Chapter 17. Chimeric Faces

Tommy was so preoccupied with events to come, he didn’t notice anything odd about her car being parked a block away, in someone else’s carport. Beaudine’s watcher was back, but indifferent to their departure. They headed for campus, where on this sunlit weekday morning, they would be least vulnerable during their confrontations. From Clare’s lab, Tommy called the Physics office, pretending to be a student. He learned that Dr. Di Marchese would be hearing thesis orals all morning, but was scheduled for drop-in student appointments between 1:30 and 3:00 this afternoon.

Last night they had decided they could not confront Andy at home without immediately provoking excessive suspicion. A much safer alternative was to approach him while he was at work. Thus Clare now phoned Le Gym to inquire when that hunky Andy Stuart would be teaching aerobics today. Starting at noon? She’d be there.

They kept trying to devise an excuse to get Cynthia Bates to come to Clare’s office. But they feared such efforts would put Cynthia on guard, with too much time to fortify defenses. They could see no way around it: they would have to pay her a surprise visit at home.

But first they went down the hall to Sid Stein’s suite of labs. Sid’s secretary had just splattered Diet Pepsi on her new blouse when they arrived; she was less than cordial. “You can’t see him. There’s no point waiting. Excuse me, I have to get this out before it stains.”

She hurried out and down the hall. To the bathroom, or to warn Sid? Tommy and Clare sat stiffly, only slightly less so as the secretary’s pumps snapped their way back up the hall.

The splatters were gone and so was her surliness. “Dr. Stein was called away on a family emergency. He left last Wednesday afternoon. We just don’t know when he’ll be back, but I am expecting him to check in. Is there a message?”

“Darn, I need that information today. Can you give me a phone number?”

“I’m afraid not. He left strict instructions. Confidentially, his parents always worry that he puts work before family; now that his father’s in the hospital, Sid – Dr. Stein – wants to prove otherwise.” The secretary was thrilled to be privy to this personal information about the great doctor.

“Of course I understand” that they’d have to get the number some other way. Clare led Tommy to the Biology office, turned him loose on the sweet young thing at the computer. Ten minutes later, they were back in Clare’s office studying a printout suitable for an FBI file on Dr. Sidney Stein.

Parents Martin and Louise lived in Freeborough, New Jersey. From long distance Information, Clare obtained numbers for three Martin Steins in Freeborough vicinity. Two were not the proud forebearers of the great doctor. At the third number, there was no answer.

“Bates next?” Tommy suggested.

Clare felt the murderer’s presence all around as they returned to her car. Today was sunny with just the right faint breeze, as perfect as a day in early spring. Yet she might as well be lost in strange alleys at three A.M. Stalking the killer was far more ominous out in the world than from within the lab. Everything was safer in the lab. Still, the further they got from those rooms, the greater was her sense of release, contradicting yet coexisting with her fear.

As they drove to Cynthia’s, they reviewed their planned line of attack. They had come to question her about the arrest rumor, they would say. If she didn’t believe this, they would “admit” they were looking for more files she had stolen from Colton. If she didn’t believe that. Well.

They pulled into Cynthia’s cul-de-sac. Clare shivered – and was grateful to see activity in the Bates driveway: the maid, apparently. A plump woman with Latin coloring wearing a butcher’s apron was loading a vacuum cleaner into an old but well-kept station wagon. She flashed Tommy and Clare a polite stranger’s smile as their car rounded the street’s curve and braked in front of the house. The maid returned inside. Clare and Tommy exchanged a glance and strode up the flagstone walkway.

Once standing on the porch, Clare resumed shivering – but she had plenty of time to regain control. It took several minutes for the doorbell to be answered. The maid now strained to smile and opened the door only a crack. “No está aquí, lo siento, nadie está aquí,” she kept repeating. She shook her head to indicate she didn’t understand their questions, then shut the door with a firm click.

Sitting in the car contemplating this turn of events, Clare saw a second story window curtain sway in the breeze. Not in a breeze – that window was shut.

“Did you see that?” Tommy demanded. “Cynthia’s up there, isn’t she?”

“And not terribly eager to see us today.”

“I say we pretend we didn’t notice, come back later when the maid’s gone and Cynthia’s not expecting us.”

They went back to the porch. This time the maid simply called through the door. “I understand no one is home except you,” Clare called loudly. Not just the second story but the whole neighborhood would hear. “Please tell Mrs. Bates I’ll try phoning her tonight about seven.” As they departed, the maid came out to the porch and watched them drive from sight.

“Wait before you reply, to assess all your reactions. How do you feel about Cynthia now?”

“No differently. Shit.”

“Try not to think about anything that just happened. We’ll come back to this later.”

They returned to campus. From Clare’s office they called the New Jersey Stein number again. At last, some semblance of success: on the fourth ring, an elderly male, immediately likable voice answered. “Sure I know Dr. Sid,” he cackled.

“Are you his father?”

“That’s me. Retired, that’s why I’m home during work hours. Worked my whole damned life away.”

“How are you feeling? Sid – said you weren’t well.”

“No complaints besides this damn rheumatism. He talks about me?” The elder Stein sounded so pleased, Clare could only murmur assent. “You say you work with him?”

“Yes and I’ve been told I might reach him with you.”

“Sid? Here?” Martin Stein was an actor to rival Olivier or he was astonished by the suggestion. “He hasn’t been home in six years.” The voice relayed a nonjudgmental sorrow.

“I know. He’s told me how much he misses you.” She knew parents were often sweeter when talking about their kids than when talking to them; it still seemed a shame that this lovely old man had that rotten son.

“We miss him, too,” Sid’s father confided. “Will you look at the time? I’ve got to pick up mother from the hairdresser. It’s been very nice meeting you, miss.”

Clare assured him the pleasure was mutual, hung up and told Tommy what he already knew. “Sid did not go home with a family emergency.”

“Wonder if he even left L.A.?”

Clare’s thoughts iced over. She preferred believing him out of town. “I wonder how we can find out where he is.”

“Constance,” they said simultaneously. They studied the data Clare had obtained during her previous search for Constance. The departmental records listed the same bogus phone number Constance had given Steve. But Clare realized that she knew Nicky Julen, the graduate teacher’s aide in one of Constance’s classes. Nicky was that rare type who couldn’t be swayed by campus gossip. Therefore, if he knew how to contact Constance, he’d be willing to tell Clare, this month’s pariah.

He was in his office when she called. Yes, he might have a home number for Constance, “but there’s no point in calling it. She left me a note over Thanksgiving, asking that her final be postponed. She had to fly home for a family emergency. Her father’s in the hospital.”

“Ah. I should have checked my message box. No doubt she left me a note, too. She’s very reliable.” Clare exchanged brief chitchat with Nicky then slammed the phone down, suddenly feeling as though Sid Stein could hear the conversation.

Before she’d finished telling Tommy about the call, he jumped up from her couch and declared, “Sid’s it.”

“Is that what you’re sensing? Wait and assess reactions that aren’t immediate, too. But stop for a moment and consider – it’s human nature to jump to conclusions. It’s all part of the same need for answers that makes your left brain confabulate. Realize that, and separate such explanations from your reactions when I ask you: Is Sid Stein the killer?”

He stopped pacing, looking inward. “No. Fuck. I can’t tell. Maybe yes, maybe no. But why else would he and Constance split with the same jive excuse after you caught them spying?”

“I don’t know. But it is possible that Sid is simply a snoop. Even though we work in different fields, spying could help him to follow up or branch off from my work; or give him advance wind of any breakthroughs – which could mean a head start, insinuating himself into position to catch some of the extra money that always gets thrown around once a breakthrough is publicized.” Tommy grunted. “Yes, he is slimy, but not necessarily murderous. Does what I’ve just said alter your reactions to him?”

He stopped pacing, closed his eyes, at length replied, “I’m not sure. Check again later when it’s not so fresh in my thoughts. So which suspect do we miss next?”

Clare consulted her watch. “It’s a little past eleven. If we go to the gym now, we can talk to Andy before his first class.”

Le Gym was on the western outskirts of Pasadena. The drive was excruciating: every street they took had construction equipment and workers blocking lanes. As they idled in one gridlock or another, they discussed other ways of confronting Sid Stein. Which might just have to wait until he and Constance returned to town. If they did. If they had ever left.

“I’m starting to appreciate Beaudine more,” Clare said.

“No shit. Next to us, even he’s a good detective. You been watching for anybody following us? Not that either of us would know anyway.”

Tommy slid down in the seat, leaped up to straighten, slouched anew. Since they’d left the apartment this morning, he’d vibrated with tension and the vibrating was getting worse.

“If you don’t try to maintain a bit more calm, you’re not going to make it through this.” And he was going to push her right over the edge she’d been teetering on, these past several days.

“Sorry. Sorry. When I get scared, I get hyper.”

She darted a glance his way. “Scared. I don’t dare even admit to that.”

“That’s kind of what I mean. All this time it’s taking to get to our suspects, is giving me too much chance to think about what could happen once we do. Get to them.”

“This is absolutely the wrong time to be discussing this,” Clare stated emphatically, as she pulled into Le Gym’s parking lot.

It was 12:18. Yet the parking space marked ANDY was empty. Clare parked an overview’s distance from the old warehouse converted to muscle palace. Tommy studied the staff parking area. “I don’t see Bianca or Trish’s cars either, so he didn’t ride in with them.”

As they sat, a man pulled his Mercedes into a red zone and walked briskly inside. Clare mused, “He looks familiar but I can’t say why. I didn’t know I knew anyone who drove a Mercedes.”

After ten minutes that felt like months, Tommy sighed with relief and irritation. “Let’s split. I’ve heard Bianca bitch about what a flake Andy is. About how late he can be. Anyway, if he drives in and sees us just sitting here, he’s gonna wonder. We can come back later. Once Andy shows up, his shift’ll go at least seven hours.” As Clare started the car he added, “Shit. This is a lot to go through to still have four suspects.”

“I know. I’m trying not to feel discouraged, but this is too much like being in the lab – we may be learning something, but I don’t know what.”

They returned to San Marino. This time they parked around the corner from Mrs. Bates’s home, inviting phone calls to 911 about prowlers: they ran low beside fences and shrubbery down the cul-de-sac to her house, up the driveway to her garage. The maid’s station wagon was gone. The side door was unlocked. Would this constitute breaking and entering?

Clare fought terror, would have fled if Tommy had not already entered the service porch. The instant she stepped inside the house, she felt claustrophobic, trapped. The sky was hazing, the windows glowed an eerie dull gray, foreshadowing rain. Had she rolled up the car window? Why was she thinking such pettinesses?

They walked softly and the kitchen linoleum, then the dining room carpet, absorbed the sound of their progress. Still, Clare had a strong sense of being observed. Stepping from dining room to hall, she heard a creak and ducked backward, expecting to find Mrs. Bates wielding a hatchet. But the area was empty. Tommy was a room ahead now; Clare entered the hallway as he left it for the den. She dove to tug at his sling, her throat pulsing with fear. Her expression alarmed him; his eyes darted, searching for the source of the threat.

“We’re going too far,” Clare said softly. “We -”

“What are you doing in my house?” At such close range, the low-pitched demand sounded like a growl. They swung around, found Cynthia at the arched entry to the living room. Upon eye contact, all three took a step back.

“We need to, um, speak with you.” Clare fumbled the simple phrase.

“So you’ve come for me,” Cynthia whimpered.

An admission of guilt? Clare dared a glance at Tommy, who watched Cynthia intently. “We came to talk to you earlier, but you wouldn’t let us in.”

“Let’s sit here by the fire.” With feigned hospitality and without turning her back, Cynthia led them into the living room. As Clare and Tommy moved to arm chairs flanking the fireplace, Cynthia lunged toward the mantle. She grabbed a brass poker in one hand, brass shovel in the other, wildly throwing her head from side to side to keep them both in view. Between and behind her legs, orange flame rolled liquidly over presto logs, a tiny phony fire in the vast austere stone hearth. In other circumstances, it might have been laughable. Fireplace poker, that was how Dr. Haffner had died.

As Cynthia swung the weapons up and ready for use, Clare was able to ponder the possibilities: this chair could be tilted in Cynthia’s path, that marble sculpture on the coffee table used against her. Haffner had been taken by surprise. Cynthia might injure one or both of them today, but she didn’t have the advantage – unless she was in a particular psychotic state that gave her extraordinary strength. Tommy reached for his neck and Cynthia shrieked, “Don’t move! Stay where you are!”

Tommy kept his hand behind his head. “Got some hair caught under my sling, that’s all,” he said casually. Peripherally, Clare saw him pull the sling in such a way that its tension slacked around his left arm. He eased his elbow out of the fabric – freeing his arm for use, if necessary, however painful that might be.

Clare tried to distract Mrs. Bates. “If we could just talk about this.”

“You won’t be successful,” Cynthia pleaded. “I’ll leave such a mark. You might get away for now but they’ll find out you were here, they’ll know you did it.”

Her words tumbled around Clare, who fell against a chair before she completely lost equilibrium. Cynthia squinted, suspecting a trick; resumed that wild head turning to keep both in view. “You think we came to kill you,” Clare marveled.

Cynthia’s head stopped swiveling, although her eyes kept flickering. “It’s not necessary, I assure you, Clare. I won’t say a word to anyone. Look how quiet I’ve kept about those files.”

“This is nuts,” Tommy said carefully. “We thought you were going to kill us.”

Cynthia peered at him, searching for the meaning behind this new deception. “I’d hide you here but I’m sure they’ll return. The police, that is. Money! I can give you money, you’ll get away, by the time the warrant becomes official you can be across the border. I shouldn’t fly though, that might be traceable.”

“What warrant?”

Cynthia’s nervousness evaporated. With a sly camaraderie, she explained, “The warrant for your arrests. As soon as Lieutenant Beaudine found out about the funding problem, he had his motive. You didn’t get that stipend last summer because Stanford recommended you be denied. So you avenged yourself, with the help of your lover.” She raised a knowing eyebrow at Tommy.

“I don’t recall being turned down for money last summer, and I certainly never knew of any sabotage by Dr. Colton. If I did, it wouldn’t drive me to murder. I lose grants all the time, just like everyone else. And I don’t believe Lieutenant Beaudine is foolish enough to call that a motive.” Clare moved closer to Tommy.

Cynthia waved the poker, muttering, “Stop, don’t, stay where you are.” Clare ignored her. Tommy had inched around so that he had a chair between Cynthia and himself. They had a direct line out of the room. Cynthia had an obstacle course to run. But they wouldn’t bolt – yet. She hoped Tommy had been able to assess – something, already; but she would keep provoking until he gave a signal to leave.

“Stop pretending to be threatened, Cynthia. We’re here because we have reason to believe you killed Colton and -”

Cynthia sagged against the mantle, dropping the poker, chipping the hearthstone. “Do what you like with me. God knows I deserve it. Do what you like,” she intoned.

“Let’s get out of here,” Tommy said decisively. Baffled, Clare followed Tommy down the hall and out the door, then jogged along the sidewalk after him. Dimly, she was aware of tree-root-cracked concrete beneath her feet, a rush of clipped greenery at her sides. Still vividly in view was the image of Cynthia Bates sagging against her fireplace, the now blue and green liquid flames rolling behind her. Do what you like with me. The Lord knows I deserve it.

Once in the car, Tommy used his arm sling to mop his face. Clare touched his cheek. It was clammy cold, yet he was sweating. “That was the fucking weirdest scene I’ve ever played,” he said. “She still thinks we’re going to kill her. And toward the end it seemed like she wished we would.”

“I know. I’d convinced myself it was all an act – that she was trying to confuse us. And succeeding. But the way she looked as we were leaving …”

“Maybe it was all an act. That makes it even weirder.” He leaned his head against her shoulder. “I feel like I’m going down a water slide, belly up and head first.”

“I’m going to make a statement. Try to assess your reactions when you hear it. But first, breathe more slowly; and deeply.” He was still in that cold sweat state. As he lengthened his breathing, she used his sling to wipe his face dry. He worried her, but that would have to wait. “Here’s the statement: Cynthia Bates is the killer.”

His breath caught then released. “No.”

“You can’t sort out your reactions?”

“I think I can. I think it’s not her. But it’s like when you asked me about Sid Stein. I may need some time for all this to settle.” She touched his forehead; he was warming up. Sensing her concern, he said, “I dunno why I got like this. When she grabbed that poker – no, this came on later. When I started feeling like she wasn’t the one. I mean, if dealing with her was so rough. What’s it going to be like if I’m squared off with somebody and all of a sudden I know. This is the killer.” He shuddered.

“Maybe it’s time to turn this over to Beaudine.”

“And tell him – what? That I don’t get the feeling Cynthia Bates is the killer? Or that Sid and Constance both claim they have family emergencies? Forget it. It takes a corpse to get his attention.”

“Could he really be putting a warrant out on us? How can he be that stupid? On the other hand, he does assign men to watch our homes whether we are there or not.”

“And then they miss minor details like Hugo. Well, if there is a warrant, we’ve got to hustle before the fucking cops arrest us.” They pulled into the gym parking lot. “Shit, there’s Bianca’s car.” There was a car in Andy’s parking slot, too. “Man, I am not up for this one.”

“Then let’s wait.”

He considered waiting, with the yearning of an emphysemic craving a cigarette, then shook his head. “We can’t.”

“Then let’s review one more time: we go in, I hover in the background while you say you want to talk to Andy – and Bianca, if we can’t avoid her.”

“Then I make a few remarks about them fucking, try to get them going so they’re talking and I’m figuring out whether that’s the only reason I hate Andy.”

“Now what if he suggests going somewhere private to talk? Considering how things went with Cynthia, we definitely want a crowd within screaming distance.”

“No shit. If that happens I insist that talking in public is the only way I can guarantee not losing it and punching him or something.”

However disturbed he’d been leaving Cynthia’s, he was already more upset about being here. Clare waited for him to make a move inside. He would know when he was ready.

There was that man again. The Mercedes driver she knew from somewhere. Exiting with him was another familiar-looking man, younger, pudgy and unfit, yet wearing the gym staff’s distinctive black sweatshirt emblazoned with a hot pink LE GYM. ASK ME. “Taylor something,” she said in the first man’s direction. “Now I remember. I know them from Tekassist. The one with the Mercedes is a chief executive. The one in the sweatshirt was in middle management, although I’d heard he’d been fired. His name was – Ron.”

“The guy in the sweatshirt calls himself Glenn here. He’s the daytime manager. Which is weird because Le Gym never hires anybody who’s not a perfect specimen. He’s the one who loaned me the Datsun with the bum tires. The other guy, Taylor? I see him here a lot, bossing the employees around. What’s Tekassist?”

“Part of a conglomerate. I don’t know which one. They supply lab animals to researchers who don’t raise their own. It’s very big business, especially with this new genetic engineering of mutant creatures designed to suit specific experiments. Perhaps ‘Glenn’ was transferred, not fired. Although I can’t imagine why Tekassist would operate Le Gym.”

They watched Taylor walk his allegedly ex-employee to a BMW. He seemed to be giving orders before he got in his Mercedes and sped away. The BMW pulled up to the gym entrance, stopped with rear lights glowing. Ron alias Glenn ran inside, ran back out wearing a plain gray sweatshirt, jumped in the car, and sat fidgeting at the wheel.

Clare started to speak, then the gym door opened and Andy Stuart, dressed in civvies, ran out and around to jump in the beemer. But the passenger door was locked and while waiting for ‘Glenn’ to unlock it, Andy dropped a thick manila folder. Papers scattered. ‘Glenn’ ran to help collect every last one.

“There he is,” Tommy whispered.

“Damn, we’ve missed this chance to talk to him. Before they drive away, take a good look at him. As you did with Sid Stein, recognize your preconceptions about Andy. And sort out any changes in your reactions over time, when I ask: Is Andy Stuart the killer?” During this, she had kept her eyes on Andy, as though she could will him to remain in view. Now she regarded Tommy with alarm. His face was contorting in pain.

“I don’t – I can’t -” he cut himself off with a guttural sob. Tears poured down his face. His left arm was shaking. Clare hurried to rearrange the sling; he must have loosened it too much, at Cynthia’s. His fingers gnarled and strained, and his elbow straightened, causing him to cry out and wrench his face. A twisted finger pointed at Andy and Clare belatedly understood.

Andy Stuart was the killer.

The BMW was driving out of the lot. Clare started her car and followed. Now that she could at last see the killer, it seemed essential to keep him in view.

“God, Bianca,” Tommy said.

“We should warn her.” Clare braked.

Tommy waved her on. “We will. But she’s safe until Andy finds out we’re on to him. And right now, I want to know why that fucker’s not at work.”

Clare sped up to keep the beemer in view. “I wonder if he’s been seeing Bianca so much in order to keep tabs on you.”

Tommy nodded then shouted. “Sweatband! GodDAMNit! Watch out, don’t drive too close. If you stay in the other lane you can see them from further away.”

“But what if they turn suddenly?”

“Shit, you’re right. Don’t ask me, I couldn’t even figure out a simple fucking.” He paused, then continued less explosively, “It wasn’t a sweater cuff I touched. It was a sweatband. Like Andy has on his wrists today.”

“Shit is right. Well at least you figured it out – it might help Beaudine. Damn. I’ve never wanted a car phone before. We should call Beaudine.”

“And tell him my arm twitched and I felt real bad just like in our lab tests, so that’s his man? Fuck, even I don’t believe it. How could Andy be the killer? What did he have against all those people?”

“Perhaps nothing, if he’s psychotic. Or perhaps Tekassist is behind the murders. Andy used to work there too, don’t forget. Not that Tekassist makes sense, either. None of the victims used Tekassist services. And the company is so huge, so powerful. They wouldn’t need to resort to murder. They’d just phone their lawyers and congressmen.”

“Some kind of coincidence though, if nothing’s going down. Two ex-Tekassist guys taking orders from their ex-boss. All three of ‘em looking worried. And one of ‘em, my brain says is a killer.” Tommy tried to peer into the BMW’s smoked glass windows. “I bet they’re going to the freeway.”

A few minutes later, as they passed the last stoplight on Arroyo Parkway before it became the Pasadena Freeway, Tommy won his bet. “Downtown?” Tommy wondered next, but this time guessed wrong. They did take the Santa Ana Freeway east, passing near downtown L.A.; and at this point, the BMW indeed took an offramp – but then headed northeasterly, away from those few aging skyscrapers and rapidly spreading high-rises, that skyline that seemed to double in volume each year. Clare lagged farther back, feeling too noticeable as they trailed the BMW along empty boulevards beside rusty railroad tracks and smog-pitted warehouses.

After that brief bit of industrial badlands, they were in a barrio. Here she pulled closer: there were many cars and, amazingly, much foot traffic as well. The pedestrians were all Latino; a few looked hostile about the passing Anglos; a few looked fearful: was Immigration about to sweep the area? The BMW turned right at a red light. When Clare reached the intersection, the light was green and a thick surge of pedestrians blocked her turn. Finally the last stragglers were through the crosswalk.

Tommy informed her, “He turned right again, two lights down. I think. Shit.”

She screeched up the side street and around the corner he’d indicated, spotted brake lights some blocks away, turning left. Yes, there was the BMW, driving through residential streets now, an area clearly impoverished but strongly a community, unlike most sections of L.A. Kids played in yards and around parked cars. A man stopped his pickup in the street to chat with a neighbor sweeping a sidewalk. When the BMW sped by, they both glared and yelled to some children, motioning for them to stay out of the street.

The next side street climbed a two-block hill. There, older kids jeered as the BMW approached, then threw rocks and garbage at the car. Their hate-filled gestures were visible in stark silhouette against the gray afternoon sky. Clare and Tommy made sure their windows were up and braced for a similar barrage. But when they passed, the kids ignored them. “Guess they used all their ammunition,” Tommy said. “Where the fuck are these guys going?”

She didn’t reply – she was fully occupied with not seeming to be following the beemer. A mile further, she had to brake and slow to stay back out of view. The residences had thinned into a vast wasteland of rotting factories and shut down storage facilities along wide streets spotted with irrelevant traffic lights. In a different economic era the tri-colored sentinels no doubt regulated thousands of employees; but now two cars were the only signs of life. Far ahead, one light turned red and the BMW didn’t even brake for it. By the time Clare reached the intersection, the light had turned green and then red again.

The beemer disappeared over a slight incline. When Clare and Tommy reached the top of the rise, the road ahead was empty. Clare sped up, slowed at an intersection, peered down the side street. Nothing. No one. She sped up to another intersection. Nothing. No one. The next intersection yielded the same result. They started driving in circles, loops, hoping to see the BMW parked somewhere.

The longer the car was out of Clare’s view, the more she dreaded seeing it again – speeding straight at them or swerving into place directly behind. These vast empty streets left them incredibly exposed.

“We lost ‘em. Only car for miles. God fucking damn it!”

Tommy’s litany of swearing ceased mid-blue-syllable when Clare asked fearfully, “Did they know we were following them?”

“Nah. They would have driven differently. Turned more often, doubled back, stuff like that.” Was he feigning that assurance?

“I think it’s time to call Beaudine – and warn Bianca.”

“Bianca might be safer not knowing, for now. Until Andy’s locked up – I mean, what if she acted scared around him? He’d know why. Beaudine? Yeah, if we can reach him soon. Wherever Andy and ‘Glenn’ were going, they were in a hurry to get there. Which makes me think we’ve got to act fast, too. But fuck if I know what else to do. Except go find a phone.”

Clare turned the car around, attempting to retrace their route; fighting an escalating agitation: on top of everything else they were hopelessly lost! She must remain calm. Was Tommy lost too? Calm, stay calm. If she asked and he said yes, could she bear it? Turn here? N-yes. YES. There were the kids with the garbage, interrupting their play once again to watch the approaching car. Once again, the kids did not throw anything, though Clare now saw many potential projectiles within their reach.

“What the -?” Tommy cried, so fast did she brake the car.

“They didn’t throw anything at us again.”

“Do we want them to?”

“Maybe they don’t just attack any Anglos who pass by. Maybe they recognized the BMW. Or Andy or -” But Tommy was already out of the car, running to talk with the kids. Clare paused to take her keys but left the Nova double-parked.

The kids looked a little nervous and a lot curious as the strangers approached. Tommy smiled disarmingly while Clare politely requested, “May we talk to you?” The kids replied with blank stares. “About fifteen minutes ago a car went by, you threw things at it – it’s okay, we don’t mind, we’d like to throw things too.” Still no response, although some of the kids began whispering among themselves. While she pondered other ways of winning their confidence, she realized the sotto voce discussions were all in Spanish.

She and Tommy exchanged a glance, then she smiled at the youngsters. “Do you speak any English?”

“Hi. How’s it going?” the tallest girl replied.

Over the next few minutes, they determined that the kids knew a non sequitured assortment of English slang and advertising slogans. Which was superior to Clare’s Spanish: she could order food and get directions to the ocean, the museum, and the library. Tommy knew a bit more than she, but none of his phrases could be repeated to minors.

Clare and Tommy were so clearly benign, so alarmingly somber, and so obviously frustrated by the lack of communication, that the kids became eager to break the impasse. In other circumstances, their efforts at pantomime would have been funny. But no one was laughing.

“This is nowhere. We’re losing time,” Tommy finally said. “We’ve gotta get an interpreter.”

Clare looked around the neighborhood, saw no prospects. “I can start knocking on doors.”

“We need a friend, somebody who’ll trust us – ‘cuz who knows what we’re gonna find out, or what we’ll have to do about it?” He considered. “Dick speaks some Spanish but he’s got swing shift this week. Who could you get?”

“Robert. He’s fluent.”

“Will he help us?”

“He has to.”

It took another several moments to learn the location of a pay phone, back on the main thoroughfare. Tommy stayed with the kids, to make sure they stuck around. Clare took her car but had to park almost as many blocks away on the opposite side of the boulevard. She ran to the phone, then pointlessly plugged one ear against the haunted singing and strumming coming from the nameless bar next door; against the barking and revving autos at the corner signal; against the fast-paced conversations of pedestrians all around her.

Faintly, Robert’s office phone rang. Or did it? The noise ceased. Or had it? Should she hang up and try again? What was that? At last – an irritated shouted “Hello!” penetrated. She spoke rapidly. “This is an emergency, don’t hang up on me. I can’t hear you, I’m at a pay phone on a very noisy street, please don’t hang up.” She waited, did not hear a dial tone, eventually discerned yelling that sounded like Robert demanding, “I repeat, what do you want?” She explained the situation, gave directions as best she could, begged him to hurry. “Will you come?” she kept repeating, but never heard the reply. She could only take hope from the fact that he’d remained on the line.

Next she spent a few chicken-sans-head minutes futilely hunting a quieter phone. She returned to the corner to find the original phone in use. Wondrously, the new user, a man calling numbers from the La Opinion classifieds, noticed her distress and handed the receiver to her. But her luck quickly reverted: from what she could discern when she called the Pasadena police station, Beaudine was out. A machine answered his home phone. She didn’t leave messages – what should she say? She couldn’t even give an accurate address.

When she got back to the kids, Tommy was playing catch with them. She told of her journey and joined in the game.

Thirty-odd minutes later, Robert found them. Clare was grateful when he drove up and their eyes connected: the look he gave hit her so hard, she was numb to him thereafter. he despised her and loathed Tommy: that was apparent in his refusal to look at them; in those clipped demands for information; in that hand that jerked up to halt additional speech from them, the instant he understood what they needed to find out. Of course, situations reversed, she doubted that she would have even answered her plea.

At first the kids were reluctant to answer Robert’s inquiries, but slowly he won them over and eventually they were all shouting at once, raging against the BMW or its occupants. “El Malo … el Malo,” Clare heard several times: it seemed to be a name, a name for someone these children hated more than Clare thought it possible for children to hate.

Finally Robert turned to inform a point equidistant between Clare and Tommy, “The men in the BMW work for someone who has taken terrible advantage of people in this neighborhood – hurt them dreadfully, maybe killed some of them – these children aren’t sure; their parents stop talking when they realize the kids are listening. They do know there’s a factory a couple miles from here where this man can be found; where these bad things happen.”

“Did they give you an address to this factory?”

“No but they described the building and the general route to -” he paused as the children yelled protests across the street to a front door where an adult had appeared, apparently calling some of the children inside.

Then the man spotted Clare. He darted back into the house, slamming the door so hard it sprung back open. Clare gasped, belatedly aware of those eyes like black holes. “The man who attacked me. Who destroyed the labs.”

Everything happened at once. Robert shouted questions at the kids, learned this was the uncle of three of them. Tommy and Clare yelled about getting help and ran for her car, then ran back to give chase instead. Robert dashed after them to join in. The kids trailed behind, sensing trouble and seeking to protect the Anglos’ prey.

The tiny house across the street was empty – this was no surprise. Clare ran through living and dining rooms, past several stacks of mattresses. A large number of people lived in this cottage. Running out the open gaping kitchen door, Clare realized that in daylight the man no longer resembled a surfer despite his beachwear shorts and shirt. He was not tanned and blond. He was Latino – surely an illegal seeking to hide his origins – with bleached hair and mustache.

She stopped running to stand in the weedy backyard, listening to screeching tires and spraying gravel. Her attacker shoved the transmission of his ancient Falcon into gear and skidded out of the carport, into the street and away. Clare, Tommy, and Robert sprinted down the driveway to the sidewalk – where the kids formed a protective wall, willing to fight to keep these treacherous strangers from giving further chase. Memories of Clare’s attack grew diluted, distorted, as she faced these angry and defensive children. They clearly loved that man who so frightened her.

While she struggled to assimilate this, Tommy and Robert shouted their options. They knew where the man lived, they could come back for him later. Likewise, they would wait before attempting to reach Beaudine, or summoning some other cop who would have to be filled in to be of help. Now, before it got dark, they should use the kids’ vague information to locate the facility where the bad things occurred.

They took Robert’s car; it wouldn’t be recognized if the BMW had spotted Clare and Tommy before. Once the three were enclosed, they recalled how unpleasant being together was. This kept them stiffly polite but otherwise was ignored. Briefly, Clare fretted about parking her car outside the deranged surfer’s home, but she had no real choice.

Less than two miles away, they found it: a deserted warehouse complex up an alley, fenced by chain link topped with barbed wire – like any of the complexes in the area. A faded sign on the triple-locked gate posted phone numbers to call to learn of progress with the layoffs. Surely this, like the surrounding installations, had long ago declared bankruptcy. Yet there, inside the grounds, was parked the BMW, two vans, and a twenty-foot U-Haul truck.

All four vehicles were parked behind a trailer some distance from the warehouse entrance, as though to be hidden from any casual passersby. Robert threw his car into reverse, backed out the alley and down around a truly vacant facility across the street. From here, they could observe without being seen.

The setting sun tinted the sky a ghastly orange; the metal buildings turned sickly yellow, moldy brown, lifeless black. Headlights slid onto the access road. Clare thought she discerned the dark hulk of a Mercedes entering the complex.

“I say we try to get closer,” one of them whispered, almost inaudibly yet they jumped. Robert snapped off the overhead light and they opened their doors.

They’d crept across the street and halfway up the alley when headlights reappeared. They hurled themselves to the dirt. Flattened against the ground, nose pressed into soil, Clare fought the urge to gag. The earth had a sour chemical odor. She eased her head to the side, just as Tommy’s breath tickled her ear. “Looks like Mercedes tail lights.”

“Over here,” Robert called, so softly she sensed rather than heard the words. They scrabbled forward until they could sit behind a swatch of spiking shrubbery.

She heard scraping, discerned Robert tearing at the earth like a dog. “The ground’s hard but I think we can dig under the fence,” he breathed.

A mimed and whispered debate ensued about whether they should move forward – or retreat and leave the rest to Beaudine. Suddenly a vise gripped Clare’s shoulder, a pipe throttled her throat, a dead fish covered her mouth, stifling her scream. Click – a slice of light darted, blinding Robert click click Tommy click click Clare – click. Utter blackness engulfed them. They were discovered. Found out. Caught.

“Don’t make a sound, all our lives depend upon it,” a voice murmured against Clare’s ear. The arm around her throat jerked for emphasis. Robert and Tommy, kneeling nearby, were similarly gripped by other captors. “Do you understand?” They nodded and were released.

“Hugo?” she whispered, too astonished to fear him.

Click. The light illumined his face for an instant. Click. Her shoulder was tapped, her arm tugged. She followed his lead and crept back, out, around, behind. Now they were in back of a warehouse that was next door to the one upon which they all, apparently, were spying.

They were led to a VW bus. As soon as they were all standing under a thick black curtain, the van’s doors opened. Inside were light, warmth, and low conversation between a man and a woman who pored over documents that were fringed at one end as though pulled from a shredder. The bus was crowded once these two squeezed over to admit Clare, Tommy, Robert, then Hugo and – the other two captors! Clare did a double take when she saw their faces.

“Hello Dr. Austen,” Matt Woods said. “We lied about the grant.”

“But if we had any to give, we would unquestionably give one to you,” Kristen Hankoff added apologetically.

“It would seem we are all on the same side after all,” Hugo intoned. “Else you would be inside those gates.”

“And in the ninth circle of Hades,” one of those at the documents remarked. Hugo made introductions all around but Clare was incapable of processing the new pair of names.

A light rap on a window, a low voice informed, “Vans moving out.” So there was at least one more person still posted outside.

Hugo consulted his watch. “Another few minutes and we’ll go in. There’s a period after they remove the day’s refuse, before night security is full on, when it’s safest for us. I don’t wish to be mysterious, I’ll explain as much as time allows. It’s horribly gruesome but you must join us. Otherwise you just might not believe me.”

“You sure you’re not trying to be mysterious?” Tommy demanded.

“We’re members of an organization – which one, you don’t need to know,” Kristen Hankoff began. “We use the grant giving and other ruses to collect information on particularly inhumane animal research.”

“And once we know enough,” Matt Woods continued, “We liberate the animals. But we don’t move in until we can close the lab, not just rescue the current victims. We make sure we have enough evidence to force the media to pay attention, to force the cops to take action.”

“Each serves to keep the other honest,” Hugo noted.

“There’s research being done next door? Why would anyone work out here?” Robert was puzzled.

Hugo consulted his watch, replied in a rush. “Exactly what we wondered. We’d gotten wind of primate experiments Colton was conducting on memory, brutal stuff indeed. But -”

“This is where Stanford Colton conducted research?” Clare was thrown to the far side of confusion. Too many shocks in too short a time: it became a tremendous struggle to hear, much less comprehend, as Hugo kept explaining.

“Yes. It took weeks to find his testing site, more weeks to sneak inside. Once there, we had to completely alter our plan of attack. We didn’t liberate, we collected proof – and tried to determine who was responsible, who was funding him. We had to be very careful, very complete, we dared leave no questions unanswered.”

“But right away he was killed and they started shutting down the operation. Their need for secrecy has slowed them somewhat but it’s almost gone and we still don’t know who’s behind it. If we don’t find that out, Colton will be chalked off as a mad scientist and they’ll get away with it. Maybe even set up shop again with someone new.” If Kristen could kill those responsible, there was no question she’d be happy to do so.

“What ‘operation’? ‘They’ who?” Robert said, with a particular type of irritation he exhibited when not following a conversation.

“Tekassist,” Clare said, capturing the attention of all.

“To be continued,” Hugo regarded her with frustration and excitement. “We’ve got to go inside. Now. Follow our leads, exactly. Lives are truly at stake.”

Along the back of the facility, farthest from the street, where the building shielded the fence from the parking areas, a hole had been dug under the chicken wire and carefully hidden with bushes. One at a time, they crawled through. Once on the grounds, as they crept forward Clare noticed that the BMW, vans, and U-Haul were gone. Only one nondescript late-model American sedan was parked now. They inched around it, ran-crawled along the warehouse wall and slipped in the door.

Five of them crowded in a tiny anteroom while Kristen scouted ahead, disappearing into a dimly lit hall. At last she returned and beckoned them forward. While waiting, Clare had time to anticipate all sorts of horrors, but nothing she could imagine could prepare her for the reality at the end of that long dark hall.

Go to next chapter.

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