Chapter 5. The Fixation Point

The ant climbed out of a valley of grout, crossed a new tile mesa, and disappeared into a crack in the wall. Sitting at her building entry, Clare considered going up to her office and doing … something. But the building was locked on weekends and Tommy wouldn’t be able to get in. He was ninety-three minutes late. She looked for the ant but this time it stayed in the crack. Relief surged through her at a familiar quick shuffle to her left.

Tommy’s cheek was puffy and bruised; his jeans torn, with raw red skin beneath. “Tell me if this sounds like an accident. My car’s gonna be out of commission for weeks but the manager of Bianca’s gym bought a new one so he loans her the old one so we go do errands, she’s driving, everything’s cool and since it’s automatic with power steering I can drive it with one arm except I become the typical L.A. driver since I can’t signal turns but okay this’ll do and I drop Bianca off at work, stop at home for an hour, then I’m driving over here and both front tires blow, I hit a fucking tree, the car turns accordion and P.S., no seat belts: total luck I didn’t go through the windshield.”

He sank to the step beside her. “I had to slug a bunch of doors before somebody would call Bianca for me but finally the manager brings her, he’s driving a new Porsche so maybe I won’t have to pay for turning his old Datsun into scrap. He apologized, in fact, said he didn’t know the tires were that bad. I don’t think they were that bad either. Bianca thinks I’m flipping out saying everybody’s trying to kill me. I had to fight to get dropped off here, she wanted me to go home and rest.” He said it like she’d asked him to play guitar in the bathtub. “I told her I rest when I know what’s going on.”

Clare shivered. “I wish I knew whether to be frightened or not. I wonder if Beaudine could have those tires examined, so we’d know whether someone tampered with them.”

They stared at the shrubs lining the walkway. After a time, they held hands, strangers on a jet nose-diving toward the ground. A rotund broad-lipped man in a lab coat bustled past, raising an eyebrow. Clare was unable to care, although she could see the rumors about Dr. Austen and her research subject spreading, like kudzu in time-lapse video. Eventually she said, “In the experimenting biz, there’s a situation called Type One error. It’s when a researcher thinks the data prove something but actually the results are due to chance.”

“Type One accidents. You’re right, these could be. Okay, let’s go call Beaudine and ask him to protect and serve us.”

Maybe she’d waited outside for so long because she couldn’t come back in the building alone. The halls felt empty but not deserted. “Feels like a haunted house,” Tommy said. “I lived in one once. Science doesn’t know shit, you know. I’ll take you there when this is all over and you’re up to a good scare.”

“That sort of thing doesn’t scare me,” she lied. It wasn’t the existence of ghosts that would disturb her, but the sense that the universe had a rationale so far beyond her comprehension.

“I gotta warn you. I’ve slept with a light on, ever since.”

Was he warning her about the house or his bedroom habits?

When she reached for the knob of her office door, Tommy grabbed her wrist. “Somebody’s in there,” he whispered. She strained to listen; all she heard was her heartbeat. How do you know, she asked him with her eyes. He nodded to indicate the crack under her door. “Light’s on.”

“I left the light on.” Clare’s normal voice sounded like shouting. “I worked up here before I came out to meet you.”

Tommy released her wrist, looking sheepish but still suspicious.

She left messages for Beaudine at both numbers he’d given her. Telephone the second was answered by a sleepy androgynous voice. “Do you live with I mean is this his I mean can you make sure he gets my message?” The voice grunted an affirmative.

When she’d hung up, Tommy teased, “Sooo. A little jealousy in the old voice. Clare’s got a yen for the dashing lieutenant.”

“Like hell. I was only – Stop staring at me.”

“Wow. I haven’t seen anybody blush in about twenty years.”

Betrayed by her own physiology. “I was simply being, well, nosy. I certainly didn’t – Wait.” Her desk looked different. “I put my stapler on this page to uncurl it – I’d spilled coffee on it last night at home. Now the stapler’s over here and everything else looks, I don’t know, neater.”

Tommy motioned for her to keep talking, then snuck toward the darkened lab. She handed him her heavy tape dispenser. “I must be imagining it. I’m a slob but the law of averages – oh God.”

In a flash, Tommy had snapped on the lights and kicked the lab door fully open. Nothing. He knelt to peer under the tables, around the door, into the room’s corners. He straightened and handed her the tape dispenser. “Type One error?” She tried to laugh.

He strode over to lock the door to the corridor. “Maybe. Let’s get started before we completely freak ourselves. What’s first?”

Clare collected her notes and joined him at the tachistoscope table. It was time to bury herself in data and process. “As with any new experiment, I need to lay some ground work.”

“Shit, that always takes forever. Fixate on the point?”

“Yes, I’ll show you a word then you’ll point to the picture that matches.” Fortunately, they’d done this experiment with other words and pictures, so she didn’t have to train his right brain in the test procedure itself. His right hemisphere even knew to point to a question mark card if it couldn’t match word to picture.

The tachistoscope flashed APPLE to his left hemisphere, MURDERER to his right. Then she laid out four pictures from prior experiments – an apple, a house, a dog, a question mark – plus a photo of Dr. Colton clipped from an old annual and an encyclopedia picture of Hitler. “What word did you see?”

“‘Apple.’” Tommy’s right hand pointed to the drawing of the fruit. “And – ‘killer.’ so that would be Hitler.”

As he reached to point again, Clare held his right arm. “No, point with your left hand.” She positioned a yardstick in that hand. The stick waved wildly at first, due to arm sling and injury, but he got it under control. She spread the pictures so that there was no chance of his hitting one unintentionally.

The yardstick snapped onto the question mark. “I can’t control this stick. I meant to hit the Hitler picture.”

Tommy’s left brain knew a few words were crucial to their investigations, killer being foremost. Since Friday night, she’d mostly referred to Colton’s slayer as his killer. And so, seeing Hitler, the left hemisphere had guessed that she’d tested the right hemisphere on knowledge of that word. Clare suspected his right hemisphere didn’t know murderer and so pointed to the question mark.

Unfortunately but typically, other interpretations were possible. His right brain may have known murderer and transmitted to Tommy’s left brain a particular emotion both sides associated with the dark figure in the hallway. And/or, his right hemisphere might know murderer, but not Hitler – and thus point to the question mark because no pictures of murderers seemed available.

Now, Tommy’s left brain saw HOUSE, his right HITLER. Tommy’s left hemisphere indicated the house drawing, his right hemisphere again hit the question mark. At the least, his right hemisphere didn’t know Hitler’s name in print.

Next, Tommy’s right hemisphere saw KILLER. This time, it pointed to Hitler. It could be guessing, although Clare hadn’t noticed his right brain guessing in past experiments. Or it could know the word killer.

The right hemisphere was again shown KILLER and Clare set out new photos: the question mark, Charles Manson (Robert was going to be furious about their encyclopedias), Jessie in the hallway at home, Dr. Colton again, Clare sitting on a rock squinting in bright sunlight, the exterior of the Neurobiology building at night. She also asked for Tommy’s driver’s license and served as his second hand while he extracted it from his wallet; then she added this photo to the motley array.

This time, Tommy’s right brain indicated Manson – and Jessie. Clare smiled; because she’d confirmed Tommy’s right brain did know killer; and because she reacted so negatively when Tommy linked the cat with a mass murderer. The cat merely hunted bugs, after all.

“Still working up to the concept of killer, I guess,” Tommy said disdainfully. The left half of his face grimaced. Terrific. Now she had him insulting himself.

“Let’s go on.” She continued testing until she was certain his right brain recognized hallway, night, and knife. She then reversed the procedure. Pictures were flashed to Tommy’s separate hemispheres, and the words were presented in free vision. His right brain could match the same words to pictures this way, too.

She turned off the tachistoscope and handed Tommy a headset. “We’ve done this test before too. You’ll hear a word or words, then point to the picture that matches.”

“I’ve got bad news for you. I’m getting a cramp in my hand, in fact, my arm’s throbbing. Can I try pointing with my feet instead?”

When she took the yardstick his fingers remained curled. As his right hand massaged them open, his face twisted with pain. “You should have told me sooner.”

“It took me a while to figure out why I felt bad.” Clare arranged pictures on the floor so that either foot could reach any of the six. “Do you feel like Mary Magdalene?”

“Excuse me?”

“Washing Christ’s feet, you know?”

“Why, do you feel like Christ?”

“Naw, I relate more to Judas. He knew he was blowing it big time, but couldn’t stop himself.”

“A good psychiatrist could purchase a house, unravelling that one with you. It would never occur to me to relate to an apostle.”

“Thomas, obviously.”

“At least you didn’t say Paul. Okay, we’re ready to go.”

Tommy picked up the photo of Clare, studied it while saying, “Makes you twitch when I get personal, uh? Know why that is? Because I -”

“It makes me twitch when you stall because you hate those earphones.” She was usually sympathetic about Tommy’s dislike of the dichotic listening tests. Today, she plucked the photo away and went to man the tape player, ignoring his sigh.

Dichotic listening: each ear heard different sounds of the same volume and duration, effectively drowning out half the signals received. It was not known why hearing such simultaneous sounds caused each hemisphere to attend to the input from only one ear, rather than both. Yet the phenomenon provided an extremely effective research tool, enabling her to speak solely to his right hemisphere with the words she played into his left ear – if the inputs were truly identical; she usually had more time to prep tapes.

Apple,” Tommy’s left brain heard; “night,” his right brain heard. He pulled the headset off quickly.

“Keep the headset on until I motion to you, some of the phrases will be longer. What did you hear? Put your right foot out first.”

“If my left foot’s second, what’s on third?”

She gave him a look. His right foot tapped the apple picture. “Ap-ple,” he said like a first grader. “That’s all, folks.”

“Now your left foot.”

“I said there was nothing else. I know you don’t trust me but this is ridiculous.” Meanwhile, his left foot tapped the photo of Clare’s building at night. “Lab. I heard ‘lab’ too but I forgot. I’m stupider than Robert, is that what you wanted to prove?”

One moment his left brain could be aware that his right brain received different input, then it could forget or refuse to acknowledge that fact. Tommy often registered hostility when this occurred. But he usually didn’t get personal.

“Do you know why you’re mad?”

“You’re fucking with me. Again. I told you I didn’t know anything about the murder and yet you put me through shit regardless. Forget it,” he interjected when she tried to speak. “I know your raps, you know mine. Next test.”

Suddenly Clare was an undergrad conducting her first experiment, aware only of how little she knew, wanting to flee because she’d never master neuroscience. Why was Tommy’s left brain back to denying – and attacking her? Why didn’t she know what to say to break through this? Why was she so unprofessional as to care what he said; so unprofessional as to have let things between them get as far as they had?

His right brain heard “killer,” then indicated the Hitler picture – and Tommy’s driver’s license.

“What’s wrong?” he demanded. While Clare debated answers, he figured it out. “My right brain heard ‘murderer’ and pointed to me. Now you think I did it.”

“No. You were with me when Dr. Colton – I’m not taking it literally.”

“I’m only innocent because I’ve got an alibi? Hey, maybe I offed him before I came to your office.”

“Maybe your right hemisphere simply doesn’t know the word killer.”

Tommy’s head nodded yes, shook no. He looked uneasy at this, but sounded flip. “I read that dolphins sleep one hemisphere at a time. Maybe at night when my left brain’s asleep, my right brain goes out and kills.”

Laying out new pictures, Clare knelt beside him. “Based on what I know of you, I haven’t seen any evidence that you’re a dolphin.” This got a short laugh. “If I looked worried, it’s because there’s a glitch in the results. As Dr. Colton used to tell me, ‘the more you anticipate results, the longer it takes to get any worth having’.”

“When I was eight I did bad stuff with some tadpoles. I’ve always felt pretty crummy about it. Maybe that’s why.”

“As Dr. Colton also said, ‘You have enough current mistakes to concern you.’ Of course he was exempt from mistakes. But on him all that ego was actually just funny.” She felt queasy. She had to stop talking about Stanford Colton.

“You never mentioned him before, now it’s like he was your guru.”

“There’s a word I haven’t heard in a long time.”

“I got into the sixties revival. Do you not want to talk about how come?”

“He reminds me of much I’d like to forget.” Yet she found herself describing his mentorship, slipped into glowing details until she felt tears coming on. Tommy got up, giving her a moment to compose. He came back with a chair, made her sit, persuaded her to continue.

When she alluded to her breakdown and Dr. Colton’s disapproval, “You went way down and dragged yourself back up. That’s got Colton’s kind of strength beat.”

“Actually, at first my cracking up endeared me to him. I’d been spending fifteen hours a day in the lab; he was proud of my dedication. He brought me exotic fruit and Scientific American – his idea of light reading – and he lectured me about pacing myself. But you see, I’d been working to avoid my life, and when I told him that he got disgusted. We had a fight – I actually dared to argue with Stanford Colton, if anybody knew I’d either be invited to join the NAS or blacklisted.”

“The NAS is some scientists’ prestige thing?” After she nodded, “Go on.”

“Once I’d recovered, as bad coincidence would have it, I hit a slump, conducted a series of experiments that didn’t pan out. I really floundered – I’d never had to face so much … failure, before. About that time Dr. Colton switched me to another advisor. From then on, it was an effort for him to say five words to me at one time.”

“What were you working to hide from?”

“He never really forgave me for that breakdown. And even though I told him he was being unfair, deep down I agreed with his assessment. I should have been stronger. I always thought I could be a first-rate researcher, but I found out then, I never will be. I should be further along, you know, for my age, my experience.”

“And I oughtta write better songs and see more than fifty people at a gig. C’mon, Clare, giving up guarantees you won’t get there.”

“No. I’ve learned my limitations and I’ve just had to accept them.”

“Then again, maybe if I pushed harder and stopped worrying about when I was going to hit the wall, I’d write those breakthrough tunes I want to believe I have in me.”

“‘And if everyone who believes in fairies …’ No. Tinkerbell is a myth. Though in your case I believe you can accomplish whatever you choose.” Most epileptics were so stifled by the stigma of their illness, if not the damage to their brains, that Tommy was something of a miracle – though of course that was a nonrigorous concept.

“So what caused your breakdown?” When she didn’t respond, he advised, “Like Dr. Colton didn’t say to me, if you’re that scared to talk about it, you ain’t over it yet.”

“I fell in love.”

“Colton may have been smart about brains but he was stupid about people. That makes a lot more sense to me than working yourself out of control. Was it Robert?”

“God no. This man always kept me on the edge of a cliff.”

“He didn’t love you back?”

“He loved me for loving him so much. I don’t know, I suppose he did love me, as much as he was capable of loving anyone.”

“So what happened?”

“He’d just moved here from Chicago. Once he got settled, his wife joined him.”

“And that was that.”

“Oh no. For months I got to be the other woman; I convinced myself I was satisfied. After all, I was so busy, did I really have time for more? Then I admitted I wanted him to leave his wife. Then I let him know. And then things weren’t so nice between us anymore. Looking back now, the strangest part of all that happened is how surprised I was when the affair fell apart. I never believed I wouldn’t win. Somehow, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be the one he chose.”

Suddenly she hated Tommy for drawing her out. “We’d better get back to work now.” She retreated to her testing station and something in her voice kept Tommy from inquiring further. He put the headset on. She crammed her thoughts and doubts back inside the lead box of her memory.

Finishing the dichotic listening series, Clare established that Tommy’s right brain would understand, spoken or written, killer, knife, hall, night. It didn’t know the written form of Colton, but did recognize the auditory form. At some point she might try to teach his right brain additional relevant words, but it was far safer to stick with those already known.

She unrolled a large rough outline of a man’s body. “Now you’ll point to every place on the killer that you touched.”

“We figured this out yesterday.”

“I know but I didn’t write results down until later and I’m not sure I got everything,” Clare lied. “Use your left foot.”

With cantankerous noisiness, he complied. His right hemisphere pointed to some of the areas named yesterday, but there were also discrepancies, which irritated him further. When his right brain indicated the killer’s right hand and lower arm, Tommy said, “No, it was the left arm.”

Please don’t talk yet,” Clare said.

Quivering a bit, his left foot then tapped the drawing’s face. That could be quite significant, facial features or skin texture could –

Tommy interrupted her thoughts. “My foot’s cramped, I was aiming for the neck that time, not the face.”

“You already pointed to the neck!” Clare snapped.

“I touched the killer’s neck and throat – but I have to tap the same spot to show that. There’s no back or front to this picture you know.” He had her there. “I really can’t point right sitting down like this, that’s why I’m making mistakes. Can I try walking around?”

Was this his left brain making suggestions on its own, or responding to a transmitted frustration from the right brain? “Fine. We’ll try it that way.”

Walking around and across the drawing, his left foot tapped body areas identical to the points his left brain had named yesterday. “Now this makes sense.” He sounded victorious.

However, during his walk, he often teetered off balance: his right leg stopped moving before the left foot could reach a pointing goal. When the left foot did tap a body area, if it was an area the two hemispheres disagreed upon, the movement was jerky; slow. Through ipsilateral connections, Tommy’s left brain could affect gross muscle movements on the same side of the body; and in this case it seemed to be fighting for and winning control over the other brain’s foot, forcing it to give answers that represented the left brain’s version of reality.

Dammit. She shouldn’t have let his left hemisphere hear the test instructions. Although it would have figured out the command anyway. The drawing was too obvious. She should have devised ways of questioning the right hemisphere secretly. But it would have taken so much longer to prepare and administer unilateral tests.

“No, Tommy, this doesn’t make sense. Your two hands couldn’t have touched exactly the same spots.”

He stepped back, as though slapped. “You’re right. Maybe my right brain forgot everything. Shit.”

“Let’s try pointing with the yardstick.”

He sat down, his left brain preoccupied. Good. Now they might make some progress. No. Shit was right. Again, Tommy’s right hemisphere parroted his left hemisphere’s claims. “I did forget. This is terrible.”

Once, long ago, when Tommy’s left hemisphere had been very negative about a conflict in test responses, the right had changed its answers. Was this another conciliatory ef-

Tommy howled, “I can’t stand this. What’s happening to me?”

Before Clare could reply, the yardstick began moving again. They stared in horrible fascination as it indicated the drawing’s feet. “Feet? I know I didn’t touch his feet!”

And the right brain hadn’t indicated feet previously. Clare fought panic. Nothing made sense. No wonder Tommy was developing nervous tics. Several times over the last few minutes, he had rubbed his left shoulder against his face, sweeping the cheek from nose to sideburn. “Does your cheek itch? No? You keep rubbing it like this.” Clare imitated the motion.

He reflected. “There’s a gnat in here, it keeps bothering me.”

Was the right brain cross-cuing that it had touched the killer’s face? Maybe. She was not in good shape to be drawing conclusions right now. And while Tommy had better stamina than the average split brain testee – his sessions could last three to four hours – today they’d gone nearly four with a lot of discord, which always drained him. “Let’s call it quits for today.”

“I’d rather keep going, we haven’t gotten anywhere.”

“There are times to push and times to wait.” He didn’t look convinced or happy. “There is one thing I’d like to do before the weekend is over. I’ve been thinking about the killer’s either timing the lights to go off, or having an accomplice. Robert gave me some guidelines to determine whether the building control box could be easy to time, or whether it would require a master electrician. The box is in the basement. I’d like to go down there and take a look. It could be helpful to know whether there was an accomplice.”

“If Beaudine finds out he’ll turn you into Cheez Whiz.”

“Therefore, we won’t tell him. Do you want to come with me or not?”

“I’ll come. This place is too creepy to walk through alone. Maybe not alone, somebody messed with your papers, right?”

Was his reluctance simply caution? Overriding her own caution was the hope their trek would trigger – something, cause some reaction in him. “I think I was wrong about that. It’s virtually impossible to get into this building on weekends.”

They collected their things and made the descent in silence. As they passed the first-floor landing, echoing down the hall came male voices, laughing. “It sounds like the security guards are taking a break.”

“What security guards?” His whisper was even softer than hers.

“There’s always one in the building on weekends. I ran into him earlier and he said there were two more guards on duty because of – Friday night.”

Tommy tensed. “They carry guns? Shit, urban cowboys. Don’t surprise one around a corner or we’re dead.” They reached the basement. “It’s huge down here. And there’s another level below this?” Astonished, he peered down the stairs.

“I was amazed too. There are several buildings like this – all connected by underground walkways. No don’t open that door!” He regarded her closely; then frowned at the gray door. “It’s probably locked anyway. The building maintenance room is over this way.” Her whisper was cracking. Colton’s murderer had better have left a framed photo of himself or it wasn’t worth the trip.

They passed a metal door sporting a radiation warning emblem. From the other side, weakly, came the sporadic yelping of a dog in pain.

“Animal labs,” Tommy figured out. “If you want I can -”

“Here we are.” She yanked open a door, exposing a dimly lit room full of pipes, dials, oversized industrial machinery.

“Big Brother slept here,” Tommy captioned the view. There was the electrical control panel. They stopped abruptly. The area was cordoned off with yellow police tape and KEEP OUT signs. Gingerly, Clare tugged the tape. They could get under it. But should they? Tommy fumbled with his shirt’s long sleeve, retracting his arms so that cloth covered fingers. “We need gloves but this’ll do.”

Heavy footsteps and a deep voice made them jump. “Help you with something?” While they recovered, a security guard appraised them from the doorway, gnawing the corner of his mustache.

Clare said, “Oh good. I’d given up trying to find you. My office lights keep going out.”

The guard flicked open a pocket notebook, snapped a pen authoritatively. “Can’t do anything until tomorrow. Room number?”

“In that case I’ll just call building maintenance tomorrow morning.”

“See some ID?”

“Room two-oh-six,” Clare sighed.

“I’m still going to need some ID.”

“Listen bud, she’s got more right in this building than you do, so don’t -” Tommy stopped at Clare’s look of entreaty, but met the guard’s stare.

“Is Charlie still on duty?” Clare tried to defuse the situation.

“He got off at three.” Only her name and badge number were transcribed; Tommy’s license got copied in its entirety. “Sorry to keep you, Dr. Austen.”

The guard followed them up the basement stairs, then walked a few paces behind them all the way to the building entrance, testing door locks as he went. “When I grow up I want to be a fascist, mommy,” Tommy said once they were outside, the guard locking the door behind them.

“You have a problem with authority figures,” she scolded as they headed for her car. She returned the nods of three passing students, who may have been in her freshman survey class last spring.

“I’ll bet Beaudine hears about our trip to the basement before we get to the parking lot.” Tommy brightened. “I do love watching you with those instant alibis, though.”

“I think of them with disturbing ease,” she may have noted or may have just thought. She was so tired, she wasn’t sure. In any event, he didn’t respond. Or she didn’t register his response.

Giving him a ride home, she unintentionally slowed as they passed the mansion where someone may have taken a shot at them. “I don’t suppose there were any bullet holes in your car,” she said, then wished she hadn’t.

“I suppose I would’ve told you already if there were. You keep looking in the mirror. Car phones following us, right? When were you planning to mention it to me?” She seemed to have failed some test of trust.

“I didn’t want to be an alarmist. It’s only been behind us for nine blocks.” Silence. As they neared Tommy’s house, the carphoned driver in the Honda turned and drove off. “There. The car’s gone. No need to worry, after all.”

“Or they figured out where we’re going and already know where I live.”

Clare’s car dragged to a slow halt outside Tommy’s apartment. “Look Tommy -”

“Listen Clare -” he said simultaneously.

They shared a brief laugh. “Today was a bad day, tomorrow will be better.”

He nodded as though he fervently wished to believe. “Tomorrow morning then?”

“No. I teach in the morning and then I’ll need to prep our experiments. Damn, I still need to prep my lectures too. How about – four o’clock? I know that’s late, but if I ask someone to sub my classes and then we’re in the lab … it doesn’t seem very discreet.”

“Four it is. But you don’t need to prep experiments, it worked a lot better when you were just asking me questions, like with Robert yesterday.”

Better for your left hemisphere, maybe. “It seems faster the other way but – years of studies prove it’s not.”

“You’re the doctor.” Tommy got out without looking at her.

“Tommy,” she called before he could slam the door. When he turned, his face was stony. “This is one place you have to trust me.”

His eyes softened. “You’re right. My left brain just wants to rule the world. Get some sleep.” His voice had become a caress. Clare drove home baffled at the shifting awareness of his left hemisphere.

Outside her building, two police cars were parked askew, red lights strobing the dusk air. Neighbors peeked through curtains at her open door. She ran upstairs, fighting conclusions. Jessie did not meet her.

Beaudine stood just inside. Behind him, the living room was a wreck – books off shelves, armchair upended, coffee table glass smashed, stereo components swinging from wires. It looked like the site of a colossal struggle. “Where’s Robert? Is he alright?” she pleaded. Her eyes hunted Jessie, too; Beaudine just watched her. She longed for a heavy object – she’d aim for his eyes.

Robert exited the bedroom and spotted her, just as an authoritative voice from the bedroom hailed him to return. He blew her a kiss, then obeyed the voice.

She glared at Beaudine until he started talking. “Seems your – roommate – came home and surprised a burglary, apparently before they took anything but -”

“They?”

“Figure of illiterate speech. One white male went out the door while Dr. di Marchese was taking in the mess.”

“You’re certain this was a burglary, even though nothing is missing?”

“You got other suggestions?” His voice was excessively bland.

“Perhaps it was Dr. Haffner’s killers – of course, you called that a burglary too.”

“You got information that says otherwise, Dr. Austen?”

Was that look supposed to intimidate her? “Did you get my messages?”

“I got a lot of messages. What were you doing in that basement tonight with Tommy Dabrowski?”

“The lights in my office kept going off, I was hoping I could throw a switch or something. I didn’t realize you had the area secured. That set me to thinking, actually. How did the lights go out on Friday evening?”

“We think the killer had an accomplice. Next time try asking me before you try snooping. And if I can’t tell you, still don’t try snooping. I’d like to think we’re all after the same result, Dr. Austen. I’ve been very patient but this is as far as that goes.”

Robert walked out in time to overhear. “Lieutenant Beaudine, that reminds me. What’s a homicide investigator doing at an attempted burglary?”

“Want to make your point?”

“Are we under surveillance?”

“For your own safety, Doctor, from now on I will have someone watching this place. Is that it, Joe?” Beaudine asked one of his men, who nodded.

“Just a minute,” Clare insisted. She told him about Tommy’s accidents.

Beaudine claimed he’d look into both events.

As soon as the last of the police intruders exited, Clare sagged against Robert. “Where’s Jessie?”

“Under the bed. She hissed pretty impressively at the officer looking for culprits beneath it.” Clare was already down the hall. “I’m fine, thanks for asking.”

“I could see that you were,” Clare called back plaintively. She couldn’t coax Jessie out, so crawled under the frame to pet her. Jess wouldn’t purr but did decide to emerge. Unfortunately, “I’m stuck,” Clare yelled into the carpet.

Robert raised the bed frame and she crawled backward; he gave her a hand and she was standing beside him. “What’s this white gunk everywhere?”

“Fingerprint dust. They found three sets fresh enough to take seriously. They ‘printed’ me and got one match, the others matched you and Tommy. How did Lieutenant Beaudine know that? I asked him but he ignored me.”

“I don’t know. Right now I don’t care.” As Jessie rubbed against her legs, she put her arms around Robert. “I thought you were dead.” They turned at a thud – Jessie had jumped onto the dresser to sniff the police dust. “That’s sure to be toxic.”

“I’ll get the cleanser.”

The evening was remarkable for achieving détente if not glasnost. They cleaned up after the intruder and the police, attempted dinner but not even Jessie was hungry, compared impressions of Beaudine, discussed Clare’s lab efforts with Tommy – about which Robert had excellent suggestions. All in all, she felt closer to him than she had in months.

The intruder had entered via a louvered kitchen window, hidden by foliage as he removed the window slats one by one. After dinner, they bolted the window mechanism so this could not happen again. Then Robert helped Clare rig feline escape routes.

Jessie had stayed inside that morning; she’d not wanted to go out when Robert needed to leave. That was fine, but since there was no place for a cat door in their abode, she’d been trapped with the intruder. They rearranged furniture so that the cat could hide often, and move mostly unseen from room to room. For Robert’s help, Clare felt gratitude underlain with irritation: he neither understood nor approved, giving him more than his usual air of condescension.

Remodeling completed, Robert kissed Clare for a while then went to bed. Clare settled in to work. Maybe she’d hit her two classes with a pop quiz. That was it – an essay: What have you learned from this class? The answers would tell her what to review most before finals. The quiz would eliminate the need for her to prep lectures tonight.

Rationalizations and stall tactics devised, she turned to tomorrow’s experiments, sorting lists of existing slides, drawings, and tapes for those that could be applied to their current efforts. Initially, she’d presumed they’d know their murder answer within days; if today was indicative, it could take weeks. Did they have that much time?

Go to next chapter.

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