“I don’t know what my problem was last night,” Tommy concluded his apology. They sat on the couch in her office, their lab work looming: source of all trouble, it seemed this afternoon.
Clare was likewise unsure what his outburst had meant. Either he did know – and liked – the murderer and couldn’t face that knowledge, or it terrified him that someone so vicious could be known and seemingly innocuous. It was a crucial point but irrelevant until she determined which explanation applied – which might be too late.
Larry was dead. Uniformed police had pulled Clare from her first class that morning. (Now there was one way to get her students’ attention.) Late for that class, she’d parked near her classroom and thus missed seeing cops and camera crews swarming the faculty lot bushes. Nothing else was being discussed on campus, however, so Clare now knew that they’d only found most of Larry and were combing the environs for the rest of his remains. Tommy had overheard corridor gossip that Larry was slain elsewhere and the pieces strewn under the bushes; but when he stopped to hear more, the gossipers clammed up.
Beaudine had separately summoned Clare and Tommy because they were the last to see Larry alive. Except for the killer, Clare had to remind Beaudine, who just stared. How he knew about their encounter with Larry, he of course wouldn’t say.
Once Tommy had reached campus, some lab coat he’d never even fucking seen before had asked how his murder investigation was going with Dr. Austen. Tommy was really sorry but he’d let the guy believe their testing was a cover for extracurricular activities, nudge nudge wink wink.
Clare hardly reacted. That was the least of their problems and was indeed safer gossip to spread. Robert would understand, or not.
Bianca believed it regardless. “When the cops came at crack-o’-dawn we were still going at it. Fighting since I fucking walked in last night and she hit me with, ‘I’m sleeping around since you are.’ It was crazy. For a while I convinced her you and I really do work by giving her a blow-by-blow – all these tests I don’t understand and she gets it even less but I kept ‘em coming until her eyes crossed. I think she said she believed me just so I’d stop. But, explaining to her, I realized that of course you know what you’re doing – and then I felt shitty about ragging on you. Bianca saw I was feeling bad so she got all talk to mommy and – tell me if this isn’t the stupidest move – I said I felt bad about you. Kabloom. You know how you can fight for hours without saying anything real and it hurts even more than the true stuff?”
“Yes, I know that syndrome all too well.”
“She says she’s being followed now, says I’m endangering her life, too. For that, I couldn’t blame her for being pissed. I told Beaudine and he said he’d look into it. You betcha.” Tommy fell sideways, his head resting millimeters from Clare’s shoulder. She did not straighten away.
“Robert and I had a big blowout this morning.” Thus was she late for her first class. Then Beaudine hadn’t even let her call to alert her second class to go home. “He advised me to get a lawyer but I thought he was bluffing.”
“Robert said that? Do you have one of those prenuptial whatevers?”
“No. Beaudine said that. I’m sorry – I switched thoughts on you.”
“He told me that too. But I can’t afford one.”
“Don’t they have court-appointed lawyers who are free?”
“Don’t you have to be arrested to get one of those?”
“I guess we should find these things out, not assume since we’re innocent we’ll be fine.” Tommy’s hair touched her ear. “I wonder when Jessie’s going to get sick. Then everything will be wrong.”
“What’d you and Roberto get into?”
“He’d left me a note asking me to wake him up when I got home last night. But I just wanted to get my work done and go to bed.”
“Bianca called him. I bet she got him all het up the way she was.”
“He didn’t mention that. But he was furious to awaken this morning and discover he’d had a full night’s sleep. We just went on from there. The worst part is, we never really make up anymore. He may say the same conciliatory words he always has, but they no longer seem to apply.”
“Sounds like you’ve changed and he hasn’t.”
“That does sum it up. I hate it when my life reduces to clichés.”
“So I talk in clichés, eh? Mucho de nada.”
“Well. That certainly wasn’t one.” She smiled, briefly. “We should get started. Robert is due to stop by, to rig a new lever for your bad arm.”
“Even though he’s pissed?”
“Robert’s very noble. We can’t be sitting like this when he gets here.”
“I’m glad Bianca’s not noble. Yeah, we should move.”
They remained where they were. “Your hair smells like food.”
“Bianca tossed our kitchen around last night. The almond extract got me.”
“She throws things when you fight?”
“Yeah, it’s jive: ‘I am furious, I am passionate, I will throw a pan.’ Sometimes I tell her what a housewife she is, to make her really mad.”
“And then what does she do?”
“She stomps around and puts my pillow on the couch. Last night – haw! – I told her after she’d already got my pillow out. So she just stood there, you could hear the wheels grinding, and then all of a sudden she’s out of control, storms over to the couch, rips my pillow apart.”
They managed a brief tired chuckle. “Robert gets robotic. Once I asked him if he needed oiling. It was a low blow, I don’t behave any -”
The lock rattled, the door flew open. Tommy jumped into a protective posture. No doubt this looked suspicious for other reasons. “Hey Roberto.”
“We were just talking about you.” Clare’s tone begged confrontation.
“Hear there was another murder,” Robert said without inflection. Going directly into the lab, he opened a briefcase full of tools and contraptions and set to work on the indicator levers. He labored wordlessly, until he finally had to motion for Tommy to sit beside him, finally had to ask, “How does that feel?” although it clearly grieved him to do so.
Task completed, he packed up some thirty-one minutes after arriving, seemingly intent on leaving without speaking another word. Clare followed him to the door. He said metallically, “I’ll see you at home. Whenever that happens to be.” He was now in his mental tantrum mode; Clare could forget reasonable discussion.
“Thanks for your help, it should make testing go much smoother.”
“That’s what I’m here for,” he said in a monotone. Her non-reaction apparently made him angry, for he continued as though spitting through a blow gun, “I know you’re under pressure; but then you always are when you want to avoid me. I haven’t -”
The door sprang open and a sub-assistant administrator brandished papers and accusations: the bathroom scale was missing and Security had last seen it here; Dr. Austen was expected to pay for replacement. She studied the papers. Bruce Smith was the name of their friend the guard. His signature resembled a backward second grader’s. She looked up to discover that Robert was gone. “Thirteen hundred six dollars? Where do you get these scales, the Pentagon?” The sub-assistant didn’t know, he was only authorized to inform her of this matter.
Clare thanked and brushed past him to affix the DO NOT DISTURB sign to the door’s exterior. He bustled officiously away as she locked the world out, turned, and jumped. Tommy had materialized behind her, reading the paperwork she’d tossed on the desk.
“Bruce Smith, sounds like an alias. So on the home life scale, one being honeymoon, ten being ugly courtroom scenes, I rank you an eight. Was that Roberto being mad? I prefer ripped pillows.”
“I prefer Jessie.” But Tommy wasn’t listening; he was staring at the crack below the door. As silent and swiftly as Jessie herself might have moved, he opened the door.
Outside, Cynthia Bates straightened and twitched, obviously caught at a keyhole. “I thought I heard voices,” she said, her faint English accent noticeable. Eager to appear unruffled, she smoothed her hair – but caught her watchband in her diamond stud earring. While struggling with and at last separating the two, she spoke in a fluster. “I mean to say, after that man told you about the scale, you put the sign up but I wasn’t sure if you were testing from the way you were talking – out here in your office. I’m just getting in deeper, aren’t I? I didn’t intend to snoop I simply didn’t wish to interrupt.”
“We get your drift.” Tommy’s smile was disarming.
“Come in, we’re taking a break.” Clare sat on one couch arm. “You look as though you’ve been feeling better.”
Cynthia took the far couch arm. “No, but perhaps if I keep telling myself. It’s odd, you two testing today. Have you switched days, Tommy?”
Clare answered. “I’m preparing for a conference in January and he’s agreed to come in more often to help me finish this series of tests.”
“Which tests are you doing? Would I have been part of the study as well?”
“Probably, but please don’t feel obligated.”
“Some experiments disturb me less than others. Are these new ones?”
“Here and there.” Mrs. Bates had never cared about test particulars before.
Cynthia waited for Clare to elaborate. When she didn’t, Cynthia hastily filled the gap with, “I stopped in to assure you that if I do resume testing I’ll remain with you.”
“I didn’t realize that was in question.”
“I just assumed he’d – said something.” She indicated Tommy, perched on Clare’s desk, browsing through a magazine.
Tommy shrugged. He didn’t know what Cynthia meant, either. “Said something … about?” Clare prompted mildly.
“Earlier he – Tommy – passed me leaving Dr. Stein’s office and he seemed so surprised.” Tommy indicated he hadn’t been. “Yes, the way you said, ‘Hey Mrs. Bates, didn’t expect to see you here.’ Anyway, Clare, I thought he might tell you and I didn’t want you to think -”
“I don’t understand what I’m not supposed to think.”
“Dr. Stein asked me to – ‘join his team.’ To participate in his tests rather than yours. I. Didn’t want you to think I’d agreed.”
As always, Mrs. Bates was so nervous she seemed to be hiding something. Perhaps a lifetime concealing epilepsy was to blame – unfortunately, their culture, unlike the ancients’, did not consider hers “the sacred disease”. But – Sid Stein raiding Clare’s lab? Implausible. “Did Dr. Stein say why he wanted you to, ah, join his team?”
“He seemed very interested in your research. I couldn’t tell him much, which made me realize I ought to take more interest.”
She’d now given three reasons for wanting to know what Clare was doing. Clare suspected the real explanation was d) none of the above.
“I believe I’d like to resume our experiments,” Cynthia Bates declared.
Oh, no. “I’d rather wait until you’re sure.” And until Clare had more time.
“The less I do, the more fearful I become. Couldn’t we resume our old testing schedule? Tomorrow?”
“Perhaps next week. I’m between assistants and it’s put me behind.”
“I see. I hear poor Steven found a corpse. There’s a new body every day it seems. Inspector Beaudine must be beside himself, his theories no longer apply, do they?”
“He didn’t tell us his theories. Guess that makes us suspects,” Tommy said, idly flipping magazine pages.
“No, I’m the sort he suspects. No, I am completely serious. It seems that much of Dr. Colton’s funding came from private sources. Older women. Lieutenant Beaudine appears to feel that Dr. Colton wooed these women, oh, overmuch, and that he was killed in a fit of jealousy.” When Tommy laughed, Cynthia frowned. “Isn’t that the impression he gave you?”
“I just didn’t put it together like you did,” Tommy said with admiration.
Stanford Colton killed in a crime of passion. Clare’s suspicion meter was in the red zone. Would Beaudine really jump to such a bizarre conclusion? And then tell Cynthia Bates? But if Clare hadn’t known that Dr. Colton worked the dowager circuit, how would Mrs. Bates know, unless Beaudine had told her?
Tommy laughed once more. When Cynthia looked puzzled, he explained, “I just can’t imagine Colton with anybody. Can you?”
Now she looked cautious, perhaps realizing his joviality was meant to draw her out. “I really didn’t know the man. Some surgeons follow their patients’ progress, but he didn’t care about mine.” Bitterness laced her words.
Clare hoped this would stir trouble: “Dr. Colton was very happily married when I first knew him. After his wife died, I don’t think he wanted to be with anyone else.”
“I heard she gave him nothing but trouble and he institutionalized her the first chance he got!” Mrs. Bates had turned huffy.
True, Colton stayed in the lab while his wife succumbed to a dementia akin to Alzheimer’s. Most people thought this proved lack of caring; Clare knew he’d altered the course of his research, desperate to find a cure or abatement, furious when there was nothing he could do. But how did Mrs. Bates know so much; and why?
“Maybe he wasn’t such a cold fish. Maybe he just hadn’t met the right woman.” The way Tommy didn’t look at Mrs. Bates as he spoke, Clare knew they’d drawn the same conclusion: Mrs. Bates had developed an attraction to her surgeon.
“There is no magical right woman!” Cynthia Bates spoke with unexpected vehemence. “That’s an excuse made by men who are incapable of love. I should know. Dear. Now I’ve embarrassed us all. I do apologize.”
Correction? Cynthia’s interest in Colton was purely an attempt to compare and contrast her own marital problems? “Why in the world would Lieutenant Beaudine think that you and Dr. Colton were lovers?”
Mrs. Bates registered no reaction to what Clare had hoped was a shockingly blunt question. “He was grasping at straws. He must be grasping quite wildly by now. These other murders have all got such different M.O.s.” They looked at her blankly. “Usually a murderer doesn’t vary technique so very much. That’s what the paper said this morning. This fourth death, the wino, has them particularly stumped. The only connection seems to be his wearing a lab coat.”
“He wasn’t a wino, just homeless.” But wait a minute. “How could Larry’s murder be in this morning’s paper when he wasn’t found until later?”
“I heard it on the news then.” She reflected. “Now you don’t trust me again. Do you really think I’m capable of such horrible acts?” She sounded like she wasn’t sure.
Clare sighed wearily. “So much has happened in the last few days, I’m suspicious of everyone. But no, you’re not capable of any horrible acts.”
“Thank you for saying that. May I come in tomorrow? I made a mistake, canceling testing. I thought the experiments were the problem but now I feel so cast adrift.”
“Eleven tomorrow,” Clare capitulated, exhaustion blasting her. Her body was a city post-neutron bomb; she barely even felt her injured back anymore. She was aware of the pain only theoretically.
“Does the testing ever bother you?” Mrs. Bates was asking Tommy.
“All the time,” he replied.
“What type of tests are you doing now? The ones where the screen gives an instruction and my left hand does something inexplicable, those are the worst for me.”
“Reaching behind the screen gets me,” Tommy replied. “But who can really care about a test, after you’ve had your brain chopped up? After you’ve worried for years your own head was going to kill you. Or worse, embarrass you in public.”
Cynthia laughed. “Having the operation never frightened me.”
“It did me. Mainly because – I hate this suffering artiste shit but – there were reports that you lose creativity. So I waited until I had to decide: would I be an ex-musician or a creative corpse?”
“I haven’t a creative molecule in my body. I simply wanted a normal life. Being able to drive, that sounded heavenly. But I still can’t. You can? However did you get a license?”
“I lied. If they catch me I’m in deep shit. But I only drive around Pasadena, during the day, in the right lane. I get warnings right before an attack, see, and …”
Clare’s suspicions faded as she watched Tommy’s ebb. All Cynthia’s prying was merely done to convince herself she was neither crazy nor unlike other split brainers. Excellent. Let Tommy reassure her further, while Clare prepped the next test.
She went into the lab to ready tachistoscope slides. After searching for fifteen minutes, she concluded the ones she needed were missing, and realized she hadn’t heard voices from her office for some time. Yes, she’d heard the door, too.
Her office was empty but there were two voices in the hall. Mrs. Bates had had enough bolstering for one day. Time to get to work, she opened the door to say, but was unable to speak once she regarded the angry faces of Tommy – and Bianca. “Couple minutes here,” Tommy said tensely to Clare. She backed away, closing the door too loudly.
Shut into her office, trying not to eavesdrop (and anyway they were talking too softly), Clare decided to call Steve. He’d put those missing slides away. His home phone was answered by a youthful male voice. “May I speak with Steve?” she requested.
“He’s – who is this?” The voice sounded like it had swallowed a marble. Clare explained who she was and why she was calling. “If I see him I’ll tell him,” the voice mumbled.
“Let me give you my home number too.”
“Uh – sure.”
Clare recited her number but she knew if she had a view phone she’d see the voice owner not writing it down. “It’s important Steve get this message.”
“I’d give it to him ifwhen I can.”
“Has something happened to Steve?”
“He told me to say he’s not here.” A pleading tone had developed. “I have to get back to studying. Good-bye.”
After a moment, Clare hung up too, resolving to stop by Steve’s on the way home, however late. He wasn’t going to get away with such games. Or perhaps he was: she didn’t have his address. The Biology department office might, but its phones were busy. She readied her first experimental setup. Tommy and Bianca’s voices were still urgently intermingling outside her door. The Biology office phones were still busy. She decided to walk down there.
Out in the hall, Tommy leaned against a wall, glaring; Bianca waved her arms and yelled softly about how long it’d been since he’d come over to her side of the bed, unasked. Clare made a quick motion that she hoped meant “be right back” and hurried away.
She went the long way around, to avoid walking past Colton’s office. At each corner she passed a security guard, but none was Bruce Smith, which was too bad: she was definitely in the right frame of mind to tell him off. Moreso when she reached the Biology office. It was closing – God it was 6:30 already – and the receptionist greatly resented waiting the seventeen seconds it took for Clare to obtain Steve’s address.
Returning, she detoured into the suite of labs occupied by Sid Stein’s research team. The good doctor himself sat at an outer desk, stifling a sneer when he saw who had entered. Clare resisted the urge to remove his glasses, poke him in his magnified eyes. “I hear you made Cynthia Bates quite an offer.” As Stein formulated a response, “Explain yourself, Sid. With no bullshit, for once.”
“What did she tell you?”
“No. You tell me.”
“Happy to. She came here quite upset, demanding whether all tests were as disorienting as yours. I questioned her about your work, to determine what she meant.”
In other words, he’d grilled her for possible new research directions. Sid had a reputation for “borrowing” via chats with other labs’ assistants and experimentees. For once, it seemed, campus gossip was true. “When you asked her to join your team, did you explain that your work was done postmortem?”
“Oh, that.” Stein relaxed, almost imperceptibly. “I simply said that to assuage the woman’s fears.”
“You’re dissembling. I don’t know what game you’ve been playing, Sid, but I suggest you cancel it.”
“Clare, you’re obviously overwrought. Of course, spending all these long hours with Dabrowski, doing all that ‘research,’ must be draining.”
“My private life is my own business.”
He looked stunned when she left his innuendo undenied, but recovered rapidly. “I’m confident you’ll realize pharmacology and neuropsychology have little in common. If you are in fact accusing me of stealing ideas or clients. You’re not making sense, you see, so I’m not sure.”
He resumed reading a journal. She yanked it from his hands. “You have a problem underestimating people, Sid. Oh and by the way, that includes Lieutenant Beaudine.” Something flickered behind Stein’s face mask. Something very dark. Clare realized he was almost the right size to be the object of their search. No, not Sid Stein: he was a coward, capable only of intellectual attacks. “Just be careful, Sid.” She slapped the journal onto the desk and slammed the door behind her.
Tommy and Bianca were no longer in the hall. Bianca had departed. Correction. Bianca was in Clare’s lab watching Tommy demonstrate experiments. He even had the schematic of the killer’s body unrolled. “Where does she stand?” Bianca demanded petulantly, failing to notice Clare’s arrival.
“She kneels in front and gives me head, what do you think?”
“Don’t forget to show her the Little Bo Peep outfit I wear,” Clare said.
Bianca looked at Clare nervously, then Tommy told her, “We’ve got some heavy petting to do so you’d better split.”
Bianca grew indignant. “You started this, I only came by to see if you needed a ride.”
“And Reagan was our greatest president. Don’t wait up.” At which Bianca gathered her gym bag and purse and left without another word.
Tommy avoided looking at Clare, tried to roll up the schematic drawing with his one hand. After a moment, Clare went to help him. “I’m an asshole and so’s she, we’re made for each other.” He still refused to look at her.
“When Robert and I started having problems, he insisted on couples therapy, where we learned how to fight fair. But you know, I don’t even want to fight fair. I just want him to leave me alone. What I can’t decide is whether that’s because of Robert, or me.” Finished rolling the drawing, they regarded each other briefly. Clare felt as sad as Tommy looked. They retreated to their testing positions.
In her early days with Robert, she’d never felt overwhelmed by his presence, the way she did in Tommy’s. But that didn’t mean real life with Tommy would be any different. If Tommy used on her the voice he’d applied to Bianca today. If she ever saw Tommy the way she regarded Robert these days.
“Is the sign on the door?” Tommy asked.
“Yes. Not that it seems to help any.”
“You don’t know, there could be hordes out there raising their hands to knock, seeing DO NOT DISTURB and backing away.”
“I’ve had more people in my office during the last four days than I’ve seen here all year.”
“I know, shit like that makes me believe in astrology. Or conspiracies. What you said to Cynthia. I feel it too. Suspicious of everyone – except you, except when my brain gets its wires crossed. She’s definitely not coming clean, you feel it too?”
“I do. But she always gives that impression.” Clare told Tommy about her visit with the ever-shifty Sid Stein. “It may be he’s got her spying for him. Although I really don’t have any research he could use.”
“But does he know that?”
“True. I can’t see Cynthia agreeing to help him at my expense, though.”
“Maybe he told her he could cure weirdness.”
“She really is a good person, if she didn’t worry so about being odd she wouldn’t seem so strange. She’d make a rotten spy. Which would serve Sid just exactly right.”
“He’s big enough,” Tommy mused. “Okay, left foot up if the answer is yes. Is Sid Stein the killer?” Tommy’s foot did not move. “That’s what I figured. Not him.”
“That was one stupid stunt!”
“Stupid? Ten seconds and I finished tests that would’ve taken days your way.”
“The tests are slow because there are so many possible misinterpretations and misdirections. The less rigorous the methodology the more chance for error. We have to test for differentiation among variables that -”
“Uncle. I give. Alright already.”
“You know much less than you think, which could hinder our efforts tremendously.”
“I get the drift, you can stop now. I already said I was sorry.”
“No you didn’t.”
Tommy thought back. “Hmm. You got me there.” He unlightened the mood again: “Don’t you see we’re running out of time?”
“Maybe the police will solve the case and we can stop trying.”
“Ever read their list of unsolved crimes? No one has, it’s too long.”
“The killer’s got to make mistakes at some point.”
“I wonder why we’re still alive,” Tommy said. “Especially since word’s around that we think I know something. I guess the killer hasn’t heard. Yet.”
“I let Sid Stein think we’re together – to be together,” Clare sighed. “That kind of ‘data’ spreads like a virus. It may buy us some time.”
“Lately I feel so shitty when we leave at night without knowing. I don’t even want to keep trying.”
He put the headset on and they went to work. Tachistoscopically, Tommy’s hemispheres saw YES-NO’s. Dichotically, his right brain heard, “Is Colton’s killer someone you know?” and answered YES.
Clare’s hands grew sweaty, her insides clammy. Yesterday, the answer had been NO – because the left hemisphere was privy to the question?”
She flashed the picture of Hitler. “Is this killer someone you know?” YES. Oops, the question was too ambiguous. But she’d anticipated that possibility.
Flashing Hitler again, “Have you met this killer?” NO.
Tommy lifted the headset. “You’re asking me again if I know the guy, huh? I was testing myself about that this morning.” As she reacted, “That was before you said not to. I started thinking maybe I do know him, you know? P.S. the answer was still no.”
Damn him. “What other tests have you performed on yourself?”
“That was it.” He donned the headset triumphantly.
Perhaps his self-tests wouldn’t matter. When in doubt, carry on. “Do you know Colton’s killer personally?” YES. Clare missed the adrenaline rush that accompanied the first YES.
They went through every permutation she’d thought to record dichotically: “Is the killer someone known to you? … Do you know the killer’s name? … Is the killer a man you have met? … Before the murder, did you know the killer?” – twenty-seven questions in all. Clare doublechecked comprehension with pictures of famous but not personally known killers. She dutifully recorded all responses, in case a pattern might emerge during analysis at home. But overall, Tommy’s right brain seemed to answer randomly.
Her frustration was all-encompassing. Maybe the whole effort was pointless. A list of known suspects could be endless, incomplete, misguiding in ways she couldn’t envision. She liked to think that if she just got enough sleep she’d see a clear path to solution; but perhaps she simply wasn’t up to the task.
Now that they had pinpointed where on the murderer’s body Tommy had touched, she needed to determine exactly what he had sensed: at the neck, for example, did he feel skin or a collar, was the skin hairless, what shape and fabric the collar?
For these tests, Clare had adapted slides from her chimeric faces experiment, pictures terrifying to the unsplit brain: two different half people, joined at the visual midline, creating monstrous visages. But neither of Tommy’s brains knew the other half had seen a different face. And through a process called completion, each thought it saw a whole picture – somehow each brain filled in the missing half.
She flashed two images to his right brain for comparison: a shirtless man, then a shirted one: “Was the killer’s neck more like this, or this?” Detail by detail, she would eventually hone particulars. It should be easy to distinguish clothed from naked, but hirsute from hairless skin? jacket from shirt collar? leather from cotton? These tests would take at least two full lab days; and she wouldn’t be able to draw conclusions until they were far along in the slow, cautious process – which couldn’t be completed until she found or replaced the missing slides.
Despite their late start, they accomplished quite a bit, much thanks due to Robert’s new levers. At midnight, they headed for Clare’s car. She was glad she’d parked over by her classroom – they wouldn’t pass Larry’s last hiding place.
“I am so beat,” Tommy informed her, “both of my brains are seeing double.”
“At least you can still see.” She stopped to squint at the crescent moon oozing light above them. It was misty, that was it. Clare’s skin crawled with moisture, that was all. There was nothing to fear tonight: they passed a security guard every five hundred feet as they traversed the deserted campus. Those footfalls trailing behind them, Clare assumed to be echoes.
Still, without discussion, they ran the last stretch to her car. Her key fumbled in the lock. There. No. Turn the other way – success. She tumbled inside, stretched to unlock Tommy’s door. It was unlocked. As, she realized, her door had been. “I’m sure I locked my car this morning. I always do. I think.”
“Let’s pretend it doesn’t mean anything.” Tommy fiddled with his seat, reclined himself with a groan. “Don’t take me home. Let’s pick up a sixer and drive to the mountains. We can sleep in the car.”
“That’s how I want to spend my night. Isolated.”
“Okay, we’ll park in the cops’ lot. Hey, where are you going?”
“I thought you didn’t want to go home.” With a snap, Tommy unreclined his seat and rubbed his eyes. “The truth is we’re going to Steve’s.” Clare explained about the missing slides and his gutless effort to duck her call.
Steve’s address took them to a four-story brick building called the Stanley, next to an identical abode called the Livingstone. Leave it to Steve to live in a bad pun. His lobby door was locked and there were no buttons to ring individual apartments. They scouted the building’s perimeter, looking for another way inside, to Steve’s apartment 1B.
The first apartment they passed was dark save for the blue glow of TV light. Silhouetted inhabitants sat erect in arm chairs, blue haloes around their inert heads. Stiff laughter filled the room. Wondering if the sound was a laugh track or the viewers, Clare stumbled against a bush. A dog started yapping and orange light sliced the cement path ahead. They pressed against the building brick. The yapping diminished as a muffled voice called cooingly. Clare saw a small dark form parting a curtain. Following Tommy’s lead, she jumped the slice of light. Briefly, she locked stares with the window sentry, a tiny toupee dog baring unconvincing teeth.
At the back of the Stanley, there were no windows. Along the other side, they found a crack between one drape and window molding. Inside, a young man with unruly hair and a not-entirely-formed set of expressions dragged a bulging garbage bag to the front door. As he left the apartment, Clare and Tommy simultaneously spotted 1B on the door, and hurried streetwards.
“How you doing tonight?” At the building’s entry, Tommy shouldered past the exiting kid, who stiffened, not wanting to let this stranger into the lobby, but unwilling to make a scene. Clare trailed Tommy down the hall to the apartment.
“Er.” Clare paused at its open door, then followed Tommy inside. They did a quick sweep of all five miniature rooms. One bedroom had open empty dresser drawers, boxes packed for shipping: to Steve at a Daly City address, from Steve at this address.
Clare and Tommy jumped at a guttural howl behind them. The roommate was equally startled; hence his howl. “Take what you want just don’t hurt me.”
“We’re only looking for Steve. I called earlier, about the slides.”
“He’s – still n-not home.”
“Apparently he’s not coming back.” At the roommate’s silence she said breezily, “I’m Dr. Clare Austen. Steve’s my research assistant. Now, two weeks before finals, just as I’m preparing a paper for a conference, he vanishes. How long will he be gone? Can I rely on his help or do I need to find someone else? I’d really appreciate your telling me as much as you can without breaking any confidences.”
The roommate’s face went from no to full trust, so quickly Clare wanted to warn him about strangers. “He said he found you another assistant.”
Clare shook her head. “So he’s not coming back, then?”
“No. He didn’t even finish the paperwork for dropping out. I’m supposed to.”
“Dropping out? He’s graduating.” The roommate looked wary. Clare backpedaled. “That’s such a shame. Over the roommate’s shoulder she was aware of Tommy paging through an address book. “Did he go home? Where do his folks live again – near San Francisco – Daly City, isn’t it?”
“His parents are dead,” the roommate said icily. “His uncle lives in Daly City.”
“His uncle who’s a researcher at San Francisco State?” Tommy asked, then at the roommate’s one sharp nod, “That guy sounds like a total assbite.”
“No kidding,” the roommate thawed again.
“I feel bad that I worked with Steve for so long and didn’t know that.” Surely she was laying it on too thick. “Do you think I can reach him at his uncle’s?”
“Probably. Yes.” But the way the roommate said this, the uncle’s was the last place Steve would go.
“Sorry we startled you at first. If you hear from Steve, give him my best.” She and Tommy headed out. “And please call if you find any slides.”
Out in the hall, they turned at the roommate’s urgent, “Dr. Austen.” He seemed caught in some inner dilemma. Finally, concern won out. “Do you know why he was so scared?” She didn’t and he immediately regretted asking. “If you talk to him, don’t say you talked to me, okay? And ask him to call me.” Noting the contradiction, he laughed humorlessly, then shut the door on her assurances.
Back in the car, they were silent for some time, until Tommy noted, “Trouble comes to Steveland. You’re checking the mirror a lot.”
“Suspect everyone.” Especially car-phoned drivers taking their route at one A.M. As she turned onto Fremont Boulevard, Tommy’s street, the sedan behind them kept going straight.
“That’s right, we’re going home now. Nightie night,” Tommy told the car. “Bianca’s still being followed too.”
“I asked Robert if he was, but he doesn’t think so. He mostly walks, though, so it would be easy for someone to keep track of him without being noticed. What did Steve tell you about his uncle?”
“Not much. His uncle raised him, it was your basic unckie dearest kind of thing. Steve’s a little weird but he’s not a psycho-killer. He’s like Cynthia. He always acts guilty.”
“You’re awfully protective of him.”
“You only think that ‘cuz you never liked the guy. Mrs. Bates is a more likely prospect.”
“Like hell she is.” Arriving at Tommy’s, Clare braked excessively.
“You’re awfully protective of her.” Tommy mimicked her previous tone.
“You’re right. We have to stop being protective, we have to stop making assumptions, or we won’t stop the killer before somebody else dies.”
“Preferably somebody else, if there’s gonna be another murder.”
Their macabre chuckle turned into a double yawn. Tommy bolted from the car to his stairs, waving to Clare and the plainclothesman parked across the street.
Going home, of course it seemed as though Clare was followed. She parked angrily and hurried up her stairs. There was her own police detective. Whether present to protect or suspect her, she was glad to see him. She considered going over to ask why Beaudine had their homes watched when they were so seldom home. But she could guess the response: if the boss hadn’t told her, she didn’t need to know.
A collar jingled. Oh, God – Jessie was still out? With all the coyotes and owls that roamed from the arroyo, Jessie was always kept in at night. Had something happened to Robert? Clare grabbed the cat, who seemed tense. She considered hailing the cop but Jessie would be more tense if there were trouble inside. Instead, there was Robert, blanketed on the couch, rubbing his eyes. “Why are you sleeping out here?”
“It was the only way I could be sure you’d wake me up,” he said dryly.
Jessie wiggled violently. Released, she sprinted for the bedroom. “How did Jessie get out?”
“She wouldn’t settle down, I couldn’t sleep.”
“You put Jessie out at night.”
“She’s a cat. Cats take care of themselves.”
“If anything had happened to her.” She fought recollection of the cat shrieks, two months ago, predawn, blocks away but audible for miles – the neighborhood’s biggest toughest tom, fighting for his life, losing to a skeletal coyote.
“You would never forgive me. Nothing new there.”
Incapable of response, she began unloading her briefcase at the front alcove desk.
“First Jessie, then Tommy, then your work, then me. I wouldn’t mind being second or even third. Or am I flattering myself? Really only tenth place on your list?”
“We’ve already had this fight. I’ve already answered these questions.”
“I don’t understand you any more.”
“What makes you think you ever did?”
“Must we delve into clichés? Or would you say you’re revealing an archetype?”
“You talk like that, I don’t.”
“‘Hey dude, how’s it hanging, like we had a cool gig last night.’ Is that better? Perhaps Tommy can give me lessons.”
“Why do I get the feeling you’re trying to drive me away?”
“That’s right, Clare, blame me for your infidelity. All your mistakes are my fault. Now there’s a tactic I do understand, you’ve used it so often.”
“It was only because we’ve been so at odds that I considered – Tommy. Considered and rejected. I want to be with you.” It was the hardest sentence Clare ever uttered: hypothetically still true but not much felt at the moment.
“Indeed. And wasn’t that convincing.” After gathering his bedding, he shut the bedroom door with the most controlled click possible. She had no choice but to follow, knock, enter. He stood trying not to look hopeful; victorious. Did Tommy play such games? Perhaps his were worse. She plucked Jessie from the bed and was seated at her desk before she heard Robert click the door shut once again.
Jessie was not interested in Clare’s lap, desk, or general environs. This did not make Clare feel better, as she began considering substitutes for the slides presumably lost by Steve. Robert had let Jessie out at night. A heinous act, although since nothing had happened, forgivable – save for the intention behind it. She could picture him sitting in bed, pretending to read, listening for her approach. Thus had they ended so many disputes. But not this one.
Framed on the desk were travel photos: the Yucatán three years ago, when they were the happiest, it turned out, they’d ever be together; Egypt last spring, when they were first stunned by serious discord. She’d hated the tombs – surrounding the dead with relics from life only made the mummy’s separation more apparent: condemned to view eternally all that mattered but couldn’t be reached.
There were therapists who studied family photos for emotional dynamics, but to Clare the smiles and embraces in the two photos were interchangeable. Future photos would be more telling, as she doubted they’d ever vacation together again.
Against her will, Clare recalled brandy one evening at Lalitha’s. Lalitha, who had more friends and family, interests and enthusiasms, than anyone Clare had ever met, that night had sobbed about how lonely she was, how she longed to love a man who wasn’t threatened or evasive. Robert had assured her she would find such a man; Clare had insisted that the kind of love Lalitha envisioned was a myth (which infuriated Robert, leading to a readying-for-sleep fight that only confirmed Clare’s position). Clare wished she’d feigned agreement – her response only added to Lalitha’s misery. Clare struggled to banish images of Lalitha’s body on that office floor. How brutal her dying must have been.
She had forgotten to lock her office door, she realized as it swung open. She didn’t recognize this man. “May I help you with something?” Menace entered the room with him. She took a step backward, toward her lab, but there wasn’t time to get inside and lock the door. And the phone was out here on her desk. The phone. “What do you want?” she demanded, lunging for the phone, though she knew she was about to die. “No! Please!” He went for her face. She heard her own bones shattering, choked on her own flesh. When she fell to the floor, he followed her down, each blow sending pain deeper, making thoughts weaker, until the world was black strobed with white pain, until the world was pain.
Clare became aware of Robert running up the hall from their bedroom, brandishing a heavy glass vase, strewing water and browning flower petals behind him. He clamped his hand over her mouth, his fingers vibrated against her lips. Oh. That loud noise was herself, crying for help. She stopped and he fell against the wall, murky vase water staining the paint.
“Watch out,” Clare indicated the stain, wishing he would stop staring at her like that. “Sorry I woke you. I started thinking about Lalitha and it upset me. But I’m fine now.” He slammed the vase onto the desk and turned away from her. She watched his back recede, saw the bedroom door shut behind him.
In a flash, she thought of an important new experiment.
In another flash, she recalled that the coming morning would bring Lalitha’s memorial service at Lacey Park.
Beaudine was there, studying the mourners, seeing if Kleenex grew damp or only dabbed at crocodile tears. Robert was beside Clare, wet of face but silent, his arm unbearably heavy across her shoulders. She fervently wished that she, too, could cry. As the concluding speaker finished, she stepped out of Robert’s reach. Then suddenly, within the general din of grieving, Clare heard absurdity: honks, snorts, sniffles crescendoed; three noses blew in tandem, hiccuping wails provided syncopated accompaniment. She ducked her head and disguised her laughter as sobs.
Naturally, Beaudine chose this moment to study her. She advanced on him. “I’m laughing because we sound like an orchestra,” she explained defiantly. He listened, smiled, seemed embarrassed. He was about to speak when Robert joined them.
“I apologize for not getting back to you yesterday,” Beaudine told Robert.
“I know how busy you must be.”
Clare stared at Robert. Why was he calling the police? He gave her a dismissive wave – he’d explain later.
“I’m late getting to the lab.” She walked off abruptly, ignoring Robert’s effort to catch her eye.
The mob of mourners filled the center baseball field of the park. Clare took a side path the long way to her car, passing an intermittent jogger but otherwise protected from people by a wall of green. The trees etched vivid lines against the sharp blue sky, suggesting how beautiful Los Angeles must have been before smog. She reached the rose arbor at the far end of the park, stopped to admire one late bloom. Lalitha had loved white roses like this. Clare stooped to inhale, pulled back hastily. A thick spider sat inside the petals. A black widow, no doubt, given the current progress of life.
Go to next chapter.