Chapter 7. Symmetry Breaking

“Today, you don’t look so hot,” Tommy informed her as they prepared for their next session of brain charades.

“Don’t tell me you’ve never felt better.”

“Not hardly, especially when our man in Homicide showed up practically at dawn. See, he hoped you’d spill something but -”

“There’s nothing to spill, for Christ’s -”

“Easy, I know that, remember?”

“Beaudine is the single most irritating human being I have ever met.”

“He asked me what I do during blackouts. I think he’s been reading about seizures where you don’t pass out, just make your appointed rounds with no memory of it later. I think he hopes I commit grisly murders during seizures, with you taking notes.”

“I don’t blame him for getting farfetched. This is making less sense all the time. Although ‘data are complicated, theories are sophisticated, simplicity appears only with the truth.’ That’s something -”

“Dr. Colton used to say.”

“No. Lalitha.”

“There’s another one I never heard you mention.”

“I didn’t get to see her much. How could anyone – I mean, I can imagine Dr. Colton having enemies. With Dr. Haffner, I wouldn’t know. But Lalitha -”

“You sound like a TV anchor. Like other people are gonna take this as a sad story, so your voice better sound appropriate.”

“Don’t play shrink with me, Tommy. It’s worse than when you play Romeo.” This sounded much harsher than she’d anticipated, yet it didn’t seem to faze him.

“I have these erotic fantasies about you. We go out in the woods, lay down on some pine needles, it’s so soft we don’t need a blanket, so quiet we can hear the breeze at the top of the trees. We take our clothes off and you cry all over me.”

“That is one sick fantasy.”

“Shit, now you’re laughing like a TV anchor.”

More like Humpty Dumpty, being coaxed by well-meaners to climb the wall. “It just doesn’t make sense. I don’t know why anyone would kill Dr. Colton, much less Lalitha. But why those two together?”

After a moment’s deliberation, he sanctioned her changing the subject by adding, “Or why those three? – if Haffner wasn’t offed by burglars. Seems like the deranged surfer’s got something against scientists. But he’s too short to be our guy in the hall.”

“Plus. If there is an accomplice – do deranged killers work in teams? Well-organized teams, at that?”

“Cults do. And the Hillside Strangler was two guys. Still doesn’t explain why, though. Not in any way that I’m smart enough to see.”

Clare struggled to erect a dam of words against the wave of hopelessness threatening them. “Certainly, if we understood the motive, we’d have a better chance of naming the killer. But we don’t have enough information to know why and trying to obtain it would take so much time. Time better spent working on who.”

Tommy nodded vigorously and donned the headset.

That they were desperate to see the murderer caught, and that this was the only way they might help, gave added focus to the day’s work. Clare at last completed their oft-interrupted effort to determine which parts of the killer’s body Tommy’s left hand had touched. Now they could –

Not again. A knock, immediately preceding a key in the lock. “Dr. Austen?”

Steve followed his voice into the lab; a young woman with auburn curls, white skin, and blue eyes accompanied. “You didn’t have the sign up again,” he chided. The TESTING IN PROGRESS DO NOT DISTURB sign, which Clare had omitted lest someone notice Tommy was being tested so often. “I thought you weren’t here. I – was going to leave you a note.”

“You needed help writing this note?” Clare looked at the girl, who examined the lab with undisguised curiosity. Steve looked befuddled.

The girl’s clothes might be modern, but her profile, as she turned to smile sweetly at Steve, belonged on a Victorian cameo. “She means me, Steven.”

Flustered, Steve introduced them to Constance, a senior. “I – I’m really behind. I – can’t assist anymore,” he explained, “but Constance will sub for me.”

Constance added, “Steve’s told me what he does for you and I’m sure I can manage it. If you like my work, I’m available next quarter too.”

“Fine.” She could help with student records keeping, at least. And not knowing anything might be an asset while Clare tried to keep these experiments secret.

“Thanks,” Steve gushed. “And thank you for helping me last night.”

“Wish we could say the same, Steve-o,” Tommy told him.

“I’m really ashamed about the way I – but I had to get away.”

“Anybody would have.” The way Constance looked at him; the way Steve responded. Marvelous. Clare had just hired Steve’s girlfriend.

“What the hell did you tell Lieutenant Beaudine, by the way, Steve?” Clare tried to soften her initial tone, but failed – and caught herself pleased to see that Steve’s nose was a mess of red scrapes and purple bruises.

“The lieutenant … advised me that you would ask me, and told me not to say anything.” For strength, Steve looked to Constance, but was still so nervous, he buzzed. He was taller than Clare had realized, tall enough to be – no – Steve? Absurd.

“Next time we let you deal with your own corpses,” Tommy informed him, and Steve stiffened. The lovely Constance tittered; Tommy appraised her. Steve forced a laugh.

“Was there anything else, Steve?” Clare inquired. Thanks-for-coming-now-go-away.

Constance gushed. “I heard you’re solving a murder in the lab. I’d love -”

“Where did you hear that?” Clare’s voice was amazingly cool.

Steve’s whimper revealed Constance’s source. But where had he heard?

“Isn’t it true?” Constance pressed.

“Unfortunately, no. I wish there were something I could do.”

The couple departed, Steve – impossibly – more nervous; Constance clearly unconvinced by Clare’s denial.

“I was going to fire dear Constance,” Clare mused, “but now I’ve got to keep her long enough to convince her she heard wrong.”

Tommy nodded. “We’ve got to explain why I’m here all the time though. With my arm like this, you’d postpone regular testing until it was healed.”

“You’re right. I supposed I could let it be known I’m pushing you so I can prepare a paper for the conference in January. That’s just barely believable.”

“I got it. We’ll pretend we’re experimenting in the biblical sense.”

This time Clare was grateful for the knock on her door, although stupefied to find Robert there.

Before following her into the lab, he looked both ways, as though crossing a dangerous intersection. “I just stopped by to make sure you were alright. You look a lot better than you did this morning.”

“Then she must have been mighty scary this morning. Hey Roberto. Um. Clare. I’m really sorry about the corpses line with Steve.”

What did he mean? Oh, of course. He’d been referring to Lalitha. Or as she now thought of it, Monday Night’s Murder.

Tommy described Steve and Constance’s visit to Robert, then asked his advice about hiding their research purpose. Robert removed his glasses, examined them for smudges, finally put them back on as though he had no choice. “You could always pretend you’re having an affair.”

Even Tommy sounded awkward as he opted for Clare’s impending conference excuse. Robert cut him short. “Must be difficult for that sling to operate these levers.” He studied the tachistoscope setup. “Have you talked to Requisitions?” he asked Clare, not looking at her either.

“You know how they are. It will take weeks unless I put a rush on it and then I’ll have to explain why I’m in such a hurry.”

“And then it will only take them weeks. I might be able to jury-rig something.”

“That would be wonder-”

“See what I can do. Let you get back to it.” He headed out abruptly.

“Stick around,” Tommy said. “Maybe you’ll have some input.”

“Clare doesn’t appreciate meddling. I wouldn’t either.” She caught up with him at the door. “Promise me something?” She nodded hesitantly. “When you leave, have a guard or three walk you to your car.”

She managed a smile. “I’ll try to be home early.”

“Of course you will.” And he was gone.

She returned to Tommy. “Fool. Did you think he doesn’t suspect? How could you ask such a question?”

“I was hoping he’d have a real suggestion. Shit. Suspect ‘us,’ you mean? There’s nothing to suspect, except the way you flipped when he mentioned an affair. If you’re going to act guilty you should try to be guilty first, Clare.”

“This is all a big joke to you but Robert is important to me and -”

“Hold it. You just want to believe I’m joking. And sure, Roberto’s important to you, but that doesn’t mean you’re not wondering whether it’s over. Which you are.” He put the headset on. She motioned that she wasn’t ready for the next test. He left it on. She escaped to her list of test findings.

Tommy’s right hemisphere had indicated that it touched the killer’s neck, chest, left shoulder, left thigh, right hand, and lower arm; and that the killer had stepped on Tommy’s foot. There seemed to be a contradiction about facial data: his right brain had claimed it didn’t touch the face, but then indicated the ears and eyes. He hadn’t touched the killer’s eyes and ears but they were important? How could that be? Aha. Of course. (Maybe.) Tommy had peripherally seen, had fleetingly heard the killer. Yes, that had to be it. (Maybe.) Good. That’s where they would begin.

Tommy was staring at nothing. She wadded paper, threw it, but her back was so stiff today, the wad barely cleared her testing station. Still, he removed the headset and asked, “What was Steve doing in the physics building last night?”

“Damn. I should have thought of that before.”

Tommy sounded irritated. “So we’re thinking of it now.”

“I can’t imagine why he’d be there. Do you think he’s capable of – that?”

“‘He seemed like such a nice boy. So quiet, so polite.’ Can’t see him with the deranged surfer, though. Who, P.S., Beaudine doesn’t believe we even saw last night.”

“Or at all. But here’s what really bothers me. That man who attacked me doesn’t seem like the accomplicing type. He does seem like the horrible murder type.” After their latest encounter, even calling him the deranged surfer didn’t render him less frightening. But he was several inches too short to be the man who’d knifed Tommy.

“I don’t know what that type is. Any type is. I don’t know why we’re bothering. The more we get into it, the less I understand anything.”

A lesson Clare relearned for the umpteenth time: more often than not, rationally discussing murder particulars left Tommy feeling confused/angry/hopeless. “We’ve got to have faith that if we keep discovering little pieces, eventually they’ll all fit into the same puzzle.”

“I’ll bet you love jigsaw puzzles.” His voice said he despised them.

“Absolutely. Those twenty-thousand-piece all white round ones.”

He shuddered. “Next you’ll tell me you own the complete works of Muzak.”

“As a matter of fact.”

“I’d rather do experiments than hear this. What’s next?”

“I’ll ask a question. You’ll answer with the levers.” Each half of Tommy’s brain would see YES, NO, or MAYBE. Each hand would reply by pulling a lever beneath each flashed word. But – the hemispheres would not see the words in the same order, to hinder left brain confabulation.

His left hemisphere saw NO then MAYBE. His right hemisphere saw YES then NO. “Did you see the killer in the hall Friday night?”

MAYBE, the left hemisphere answered. NO, the right hemisphere responded. Both used the second lever to reply.

“Did you see a part of the killer’s body or clothes?” His left hemisphere said MAYBE with the second lever. His right answered YES with the first lever.

“Wait a minute.” Tommy had observed the discrepancy in levers pulled. “My right brain’s saying no but it’s wrong.”

“You’re assuming it saw the same words in the same order. That’s wrong.” His mouth opened, then closed. Ha. She’d outsmarted his left brain, for once.

His left shoulder kept rubbing against his left ear. Cuing her, she believed, that he’d also heard the killer. “Fixate on the dot again. Now. Did you hear the killer’s voice?” Tommy’s left brain chose MAYBE. His right brain did not respond but the shoulder to ear rubbing resumed.

Ah. Now she understood: “Did you see the killer’s ear?” NO.

She hadn’t understood after all. “Did you touch the killer’s ear?” She asked with a touch of futility, expecting and getting NO.

“This isn’t an interrogation, asking me the same fucking questions over and -”

“Stop. I need quiet.” As she stared at her notes, searching vainly for new patterns in the responses, Tommy’s restlessness and hostility grew. She’d have to come back to this later. “I’ll need to double check answers Tommy. That will happen ongoingly.”

He relaxed a bit. “My right brain will screw us, ongoingly,” he noted sunnily.

Interestingly, Tommy consistently admitted he had a right brain these days. How would this affect future testing? Now there was a future beyond her powers of belief: a day when the murderer was caught and they were back to business as usual.

“I need to switch to using my foot for a while. My left hand hurts all the way to my shoulder.”

She consulted her watch. “We’ve been here close to nine hours. Let’s call it quits until tomorrow.”

“I don’t want to stop.”

“It does us no good if you stress your arm so badly you can’t use it for days. And as we get more tired there’s a point of diminishing returns.”

“I feel like every time we leave here we’ll hear more screams.”

“I hear them all the time,” Clare admitted softly.

The last thing she knew, she was perched on the tachistoscope table, he was slouched in his orange plastic chair. Now they were standing, holding one another. His heart pounded even harder than hers, which somehow calmed her.

She felt an odd scrabbling against her ribs, below one breast. “I’m not getting fresh,” Tommy murmured into her hair, “my hand’s having spasms.” She stepped back and they watched his twitching left fingers freeze into a claw. “These tests are definitely not good for the old hand,” Tommy said ruefully. Clare massaged his hand and the muscles loosened. He ran a finger along her palm; she pulled her hand away, finally dared to look up at him. Seeing her sober reflection in his eyes, she grew more sober still. His good hand rubbed her cheek. “My shirt button made a mark,” he explained with a loving smile. She took another step back. He interrupted her before she was sure she was going to speak. “I know,” he said simply.

She stepped away to turn off the tachistoscope.

“Aren’t there any other tests we can do today?”

“Actually there is something we could try with your foot.”

“Sounds kinky. Tell me more.”

“When the killer stepped on your foot. I can’t guarantee it, but we may be able to estimate his weight. We can apply a certain weight to your foot, then you can decide whether it’s heavier or lighter than he was.”

“How do we know how much stuff weighs, you got a scale?”

“I know where to get one. Come with me.” She led him down the hall to the women’s bathroom. After a pause, he followed her inside.

It was the kind of scale found in a doctor’s office circa 1940, unwieldy and heavy – when she finally got Tommy to help her move it. He had to read the graffiti in every stall first. There wasn’t much – it wasn’t that kind of school – but it fascinated him. “Listen to these. ‘For a good time don’t ever call Brian T.’ ‘All men are islands – post nuclear testing.’ Here somebody wants a list: ‘What are men good for?’ and then there’re ten blanks to fill in. One pen crosses out numbers two through ten, another pen says, ‘At least flies can be used in experiments.’ Yow. Some mean females in this place. Do you all think like this?”

She tugged the scale away from the wall. “Only the ones who have cause, I imagine. But I can’t really speak for my entire species. Could you please help me lift this?”

“Phew. This one’s worse than any men’s room ever. I can’t even repeat it.” He emerged from the last stall with a grim expression. “There was a drawing to go with it.” As they dragged the scale doorward, he mused, “You know any happy couples?”

“How about intermittently content?”

“What I don’t get is why we all think it’s possible. To be happy.”

Do we all? Think that? “Stop. I have to set this down. We’re probably discalibrating it forever. If that’s a word.”

“I wonder if anybody ever wrote stuff like that about me.”

“I thought Bianca was your high school sweetheart.”

“We’ve had some rocky spells. Even an official separation.”

Clare dragged the scale with a vengeance. Back pain flared, a welcome distraction. Tommy and Bianca would fight, he’d cheat, they’d make up, he’d go home.

“But this time it’s over,” he brooded. “I’m just waiting for her to figure it out. Maybe she already knows.”

I’ll bet you say that to all the separation girls. “Why is she so jealous then?”

“I get jealous too. Like I hate that guy Andy at her gym – the way she looks when his name comes up. But jealousy’s not love. Listen to me, I’m one of those books. People Who Love to Hate People Who Hate to Love But Wish They Didn’t.

Clare snorted. They stopped to rest again. “This hall got longer.”

“And emptier. Something else bad’s going to happen. I can feel it.” At last there was her door. Ajar. “Didn’t you lock it?” he whispered.

“Maybe the lock didn’t catch. I – I can’t take any more of -” her whisper broke and “- this!” rang down the corridor.

They backed away, sprinted downstairs, found a guard: their friend who’d caught them snooping around the basement light switches. He was busy with a cheese sandwich and a Best of Soldier of Fortune but deigned to accompany them, like a father showing his toddler there was nothing under the bed, right during the last seconds of the big game on TV.

Hand on his gun, he found Clare’s office empty with no evidence of intrusion. He watched them drag the scale inside without offering to help. When Clare shut her door, he jiggled the knob and called, “You’re locked in now, professor.”

As his High Noon footsteps receded, Tommy flipped him off. “Hope he gets to find the next victim,” Clare muttered as they dragged the scale to the lab.

“Hope he is the next victim,” Tommy said. “But he won’t be. Pricks don’t seem to be getting offed around here.”

What was the pattern to the murders? What relevance would that have to their efforts? Would she and Tommy have any relevance to stopping the killings?

Tommy mistook her brooding. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to remind you. So now you drop stuff on my foot?”

“First, we’ll estimate pounds per square inch of pressure. I have some plywood we’ll use to create the same pressure base. Then I’ll hold objects of a known weight and step on the plywood. I weigh a hundred thirty so I hope he wasn’t much heavier than one eighty; fifty pounds of kitty litter is all I can carry.” He was giving her a peculiar look. “I take it you think this isn’t going to work.”

“Amazing. A woman who tells her real weight. Ever notice that? Women lie about weight. And age. Men just lie about height.”

“Don’t forget penis size. I can’t believe I said that.”

He laughed gleefully. “Hope it’s my influence.”

The experiment proceeded as she’d envisioned it, until, laden with medical tomes, she jumped on plywood duct-taped to his shoe. She teetered and Tommy reached to steady her. “Don’t touch me, that could alter the results.” They tried again. This time she dropped a book. Next time he lost his balance and they tumbled together, books flying. They howled with pain, frustration – and laughter.

Finally they got it right. Then Clare laid out three stacks of books – the five she had used, a set of two, and a set of seven. Tommy’s left foot pointed to the stack of seven. She needed to be heavier. They groaned. Her arms weren’t long enough to hold more books, so they anchored a tome to each shoulder. “Do I look as dumb as I feel?”

“Way dumber,” he said encouragingly. She took up her armload of books and jumped. They hadn’t allowed extra room for the shoulder books, one of which hit Tommy in the chin. The ensuing expletives startled Clare and she missed the plywood. Guffaws broke out.

Eventually, Tommy’s right brain found a weight/pressure it thought comparable to the killer’s. As a book-laden Clare stepped on the scale she realized, “I could have just weighed myself in the bathroom.” This they found uproarious.

The killer’s weight was about 195, plus or minus two books, ten pounds. A weight they’d estimated from his shadowy size in the hall. This they also found hilarious. “I think we’re losing it.” Tommy chortled.

“It’s long gone,” Clare assured him. They dragged the scale to the hall, away from her door so it wasn’t clear where it had been. If maintenance found out she was responsible for moving it, she could forget office servicing for days.

Back in her office, Tommy picked up his backpack. Clare started sorting her notes and slides for work at home. “What are you doing?” he demanded.

“Aren’t we leaving? It’s late and I’ve got classes tomorrow morning.”

“No, I was getting us dinner.” He produced two green apples and two flat sandwiches. “Guess I should’ve put the apples in first.” Using one hand and his teeth, he peeled away wax paper, assessed, proffered the less damaged sandwich. It emitted an odd pungent odor. “Peanut butter, lettuce, mustard and honey. Sounds weird tastes great. I promise.”

She forced herself to accept it. Whether she could force her throat to swallow was another matter. “Robert will have waited dinner for me,” she explained her hesitation. And Robert was such a wonderful cook.

“Suit yourself. Can never get Bianca to try ‘em either.” Which of course made her want to down the sandwich in record time. She took a bite of apple. He smiled enigmatically then looked down at his injured arm and wiggled those fingers. “I can use my hand again for a while.”

She rigged the tachistoscope for its YES NO MAYBEs. “There is one other issue we could clear up tonight. This isn’t too bad.” She’d sampled the sandwich.

“Give it to me. I’ll finish it.”

“Why do I have the feeling I’m failing a test?”

“All my life I’ve searched for a woman with real taste buds.”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to keep looking.” She relinquished the sandwich after one more small bite. She didn’t really want to go home. This room tonight was as good as a Baja hideaway. Fluorescent lights provided a full moon; the distant hum of building machinery, waves on a beach; the formica tables stretched like white sand around them.

“… Jessie in to work, ever?” Tommy was asking.

“I brought her in here once. She went berserk. I think she smelled fear, from the animal labs. It still makes me ill, remembering how scared she – why do you ask?”

“Because then we could stay here forever.”

“I know what you mean.” She explained about the Baja hideaway.

He smiled cautiously. “Never thought I’d hear you admit something like that.”

She was surprised, too. “Have I confused you yet?”

“Keeps it interesting,” he said and assumed his testing station. Robert hated her rabid inconsistencies, as he called them. Robert was so calm, reassuring, caring. How then could he so often make her feel something was amiss with her?

Tommy’s hemispheres saw YES NO, NO YES. “Do you know the killer?”

“What are you talking about? Why are we here if I don’t?” Instant fury.

“There are two possibilities. The first is that you encountered something distinctive on the killer. Touched a wart on his nose, for example. Something that, once we identify it, will be so individual that it will also identify the killer.” She paused. “The other possibility is that the killer is someone you know.”

“I don’t know anybody capable of the stuff we’ve seen.”

“You’re certainly getting upset about this.”

“Sure. Right. That means I’m lying, hiding something. Maybe I did it. Or Steve, that’s who you’d like to nail, yeah, get Beaudine on the phone I think we’ve got something here.”

“Tommy. Listen to yourself.”

“I’m not – doing whatever it is you’re accusing me of. Come on. I’ll prove it to you.” He stared at the dot with a vengeance.

Clare sighed, flashed YES NO, NO YES. “Is the killer someone you know?”

Both hemispheres indicated NO. “The. Fucking. Answer. Is. Fucking. No.” With each word, Tommy slammed his right hand against the right side of his head.

Clare ran over and grabbed his arm. “Both hemispheres answered no.” She kept yelling until at last he heard her.

“Told you.” He sounded very tired. “I gotta go home.” He continued while she assembled her things. “Of course you don’t believe the answers are no. We’ve been at this for fucking ever and we’re getting nowhere. You need some outside consultation, you’re on the wrong track.”

Clare was silent. He was frightening her. She’d have to ask his right hemisphere the same questions clandestinely, tomorrow. It had been a gross error, trying to save time by not posing questions dichotically. Much more time was lost when his left brain got angry like this.

They walked downstairs without speaking. Clare paused when she saw the unpleasant security guard, remembering her vow to Robert that a guard would walk her to her car. “Maybe he did it,” Tommy indicated the guard. “He’s the right size too.” Clare bared teeth in a simulated smile at the guard, who jotted in his notebook. No, she wouldn’t ask him to walk her out; there were enough – probably more competent and surely less obnoxious – guards stationed outside.

There were guards on every walkway, even more attentive to Clare and Tommy’s progress than they were to the occasional students straggling back to the dorms. Yet the walk was still unsettling. The night air was heavy, cold and black. The moon had set or not yet risen. Their steps resounded around, before, behind them; until Clare was sure they were being followed, paced and awaited. Tommy muttered to himself as they went. She had to jog to keep pace.

Just before they reached the faculty parking lot, a slight dark figure jumped from behind a tree, grabbed Tommy’s bad arm. Tommy howled; Clare swung her briefcase but the figure leaped away before she connected, and grabbed for a knife sheathed at a hip. “Try it and you’re dead,” Tommy yelled. The figure backed away, hands raised in a gesture of surrender.

“All I wanted was do you have a smoke,” the man whined. Light now illumined the blunt sunken features of a young homeless man who occasionally slept behind the bushes lining the faculty parking lot fence.

Tommy recognized him too. “Larry you stupid fuck. You know I quit.”

“How about some coin so’s I can get a pack?” Larry smoothed his top, a badly stained lab coat, obviously retrieved from a garbage bin.

“Not tonight man, I have a headache.” Tommy must other times be generous, because Larry usually got angry at refusals; now he laughed.

His raucous chicken cackles trailed them across the parking lot, empty except for three cars – Clare’s, and two flanking hers. They stopped walking. “There’s somebody in that one.” Tommy peered into the sedan left of Clare’s Nova. She strained to see but it was too dark. They stood uncertainly until headlights passing along the street lit the car’s interior. “Shit it’s just headrests.” Tommy strode forward, then stopped and held out his hand to Clare. After a moment, she took it.

“Now I’m seeing somebody in the other car,” she complained. As their scrutiny shifted, so did Clare’s perspective. The car, a blue Nissan or Honda, was getting smaller. No, it was driving away. That low hum had been its engine idling. They ran forward. Immediately, the car picked up speed, lights going on only after it was some distance down Wilson Avenue.

They stood in the parking lot for a time, unsure how they should react. Then she took him home. “Making more sense all the time, uh huh,” Tommy bid her good night.

Go to next chapter.


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