Clare felt a certain fondness for the yuppie mansion owner: after offering them lifts home, he merely added sandals to his bathrobe and they set out; he didn’t try to make conversation and he waited to see Tommy safely inside his door.
Tommy lived in a soon-to-be-dilapidated two-story clapboard house, converted to apartments. As he ran up the sagging stairs, the yuppie inched his Jaguar forward to keep Tommy visible in the amber street light. Clare rolled down her window as Tommy hammered on his door, which was bolted from the inside. Lights went on in other windows; not his. He kept pounding. The timbre of the car engine changed from idling too long. The yuppie turned the ignition off. At last Tommy’s porch light went on and the door opened.
“Why’d you wake me up?” Bianca greeted him groggily. Then she noticed his arm in its sling and got to act concerned in ways Clare wasn’t allowed. Tommy put his good arm around his wife and stepped inside. When the car engine reignited, he jumped, then turned to wave good-bye.
Every light in Clare’s apartment blazed; the TV and stereo blasted. The floor thudded as the downstairs neighbor thumped his ceiling for quiet. Robert was lying on the floor, Jessie hunched under a chair. “Trying to get us evicted?” Clare stepped over Robert to shut off the multimedia show, then knelt to coax Jessie out.
“Nice of you to stop by. And to phone hours ago, to keep me from worrying. I went over to the campus, but the police wouldn’t let anyone in your building.”
“You know about Dr. Colton then.” She watched Jessie bolt down the hall.
“I got several calls about dear departed Stanford. Everyone’s so upset. But you didn’t need consoling. Or preferred it from Tommy Dabrowski. Why don’t you make some phone calls now so I can find out what happened to you tonight?”
Despicably unfair: Clare started to cry. Robert glanced at her. Colton’s final expression had been friendlier. He resumed staring at nothing and in a monotone, lest she trigger new sobs, she began to describe her evening.
He interrupted her almost immediately. “Why was Tommy there on a Friday?”
“He dropped off his journal.” At Robert’s snort, she added, “I told him I’m terminating research with him.” Robert turned to face her, questioning with his eyes. “Why do you think? I’m weak but not that weak. We’ve been unhappy a long time but -”
“You’ve been unhappy,” he corrected her softly.
She wouldn’t have thought it possible: she could feel worse. Returning to more pleasant topics, she resumed telling Robert all that had transpired. At some point his innate empathy forced him to join her on the couch, although he held her tentatively.
Eventually, nearly talked out, she explained that Tommy might have a clue to the murderer’s identity locked in his unlanguaged hemisphere. Robert was fascinated, which led to a barrage of questions and speculation. She finally held up her hand. “Stop, stop. I don’t know anything at this point and I’m in no condition to brainstorm. Although you are giving me good strategy ideas.”
After a long pause, “You’re going to keep working with Tommy on this.”
“I – have to. I know what his usual responses are, that could be important. I don’t see how I could not. I guess I could consult.” Coward. She knew she was going to do it.
“You’re right, any delay is a problem.” They sat in silence, Clare marveling at the depths of his reasonableness. “Let’s get some sleep.” He kissed her lightly.
“I’ve got to call Mrs. Bates first.” As Robert consulted his watch, “I know, it’s after three, but I don’t want Beaudine to get to her first.” Given Cynthia’s current mental state, she’d need quite a pep talk before dealing with the authorities, who were sure to learn that she’d sought out Colton the last two days. “Cynthia Bates is harmless, but Lieutenant Beaudine will think otherwise.”
“Based on what you’ve said about him, meddling is a bad idea.” He sighed. “But I’m much too tired to get into it. I’ve got to make up with Jessie anyway.”
“She does hate your moods.”
“After seven years with you she should be used to moods.”
“I thought we were through fighting for the night.”
“Fighting? As usual you’ve completely evaded any. No. To bed.” He disappeared down the hall, behind the closed bedroom door.
Mercifully, Robert was asleep by the time she got off the phone, so she could avoid his unspoken Told You So.
Mrs. Bates had been panicked by Clare’s call. “Why are you calling me? I haven’t seen Dr. Colton in months. What was that noise – is someone else on the line? Am I a suspect? I didn’t do it, surely you believe me. What did you tell the police? Clare, we’ve got to get our stories straight. They’ll take my babies away! Oh God oh God, no William I’m fine, please go back to bed, please. I must go Dr. Austen. No, I really can’t talk longer. Thank you for calling.” With that, the line had gone dead.
How could one person be so wrong so often. It’s not the number of mistakes one makes, Clare, it’s what one learns from them. A voice from the old days, when Stanford Colton provided inspiration, until she’d made mistakes even he couldn’t countenance. Of course she’d waited until he was dead to want to make amends. Dead. His blood splattered on the carpet, red spread across the room, too slippery to move, red walls wet floor wet air she was drowning …
Stop. Now. She was a goddamned brain scientist. What good was it if she couldn’t control her own mind? She wouldn’t think about Colton. She wouldn’t think about anything. Instead she would breathe. Breathe. Her chest hurt where the killer had shoved her. Her eyes squeezed shut with the pain but the light at the phone table burned red through her eyelids. She knocked the lamp to the floor in her haste to extinguish it. It lay like the lamp in Colton’s office, spotlighting the carpet. She unplugged it.
Clare moved to the couch. Sleep was out of the question. She wanted Jessie, but the cat was sure to be curled on Clare’s pillow and if Clare went to get her she might wake Robert. Instead she doused the lights and sat waiting: for Jessie to come looking for her, for dawn to edge the blinds.
The deranged surfer stood outside the window – no, it was Mrs. Bates. No! Clare was sure Mrs. Bates only acted guilty but then Clare was always wrong. Stop thinking. She couldn’t. Her mind raced with gruesome images. Alright then. She was allowed to flip out until the sun rose. From then on, she would remain in complete control.
“The next time you tamper with a potential witness or any other part of this investigation, plan to spend time in jail.”
Clare had finally gone to bed about nine A.M. Twenty minutes later, she’d been summoned to Beaudine’s office. He’d talked with Mrs. Bates, who got caught knowing too much and admitted it was Clare who’d told her.
“As I’ve said before, Lieutenant, it was a mistake to call her. I apologize again, for what little that’s worth. But I can’t stress enough that, however much you dislike and distrust me, Cynthia Bates needs protection.”
“She’s a little wiggy,” Beaudine stared at Clare, “but I’ve seen worse.” They were startled by a loud rumbling – Clare’s stomach growling. Beaudine almost smiled. “You want some coffee or something?” She didn’t but shrugged in compliance. Beaudine left and returned with Styrofoam cups of a muddy substance that was not for the weak of stomach lining. “So Colton operated on Bates, and you experiment on her. What about Dabrowski, was Colton his surgeon?”
“No. A few neurosurgeons perform commissurotomies and there are several researchers. Very few people have had this operation, you see, so some surgeons also conduct experiments and we all -”
“Who were Colton’s other patients? Any idea?”
“With his surgeries, yes. Even he couldn’t keep those secret.” Clare gave him some names. “Beyond that, I’m not sure. But he used to keep patient files in his – desk. Are those the files missing from his drawer? His patient files?”
Beaudine’s looked turned sourer. “Some of them do seem to be missing.” He swigged coffee and pushed away from his desk. Grilling concluded.
“About my staying out of the investigation. I hope that doesn’t include working with Tommy to find out what he knows.” At Beaudine’s smirk: “I see. You don’t mind because you think it’s an impossible task. Well. I can supply you with data that -”
“Data. Ever been to a trial, Dr. Austen? They got these expert witnesses.” He spoke the term as if it signified a rectal disease. “One expert proves black, the next one proves white with data. Sometimes they all use the same data. And all they care about is looking more expert than the others. Now, I don’t mean to insult you.”
“Not entirely. I kind of liked science in school. The quest for pure knowledge – something noble about that. It’s when you people get messed up with the real world that I get irritated. But look. You could be right. So go to it. I should point out that whatever you find won’t be admissible in court. And I have two requests for you.”
“Requests as in do them or else, you mean.”
“Anything you figure out, you tell me immediately. This card’s got how to reach me, here and at home. And any investigating you do, you keep in the lab. Period.”
That was fine with Clare. She had no desire to work outside her lab. She was all too aware of her limits – and her skills weren’t transferable to the world at large.
Beaudine showed her to the door. “You say you can prove who killed Colton, it makes me wonder how you and Dabrowski know – and why you’re so eager to get involved. Why you’re already so involved.” He opened the door, revealing Tommy in the corridor, awaiting an audience.
“Gee. Maybe you should arrest us right now.”
Beaudine made no reply, indicated with a nod that Tommy should come in and Clare keep moving. “I should advise you both.” He said it disguised as an afterthought. “Whether or not a clue’s stuck in those brains of his, I wouldn’t spread it around that either of you can identify the killer.”
As Beaudine shut the door in Clare’s face, Tommy motioned for her to wait.
“I can’t believe the stuff you say to that guy,” Tommy told her as they headed out to her car a half hour later. “Pretty women and crazy people, they sure get away with shit, you ever notice that?”
“Are you implying a correlation? Actually, my talking back amuses Beaudine.”
“Never trust a cop. Never tell him anything you don’t have to, always be so polite it makes you sick – and never believe that just because he likes you one minute, he won’t turn on you the next.”
“Where did you get all this experience with cops?”
Tommy held her car door closed, forcing her to look at him. “Clare. This is serious. Watch out for Beaudine. Are you listening?”
She nodded and looked away, frustrated and embarrassed: she didn’t share Tommy’s paranoia but could see she’d behaved naively.
She gave Tommy a ride to Hollywood: his band’s rehearsal building had been condemned and he had to get his rooms cleared out today, but Bianca was off dealing with their dead car. During the drive, Clare brooded. Tommy was so distant today. “You seem – different today.”
“It’s driving me nuts, feeling like I could solve this thing but I can’t.”
“We’ll solve it. And we’ll start right away – if that’s acceptable to you.”
“Sooner the better. I know you wanted to stop seeing me. I won’t cause you any trouble,” he said coolly.
Clare felt queasy. Tommy was shutting her out at her request; worse, she wanted to rescind that request. She caught him staring – then smiling. He’d figured out what she was thinking. “Damn,” she hadn’t meant to say out loud.
Tommy laughed, then sobered. “I almost got killed this morning. I keep trying to think it was an accident, but I keep not being able to.”
Clare veered onto the freeway shoulder; brakes and horns shrieked around them. A nondescript white sedan slowed as it passed; the driver looked them over, grabbed a car phone, then took the next turnoff. The white car had been behind them since they’d left the Pasadena police station. Clare always watched drivers on car phones, concerned that they weren’t watching the road. “You’d better tell me what happened.”
He stared at the windshield without speaking, for a time. “Those stairs to my balcony? They’ve always been squirrelly and the last quake got them all twisted. But they’re not dangerous – the boards are sturdy, it’s just their angle. Well this morning a whole section breaks and I fall, or I almost do. This thing,” he indicated his arm sling, “caught and gave me time to hold on.”
“It’s not that far a drop, killed is a little strong for what might have happened.” She wasn’t ready for melodrama today.
“Usually, no. But there was all this crap under the stairs, stuff I never noticed before. Rusty gardening shears, point in the air; an ax sticking out of a barrel, blade up. All of it like it was just stored there, but arranged so it’d be real bad news to hit from above. My neighbor downstairs says he never saw that stuff before, either.”
“Is your neighbor the only one who could have put those tools there?”
“Naw, Caltrans owns the house – it’s one of the ones that gets snuffed when they finish the freeway – and they’re always doing something.”
“Were the stairs sawed or otherwise tampered with?”
“Not that I could tell. I dunno, I guess it was just a coincidence. Bianca pointed out that the killer would’ve needed time to rig something like that. Bianca’s got a lot of common sense, she’s really -”
“Did your neighbor hear noises near the stairs last night?”
“He was gone, another one’s out of town and the last is this old couple, pretty deaf, I mean my band practices against their living room wall and they don’t complain.”
“That’s pretty deaf. Did Bianca hear anything?”
“No, but she fell asleep before Letterman and you saw what it took to wake her up.”
“I think it was an accident and I also think we need to resist paranoia. For example, I was worrying about that white car because it looked like the one following Dr. Colton that night.”
“Maybe it was. Maybe it got painted to keep us off track.”
“Tommy, stop it.”
“Aw shit.” A squad car had pulled up behind them. Clare sighed, reached for her registration. “Don’t move,” Tommy hissed. “In this neighborhood, when you move LAPD calls it ‘reaching for a gun’.” In the rear view mirror, Clare saw that both patrolmen had emerged from their car. The driver stood frozen, hand poised near holster. His partner assumed an assault position.
Last night, walking down that dark hall with Tommy, she had entered another dimension, a world where everything was threatening and her judgment was useless.
Tommy eased his right hand and his left sling into the air, cursing the pain. Clare raised both hands, fingers splayed. One cop approached, guardedly macho.
“Hello officer. I ran over a piece of metal and I was afraid I had a flat. Fortunately I don’t.”
Curtly, he advised her to resume driving, then he spotted Tommy. Now he wanted her license and registration, and Tommy’s license; he took these back to his car to check against the bad deeds list in the LAPD computer.
“Good lie job,” Tommy congratulated her. “See, if you were alone he’d let you go. I get this shit all the time. But don’t act mad or he’ll cite you for something. They always find something.”
When they were allowed to leave, the black-and-white followed them for miles, north onto Western Avenue and then east on Santa Monica Boulevard. Finally, a dented pickup ran a red light and the squad car took off after it. The passenger side cop gave Clare and Tommy a final glare as the squad car roared past.
“Sorry I dragged you into this,” Tommy said, then, half a block further along, “This is it. Park anywhere.”
The rehearsal building was a five-story brick decorated with deep earthquake damage cracks. Porno theaters flanked it. At the corner, a line of gaunt Latino men waited, watching passing drivers while avoiding eye contact. Next to Clare’s parking space, teenage male hustlers also monitored passing cars.
“Nice neighborhood. What are those guys waiting for?”
“Clare, even you haven’t led that sheltered a life. Oh, down at the corner? They’re illegals. Waiting for work. See?” A van pulled up, the driver said a few words. Two of the Latinos got in the van, looking resigned; the remaining men muttered, looking angry – or hopeless. “Must’ve offered them half a buck an hour.”
“You mean they just get in a car with strangers?”
“It’s the only way they can get jobs. They’ve got families to help support.” Tommy led her inside the brick building. “You want to really get depressed, ask me about the other guys.” He pushed the elevator button and she turned to look at the hustlers, some of whom were old enough to have acne.
The elevator car arrived with a shriek and a clank. It was the old-fashioned kind with two doors, the inner a metal lattice. The interior was paneled wood, with graffiti carved everywhere. There were stains that, judging by the aroma, were urine and vomit. Tommy pressed the fifth-floor button and the elevator dropped five feet, then lurched upward. “The stairs are worse,” Tommy reassured her. “Only two trips and we’re out of here. I really appreciate your helping. I know this isn’t what you’re used to and I -”
“I’m fine. The princess and the pea isn’t my life story, you know. I -” She cut herself off. To protest was to seem even greener. She’d been in plenty of sleazy places, even dangerous ones. Of course, that was back in the days when she’d believed she could handle anything that might arise.
The elevator shook to a stop. Clare hurried out to a long corridor lit by failing fifteen-watt bulbs.
Tommy’s rehearsal room was cheery with fresh multicolored paint and comfortable thrift store furniture. “Feels good in here, huh?” Tommy sighed. “Wish I could keep it. Bianca’s the one who fixed it up.”
She’d liked it before, she couldn’t change her mind now. In silence, she helped Tommy wheel his amp out to the elevator. She watched the floors crawl upward as they descended. Outside, after much struggle and a rip in her car’s headliner, the amp fit in the backseat. “Let’s talk about last night,” Clare said, but Tommy wasn’t listening. He was watching the approach of a tall chubby blond that Clare found vaguely familiar.
“Hey Harry. Thanks for pissing on my clothes.”
“Thanks for kicking me out.” Harry sneered at Tommy’s arm sling. “What hap, the Lingerie crowd want quality? Do us all a favor and give up, you know?”
“If you mess with her car you’re sixed.” Tommy advised, then slammed the car door and motioned for Clare to follow him inside, leaving Harry on the sidewalk.
Back in the rehearsal room, they collected miscellaneous cords and small electronic boxes. Tommy’s abrupt movements indicated he was steaming about Harry. “Fun day,” Tommy noted as they commenced their final elevator descent.
“Look at it this – oh, no.”
The elevator shook, free fell ten feet, jerked to another stop. Every muscle in Clare cramped as she awaited their next fall. Tommy commenced a steady stream of swearing, shoved each floor button in turn, slammed his hand against the wall. “Kill you fucker,” he started yelling through the lattice.
Clare learned several things: Tommy had a limited vocabulary of four-letter words, but an impressive range of inflection while screaming; their elevator trip was aborted by someone’s opening one of the outer doors on any of the five floors; and Tommy believed the culprit was someone stupid who might wise up hearing these yells – or Harry, still after revenge.
It was a deaf stupid person, or Harry. Futilely, Clare tried the emergency phone, right above the official notice that the elevator had had its yearly inspection for 1973. Tommy sank to the floor. Clare joined him, but it smelled so much worse down there, she stood again. “Somebody’s got to come by,” she hoped.
“Only a couple people rent here and they may have already moved out.”
“And the cleaning crew’s got the decade off. Does Bianca know where you are?”
Tommy brightened. “At some point she’ll figure it out.”
“And Robert will get worried. He’ll have my car traced to here and -”
“If it’s not stolen first.”
“Tommy, I’m attempting optimism.”
“Oh, I get it. Okay. Hey wait.” Tommy slid the inner lattice door open. The bottom of the elevator hung two feet below the top of the fourth floor door. Tommy tried to pry the outer door open – though Clare doubted they could fit through the opening even if the door cooperated. Still he braced his feet and, with his good arm, pulled. His face reddened, his shoulders shook with the effort. The door budged.
The elevator plummeted feet that felt like miles. Tommy yelled, Clare screamed. The car chunged to another halt, sank a few inches, stopped. Clare closed the lattice while Tommy swore at the brick wall outside it. “We’re going to be here for fucking days,” Tommy stared at the ceiling. “Unless we crash and get it over with. I’m really sorry I got you into this.”
If they crashed, she decided suddenly, she wanted to be kissing Tommy on the way down. “We’re not going to crash. And if we apply ourselves, we can walk out of here knowing what you know about Colton’s murder.”
As intended, this distracted him a bit. “The sooner I can return my head to its usual empty state, the better. So yeah, let’s – did the light just flash? Oh shit. I’m going to have one.” He looked irritated, scared and then blank. His good arm swung at her but not intentionally; his eyelids fluttered, lips murmured, teeth clattered. He was no longer aware of her presence.
Clare put her arms loosely around him, to soften his fall. His right side was quivering, then his left joined in. She kicked his electrical equipment aside to give him what room there was to thrash around. Needlessly; the quivering had lessened, the soundless murmuring abated. His petit mal seizure was ending.
Tommy collapsed in on himself. Despondent, Clare knelt beside him, brushed hair from his face. They’d thought his commissurotomy had beaten the odds: had vanquished his epilepsy. True, this seizure was nothing compared to his previous grand mals, which had hospitalized him a week at a time – the operation had been helpful, then, but not miraculous, after all. Was it better or worse to find out only after all these months?
His pulse and respiration were acceptable. He’d mentioned a flash of light, his personal warning that an attack was imminent. Perhaps that meant his particular electrical misfirings still followed their old pattern, commencing back in his left occipital lobe, where vision is processed, then sweeping the length of his head, through sensory and motor control regions and over to engulf his right frontal lobe.
He was staring blankly, then something altered in his eyes and she knew he recognized her. “Do you know where you are?” she whispered.
“It looks like the elevator where I used to rehearse. I would’ve liked to take you there sometime but they’re tearing the building down.” He reached to rub his eyes, stopped as if afraid to touch his head. “Got some short-term memory loss going, don’t I? How long was I gone?”
“Fifteen, maybe twenty seconds.”
“A mini-mal.” After consideration, “Is this elevator not moving?”
“I’m glad you’re not more upset. After so much safe time, it’s hard for some patients to accept reoccurrences.”
Tommy studied his shoes. “There’s something I kind of didn’t tell you. This isn’t the first time I’ve had a seizure since my operation.”
She resisted the urge to strangle him with a guitar cord. “You didn’t tell any of your doctors, or just me?” He picked at a shoelace: he’d told no one. “Why in hell did you -”
“Maybe I forgot. Okay, lame time for a joke. Mostly I wanted to forget. Clare – for fifteen years I’ve seen more experts than friends. I’m not getting another operation and I’m sure the fuck not taking medication again. That stuff made me feel like a rotten vegetable.”
“You did all that so you could stay alive.”
“So I’m alive. And from now on I’ll take my chances. The he-man talks, right? I’m not that brave. If the seizures got bad again I’d probably settle for turnip existence again. But this is only the third one and they only come when I’m stressed out, so if I -”
“Move to Tahiti?”
“They’ve been easy, that’s the main thing. I shake a little, I forget a few things. No big deal. Bianca says so too.”
“Since when is Bianca an authority?”
“She’s lived with me for ten years, taken care of me every goddamn day. If she says I’m okay and I say I’m okay, I’m okay.”
“If she’s such a saint, what are you doing with me?” Clare blurted. “No. Don’t answer that.” Mortified, she couldn’t look at him.
“Maybe I’m an asshole. Or maybe – I dunno whether she really cared about me or was just paying dues, to cash in later. She figured someday I’d be a rock star, which obviously I’m not and I don’t even want to be. Shit we’re doing alright, we’re not homeless, we’re not illegals, we’re not hustlers, the car runs and at least it’s old enough to be made of metal!” He stopped yelling. “Why are we in this elevator? Or am I hallucinating?”
The change of subject rescued her from a maelstrom of feeling. Clare explained their advent in the elevator. Interesting to note: Tommy was no longer mad at Harry. His seizure had affected that emotional memory as well. If such a distinction existed. Often Clare felt sheepish, postulating about the brain. Any hypothesis, based on experiment, observation, or gross conjecture, was sure to be contradicted by many of her peers, whose ideas she in turn would dispute. And the truth eluded them all.
“What are you thinking?” Tommy said softly.
“That we’ve got so much data and so little understanding.”
“Going scientist on me again.” He stood up. “My not telling you about the new seizures – will that mess up your experiments?”
“It’s certainly information I’d like to have. But danger to your health is the more critical issue. You absolutely must inform Dave – Dr. Rosenthal.” Tommy’s chief neurosurgeon.
“I’ll tell him. I promise. How did we get here?”
“Is that metaphysics or does it help to know I drove here from Beaudine’s?”
“Beaudine. I forgot about him.”
Could his attack have caused more than shortest term memory loss? “Tommy, you remember last night, don’t you? What happened?”
“Just think, if somebody only heard that part of the conversation. I love to tease you, you can’t decide whether to laugh or snarl. Yeah I remember, old doc Colton lying next to all his blood. There’s one I’d like to forget.”
“Not until we find out what you know about his killer.”
“Last night when I said I knew something but didn’t know what it was – I was just freaked out. I’d either know or I wouldn’t. I can’t believe you don’t see that. I don’t know anything, so let’s drop it.” He looked around. “How long have we been here?”
“About an hour. Unless it’s tomorrow already.” They stared at the elevator door. “Tommy. You’ve read about how your language hemisphere needs to believe it knows all. Last night, your emotional response to the murder was so strong that your left brain was willing to acknowledge it knew less than your right. But now your left brain’s confabulating again.” Ordinarily, Clare would never share such monstrous speculations, nor contribute to a patient’s fear of warring brain factions; but she had to break through the certainty of his left brain’s denial or they’d never get anywhere with their testing.
Her reward was to see devastating conflict on Tommy’s face. “Yow. I feel like you put an egg beater in my head. Like you’re trying to drive me crazy. Like I’ve got to get out of this elevator right away.”
“You’re panicking. Know that and know it will pass. Look at me. Listen to your heart pounding. Try to slow it down. That’s right.” She held his gaze.
“Honey, you could really fuck with me if you wanted to.”
“Likewise, I’m sure.”
He smiled wanly and she stepped away from him to sit on the floor. She’d let it go for now. She’d sowed the proper seeds, that was enough.
Time elapsed. Tommy brooded, Clare fought to stay awake. Nostalgically, she recalled what it was like to get lost in dreams. She hadn’t remembered a dream in months, but then what was a dream. The most modern scientific discoveries supported the most ancient philosophic mysteries: each brain makes its own subjective world, no two people’s alike. Brains, snowflakes, fingerprints. If everyone made their own reality why were they all so grim? Surely she’d live in paradise if she had the choice. Or was heaven as boring as catechism depicted it, with all the –
“Are you asleep?” Tommy’s whisper ended her reverie.
“No but I am – very. Tired.”
“I wonder if there’s enough air in here.” Tommy pounded the roof. “I think this panel comes off.” His efforts made the car shake. Then fall.
Clare stumbled over her feet in her haste to stand up. The glass of the third-floor door scrolled past them. They weren’t falling, they were simply descending. Wait – was that Harry out there? The car clattered, shook, and stopped. Hastily, they gathered Tommy’s equipment and fled into the first-floor corridor. The stairwell door opened and Harry ran to meet them.
“You okay?” he demanded. “Mark stuck me in that thing once, he thought it was a hot joke, I wanted to main him.” Tommy grabbed Harry’s shirt but Clare sensed it was an empty threat. They felt more gratitude for Harry’s letting them go than fury for his entrapping them in the first place. The hostage syndrome.
Harry knocked Tommy’s hands away. “What, you think I put you in and then got you out? Just ‘cause you’re that stupid. I drove back this way, figured you’d be gone and I could get my stuff. But I saw the car still out front with your amp waiting to get ripped off. Then you weren’t in the room and the elevator wasn’t moving and I found the door open on the third floor and I should have left it that way.” He stomped outdoors.
“Hey. HEY.” Tommy ran after him. “I thought you did it. I’m sorry.”
Harry shrugged. “Later.” Walking away, he turned for a parting shot. “Maybe it was Bianca, get it?” He gave Clare an up and down, then hurried off.
“Don’t worry, I wasn’t going to forget you’re an asshole,” Tommy called.
Driving home to Pasadena, they discussed who might have trapped them and why, but reached no satisfactory conclusion. They also speculated about why Colton had been murdered; that answer proved even more elusive. Meanwhile, behind them, a VW bus driver on a car phone took much the same route.
When they got to Tommy’s, Bianca wasn’t home and all his keys were still with his car, so Clare brought him home with her. A blue Honda kept pace two cars behind them. When they parked on San Pasqual, the Honda driver picked up his car phone. “Either we’re imagining all this shit, or it’s because of last night,” Tommy said after a time. “You want to flip a coin on it?”
“I’m not sure which I less want to be. Crazy or threatened.”
“One thing Beaudine’s on top of. We’ve got to pretend we’re not trying to find out anything. If there’s anything to find out. Which I doubt.”
A car swerved toward them: a San Marino richkid chatting on her car phone, applying mascara, and driving, in that order. This struck them as very funny. Laughing convulsively, they stumbled away from Clare’s car.
Jessie met them on the stairs. As Tommy reached to pet her, Jessie tensed, but allowed him to touch her. Clare was stunned. “Please feel honored. it usually takes months – years – for strangers to get near her.”
She and Tommy exchanged smiles, until he said, “Like they say, animals resemble their owners.” Clare let them into the apartment without a word. Inside, Jessie shunned Tommy. “Told you,” Tommy said cheerfully, and Clare had to laugh.
“Would you like a drink? Coffee? Juice? I’m not sure exactly what we’ve got.”
“Is it really only three o’clock? No, under the circumstances, we’re entitled.” In the kitchen, Clare decided beer was too soporific, and turned to whiskey on ice. Was Tommy on medication that – no he wouldn’t be, he’d been lying to his doctors about absence of epilepsy. He’d lied very smoothly. Did he always lie that smoothly?
Out on the living room floor, Tommy was sprawled as Robert had been last night. Fortunately, Tommy was there to drag a pencil, patiently but futilely trying to engage Jessie in play. Clare handed him a tumbler, then he requested a tour of the apartment – which didn’t take long. Tour concluded, he wanted to call Bianca to arrange being picked up.
“Uh oh, a dial phone.”
“Yes. The wiring here makes a Touch-tone impossible. Does it matter?”
“I always forget numbers and lose those little books so I only know phone numbers by the Touch-tone beeps. There’s that look, I feel a new set of experiments coming on.”
“I was just recalling what Dr. Colton tells freshmen: in one minute a single brain accomplishes more astonishing feats than decades of neuroscientists. Used to tell, I mean.” She swigged her drink, choked; her eyes teared. “I forgot this was whiskey.”
He allowed her the lie, busied himself hunting his number in the phone book. While Clare fought her grief, Tommy left messages for Bianca at home and at her gym, then announced, “I’m ready for another drink.”
“We’d better hold off until after we discuss – last night.”
“Fine. So let’s get this brain sleuthing over with,” Tommy snapped, joining her on the couch.
“The first step, I think, is to determine what sort of information you have – visual, auditory, et cetera. But I’m not sure that -”
“If you don’t know how to do this, we’re wasting our time.”
“My training has to do with putting information into your head, not pulling it out. We’re going to have to go through a certain amount of trial and error.” Tommy snorted. “Do you know why you’re angry with me?”
“I just want to relax, talk. You always hide behind business, Clare.” His glare dissolved into puzzlement. “Sorry. It’s not you, it’s talking about Colton’s killer. Makes me really tense.”
“Do you remember what I said in the elevator, about how your left hemisphere needs to know everything and when it doesn’t, it confabulates?”
“There’s nothing to know. The way you talk, sounds like I’m schizo.”
She fought the urge to correct his definition of schizophrenia. “Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps you don’t know anything. Perhaps – what’s wrong?”
Tommy unclenched his left fist. “Hearing that made me feel – sick, almost. Shit, what’s the matter with me? It’s like I’ve got two people in one head. That’s at least one too many.”
“Some of the top neuroscientists in the world think we all have two people – two consciousnesses. One theorist believes we have dozens, each with its own desires, taking its own actions, and the piece that controls language tries to make sense of all the contradictions that arise. Whichever theory turns out to be valid, I can guarantee that you’re not crazy. Your brain operates like anyone’s, you simply notice the conflicts more because of your operation.”
“But my brains wouldn’t fight about this. If I knew anything about Colton’s killer I wouldn’t try to hide it.”
“That just seems to be the way your brain – any brain – operates.” There could be more to it, but he was looking so much calmer, now was not the time. “I’m going to ask you some questions. But first – can you lift your left arm?” It raised a bit but the pain made him grimace. “Let’s use your leg instead. To answer a question yes, raise your left foot. If the answer is no, don’t move. Is your name Tommy?” No response. She gently lifted his foot. “Your name is Tommy, the answer is yes, so your leg does this. Okay?” Tommy nodded, his face displaying the particular type of concentration visible during experiments.
“Is your name Clare?” His leg went up. Gently, Clare pushed it down. “The answer is no, so your leg doesn’t move. She tried other questions, until she felt confident that his right hemisphere understood the procedure.
Getting his right brain to understand was always tricky. It had a limited vocabulary and primarily knew concrete nouns; the more abstract the concept, the less his right brain grasped of it. Chairs yes, liberty no. A command to smile, yes; to hope; no. Still, she was lucky she was dealing with Tommy; many split right brains comprehended far less.
New experiments were such a pain. The need to identify Colton’s murderer increased her usual impatience. No doubt as a protection against frustration, she hadn’t previously considered just how many new tests she might require.
“This is going to be harder than you thought, huh?” Tommy said presciently. “Too bad we can’t just hook the old commissure back up for a while.”
“Would you mind? It would mean less work for me.”
“No prob. I love brain surgery.”
Countering the need for speed was the danger of sloppiness: the less rigorous the methodology, the more suspect their results. She really shouldn’t be testing him in her living room, with inputs uncontrolled; but preparing new tests was so time-consuming. This effort was a calculated risk to advance their cause speedily. She paused: should they wait? Decided: “I need to prep before we can do much – I’d figured to get ready today for testing tomorrow. But let’s try a few questions. Raise your left leg if the answer is yes. Do you understand?”
His left leg lifted. “Great. Okay. Did you touch Dr. Colton’s killer?” No response. Yet touch was by far the most likely way his right hemisphere could get exclusive information. “Did your left hand touch the killer?” No. “Did your left hand touch the man in the hall?” His left foot lifted. Perhaps his right brain didn’t understand killer. Or perhaps it was responding to some other time, another man in another hall. If it understood hall.
She posed additional questions. His right brain claimed that all five senses experienced the murderer, and that none of the five sensed anything.
“Just because I smelled the guy or something doesn’t mean that’s a clue.”
“I know. Stand up, if you would.”
“I’m not some bribed lab rat this time! Don’t order me …” Tommy looked more surprised at his outburst than Clare was. “Man, I don’t know which part of my brain keeps getting mad about this, but it’s full of shit.”
“Try not to worry about it. What I’d like to try now is a walk-through of what happened last night. A reenactment, to help determine what kinds of information you could possibly have received.”
“Cool idea. Okay, this is the hall. Hold it, we need more room.” Before she could stop him, he tugged at the coffee table, then grabbed his lower back. “What the hell?” He peered through the glass top to the mass-o’-metal base.
“Robert had a motorcycle that was a ninety-horsepower lemon. He was always threatening to turn it into a coffee table. And then one day …”
“Alright Roberto! Too bad I’m going to have to sue him. Okay,” he limped across the room, “the hallway’s over here then. We were walking from back here.”
Clare joined him. “The killer ran into me and slugged me out of the way.” She touched her sore abdomen gingerly. “He kept running and you jumped out at him. Now. I’ll be the killer. I’m running towards you and we intersect – how?”
As he moved forward, Tommy gazed inward, remembering. It gave him a demented look. “You block me – no, you’re more in the middle of the hall, I grab at you and then, shit, I wish I could use this arm like I did last night.” In slow, then faster, then slowest motion, his injured arm gyrated. He swiveled to his left, his arm moved again, he shifted weight. “Yeah. I was at this angle.”
Cross-cuing. Tommy’s right hemisphere had positioned its side of the body until he was off balance, forcing the left to shift its side to regain equilibrium – leaving him standing as he had been when facing the murderer.
Clare shivered. She saw the two dark figures as they’d been last night.
“It would help if there were less light in here,” Tommy returned her to the task at hand. She closed the blinds; the late afternoon sun illuminated the room weakly.
She saw two dark forms merge, light glint on a knife’s blade.
Stop. She must recreate the scene without reliving it or she could miss something important. She pictured a scalpel severing her thoughts from her feelings. “To resume. I’m the killer, I have my arm up like this and you do – what?”
“I grab for you but I miss and then I reach around and – Shit! It’s really hard doing this with the wrong arm. And you’re so much shorter than the guy last night.”
Clare stepped in front of Tommy, her back to his chest; waved her arm like he’d grown an appendage. “Perhaps I can be your arm. Does this help?”
“Swing your arm again? Yeah, that kind of works.” He pressed his left shoulder against hers, as though reading her movements through his skin.
Light blinded her. A figure loomed in the entryway. Robert. Excellent; he could play the killer. “You got out early,” she greeted him; he’d had a conference today.
“Hey Roberto. How’d your seminar go?”
The expression on Robert’s face said he’d misinterpreted the lights-out activities, prompting Clare to explain, “We were just – reenacting last night. I was trying to function as Tommy’s arm. Do you have time to help us with the re-creation?” Goddamn it, why did she have to sound so guilty? Her thoughts continued to rage, yet she heard her voice calmly describe their current testing process. Even more dimly, she was aware of Robert stiffly shedding his briefcase, coat; agreeing to play the killer.
Tommy appraised the stand-in. “You’re about perfect height. Say. Can you account for your whereabouts last night?”
“I was at home waiting for Clare. Who was with you.”
“Me, a knifer, a corpse, and three hundred cops. I didn’t know Pasadena had so many.” Was Tommy truly oblivious to the room’s mood, or was this more of his lying expertise?
“They probably let the San Marino cops help.” Robert made a tangible effort to stop glowering.
“And the ones from South Pass. Yeah, none of those guys get enough action.”
Tommy and Robert continued to joke about regional police departments. Clare felt annoyed: male bonding rituals. “Can we get started here?” she inquired, her irritation showing, puzzling them both, which irritated her further.
The reenactment went more smoothly with Robert as killer. They determined that, during Tommy’s lunging for, grappling with, and stumbling from the assailant, Tommy’s left hand had touched the killer in several places: the left hand or lower arm, the left shoulder area, one knee or thigh, and somewhere along the upper back. Were any of these contacts distinctive enough to identify the killer?
Perhaps they didn’t need to be! Tommy’s senses, even in his split head, transmitted their input to both brains. But the quality of that initial sensory information varied. Most of the sensations to his right brain arrived contralaterally – from the opposite side of his body. But his right brain also received faint, vague information ipsilaterally – from the same side. During Clare’s usual experimenting, to ensure testing of each hemisphere separately, she had to exclude ipsilateral sensations. But now she might benefit from them: his right hemisphere could glean additional knowledge that way, and thus might synthesize fragmented knowledge into a stronger whole! For once, a brain attribute might work in a test’s favor.
Tommy and Robert were staring at her. To indicate her thoughts were back with theirs, she said, “So we know the killer had a flashlight in his left hand.” Sometime during the scuffle, Tommy had touched it and light had flashed briefly. This had given the killer a fix on Tommy, for stabbing. “That’s why I could see the knife for a second,” Clare realized. “Now I remember the flash of light – I didn’t before.” She saw the murderer’s silhouette, illumined for that instant.
“Clare, turn the lights on,” Tommy murmured. “Robert, don’t move.” When the light went on, it found Robert frozen, poised to ‘stab’ Tommy, who reeled back, turned his head, eased forward, pulled away, turned his head less severely, turned a bit more: adjusting ever so slightly now.
Between each movement, his eyes shifted. More cross-cuing; his right hemisphere used eye muscles to signal which way to move the head; his left hemisphere analyzed feelings transmitted about each adjustment until “There. That’s about right.”
Robert was watching Clare study Tommy, then returned attention to Tommy, trying to see him through Clare’s eyes.
“Is it possible only my right hemisphere saw him? My head turned towards him like this, right before the light went off. But I mean – Clare, doesn’t vision still go to both sides of my head?”
“The left half of each eye’s field of vision goes to your right hemisphere and vice versa. You compensate by moving your eyes. But if you saw something peripherally, for a split second so your eyes didn’t have time to move …”
“Before the light went out and you couldn’t see at all!” Robert shouted.
“Yeah.” Tommy held his position. His eyes shifted, signaling his head to adjust slightly. “I think my right brain saw something way out here,” he moved his hand to indicate the area to the far left of his field of vision. The area occupied by Robert, the stand-in killer.
“I’m not convinced,” Clare mused. “In about a hundredth of a second, your eyes could shift enough to let both hemispheres see what was over there. Still, if you moved towards the killer just as the flashlight went out, I suppose it’s barely possible that you got a one-hemisphere glimpse.”
“What about the other senses? Hearing?” Robert asked, excited.
She dared not give Tommy’s left brain more information. It seemed to be cooperating rather than confabulating, but she couldn’t be sure. “Did you hear anything, Tommy?”
“You screamed to warn me about the knife. That’s why only my arm got nailed. Did I ever thank you for that?”
The way he looked at her made Robert twitch. “Probably. Do you think you heard anything?” She spoke impassively. Robert smiled.
“I’m not sure. I guess not.” Tommy shrugged.
Clare filed the possibility for further perusal. Both Tommy’s ears sent information to both hemispheres, but the strongest signals went to the contralateral – the opposite – side. Weak signals going to the ipsilateral hemisphere could be overridden – in effect, drowned out – by strong signals arriving contralaterally. So if Clare’s scream predominantly hit Tommy’s right ear, at exactly the same time as the murderer spoke into Tommy’s left ear, then it was very slightly possible that Clare’s scream had drowned out the killer’s words in Tommy’s left brain, while his right brain had discerned both voices.
“What about smell?” Robert inquired. “Could his right hemisphere -”
“No it couldn’t.” Both brain halves would have received the same scents.
“You don’t even know what I was going to ask.”
She supposed she couldn’t ask Robert to leave. “Wait a minute. Damn. Damn, why didn’t I think of this before? He had a flashlight. He knew it would be dark.”
“So he had someone in the basement doing lights!” Tommy added.
“He may have set a timer,” Robert advised.
Clare looked at her watch. “I wonder if Beaudine’s in his office.”
“Stay away from the fucking cops, I keep telling you.” Tommy exploded.
Robert agreed. “For all you know, they could be in cahoots with the killer.”
Which nonplussed Clare. Robert had always seemed so lawed and ordered. “Lieutenant Beaudine wants to be informed about what we learn.” This immediately sounded feeble. What had they learned? Not much. Calling Beaudine with their current findings could only be embarrassing. Still, she didn’t like their “ganging up on me.”
Now they both stared; she had blurted out this thought. Robert was acting like this to get back at her – but why was Tommy going along? Stop. Persecution complex ahead. “Let’s go over everything once more.”
Tommy groaned. “Let’s have a drink instead. The more I think about this the less I know. It’s like trying to remember a dream, putting it into words changes what happened and you can’t see it any more the way it really was.”
Clare recognized what that whiny tone meant: a testing subject overdue for a break. “You two go ahead and have a drink, I can use the time to plan tomorrow’s attack.” It would be a relief to distance herself from them. Tommy-and-Robert was clearly not a combination that was good for her.
A bit warily, they let her move to the desk in the bedroom, where Jessie was curled up inside Clare’s open briefcase. Clare sat and petted the cat, unable to not eavesdrop on Tommy and Robert making small talk in the living room. The phone rang, Robert answered it then hailed Tommy: Bianca was calling. Clare was relieved to hear Robert offer Tommy a ride home. Bianca stopping by and sure she’d love a drink was more than Clare could manage.
Once Clare had the place to herself, she could fully concentrate on petting Jessie, which enabled her to think about new tests.
Robert got home late: Bianca had insisted he come in. Clare wanted details of the encounter but couldn’t ask. Robert looked as though he had something to say, but didn’t say it. Clare retreated to the bedroom desk, Robert to the one in the alcove off the front room.
She resumed working with Jessie purring in her lap. She woke up to screams. Hers: a black figure hurled her down a dark hall, the deranged surfer lunged, an elevator floor dropped away. Spilled coffee soaked her notes, pain shot through her legs from scratches as Jessie hit the ground running to escape the screams. Her shoulder shook under Robert’s hand.
“Nothing’s wrong, Clare, it’s almost midnight, I woke you up to come to bed.” Robert dabbed at the coffee with his pajama sleeve. The wet papers buckled and her barely legible scrawls thickened, giant letters oozing into monstrous words.
Under gentle firm guidance from Robert, she got up, undressed, fell onto her side of the mattress. For a nanosecond she was aware of falling into sleep, which usually woke her. Instead she fell deeper until –
– she was surrounded by blackness. She wanted to wake up, couldn’t, struggled, lay immobilized. Robert’s steady breathing, the clock’s faint clicking – these sounds allowed her head to swivel to see the clock hands glowing an acute angle: 5:35.
She dreamed that she sat up, slipped out from under Robert’s arm, tiptoed into a chasm where the hall used to be. A low meow warned her that Jessie was on the floor. Clare knelt, groped, found fur against a baseboard. Clare smiled. She used to kick Jessie sometimes, until the cat seemed to realize that her human couldn’t see in the dark, and began to warn of her presence.
Still unsure if she was dreaming, Clare continued into the living room, raised a blind to the predawn sky. She stubbed her toe heading for the kitchen. She hoped the pain proved she was awake, because dreaming about insomnia seemed particularly cruel.
Go to next chapter.