Chapter 6. Neglect

“The doctor will see you now.” Clare stood to one side so Tommy could enter her lab. She’d kept him waiting an hour while she readied tests.

He discarded the issue of Neuropsychologia he’d been reading upside down and sauntered to his lab chair. “You look great today.”

She snorted. “I got three hours of sleep then spent four hours facing students who wished me dead, slowly and after much pain.”

“Adversity becomes you.”

“Now there’s an immortal line.”

“I’m really happy you told me that stuff yesterday about your life, it makes -”

She shoved the headset at him, switched the tachistoscope on. “This first test’s a double whammy.” This was Tommy’s name for tests in which he fixed his gaze on the tachistoscope dot while getting additional input from the dichotic listening headset. Today Clare would be certain that only his right brain knew what input it received. Today she would not engage in intimate confessions that she would regret at four the next morning.

Their first experimental goal: to conclusively pinpoint the killer’s body areas Tommy’s left hand had touched. She flashed pictures of first one then another body part, while asking his right hemisphere which of the two was more like what he had touched. He responded by pulling a toggle switch. When his right brain wasn’t sure or couldn’t otherwise answer, it tapped the question mark card near his left foot. The method was a variation on an existing experiment so it didn’t take her long to get started; and despite Tommy’s difficulties maneuvering his injured hand, they made rapid progress. Until light flooded the room.

Steve stood by the switch. “Dr. Austen! I didn’t think you’d be here.”

“Then why are you here?”

“I mean I didn’t know you’d be working with Tommy – anybody – today.”

“Hey Steve,” Tommy greeted him. “Very fast shirt.”

It was a silk bowling shirt, magenta and orange. On Tommy it would look fantastic, on Steve it looked silly. “My girlfriend gave it to me.”

“Al-right! So the cold war is over, huh? I told you it would work.”

Steve nodded sheepishly. “I don’t want to interrupt any further, Dr. Austen. I just wanted to ask if I could cut my hours. I need time to prepare for my orals.”

“Yeah, it takes a lot of practice to keep those women happy,” Tommy said deadpan. Steve gulped.

Steve had a girlfriend (the mind boggled imagining her). Tommy gave him advice. These data shouldn’t disturb her. “Of course. How much extra time will you need?” She’d planned to keep Steve absent while they extricated clues, anyway.

“I – haven’t figured that out yet. I – wanted to make sure it was okay first.”

“It’s okay. But you are interrupting our work right now.”

Steve bustled in a circle, not getting any closer to the door. “Thanks for your advice,” he muttered to Tommy, who just smiled. Then, spying the variety of color codings in the tachistoscope, indicating slides from several experiments, he said accusingly, “I didn’t know you’d be doing a new series this month.”

“I had a sudden brainstorm. I’ll tell you about it Wednesday.” Damn him, now she had to waste time coming up with a plausible smokescreen for the tests.

When Steve had departed, Tommy told her, “He’s not really a bad guy.”

“He’s very nosy, not very bright, and he couldn’t keep a secret if his life depended on it – much less yours. You wouldn’t believe the confidential information he’s told me about his prior projects.”

“Maybe he was trying to win you over. Or maybe he realizes scientists get a little carried away with their top secrets.”

“Maybe you don’t know what you’re talking about. Ask me about the time someone broke into my files and stole months of research data and I couldn’t prove a thing.” And couldn’t recover in time to speak at the biannual International Neurological Forum. Her first and last invitation to do so. The whole incident had been her first solid lesson in the value of mistrust.

“Good comeback,” Tommy said admiringly. “You can fight rings around anybody I know. Hey – fight, rings. Get it?”

She smiled. “I’m afraid so. Now we really -” But he’d already manned the headset.

Today his right brain did not claim to have touched any part of the killer’s face. Had she misinterpreted yesterday’s cross-cue or were her testing methods wrong? And, how to interpret when, seconds after tapping the question mark, Tommy’s left hand pulled the toggle indicating it had touched the killer’s eyes and ears?

Heavy footsteps and unrecognized voices sounded in her office. Damn Steve. He must not have locked the office door after him. She stomped to the lab door; just as she grabbed the knob, the door swung inward with much force. Her feet ran backward, striving futilely for purchase on the linoleum. She fell on the base of her spine. Pain shot upward, meeting pain shooting in from her wrenched shoulder. Tommy looked away from the screen in time to see her fall. He leaped to her aid, still wearing the headset, wired to her tape control board, which crashed to the floor.

One man and one woman wearing shocked expressions and the green garb of campus maintenance retreated from Tommy’s advance. He thought they’d attacked her. “They’re-okay-it-was-an-accident,” she yelled and the scene became a tableau.

“You’re having trouble with your lights, Dr. Austen?”

The basement alibi. “They seem to be fine now.” The maintenance duo insisted on helping lift the control board, which now had a discouraging rattle. Finally, she convinced them they’d helped all they could, and locked the door behind them.

Tommy was examining the board. “Got a Phillips?” She brought him her screwdrivers. “You’re not walking so good. How bad are you hurt?”

“A few days of hobbling. Next time I fall, remind me to let go of the door first.”

He nodded and shrugged, unbolting the back of the control unit, getting her to act as his second hand. “How stupid can one man feel,” he said rhetorically.

“You didn’t hear them stomping around out there. If they’d meant trouble, they would have been quieter. You also didn’t see my banana peel routine. Which makes you uninformed, not stupid. Do you think you can fix this?” It took forever to requisition equipment repairs and replacements. They did not need more delays. “Yeah, couple things shook loose, that’s all.” He continued to tinker. “I had a dream about you last night.”

“You remembered a dream? That’s fantastic.” Many split brainers complained they no longer had dreams. Why this might be was of course a subject of controversy. Clare believed dreams did still occur, but in the right hemisphere, inaccessible to conscious awareness, i.e., language. Tommy had recently started to recall dreams. Had his left hemisphere started to manufacture dreams, too? Was her theory wrong? Were new connective routes forming subcortically between the hemispheres?

“Do you want to hear it?”

“Certainly. Any dream you have is noteworthy.”

“We were in this factory. Really bright lights, smelled like rancid oil. Automated, except the machines were people, workers welded into equipment. They were building more machine people. The ones on the conveyer belts, they were really scared. It was dangerous for me to be there, so I was disguised as your briefcase or I was in your briefcase and you were trying to act nonchalant. Then all of a sudden I knew we were wrong, they wanted you too, but I couldn’t warn you. Then Bianca appeared and motioned for you to get out of that room, but you ignored her because it was Bianca. Then the real Bianca woke me up – I was thrashing around, she thought I was having a seizure so she turned on a light. Afterwards I couldn’t sleep any more, I just lay there thinking they’re going to come after you too.”

“I believe the more – hypervigilant we get, the less we’ll be able to function.” She told him about her apartment intruder, and about the hours it took her to calm down enough to work again. He looked angry and she guessed why: “I was definitely planning to tell you about it. I wanted to work first because I thought it might – distract you.”

“I’m a big boy, Clare. You don’t have to decide in advance how I’m going to react, how to handle me. I think this thing’s okay now.” He screwed the backing in place. She moved away. “What’s with you?”

“You have a knack for highlighting aspects of my personality that I hate to see.”

“I know it’s tough for you, what with everybody else in the world being perfect.”

He also had a knack for making her feel defenseless. “Are we ready?”

They resumed testing positions. Unfortunately, despite his denials, manipulating the toggle switch was making his injured arm hurt, hand cramp. She might be willing to let him suffer, if she weren’t so afraid it would cause permanent damage.

She terminated the facial features testing; she needed to devise a new tactic there. Next and last up: determining where he had touched the killer’s arms, hands, and feet. Such a slow process. Were there really no shortcuts? Or was she just not good enough to see one?

To his right hemisphere, she flashed a lower leg and a foot and asked dichotically, “Which did you touch?”

“I don’t get it, Tommy said. “‘Which did you touch’ but you showed me a sled. My ma couldn’t afford to take us to the snow, I’ve never touched a sled in my life.”

“Shit,” Clare said. Tommy’s left hemisphere was supposed to hear “What did you see?” The lines were reversed. “Hold on a minute.” She switched the tapes.

“Are you still asking my right brain where it touched the murderer? Is that all the further we are? Piss on a stick.”

“I’m verifying some results. Do not start that again.”

This time she got the proper question to his right hemisphere. It tapped the question mark. “My right brain’s a moron!” Tommy exploded. “Ow. Hey!”

Clare laughed and gasped; Tommy just gasped: his left foot had stomped down hard on his right foot. It wasn’t funny, it could only delay them further if Tommy developed Mrs. Batesian symp- No, wait. In a flash, she felt stupid and enlightened. “Tommy, I think this is cross-cuing. I think the killer stepped on you left foot.”

He looked inward, remembering. “Yeah, I think that’s it. I remember my foot hurting, except my arm hurt so much more that I forgot about my foot.” Whether the left hemisphere was confabulating, she could determine subsequently. More important was the relief that spread from one side of his face to the other: it caused so much turmoil when he felt his two hemispheres in conflict.

She’d just flashed pictures of a left then right hand, when someone began rapping on her office door. Under the headset, Tommy was oblivious. His left foot tapped the question mark, meaning it didn’t touch either hand, didn’t get the question, or – damn, take a hint, she wasn’t answering the door! She flashed a new pair of photos, left hand then both hands. His right brain indicated it had touched both hands.

Dammit! She angrily waved to Tommy to remove the headset. Puzzled, he obeyed. As much as her throbbing back allowed, she stomped to the office door, threw it open and saw –

Bianca. Flexing her fingers. “Another minute and I’d be a cripple. Going at it hot and heavy I guess.” She waltzed past Clare, lazily stretching her perfect torso as she went. “Need a ride home? I’m off work. Don’t you know who did it yet? How do you figure that out, anyway?” She looked around the lab, then looked surprised. “You really were experimenting. Work was a drag, this woman comes to class a half hour late, no warm-up then it’s my fault she pulls a quadricep. Oh, Trish loaned me her old car but she kind of asked me to not let you drive it after she heard what you did to Glenn’s Datsun. Two cops came by to question him. They treated him like a criminal when he said he had it towed to a junkyard but he wasn’t sure which one. I’ll probably get fired.”

“Did they find the car?” Tommy asked eagerly. “Did they examine the tires?”

Bianca grew stern. “Remember the last time you got into one of your death-behind-every-corner routines?” He gave a short mortified laugh. She caressed his back and ass then turned to Clare, who had just fallen into her chair with a graceless plunk. “You sit over there? I pictured you right next to him. Don’t let me disturb you. Is it alright if I hang out? Then you won’t have to drive Tommy home.”

“If you want to observe, in principle that’s fine; but when I’m working out a new test, an extra presence in the room, however unobtrusive, is distracting.”

“Was that a yes or a no?” Bianca asked Tommy.

“Me-ow,” he replied and they shared a chuckle.

“Sorry,” she told Clare as she at last headed for the door, “Tommy’s right. He always is most of the time. Oh, Mark called. Is there practice Wednesday night?”

“We’ll talk about it at home.” Tommy blew her a kiss goodbye.

“Say hi to Robert for me.” Bianca bade farewell to Clare, who somehow managed to not roll her eyes. Seconds after leaving, Bianca was back. “I forgot. They locked the front door for the night. The guard said I’d need a key to get out.”

Clare expected each step to send her to China, so heavy did she feel. They had to walk Bianca to her latest borrowed car, a red Fiero. The security guards prowling the campus made it the safest area in the city, but Bianca needed an escort.

It had seemed an impossible dream but at last she was driving away. “Sorry,” Tommy said. “She’s bad news when she’s jealous.”

Clare walked back at a fast clip; Tommy allowed her silence. In retrospect she saw that he had treated Bianca as the beloved kid sister he always claimed she ultimately was. As soon as she realized this, Clare stopped yearning to get home to Robert. Instead, she should go to a circus. Step right up folks, she waffles, she wavers, Dr. Clare Austen, the world’s most ambivalent woman.

Reaching her building door, she turned the key so sharply, it broke in the lock. When needed, the guards were nowhere around, despite glass-rattling pounding.

“Clare,” Tommy said. She stopped putting fist to pane and the night air became oppressively still. Tommy pulled out a pocket knife, had no luck extricating or turning the broken key. “Can’t take you anywhere,” he said cheerfully, repocketing the knife.

“Maybe we can get in through one of the other buildings.” At Tommy’s blank look, she reminded, “The basement walkways?”

“Brilliant. Which way?”

Clare led him around and about to Biochem. This door was wide open. They hurried down a hall, creating fast peripheral shadows on the pebbled glass doors to either side. Suddenly, the movements stopped, their shadows vanished: several lights were out in this section of the hall. Clare stiffened, waiting to feel the grit of shattered glass beneath her shoes; she thanked the god whose existence she’d always doubted when she did not.

“I never used to be scared of the dark,” Tommy tried to joke away their haste. They careened around the baluster marking the stairwell. Descending to a landing, they surprised a man ascending. A man with a loose flowered shirt and eyes like black holes. He turned and ran back down, away.

“It’s him.” She clutched Tommy lest she fall toward the fleeing figure. “Attacked me.”

“Go get help,” Tommy yelled, and descended three steps at a time.

Clare stood immobilized, a lightning debate inside her head: facing those eyes again, letting Tommy’s one good arm catch that terrifying man, finding a guard or phone quickly enough. The two pairs of running footsteps were ever less audible. She plummeted down the steps to the lowest basement level.

She found Tommy ascending stairs at the other side of the subterranean maze. “Where’s he going, outside?” Tommy yelled. They paused to fix on the distant footfalls.

“This floor – deadends. He has to – go up – then. Five or six – ways out,” Clare gasped. They climbed the stairs, paused to listen, took off anew. She turned each corner terrified that she’d find him beyond it.

Her chest ached, her back throbbed. She couldn’t run any more. Yet – hallway, corner, hallway, hallway, corner. At times they glimpsed his billowing shirt; or his footfalls were louder. But eventually, they lost him.

“Fucker – knows. Way around – down here.” Tommy bent over, sucking in big draughts of air.

Suddenly Clare thought of something important. As soon as she could speak she said, “He was. The accomplice. The lights.”

Tommy looked at her. “Gotta be. How do. We get out?”

“Not sure. Up a flight. Then I’ll know.” They climbed stairs slowly, filling the air with their labored breathing. Then another noise began to penetrate.

Screams. Somewhere in this building, a man was screaming in horror. Tapping energy they no longer possessed, Clare and Tommy sprinted forward. Each step jolted pain through Clare’s back. Upstairs. Down this hall. The cries were fainter. Backtrack. The cries fainter still. Reverse direction once more. The screams were abating.

They were in Physics. Robert’s office was on this floor. She fought panic. Robert had worked late, been surprised by a man with a knife; he cried for assistance until loss of blood and futility – no, that wasn’t Robert’s voice, it was too high. But then she’d never heard Robert scream.

The cries now had a strange bouncing cadence. Turning a corner, they encountered a figure running their way, mouth open in a rictus worthy of Edvard Munch. From this chasm came the sound they’d sought, now hoarse and hiccuping. The figure stopped when it reached them. The mouth snapped shut. Steve.

“I there’s door was no eyes unnh.” He sagged sideways. Before they could reach him, he fell on his face, which revived him but bloodied his nose. Through facial hieroglyphs, he communicated that he was alright but someone back that way needed help. They propped him against a wall, shirttail to bleeding nose, and sprinted in the direction he’d indicated.

Some ways down the hall, hearing running steps behind them, they turned to see Steve fleeing toward the stairs. Tommy yelled to him; he simply ran faster.

They exchanged looks then continued. Clare had time to wonder whether the building was really as deserted as it seemed, whether those screams could be heard by researchers deep at work behind thick wooden doors. Then, turning a corner, her vision dimmed. Her shoe slid. Twenty fingernails scraped twenty blackboards. She started trembling: two hall lights were smashed, bits of glass strewn beneath. Further on, a door gaped open. Yellow light sliced in the brown hall.

“Not again,” Tommy whispered. They stopped, squinting at the piercing yellow light. Neither took that next step forward.

Eventually: “Steve said somebody down here needed help.”

“Asshole said he’d wait, too.” They walked forward tentatively yet the tile still shrieked underfoot, gouged by shards of glass.

“Not Lalitha,” Clare whimpered at the nameplate on the yawning door. Dr. Lalitha Rao, Associate Professor of Physics and Chemistry. She and Robert had taught a freshman survey course together, three years before. Since then, bit by bit, she and Clare had become confidantes, a role neither was comfortable playing. Clare loved evenings at Lalitha’s house: her extravagant Indian meals and intriguing multinational guests, refreshingly few of whom were scientists. But more than that Clare –

“May I help you with something?”

Lalitha’s melodic, multi-accented voice came from within, distorted somehow. Against her will, Clare’s thoughts returned to the present and her feet moved forward. “What do you want? No! Please!” The voice, fearful now, dragged Clare through the entry room. She became aware of an urgent mechanical howling – a phone long off its hook.

In an instant that passed like an hour and etched itself in her memory forever, Clare surveyed the scene. “May I help you with something? What do you want? No! Please!” Clare hunted the maker of the distorted voice. Over there above the desk: Lalitha’s beloved parrot Niels, frenzied, throwing himself against the bars of his small traveling cage.

“May I help you with something?” Clare’s gaze crept to the phone, on the floor, overturned, mouthpiece cord stretched across red wet tile to Lalitha’s red wet hand clutching the receiver, her distinctive diamond ring refracting ruby light.

“… No! Please!” Long thick black hair floated in a dead sea of blood. Is this when they use dental records maybe it’s not Lalitha no she’s still got her fingerprints. Her face was featureless, smashed in, Clare supposed, although it looked inside out.

Tommy pulled Clare into the hall. “Got to find a phone,” he gulped, heading one way then the other. She giggled. Phone right there, of course, but Lalitha was using it. Tommy ceased stumbling back and forth and shook her. She stopped giggling. Before he could prevent her, she ran back inside to cover Niels in his cage, then ran out and led Tommy across the hallway, threw her weight against the door there.

EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY. DO NOT OPEN. ALARM WILL SOUND. The alarm screeched at maximum decibels, masking the phone’s cries, the parrot’s frantic mimicry. It prevented talking and thinking. They sat on the fire escape, backs propped against the door, waiting for someone to find them.

 

If Lieutenant Beaudine was surprised to see them, he didn’t show it. After asking all the predictable questions, he grew almost kindly: he agreed to not contact Robert before Clare got home; and allowed Clare to take Niels, after taping the parrot’s version of Lalitha’s last words. He even solicited Clare’s advice: did she think, from the parrot’s inflection, that Lalitha had known her visitor? (Clare couldn’t tell.)

His impassivity cracked however, when he inquired about her research with Tommy. He seemed eager for leads, any leads, although he acted like he was consulting a psychic. For an instant, Clare felt insulted. Then she felt nothing again.

Steve was brought in. While he followed his police escort through the small gathered crowd of distracted professors and exhausted grad students, Clare noticed that her assistant had changed his clothes. His hair was wet too – as though he’d showered. His nose was swollen and already bruising from his fall.

After he questioned Steve, Beaudine returned to Clare, his manner now curt. He asked her all the same questions over again and finally ordered, “Describe the victim’s condition.”

“I don’t know what my brave and intelligent assistant told you, but I’m not going to let you put me through this. I need to go home.”

“When you’ve finished here.” He posted a guard, went downstairs to give a statement to the TV news crews. After an eternity he returned and resumed questions at square one. After an hour of this, he conferred with various associates, then followed her home. Tommy and Steve, it turned out, had been dismissed long before.

Robert was in pajamas on the couch pretending to read, the phone beside him. He looked too worried to be angry – it was nearly three A.M. She stood holding the bird cage; Jessie leaped from nowhere, clung to the cloth cover. Niels squawked once. They must look funny. She was surprised Robert didn’t laugh. Instead, he bounded to her side.

Behind her on the step outside, Beaudine appeared. Robert must have figured it all out, for his arms tightened around Clare and he started to weep. She was made of cement. Thus could she stand so steadily, with the already heavy cage swinging under Jessie’s added weight. Robert yanked the cat away, helped Clare set the cage down. Jessie went right for it again. Clare removed her ever so gently even though she was being a complete jerk.

“Dr. di Marchese -” Beaudine began. Clare went to shut Jessie into the bedroom, then searched the kitchen for possible parrot food. The front door opened – and Niels squawked. Beaudine’s entourage was leaving, with the parrot.

“Wait, you said I could take care of him,” she called to Beaudine.

“Can’t let you,” Beaudine replied. He’d never intended to.

“You and your fucking games, you can’t lock him in some goddamned impound. Of all the piece of shit …”

Beaudine motioned his men to leave, clicked the door shut behind him without responding to her ravings.

Once the apartment was copless, Clare fell silent. She freed Jessie, settled in at her desk. Robert was on the couch, watching her, his cheeks wet with silent tears for Lalitha. “Come sit with me,” he said.

“I can’t. I’ve got to figure out what Tommy knows, it’s the only way to stop – this.” Jessie jumped onto the desk, Clare touched a tail as Jess jumped off again.

“I know. I agree. But it can wait.”

“I can’t.” Jessie now curled up in Robert’s lap. Traitor. Clare busied herself, aware of Robert’s attention. Fine. Let him watch her.

Time elapsed. Robert brought Jessie over to Clare’s lap. “Don’t do this to yourself,” he began.

“Stop,” Clare said furiously though she didn’t feel furious. She didn’t feel anything. Jessie fled and for an instant, Clare was swept with an aching loneliness.

Robert went into the bedroom. She didn’t know how long she’d been working when he returned to the couch, opened a book, observed her over the open volume. She didn’t complain; if anything, she felt comforted. “If I can help,” he said.

She nodded without looking up, fearing what would happen if she did.

Go to next chapter.

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