Chapter 16. The Dichotomy

Damn it, she was better now, why was she imagining, seeing things again? As she stared out at the rain, she saw a car pull up, brakes hit so hard it swerved on the newly wet street. The car took a faint stab at parallel parking, then with its nose still in the street, the driver’s door opened and the driver dashed across the street up the stairs to her door.

The building block of the universe was surely irony. Today was the first time in recorded memory that she felt alone yet not synonymous with incomplete. She had barely begun to appreciate the change and now, immediately, it was being threatened.

Her eyes were pretending the visitor was Tommy. But it couldn’t be: he wouldn’t be back until another newspaper hit the welcome mat. She retreated from the window. Now her mind was creating auditory hallucinations, as well. A voice like Tommy’s was calling her name, while someone slammed fist against door.

Jessie had bolted from the room when the hallucination arrived, now returned and waited near the door. Hmm. Clare stood uncertainly for seven more knocks, two more callings of her name.

She opened the door. “You’re back early. I didn’t answer right away because I wasn’t sure it was you.”

“Jesus fucking Christ.” He swept her into a clinch so tight she giggled.

“If you hold me any closer I’m going to end up behind you.”

He eased his grip infinitesimally. “Have you been here the whole time? Why the fuck didn’t you answer the phone? I tried to fly back but the only flight that was open had engine trouble so it got canceled after we sat on the runway for years. I would have been here sooner but Bianca refused to let us drive over ninety.”

“There was really no need to rush. Although I have come up with some new tests I think will work.”

“Clare.” He pulled away to study her. What he saw disturbed him.

“I’m fine. Now. The last few days have been rocky, though.”

“Why the fu – I could kill you for not calling me. Thank God for Ilsa.”

“What do you mean?”

“She thought she saw you go by in the background, wrapped in a blanket, during a news report about an apartment building that burned down. She called the TV station for information, then tracked me to Phoenix, told me what she’d found out: everything except where you were now. I called anybody I could think of. Beaudine told me he’d brought you here. With Robert.”

“Robert found out you’d spent the night with me so I’ve had the place to myself,” she explained as Tommy led her over to the couch to collapse.

He insisted on knowing what had transpired. It was a short story: there wasn’t much to say about the last few days, except that she’d been doing a lot of thinking. Once this was said, it penetrated that she wasn’t responding to his efforts to kiss her. The efforts instantly ceased and he studied her anew, but remained unenlightened. He sank deep into a corner of the couch and moaned. “From the minute Ilsa called, it was like a grenade went off inside me. I kept thinking, ‘No matter what happens Clare can’t get hurt.’ I kept thinking that over and over, like my hearing it was gonna change anything! But man. If anything had happened to you.”

This was exactly the kind of statement she had to stay on guard against.

“But something has happened, something you’re not telling me. What were you doing all that thinking about?”

“Just. Our experiments. What went wrong with Robert and me. Trying to put everything in perspective. When can we go back to the lab? I’m excited about the new direction I mentioned earlier.”

“We can go over there right away. As soon as we’re done here.”

“Aren’t we done? Are you hungry, by the way? There’s some really good cheese for sandwiches.”

“Did you do some thinking about me, too?”

“Here and there, but now isn’t the time to get into that.”

“Look. You can kick me out if you want. Bianca and I aren’t speaking since I was so anxious to get back to you, but she’s moving in with Trish, so I’ve got a place to stay. If you want me out of your life, though, you’ll have to say it, straight out. Because I love you and no way am I leaving otherwise.”

His eyes were black, dilated, intense. He was confusing her but she managed to regain her newfound clarity. At the moment, he did love her, for the reasons she’d determined previously; she’d helped him through a difficult time, of course he –

Suddenly, with a new sort of clarity, she saw her certainty of failure as an excuse for avoiding risk.

But which clarity was the real clarity? She started to cry, could not stop no matter how she tried. And that effort was so great, she had no strength to resist when he put his arm around her and pressed her close. He was crying, too; this confused her further. She lost all semblance of clarity, then stopped fighting to regain it. She couldn’t muster the power to keep her distance when the murders kept pushing them together. So, for now, here they were and that was that.

No plainclothes cars were visible outside. Could Beaudine really have such a short attention span? It was lucky she didn’t notice the absence of cops earlier. Without that sense of distant protection, she would not have survived her long weekend as well as she had.

They headed for the lab in Tommy’s borrowed car. Fortunately, he didn’t ask where hers was. She didn’t want to reveal how frightened she’d been.

Behind the drizzling rain, the campus appeared to be deserted except for the recurrent security guards. As they trotted up the stairs to Clare’s floor, Neurobiology felt as hollow as a skeleton’s bones. Tommy contrived a light tone and said, “I’m insulted you didn’t ask if I kept up my lucid dreaming exercises, which I did, every night.”

“And you had a dream about the murders?”

“Nope. But I was real good about doing the exercises.”

They forced a chuckle as Clare hastily unlocked her office door. Once inside she slipped the deadbolt as soon as he finished checking for intruders, then advised him, “I’m afraid you’ll have to wait out here while I make a new tape.”

“Yeah, I figured. I was thinking I’d go through your old notes again until you’re ready for me.”

“They’re gone. In the fire. Though I’ve read them so often I should be able to recreate most of them from memory. The beach picture is gone, too. The files Mrs. Bates stole. Everything.”

Tommy kissed her eyelids, kissed away the tears that had begun to form. “Everything except you, me, and Jessie.”

“Somehow I have to make this up to Mrs. Manning. She kept repeating that her whole life was gone.”

He groaned in sympathy, kissed her once more. “We can’t think about that right now.”

As soon as Clare had shut herself into her lab, she clutched the doorknob until she regained equilibrium lost during those kisses, that caring.

Her mental state kept ricocheting between opposites – certainty and terror, love and doubt, hope and realism. Yet when she could control her fear of this oscillation, her perceptions seemed enhanced. She saw things – differently, now. If neuroscience were capable of drawing a neuronal wiring diagram, she suspected a schematic done of her a few days ago would diverge from one done today. Consequently, the testing data – and how to proceed with it – looked subtly yet profoundly different.

She made a brief tape and compiled a long list of questions. When she brought Tommy into the lab, she posed one set of dichotic questions, all variations on the theme raised by Constance’s spying: “Is Sid Stein the killer?Is the killer Constance?” To each question, Tommy’s right brain answered NO.

Then she unplugged and stored the headset – a bit of ceremony not lost on him. He watched with much curiosity as she laid out YES, NO, and ? cards in reach of his left foot, then sat at his table with her list of questions.

“I’m going to follow a line of questioning that usually infuriates you. If you get upset in any way, don’t try to hide or change that reaction – because today we’re going to figure out how you’re really reacting. And why. As always, I’ll restate each question several times, since I can’t be sure which words and phrases your right brain understands. That’s not because it’s stupid, but because neuroscience doesn’t know enough yet. Ready?”

He nodded vigorously. In every way she could devise, she asked whether the surfer attacker was the killer. NO. Whether Mrs. Bates was the killer. NO Whether Hugo was the killer. NO. Whether Steve was the killer. NO. Whether Bruce the vanished security guard was the killer. NO. Whether Constance was the killer. NO. Whether Sid Stein was the killer. NO.

“You definitely found out stuff while I was gone. About Constance and Stein.”

“I did and I’ll tell you about it as soon as we examine your reactions. Did these questions upset you?” She knew this answer: with each new phrase, he’d constricted further, until now he seemed in danger of fusion.

“No shit. And like usual, I wanted to yell, ‘Come on, we’ve been through this already.’ But. The way you put it to me before we started this time, makes me see how getting mad that way is an excuse – it’s hiding what’s really bugging me. But. Trying to look behind the excuse, my thinking goes mush.”

“Did you feel equally upset about each suspect I mentioned?”

He took a moment to consider. “I felt way worse about Steve, Stein, and Constance than about Mrs. Bates, Hugo, Bruce, and the deranged surfer. Maybe I feel worse the better I know somebody – like you’ve been saying all along. Although I had more dealings with Cynthia than with Sid.”

“I have theorized that you can’t tolerate the killer’s being someone you know or like. But that’s just a guess, based on very limited knowledge. A pattern seems to exist but what causes that pattern, I really don’t know. It may be syntactical – something about my questions may create a confusion that’s more apparent when your right brain actually knows the subject of my question. As I said, I can only guess; but we can’t blame your hemispheres for the reaction. When a brain’s functions seem arbitrary, it’s our understanding that’s out of whack.”

Tommy visibly relaxed at this. “So how did Constance and Stein make it to your lineup?”

She explained how she’d caught Constance spying for Sid. “That doesn’t implicate either of them in the killings. But it does get them added to the list of suspects – although Sid seems interested in much more than just our murder research.”

Tommy’s frown had deepened with each new revelation. “Maybe you shouldn’t have told me,” he concluded. “Now I feel even worse when I think about them.”

“That may or may not cause problems,” she admitted. Damn. Well, no time for self-recriminations. She would forge ahead, continue to discover her mistakes during these tests instead of trying to avoid errors by advance planning. She suspected the quantity of mistakes would be the same, anyway.

“Our next test involves comparisons. You’ve done these before, back last summer.” She set cards near his left foot: MORE, LESS, SAME, ?. “To make sure you remember the test, we’ll do a few run-throughs. Is Clare more or less tall than Tommy?” LESS.

After a few such comparisons, she believed his right brain knew the meaning of each card. “Now. When I ask you a question, answer with your left foot first, then with words. More importantly, I need you to carefully study each response over time. When I pose a question, you might have an impulse to answer one way initially, then reconsider. Be sure to alert me when this happens.” She wanted to hear from both sides of his brain; and in particular, she wanted to know if his left brain changed any answers after receiving emotional input from his right brain. “Let’s begin. Think about something that makes you very happy. Would that be playing music?”

“Definitely. Or you.”

“Those feelings are ‘good.’ Now think about the killer in the hall. Those feelings are ‘bad.’” She set new cards next to those already down, yielding MORE BAD, LESS BAD, SAME BAD, ?. (Fortunately, they’d done similar work in the past; it had been horrendous, getting Tommy’s right brain to understand these concepts.) “Compare ‘playing music’ and ‘the killer.’ Your feeling about the killer is …” MORE BAD, his left foot responded.

“More bad,” Tommy said, his left brain agreeing with his right.

She took a few more trial runs, one of which made her feel sheepish and ashamed – she had him compare his reactions to Trish and Andy. Both brains felt MORE BAD about Andy, causing her much distress: first, because she’d been hoping he’d feel no worse about Bianca’s friend than her possible lover; second, because Clare wasn’t supposed to be testing Tommy’s feelings about his wife, anyway. Lest Tommy start wondering why she’d asked, she quickly had him compare his reactions when he thought about Robert, then Jessie.

Tommy felt MORE BAD about Robert. “But at least Robert doesn’t shed.”

“If you hate the shedding now, wait until spring,” she advised ominously.

“I’m glad you warned me.”

She went through the previous list of possible suspects, comparing one to another. His hemispheres agreed on each answer and ultimately she determined Tommy felt worst about Steve and Sid Stein. “Clare, you wanted me to say if my reactions to anybody have changed. In the last tests, I felt better about Cynthia than I do now. But you know what else? You should ask me about those grant people too.”

“You’re right.” And so she used today’s tests to assess his hemispheric reactions to ‘Matt Woods,’ ‘Kristen Hankoff,’ and ‘the grant people.’ Curiously his left brain responded negatively but his right brain transmitted only positive reactions. Could it be that his left hemisphere was rounding up suspects that his right hemisphere knew to be in the clear?

She picked up the cards near his left foot. “This time, answer only with words; wait before your answer and tell me if your reaction changes as you wait. Think about the killer in the hallway. Notice how that makes you feel. Now think about Steve. Notice how that makes you feel. Now try to compare the two reactions.”

Tommy waited a long time. “At first it seems like they’re similar, but comparing like this makes me realize I’m basically just ticked off at Steve.”

Next she asked about Sid Stein. Close to a minute elapsed before Tommy apologized. “I feel so bad about him. I can’t concentrate enough to compare. I just keep thinking about what you found out.”

Double damn. If only she hadn’t told Tommy about Constance’s spying for Stein. Perhaps she should work up another dichotic tape; but she didn’t know how to conduct this experiment dichotically.

One by one, they went through their suspects. When they got to Cynthia Bates, Tommy responded as he had with Stein: indescribably negative. “I have to admit something. I felt real bad about her every time she’s been mentioned today, right from the start. I tried to overlook it at first, because if she’s the killer, we’ve really fucked up in how we’ve handled her.”

“Shit.” Were any of these test results going to be valid?

“This is going to make you feel worse. I keep going through names, over and over in my head, it’s like I can’t stop myself. And when you were testing me about whether I understood this test? You gave me two names that swamp me the same way as thinking about Cynthia and Sid Stein. One of ‘em’s Andy Stuart. That reaction’s all tied up with Bianca, you know, but it’s so powerful I had to mention it. Also. The same thing happens. When I think about. Robert.”

He was right to fear her response. She forced her fury into check. “Are you saying Robert is the killer? You could not make a more ridiculous choice.”

“Sure I could. Andy’s the one who makes no sense. Which probably means it’s him, huh?” His effort to lighten her mood did not succeed.

“What you have concluded, then, is that we have four suspects. Cynthia Bates, Sid Stein, Andy Stuart. And Robert di Marchese.”

“Based on how bad their names make me feel, yeah. None of them really makes sense, because we know zip about motives. But take Andy. Who’s to say he’s not a psycho with a grudge against lab coats? Or – now don’t scream – let me pretend I’m Beaudine and I’m considering Robert. He knew Lalitha, they worked on the same kinds of stuff. Maybe he saw her as competition. Maybe she got funding he wanted or glory he thought he deserved. Maybe that set him off, thinking about murder. Then, once he figured out you were gonna leave him, maybe he went nuts, started killing lab coats, then tried to frame you for his crimes. After all, he’s been helping spread these rumors about you feuding with Colton and so forth, even if he claims he’s been defending you.”

She was too stunned to respond. Of all the insane –

“I didn’t come up with that scenario. Beaudine did. Last time he questioned me. His attitude is, he’d turn his back on a homeboy with an Uzi before he’d go near an academic with a grudge. I didn’t tell you because I thought it was bull jive and I knew you’d react like you’re reacting. But maybe it’s not bull. Don’t forget that nightmare I had about Robert.”

“I have not spent the last four years of my life unknowingly living with a serial killer.”

“Funny you put it like that. The day Larry got killed and Beaudine called me in, I was waiting outside his office and I could hear him yelling, ‘This is no serial killer, this is no serial killer.’ Even when all his partners were yelling that it had to be.”

“What the hell is your point? Is this supposed to prove Robert’s guilt?”

Tommy spent some minutes gazing inward. “I think what’s really going down today is that I hate Robert ‘cause of you and I hate Andy ‘cause I can’t cop to how mad I am at Bianca, so I hate him instead. That leaves us with Bates and Stein. Now how do we figure which one is the killer?”

Silently, Clare reviewed today’s lab events. She jumped when Tommy touched her hand, realized she’d been quiet for quite a while. “No,” she ruled on her inner debate. “This is the wrong time to rationalize away – anything. We have four suspects. We’ll investigate each of them.”

“I’m sorry,” Tommy whispered, “I should’ve left it alone. But I couldn’t. Since Ilsa called me and I found out you almost died. I haven’t been able to pretend anymore. About anything.”

To narrow the field of suspects, she tried every test that made even dim sense, then tried some that didn’t. Tommy made suggestions and they acted on those too. Around midnight, they admitted defeat. It was proving impossible to sort out Tommy’s extremely negative feelings about the four suspects. Thus the starting point became their conclusion: hearing any of these four names, Tommy reacted with a visceral distress much like that engendered when he considered the killer.

“Let’s take a break,” Tommy suggested, and they went out in her office to pace, stretch, and sip cautiously from the Bushmills – they wanted no dulling of their perceptions now.

Without the distraction of testing, Clare’s emotional ricocheting resumed; fighting to maintain stability, she felt like a gull in an oil slick. And Tommy’s efforts to converse made them both twitchy. Taking a break was not working out.

Almost eagerly, they sat at Clare’s desk and went over today’s notes, then recreated as many of her old notes as they could recall. They were still poring over these when they heard the hall washer’s bucket clatter outside, circa five A.M.

Tommy said what Clare had just been thinking. “We’ve still got four suspects. Maybe we should – confront them, one at a time. If I was around them with you asking some questions – nothing real direct but in the right direction – that might help me weed some of them out, at least.”

STOP OR YOU DIE. “But if, while talking to a suspect, we realize we’re talking to the killer – what if the killer realizes that we know?”

“You’re right, forget it, it’s too risky.”

Reluctantly, Clare informed him, “That’s not what I meant. In fact, I’d been thinking along similar lines – it’s time for us to do field research. With both of us observing your reactions, along with each suspect’s reactions, we might learn as much in twenty minutes’ conversation as in another month in the lab.”

“Then why didn’t we do this a long time ago?”

“This is the first time you’ve named anyone consistently enough to be considered a genuine suspect. And -” After a time, she noticed Tommy was waiting for her to finish. “It’s dangerous. But we have to try,” she concluded lamely, not knowing how to explain; and not wanting to, anyway.

The last few days had changed her. Distorted or cleared her perceptions, she didn’t know which. Her despair had strengthened her – or destroyed her concern with consequences. She didn’t feel capable of returning to Bullock’s to test Tommy with sweater fabrics. But stalking the killer felt no more impossible. For she could no longer retreat to her lab. It wasn’t a refuge after all. No matter what she did, how she tried, she would be hurt the same amount. Hiding in her lab, buried in her work, it would simply happen more slowly.

They took turns with the Bushmills, then held hands as they discussed potential lines of questioning. With each prospect, she would start a conversation that touched on other possible reasons for Tommy’s negative reactions – Sid’s spying, Cynthia’s shiftiness, Andy’s affair with Bianca, Robert’s history with Clare – and Tommy would assess whether those were the sole sources of his negativity. Tommy also felt it might help if he could witness each suspect’s reaction when Clare just happened to mention that their murder investigation was hopelessly blocked. Beyond that, they couldn’t plan. Clare’s ensuing questions would be dictated by each suspect’s prior responses.

Then they discussed ways of protecting themselves during these field experiments, but there wasn’t much they could plan there, either. As they contemplated possible futures, a smothering silence fell.

Gradually, Clare’s shaking subsided and Tommy’s cheeks regained color. They returned to the apartment in hopes of a few hours of sleep. Once there, sharing Robert and Clare’s bed was impossible, so they clung together on the couch, with Jessie sprawling across their hips. Clare lay immobile so as not to disturb Tommy, wondering if time was passing as slowly as it seemed.

“You ever gonna fall asleep?” Tommy whispered.

“I doubt it. How about you?”

“No way.” And so they held each other for a time, then got up and got started.

Clare phoned her teaching aides to say she would not be attending her classes. Yes, she realized she was to begin reviewing for finals. The aides should take questions and compile lists of problem areas for her to tackle when she returned on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Tommy composed a note to Beaudine, explaining about the four suspects. If anything happened to Clare and Tommy, the note could lead the police to the killer – although it was clearly information Beaudine would dismiss if they presented it to him now. When Tommy went to drop the note in the corner mailbox, Clare phoned Dean and Sandy in the adjoining apartment: she might have to go out of town suddenly; could they check on Jessie and care for her if Clare didn’t get home?

Petting Jess goodbye nearly overwhelmed Clare and she had to run outside before she lost the ability to leave at all.

Go to next chapter.

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