lay side by side for an indeterminate time, eventually slipping into sleep.

The phone rang. “What time is it?” Clare jumped upright.

“What day is it?” Tommy responded.

“I think it’s Sunday morning because Jessie’s had four meals since we got here.”

Lacking a coin, Tommy flipped a book. Once again they lost the toss and Clare answered.

“Dr. Austen? It’s Steve. Your old assistant?”

“Yes Steve, I remember you. Where the hell are you? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.” She supposed she couldn’t hope he’d confess he’d left town because he’d committed a few murders; but in any event, she’d get less information out of him if she attacked. “You disappeared so quickly, I was concerned.”

“Once I decided to leave school I had to avoid my uncle – I knew he’d be very, very angry. He wants me to go to medical school but I really don’t want to. In my typical fuck up fashion I didn’t admit it until two weeks before graduation.”

Both his self-hatred and his fear sounded genuine. “I think I understand. May I ask why you’re calling?”

“I heard how you were looking for some slides, I’m really sorry about that. I know the ones you mean. I dropped their box so I brought them home to put them back in order, then gave them to my girlfriend but I guess she hasn’t had a chance to bring them to you yet. I want to give you her phone number in case you need to ask me anything else but that’s not why I’m calling. I didn’t want to bother you at home but I can never reach you at school I’m calling to ask you a favor but -”

He sounded like he needed permission to continue. “I’ll help if I can,” she said.

“Could you ask Constance not to call me anymore? She’s been calling my uncle too, the last couple days, all the time. I don’t know what she wants but it’s really causing problems. He doesn’t know yet that I left school.”

“Is that why you want to give me her number? I think this is something the two of you should sort out, Steve. It’s not good to have your professor try to fix a lovers’ quarrel.”

Steve spluttered, first in confusion, then in disgust. “You think Constance is my girlfriend?”

It was Clare’s turn to be confused. “You mean she’s not?”

“No, my girlfriend’s name is Sally. She’s a lit major at PCC.” He said this as though science majors were a lower life form; and Pasadena City College was far more honorable than his own privately endowed, world-renowned university.

“Has Constance tried to reach you prior to the last few days?”

“No. Do you know what she wants?”

“I caught her going through my files and she told me you’d asked her to spy on me.” Steve’s shock and outrage sounded even more genuine than his previous self-hatred and fear. “I suspect she’s been calling to ask you to confirm her story, in case I talked to you.” After a few moments, Clare interrupted his protestations of innocence. “I believe you, Steve! I believe you!”

“I knew I should’ve never let her sub for me but she was so insistent and I needed to get away but no one else could do it and I didn’t want to leave you without -”

“Stop right there. She was insistent about getting your job? Why?”

“I – I didn’t ask. I’m sorry, Dr. Austen, but I didn’t know she’d cause problems. I’m sorry for everything.” He babbled on.

“Steve. It’s okay, Steve. Truly. Why don’t you give me Sally’s phone number and I’ll see what I can do with Constance. Although I can’t promise anything. She may avoid me now that I’ve caught her in the act.” Steve recited his girlfriend’s number. “You might try calling Constance back, you know.”

“She won’t leave a number. I tried the number she left you for emergencies but it’s not in service. I don’t know her last name but -”

“Steve. This may be important. Did Constance start pressuring you for your job before or after Dr. Colton was murdered? Which was two weeks ago Friday.”

He thought a minute. “It was that same weekend. I remember because I was watching a TV news crew standing on Hill Street reporting about the murder with the school as a background. She came up to me then.” Clare was silent, trying to discern the import of this. “Dr. Austen? If you don’t have any more questions – I’m calling long distance and -”

“Of course, Steve. I’ll let you go. Don’t let your uncle push you around, med school’s definitely the wrong place to be if you don’t want to be a doctor.”

Tommy was on the couch, waiting for details. Hearing them, he whistled and shook his head, and agreed they’d have to find out more about Constance. “Should we call Beaudine?” she wondered.

“I want to say yes but if we do, it’s that much weirder that we’re always finking about Constance but hiding the files Mrs. Bates stole.”

“On the other hand, there’s a two-wrongs-don’t-make-a-right argument to be made.”

They debated it a bit longer, then Clare put in calls to Beaudine. The police station and his home both asked if her call was urgent. “I – don’t think so but I can’t say; he might want to talk to me sooner rather than later,” Clare replied. The message takers took this down verbatim and warned that she probably wouldn’t hear from him before tomorrow afternoon.

Thanks to Steve’s intrusion, Clare and Tommy discussed the murders a bit – and even tried a few tests. All were variations on old themes: “Is Constance the killer?” NO. “Is the killer in the hall Steve?” NO. The tests led nowhere.

Without further discussion, they resumed enjoying their idyll – although unable to enjoy it as fully, now that the end loomed near.

Go to next chapter.

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