Chapter 15. The Falling Sickness

Monday morning, reality intruded severely. Clare’s alarm jarred them awake and she could only afford two lingering kisses before she was late for her two classes. Since the discovery of the grisly note, the campus now felt like the killer’s domain, and neither looked forward to her venturing there alone. But Clare didn’t want Tommy to accompany her to class; and she was sure she’d be safe: she’d park in the loading zone just outside the lecture hall, and come right back.

When she returned in the early afternoon, they had a day and a half idyll time left if they didn’t sleep – Bianca wouldn’t return before ten tomorrow morning – but it seemed like only seconds remained. She ran from her car, provoking the usual apathetic stare from Beaudine’s watcher. Upstairs, she found Tommy reading with a frown. He’d gotten dressed so she remained clothed too; and tried not to read meaning into his frown.

“How’d the teaching go? Anyone follow you?”

“No one. And I spent both classes watching all my students wondering whether I’m capable of four murders. Well. ‘All’ might be an exaggeration. But when I referred to subject Tom Q, the whispering got pretty thick. One of my aides told me he’d heard a discussion about what tools I’d needed to cut Larry into pieces. If I thought it would teach those little snakes anything, I’d take it out in their grades.” After he laughed unconvincingly, she was forced to note, “You look awfully glum.”

“Beaudine returned your calls. I didn’t want to answer your phone so I just picked up, didn’t say anything until I heard his voice. Made him bitchier than usual. When I told him what Steve said he acted like we’re trying to fuck with him. Pissed me off so bad, I told him maybe he ought to start hanging out in a lab coat to get closer to the killer.”

“Oh dear.”

“He thanked me for my continuing interest in the investigation. Fucker jacks off so much his head is full of. Ah, forget it.” He pulled her closer but remained separate.

“Something else is bothering you.”

“I dozed off. I think. It was like I dreamed I was dreaming. And I woke up feeling really shitty, maximum nightmare feeling.”

“Do you remember the dream?”

“I was playing a gig. Robert was in the audience, dancing, totally in a groove, man was he hot. Then he looked through this telescope and I could see through his eyes. I wasn’t playing some dive club stage anymore, but an arena – smoke machines, light show, the works. The telescope turned into a cannon, he started firing these balls that hit the stage and splattered. The balls weren’t balls though, they were heads, still alive, howling: Colton, Lalitha, Larry. Then I knew your head was next and I must have screamed because Jessie hasn’t let me near her, since.”

“It sounds terrifying. How do you interpret it?”

“Shit, I dunno. Robert’s the right height but -”

“Robert can’t be a killer! Robert is not the killer!”

“Don’t yell at me, I know that. Lately I’ve been hating him because he got to spend four years with you, that’s got to be where it came from. But it makes me sick that my dream machinery turns jealousy into – that.”

Could there be another interpretation? If so, it eluded her too.

They resumed pretending the world didn’t exist; although for Clare, it now took effort to pretend – more so because she sensed Tommy making similar effort at times. Late that night, when they returned to the bedroom, she was unable to get lost during their lovemaking. Whenever she glanced beyond Tommy at a wall, the ceiling, a pillow, she started extrapolating to other walls, more ceilings – the world outside.

“What’s wrong?”

She’d always yearned for a man who sensed her every mood, but it proved to be a liability at times: some moods, she wanted to hide. “The light’s a little bright, once it’s off I’ll be fine.”

“Here, swap places, it won’t be in your eyes then.”

“No, then you’ll be lying on your bad arm. I’ll just turn this off.” She reached for the lamp’s switch.

“No!” He spoke so roughly he frightened her. “Ah shit. I don’t like to talk about it because it makes me feel like a freak. But sex in the dark – it’s too disorienting. Each half of my body’s getting these rushes of feelings but I’m not quite sure what they are, sometimes not even where they’re coming from. If I can look around, I can keep it from getting too extreme.”

“I had no idea. Let’s move the lamp further away then.” Embarrassed, Tommy got up to do so. “Everyone should be such a freak, you know. Your paying such close attention, concentrating every second, explains why this has been so – intense.”

Tommy sat on the bed’s edge, pulled her up to join him. “That is not why our being together is ‘intense,’ you moron.” After a time he stopped kissing her. “Where’d you go?”

“Now I feel like a freak. I was just wondering if any of my other split brainers have the same experience; and how to test it in the lab.”

He feigned a bow and said gleefully, “It’s a privilege to inspire new experiments. Just remember this moment the first time you catch me thinking about new lyrics.”

“As if I’d forget this.” She drew him down to join her.

 

They’d intended to stay up all night, yet the alarm caught them intertwined and asleep. Groggily, Clare stumbled out of bed, hunting her small clock, which had fallen under the bed frame. Tommy fumbled to the window and pulled the curtain. Harsh sunlight emphasized the thickness of the window bars, the cracks in the walls, the stains on the sheets, the puffiness around his eyes. (No doubt hers looked even worse.) Tuesday morning had arrived.

There was time for coffee, kisses, and separate showers before they had to walk each other outside – where Beaudine’s watcher was nowhere to be seen.

“Maybe he went to get coffee.”

“Perhaps the lieutenant has made an arrest.”

“Whatever it means, I don’t like it.”

They couldn’t sustain a good-bye kiss. And Tommy slammed his fingers in his car door. “Welcome to Tuesday,” he grimaced. They promised each other they’d be alert and careful. And then they drove off in opposite directions.

Once at school, Clare couldn’t bear pacing her lab alone, not thinking about the killer, not imagining Tommy welcoming Bianca home. So she busied herself trying to locate Constance instead. Fortunately, Clare hadn’t had time to turn in Constance’s new-hire paperwork. Even if some information in it was false, she should find enough that was true to locate the girl.

It took fifteen minutes of going through the files to convince herself. The paperwork was missing. And without it, Clare didn’t even know her too-clever assistant’s last name.

Trying to seem casual about it all, Clare strolled into the Biology office. Fortunately, the secretary had no curiosity regarding this professor’s recent recurring interest in the department records. She didn’t care who did what, as long as they let her punch out on time. Unfortunately, the secretary was at a loss to find a student by first name only. True, it was an unusual first name, but the secretary didn’t know how to get the computer to do a first-name sort. Yes, Clare could obtain a roster of all enrolled biology students, but not right away: fill out these forms, then check back tomorrow.

Next, from Administration, Clare determined that no Constance was an honor student; nor an award, grant, or scholarship recipient. Then she gave up. She didn’t have the stamina to make further forays around the campus today. The balance of tension was shifting; locking herself in her office now appealed.

She was at her desk staring at her notes, searching for a reason to continue their testing, when someone walked up to her door. She waited for a knock. Or for the someone to keep walking. At last she called, “Who’s there?”

“It’s – me.”

“Robert. Um. Come in.” Holding tightly to the doorframe, she was loath to relinquish its support. Robert mistook her hesitation before widening the doorway; or perhaps he didn’t.

He remained in the hall. “At the risk of pushing my luck – or pushing you – is there a chance we could get together and talk?”

“Please. Don’t stand out there.” She retreated to her desk chair. He shut the door behind him, waited an awkward moment, sat on a few inches of couch. Today seeing him lacked the shock of the first time; in fact, she felt angry. “Why the hell did you call Norelle?” she demanded, with instant regrets – she wanted no confrontation.

“I was genuinely concerned, but not thinking clearly. It was a stupid decision. As soon as I hung up, I remembered what you’d gone through before with Bernie. Although my intentions were quite different – or I believe them to be.” When this seemed to assuage her, he sighed. They studied the floor for a moment. “How’s Jessie?”

“Fine. Adjusting to the move.” Against her will, Tommy’s dream flickered through her thoughts. “Oh. I meant to mention this before – you know that T-shirt we used to joke about, ‘I uncovered the mysteries of the universe and all I got was this crummy shirt’?” His look was blank. “Don’t you remember, we’d periodically get that junk mail offer for the video series?”

His puzzlement continued to seem genuine. Not for a nanosecond did Clare observe even the slightest indication that the mailer provoked a recent memory. Surely if he had left that note, he –

She was suspecting Robert of four brutal murders. And he had no idea, as he sat there looking wistful and sad; and thoroughly ill at ease. “It’s good to see you,” she tried to make amends.

“I suspect it’s Thanksgiving coming up that made me stop by here.”

She nodded. They’d first met preceding a Thanksgiving and had always made that anniversary a special time. “I know. I’ve been aware of it, too. But to make a special effort to sort things out this week – that’s not a commemoration I want.” And of course, she was hoping to spend at least part of the holiday with Tommy.

“I don’t want a wrap-up, a final chapter, but that would be preferable to being a loose end, wafting around. Give me a minute, I’ll see if I can mix any more metaphors.”

“It is time to talk.” Her forcefulness surprised they both. It was time to tell him about Tommy, to stop his harboring false hopes that –

The door swung open. “Hey Robert,” Tommy said woodenly; Robert returned the greeting even more stiffly. Tommy looked from Robert to Clare. “I can come back later.”

Robert stood hastily. “I’m on my way out.”

“How’ve you been?” Tommy edged around him, sat on the far end of the couch.

“This time of year, my main concern is dread about grading the finals my students are feeling dread about taking.”

They continued their effort at social repartee while Clare fought a desire to flee. To keep running, forever. Because Tommy had entered her office, even before seeing Robert, as though heading for an execution; and there was more than politeness in Tommy’s grasps at conversation, at keeping Robert in the room.

“Robert,” Clare interrupted. He looked at her, Tommy looked everywhere but. “Why don’t we meet for coffee at the Bar later? Say about four?”

“I’d like that. Very much. I’ll see you then. Good luck, Tommy.”

“Say what?”

“With your testing today.”

“Okay. Yeah. Watch out for those finals.” But Robert was already gone.

She rearranged papers on her desk. “Clare. If you keep sitting over there I’m gonna go out of both my minds. Coming up the hall and hearing his voice in here. Ow!” He’d thrown his head back to rest on the couch, overshot and hit the wall.

What a fool she was. Nothing had changed. She went to join him, pausing to lock the door en route. “Robert needs to talk to me and it’s not fair to keep putting him off.”

“Sure. I get that. It’s cool.”

“I take it Bianca got home safely.”

“She’s home, anyway. Had a great time this weekend, Andy was there too and he’s so much fun to be around, she spent all her time with him, blah blah blah. She got real disappointed when I didn’t react.”

“If you can’t come over tonight I understand. I could postpone with Robert so we can see each other longer this afternoon.”

“No don’t do that.” His haste to say this filled her once more with fear. “I have to leave by three. Holiday’s coming up, you know, and we’re supposed to drive to her folks’ place in Phoenix. We’re leaving today.”

“Ah. You didn’t mention that. Before.”

“I thought I could get out of it. Put her on a plane – her folks would spring for the ticket. But she went nuts when I mentioned not going, making her face the questions about why I’m not there. Add that to my not caring that she’s fucking Andy Stuart and – I have to go, I owe it to her. You see that, don’t you?” He let her draw away from him, followed her with his eyes.

“Does her fucking Andy Stuart have anything to do with your decision?”

He sounded surprised. “No. Not at all.”

“Are you going to. Sleep with your wife? On this trip?”

“I’m going to be missing you on this trip. The whole time.”

“That’s not an ans -”

“No! Is my answer.”

“What if she goes nuts again when you refuse her? Surely you owe her that much, too.”

“Don’t do this, Clare.”

She nodded as though “this” were her doing. She nodded because now she could see their last few glorious days together were not enough. He preferred discomfort, fights, and misunderstandings with Bianca.

He exhaled as though the matter were resolved. “I don’t want you by yourself when I’m gone. Can you and Jessie go somewhere? Where do your folks live?”

“My mother lives back East, she can’t fly and neither can Jessie. I don’t know where my father is.”

Tommy looked confused, no doubt recalling her alleged shopping quest for matching parental presents. “Can you get a friend to stay with you?”

“Lalitha’s dead. My other true friend is on sabbatical in the South Pacific. Anyone else I might know is strictly a career acquaintance.”

“There must be someone who -”

“I’ll find a solution. Don’t worry about it.”

“But you won’t stay by yourself?”

“No. Stop pestering me.”

“I don’t believe you, that’s why I’m. Aw shit. Maybe Bianca should call her folks, call the whole trip off.”

“I supposed I could stay with Robert.” Clare lost all hope when Tommy nodded as though this wasn’t the worst idea he’d ever heard. To hide her despair, she made a point of checking her watch. “It’s nearly two-thirty. I’m late for an appointment at Administration. I had to be so pushy to get it, I really must go.”

They stood. “I’ll be back Monday morning. Let me give you her parents’ number.”

How fascinating; he’d written it down for her before arriving, now produced it from the same jacket pocket in which he’d stored his toothbrush while Bianca was out of town.

He walked her over to the Administration building. When she was sure he was gone, she returned to her office, gathered her things and sleepwalked to her car.

Without any memory of the drive, she found herself parking on Raymond Street and heading around back through the alley to the Espresso Bar, a seedy relic of the beat era, dimly lit with baroque Chinese lanterns, heated only by the smoky fireplace and the patrons’ noisy discussions of art, politics, and romantic prospects.

She was forty minutes early but Robert was already there. She ordered a double cappuccino and brought the glass mug to his table beside the stolid upright piano.

In case she looked like she felt, she opened with an excuse. “We’ve reached such an impasse with our work. I’m so discouraged.” A lot of time got killed answering his questions about the murder investigation. She even dragged out her notebook, though it was uncomfortable, sitting close together to review the pages.

As soon as the notes were perused, their chairs scraped farther apart again, and he allowed, “I don’t know what else you might try. But maybe I’ll think of something later.”

“If anyone can find a new angle, it will be you.”

“I had a slew of serious topics to discuss – one of my mental checklists, you know those. But now I don’t feel like tackling point one.”

“I could use some good random conversation.”

After some clumsy beginnings, they were able to talk about this and about that, nothing personal yet rarely superficial. They talked through a second round of coffee, then ran out of steam as they warmed their hands on glass mugs number three. Clare stirred the cinnamon into the milk froth, stirred, stirred.

“How’ve you been?” Robert asked softly.

“Adjusting to the move. Not as quickly as Jessie, but I think I made the right decision.” When he blinked then looked away, “I don’t want you to disappear from my life though. Which I didn’t acknowledge until I ran into you the other day.”

“All you’ve said applies equally to me. Except I – acknowledged before that day. But I’m primarily thankful that we can already do this.” His wave indicated their afternoon at the Bar. “I was afraid it wouldn’t be possible until much later.”

“I know,” Clare murmured into her coffee, took too big a swallow, coughed.

“I could use some dinner. How about you?”

“I’m really not hungry. Whereas Jessie is sure to be.”

“Some other time then.” He wanted to finish his coffee fast but it was still too hot.

“Would you like to see where Jessie and I live?”

He considered as though assessing the risks in a dangerous enterprise. Finally, “Yes. Yes I would.”

He was stunned by the outside security features, speechless when she explained the need for them. The mirrors by her door amused him, until she said, “Tommy installed those so I could see if anyone was hiding up here.”

“Ingenious.” He didn’t voice reaction to the news that Tommy had visited her new abode.

Jessie was skittish at first, then refused to leave Robert’s lap for the evening’s duration. He petted her as though the world would end if he stopped.

To Clare, Tommy’s presence in the apartment was palpable. But each glass of wine better enabled her to cope, and sip by sip she was more aware of the present than the past. Robert’s reasons for refilling his own glass each time would have to be his own business.

Despite such tensions, it was so easy talking with Robert, that ultimately she nearly almost enjoyed herself. He seemed pleased, as well, until he realized simultaneously that it was well past midnight and he could barely walk, much less drive.

Coffee rendered them alert drunks. Robert kept gulping more and looking worse. “This is stupid,” Clare finally decreed. “We’re so scared of giving each other the wrong idea. When the obvious solution is for you to sleep on the couch.”

“I couldn’t stand to.” He shook his head violently. “No. You’re right. I’ll stay.”

What are we trying to prove? Clare could dimly wonder, in her alcoholic haze. And even more dimly feel disdain. What adults we are. How rational. How thick-skinned.

She brought Robert two blankets then retreated to her bedroom, quickly shutting the door. The room still reeked of sex and this was not the time nor the way for him to learn she’d betrayed by omission, in failing to mention her fling with Tommy.

She lay in the dark clutching Jessie, aching to be with Tommy, aching in a much different way to keep Robert from being hurt further. Her head throbbed, her heart thudded. So moronic to drink so much. If she lay very still the room tilted; but if she kept moving Jessie would leave – and the cat’s warmth and softness were all that kept reality from spinning out of control, away from Clare. So she let the room tilt, fought against retching, and gradually passed into unconsciousness.

Searing pain yanked her back from dreams. Fingers touched her shoulder, felt wetness. Blood. Ears heard noise under the bed: scrabbling then silence.

Something had startled Jessie, Clare realized dazedly, causing her to scratch Clare’s shoulder inadvertently as she darted away, to scrabble for safety under the bed. But what? Clare lay very still, listening, but heard only her own galloping heartbeat. The shoulder pain was a welcome localization of discomfort. Her body was stuffed with greasy cotton. She was moving from drunk to hung over, so some hours had elapsed, though the air was still dark.

There – outside. Faint then fainter rustling. Something was climbing the brief weedy incline that connected the back of the apartment complex to the street. She held her breath, strained her ears but divined nothing more. Robert was out sleeping on the Hide-A-Bed so they’d had another fight and he’d even gone out to buy cigs – they must have had a major blowout. No. This wasn’t their apartment, she was in a different life now. Robert never smoked anymore, anyway, even when maximumly upset. And no brand of tobacco produced that acrid afterscent, growing ever stronger.

Smoke. The room was filling with smoke. Fire! She leaped out of bed onto the floor, which hours later she would recall as being almost too hot to touch. She groped, found Jessie, tried to drag the cat out from under the bed. “Damn it Jessie, come on!” Clare yelled, which did not make the cat more willing to release claws from carpet.

Clare tugged harder, fell backward with Jessie in her arms. Rising, she pressed the wriggling terrified animal close, used precious seconds to stand still, murmuring soothingly, until Jessie was no longer tensed to spring away.

Clare clenched the cat with one arm; somehow with the other arm she unlatched and raised the window. Smoke poured in the room. Clare coughed and groped wildly, futilely, for the mechanism that released the window bars.

Gagging so violently she could barely hold Jessie, Clare fell away from the window, gulped relatively fresh air against the floor. Yes, stay near the floor, that was what they said to do. Head near her knees, she waddled toward the door, remembered after opening it that she was supposed to touch it first to see if it was hot. Like the floor. So hot. The air scorched her throat, her skin.

She waddled down the hall. Hot tile stung her feet. Wrong turn: the bathroom. As she backed out, clutching Jessie like a talisman, the darkness bulged with searing lights, streaks of fire shooting only behind her eyes. She was going to pass out. No! Keep going. Got to. Got to. Robert fell asleep with a cigarette no he didn’t live here.

The hall walls fell away – she’d reached the living room. Robert. Wasn’t it tonight that she’d dumped blankets on the couch for him? Right where Tommy used to sit. “Robert,” she croaked, but the word barely rumbled in her throat. She groped for the couch, dragged herself along the couch arm. Jessie no longer wiggled against Clare. Was the cat still conscious? She found Robert’s foot, which temporarily invigorated her. She’d invited him over, forced him to face their separation. He’d drunk so much he couldn’t regain consciousness, all three of them were going to die. She shook his leg and mouthed his name, but could not interrupt those drunken snores ending in gasps.

She fell back onto the carpet. It smelled singed. The floor was so hot. She wished Jessie would stop running through that newspaper. No. Jessie was limp in her arms. That crackling wasn’t paper it was fire, tearing the building out from under them. She could only breathe between coughs now, little huffs of air, air so hot blisters bubbled inside her throat. What luck to remain conscious while dying. What luck what …

Tonight her street was not forbiddingly dark but bright and warm in the blaze of the fire. She was sitting on a curb, Robert choking beside her, Jessie shivering and pressing deep into Clare’s arms: trying to hide from the growling fire trucks, the yelling firemen and police and news crews, the gawking neighbors and the dazed no-longer tenants. Nearby stood Mrs. Manning, her thin cotton nightgown billowing in the wind from the rushing flames.

Warning shouts preceded the collapse of Clare’s roof, down through her floor, down to the laundry room below. Mrs. Manning’s roof caved in a moment later. With a triumphant roar, the newly released flames shoved into the night sky. “My whole life. My whole life,” Mrs. Manning echoed over and over. When Clare at last dared look at the buildingless landlady, she saw her lips no longer moving but still heard the words.

At some point Beaudine appeared with a lidded cardboard box cut with jagged air holes. He held it while Clare got Jessie inside. Clare realized he’d been around earlier: a flash mental picture showed him standing in the same spot with flames shape-shifting behind him. But now the fire was vanquished, the flames were gone and behind the lieutenant, yellow smoke roiled. He pulled her blanket tighter – the blanket someone’s hands had draped over her – and led her across the street to a shelter living room. There, paramedics kept checking Clare, Robert, Mrs. Manning.

Another memory flash: the emergency team’s oxygen mask forced against her face, repeated orders that she breathe. And an oxygen mask fully shrouding Jessie’s small head, a paramedic rhythmically kneading the cat’s stomach until Jessie regained enough life to flail and hiss.

Beaudine must have been questioning Clare because she remembered his mouth moving, his eyes probing, and next he was behaving the same way in front of Robert and now Mrs. Manning. She couldn’t hear questions or answers. Had her lips moved in responses as theirs were doing? She couldn’t recall.

She was naked under the blanket. That’s right, she hadn’t worn her pajamas tonight because they smelled like Tommy who had liked them and worn them during that previous century called yesterday.

The fire was back and now it was winning, sweeping across the street engulfing their refuge. No, no that was the sun. It was morning. Mrs. Manning was no longer visible. Robert sat with head in hands. The box lid was off – oh God! where was Jessie! – oh here she was, asleep in Clare’s arms, hunched up in case she had to awaken instantly and bolt away.

A man and a woman who thought they were experts were telling Beaudine it looked like an electrical fire, just last month the complex had been cited for overextended faulty wiring –

“No. They were trying to kill Tommy. And maybe me too. They didn’t know he wasn’t here anymore,” Clare said in a low monotone that stopped the conversation and halted Robert’s rasping breathing.

One of the duo told Beaudine in a smooth expert’s voice, “We’ve got no evidence of arson at this time but of course we’ll keep looking.”

Clare didn’t have the energy to argue with them, nor to resist as Beaudine delivered Clare, Robert, and Jessie to Robert’s apartment. She could barely listen as Beaudine advised her to sleep here until further notice: with its freestanding pairs of upper and lower apartments, this was an easier building for his people to observe and much harder for anyone to sabotage – if arson had indeed been the fire’s cause, which they wouldn’t discount despite the lack of evidence.

As soon as the strangers were gone, Jessie hopped out of the box, immediately comfortable in this place that had once been home. Clare looked around like a psychic in a trance, regressed to a past life. It was so quiet she was sure her eardrums had burst in a great explosion.

No explosion. That was Robert slamming the front door – he’d gone out, she hadn’t noticed that. He sidestepped her to enter the bedroom. She trance-walked behind him, stopped when she heard two gunshots. No: Robert snapping his suitcase latches shut.

“What are you doing? Beaudine told us to stay put.”

“He told you to stay put. You’ll be safe here. I went down and spoke with Mary and Bill.” The downstairs neighbors. “They’ll be home pretty much all weekend. Stomp on the floor if you need – anything. I also talked to Sandy and Dean. Pound on the bedroom wall for them. I left a note for Sam and Manny. I’m sure they’ll be here in a flash if you hit the kitchen wall.”

“Where are you going?”

“Anywhere that you’re not.” He pushed past her, she trailed after. He took Niels’s cage from the bathroom then looked at her for the first time since Beaudine had dumped them. His face said he was exhausted, in shock, and filled with hate for her. “You suspect someone was trying to kill Tommy. In the middle of the night at your apartment. You had several opportunities to tell me, Clare.”

“But I -” No use. No point. He was gone.

She stood facing the door, maybe seconds maybe hours. Then Jessie bumped repeatedly against her shins, ran to the kitchen when Clare noticed the bumps. Breakfast time. Clare found the extra bag of cat food she’d forgotten to take, fed Jess, converted newspaper shreds and Beaudine’s carrier box into a litter box.

Gee, it was after seven. She’d have to hurry or she’d be late for her classes. She showered, pulled clothes from the to-be-donated-to-the-homeless bag she’d left in a closet, promised Jessie she’d be back soon, grabbed the keys Robert had tossed on the carpet, searched for her briefcase until she remembered: it was burned up, notes on the murder investigation inside it. Luckily, her car had a Hide-A-Key. Thankfully, Beaudine had thought to have her car driven over here. And today, his men actually followed her to the faculty parking lot.

Her students found Clare fascinating, her lectures ignorable. At last this ordeal was over and she got help from Security to get into her office. Since Lou was on duty in her building, she didn’t have to apply in triplicate and wait a week to get a locksmith out to make her new keys.

She was standing in her lab, remembering why each piece of equipment was there, when the phone rang. It was the Biology office secretary; she had the printouts Clare had requested. Pretending she knew what the secretary meant, Clare went to pick them up. Fortunately, the secretary had affixed a Post-it that said CONSTANCE so Clare remembered: she was trying to find her assistant. Only one of the three Constances on the student roster was a biology major, so Clare requested phone number and transcripts from Constance Costello, which the secretary readily accessed on her computer.

Clare had only to study Constance’s list of classes to know that Steve had told the truth, Constance wasn’t spying for him. All those pharmacology classes and labs proved it.

Ironically but typically, when Clare returned to her office, she found Constance waiting in the hall. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”

“I work for you on Wednesdays. I know you have every reason to fire me but I was hoping – praying – we could start over. I was wrong to trust Steve so blindly. I can’t blame you if you don’t trust me, Dr. Austen, but please give me one more chance. I won’t be a spy. I’ll be the best assistant you’ve ever had.”

“Come in, Constance. Sit down. I have been thinking about our situation and I’ve been of two minds about what to do. But overall, my strongest impulse has been to forgive you.” Constance looked surprised and suspicious. “After all, there’s been no harm done. I’m not being completely honest here, though. T-ommy” – his name caught in her throat – “put in several good words for you. And he finally convinced me that I’ve been one of those researchers who pretends their work is full of earthshaking secrets, when it’s not. So you have him to thank.”

This Constance was willing to believe. “That’s terrific, Dr. Austen, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.” She jumped to her feet. Which tests should I prep today?”

“None. I won’t be testing again until after the holiday. Today, though, if you want to help, I need copies of some files. Feel free to refuse – you’re not an office clerk! I was going to spend the morning at the Xerox machine myself, until I agreed to hold an extra discussion section for one of my classes. I’ve got to go to that soon and I’m catching a plane out of town this afternoon so I’m terribly pressed for time.”

“I’d be happy to help.”

Clare gave her a handful of folders, including Tommy’s nonmurder file. “I need one copy of the last six month’s data – the top three or four pages per file. I’ll be back in an hour. If you finish before then, just shove everything under my door. “I’d give you a key but …”

“I understand and agree. I need to win your trust back step by step.”

They walked out together, Clare leaving Constance at the Xerox room and continuing out, downstairs, through the first floor hall, back up the stairs on the other side of the building. She sat in the stairwell, out of view of the second floor, a journal open as though she’d just had to stop and read. No one passed her. And not long after Clare estimated that Constance should have finished two copies of each file, she heard a brisk walk much like Constance’s up on the second floor.

Clare snuck upstairs, down the hall to Sid Stein’s door, threw it open and caught Constance handing a sheaf of Xeroxes to Sid. Constance stepped back and looked fearful. Sid grew taller and more arrogant.

“I hope your protégée is giving you the kind of research directions you need, Sid. Now I understand how you always seem to know when to offer your services to the hottest projects around here.”

Sid smiled the smile of a used car dealer facing a customer who’d bought his sourest lemon. “Neither your envy nor your accusations nor your work is of any interest to me, Clare.”

She pretended to be insulted, snatched the pages from him, turned to Constance. “Needless to say, you’re fired and your school record will reflect this incident.”

When Constance started to speak, Sid tapped her arm, very slightly shook his head, as though to reassure that he’d save Constance’s reputation later, after poor second-rate Dr. Austen calmed down.

Clare stormed away, shaking. She feared that Sid would see through her, see that she wasn’t really upset about his stealing research ideas or insinuating himself onto big successful projects. Rather, she was concerned with his being the right height, correct weight, and perfect temperament.

Minutely observed by Beaudine’s men, she fled the campus, hoping Constance would pass on the lie that Clare was going out of town for the holiday – protecting Clare until she could convince Beaudine that Stein was the killer. She was probably safe so long as Sid believed that she merely suspected him of spying. But she dared not take chances. Poor Constance, stupid Constance. No doubt ambition drove her. No doubt Sid had promised her a cushy position, postgraduation. Had their encounter à trois shortened or lengthened the girl’s life span?

What was she thinking? Sid Stein was an idea thief, not a murderer. Wasn’t he? Clare didn’t know, she couldn’t tell what the truth was, nor what she truly thought. She had to get inside, away. Of that she was certain. She hadn’t been thinking clearly this morning, running all around campus, exposing herself to all sorts of danger. She had to hide. From precisely whom she couldn’t say, from exactly what she wasn’t sure.

She parked a block from Robert’s apartment, in the carport of a unit she knew to be for rent, with a note claiming car trouble and giving Robert’s phone number in case someone needed the Nova moved. Walking briskly to the apartment, she was trailed by a car with two of Beaudine’s watchers inside, turned the corner, spied a parked car holding another pair of men she’d seen with Beaudine. All four watched her ascend the stairs.

The morning paper was still on Robert’s doorstep. She stepped over it and left yesterday’s mail in the box, locked the door, shut the blinds. Two candles in the hallway, far from all windows, would provide her only light. She sat between them, chin on knees, Jessie in the tent under her legs.

She considered calling Beaudine. If she told him about Sid’s spying, Beaudine might even pay Stein a visit. That would only tip Stein that Clare was on to him. If he was the killer. Tommy’s right brain had said Sid wasn’t. Perhaps she should call Tommy in Phoenix. No. For whatever reason, his left brain had balked at knowing the killer’s identity. She might ruin everything with that phone call.

No that wasn’t why she shouldn’t call. She wasn’t thinking right or her thoughts weren’t making sense to her. Smoke! Another fi- Oh the candles. She blew them out, holding her breath until the singed extinguished wick scent dissipated. Tommy would be back in fewer than four days; Jessie had enough food; they could wait.

By the time the sun set, she could maneuver quite well in the glow of a clock face here, the VCR digits flashing there, the wall heaters’ pilot lights flickering in every room but the kitchen. She opened the broiler door to shed the oven’s pilot light on that room. Then, walking from room to room to room to room, she was aware of Jessie following, several paces behind. Now her cat was afraid of her. She sat on the couch, eventually coaxing Jessie to join her.

In another few hours it would be okay to sleep. That would eat up a lot of time; when she woke up it would be fewer than three days until Tommy returned and they could do tests that gave Beaudine his proof. Until Tommy and Bianca returned, rather. “And Bianca,” always “and Bianca,” Clare mustn’t forget that again. Why, right now in Phoenix they were probably rolling out pie crust dough, boiling cranberries, cubing stale bread into croutons.

Anyway that was how Clare and Robert spent the night before Thanksgiving. The holiday when they locked themselves away, curtains closed, phone disconnected. Tomorrow would be the frantic cooking – Tommy and Bianca would fix turkey, that would be even more work – and the leisurely feasting, culminating in the toast to their having found one another. A toast always initiated by Robert but of course never again. He finally saw who he was really toasting, just this morning he found that out.

Jessie had saved Clare’s life last night. All their lives. If the cat hadn’t been scared, hadn’t scratched Clare’s arm. You don’t smell smoke when you’re asleep. You don’t feel fire burning through the floor, the bed, the sheets. Jessie hadn’t smelled smoke though. Or had she? Wasn’t she frightened by someone walking outside? Clare had forgotten to tell Beaudine about those rustling noises up the slope. She should call him but she couldn’t – she was supposed to be out of town for the holiday, it was her only protection. What if the killer was being routinely questioned by Beaudine when she called? No. She had to protect herself. If only she knew from whom.

It wasn’t as dark as it had been. That was a big relief to Clare, until she realized the reason: it was morning again, she had sat cowering on the couch all night. Time flies when you’re all alone. Jessie was just waking up, hungry again. But it was correct for the cat to be hungry, it was breakfast time.

Clare wasn’t hungry. If she swallowed even a bite she’d vomit. It would be nice to sleep but she couldn’t fall asleep or there’d be another fire.

Insane! There existed no cause and effect between fire and sleep. She was thinking crazy thoughts. There existed no cause and effect whatsoever. In a flash of lucidity, Clare realized: of course, crazy thoughts. She’d had them before, years before, without Jessie’s warmth alongside her leg to remind her of reality. She was having another breakdown, that’s what this was. Silly not to have seen it before. She’d been having one for weeks, that’s why logic had deserted her. How else to take wrong turn after wrong turn in their research. Wrong turn after wrong turn with Tommy. She’d really thought their union could last – she should’ve seen right off, such delusions were the product of an unhinged mind. But of course if she could have seen that, she wouldn’t be suffering from a breakdown, would she?

The phone rang. Jessie jumped, her claws catching Clare’s leg slightly. The cat was trying to warn her again. “Don’t worry, Jess, I won’t answer it,” Clare may have said aloud. At some later time, the phone rang again. When the jarring noise ceased, Clare unplugged the cord from the wall.

Time for Jessie’s dinner. Clare swayed when she stood, weak and dizzy. Oh good, she was tired. She fed Jessie and went to fall onto the bed. But she couldn’t sleep, even after covering her ears to shelter them from Robert’s phantom breathing beside her.

Out to the living room she groped her way – the sun must have set once again. Ever so slowly, to guard against squeaks, she opened the Hide-A-Bed. But this held just as many memories. The floor was no better: floors equaled Tommy. The bathtub was too short and from inside the bathroom she couldn’t hear if someone was trying to break in. Finally, she camped on the kitchen table; when she inserted the extra leaves, it was more than long enough to accommodate her. It wasn’t comfortable but it would do. Thank Christ, I’m falling asleep, she thought. The realization woke her again.

At some point she did fall asleep, though, because she woke silently crying, a puddle of tears on the table. She dabbed these away with her blanket, lest they mar the recently refinished wood. She was crying because she’d been dreaming that she and Tommy were making love. Even in her dream, she knew it was a lie.

She lay on her back, clasped hands on stomach and chuckled. All she needed was a lily. She saw her love life flash before her eyes, ending with Tommy, all her thoughts ended with Tommy.

Good thing Robert wasn’t telepathic – it would hurt him to know this. Too bad he wasn’t telepathic. Everyone had to face up at some point. After all, certain research indicated that emotions were separated in the brain halves: the right hemisphere primarily dealt with negative emotions, the left hemisphere was more prone to positive. Now, if she dared posit that “normal” brains behaved like Tommy’s split brain, then all left hemispheres confabulated like his did. Therefore, positive emotions were bogus, negative emotions more clearly interpreted reality. QED.

Despite the bad dream at the end, sleeping had helped. Calmer, she could look around her dark universe with newfound acuity. She had some testing ideas for surmounting Tommy’s resistance to naming the known killer; and she no longer feared unduly for her life. Whatever arose, she would handle. Somehow.

What was the time? The day? She dared a peek outside, saw three papers piled on the front step. That meant today was Friday. Was it twilight or dawn? A half hour later it was darker outside, that made it Friday night. Monday morning, Tommy would return and they could finish their experiments, hand their proof over to Beaudine.

Outside, a red red sunset. Fire red, blood red. The carpet was warmer than it had been. She could hear she could see the fire advancing on her, flames jumping up to touch the ceiling that was her floor, jumping then reaching then stretching farther still, ever bigger, ever stronger, pushing with all their might, smashing through the floor supporting her, tossing her against the roof. She was floating near the ceiling, bounded by her walls, abandoned even by gravity. The air was so hot each inhale scorched her lungs, the whole building exploded with the heat and she tumbled into the night sky. Freezing air forced the flames to retreat, the heat that had held her aloft quickly dissipated, she froze from the inside out, plummeting to earth, shattering on impact with the black charred ground. Her body was decorated with an intricate lace of cracks and lines, wrinkles and whorls. Workmen arrived, quickly rebuilt the complex exactly as it had been before, though no greenery could now grow in the burned earth. Mistaking her for a statue, they built around her, trapping her inside, for this house was not a home, no one would live here and so the doors did not open, the windows were painted illusions, the walls were the latest technological marvel, stronger than steel, denser than concrete. It would stand until the whole world disintegrated. Only then would she be released.

She would stay inside until the world disintegrated. That was the wiser choice. Look what happened when she ventured outside, fancied herself brave. She spent one whole weekend with Tommy. Ironic, wasn’t it: she was so drawn to his spirit, his boldness, to the way he plunged in and carried on. Now she’d left her old life and he’d skipped out of town with his wife, leaving Clare to face a killer she couldn’t name. Couldn’t because she’d failed the most important experiments she would ever conduct. The only killer’s identity test Dr. Clare Austen could complete would be to go over to the campus and wait until the killer came for her. That wouldn’t be standard methodology, though. She couldn’t get such sloppy work published, unless they slackened the rules, posthumously.

She was delirious. There was a gas leak, that was it. Carbon monoxide: colorless, odorless, quickly deadly in her hermetically sealed situation. Carbon, the building block of life; oxygen, the giver of breath – but not when it was mono, solo, alone.

She cracked open a window, closed the gas line. Now the guiding pilot lights were off and the heater wouldn’t function, it would get very dark and cold but she could adapt, she’d rather turn blue than red and anyway Jessie would help her stay warm. Of course. Jessie was here too. She’d forgotten. Where was that cat?

Jessie was asleep on the bed, coiled to flee, mistrusting Clare’s exploratory pats of the mattress. “Almost dinnertime, Jess,” Clare assured the cat, then realized she should eat too.

She stumbled through blackness to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, slammed it shut. The light was too bright – a beacon proclaiming her existence to all those spying outside. She reopened the door, just enough to reach in and unscrew the bulb. There. It took a long time to identify food items by touch. An orange, bread, cheese. She carried this cache to the bedroom with a heaping bowl of cat food so she wouldn’t have to stumble back to the kitchen when Jessie became hungry.

The darkness was getting to her. She opened a curtain, lay in faint moonglow trying to absorb the light through her pores, squeezing her eyes shut so she couldn’t see who that was, silhouetted outside.

A bit later, feeling calmer (of course no one was out there or she’d be dead by now) she opened her eyes – and squeezed them shut again, blinded. It was daytime now. That must mean she’d fallen asleep. Jessie’s food bowl was empty and the cat was staring at her, twitching her tail. When Clare met her gaze, Jessie flopped down beside her, purring mightily. Clare wondered if Jessie sensed how crucially comforting her presence was right now.

She left the curtain open, feeling daring to do so. The light slowly eased; Clare heard gentle taps on the window and realized it was raining. She loved lying in bed listening to rain, feeling kinship with ancestors all the way back to cave days in the pleasure she derived from shelter.

Her stomach rumbled and she went out to the kitchen, getting breakfast – or was it lunch? – for Jessie and herself. Then she peeked out a living room window to watch the rain on the grass and was shocked to see five papers on the step. It was Sunday now. She’d slept through an entire day. No wonder she felt refreshed.

In fact, she even had new ideas about how to construct experiments to give Beaudine proof that Sid Stein was the killer. Although Tommy’s left brain resisted acknowledging that the killer was someone he knew – no, wait. These weren’t new ideas, she’d come up with them days before. Thursday or Friday. Damn. She’d better write them down.

She didn’t take her forgetting as a sign of mental confusion. She always forgot, that’s why she took notes. If only she could forget on command, though. No, that wasn’t really necessary. She didn’t need to obliterate her memories of, say, Tommy, now that she understood him.

And she did understand. And bore no ill feelings. He’d meant it when he said he didn’t want to hurt her. He wasn’t lying when he claimed to be leaving Bianca. But those were separate issues from whether he loved Clare. He didn’t. Not the kind of love she craved, anyway. Her presence and availability, her sympathy and support might enable him to make the break, end his marriage. However, she was a means to that end – the very timing of their involvement made it temporary.

Maybe that wouldn’t be true. Still, it was wiser to prepare and protect herself.

But if she closed herself off, kept her distance, if there were a chance, they’d miss it.

God, it was so complicated. And she lacked all clarity.

Go to next chapter.

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